A Few More Thoughts on the Bible

A Few More Thoughts on the Bible October 23, 2012

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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