A More Complicated View of the Bible

A More Complicated View of the Bible September 18, 2013

Fred Clark has posted about Evangelical defenders of slavery and what their stance in a bygone era tells us about their approach to the Bible. In the process, he writes:

The white evangelical opponents of slavery thus adopted a “more complicated view” because biblical literalism was inadequate — incapable of offering wisdom, guidance or truth. As an approach to reading the Bible, it was not profitable for doctrine, for reproof or for instruction in righteousness.

What they required, sought and found, was some way to account for and weigh the competing claims of contradictory proof texts…

The white evangelical theology of biblical literalism is a device that functions to allow white evangelicals to claim a reverent devotion to biblical literalism while simultaneously refusing even to look at huge chunks and huge themes of the Bible. It is a mechanism that does exactly what it was designed to do: provide an excuse for “neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” It allowed people like Rice to make a “biblical” defense of “serving their own interests on their fast day and oppressing all their workers.” It is a tool that is used to defy, deny and disrespect scripture. That’s what it’s for. That’s why it was so effective as a defense of slavery and later as a defense of segregation — defending injustice was its intended purpose all along.

If you love the Bible, you cannot love a theology designed to distort, deform and disrespect it.

A recent post of mine on the Bible has also generated a lot of discussion. Some of it came to focus on whether the Bible is of divine origin, whether in whole or in part, and also on the instance when Jesus is reported to have said that Moses gave the law regarding divorce as a concession. Here is what I wrote in a comment in that discussion:

I don’t think that any of the Bible is “from God” in the sense that conservatives use that language, as though it were something that can be shown to have originated outside of the minds of the human authors. It may or may not have done, but I don’t think that anyone can demonstrate that it did. And so I treat these texts as the work of ancient human beings directing attention to transcendent realities and values. And I see Jesus in this instance using the Bible in a manner that is in keeping with that – playing one text off against another, in the interest of protecting women from an approach to divorce that left them extremely vulnerable in this patriarchal society. I follow Jesus’ example in this, not because I can show it to have a supernatural origin, but because I believe it to be a contextual example of doing the right thing, defending the powerless and disenfranchised.

What unites both these posts is the conviction that a more complicated view of the Bible – one that rejects inerrancy and acknowledges contradictions – is required by the Bible itself, as is standing for justice even when there are prooftexts that could be piled up against your stance.

A good example is one that came up in one of my classes today. We were talking about Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, and the nature of morality. Students agreed that rape is an example of something that is always wrong, and yet the Bible treats it as something that is appropriate in the case of women in a captured enemy city, and a minor offense against the girl’s father that can be rectified by the payment of a fine in a different sort of circumstance.

Yet all it takes is the Golden Rule – empathy – to recognize that just as no one of us would want to be violated by another human being against our will, so no one should violate another human being.

Principles vs. passages. It comes down to that time and time again. And the question of whether your use of the Bible is in the interest of justice or a self-serving attempt to maintain your own power, privilege, and possessions.

On this topic and related ones around the blogosphere, see also Marc Cortez’s discussion of the pathologies of Evangelicalism, Defeating the Dragons’ continuing treatment of fundamentalism, Jeri Massi on the fundamentalist use of emotional manipulation, Brian Bibb on Bible translation and theological bias, Carol Howard Merritt’s decision not to use the term “mainline” any longer, Libby Anne’s post about Debi Pearl’s response to criticisms, Larry Behrendt’s ongoing discussion of the distinction between what a text meant and what it means, David Hayward’s cartoon and post about Christianity as one religion among many, Lothar Lorraine on the inspiration of the Bible and other books, and Unreasonable Faith on early Christian fandom.

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  • Peter Kirk

    “The Bible” treats rape as a minor offense? Not exactly in Genesis 34, where it is the reason for a whole city being massacred. Is this a case of one part of the Bible contradicting another? Or could it be that rape of a foreign woman by an Israelite is OK, but rape of an Israelite woman by a foreigner is the worst of crimes? If so, the Bible is simply anticipating the kind of hypocrisy we see today: rape is considered a minor offense unless the victim is my daughter or sister!

    • These are important clarifications – that it made a big difference who the victim was in that ancient cultural context. And many of us today will find that makes things all the more disturbing!

      • Mary

        I found it pretty shocking myself when I realized that rape was simply a property crime and not a crime against the woman. It was seen more like stealing than anything else. The crime was either against the husband or the father. I am a little confused because I thought what you called a “fine” was actually the bridal price. In some muslim countries they follow the same rule. Not long ago a poor muslim girl commited suicide because she was forced to marry her rapist.

        I simply cannot get on board with the whole inerrancy doctrine. I used to believe that though. Maybe I push people too hard sometimes on pointing this stuff out but it makes me angry to see people make excuses for this stuff. Either God is a moral being or he is not. If you believe in literalism and inerrancy then you believe in an immoral God, period.

        God is in my heart, not in a book. There are good things in the bible but what it comes down to is that anything that is not love is not from God.

      • On the other hand, Lot offers his daughters to a crazed mob in order to protect his male guests. I’m not sure what principle is at work there.

        • Patriarchal devaluation of women, and hospitality to the male guests.

  • Hello again James.

    Wow in this amazing post you raised so many important issues that I hardly know where to begin with.

    “And so I treat these texts as the work of ancient human beings directing attention to transcendent realities and values.”

    That’s amusing to read that now, I’ve written something similar several hours ago about the Bible


    It’s as if I would dispose of some psychic powers… Or maybe it’s just the holy ghost in action :=)

    While I reject Biblical inerrancy it is worth noting there are progressive Evangelicals like Randal Rauser out there who defines Biblical Inerrancy in terms of what God intended but not (always) what the human authors wanted to convey with the text:


    I tend to reject this theory for the reasons explained above but I am not sure it is wrong in the same way I know that the conservative Evangelical theory of inspiration is wrong.

    To my mind, the Bible (at least parts of it) could very well be inspired but NOT more than many Christian and non-Christian books having not being accepted within the Canon.

    “What unites both these posts is the conviction that a more complicated
    view of the Bible – one that rejects inerrancy and acknowledges
    contradictions – is required by the Bible itself, as is standing for
    justice even when there are prooftexts that could be piled up against
    your stance.”

    Yes and that is what really matters at the moment.
    We should oppose inerrancy for God’s sake because this way of thinking fosters militant atheism as a natural and understandable reaction.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son


  • arcseconds

    I find it interesting that Euthyphro actually has quite a modern understanding of morality: he is taking his father to court for killing a workman who killed a slave (slaves again!). He doesn’t see any problem with taking his father to court, and he doesn’t see why it should be left to the victim’s family, both of which were very out of step with the norms of the day.

    I’ve always wondered exactly how to interpret this. Plato, while extremely radical in places (sure, why not have women with political power? plus, slave boys can learn geometry, why not. ), does seem like a bit of a reactionary conservative at times, too.

    So, while the dialogue brings into stark question a very religious and conservative understanding of morality (that it’s what’s desired by the devine), in the instance in question it could in fact be seen as an injunction against Euthyphro’s radical moral hubris.

    • That’s an excellent observation! Most of my students are inclined to side with Euthyphro – at least in theory, they often admit that they might not be able to bring themselves to do what they thought was right under such circumstances.

      • arcseconds

        Isn’t clinging to traditional values in the face of moral relativism a current conservative strategy, too?

        I guess I’m probably just projecting, but I find it strangely easy to read Plato as arguing against a certain kinds of first-year philosophy students, particularly those who have quite modern notions. In Phaedo he has Socrates give a whole lot of (increasingly ridiculous) arguments for the existence of souls, which kinda looks like it could be aimed at modern materialism. The dialogues involving sophists could almost involve people taken with postmodernism.

        And of course, Republic is an extended argument against radical libertarians, and people who pooh-pooh philosophy as not being practical 🙂

  • neo

    When it comes to the OT, I am disappointed you don’t also mention Judaism. The passages are part of the Torah, and for Jews, the OT is the only testament.

    • I’m not sure whom this comment was addressed to, but I do talk a lot about the fact that the Abraham story (which we have been focusing on in my class), the Torah, and the broader corpus of literature of which it is a part, are not Christian texts, but Jewish ones. But I am also engaged in conversations, whether in classes at work, in a church context, or here on the blog, which include other Christians, and so the perspective of Christians on these Jewish texts, which are historically also Christian Scripture, is not to be ignored.

  • “I don’t think that any of the Bible is “from God” in the sense that conservatives use that language, as though it were something that can be shown to have originated outside of the minds of the human authors.”

    James, is there any sense in which you do think the Bible is “from God,” and, if so, what is that sense?

    • In the sense that, in reading this collection of texts, I am confronted with a call to orient my life around God, to forsake idols and seek the one who transcends and encompasses all that I see or can see, and to treat others as I would want to be treated. I think that one can experience the challenge of the Gospel as a call from God, mediated at least in part through these texts, without thinking of them as somehow divinely authored, but instead accepting the explicit and implicit evidence within the texts as well as outside of them for their human authorship.

      • Sounds like you think everyone’s talking but God. Do you think He’s mute?

        • Do you think “he” is a person with vocal cords?

          • You seem to be dodging the question. You were stating the sense in which you believe the Bible is “from God,” but in your answer you seemed to allow for no possibility of divine input to the texts. Whether God does or doesn’t have vocal cords is beside the point. I’m trying to understand how you think the texts are “from God” if God had no communication with those who wrote them.

          • If you think that the text being from God means that God must either have spoken to the authors with an audible voice, or taken control of their minds, then perhaps you should just simply view me as not thinking the Bible is from God. But I think you are trying to pin down God and the Bible in a manner that the text simply doesn’t allow. Either God’s involvement was indirect and/or mysterious and elusive in the background, or it wasn’t there at all. There is nothing that would lead me to separate these texts as “from God” in a manner that is unique to these texts alone.

          • Thereby you strip the texts of perhaps their most distinctive attribute. For if God does not speak then many of the sentences therein are mispresentations, if not outright lies.

            As you know, the authors are seldom expansive about just how they received the messages. To make our only two choices “audible voice” or “mind control” is unnecessary and unhelpful.

            You counsel that we today should be seeking principles from these ancient texts. That’s fine advice insofar as it goes. But if you deny the reader the right to reasonably infer that God speaks then you’ve denied one of the Bible’s most promiinent principles.

          • Mary

            “But if you deny the reader the right to reasonably infer that God speaks then you’ve denied one of the Bible’s most promiinent principles.”

            And that is a good thing. Slavishly following everything in the bible leads to confusion and immorality. It is not “reasonable” to assume that the whole bible came from God. What is reasonable is to infer that there is a progression or evolution of thought regarding who and what God is or represents to humanity. So an evil punative God made in OUR IMAGE gradually becomes a loving God because we understand him/her better.

            The other aspect that I see that goes on in the OT especially is that using God’s name was often simply used for political power and to justify warfare against innocent people. This is not unique to the bible but it ought to give us pause as to why we condemn that in other religions but not in our own.

            Finally there is such overwhelming evidence that the bible is simply wrong on scientific matters that taking all of these observations together I think it is absurd to claim inerrancy for what is obviously a book written by men.

          • The plain reading of some texts (contradicted in certain respects by others) is that God appeared to people and spoke to them in an audible voice. Taking those stories as straightforward factual reporting, while not experiencing the same as a reality in our time and experience, is extremely dubious.

          • As you know, the majority of the passages that reference such encounteres say something no more descriptive than “the word of the Lord came to me saying.” So I don’t think you want to suggest that any biblical reference to God speaking requires His physical appearance and audible voice. But even if it did, your logic would require, in most cases, the hearer’s contemporaries to reject the prophet prima facie as false since they were no more accustomed to having such experiences than we are today. That many believed, and were commended in the Bible for doing so, most notably by Jesus, seems a stark contrast to your view.

          • People in the past often assumed that earthquakes and storms were divine communications, or at least indications of divine displeasure. The fact that people in the past thought something is not decisive. You need to show why we should think as they did.

          • Christ was one of those people. If you disagree with him on something so basic as whether or not the prophets spoke for God, why do you call yourself by his name (i.e. Christian)?

          • But you are still not taking seriously that even Jesus was, according to the story I’ve been trying to persuade you to give more attention to, open to challenging something that one of those prophets – arguably the greatest – had legislated. And so I might ask, if you are not open to challenging Moses, then why do you call yourself a Christian? 🙂

          • The presence of a regulation in the Mosaic code regarding the way a divorce was to be administered in ancient Israel was by no means an invitation to, nor a pronouncement of God’s blessing upon, divorce – as the prophet Malachi, well before Jesus, testfied. As no one took Malachi to be challenging Moses, so no one should take Jesus to be challenging Moses. Both Malachi and Jesus were correcting perversions of Moses – not Moses. Both also, as if to remove any question, explicitly affirmed the authority of Moses.

            Having affirmed the Law of Moses as a product of God through Moses, Jesus then transcended it with a creative interpretation that universalized it for any human being willing to accept that yoke. As I am not a physical descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I am not qualified to be a disciple of Moses – even if I wanted to be one. However, having accepted the yoke that Jesus offers, I call Him Lord and seek learn His ways.

            My question to you about your claiming the name of Christ in view of your disagreement with him about matters he deemed essential was not intended as rhetorical insult but rather an indication that I am genuinely curious about what sense in which you consider yourself a follower or disciple of Christ – presuming that is what you understand the term “Christian” to imply.

          • Why is finding ways to further universalize what Biblical authors wrote, in keeping with the example of Jesus, judged by you to be less than Christian?

          • Jesus claimed to have God-given authority to universalize. Do you claim such authority?

          • So you need to have God-given authority to creatively interpret those who supposedly had God-given authority before you. But that just begs the question. What do you need for this to be the case? To have had a dream? Heard a voice? Have a strong sense of conviction that this is what you are supposed to do?

          • None of those criteria would be sufficient without the express written authority of Moses and the prophets given to the one most commonly called “Messiah.” That is, all of them had God-given authority, but all were in agreement that Messiah’s was the greatest.

            Unless you’re claiming to be the Messiah, you don’t have the authority to re-interpret Mosaic law as Jesus did.

          • So your view is that Moses gave Jesus the written authority to creatively interpret his legislation? That is an interesting approach!

            Where does this leave Paul’s creative reinterpretation with respect to the requirement of circumcision?

          • As for Moses, his prophecy “(God shall raise up for you a prophet like Me from among your brethren, to him you shall give heed in everything he says to you” and the resultant expectation we see present among 1st-century Jews for “The Prophet” – most notably in GJohn on which you are an expert – is hardly an invention of mine.

            As for Paul, his teaching on circumcision was merely an outworking of the reinterpretation that Jesus had given – as was the case with all apostolic exposition of the Scriptures – which reinterpretation can be summarized as a change from earthly orientation to heavenly, fleshly orientation to spiritual, and temporal orientation to permanent. Same Scriptures, different perspective. Circumcision could no longer be a matter of the flesh; it must be a matter of the spirit.

            Are you willing yet to recognize that when you say that the Scriptures are not from God, that you are denying the central claim to authority that Christ made, which makes calling youself a follower of his an odd claim?

            I suppose you could be one of those who deny Christ’s resurrection and claim to be following him as one would follow an admired man, but if you deny the supernatural and deny Christ’s claims to divine authority and deny his belief that the prophets of Israel spoke for God then you’ve eviscerated large parts of who the New Testament documents decribe Him to be.

          • OK, so ultimately it comes down to who the New Testament documents describe him to be, even when (as in particular in the case of the Gospel of John) we have good reason to conclude that material in them is unhistorical?

          • If you want to declare which parts of the New Testament are unhistorical, then I will restrict my comments to those parts. If you are unwilling to declare which parts are not reliable, then there is no basis for any rational discussion about what Jesus believed. For if you don’t believe that the New Testament documents, or some reasonable subset of them, are a reliable reflection of what Jesus’ earliest disciples saw and heard from him then any statement made about Jesus is nothing more than conjecture.

          • Indeed! We can discuss the evidence on a case-by-case basis, if you prefer, or we can simply work starting from a core that most historians evaluate as historical, if you prefer. But I’m not sure that helps, since your statement seemed to suggest that you treat the New Testament texts as historical without question, and prophetic voices as authoritative unless someone else allegedly also authoritative has later taken liberties with what they wrote. I am still trying to figure out the rationale for your approach.

          • I’m still trying to figure out whether you believe that Jesus did not regard the Scriptures as coming from God or whether you think its reasonable to call youself a follower of his even though you don’t believe it.

          • In what sense is a concession from Moses, given because of hard-heartedness, “from God” in your view?

          • In the same sense that any other part of the Law of Moses is from God. In all cases, God is the principal and Moses is the agent acting on His behalf.