Thank God For Blessing Us With A Fallible Bible

Lately I’ve been wondering what would happen if conservative Christians kept the same notion of a Bible that was verbally inspired, in which God determined precisely what it should contain in every detail, but also took seriously the fact that the Bible contains what appear to be differences of viewpoint, discrepancies, and in some cases apparently irreconcilable contradictions. What if one also approached this matter with the assumption that God is honest, loving, and considerate?

Perhaps, rather than assuming that the difficulties are in the Bible to test our willingness to switch off the minds God gave us, and take a leap of faith (or of gullibility), it could be assumed instead that the difficulties are there to be taken seriously, to teach us.

What we’d end up with is a Bible that can serve fundamentalists’ kindergarten-level needs, but can also help readers get beyond kindergarten, even force us beyond it when the time was right, when we were old enough mentally and spiritually to read carefully and notice details.

But instead, what has happened is that some loud and unruly children who found the new and challenging things they were teaching in first grade too much to bear, went back and took over the kindergarten, and told those in it that the Principal wants them to stay there, and that those who leave kindergarten because they come to find it unsatisfying or problematic are backsliding. And alas, many identify Christianity itself with the loud voices of these unruly, overgrown kindergarten kids. But what if God has providentially placed in the Bible clues that are meant to lead you to eventually realize that what God wants from you is precisely what the loud voices of fundamentalism condemn: taking responsibility for your own actions, for your moral judgments, and learning to live with uncertainty, yet not without faith?

My appeal to fundamentalists is this: try approaching the Bible as though you actually believe what you claim to: (1) that God is honest, (2) that God means for you to study the Bible carefully and in detail, and (3) that God put everything that is in the Bible there for a reason.

Maybe it will enable you to finally stop repeating kindergarten and graduate to first grade. Eventually you’ll face some spiritually tough years, spiritual ‘adolescence’. But spiritual maturity and adulthood await you on the other side, and if you’re willing to be honest about doubts and questions, there are many, many Christians who will help you. In spite of what you’ve heard, there are a lot of teachers, resources, friends, and interesting experiences God has in store for you beyond the comfort of kindergarten.

You probably don’t want to merely play with blocks your whole life (although LEGOs never stop being fun). Why settle for the spiritual equivalent of doing just that?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16246150114835209174 Mel Schriver

    I appreciate your model of scripture “growing” in pace with the readers intellectual development.The pitfall of course is the post-Great Awakening, anti-intellectual pietism that is endemic in North American evangelicalism. Noll’s “Scandal” laid it all out pretty clearly (now, there is a book that needs to be updated). The modern, conservative evangelical church does not do mystery.Now that’s a point I have been chewing on recently. Over and over in scripture we see comments that indicate that the meaning of scripture has been hidden by God until His timing for revelation. I guess the intention is that once the revelation occurs we are all supposed to smack our hands on our foreheads and say “Oh, that’s what that meant”. I think we are left with a clear understanding that there are parts of scripture for which we are not supposed to have a clear understanding. And yet that is exactly where the bible thumper from Lower Bend in the Road Bible Institute and Tractor Parts will spend all his time preaching. Go figure.I like your blog. Now I will go back to lurking.

  • http://notes-from-offcenter.com Drew

    I am reading Consumed by Benjamin Barber right now. His thesis is that consumerism has conditioned adults to become infantile and kids to habitually become adults. Hence his term “kidults”. An offshoot of this is fundamentalism which caters to the pre-operational stage of development buttressed by an adamant refusal to move beyond it. With kids this results in temper-tantrums. With fundamentalists it not only results in angry picketing and lying to the public and to themselves to avoid change, but flying planes into buildings and bombing abortion clinics.It’s an eye-opening book I am combining with Ed Husein’s memoir The Islamist for one of my courses this fall. (They are also reading Maragaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake and we will watch Jesus Camp). Your post reinforces some of these ideas on which I have been working this summer.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01119080394574322124 T. Michael W. Halcomb

    james,not so sure any fundamentalist would read this and take you seriously. i think most of them would just get offended and stop reading or shrug this off. perhaps a lot of them would feel looked down upon w/phrases like “graduate from kidnergarten to the first grade”. they would see this as arrogance (the same kind of arrogance you’re claiming they have, by the way). the appeal to fundamentalists has to come, not by making them feel like little unthinking children but through gentle teaching and a loving spirit. your whole post sounds quite elitist (not saying that it is or that you are) and it is for that reason that you’ll probably never get a hearing from the crowd you genuinely want to hear what you have to say. even the title of the post…well, it probably needs reworking if you want them to lend an ear. you can say what you need to say without belittling comparisons. you can also say what you need to say without being just as fundamentalist as they may be but on the other end of the spectrum. just an opinion. you do make some great points, james.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    I agree that the Bible has something to teach us as adults but only in so far as it is good literature. The atrocities, contradictions and impossibilities don’t disappear when we put away childish tings. In fact, to many they cease being a mere stumbling block and are revealed for what they are, proofs of the primitive, human origins of the texts. At least this is the perspective of a grumpy programmer trying to get through a Friday…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    Drew – Given fundamentalism’s roots in the early 20th century (anyone remember Scopes?) and earlier, can we really pin this on hyper-consumerism? Does Barber trace consumerism as such a powerful force so far back? In rural America (which I have always assumed was the hot bed of fundamentalism, though I could be wrong)?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks for all your comments! Michael, I must say I don’t like my tone here either, and I don’t think most fundamentalists are listening to what I have to say, either when I’m gentle or when I’m harsh. :) From time to time, however, it seems appropriate to try to engage in “cross-cultural communication”, and speak directly, perhaps even with an occasional thump of the Bible. It may well offend, but I think the content of what I’m saying is what will irk most fundamentalists, not the form, since the form is one that many fundamentalists seem to like! :)

  • http://calledwonderful.blogspot.com Devan

    James, This is folknotions from the Young Anabaptist Radicals site; you commented today on a post I made. I would sincerely like to hear from you the irreconcilable contradictions you have found in scripture. I often hear this charge leveled against scripture, but rarely does anyone provide examples. Again, I’m not saying I agree or disagree, just looking for examples. Thanks!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks for visiting, folknotions! An example of accounts that are historically irreconcilable would be the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. Of course, that doesn’t mean either that one cannot make a Christmas play that combines details from the two. Nor does it mean that the two have incompatible theological outlooks – for an example of different theological views, I’d suggest looking at any of the ancient Israelite authors before Daniel, whether Amos or Ecclesiastes or Job, to see their lack of affirmation of, or implicit denial of or at least agnosticism about, an afterlife, and comparing these with the New Testament.The latter example will not be a problem for someone who has a classic Christian view of progressive revelation. It will only be a problem for those who are persuaded that the Biblical writings must all be right about everything and agree about everything. I look forward to continuing the conversation!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00928552876098168839 Three Ninjas

    Great post, James.When it came time for me to graduate first grade, I was unable to find any of the teachers. Can you recommend any books?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Hi Jason (I keep wanting to call you “Jeff” because of the blog)!I think for “first grade” I’d recommend that one explore one’s own tradition – actually try out a Bible commentary or academic book by someone who is Pentecostal (Gordon Fee) or Bretheren (F. F. Bruce) or whatever. If conservative Evangelicals would read the scholarly books aimed at a general audience written by Evangelicals, it would mark a vast improvement over kindergarten-level discussions.For second grade, I’d recommend discovering others who are within one’s broad tradition but different denominations – so if you’re a Pentecostal, discover the Evangelicals among the Presbyterians or Baptists. Even better (this is what happened to me), meet some who are also from another culture. I think it is more challenging to one’s sense of absoluteness to discover that there are people who “belong to the same tradition” but, being in a different cultural context, nonetheless have different views and consider different things important.I don’t want to keep talking about ‘grades’. Growing in one’s thinking about any given subject is definitely Montessori-school stuff, and not everyone moves at the same pace, nor should they be expected to.A book that I found really helpful in representing a liberal Christian view of the Bible is Keith Ward’s What the Bible Really Teaches. If there is one thing that fundamentalists are good at, it is making anyone else feel guilty and somehow less Christian because “you don’t take the Bible literally but we do”. It is when one finally realizes that that is simply not true that one can hopefully claim the name “Christian” if that tradition is important to you, wearing it unashamedly without feeling the need to apologize for not being a fundamentalist.I’m sure some would say that, since I’m still a Christian, I haven’t yet “graduated” to atheism. For me, Fowler’s final stage of faith development is the one we should be aiming for: when we get there, humility and conviction, uncertainty and appreciation, can co-exist. As with all of my long-winded answers of this sort, I’ve got to the end and no longer know if I’ve answered your question… If not, let me know! :)

  • http://notes-from-offcenter.com Drew

    Scott,Barber does not argue for the origins of fundamentalism, which do clearly begin at least as a conscious movement in the US with Scopes. His point is that the puerility that is conditioned by the consumerist ethos today reinforces fundamentalist tendencies.His sample is really of the sort of schizoid mega-church phenomenon where they practice both hard-core consumerism along with hard core fundamentalist biblicism. It’s a creative argument because when he makes that connection, he is also undermining the very Christianity that fundamentalisms of that ilk seek to espouse. The problem is a removal of the Protestant work ethic in Weber’s terms which is replaced with this fundamentalist spectacle. I think he is mainly after the Robertsons, Roberts and Falwells of the world with the point. But he leaves it rather underdeveloped in the end.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14499317029819267237 Dennis Herman

    Have you ever studies using this method? KJV 1 Corinthians 13:11-13 11. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 13. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.This is actually an example of an elementary Biblical study. It appears to be a difficult text to understand. And it is. Like most text, when we rely upon human wisdom we will never see the depth of the subject. The spiritual meaning of this text is easily found simply by following the word glass through the Bible. The interpretation is even given in order.The first text (1 Corinthians 13:11-13) makes it clear we begin our understanding as a child. He next text (2 Corinthians 3:17-18) tells us we need to change.KJV 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 17. Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 18. But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.The next text tells us what we need to change and what to expect when we do change. We go from being a child to being a man. KJV James 1:22-24 22. But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. 23. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: 24. For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.Of course God loves to remind us of His promises. The next four text in the book of Revelation remind us of our reward when we do become changed. We begin as a child and when we are grown we no longer see our image but we see the image of Jesus reflected. KJV Revelation 4:6-76. And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. 7. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.KJV Revelation 15:2-32. And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God. 3. And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints.KJV Revelation 21:17-18 17. And he measured the wall thereof, an hundred and forty and four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of the angel. 18. And the building of the wall of it was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass.KJV Revelation 21:21-22 21. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls: every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass. 22. And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14499317029819267237 Dennis Herman

    Have you ever studied using this easy method?KJV 1 Corinthians 13:11-13 11. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 13. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.This is actually an example of an elementary Biblical study. It appears to be a difficult text to understand. And it is. Like most text, when we rely upon human wisdom we will never see the depth of the subject. The spiritual meaning of this text is easily found simply by following the word glass through the Bible. The interpretation is even given in order.The first text (1 Corinthians 13:11-13) makes it clear we begin our understanding as a child. He next text (2 Corinthians 3:17-18) tells us we need to change.KJV 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 17. Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 18. But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.The next text tells us what we need to change and what to expect when we do change. We go from being a child to being a man. KJV James 1:22-24 22. But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. 23. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: 24. For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.Of course God loves to remind us of His promises. The next four text in the book of Revelation remind us of our reward when we do become changed. We begin as a child and when we are grown we no longer see our image but we see the image of Jesus reflected. KJV Revelation 4:6-76. And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. 7. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.KJV Revelation 15:2-32. And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God. 3. And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints.KJV Revelation 21:17-18 17. And he measured the wall thereof, an hundred and forty and four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of the angel. 18. And the building of the wall of it was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass.KJV Revelation 21:21-22 21. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls: every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass. 22. And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it.

  • DD

    You are absolutely correct about fundamentalists, thanks for the article.

  • James Brady

    Wow, James… imagine my surprise when on a random search in Google of “irreconcilable bible contradictions”, looking for contradictions to squash, rather than expecting to find them, I come across your article as like the fifth or sixth result from the search.

    -a former Crooked Creek soundboard volunteer

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Hi James! And a post from 2008 no less! :-)

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