Fred Clark of Slacktivist has been on a tear lately, posting some outstanding articles about the theological roots of dominionism and its influence in American politics. And today, he wrote another post that inspired me.
This post was about a new book by the sociologist Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, which deplores a group whom Smith dubs “biblicists” (I’d probably just call them fundamentalists). These are Christians who believe that the Bible is a perfectly self-sufficient guide to humanity which needs no outside authority to interpret it; that all one has to do is read the plain and literal words of the Bible to find God’s clear and unmistakable plan for what to believe and how to live. Yet, somehow, Christians who all say they believe this keep coming to opposite conclusions on a bewilderingly huge range of theological issues. The review lists some of them:
For example, biblicists differ over human free will and divine sovereignty; penal satisfaction and Christus Victor; creation and evolution; sprinkling and immersion; divorce and remarriage; complementarianism and egalitarianism; just war and pacifism; pretribulationism and posttribulationism; amillennialism, premillennialism, and postmillennialism; everlasting torment and annihilation; soteriological exclusivism, inclusivism, and universalism; and on and on.
This is just what I wrote about in “The Aura of Infallibility“: people who say they believe that the Bible is infallible really mean that their own interpretations of it are infallible. It ought to be incredibly embarrassing to people who consider the Bible a clear and authoritative guide that they can’t agree among themselves on what guidance it actually gives. This has been noted by other Christian writers, most notably C.S. Lewis, who wrote that proselytizers should try to hide the existence of differing Christian sects from potential converts, because a person who was aware of this fact about Christianity would be less likely to become a Christian.
In any case, this brings me (finally!) to the subject of this post, which is a Bible verse coincidentally pointed out in the review of Smith’s book. The Christian fundamentalists we’re all so familiar with claim that the Bible is holy, inerrant and authoritative, and contains advice applicable to all Christians at all times, including divine ordinances on how to organize and behave in a church community. So why don’t they obey this verse from Second Corinthians?
“Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.”
—2 Corinthians 13:11-12
This isn’t the only verse in the Bible that teaches this custom, either. In fact, no fewer than five verses from five different books of the New Testament all order it – Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 1 Thessalonians 5:26, 1 Peter 5:14, in addition to the one cited above – which implies, given the strength of their recommendation, that the biblical authors saw it as essential. St. Augustine even says that the kiss should be on the lips to be done properly:
This is a sign of peace; as the lips indicate, let peace be made in your conscience, that is, when your lips draw near to those of your brother, do not let your heart withdraw from his. Hence, these are great and powerful sacraments.
Needless to say, the vast majority of evangelical churches politely ignore this. Even the fundamentalist churches that practice snake-handling tend to find this one a bridge too far. (It actually is practiced as part of worship in some Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, though not usually on the lips as far as I know.)
As silly as it is, there’s an important point here. The next time you encounter someone who claims to interpret the Bible “literally”, ask them if they do this at their church. If the answer is no, as it most probably will be, you’ll have made your point: even supposedly “literal” interpretations are driven and shaped by the believer’s culture and by their own ideas and prejudices, and not simply by doing whatever the text says.
Other posts in this series: