A Few More Thoughts on the Bible

Chris Hallquist just replied to my post of this morning. And he is right, I did miss his reply to James McGrath. I want to take a moment to respond to both his reply to McGrath, and his reply today to me. I only want to take a moment here because my post earlier today only really used Chris and McGrath’s posts as a jumping off point rather than as a sort of take-down.

First, from Chris’s response to McGrath:

What fundamentalists typically believe is that the Bible, properly interpreted, is infallible. They also generally believe that their interpretations are correct, but that does not entail they believe themselves to be infallible, anymore than the fact that I generally believe my views are correct means I think I’m infallible.

This is an interesting point, and helps explain what Chris was saying in his first post. I think I would disagree slightly though, and here’s why: most people don’t believe that anything is “infallible.” I don’t think any source I can get my hands on is infallible, and liberal Christians don’t believe the Bible is infallible either. Thus fundamentalists are fairly unique in believing they have an infallible text. Of course, you have to actually read and understand said infallible text. If you can’t, that it’s infallible is pointless. And, fundamentalists believe that they can read and understand the Bible. And they do believe they have it correct, that through their interpretation of the Bible they have arrived at the infallible truth, and I believe that is what Fred Clark is referring to in his quote when he says fundamentalists think themselves infallible. I think Chris’s comparison to his own views doesn’t hold up here, because Chris (I would imagine) doesn’t think he has an infallible source. (By this I mean, for instance, that there is no book, news media, or person that he views as infallible.)

As for the contributions liberal Christians have made to Biblical criticism, yes I’m perfectly aware of it. But when I talk about admitting the Bible is deeply flawed, I’m not talking discussion of historical inaccuracies, I’m talking about being willing to say, “the fundamentalists are wrong because much of the Bible’s content is morally odious.”

I think we’re getting at the source of Chris’s disagreement with me, and my disagreement with him. One more quote and then I’ll explain.

Furthermore, while my impression is that liberals and fundamentalists alike would mostly like the issue to go away, the general position of liberal Christians at least makes it possible to admit that the Bible commands slavery (and is wrong about this). In the modern US, where slavery is widely seen as a Bad Thing, most fundamentalists can’t do that, unless they going to pull a Doug Wilson and insist that slavery wasn’t that bad. (The fact that liberal Christian Fred Clark has a similar view of what the Bible says about slavery should be the last atheists hear from liberal Christians about “but you’re agreeing with fundamentalists!”)

I think we’re disagreeing on what we mean by “interpreting the Bible.”

As Chris is aware, liberal Christians do not approach the Bible the same way fundamentalists do. A liberal Christian like Fred Clark may admit that the Bible says slavery is okay, but that does not mean he thinks God is actually okay with slavery. Liberal Christians think that the Bible can contain not simply factual inaccuracies but also simply man’s faulty interpretation of God. I’ve heard it argued for instance that the Old Testament genocides were both the Israelites’ foundation myth (meaning that they either didn’t happen at all or were grossly exaggerated) and carried out at their understanding of God’s commands rather than at God’s commands themselves (i.e. they may have thought that God told them to carry them out, but he actually didn’t). I would count this understanding, not simply “yes, the Bible says God commanded the Israelites to commit genocide,” as liberal Christians’ “interpretation” of the Bible.

In other words, I would say that Fred Clark admitting that the Bible does technically condone slavery is not the same thing as him interpreting the Bible the same way fundamentalists do. I suppose when I say “interpretation of the Bible” I don’t mean just *what the words literally say* but rather *how you understand the words in the greater framework.* Thus even when liberal Christians agree that the words literally say what fundamentalists say they literally say, that does not necessarily mean that they are interpreting the Bible the same way as fundamentalists.

Chris would like liberal Christians to admit that the Bible is “morally odious.” At risk of overgeneralizing and speaking about things I don’t know enough about, I would hazard a guess that since liberal Christians do not believe that their beliefs are “morally odious,” they also don’t generally see the Bible, as they interpret it, as “morally odious.” Now I do think the majority of liberal Christians would likely agree that the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible is morally odious. They might very well also agree that if you take the Bible literally without understanding things like context or the greater theological framework, yes, the Bible appears to be morally odious. But like I said, liberal Christians don’t interpret the Bible literally or expect it to be without factual error or without fallible human authors. So saying that liberal Christians need to admit that the Bible is “morally odious” strikes me as disingenuous.

But I suppose if I’m understanding the word “interpretation” to mean “understanding the words within a greater framework,” it may be disingenuous to speak of atheists “interpreting” the Bible. In that I think Chris does have a point. But I think what is important to remember, even if our goal is to challenge Christians’ beliefs, or perhaps especially if our goal is to challenge Christians’ beliefs, is that not all Christians approach the Bible in the same way. It would be a mistake to assume that all Christians approach the Bible the way fundamentalists approach it and then base our arguments on that assumption.

Now let me be clear on what I am not saying. I generally don’t proselytize, i.e. I don’t spend a lot of energy trying to deconvert Christians I know, but I’m not saying that an atheist interested in challenging a liberal Christian’s beliefs has no way to do so or even that he or she can’t use the Bible to do so. I see a variety of approaches available for use.

  1. One is to argue that their interpretation of the Bible is incorrect, and to argue that the fundamentalist interpretation, with all of its moral problems and inconsistencies, is the correct interpretation. I personally don’t think that this is the best tactic, but that’s simply my opinion.
  2. A second tactic is to point out problems resulting from their interpretation of the Bible. As an example of this, one reason I got to the point where I could no longer see the Bible as anything but man made was that I’d had to deal with things like the Old Testament genocides by, like I mention above, assuming that the Israelites mistook God, and thought he commanded genocide when he didn’t and I increasingly had trouble seeing how this could be reconciled with an all-powerful God. If God was so powerful, why didn’t he communicate clearly to the Israelites?
  3. A third tactic is to approach theological views more broadly rather than the Bible directly. For example, I increasingly found that the Trinity only made sense if you suspend all rules of logic and the idea of “sin” appeared more and more to be no more than a social construct.

I guess what I’m saying is that understanding that there are many different ways of interpreting the Bible out there, and that fundamentalists’ way of doing so is not somehow “correct” or even the oldest interpretation, does not necessarily mean not challenging a Christian’s beliefs. Instead, it means challenging them in more productive ways than using arguments to combat things they may or may not actually believe. And I’m also saying that it doesn’t make sense – and isn’t very productive either – to challenge or question a liberal Christian’s beliefs without being willing to actually listen, process, and then respond to what they say.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Attackfish

    The one thing I’ve noticed in all of this, is the assumption that the interpretation of the Bible being used is Christian, liberal vs. fundamentalist, but Christian. But Atheists of the same stripe as the ones who go after liberal Christians also go after Jewish people of multiple denominations, treating the fundamentalist Christian interpretation of the Tanakh as the only acceptable or intellectually honest interpretation (and then saying see how wrong it is, this is why you shouldn’t believe) and ignoring thousands of years of Jewish intellectualism and scholarship. We interpret it differently from both liberal and fundamentalist Christians of any denomination.

    • Hilary

      Thank you for this. It always baffles me how Christians, or athiest former Christians, can go on and on about the ‘Old testament’ quote unquote, get their underwear in a bundle about some part of it, but never think to ask how Jews deal with it. And if there is one thing about athiests that bugs me is when they try make the same agruments against Jews that they do with Christians, like there is no difference. I don’t care if you think Jewish belief in God is false, just please have a somewhat accurate idea of what it is you consider false. Newsflash to all athiests reading this: we don’t believe in original sin, we don’t believe that every body but us is going to hell, and we don’t read the Torah straight up but through two and a half thousand years of interpretation.

      Regarding this post, good for Libby for pointing out significant differences in approaches to the bible, and aksing athiests to at least take that into account and listen to those differences even if you think it’s all a bunch of imaginary friend talk.


      • Katty

        Hilary, I was wondering whether there was any website(s) you could recommend for someone who would like to get an idea about Jewish religious principles (if that’s even the correct term to use) and approach to the bible? I know some very basic stuff, but living in a country which was more or less cleared of Jews by Hitler, I really never had any chance to interact with Jewish people and get to know their belief system on a more personal level, and I would sincerely like to know more. So if you have any recommendation for me, I’d appreciate the info!

      • Hilary


        Two websites I use for reference are “Judaism 101″ It’s well designed for finding answers to questions. The other good web site I use is “Jewish Virtual Library”. Wikipedia works as well. You would want to search for “Oral Torah” on those sites.

        If you like historical fiction, there is a trilogy called “Rashi’s Daughters” which is very good. It is about a famous Rabbi, called Rashi, from France in the 11th century. He was a great comentator on the Torah, and only had daughters so he taught them as he would sons. We still use his comentaries today, and the books give a picture of what medeval life was like f0r Jews and Christians in France.

        Take care, and thanks for asking!


      • Katty

        Thank you for getting back to me on this! I’ll be sure to check out the sites you recommended. Thanks also for the book recommendation, I very much enjoy reading all kinds of stuff when I find the time for it. It’s been a while since my last book of historical fiction (which, incidentally featured Jews in medieval Spain, but only as a subplot and was unfortunately very badly written), so all the more reason for reading one again (and a better one this time)!

      • Hilary


        I going on vacation this weekend, but if you have any questions for me, on anything from those websites, you can post them here I’ll check back here on Wednesday 10/31. There aren’t a lot of Jews in my area so I’m used to being the first one people meet and talk to. I have answered a lot of questions, and I’ll take any sincere question seriously no matter what it is. Given the history you mentioned, I’d be happy and honored to explain things to you.

        Please note: I am not proselytizing, just offering to answer questions and share information if asked. This is not a pitch to ask you to believe in anything, just to learn more if you desire.


  • smrnda

    The only way to reclaim the Bible is to basically believe it’s an entirely human document, the way we might look at any ancient text. Once you bring in the possibility of divine influence, you’d think an all-powerful God would have made sure (somehow) that people got some things right, particularly since this all-powerful God should have know how people today would react to some of the more morally odious things in the Bible, so I definitely share your position from 2.

    I think the idea that the God of the Bible exists *but* that humans somehow messed up documenting the transmission just seems too much like a way of being able to accept the Bible somehow as the ‘word of God’ without having to take responsibility for any of the reprehensible things in it. It’s like saying ‘no matter how many false teachings or factual errors are there, it’s still a very special book!’ It just seems too convenient of a belief.

    • Attackfish

      Or you can believe that God is fallible and sometimes dishonest. After all, we only have His word He’s infallible (and that’s only if you believe in the god of the bible, but nobody ever talks about this posotion.)

      • smrnda

        Good point. I myself think there’s something contradictory in the notion of god being both all powerful and totally good – god’s goodness is asserted but not proven, and the god of the Bible is hardly consistent at all. Given the moral priorities of the god of the Bible I doubt a case can even be made that the god depicted is rational.

      • machintelligence

        God being all powerful is also asserted but not proven. Few people are struck by lightning as a punishment for blasphemy these days.
        BTW I hate to be pedantic but tact is the wrong word to use in the above post. Either tactic or tack make better sense.

      • Pseudonym

        machintelligence raises a good point here, namely, that the assumption that God is all-powerful is an assumption, and concluding it from (your interpretation of) the Bible is circular reasoning.

        As one example of an alternative point of view, open theists would argue that the “omnis” are a classical Greek idea which was foreign to the Hebrews. Hence, any attempt to read them into any Hebrew texts is unjustifiable. You might be able to read it into the letters of Paul of Tarsus, since he was influenced by Greek thinking. But it would even be problematic to read it into the synoptic gospels.

        And that raises what I think is a key point which is often lost in these discussions: there is a deep sense in which it makes no sense to speak of “the God of the Bible” as an unambiguous, coherent entity. At best, you have a bunch of conflicting opinions written over the course of a thousand years or so.

        To be fair, that is not necessarily an unsurmountable problem. After all, the same could be said of “morality” or “justice”. Much ink has been spilled on those topics over the milennia, but we still find them important.

      • kisekileia

        Yeah, I’m not super knowledgeable about open theism but it definitely seems like the form of Christianity/monotheism that makes the most sense to me.

    • sara maimon

      Agreed. I am Jewish too and this is the way I look at the Bible. It is a human document and it tells us a lot about how people thought about god and how that idea developed over time. However there are fundamentalist Jews too and some of them just live in cognitive dissonance regarding the genocides and things like that.

  • Lauren F

    Another thing is that this idea that Fred is wrong because “he said fundamentalists believe they’re infallible,” is itself wrong. What he said was more like “You’re saying X, but what you’re really saying there is Y.” Which atheist bloggers do all the f-ing time to both conservative and liberal Christians, so I’m not really sure why Chris decided to deliberately misinterpret it.

  • Jason Dick

    The really liberal interpretations of the Bible baffle me. I mean, obviously those interpretations are more in accordance with reality, and much less morally abhorrent. But they also are extremely vacuous: they seem to me to be just an arbitrary picking-and-choosing of what parts of the Bible they like and what parts they don’t like. This most recent Jesus and Mo cartoon, I think, captures what I’m trying to say rather well:

    So if I were to get into a discussion with a liberal Christian on these issues, I would be very tempted to ask, “Which parts of the Bible do you think are genuinely true, and why do you think that those parts are true?” Because I don’t think they can come up with a coherent answer to why they think those particular parts are true while others are not.

    • ScottInOH

      I don’t know about everyone, but it seems to me the most succinct, coherent, liberal interpretation of Christianity and the Bible is the one that emphasizes love. You can get a very long way toward being a good, moral person by trying to love your neighbor as yourself. Sure, one doesn’t need the Gospel to act that way, but a liberal Christian is likely to believe that loving God and drawing support from His love is the best way to sustain that kind of life.

      Parts of the Bible that don’t seem consistent with the message that God is love would then be dismissed or de-emphasized. The horrors of the Old Testament? Caused by the people’s misunderstanding of God, who did not fully reveal Himself until Jesus came. The possibility of eternal damnation for the temporal sin of not believing? Maybe true, maybe not, but not something an individual believer really needs to concern him/herself with. And so on.

      Sure, it’s unsatisfying in a lot of ways, but it’s not entirely incoherent.

      • http://equalsuf.wordpress.com Jayn

        This is more or less the basic lesson that I always got from Sunday school. Certainly plenty of the Bible doesn’t really jibe with that idea very well, and I’m always in the process of re-evaluating old beliefs, but Jesus taught a lot about love and being accepting of others and that has always been central to both my beliefs and ideology. (Except for that brief atheist phase. Then it was just part of the latter.)

      • Rosie

        My liberal Christian friends seem to do this: they firmly believe in a loving deity, and anything that contradicts that is summarily dismissed as being a figment of some man’s imagination. Some will even refer to the vengeful, petty, insecure deity that occupies most of Genesis (think Flood, Tower of Babel, etc.) as “God’s evil doppleganger”. In other words, somebody’s incorrect idea about God that somehow made it into the Canon.

        My more conservative family and friends, however, consider this “feel-good Gospel” of an always-loving-deity to be heretical. They believe in The God Of The Bible (as they see him), The One True God, warts and all. But of course, if this deity appears imperfect or immoral, that’s only our limited human understanding.

      • kisekileia

        What Scott in OH said.

    • Pseudonym

      So if I were to get into a discussion with a liberal Christian on these issues, I would be very tempted to ask, “Which parts of the Bible do you think are genuinely true, and why do you think that those parts are true?”

      If I, a liberal Christian, got into that discussion with you, and you asked me that question, here’s how I’d answer it.

      Question 1: Which parts of the Bible do you think are genuinely true?

      It depends what you mean by “genuinely true”.

      I think, for example, that the Levitical laws are genuinely (and literally!) true, in the sense that they were actually part of the civil/religious code of the ancient Hebrews at some point in their history, even if the story about how they came to be instituted is fanciful.

      What does it mean for moral teachings to be “genuinely true” or not? How about all of those endless Hebrew prophets issuing dire warnings about what would happen if Israel didn’t turn back to Yahweh? In at least some cases, those prophets were very likely real people, and almost certainly said what they are reported to have said.

      So I’m going to assume you’re talking about depictions of events. Some of these events probably happened, some of them probably didn’t happen, and some are probably partly true to various degrees.

      Question 2: Why do you think that those parts are true?

      For the same reason that any historian thinks that some event probably happened: it is the best (and often the most parsimonious) explanation for the evidence.

      Take the claim that the Hebrews spent time in exile in Babylon, for example. Babylonian chronicles still exist which talk about raids on Judah and the capture of its king. I’ve seen one of these chronicles with my very own eyes, though since I can’t read cuneiform, I’m trusting that the historians have translated it accurately. We can be pretty certain that this really happened.

      Take the claim that Jesus existed. We do have the gospels. We have some authentic writings of Paul of Tarsus which say that he knew relatives of Jesus. This is evidence, the simplest explanation for which is that Jesus existed and that stories of his sayings and deeds were exaggerated over time.

      To make the case that Jesus didn’t exist requires developing a comprehensive theory which explains where all of this came from, something akin to a conspiracy theory, which is a very complicated explanation and has a correspondingly high burden of proof.

      Yes, this requires a lot of hard academic work. Indeed, a lot of the tools, techniques and methodologies available to modern ancient historians were developed by the liberal Christians of the 19th century trying to answer these very questions. And yes, that means that there is plenty of uncertainty and academic debate.

      Now here is the question I would ask in return: Why does it matter?

      I’m reminded of the myth of Christopher Columbus setting out to prove the Earth was round. As we all know, this is flatly untrue; everyone in Europe knew the Earth was round.

      However, the story tells us an awful lot about the people who told the story. It arose during the era of US “manifest destiny” nationalism, and the search for a foundation myth which was based on defiance of the prevailing (wrong) order, and most importantly, wasn’t British. If I were American (which I’m not), I would appreciate the insight into my own culture and what it means to be American.

      • Silentbob

        @ 16 Pseudonym

        I don’t think Jason was referring to rationally plausible parts of the bible, but to the metaphysical claims. Such things as:

        Was Jesus divine – more than human?
        Was his death ordained by God as a sacrifice that redeemed the sins of the world?
        Was he resurrected from the dead?
        Does believing in his resurrection grant eternal life?

        That sort of stuff.

        If you believe these things, why?
        If you don’t, in what sense are you a Christian?

        I’m having trouble understanding how one can be a Christian if one doesn’t believe in “the Christ” and rejects all of Christian theology.

      • kisekileia

        I agree with Pseudonym about this.

  • kalim

    What is death?

    I want to share this sentence from a book: from Risalei-Nur Collection by Said Nursi

    Death is either eternal annihilation, a gallows on which will be hanged both man and all his friends and relations; or it comprises the release papers to depart for another, eternal, realm, and to enter, with the document of belief, the palace of bliss. The grave is either a bottomless pit and dark place of solitary confinement, or it is a door opening from the prison of this world onto an eternal, light-filled garden and place of feasting.

  • Judy L.

    My heart and head ache at the centuries of scholarship and time wasted on discussions about whether a bundle of preposterous stories are to be interpreted as metaphor, allegory, or the inerrant words of an imaginary being who dictated his stories and instructions to supposed prophets, many of whom could not read nor write. I know that for so long, and still in this age of monstrously anti-intellectual religous fundamentalism that abhors science and reasoned critique, the only scholarly outlet for bright minds is arguing over the veracity and meaning of hundred- and thousand-year-old rumours, tall tales, and legends as if they were facts.