You Can’t Take the Bible Literally – Right? (RJS)

Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God grew out of his experience talking with young professionals and others skeptical of Christian faith. The questions are similar to those raised on many college campuses – among both faculty and students. Come on, many ask us today, you can’t really take the Bible literally—Can you? Or more often in my experience there will be derisive comments about those fanatics who do take the Bible literally.

The question of the Bible is addressed in Chapter 7  of The Reason for God, although Keller does not really answer a question about the “literal” nature of the Bible in this chapter. A better formulation and a more important question is: You can’t take the Bible seriously—Can you?  Keller explores two kinds of issues commonly raised against taking the bible seriously – historical skepticism and cultural questions.

Consider the Bible, especially the New Testament: How can we trust this two thousand year old book? Isn’t it a politically motivated collection of early texts designed to enhance the power and prestige of the Roman emperor and the Church hierarchy? Isn’t it full of error and uncertainty – so that we cannot even know what Jesus said or taught with any confidence?

After all, we are told, there are more textual variants than words in the text…the early church suppressed the true diversity of early Christianity for its own benefit…The Gospel of Judas provides important new insight into the early church understanding of the crucifixion…Jesus was married and we have the tomb and ossuaries to prove it…Matthew didn’t really write Matthew…John didn’t really write John…Peter didn’t really write Peter…Paul didn’t really write half of the letters attributed to him…many of the documents were written 100 or more years after the fact…we can reconstruct a Q gospel and a gospel of the cross providing better insight into the early church and historical events before mythology and legend took over…the New Testament is culturally bound, repressive, and not a valid guide for the 21st century…women are oppressed…slavery is supported — you name it. We see the news, watch the documentaries, read the books.

The answer, of course, is that it perfectly reasonable to take the Bible seriously with respect to the life and death of Jesus Christ. One need not check one’s brains at the door to do so. Keller has some of the usual discussion and good list of resources. I have found Mark Robert’s little book Can We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John very useful in looking at these questions. On a more scholarly level there are books like Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.  If then, one grants the reliability of the narrative, the real question is not “can I trust an old book?” but rather “is Jesus who he said he was?” and perhaps “did the disciples and apostles have a true understanding of who Jesus was?”

I have a personal reflection here. One of the biggest issues for many is a doctrine of scripture that seemed to pit faith and reason in mortal combat. But this need not be. We must be able to take the Bible seriously – but quite honestly faith does not really demand any more than that. When it comes right down to it I believe the Bible is inspired and authoritative because I am a Christian – I am not a Christian because I believe the Bible is inspired and authoritative. Even more importantly I have come to the realization that we must let the Bible be the book it is and let the book we have, preserved by God, for us, through the work of the Spirit in the church, define what it means for the Bible to be inspired and authoritative. We get into big trouble when we first define what the Bible must be and then try to make it fit our mold, our mode thinking. This, I think, has been a major problem in much of Protestant, especially evangelical, Christianity.

Table the Problem Passages. In his book Keller also suggests that non-Christians considering the gospel should not worry about the hard texts (like 1 Tim 2:11-15 for example) and the intramural squabbles of the church. Christians disagree over these texts, so non-Christians should ignore them and look at the whole message – the core doctrine. Is the Gospel of Jesus attractive and viable? If so worry about the details later. Many (but not all) of the intramural squabbles of the Keller chooses to sidestep arise more from a culturally shaped definition of what scripture “must be” than from the sweep of the biblical narrative itself.

The Old Testament. In his interview Martin Bashir noted that Keller made a reasonable case for the gospels and then homed in on other aspects of scripture:

1:01-1:13 What am I supposed to make about Old Testament texts about murder, about dealing with concubines, about this bizarre book of the Revelation where there’s horses and scrolls and images. What about all of that? What about those parts of the Bible?

2:37-2:47  Do you not find that what you say about those passages may well be robust but elsewhere the case is undermined, undermined rather badly?

Don’t questions about the reliability of the Old Testament (or the “absurdity” of Revelation) undermine any confidence in the Bible as a whole?

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I found this excerpt interesting. Keller doesn’t give a slam dunk answer to Bashir’s question, but he does make what I consider some very important points.  These points may direct us to a more complete answer.

1:40-2:18 If you decide that Jesus is who he said he is, then Jesus himself looks at the rest of the bible with the greatest respect. Almost every book of the older testament, the Hebrew scriptures is actually quoted by Jesus authoritatively. … If Jesus is who he said he is then you have to look at the whole bible because Jesus himself took it as authoritatively. If Jesus is not who he said he is, who cares about the rest of the bible because that means that the core of it isn’t true.

And then near the end of the clip:

5:20 – 5:26 Normally what people do is they read very superficially the Old Testament, they see all these horrible things happening, and they say this is a bunch of, this is a crock. And the answer is, they haven’t really learned how to read it.

Take the Old Testament Seriously! I think Keller is absolutely right that if Jesus is who he said he is we must take the Old Testament very seriously. The entire sweep of the Old Testament points toward Jesus. And Jesus saw himself, as N. T. Wright points out quite persuasively in many of his talks and his books, as the culmination of the sweep of the Hebrew scripture. His actions, deeds, and words only make sense in this context. And in this context they make complete sense. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus is a good place to start here.

This does not mean that we must ignore questions of genre and authorship when we look at the scripture. Too often evangelicals are all wrapped up in a theory of scripture and argue rather piddling points to shore up their theory of scripture (Jonah, Job, Babel, Authorship of the Pentateuch, of Isaiah, of Daniel … ) as an argument for … resurrection! And in the process they totally skip over the actual sweep of the narrative. We are left with a picture of scripture as a bunch of disjointed stories and tidbits of prophecy we must believe (God does not lie), but they bear no theological weight beyond this supernatural proof.

Jesus took the Hebrew Scripture seriously, but we too often don’t – even in our most conservative churches.

I think (although others may wish to argue differently) that if we actually take the sweep of scripture seriously and read it with this narrative in mind, many of the arguments leveled against Christian faith would be far less potent, both for those raised within the church and for those with no background in the church at all.

There are a number of different questions we could raise for discussion.

Do you think that Keller makes a good case for the reliability of the Gospels?

Is he right that this is where we should concentrate our efforts, at least initially?

Is it reasonable to ignore the problem passages on a first go – especially those like 1 Timothy 2?

What does it mean to take the Old Testament as seriously as Jesus took it?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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  • http://www.krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    “I think (although others may wish to argue differently) that if we actually take the sweep of scripture seriously and read it with this narrative in mind, many of the arguments leveled against Christian faith would be far less potent, both for those raised within the church and for those with no background in the church at all.”

    Yes!

    Too much of Evangelicalism is treating Scripture as an algebra exercise where we take isolated passages, frequently devoid of context, and “do the math.” I like the imagery of the Bible as a novel. You read a novel for the first time and you don’t know how it is going to end. You aren’t certain how all the threads of the story will come together. Clarity comes with the end of the story. Each time you reread the novel you can now better see where the threads of the story are going and often see things you missed before. For Christians, the Hebrew Testament is incomplete and not decipherable without the Christian Testament. But the Christian Testament alone is insufficient because it is a direct response and extension of the Hebrew Testament. Getting a grip on the narrative has been one of the most critical things for me in making sense of God and mission.

  • AHH

    My memory of reading this chapter a few years ago is that Keller handles some relatively easy questions well, while ignoring what is a much bigger obstacle to faith for many.
    Good job on justification for taking the Bible seriously, and especially Jesus as the center of the Biblical story and the basic reliability of the Gospels.

    But as RJS alludes, the real problem for many comes from a doctrinal system (I would say inerrancy as typically held) that requires Scripture to be “perfect” in an Enlightenment sense. That doctrine is central to Keller’s own denomination (PCA), and is a big obstacle for many, including for Christians who read the Bible we actually have that doesn’t match very well the Bible this doctrine assumes.
    Keller does well to point people to Jesus as the center of what Scripture is telling us about. But he offers no help to those whose road to faith is blocked because Christians (like many in his denomination) are telling people that the faith requires accurate science in Genesis 1, a cud-chewing hare, convoluted resolutions for all apparent intra-Biblical inconsistencies, and other attributes of the “perfect book” by modern standards that they want the Bible to be.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    Jesus saw himself, as N. T. Wright points out quite persuasively in many of his talks and his books, as the culmination of the sweep of the Hebrew scripture.

    Jesus took the Hebrew Scripture seriously …

    These statements are representative of a simplistic understanding of Jesus–an attempt to move beyond “evangelicals [who] are all wrapped up in a theory of scripture and argue rather piddling points to shore up their theory of scripture,” but it is an attempt that fails because it rests on an inadequate theory of revelation.

    Briefly, a few counterfactuals. The Sermon on the Mount represents Jesus placing himself above the supposedly God-given Torah and asserting an authority equal to that of God. In the episode re divorce, Jesus states that Moses gave the commandment on divorce counter to God’s plan, to satisfy the hard hearted Israelites, i.e., the commandment was what we would call culturally relative. Jesus states that the current interpretations of Torah–which any fair minded reader must see as in good faith, as with modern Rabbinic interpretations, insofar as they presume a theory of Torah–are “traditions of men.” Jesus taunts his listeners with the examples of non-Israelites (Naaman and the Canaanite woman) being favored over Israelites, with a clear implication of relativity re chosenness. The evangelists quote the Baptist re Abraham–that God can raise children to Abraham from stones–again clearly relativizing Abrahamic ancestry. And the list goes on and on. To claim, with Wright, that these narratives represent “the culmination of the sweep of the Hebrew scripture” is simply a simplistic theory of revelation that fails to take Jesus seriously–it is an attempt to domesticate Jesus to a comfortable human theory rather than taking him seriously on his own terms.

    For anyone who is interested in examining an alternative theory of revelation, in January of this year I began a blog series presenting a detailed critique of Wright’s How God Became King, which I take to be his attempt at a systematic presentation of his theory, as far as it goes. The series begins with Deconstructing N. T. Wright and His Kingdom (1). There are eight detailed installments so far, with many more to follow. Unfortunately, my left wrist is in a cast and the continuation will be delayed until April.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    @ Michael:

    For Christians, the Hebrew Testament is incomplete and not decipherable without the Christian Testament. But the Christian Testament alone is insufficient because it is a direct response and extension of the Hebrew Testament. Getting a grip on the narrative has been one of the most critical things for me in making sense of God and mission.

    From my standpoint you’re on to something and express it well. Yes, the Israelite scriptures make no plausible claim of authority on us (anymore, that is, than other great writings of the past from other cultures) without Jesus (unfortunately, you reference a book rather than a person–the person is revelation in the full sense, not the book). However …

    The revelation of God in Jesus (handed down by the Church and the written traditions of the early Christian gospels and letters) is more than “a direct response and extension of the” Israelite scriptures.

    The key, IMO, is to extend what you say re “Getting a grip on the narrative …” so that the revelation of God in Jesus is the culmination, not simply of the Israelite scriptures, but of the whole history of mankind. The Israelite scriptures, when placed within that context (narrative sweep?) can be seen as leading to God’s self revelation in Jesus, but not as controlling the terms of God’s self revelation in Jesus. I believe a fresh eyed reading of the early Christian writings leads inexorably to that conclusion, to that theory of revelation.

    Not exactly 25 words or less, but this is a shorthand version of the theory.

  • Pat

    “One need not check one’s brains at the door ”

    Maybe not so with the Bible, but unfortunately, at some churches you have to.

    “In his book Keller also suggests that non-Christians considering the gospel should not worry about the hard texts (like 1 Tim 2:11-15 for example) and the intramural squabbles of the church. Christians disagree over these texts, so non-Christians should ignore them and look at the whole message – the core doctrine.”

    Unfortunately, these intramural squabbles turn some non-Christians off. It’s disappointing to focus on the core doctrine only to find out there are some churches you might not be comfortable or welcome in based on their interpretation of the core doctrine. I think this leads many people to disillusionment because the church that they may have met Christ in doesn’t align themselves with the core doctrine and the Church is embodiment of Christ. Thus to stay in that church, one would either have to deny what they’ve come to believe about the core doctrine or to check their brain at the door as mentioned above. I think too many people have done that in order to keep the peace rather than challenging what they know to be wrong or have left altogether to find a more suitable home, which isn’t always another church.

  • T

    I’m following this series with heightened interest, mainly because my wife and I are hoping to lead a church plant in the coming months. The more I think about how I can/should discuss scripture with folks who are not insiders to Christian culture, the more I realize that we’ve dug a hole for ourselves with the justifications we’ve given and the arguments we’ve made, to insiders and outsiders alike, regarding scripture. We’ve too often made the issue about scripture than Christ. Keller speaks and moves with the wisdom of the Spirit and of experience in evangelism to keep making the issue about Jesus. He’s the issue.

  • Kenton

    What Michael Kruse said (especially his last sentence) plus one. (Apologies for the ill placed math analogy.)

    The grip on the narrative not only needs the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, it needs an understanding of the cultural and historical contexts in which they were written. Scot’s works (and Wright’s and others too) have been very helpful in understanding those contexts.

  • Tim

    I think it is a bait & switch to focus on the gospel narrative as most understand it, and deal with the “problem passages” later. Would we accept an equivalent for Mormonism? For Islam? “Just look at the main message we evangelize, does that sound good to you?” If we were considering another religion, would we be so quick to take Tim Keller’s advice?

    We have major issues in the Old Testament, for instance. Issues that cause significant moral dissonance for many Christians today, and represent serious concerns for those outside Christianity evaluating the religion. Tim Keller seems to think that we can focus on God as Jesus, and deal with all the difficulties that come along with how Yahweh is depicted in the Old Testament. This is the bait & switch children receive in Sunday School. Jesus who loves you, who forgives, who is merciful, who stands at the door and knocks. And later you learn about Yahweh, who while at times is many of these things, at others seems to channel the worst of other ancient near eastern deities and even modern tyrants (mass genocides, infanticide, oppression, etc.). We are to just leave this for later? Focus on the gospel message first? This is cowardly and disingenuous evangelism. If you want to evangelize, please have the honesty and integrity to let people know what they are getting into. Otherwise you are the theological equivalent of a timeshare salesman. And I cannot believe that God would want his kingdom furthered in such a way.

  • http://DarylDensford.com Daryl Densford

    In answer to your question, “Is it reasonable to ignore the problem passages on a first go – especially those like 1 Timothy 2?” I think that it is reasonable. I remember the professor of my “Communicating the Gospel in a Pluralistic Society” course saying that we can answer these objections to Scripture by saying that these can be considered later, that the issue now is Jesus and what you will do with Him. I think this is good advice.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    @ Kenton

    The grip on the narrative not only needs the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, it needs an understanding of the cultural and historical contexts in which they were written.

    Absolutely. My I also suggest Mircea Eliade’s famous study, The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History? Don’t be turned off by the title. It offers the key to understanding the unity that exists behind cultural differences in history, linking “archaic” man’s understanding of self, cosmos and history to that of the Israelites, Greeks and others, as well as to modern man’s spiritual crisis. On a technical level, a collection of studies by Frank Moore Cross, From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel, advances on his classic Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, offering a deeper understanding of cosmogonic and theogonic myths and even tying these insights in to early Greek speculation–again, the unity of man. Finally, a great book that provides remarkable breadth of vision, Christopher Dawson’s Progress & Religion: An Historical Inquiry. Again the title may be slightly misleading. Here is the book description, which should give a good idea of the book’s continued relevance in our own age of crisis:

    Progress and Religion was perhaps the most influential of all Christopher Dawson’s books, establishing him as an interpreter of history and a historian of ideas. It has been described as a brilliant work of synthesis, for in this single volume he outlined his main thesis for the history of culture, which was his life’s work. Anthropology, sociology, philosophy, religion, and history formed the backdrop for the key idea of his thought—namely, that religion is the soul of a culture and that a society or culture which has lost its spiritual roots is a dying culture. To Dawson, a return to the Christian culture that had formed Western civilization was the only remedy for a world adrift.

    Dawson was writing in a period between the two great wars of the twentieth century, a time when some thought that the idea of progress had finally been discredited by the carnage and barbarism of the First World War. Progress and Religion was clearly intended to challenge the doctrine of progress, the rather naïve but persistent belief that ‘in every day and in every way the world grows better and better.’

    Dawson argued that Western civilization was at a turning point and confronted with two real choices: reappropriate a vital Christian culture or move increasingly toward more dangerous and alienated expressions of consumerism and totalitarianism. In Progress and Religion, he contends that no culture could truly thrive if cut off from its religious roots.

    Excuse me. I’m an inveterate (incorrigible?) book recommender.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    Amen, Tim!

    The approach I’m recommending (evangelizing?) takes the bull you describe by the horns. The problems you describe are insoluble as long as we hold to an inadequate theory of revelation.

  • http://twitter.com/mattsmethurst Matt Smethurst

    Thanks for this series, RJS.

  • Tim Atwater

    Yes and amen to Michael W Kruse above.

    though Re the problem passages — this may require more care then indicated. Some may need to deconstruct one or more likely several of these at some length to be able to begin to enter in the sweep of narrative. Though the set-aside approach can still be advised broadly.

    Getting the grand sweep is the essential… with the caveat that this is still maybe… a lot more difficult than suggested by Keller or any of us even…

    parltly because it takes a lot of time for most of us to see the sweep, partly because there are and will continue to be plenty of disputable passages, partly because we are still disputing the shape and content of the grand sweep…still — this seems the only real way forward.

    Re the scope and depth of the narrative sweep — Robert Alter who has written widely on bible as literature (The Art of Biblical Narrative, The World of Biblical Literature, Genesis, etc…) says somewhere that he has read Tom Jones four times and mined it for everything in it… but he still finds something new in each reading of the bible… (and he writes only on the Hebrew Testament)…

    No amount of books can adequately cover the last question here —
    What does it mean to take the Old Testament as seriously as Jesus took it?

    This might easily fill a few years’ worth of posts….

    grace and peace

  • RJS

    Tim (#8),

    I think tabling the problem passages can be a bait and switch – but not always. If someone really thinks that the issues are secondary and that genuine, sincere Christians can disagree and have a conversation – then it isn’t bait and switch. I may be wrong, but I think Keller looks at many of these issues in that kind of light.

    I take the OT narrative very seriously, but I think the way some of the genocide passages in the OT are viewed by many conservative Christians is wrong (shaped more by protecting scripture than following the sweep of the narrative). Keller probably disagrees with me on some of this … but would agree (I think) that one’s salvation doesn’t hang on having the perfect interpretation and that we can discuss the issues involved.

    So is that bait and switch?

  • AJG

    In his book Keller also suggests that non-Christians considering the gospel should not worry about the hard texts (like 1 Tim 2:11-15 for example) and the intramural squabbles of the church.

    So non-Christians shouldn’t worry about “internal squabbles” like creationism versus evolution? That’s just something they can deal with later? That seems completely disingenuous to me. Orthodox Christianity teaches that Christ’s death was necessary to atone for our sinful nature which was imparted to us by Adam. If Adam is a fiction, then why is Christ’s death necessary? If the church can’t answer this basic question to the satisfaction of the skeptic, the scientist or the younger generation which accepts evolutionary theory as fact, then why should anyone bother?

    As Tim rightly points out, this is a classic bait and switch. Be honest and answer the questions truthfully. If Christianity is true, it can stand up the scrutiny. If it isn’t, then it’s not worth pursuing.

  • Tim

    RJS,

    I think you’re talking from the perspective of someone who isn’t considering whether or not Christianity is truth, but rather someone who has already come to the conclusion that it is.

    What Keller is suggesting is that those interested in Christianity, but not yet themselves Christian, “table” these “problems” in favor of basing any decision to convert upon whether the gospel of Jesus is attractive to them – and for those evangelizing to them to focus on the same. This is the bait & switch.

  • RJS

    Tim,

    How is this bait and switch? You need to have every i dotted and t crossed before coming to faith? I mean come on … Christians have been debating and discussing many of these issues for millenia, why should someone considering Christianity have to (or even expect to) come to an absolute answer before considering the gospel of Jesus?

    I think part of the problem is that we expect Christianity to be simple through and through … but it isn’t.

  • Tim

    RJS,

    I hardly think that mass genocide in the OT is appropriately categorized as an “i dotted” or “t crossed”. Or that the subjugation of women is just some minor detail.

    Listen, we all know the passages that make us squirm. That make us unconformable and perhaps even embarrassed when those outside the faith point them out. Let’s be honest enough to call them what they are. They aren’t minor details. Some niggling little points of little concern. These are points that have kept numerous people away from Christianity. They are points that have caused many to start down a road in even losing their faith. They are not minor details. These are big issues. Can we not at least own up to that? Then we can talk about how to deal with them from there.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    @ RJS

    1. I think the way some of the genocide passages in the OT are viewed by many conservative Christians is wrong (shaped more by protecting scripture than following the sweep of the narrative).

    2. I think part of the problem is that we expect Christianity to be simple through and through … but it isn’t.

    1. Yes! That needed saying–and needs repeating! Not to mention, it’s un-Christian.

    2. True, but rejecting the “literal” approach–for want of a better term right now–isn’t a complete solution (nor do you say so). Spicing our study up with some cultural background from the Middle East gets one little further, on its own. Recovering the true context requires a theory of revelation that few have on offer. That means a theory of man/mankind, human nature and being, in history. Wright–certainly not! Nor, as I’ve written at length, Benedict (although I write as a Catholic). God in Jesus is about all mankind, and that’s the context within which the Israelite scriptures must be understood.

  • http://misoriented.blogspot.com Mike Blyth

    (If this post looks too long-winded, my simple question is 4 paragraphs down.)

    I’m a 60 year old physician who just resigned from my evangelical mission after 21 years in Africa, having gone through a faith crisis over several years and coming to the point that I am no longer sure of anything. This was while I was actively reading the Jesus Creed blog, Biologos, N. T. Wright, William Lane Craig, etc. as well as skeptical authors. I won’t rehash my specific issues, because they’re typical, but basically it came down to a perception that so many things made a lot more sense explained without Christianity with it.

    I don’t wish to debate these issues at all, but I have a question for those who recognize similar problems with faith and yet manage to hold onto it. I think it’s fair to say that many readers of Jesus Creed do not hold to inerrancy and recognize some problems with the Bible. You may also see major problems (nicely called “tensions” or “paradoxes”) with the biblical (orthodox Christian) view: suffering, failed prophecy, pervasive interpretive pluralism, hell, splintered Church, predestination, Adam and Eve, failure to see in personal experience what is proclaimed in theory, … whatever.

    The thrust of Keller’s argument is what several others have told me: get over those issues because what matters is Jesus. I disagree with the claim that we know enough about Jesus from a historical and objective point of view to be confident in an orthodox picture; indeed the obscurity itself is a problem–why did God not make this critical point of history clearer and better documented?). Of course one can always make a leap of faith, and certainly the Gospel is a wonderful narrative to believe in (for the saved, anyway), but why believe it’s true, especially when it requires so many logical twists and convoluted explanations to reconcile with the rest of our world?

    So, that’s the big question, and though my hope of getting persuasive answers is fading, I’m still hoping that someone can explain how they manage to believe once they acknowledge the reality of these problems and cannot fall back on something like inerrancy.

    Again, I’m really only addressing this to those who see the issues in a similar light as I do. As long as one holds to inerrancy, or believes that our minds are blinded by sin so we can’t use reason, the answer is simple: we believe in what God said, not in our reason. But for those who recognize that evolution is true, Adam and Eve are not, evil is real, Jesus did not return in the first century, or whatever the serious tensions are for you, what keeps you “faithful” rather than saying, “this doesn’t seem to make sense, maybe there is a fundamental problem here?”

    (From my own experience, I know one very important reason for continuing to believe is that my whole identity has been bound up in being “in Christ”, and for years I’ve been able to counter-balance my doubts with apologetics and theological explanations. Contemplating abandoning all that is extremely unpleasant.)

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    The thrust of Keller’s argument is what several others have told me: get over those issues because what matters is Jesus. I disagree with the claim that we know enough about Jesus from a historical and objective point of view to be confident in an orthodox picture;

    Speaking as a Catholic, I have no trouble at all imagining how a person of your background would fall into a crisis of faith–any thinking person who imagines orthodox Christianity to be as you describe it SHOULD be drawn into a crisis of faith. The good news, then, is that you’re obviously a thinking person. The better news would be if you started thinking outside that particular box.

  • Andy W.

    Mark @ 20,

    Thanks for sharing your journey. I appreciate what you are saying here and I am of similar mind and thinking. I wish I had answers for you, but I’m in the same place. I just wanted you to know that you’re not alone. Like you I’m highly engaged…reading blogs, reading books, listening to various lectures/sermons etc. I’m convinced there are many other like this out there, but they don’t know where to turn. I’m trying to find my place. Christ keeps holding onto me! I wish the best to you on your journey!

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    This will be a struggle, so please bear with me. I’m going to attempt to address Andy and Mike and their doubts.

    Earlier I recommended the thought of Mircea Eliade. Eliade’s basic thesis is that throughout history all cultures have expressed insights into the structure and nature of reality and of man’s place in it in essentially similar ways. For most of history this was done through what Eliade calls “archaic ontology.” What he means by this is that man has seen reality as a participation in divine or heavenly archetypes. This participation was seen as the source of order in the world. The focus in many cultures on calendars and rituals were intended to bring man into harmony with the divine source of order, since the orderly motions and rhythms of the cosmos were seen to reflect the divine source of order: man sought to introduce and maintain the order of true human nature (seen as reflecting divine archetypes) into both daily life and societal institutions. Those who are familiar with ancient philosophy will readily recognize the similarity of this type of thought to Platonic thought and Plato’s doctrine of Forms or Ideas.

    Now, what’s important for our purposes is that modern study of the ancient Near East has shown the prevalence of this type of thought not only in China, India and Greece (as well as less developed cultures) but also in Mesopotamia, Egypt and the entire area in between. In other words, this type of thought is universal in human history. It has also become clear that Israelite religion developed from this type of religion over a period of centuries, only becoming something resembling true monotheism sometime after the Babylonian Exile. The development of a true notion of creation was even later, around the time of the Maccabees.

    My thesis is that revelation is the revelation of God’s true identity, the knowledge of which places man in a position to know his own true identity through knowledge of his relationship to God. The climax of that revelation is God’s self revelation in Jesus, which includes the revelation of God as Trinity. This is the standard by which to judge and to understand the Israelite scriptures. Their value is not in the recounting of earlier and outdated visions of God, for example, as a warrior God who orders genocidal assaults, ethnic cleansings, etc. Nor does its value lie in myths and narratives regarding one small nation–a point that the authors of Genesis seem to have in some sense understood. Rather, its value lies in its account of the gradual development of a truer knowledge of God’s identity. Knowledge of God is also knowledge of man, and of how man should live to lead a truly human life: the truth will set you free, I have come that you may have life to the full.

    OK, that’s the thumbnail version. With that longish thumbnail of an intro, here is a paragraph from Trinity and Revelation:

    Thus the Christian revelation—the revelation of God’s identity in Jesus—leads definitively to the vision of a universal God and a universal humanity, struggling to attain to meaning in history. From the universalist Christian perspective of revelation as quintessentially the person and life of Jesus, there emerges the insight that all human history is a prelude to that revelation. There is, of course, a reason (a Spirit guided reason) that Jesus was born into Israel, but the early Christians—-as early as Paul’s letter to the Romans–were not slow to recognize not merely the limitations of Greek thought but also the very real value that it held as, in its own way, also a preparation for the good news of Jesus. So, while the link of Christianity to Israel is organic and significant there is, in light of revelation, no reason to expect a complete agreement of Christian with Israelite thought any more than with Greek thought or the thought of any other society within the scope of the archaic ontology that Christianity replaces. This universal perspective was sadly lost as one of the results of the Protestant Revolt. It is a hopeful sign for the renewed vigor of Christian thought that the Church is seeking to come to terms with the implications of that insight (as for example in Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council).

    So, IOW, what I’m trying to show is that the Christian revelation is of universal relevance, because it marks the answer to the history long speculations and searchings of all mankind, whether in Israel, Greece, Africa, America or wherever. My sense is that the standard Evangelical approach to “scripture” obscures and even militates against the universalist perspective that is proper to Christianity, i.e., the self revelation of God in Jesus.

    I am, of course, fully aware that such a brief presentation may raise more questions than it can possibly hope to answer, but if it points a direction and raises new questions …

  • AJG

    Mike and Andy, I’m with you. I was evangelical for over 30 years (I’m 42), but I am now a solid agnostic (probably a Bertrand Russell atheist). I’ve just given up on Christianity being true. The wealth of scientific and archaeological evidence against the Biblical account is too great for me to deny anymore. I still enjoy the traditions of Christianity (I would actually consider joining a more liturgical congregation) and I still live by the moral dictates established by Jesus, but there just isn’t any compelling reason for me to go any further with that. If there is a God, I hope he will respect that I have earnestly sought him for almost my entire life and and come up empty. If not, there’s not much I can do about it. I can’t force myself to believe something anymore that contradicts my rational sense.

    I’m not in the business of converting anyone away from Christianity; I just don’t see any need to hide who I am any longer. I’ve been plagued by cognitive dissonance for most of my life. I suppressed what I really thought for the benefit of others that were close to me. I can’t do that any more. I’m happier and more at peace now with who I am than I’ve ever been. The world is a much more fascinating and magical place without needing a God to explain it all. I am happy for those who have faith and can draw comfort from it, but my life is better now that I am honest about who I am and what I believe.

  • http://misoriented.blogspot.com Mike Blyth

    Thanks for the replies so far. Mark, just to be clear, I’m not saying that I view the Gospel as only an objective, historical matter. I also have a problem with why, given the premise of the leading of the Spirit, the Faith should not become more rather than less plausible as one matures. Your proposal through Mircea Eliade of a kinder, gentler and more universal Gospel is interesting (though I don’t know where it leads), but what are the grounds for believing it rather than anything else?

    AJG, just out of curiousity, what still brings you to Jesus Creed? Are you still hoping as I am that there might be a way to “reconcile faith and reason?”

  • http://misoriented.blogspot.com Mike Blyth

    @RJS, you say, “We must be able to take the Bible seriously – but quite honestly faith does not really demand any more than that. When it comes right down to it I believe the Bible is inspired and authoritative because I am a Christian – I am not a Christian because I believe the Bible is inspired and authoritative.”

    1) What does it mean to take the Bible seriously, as oppose to believing what it claims on its face?

    2) Why are you a Christian, then?

  • Andy W.

    Sorry, I meant Mike @ 20 in my comment above.

  • RJS

    Mike (#26)

    I think that the idea that the bible a some magical wholly divine uttering of God is one of the most damaging myths of evangelicalism and fundamentalism. The text itself belies this if one reads it carefully and in large chunks. I don’t think the bible claims to be such a rock of authority, nor does it report on people who take the OT as such a rock of authority.

    Rather the bible (OT and NT) is an account, a narrative from a number of different perspectives, of the relationship of God with his creation. I think that it is an accurate account. It spans a range of genres and forms. At times it contains “the very words of God” as recorded by human prophets and witnesses.

    To take the bible seriously is to look at the whole sweep of the narrative, and not to try to distill it to simple formulae, commandments, curses, and blessing or even to a “systematic” theology.

    AJG alludes in #15 and more explicitly in #24 notes that “the wealth of scientific and archaeological evidence against the Biblical account is too great for [him] to deny anymore.” He and I probably agree on much of the evidence – but then we have to ask where the problem really lies. I deny the dichotomy that either the bible is the magic book of conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism or the faith is a crock. Those who preach this kind of faith (or demand that their pastors preach this kind of faith) are a huge part of the problem.

    Why am I a Christian then? Basically because I believe the narrative centered in a God who comes among us. This deserves a lot more fleshing out – but it will come up more as I move through the second half of Keller’s book.

  • AJG

    AJG, just out of curiousity, what still brings you to Jesus Creed? Are you still hoping as I am that there might be a way to “reconcile faith and reason?”

    Because I enjoy what Scott and RJS have to say. I think they both exemplify what a Christian should be. I also read several neo-Puritan blogs because I find them entertaining even though I can’t stand that brand of fundamentalism and disagree with it vehemently.

    Even though I don’t consider myself an orthodox Christian anymore, the culture is in my blood. I doubt I’ll ever shake it fully.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    There are many brands or stripes of Christians and much of it from my perspective that reminds me of the story of the King with no clothes on. People who are clothed in Christ look, taste, and feel Christ in their lives. Others believe in a logical presentation of him or some kind of rational system that makes sense to them. And then there are those who feel fake or kind of go through the motions while not really believing anymore. When it comes to this kind of double life, I do understand why some may find a kind of peace or rest compared to jumping through religious hoops to conform to others expectations. Of course, from my perspective, this has nothing to do with the faith presented in the Bible much less describes the Jesus we meet in the Scriptures. Of course, the Bible may seem like a dead book if we never meet the living resurrected Lord in the power of his Holy Spirit.

    In the end, when people talk about what sounds like the supremacy of reason, that seems to be part of the problem rather than the solution as some try to argue from both sides of the debate. There are highly intelligent smart people on both sides of the atheist/Christian debate or dialogue. All I can say which may appear fideistic to those who put so much stock in the mind that faith goes beyond reason and God ultimately wants the heart that has a way of even trumping the mind at times. It is beyond me to even try to wrap my brain around God for if I could, whatever that is, it’s not God.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    @ Mike

    I would say I am definitely a Christian for historical and objective reasons, in the sense that I agree with Paul that if Jesus didn’t rise then we are the most pitiable of men. It’s because I do believe that by objective standards of historical scholarship the gospels and other early Christian writings are articulating as sober fact what appears in the creed. An important additional factor is that I believe that the philosophy implicit in Christian faith not only is in agreement with modern science but actually helps explain things that modern science has difficulty articulating on its own. The philosophy I refer to is based on the insight that existing is an act (not a concept) and that limited/finite existents (everything we have direct experience of) require a cause for their existence: creation not merely in the past but a continued “supporting” in existence. This philosophy was best articulated by Thomas Aquinas. It may interest some that when NTWright refers to “critical realism” as the basis of his hermeneutics he’s referring to his own education through two Jesuits, Ben Meyer and Bernard Lonergan, in “Thomist” philosophy. So, aat any rate, this is the basis of my faith–and my understanding of “faith” is “reasonable belief,” not “subjective conviction” as is commonly the case. I thought you should know where I’m coming from.

    Now, my experience is probably different than yours. I can’t speak for you, obviously, but until perhaps a decade ago my understanding of how to approach scripture probably wasn’t all that different than many commenters here, or people like RJS, Scot, etc. I was by no means a fundamentalist, but I was inclined to take many things literally (especially Pentateuchal narratives, exodus, Abraham, conquest, etc.) that I now longer see that way. What may be different in my case is that my faith was never based on “the Bible” as such. Of course, our knowledge of Jesus largely comes from written sources, but my faith always rested on the understanding that faith is reasonable and must be articulable through reason–that it cannot contradict reason. As a result, IMO, my two convictions (above) allowed me to assimilate a new understanding of “scripture,” including the realization that the OT and NT cannot be approached in the same manner, that Christian doctrine is not truly based in the OT, although there is an obvious organic relationship. For example, the OT identity of God is simply not the same as the God whom Jesus calls Father. Therefore, my experience has been that faith has become more plausible as I have (hopefully) matured–I consider that in some respects I used to believe somewhat as a child. Importantly, I have continued to find that faith as I understand it comports with human nature, with human freedom and responsibility.

    I’m glad you find Eliade’s thought at least interesting. What are the grounds for believing it rather than anything else? Again, I believe that it comports fully with the best results of the social sciences. From that standpoint I find that my faith (as articulated above) makes very good sense, and that the alternative does not. Now, I should make clear that that was not Eliade’s purpose, or not fully, in writing his book, nor does he cover “all the bases.” I’m in my 60′s now, and I’ve spent decades studying in the areas I’ve referred to, formally and informally. And, no, there isn’t really a 25 words or less way to cover all the bases–at least not for me. But every time I’ve had a question/doubt I’ve found that it has been resolved and that the reasonability of the faith remains.

    On a personal note, I was raised in a home surrounded by books on these topics (especially Thomist philosophy). I was educated as a Catholic in this “tradition,” that is, the twin approach of faith in Jesus and the conviction that faith and reason are in no way opposed. I’m sure that background would be very foreign to most people who frequent Jesus Creed, although many have come to a non-technical familiarity of at least some aspects of it (by no means all) through the writings of CSLewis.

    I did some checking, and I find that at the beginning of a post called The “Theologism” of Bonaventure I do a lengthy “Recapitulation” of progress in my ongoing project. That may help explain some of this. The rest of that post, re Bonaventure, gets into the whole issue of faith/reason as it has developed in the dominant tradition of the West, which I understand to derive from Augustine.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    CGC wrote:

    All I can say which may appear fideistic to those who put so much stock in the mind that faith goes beyond reason and God ultimately wants the heart that has a way of even trumping the mind at times. It is beyond me to even try to wrap my brain around God for if I could, whatever that is, it’s not God.

    Much of what you’re saying here is quintessentially philosophical, and even Thomist. Aquinas’ position, based on reason, is that the human mind is able to grasp that God exists but not, properly speaking, what God is. For example, while we are able to affirm that God is good, what we know is the truth of the proposition–not God directly. Since God is infinite being and we are finite (as is our entire experience) our understanding of “goodness” can only be that of finite “goodness.” God’s goodness (and other attributes) is therefore beyond our intellectual grasp, because it infinitely exceeds the finite goodness that we experience. We express the truth of such propositions by way of analogy, not by direct correspondence.

    Of course, God’s goodness is amply demonstrated through his self revelation in Jesus. Aquinas maintains that, while reason is theoretically capable of attaining many truths, the truths that men attain are usually partial, attained only with great effort and over a long period of time, and usually intermixed with error. This is due to the relative weakness of the human intellect in relation to the object of inquiry (God) and also because of the disparity of ability among men and the fact that in our intellectual life we are subject to the influence of passions and emotions.

    If the relation of faith and reason from an historical standpoint is of interest to you, check out the Bonaventure post that I linked in my last comment.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    RJS wrote:

    To take the bible seriously is to look at the whole sweep of the narrative, and not to try to distill it to simple formulae, commandments, curses, and blessing or even to a “systematic” theology.

    AJG alludes in #15 and more explicitly in #24 notes that “the wealth of scientific and archaeological evidence against the Biblical account is too great for [him] to deny anymore.” He and I probably agree on much of the evidence – but then we have to ask where the problem really lies.

    I’m certainly in sympathy with much of what you’re saying. However, …

    1. People who adopt this “narrative” approach (NTWright is a prominent example) typically end up saying that Jesus “fulfilled” a “narrative,” while glossing over such details as: did the “narrative” ever really take place, and, is it accurate to say that Jesus actually “fulfilled” the narrative. Most scholars who have expertise in this field would disagree with the notion that

    the coming of Jesus could easily be plugged into a pre-existent Jewish matrix. Modern biblical scholarship has seriously challenged that presumption. [my emphasis] The idea of a suffering messiah is difficult to trace in the Hebrew Scriptures, and even the notion that a single, royal messianic figure was expected is not easy to locate.

    This is sometimes an alarming detail for Christian readers. (cf. The One Who Is To Come)

    An additional very pertinent issue is, did Jesus, as presented speaking in his own voice (not as presented in theologizing interpretive matrices) actually present himself as “fulfilling” a “pre-existent Jewish matrix?”

    My conviction that that question must be answered in the negative is a major reason that I have pursued the line of inquiry set out above.

    2. Where does the problem lie? Certainly one part of the problem is the commonly held notion that the OT intends to reveal scientific and archaeological data in many of its narratives, so that’s what we should be looking for. The further question becomes, if we’re not looking for scientific and archaeological truth in the OT, and if it doesn’t offer “a pre-existent Jewish matrix” for the “Jesus narrative” (I’m using Wright-speak), just what are we looking for? I’ve already offered my views on that.

  • RJS

    Mark,

    I think you miss the point of both the “narrative” and the “fulfillment”.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    I don’t think so. My reading of Wright is that he plays very fast and very loose and very selectively with the Israelite sources and their applicability to Jesus. But if you think I’m mistaken on this or some other issue, or if I’m missing the point of your objection, I’m ready to listen.

    However, let me specify that I agree entirely with your statement that it is:

    perfectly reasonable to take the Bible seriously with respect to the life and death of Jesus Christ. One need not check one’s brains at the door to do so.

    What I emphatically disagree with is the statement that

    The entire sweep of the Old Testament points toward Jesus.

    My position is that the OT must indeed be taken seriously on its own terms–as the seriously expressed views of Israelite religion. It is that that must be fit within a theory of revelation that culminates with God’s self revelation in Jesus. It is, in my view, mistaken to continue to insist that God’s self revelation in Jesus be shoe-horned into a Christianized misinterpretation of “a pre-existent Jewish matrix.” Scholarship will not support that.

  • Phil Miller

    People who adopt this “narrative” approach (NTWright is a prominent example) typically end up saying that Jesus “fulfilled” a “narrative,” while glossing over such details as: did the “narrative” ever really take place, and, is it accurate to say that Jesus actually “fulfilled” the narrative.

    I don’t believe Wright ever says that Jews living at the time of Christ saw Christ as fulfilling a certain narrative. Actually, to the opposite. Christ didn’t meet their expectations, therefore they rejected Him. It was the earliest Christians, particularly the Apostle Paul, who after looking back on Christ’s life who put the pieces together.

    I guess I’m not sure what the entire problem is you have with Wright’s perspective, Mark.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    My understanding is that “narratives” are supposed to make sense of details, not evade them. Evasion is what I think Wright engages in when he invokes “narrative.” Let me give a very pertinent example.

    Paul persecuted the early Church. Why? I would say because the Christian narrative failed to comport with his own Jewish narrative–a crucified messiah was, as he later said, a “stumbling block.” Paul was shaken out of his pre-existent Jewish narrative by the fact of his encounter with the resurrected Jesus. That meant that his world was turned upside down. His former narrative had been disproved by the detail of his encounter with the resurrected Jesus. What did Paul do about that? He retired to Arabia (Gal 1:17) to reflect on it all. And when he came back, he had come up with a new narrative that he believed did justice to the detail of Jesus as resurrected. (Wright has written on this episode, Paul, Arabia and Elijah.) And Paul specifies that it is his narrative, not one he got from the Church in Jerusalem.

    How well did Paul’s new narrative work? How far and in what sense did he insist on his use of the OT? Those are complicated issues.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    @ Phil

    Of course you’re correct re Jewish attitudes. The point I was making is that Wright himself claims that Jesus fulfilled the grand narrative–albeit in a “totally unexpected” way. How fulfillment can be fulfillment if it takes place in an unexpected way is a major problem for that “narrative.” However, I think I’d be imposing on RJS and Jesus Creed if I were to go on in this vein at greater length. You can click on my name if you want to learn about my views re Wright. I’m willing to continue, but I don’t want to abuse commenting hospitality.

  • Patrick

    I’d go a step further and challenge all to grasp that Jesus understood all the “troublesome” passages and approved of them.

    Not as necessarily the highest and best intent of God obviously, His statements and life demonstrate lots of Torah was Yahweh tolerating ancient trash as opposed to endorsing it. Easy example being His divorce discourse with the Pharisees.

    However, on the “genocide” of Joshua and related passages, we’re practicing cognitive dissonance if we don’t want to face that Jesus claimed to be the Yahweh that ordered those.

    We know with no doubt Joshua was part of the OT scroll Jesus had access to due to the DSS finds.

    Go figure out how Jesus could have done that as pre Incarnate God or if you have to believe it’s myth, why did He accept that mantle even if it’s symbolic?

    In the NT, we even have firm theological evidence Jesus is “the greater Joshua”(in fact His name is Joshua, same name from Hebrew and in Revelation there is a “Joshua” era when the walls come tumbling down). Jesus is the “greater” almost every OT prominent player, but, He certainly is Joshua as well.

    Because modern people cannot stomach super natural ideas, we just ignore the contextual logic of that era. Jesus didn’t. He full well knew of that era and why it had to be, IMO. Jesus even went to specific areas in the Gospels where some of this “weird” pagan stuff emanated from and challenged it in the enemy camp.

    Until you study ANE history, you don’t know this is true.


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