The Veil that Prevents Fundamentalists from Understanding the Bible

I regularly have Christian fundamentalists tell me that people who do not approach the Bible with faith cannot understand it. That is of course nonsense, although I am pretty sure that at some point in the past I believed it to be true. The first passage that is usually cited as “proof” of this point is 1 Corinthians 2:14: “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”But anyone who informs themselves about the meaning of the word Paul uses (translated as “discerned” in the NIV) will become aware that Paul’s point here is not about one’s ability to understand the Bible (and of course, Paul is not at any rate talking about “the Bible”) but about accepting or embracing the message – not finding the words and grammar intelligible.

The other passage that tends to be referred to in this context is 2 Corinthians 3:15-16, which refers to people who have a veil over their hearts when “Moses” is read. There, if one reads the whole context, it becomes clear that what is being referred to is not a veil that prevents understanding, but a veil akin to the one placed over Moses’ face in Exodus 34, which hid from view the fact that his face shone and that the glory with which it shone faded over time. And so Paul expressly says that the veil prevents some from recognizing that the glory of the old covenant, like the glory of Moses’ face, is one that fades.

But this passage illustrates nicely why many fundamentalists do have a veil over their understanding which prevents them from understanding Scripture – which, ironically, prevents them from understanding in almost precisely the way that they claim others cannot understand! The veil is their lack of attention to the very things that convey meaning and make the text intelligible to anyone, religious believer or not, who sets their mind to understanding: the words, their meaning, and the grammar that connects them. Because such fundamentalists in fact treat the Bible carelessly and contemptuously, they do not take the time to realize that these passages say nothing about the intelligibility of the words of Scripture to those who are not believers.

Atomistic interpretation also is a factor. Quoting just a verse from 1 Corinthians and a couple of verses from 2 Corinthians, one can easily persuade oneself that the meaning is what fundamentalists claim. And so by treating the Bible as a collection of verses to be used independently of their context in the Bible, fundamentalists mistreat and disrespect the Bible and thus misunderstand it.

But perhaps most ironic is the fact that the context of the passage in 2 Corinthians is a contrast between the letter that kills and the Spirit that gives life. Focus on the letter – not only the written letter per se, but in particular the letter in abstraction from the other letters around it, and the word or verse similarly isolated – is characteristic of most forms of Christian fundamentalism. And so while thinking themselves wise interpreters of the Scriptures, they fundamentally misunderstand them. And while accusing those with whom they disagree of not having the Spirit and thus not understanding the Bible, they focus on the letter and themselves miss Paul’s discussion of the letter that kills and the Spirit that gives life. 

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  • Here's a post that was long overdue!

  • Feel free to reproduce it at Religion at the Margins, if you think that would be worth doing.

  • I still don't think that speaking about religious interpretation is where the "real world' and grounding of one's real life in the world is found. Religious people won't be convinced about thier own lack of wisdom, until they encounter a "brick wall". These are not easily convinced, as they are assured that "god has spoken" either in the text OR their own personal interaction with "him"!And it doesn't look like our religious tolerance is getting us anything but the allowance of Shairia law in our court system! Wouldn't this precedent inhibit individual liberty or human rights, itself????

  • Grocery stores don't sell knowledge of good and evil fruit. And pet stores don't sell live snakes that speak human language. So is the story of Adam and Eve nonsense or is there meaning beyond disobedience? Do a search: The First Scandal. Then click twice.

  • Antonio Jerez

    James,while I have sympathy with your predicament this is one of those instances where I largely have to disagree with you. The simple fact is that it is quite obvious that that early Christians like the authors of the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke or John (and I include Paul in that company) thought that the Spirit (of God or Christ) had taught them things about passages in the OT that were "hidden" to contemporary "normal" Jews or "pagans" like me. In the eyes of Paul and the others "normal" Jews or folks like me were fools who couldn´t see things like God had really meant them to be seen. I´m talking about passages like the Servant verses in Isaiah. So while passages like 1 Corinthians 2:14 or 2 Cor 3:15 may not really mean what fundamentalist Christians take take them to mean I think on the whole the fundamentalists are a lot closer to the gist of Paul´s thinking than liberal Christians like you are…

  • Anonymous

    While that may be true, it also appears that back in the first century, people were a lot more diverse in interpretation. So equating Isaiah with Jesus or using past figures as prototypes of early christians would have been rather normal back then. Of course we now know that these passages do not refer to a messianic figure. It also doesn't hurt to be critical of our preceedors, we must realize that Christianity's development wasn't just done in the lifetime of the apostle's but rather throughout history. And the fundlementalist tend to ignore the greater more important message which is to love one another. Brian

  • Anonymous

    Angie, can you give an example of Sharia law in our court system? Frankly, that's insane.

  • Yes, a school teacher wanted to go to Mecca and was denied. She quit and went anyway. The DOJ is hearing her case, as discrimination.A financial advisor in the White House is a Muslim.Much more information on the blognew site Atlas Shrugged.

  • Those that are infidels do not deserve the dignity of one's "honor", as they have "dishonored Allah".

  • those that hold to Koranic teaching must abide by family law.I fear that the conservative believer in America is making room for Islamic radicals, because of their own radical desire to defend their "family values".There is nothing wrong with family values, but when it is ordered hierarchally, patriarchically, then, not only do we discriminate against married women, but gays, and single women.It has been the precedent of our nation to support "ecclesiastical court". Our "secular courts" don't intervene, due to the First Amendment. But, what happens when there are challenges to human rights violations and such violations are "in house (mosque)"???

  • Veil over Moses face!…Josephus said the rumor that Moses had leprosy was not true. But with a brother like Aaron, I might have worn a veil too. Everytime Moses disappears, Aaron was trying to usurp his authority…Golden Calf, Snow White Miriam, etc. The split was later reflected in the seperation of the southern kingdom of Judea (Aaron's descendants) and the northern kingdom of Israel (Moses descendants). My point, rather obscure, but fundamentalists do not (or cannot) connect history (or science, or anything else) with scripture. If there are three souces of info (bible, history, and science), they only recognize one, the bible. Rather narrow minded.

  • I agree with Mr. Stark! Would you mind if I reposted this or posted a link to it at the Reedeemed Weblog sometime?

  • It is always OK to post a link – in fact, it is a very nice thing to do! If you quote the post, please indicate where it is from and provide a link too and some attribution of authorship. Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    One of your best posts!!

  • Antonio, it certainly is true that Christians have found meanings in texts that others did not. But even in those instances, it seems to be coupled with the conviction that others can be made to see it too. Indeed, the claim has often been made that these are predictions and that as such they prove Christianity to be true. That seems to reflect the view that others can in principle understand what is written in these texts and be persuaded by it.In the New Testament, though, I should add that we don't find as much done with Isaiah 53 as would become typical in later times. And I think that in some cases, such as the Jewish Scriptures quoted in Matthew 1-2, the author was thinking more in terms of typology than prediction.Be that as it may, you are surely right that these ancient authors would have disagreed with me about many things. After all, they couldn't even all agree with one another! 🙂

  • Antonio Jerez

    Brian,you say that people were "more diverse" in their interpretation of the OT back in the first century. True. I would rather say that different individuals or groups thought that they had a unique insight into the meaning specific OT verses through revelation from a spirit/God/angels etc etc. Jesus and his followers were certainly not unique in this. The Teacher of Righteusness at Qumran did much the same thing. What was unique about Paul, Matthew and the others were that they equated the Servant in Isahiah with Jesus and claimed they had gleaned the TRUE meaning of Isaiah through direct divine revelation. According to Paul, Matthew and the others other Jews who didn´t see it the way Christians saw it were blind, pitifull people who couldn´t or wouldn´t see the truth. From my perspective latterday Christians like Brian are in much the same unsustainable position as modern mormons who recognize that the language on the golden plates dechiphered by Joseph Smith doesn´t appear to have been ancient egyptian. I can hear a mormon Brian or a mormon James McGrath in a parallel universe go on repeating that many folks in ancient times did things the way Joseph Smith did. Yes, that Joseph Smith may have been wrong about the influence of the spirit on him and a few wayward readings he made does not mean that I can´t continue being a mormon or claiming that mormonism is basically true since what is really important about mormonism is that our prophet taught us to refrain from drinking coffée and stay true to his family values…

  • Antonio Jerez

    James,Paul, Matthew and the others may have disagreed about quite a few things. But on this at least they all seem to have been in total agreement: that verses like the ones about the suffering Servant in Isahiah were TRULY about Jesus. And God´/ Christ´s spirit hade TRULY decended on them so they could see the TRUTH that was hidden to other mortals. Which makes me pretty certain that modern Christians like James and Brian who prefer using reason to divine revelation would have been kicked out pretty fast from one of those small housechurches by a raging, screaming Paul or Matthew -:)

  • Anonymous

    I'm not really sure what to say…other than what I said earlier about the diversity of first century interpretation. By those standards I find no problem with Paul's interpretation I just have the added benefit of knowing that Isaiah wanted to tell us something else. I also take a more Johannine approach in which I find it so ironic that early christians were so concerned about finding Jesus in Scipture that they fail to realize his importance in spite of it.Also don't dare you suggest that I'm not a true believer I am very devout in other regards.Brian

  • Anonymous

    Also I'm really a reason only sort of guy as a Catholic I have a special love for ritual and mystic spirituality. And you need reason anyway to read anything much less divine revelation.Brian

  • Antonio Jerez

    Brian,I really don´t know what kind of believer you are. I only got the impression from your words that you count yourself as a Christian. I was only trying to point out the logical difficulty for liberal Christians like James McGrath who both want to eat the cake at keep it at the same time. Or maybe Christians like yourself. How does it feel to go on repeating those words in the Church creed about Jesus "dying in accord with the scriptures" while knowing yourself that scripture says nothing of the sort? Since I personally think that words matter and have meaning I decided many years ago to stop trying to pretend that you can have a cake and eat it at the same time – which is why I am not a catholic choirboy anymore. And I don´t think we should judge Jesus, Paul, or Matthew today by the appalling intellectual standards that predominated 2000 years ago. We should judge them by the standards they themselves set up. If Paul claimed to have HIGHER knowledge than mere mortals, infallible knowledge directly from God, knowledge that on closer inspection turns out to be about as true as the egyptian script on Joseph Smith´s golden plates, then Paul must be judged a lot harder than a simple 1st century jewish peasant who never claimed to have any special knowledge about anything. And although I personally think I have a lot more in common with James McGrath than with the american brand of Christian fundamentalists I can´t escape the conclusion that in their desperate clinging to belief that the OT really foretells about Jesus they are at least true to the message of Paul, Matthew, Luke and the others. The fact you can only hold on to that belief TODAY through intellectual harakiri is another matter….

  • Anonymous

    I guess when I recite those words during Mass, I say them in the same way the early Christians would have used them [if they knew the Nicea creed that is…] and despite the early christians not always living up to their standards they still set us up with them, so I have to give them some credit. But what makes one a Christian anway, would Paul have called you a Christian even when you were a good Catholic boy or what about me? Jesus' importance to me extends beyond the first century's attempt to define who came from God through a series of criteria. Although, I am shaped by that attempt, I can still critisize it for missing the point. We're just going to have to disagree on this. Fundlementalist do get some things right, but I feel that despite this they miss the point on a lot of things that are more important than reading Isaiah's suffering servant as a messianic prophecy. Most are afraid to critisize their own scriptures in the same way Jesus or Paul critisized their contempories. Most aren't able to surpass their own teachers or at least become like them but for a new age.Sorry if I sounded harsh, I mean no disrespect.Brian

  • Antonio Jerez

    Brian,thanks for your comments. And no, I don´t think you sound harsh. Quite the contrary. Regarding the Nicea creed; although you may SAY the words in the same way as early Christians did, my impression is that you don´t MEAN the words the same way. You said earlier that we know that the servant verses in Isaiah are not about a messianic figure. Yes, you and me may know it but Paul, Matthew, Luke and the ones who authored the Nicene creed saw it very differently – they claimed they KNEW that Isaiah was about the Messiah, Jesus Christ. They claimed that this special knowledge came directly from God, which locically means that it must be true. Paul and the others were so sure about their special insights into the OT that they ran from synagogue to synagogue claiming that other Jews were blinded and didn´t know the true meaning of their own scriptures. Personally I wouldn´t give a damn about renegade Jew named Paul who had a peculiar way of reading the OT if it wasn´t for the fact that Paul´s claims and peculiar readings of the OT have cost countless Jews their life through the centuries – Jews that from our perspective may actually have known the meaning of Isaiah and other passages in the OT a lot better than Paul, Matthew, Luke or the authors of the Nicene creed. So given your earlier words I doubt that you really read and mean the Nicene creed the way early Christians did. At least I know that a whelluwa lot of Christians today hardly believe in a single word of the Nicene creed (Crossan, Bishop Spong just to name a few), but may go on repeating it for God knows what reasons. And although most fundamentalist Christians appear to prefer to shut of their brains when it comes to scrutinizing their beliefs or the Holy Script at least they appear to have more common sense than liberal Christians like Crossan or Spong in one important matter; they know that the game is up for Christianity if Paul and the others were wrong about their supposedly heavensent interpretation of Isaiah. The fundamentalists at least have enough common sense to realize that you can hardly have "gurus" like Jesus or Paul claiming to have special information directly from God or the Spirit, special information that latterday liberal Christians like Crossan or Spong refuse to give God or the Spirit credit for anymore. For God knows what reasons Crossan, Spong and McGrath and all the others knowadays prefer to put the blame for all the wayward readings of the OT of Paul and the others on their fallible human nature. The fact that Paul and the others may have strenously argued that in instances like this it was not their fallible human nature at work is of absolute no importance. It doesn´t really matter…