You Are Not A Bible Character

Father Stephen Freeman gives a well-deserved epistemological and moral rebuke to the haphazard, self-serving, and hermeneutically arbitrary way that Mark Sanford, like many other religious people throughout history, has taken biblical stories as justifications for his decisions:

The problem with such use of Biblical imagination is that it simply has no controlling story. Nothing tells us which story to use other than our own imagination (which is generally a deluded part of our mind). A governor gets to play King David, and, surprise, he should be forgiven and not resign his office. A group of white settlers get to play conquering Israelites and feel no compunction about murdering men, women and children. A priest, likely in need of therapy, plays the role of Jonah before a crowd who has no idea they are in a play. The gospel is not preached – souls are not saved – the Bible is simply brought into ridicule.

For all of us – Scripture is relevant. However, its relevance should not come as a personal revelation that tells us which character we are within its pages. Such games seem frightfully like the games on Facebook: “Which ancient civilization are you?” or some such nonsense.

You are not a Bible character – other than the one indicated in the New Testament – those who have put their faith in Christ and trusted him for their salvation. Our conversion experiences are whatever they may have been – but the Damascus Road conversion of St. Paul is not required of any but St. Paul.

Now if only Freeman would further reject the numerous places in the New Testament in which the authors took random phrases out of context to be “prophecies” confirming their interpretation of their own contemporary events.  And if only Freeman would attack the hubris of the Bible characters themselves who intrepreted their genocides as God’s will, etc.

Freeman’s right to reject the attitude that intreprets random Bible passages not written to you but to other people as addressing you or as laying down a convenient precedent that justifies your behavior.  But the problem is that this audacious tendency to hear the voice of God direclty addressing you is not the corruption of otherwise wise religious thinking but rather is at the very core of religion as its chronic corruption.  It is not simply “bad theology,” it is theology itself.

If they literally existed, reasoned, and talked the way the Bible depicts, then the Bible characters themselves were the self-serving manipulative shysters and political spinners of their own day.  Unless they are simply the fictional characters of fables, they have all the arrogance and presumption Freeman condemns in his own age.  It is inconsistent to hold the Bible as authoritative while holding those who think and behave the way biblical writers and characters did as the revealers of God himself.

(Thanks to Rod Dreher and Andrew Sullivan for passing on Freeman’s piece.)

See the follow up post to this one here.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • fatherstephen

    With respect – your characterization of theology and Scripture seem too narrowly informed – sounding mostly like a description of Christian fundamentalism (your only choices are literalism and fable). I understand the sentiment but it fails to take into account the richness of proper Christian tradition (which is alien to Christian fundamentalism). I am an Orthodox Christian priest (Russian Orthodox) and find your characterization foreign to my experience. Just as non-believers are not all one thing so Christians are not all one thing. Do a search on my site for Scripture or Interpretation and see if you don’t find some articles that do not fit your description. Science is sometimes caricatured by Fundamentalism because it has no appreciation for the incredibly rich texture that comprises true scientific thought. By the same token, true, classical Christian thought has a richness that is neither literalistic nor fabulist. There really are other ways to read a text.

  • Evangelos

    Wow; I can’t believe you just mentioned my favorite blog; my worlds are colliding!

    But in all seriousness, I must agree with Father Stephen. I wont get involved very deeply in this discussion because I’m simply not mature enough to be able to speak correctly (I’m often in the situation where in a moment of assumed authority, I begin to explain to others how something or another is treated in Orthodoxy, only to find out a few months later that I was dead wrong; I may very well have done just that in a comment a few weeks ago). But, to add on what Fr. Stephen was saying; the Biblical characters in the New Testament come from the same tradition of interpretation as those Biblical characters. They were working within a frame of understanding that used the rich interpretation Fr. Stephen mentioned. This is why the Orthodox Church is so insistent on orthodoxy; corruption in theology almost always comes from certain individuals assuming themselves to be wise enough, or be audacious enough, to make novel statements that have dubious or no basis in any teaching or understanding of the tradition of the community they exist in.

    P.S. I want to highly recommend Fr. Stephen’s blog. I can honestly say that his simple, clear insights have helped to form my inner self and set me on a very stimulating path over the past year and a half or so since I discovered the blog.

    P.P.S. I just realized with my tradition argument I’m effectively arguing against the changes Jesus made to the Jewish interpretation of the Law; this is what I meant by not having the maturity to speak on such matters!

  • Dan Fincke

    Thank you, Father Stephen, for graciously coming to my blog to reply to my criticisms yourself (and for doing so so promptly!)

    You are correct that my personal experience of Christianity is primarily an American sort of fundamentalism. I grew up in a low-church fundamentalist Evangelical non-denominational congregation and I studied religion at Grove City College, a conservative Reformed Evangelical college.

    While I have studied a wide range of approaches to hermeneutics and theories of Scriptural authority, and am aware that a great variety of Christians do not themselves do exegesis as fundamentalists do, I nonetheless think that the fundamentalist’s strong literalism brings to a head the implicit problems in all theology.

    In my post, my primary charges were that Old Testament figures interpreted their lives according to the same hubris you condemn in your contemporaries (and the pilgrims) and that the New Testament authors pluck the Old Testament out of context in a number of hermeneutically dubious ways, seeing prophecies and foreshadowings in the most arbitrary places.

    I am arguing that were you blogging back then or were the NT authors writing today you would have (rightly) offered a comparable rebuke to them that you offer to the Mark Sanfords and Pilgrims who came after the biblical period. You would have condemned the Israelites’ own genocides as being as presumptuous and self-serving as the pilgrims’. You would have read the fast-and-loose interpretations of Scripture of New Testament authors as being as improbable and narcissistic as Mark Sanford’s. You would have treated Jesus with the contempt I would expect you to offer any other cult leader throughout history.

    My concern in short is with the very practice of judging a particular set of writings as special and exempt from the sorts of criticisms you offer to contemporaries.

    I do not presume at all to guess what sort of theory of special revelation or Scriptural interpretation that you have, but whatever kind it is—even if it is not a crude literalism—as an approach to specific texts as uniquely sacred, it elevates particular texts and people above normal standards of spiritual and textual criticism in an unjustified way.

    I brought up the contrast between literalism and fable not to say that those were the only two ways someone might see him or herself as reading the biblical texts. My point was a different one. It was that if these people thought and acted literally as the Bible depicts that they fall into the same presumptuous habits of thought you rebuke in contemporary contexts. If they are fable characters they may be exempt from the criticism since they are not actual spiritual exemplars per se but characters to be learned from.

    But, I might add, even if they are fable characters, the “morals” of the fables are themselves disquieting. A fable Joshua still leads genocides and a fable Jesus still presumes to be God himself. These are hardly stories with uncomplicated moral lessons even as fables.

    Again, I do not presume to know the intricacies of your own hermeneutics or theory of revelation. But whatever it may be, I have a hard time seeing how any theory can be devised which does not implicitly endorse as sacred biblical interpretations of personal and communal experiences which if made today would obviously be rejected by all intellectually, morally, and spiritually serious people.

    Maybe if you could direct me to a direct account of your theory of Scripture and hermeneutics (or one very much similar to your own), I could see how it helps you avoid this criticism. In the meantime, I will indeed read more of your posts (and pay due attention to your use of Scripture) as I found this first one I stumbled upon to be excellent.

    If you do not mind, I am re-posting your reply to me and this further reply to you in a separate blog post of its own as I like to prominently feature my exchanges with readers on my blog.

    Thank you again for stopping by!

  • Dan Fincke

    P.S., I just realized I should concede (or clarify) one major point. When I said that all theology suffers the corruptions that you are targeting at more specific figures, I spoke too broadly. Not all religious thinkers think so sloppily or presumptuously and I over-generalized to imply so.

    However, insofar as theology is inevitably tethered to sacred texts which I see as clearly suffering from intellectual and moral hubris of the type you criticized, I do think that theology is inevitably infected at its core by the hubris of the sacred texts. While thoughtful people may add no more personal hubris in their own thinking, insofar as they import the audacious claims of their religious founders and sacred texts into their thought and let those founders’ and texts’ claims shape their thought, it transmits those claims and their attitudes. No matter how personally humble and wise a theologian is, his or her allegiance to the intemperate biblical authors and figures embraces all their unjustified interpretations of themselves.