In Christians’ Damning Refuge in “Difficult Verses,” we looked at a Christian response to the well-known Dawkins Quote (“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction …”). This response tried to distinguish between “clear” and “hard” passages in the Bible. But is the problem that some verses are unclear or that they’re actually unpleasant, with clear/hard simply misdirection to justify ignoring verses where God’s barbaric behavior is on display?
Christians will tell me to look without bias at what the Bible says and I’ll do my honest best, but I have no patience for when they don’t follow their own rules. Or when their own rules demand that they be biased.
Consider these Christian recommendations for how to interpret the Bible. We’ll start with an elaboration of the one we’ve just seen, “take the clearer passages to interpret the harder passages.”
Two of my sources are “How to Interpret the Bible” and “Ten principles when considering alleged Bible contradictions.” From this point forward, I’ll abbreviate these as HIB and 10P. (I’ve responded to 10P in depth here.)
Principle #1: Let the Bible clarify the Bible
Or, as HIB puts it, “The Clear Must Interpret the Unclear”:
Murky passages can often be clarified by other scriptures which address the particular topic in a more straightforward way. For example, a very specific interpretation of the highly symbolic visions of John’s apocalypse [that is, the book of Revelation], may never “trump” the clear teachings of Paul’s epistles, which are more didactic and less symbolic, and hence clearer.
Here’s another way to see that clear/unclear simply mean pleasing/displeasing. When someone says that verse A is clear and B unclear (so we should focus on verse A, ignore verse B, and pretend we didn’t notice any contradiction), ask why that’s the order. Why isn’t B the clear one? For example, Paul says, “[All I’ve been saying is] that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:23). But this is contradicted by (1) the zombies that came out of their graves on the death of Jesus (Matthew 27:52), who were actually the first to rise from the dead, and (2) the gospels themselves, which say that Jesus had a long ministry before his resurrection, not after as Paul says it. Why do the gospels trump Paul?
Or take the duration of Jesus’s time on earth after the resurrection. Why is it popularly seen as forty days (Acts 1:3)? Why not one day (Luke 24:51)?
Here’s another example. Harold Camping famously made a fool of himself when he predicted the Rapture on May 21, 2011. The first lesson from the Camping fiasco is that testability is not the prophet’s friend. If you’re going to predict something, make it vague to give you plausible deniability after your inevitable failure. (John Hagee didn’t get the message when he said in 2013, “The coming four blood moons points to a world-shaking event that will happen between April 2014 and October 2015.” Whoops—wrong again.)
But the second lesson is that the Bible is a sock puppet that can say almost anything you want, despite the principle of “Let the Bible clarify the Bible.” Christian apologists, embarrassed by Camping’s date for the Last Days®, quoted Paul speaking about the end: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.… Destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman” (1 Thessalonians 5:2–3). That is, the end must be a surprise, and Camping couldn’t have correctly calculated the date of the Rapture.Camping trumped that by quoting the very next verse: “But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief.” That is, the chosen won’t be surprised by the end.
The lack of biblical clarity and the inadequacy of Principle #1 is made particularly clear by Christianity’s 45,000 denominations (and counting). If the Bible were the clear message from an omniscient Creator, there would be just one.
Principle #2: “Description is different than approval”
Sometimes critics of the Bible (or critics of Christianity in general) point to an evil or corrupt situation described in the Bible to argue God (or Christianity) approves of the situation (or is the source of the evil). Remember, just because a Biblical author writes about something, this does not mean God condones it or supports it.
This principle attempts to tap dance away from God’s approval of things we find horrifying today like slavery and genocide.
Here’s an exercise that will explore what God does and doesn’t approval of. Consider the following lists, each containing three items mentioned in the Bible. For each list, think about what connects the items in that list and how it is different from the other lists:
- Murder, lying, and stealing
- Slavery, genocide, and polygamy
- Weights and measures for commerce, sheep herding, and eating meat
The items in List 1 (murder, lying, and stealing) are all prohibited in Exodus 20. They’re typically numbered 6, 8, and 9 in the Ten Commandments. (As an aside, it’s interesting that they’re not on the second version in Exodus 34, the one that found its way into the Ark of the Covenant.)
The items in List 2 (slavery, genocide, and polygamy) are never prohibited. They can be restricted, however (for example, elders are to have just one wife according to 1 Timothy 3:2), and rules can apply (for example, slaves can be beaten, but not so much that they die according to Exodus 21:20).
The items in List 3 (weights and measures, herding, and meat) are also never prohibited. Rules can apply to them as well (“The Lord detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favor with him”).
Lists 2 and 3 are distinguishable only in how we judge them—we prohibit List 2 but accept List 3—but that’s not in the Bible. This leaves us with the biblical view of prohibited things in List 1 versus acceptable things (though possibly regulated by God-given rules) in Lists 2 and 3.
Only modern sensibilities tell us that slavery, genocide, and polygamy are bad. Not only did God regulate slavery and polygamy just like he did accurate weights and measures, Jesus had nothing bad to say about them either.
This principle, “Description is different than approval,” is a transparent attempt to give God a pass when he goes off his meds. It fails.
Conclusion: three more principles in part 2.
You give me the awful impression, I hate to have to say it,
— Christopher Hitchens
Image credit: Forsaken Fotos, flickr, CC