Is “Biblical Truth” all that matters?

biblical-truth

One of the hallmarks of American Evangelicalism is its dogmatic biblicism. This understanding of the Bible goes far beyond mere love and respect for Scripture, instead functioning as a distorted trinity composed of God, Jesus, and the Bible, with the Bible acting as virtually the only means through which we can properly come to God.

It is the Bible that is at the center of Fundamentalist and Evangelical faith, and it is the absolute, inerrant, and infallible authority of the Bible that many Christians cling to as the essential doctrine of Christianity. The Holy Spirit is relegated to an afterthought. Logic and reason are of questionable value. Experience and emotion are sure to mislead. Tradition and church teaching have their place, but only insofar as they support Scripture.

This biblicism was succinctly expressed in a commentary by conservative pastor Jim Garlow entitled “The Source of Wisdom.” Dr. Garlow said:

There is truth that goes beyond us. It predates us. It will outlive us. It’s called ‘Biblical Truth.’ … What’s your source of wisdom? Ultimately my opinion matters little. And sorry to say, neither does yours. But there’s a truth that does matter. It’s called ‘Biblical Truth.’ Some will say, ‘Well, according to who’s interpretation? The answer: according to the collective minds of authentic followers of God for the last two thousand years. Others will argue, ‘well it’s his interpretation against yours, right?’ No, the Bible was written plainly. Tearing up a baby in the womb is anti-biblical. Redefining marriage is anti-biblical. Depriving people of expressing true creativity through excessive governmental control denies the integrity of the human spirit–it’s anti-biblical. The Bible can spare us a lot of pain–personally and nationally–if we’ll read it and follow it.

It’s precisely this sort of unnuanced understanding of the Bible’s appropriate role in the life of a Christian that has led to so much discord within the church. It’s this sort of tortured logic that drives non-Christians up the wall. And it’s the advancement of the Bible as a panacea for life’s problems–and its inevitable failure to live up to that expectation–that leads so many Christians to walk away from their faith.

There is no “biblical truth,” there is simply truth. Whether truth comes from the pages of your ESV Study Bible or your favorite atheist blog, it’s just as true. Christians who only seek answers within the pages of a written text are ignoring the vast and bountiful resources that God has made available to us. And claiming that the Bible functions as the very foundation of truth–the “source of wisdom”–is nothing less than bibliolatry. The Bible itself teaches, and Christians down through the ages have always held, that God is the source of truth and wisdom.

Garlow is right to raise questions about biblical interpretation, but fails to address them in any meaningful way. He defers to tradition and a “plain” reading of the text as a sufficient counter to any hermeneutical conundrums. But there is no way we can accurately poll the “collective minds” of the last two thousand years, and when we do know the theological opinions of ages past, they often disagree with one another. We should take tradition seriously, but we should never blindly defer to a supposed traditional interpretation of Scripture when given good reason to do otherwise.

Contrary to Dr. Garlow’s opinion (which, in his own words, “matters little”), the Bible wasn’t “written plainly.” Reading translations of ancient texts from vastly different cultures is rarely a matter of straightforward understanding, and even the writers of those texts often eschewed plain meaning. The Bible is full of metaphor and nuance, subtlety and simile, poetry and allegory. Jesus’ own words regularly confuse and confound his disciples–he seemed to delight in not speaking “plainly.”

Holding to such a flat view of Scripture allows one to easily impose personal opinions and positions upon the text. Labeling certain positions on controversial issues as “biblical” or “anti-biblical” when, in reality, the Bible doesn’t directly address our modern situation in relation to any of those issues is not only dishonest, it’s a blatant abuse of the Scripture that Evangelicals claim to respect. Deferring to the “biblical” answer to these issues is nothing more than theological doublespeak, a not-so-subtle way of saying “God’s on my side in this argument.”

Reading and understanding the Bible is as much art as it is science. In light of that fact, I offer up as far more useful and relevant than Garlow’s precepts of tradition and perspicuity, the Nine Theses put forth by The Scripture Project of the Center of Theological Inquiry as presented in the book The Art of Reading Scripture:

  1. Scripture truthfully tells the story of God’s action of creating, judging, and saving the world.
  2. Scripture is rightly understood in light of the church’s rule of faith as a coherent dramatic narrative.
  3. Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative: the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New.
  4. Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author. In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that Scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama.
  5. The four canonical Gospels narrate the truth about Jesus.
  6. Faithful interpretation of Scripture invites and presupposes participation in the community brought into being by God’s redemptive action–the church.
  7. The saints of the church provide guidance in how to interpret and perform Scripture.
  8. Christians need to read the Bible in dialogue with diverse others outside the church.
  9. We live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of the kingdom of God; consequently Scripture calls the church to ongoing discernment, to continually fresh rereadings of the text in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world.

These principles, while definitely not the final word on Biblical interpretation, nevertheless offer a robust starting point for better understanding how Christians might relate to the Bible. The Bible isn’t a rule book; it’s not a guide for political action, and trying to follow it–whatever that may mean for an individual or a nation–certainly won’t “spare us a lot of pain.”

But if we as Christians take our faith seriously, and therefore take the Bible seriously, it’s incumbent upon us to wrestle with the meaning of our text. We must never settle for pithy commentary or the snap-judgements of supposed “biblical truth.” Instead we must embrace tension and ambiguity, learning from the journey of interpretation, and remaining ever open to new and diverse understandings of the Bible.

 


Dan WilkinsonDan Wilkinson

Dan is the Executive Editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians blog. He is a writer, graphic designer and IT specialist. He lives in Montana, is married and has at least two cats.

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  • paarsurrey

    @ Dan Wilkinson

    Quoting the words:

    “We must never settle for pithy commentary or the
    snap-judgements of supposed “biblical truth.” Instead we must embrace tension
    and ambiguity, learning from the journey of interpretation, and remaining ever
    open to new and diverse understandings of the Bible.” Unquote

    I think your approach is correct.

  • Elena Kaiser

    Dan, I was wondering if you could suggest for me some scholarly articles which might further detail what you are saying. I have converted from a “fundamentalist” view of biblical interpretation over the past couple of years. My family and friends are having considerable trouble understanding why I have changed my views. Although I have read many articles and books, I am having trouble finding material from studied individuals which compares and discusses the different ways in which sincere Christians interpret scripture, and why the biblical text cannot be defined in just one way. Also, it would be helpful to have some resources which discuss the flaw of pulling out a verse or several verses of scripture and calling it absolute truth. Perhaps there is a specific terminology that goes with the practice of doing that to prove one’s point.

    Thank you for sharing your views, I know there are many of us who believe in this way. I feel it is important to have things we can point others to which supports (in a way they can understand) those views. I read and hear so much vicious attacking going on from both sides, it just breaks my heart. Although people of faith may never see eye to eye on things, I think it greatly helps if we can substantiate our points of view from understanding why biblical scholars also disagree on these subjects. And, as I said above, although I have read many things on these subjects I have not found one that compares and discusses why sincere Christians have interpreted scripture in different ways. If there isn’t something like this out there I think it would benefit all Christians to have a resource such as this. Many people just don’t have the time, or expertise, to gather and “decode” the vast amounts of information on this subject.

    Thank you for considering my questions and offering any references you may know about. Elena

    • L L Bennett

      Thanks for your post…you ask good questions–I hope you continue to think and study and ask.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/ Dan Wilkinson

      Thanks for you thoughtful comment Elena.

      Here are some books that I have found helpful in better understanding Biblical interpretation:

      God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship by Kenton Sparks
      The Art of Reading Scripture edited by Davis and Hays
      Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns
      The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith
      Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today by N.T. Wright

      You mention “pulling out a verse or several verses of scripture and calling it absolute truth.” This is known as proof-texting and is frowned upon even by conservative scholars.

      You also ask “why sincere Christians have interpreted scripture in different ways.” To that end, you may be interested in Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and his follow-up Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. He provides a historical and theological context regarding how Evangelicalism has arrived at its present state.

      Hopefully some of that is helpful to you. I certainly don’t recommend diving into all those books — they vary in difficulty and emphasis, but perhaps one or two will jump out at you.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/ Dan Wilkinson

        All of the above are books, but here’s a good article by conservative scholar D.A. Carson on some of the basics of Biblical interpretation: Must I Learn How to Interpret the Bible? Carson certainly doesn’t argue for any radical departures from traditional interpretive methods, but the principles he lays out are good starting points.

      • Elena Kaiser

        Thank you so much for your reply and the resources you suggested. I’m looking forward to reading through some of those. I’ve now read much of the book,The Art of Reading Scripture. I enjoyed the perspectives expressed, and it helped to illuminate some of the different ways in which the bible has been interpreted, and of course new ways to reinterpret old understandings. It was very informative.
        I’m wondering what your personal thoughts are on ideas that greatly differ from the foundations of orthodoxy. For example such beliefs like, a person does not necessarily have to believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead in order to be considered a Christian. Also. those who consider themselves Christians but are also non-trinitarians. I don’t know how fundamentalist evangelicals would ever be able to reconcile such opinions and beliefs. Many Christians cannot even begin to question the orthodoxies of the faith, because they feel that those are the very foundations of Christianity, and to do so would be a different faith entirely.
        These are difficult and perplexing questions to answer indeed. I personally don’t have any problem with exploring these lines of thought, and remaining open. But, at this point , I feel completely incapable of giving any reasonable justification for doing so.
        I want to be taken seriously, to have some reply which can at least give people a sound reason to pause and evaluate why I take this posture.
        Any thoughts you have I will be delighted to receive.

        • http://patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/ Dan Wilkinson

          Great question Elena!
          You’re very right that many Christians erect some pretty rigid walls around the “essentials” of the Christian faith, and that the trinity and the resurrection are generally high on that list. I think that orthodoxy is important. It’s important to take very seriously the theological understandings that the Church has developed over the last 2000 years. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t questions and critically examine those doctrines, but it does mean we should lend a great deal of weight to the wisdom of those who came before us. But if we come to conclusions that are at odds with orthodox Christianity, we should hold those positions humbly and cautiously, recognizing that there will necessarily be some tension with those who believe otherwise. Of course many Christians don’t believe in a bodily resurrection or in the trinity, so if those issues are particular sticking points for you, it may be helpful to find a church that is open to non-orthodox theology.

          But I think your question isn’t so much about specific doctrines as it is about being willing and open to explorer one’s faith. For me, all truth is God’s truth, and there is great freedom to be found in the knowledge that if something is true, wherever we find that truth, it is ultimately from God. Whenever we wall ourselves in and refuse to examine alternative beliefs and perspectives we risk missing out on important facets of life. Many Christians fear critical examination of their faith, and fear doctrines and beliefs that differ from their own. But a Christians’s life shouldn’t be defined by fear, it should be defined by love … and there is no fear in love.

          I don’t think we should have to justify explorations of differing beliefs … if anything the opposite should be the case. Those who refuse to engage with the broad range of beliefs and perspectives are selling themselves short. That may not be a practical answer when someone confronts you about reading a “non-orthodox” author … but I simply think there’s no reason one should ever have to feel defensive about seeking truth and knowledge.

  • http://rolltodisbelieve.wordpress.com/ Captain Cassidy

    It was pretty startling when I realized, as a fresh deconvert, just how “idolatrous” my prizing of the Bible was–in carefully-chosen interpretations of course, and just the form of it that I thought was “inspired” out of all the books that didn’t make the cut. I didn’t lose my contempt for non-“sola” understandings of Christianity until fairly recently, when it occurred to me that most of the stuff Christians do isn’t Biblical. And when I’d been Christian, the more “Biblical” I tried to make my Christianity, the more abuse and predation I experienced at the hands of those who, in Renaissance words, saw religion as useful. So clearly going more Biblical just isn’t a good idea for most folks.

    I saw a Christian write not long ago that sometimes the truth isn’t loving (as a justification for being a jerk to non-believers, of course).

    I disagree entirely. I think if it’s not loving, it can’t be the truth.

    • Andy

      It’s that “tough love” shit, and it’s a crock.

      • http://rolltodisbelieve.wordpress.com/ Captain Cassidy

        Oh, totally. I’ve been railing against that idea for a long time now. I was actually married to an addict, and I know exactly what “tough love” is. It’s nothing like what Christians imagine it to be, nothing like it at all. Somehow a huge chunk of Christians have gotten it in their heads that it’s okay to intrude on someone else’s life and push themselves into other people’s business and private decisions in the name of their warped, controlling misconception of “love” and because they’re hiding behind a big pink Love Shield nobody can see boo about it or reject their control. Sorry, I want to say, but it doesn’t work that way. Intent isn’t a magic shield, and results are what matter. It’d be so very helpful if such Christians and their leaders stopped trying to redefine big words they don’t understand.

        • Andy

          I was going to expound on that after I said it, then I decided against it. I’m glad I did, you said it better than I would have. Nailed it.

  • CroneEver

    Dogmatic Biblicalism can work only if everyone’s using the same translation. Now, I can read French fluently, and I like to read the Bible in French as well as English. So: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
    and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (John 1:1-5, King James Version)
    In French: “Au commencement était la Parole, et la Parole était avec Dieu, et la
    Parole était Dieu. Elle était au commencement avec Dieu. Toutes choses ont été faites par elle, et rien de ce qui a été fait n’a été fait sans elle. En elle
    était la vie, et la vie était la lumière des hommes. La lumière luit dans les
    ténèbres, et les ténèbres ne l’ont point reçue.” (John 1:1-5, Louis Segond
    version)

    Or, to translate it literally from French to English [my emphasis added],
    “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word
    was God. SHE was in the beginning with God. All things were made by HER, and nothing of what was made was made without HER. In HER was the life and the life was the light of men. The light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not receive HER.”

    A slight difference. With implications. For one thing (aside from all questions
    of faith or Catholic doctrine) I think it helps explain the Cult of the Virgin
    Mary, and the concept (later doctrine) of Mary as Mediatrix of all the graces.

    On a lighter note, my favorite example of differences in translation:
    “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (KJV, Matt.
    5:5)
    “Heureux les débonnaires, car ils hériteront la terre!” (Louis Segon,
    MAtt. 5:5)
    Let me assure you, “les debonnaires” are not the meek… they are the
    good-natured, the easy going. THEY will inherit the earth, at least in
    French-speaking countries!

    Pronouns matter; words matter; grammar matters. Think about that the next time someone tells you, “just do what it says.”

  • Paul Stevenson

    I don’t find Evangelicals terribly biblical. They seem to live by truisms and proof texts for those. At the same time Christians epistmological foundations should be examined. It is possible to give the principle place to Scripture and still employ reason and experience.

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

      > truisms and proof texts

      True, bro, true.

      Don’t see many “biblical” people selling all they have and giving the proceeds to the poor, as the Bible says to do.

  • Alliecat04

    I think the most obvious argument against the so-called common-sense, literal, infallible interpretation of the Bible is that if you read it that way, it contradicts itself. Of course, fundamentalists have a million convoluted explanations and interpretations to explain how it doesn’t really contradict itself. But if something only makes sense with a convoluted explanation, it’s hardly “common sense,” now, is it?

    No one educated can honestly and honorably believe in the infallibility of a literal common-sense interpretation of the Bible, because no one can believe something that contradicts itself. So what ends up happening is that fundamentalists teach themselves to pretend to believe something they in fact know to be untrue. And, in fact, if you ask religious questions on an anonymous questionnaire, that’s exactly what comes out. Fundamentalists are more likely, in the absolute privacy of anonymity, to state that they have serious doubts about what they believe and that they pretend to believe things they don’t.

    Pretending to believe is a very bad habit to get into. It’s absolutely fatal to real faith. It’s a sin against both the human spirit and the Holy Spirit. It leads to the sort of mushy thinking that causes fundamentalists to deny evolution – because they have learned to think that truth isn’t a real thing, that facts are created by what you choose to believe. I don’t think it’s overstating to say that literalism is a disease that eats away the mind entirely, until the person who has it has no truth in them.