What Does The Bible Literally Say?

What Does The Bible Literally Say? December 30, 2017

Jim Manchester Biblical Literalists Quote

The Bible does not literally say anything, because books do not literally talk, and the Bible as an anthology certainly doesn’t speak with a single voice even metaphorically.

Jim Manchester said the words in the meme on Facebook, when sharing my blog post about biblical literalism. I asked for permission to turn what he said into a meme, and he agreed.

Of related interest, I came across the blog of David Schell, who writes:

  1. For Biblical literalists, their interpretation is the truth of God.
  2. If their interpretation is the truth of God, then anything that disagrees with their interpretation is impossible.
  3. And, according to Mr. Holmes, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

This forces Biblical literalists to accept all manner of harebrained ways of explaining away the contradictions in the Bible and between their interpretations of the Bible and science.

Click through to read the rest of the post, which emphasizes the need to question one of several presuppositions that this logic is based on. He has another great post about the danger of confusing one’s ideas about God with God. Here is a snippet:

Some Christians have a painfully difficult time distinguishing God from their ideas about God. Many think the two are one and the same – that God is identical with what they think God is like. This leads to those same Christians assuming that an attack on what they think about God is identical with an attack on God.

On the contrary, many such “attacks” are not attacks on God at all. They are attacks on dangerous false ideas about God, and as such are defenses of God’s character, not attacks on it.

Let those with ears, hear.

Of related interest, see also my older blog post, “Fundamentalists aren’t ‘Biblical’.”


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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I’d say the conflation of someone’s interpretation with “what the Bible says” is not limited to biblical literalists by a long shot, but it may be largely defined by certain views of the nature of Scripture.

    I find in my discussions that evangelicals in general and Reformed evangelicals in specific have a very hard time recognizing there’s a difference between what they articulate theologically and “what God says.” I think the common denominator is, in fact, a view that the words in the Bible are more or less exactly the words that God intends to communicate to humanity. If someone has that view, it still doesn’t necessitate thinking their theology is the same as God’s communication, but these things are very commonly found together. The irony is these same people will staunchly argue against things like papal infallibility and insist that (in theory) their beliefs could be wrong. But, functionally, they treat their views and “God’s word” as one and the same, and an attack on one is an attack on the other.

    As I write that out, I wonder if perhaps the issue is an assumption that the Bible is clear. In other words, if someone doesn’t interpret the Bible the same way you do, it’s because of ignorance or rebellion and not because the text itself could be read in different ways. Or, maybe it’s just that the craving for certainty leads people to functionally treat their readings as if they are from God.

    • soter phile

      “…perhaps the issue is an assumption that the Bible is clear…”
      you think? one group is offering God’s Word. the other group is dying. precipitously.
      wait, that’s just a conservative gross over-generalization.

      so let’s just credit their growth to a “…craving for certainty…”
      “…a view that the words in the Bible are are more or less exactly the words that God intends to communicate…”

      yep. silly conservatives.
      that’s not the EXACT point Paul’s making in 1 Thess.2:13, right?
      The disciples are just wrong in Jn.6:68, right?
      Isaiah 55:8-9 means he’s a self-contradicting idiot for immediately claiming v.10-11, right?
      And forget Jesus quoting the OT all the time as though human words are actually the word of *God*.
      that’s just the disciples’ re-narration, right?
      And conservatives are just co-opting numerous passages like this out of context, right?

      Silly conservatives actually believe God speaks clearly & transforms lives.
      But hermeneutically “humble” progressives know better – so why are their churches dying so rapidly?

      • Steven Waling

        Yep that’s about the size of it. Fundamentalists: playing cut n paste with the bible since forever.

        • soter phile

          1) i’m not a fundamentalist, unless you mean it purely in the etymological sense.
          2) “cut & paste”? are you claiming *any* of those passages are taken out of context? Or is that just your shallow way to dodge an obvious theme in Scripture?

          • Steven Waling

            Basically I couldn’t give a toss what you think the bible does or doesn’t say. It isn’t God and it’s frequently wrong about stuff.

          • soter phile

            So, for you, it’s not about “cut & paste,” it’s about the integrity of the Christian faith.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        I love it.

        “Conservatives don’t do those things! Allow me to demonstrate by doing exactly those things!”

        Thanks for helping my case.

        As for people attending conservative churches, I attend a conservative church. Maybe you should take a look at where people are at with conservative beliefs.

        • soter phile

          1) didn’t say “conservatives don’t do those things.” just pointed out the irony that the conservatives have a biblical basis for the very things you mock them for doing.
          2) helping your case? again, as I said before – why are virtually all churches espousing your hermeneutic dying? and why have you chosen to attend a church whose leadership is so obviously at odds with your views?

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            1) The fact that you call that a “biblical basis” proves my point. You are incapable of seeing a difference between your understanding of the Bible and God’s own words. I’m sure you would acknowledge a difference as a theological affirmation, but practically speaking, you don’t believe it. You believe what is in your head according to your understanding, which is shaped by your background, strengths, limitations, interests, culture, personal psychology, and the sources you have decided to accept and the ones you have decided to ignore is God’s word.

            “Biblical basis” is claimed by a rather large variety of groups for a rather large variety of views for matters than run the gamut from what Jesus’ primary mission was to what our diet should be to whether or not it’s ok to beat your slaves.

            What’s more, it’s more than a little nonsensical to use the biblical writings themselves as a point of comparison for someone’s reading of the Bible, which one again speaks to the fact that you see no difference. God’s holy word is what soter phile and the people who happen to agree with him say it is. You and Moses are pretty much the same. That’s what your biblical citations prove, yes? Jeremiah and Paul claim their message is from God, so soter phile and, indeed, all Christians who agree with you on everything should be able to as well.

            2) What churches espouse my hermeneutic? What is my hermeneutic? Do you even know? Is this another instance of, “This is what is in soter phile’s head, so it must be objective truth?” That might work for your Sunday School class, but you can’t speak authoritatively on my behalf.

            The largest group of Christians in the world is the Roman Catholic church. Now, you probably don’t think Catholics are Christians, and you’re probably iffy about the Anglican church and not a fan of Orthodoxy, either, so let’s go straight to the Real True Christians who have always believed the same thing for all history straight from Jesus’ mouth – the Protestants.

            The largest Protestant denomination BY FAR worldwide is the Assemblies of God. The next closest, with less than half that number, are the Calvary Chapel nondenominational churches, closely trailed by the Lutheran Evangelical Church in Germany. By your logic, these groups are the most correct in their biblical teaching. Which makes sense, considering the massive amount of common ground shared by the Assemblies of God and the ECG. What may surprise you, however, is that the ECG is a confederation of churches that do not share common doctrine.

            In terms of Calvinistic/Reformed churches, the largest denomination is the Presbyterian Church of East Africa. I could not find a statement of faith for them, but they were started by the Church of Scotland, so it’s probably reasonable to believe they are roughly similar, although I can’t know for sure. It is less than a fifth of the membership of the ECG and less than a twelfth of the AG.

            Ah, but perhaps you do not feel that numbers are indicative of truth. We have to look at what groups are -growing- and -shrinking- the most. Islam is growing faster than Christianity, worldwide, but I assume you aren’t ready to jump ship, yet.

            The problem with measuring growth, of course, is that it’s relative to existing numbers. If I am a denomination of one person, and I add one more person, my denomination doubled in size. This is largely behind the Gospel Coalition’s statistically irresponsible article, here:


            Look at that, the PCA had 790% growth between 1973 (the year the PCA was formed) and 2013! Wow, they MUST be the correct denomination, right? Although, that looks a lot less impressive when the hard numbers are 41,232 and 367,033. In 40 years, the PCA added about 320,000 people.

            You will also notice that article used 2013 as a cutoff, which is handy, considering 2013 was an all-time high for mainline church loss which began to decrease in 2014.

            I don’t personally care about defending the integrity of mainline churches worldwide. I do care about Christianity worldwide. I also know that saying, “Hey, group A grew this year and group B shrank. Group A must be right!” is dumb.

            I already answered your question about why I attend the church that I do some time ago. You never responded. I assume because my answer about humility, service, and sanctification was incomprehensible to you and lacked the Machen Warrior Child “because we’re right!” that you’re used to.

            Well, I grew out of it. Maybe you will, too. I hope so.

          • soter phile

            1a) you said: “God’s holy word is what soter phile and the people who happen to agree with him say it is.”
            on the contrary, i regularly find myself at odds with God’s word. it’s daily repentance, long-term life change, paradigm shifts that years ago I wouldn’t have wanted but now see as obedience and joy, etc. Simultaneously I’m blown away by the hope of passages like Ps.130:4… of course, one has to actually *believe* that’s God’s word…

            1b) you said: “Jeremiah and Paul claim their message is from God, so soter phile and, indeed, all Christians who agree with you on everything should be able to as well.”
            This seems like a purposeful caricature – but there is a legitimate concern beneath it.

            i) legitimate concern: how distinguish between self-projections & God? as Ludwig Feuerbach said, “all such theology is just anthropology”, just humans self-projecting. But that indictment is even more devastating for progressives who have *no* basis to respond in their Schleiermacherian/Bultmannian/Tillichian bottom-up, existentialist, experientially-focused, subjective assessment of God’s word. At least those on the left can turn back to the *content* of the Word as a greater authority than one’s own experience – despite the classic progressive meme that “it’s just YOUR experience of God’s Word” (which you seem to be asserting). By contrast, in a top-down assessment (which notably MATCHES what the Scripture is ostensibly claiming for itself), one has a final court of appeal. Are there lesser theological divides? Yes: adiaphora, lesser contentions (as you raised: infant baptism, etc.), but note well: unity in the essentials (as Augustine pointed out). That unity becomes evident in Christian history – Php.2, 1 Cor.15:3-8, Apostles’ Creed, etc.

            Is it possible for conservatives to self-project? absolutely. But unlike progressives, they have God’s Word as a final court of appeal, whereas progressives have the “humility” of subjectivity (i.e., a thin foil for being one’s own god).

            ii) you not-so-subtly claim my views are merely socially determined. not only is that problematic in that you don’t know me or my background (note well: I attended secular institutions where your arguments were the most prevalent), but also…

            as Alvin Plantinga pointed out, such an argument is equally problematic for the pluralist:
            “For suppose we concede that if I had been born of Muslim parents in Morocco rather than Christian parents in Michigan, my beliefs would have been quite different. (For one thing, I probably wouldn’t believe that I was born in Michigan.) The same goes for the pluralist. Pluralism isn’t and hasn’t been widely popular in the world at large; if the pluralist had been born in Madagascar, or medieval France, he probably wouldn’t have been a pluralist. Does it follow that he shouldn’t be a pluralist or that his pluralist beliefs are produced in him by an unreliable belief-producing process?”

            In other words, that’s a self-defeating argument – as *everyone* would thereby be repudiated.

            iii) last but not least, church history includes Christianity (unlike *any other* major religion) the spread of the faith almost equally across 5 different continents and the commensurate variety of cultures. But even in that variety of cultures, the central tenets of the faith have remained & been celebrated. Note well: why is it that the *African* churches have been the ones to leave the Anglican & Methodist denominations? It’s not because they had a culturally distinct version of the faith – but rather because they refused to depart from the central tenets of the faith… those tenets SHARED with biblical conservatives *everywhere* on earth, but not in common with progressives in America… who in many ways were inherently (and ironically!) more culturally assimilated.

            2a) we have had this argument before. I’m not *fully* aware of your finer nuances, but you’ve made it evident you do NOT have a classically high view of the authority of Scripture. do you deny that?

            2b) your attempt to caricature my views on the Church Universal ironically mirror your above stereotype of what you *claim* I was doing to you. No, I do not wholesale dismiss over 1 billion other people who name the name of Christ. I have enjoyed laboring alongside ardent fellow Christians who were Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, etc. I went to school with many of them. The difference was that some of those who shared *my* denominational label who (because of their hermeneutic) did not believe in an historical resurrection of Jesus. As a result, I have MUCH more in common with other denominations that those who might ostensibly share my particular historical label.

            2c) at no point did i equate majority with correctness. I DID (however) point out that the Scriptures lead us: i) to pursue numerical growth (something progressives overtly & frequently denounce) and ii) to be concerned by the death of churches (again, something them mainline churches in America have been busy excusing or denying for decades, as though it is not connected to their deeply problematic theological claims or lack thereof).

            nonetheless, much like I said with Catholics, Anglicans & Orthodox, there are those among each of these denominations with whom I would lock arms and gladly serve – and have! but there are also deeply flawed problems in ALL denominations (including my own) – yet the Pharisaism of the right is one that at least shares a baseline affirmation of the authority of the Word and thereby has an outward hope for change that the Left does not.

            (Though admittedly, no one will change without he movement of the Holy Spirit. It is not without reason that Jesus said the tax collectors & prostitutes were getting in first – because they admit their need! The problem with the Left is an unwillingness to admit the very judgment that makes the Gospel good news. The problem with the right is the self-righteousness which fails to see my own need is as great if not more.)

            But to make the point clearly: my concern is a teaching that leads to death is being *celebrated* on the Left. (The same could be said of the ‘prosperity gospel’ on the Right – but I don’t sense any Osteen-types here.)

            And to be clear: your citations above (and I’m not even checking your numbers) miss the categorical divide of it. The mainline denominations have been in STEEP decline for decades. DECADES. I’m not giving anecdotal evidence. It’s a different category: dying vs growing LONG-TERM. Debating “how fast” misses the point. Yes, there are varying growth rates among classically “evangelical” (a loaded term today) churches. do you deny the mainline churches are dying & dying rapidly – as directly contrasted with the trajectory of their conservative counterparts – especially when speaking globally?

            SUM: no, numbers do not guarantee theological correctness. but ignoring the biblical call of the Great Commission (and the commensurate test of long-term “fruit”) requires dismissing (again, my theme) core teachings of the faith. Tragically, though, it makes sense when one has no authority greater than “my own experience.”

            3) I’m glad you attend a biblically conservative church – but I’m pressing your “humility, service & sanctification” answer as avoiding the other half of the equation: why can’t you find those same things in a progressive church? It is merely following the logic of progressive claims to note: the same *concepts* might be mentioned, but the meaning would be utterly divorced from biblical meaning. again: biblical life (and thereby the hope for any real transformation in Christ) MAY not be found at a biblically conservative church, but it WILL not be found at the theologically-consistent progressive church.

            If you grew out of that, too… well, I’m glad your need to be fed spiritually has overruled your self-espoused hermeneutics. why not acknowledge one of them must be wrong?

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            1a) You find yourself at odds with what you think the Bible teaches. This is not the same as finding yourself at odds with God’s word. This is the crux of our disagreement, and your continual equivocation between these concepts actually proves Schell, McGrath, and myself correct.

            1a, boring and long excursus) See, here’s the thing. I also think the Bible teaches certain things, and I believe I am right. However, I also recognize that what I think the Bible teaches is neither infallible nor authoritative nor immutable, and this same thing applies to all Bible readers at all times throughout history. You only need to read some early midrashim to discover that having various view, interpretations, and disagreements that are -all- considered valuable and helpful by the people of God has been part of biblical interpretation as long as we’ve had records of such things.

            Look at how you keep trying to turn this into a discussion about the ontological nature of biblical authority. Because, to you, “biblical authority” and “soter phile’s position” are the -same thing-. If I critique your reading, then I’m critiquing the Bible.

            When Schell points out that many Christians have an issue being able to discern the difference between what they believe God to be and God Himself, your response is, “Oh yeah? Well, the Bible says you’re wrong. Here’s my copious ahistorical proof-texting completely bereft of context. There. Obviously, you disagree with the Bible.”

            No, he doesn’t. He disagrees with your reading. That’s his whole point. Everyone’s reading is critique-able.

            To me, I don’t care if you think the Bible was handwritten by God Himself. The issue (or more particularly, THIS issue) is not what the Scriptures are – the issue is how much we elevate our understanding of Scripture.

            I have the same Spirit all the other Christians do – liberal or conservative, Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox. We disagree on a great many things and have since the New Testament. In fact, the empirical evidence of our disagreement would almost seem to indicate that, of all the things that are important to the Holy Spirit, our understanding of the Bible is not one of them. I’m not saying that’s the case, but if it were all simply a matter of people “believing the Bible” then you’d think after 2000 years, Bible believers would all have nearly the exact same doctrine.

            But historically, we had Constantine threaten his own bishop (Eusebius) with exile unless everyone could agree on Trinitarianism. We had wars over monophysitism with entire cities being attacked by other Christian cities over the issue of how many wills Christ had. We had the biggest church split in history over whether or not the Spirit came from the Father or the Father and the Son. More recently, American Presbyterians argued staunchly that the Bible supported southern slavery and anyone who disagreed was a liberal who was abandoning the Word of God for modern sensibilities. Those amazing theologians Grant and Lee changed everyone’s minds on that.

            Every single one of those people – Arians, Coptic Orthodox, and American slave owners confessed Jesus was their Lord.

            You can call all that adiaphora if you like, although I personally find it unsettling to contemplate that just over a century ago, my Presbyterian forefathers were urging the subjugation of the negro on biblical grounds. Probably not adiaphora to everyone, I’d think. We certainly seem willing to kill one another over these “minor differences.”

            And this is, historically speaking, the practical, dangerous thing about your position. When people believe that their current understanding of the Bible is equivalent to God’s own words, then cities get sacked, heretics get executed, and slaves get beaten. You are not personally responsible for those things, of course, having done none of them yourself (right?), but it is the very mindset you are recommending (and going the extra meta-mile by asserting this is what the Bible teaches you to do) that produces these atrocities. Everyone who held the torch or the whip believed they were standing up for the integrity of God’s Word, because they could not see a distinction between what they believed the Bible meant and God’s Word.

            Now, in America (I don’t know what country you live in; I live in America so most of my examples come from there), evangelicals have catapulted a man to power who ostensibly resembles the Antichrist in a bid for power to make their views the law of the land. Why is this? It sure isn’t because of private, mystic revelation.

            We may launch World War III by moving our embassy to Jerusalem and declaring it the undivided capital of Israel. Why are we doing this? Because of views Christians have about Israel, prophecy, dispensationalism, eschatology, and world responsibility toward Israel that they are 100% certain come straight from God Himself. If you disagree that America is obligated to support Israel in every way against all opposition, then you disagree with God. Because what so-and-so believes the Bible teaches is the same thing as the Bible.

            I do not think this point is inconsequential. It has a very practical, destructive effect on the world now and has historically many times over.

            But you. “The Bible tells me that I have the words of God!” Great.

            1i and ii) Yes, exactly. My criticism applies to conservatives, liberals, progressives, moderns, postmoderns, etc. Everyone alike is shut up under sin, or in this case, subjectivity. Although your point is an extended tu quoque, I want to assure you that I am deeply aware that my own position in this is subjective and open to critique.

            And that’s exactly the point. This fact of human reasoning should moderate all dogmatism. Every creed should have an asterisk and a footnote that reads, “We’ve thought about this a lot, and we feel pretty sure this is right. But it could be wrong and is always open for future revision. If you think we’re wrong about this, let’s hear it.”

            That would be a creed that recognized the ontological and epistemic distinction between their understanding of Scriptural teachings and God’s Word.

            1iii) No, this is entirely incorrect, historically. Christianity did not spread evenly throughout all continents and cultures, nor were the “central tenets” held universally and celebrated everywhere, unless by “central tenets” you mean, “Jesus is important.”

            I realize the Reformed community benefits by portraying church history as a basically unbroken theological line from themselves to Jesus, but only the grossest of selective memory makes this work.

            BTW: The AME did not leave because of theological conservatism. They left because of the support of institutional racial discrimination by American Methodists at the time. The AM were actually the theological conservatives in this debate, asserting your doctrine of Scripture by way of support. The AME wanted free, black churches not beholden to a white-dominant ecclesiastical body. So, yes, it was very much about having a racial expression of the faith and not a recovery of traditional doctrinal positions.

            And I don’t know what you mean by Africans leaving the Episcopal church unless you’re talking about the recent gay rights issue. That’s basically the Anglican world against the American Episcopal church. Discipline came from Canterbury. Are you arguing that the Anglican church in the UK is -less- culturally assimilated than America?

            2a) I don’t believe the words in the Bible are God’s exact words, if that’s what you mean.

            2b) So, is your claim the doctrinal issues that separate Roman Catholicism from the Assemblies of God from the United Reformed Church are trivial adiaphora? I mean, I might actually agree with you, there, but that surprises me coming from you. But surely if the theological category of justification and the sacraments and whether or not people can prophesy and Arminianism and eschatology are adiaphora, then SURELY Schell’s statements are adiaphora.

            2c) See, this is interesting. I do NOT believe the Scriptures point us to numerical growth, at least in any kind of intentional way or a way that is a necessary indicator of faithfulness. I see this as you and I interpreting the Scriptures differently. You see this as my open rebellion against God’s clear word. Why on Earth would I bother discussing this issue with you?

            Further, the Scriptures do not teach us to be concerned with the numerical decline of denominations. Denominations didn’t exist. There are passages that are concerned with the survivability of a given local congregation due to persecution. This is a concern that goes all the way back to Jesus, himself, for the survivability of the movement under persecution and the temptations for capitulation that arise under such trials. I think those passages very much speak to us, today. But, by your lights, I disagree with the Bible, because I disagree with the clear teaching from Scripture that everyone should be worried about the decline of the PCUSA.

            This “teaching that leads to death” – that cannot be the teaching that we have to always keep in mind that what we believe the Bible to teach could be wrong, nor can it be that the Bible can have factually incorrect statements in it and still be God-breathed, useful for reproof, doctrine, and training in righteousness. Those teachings will -save- the Christian church.

            Those teachings allow someone to go to college, discover the shocking truth that the Earth is older than 6-10k years, and still love the Bible, believe it to be true, and hold on to their faith. I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but in the West, secularism is rising. If you think we’re going to survive and thrive by being MORE dogmatic about various historical theological positions, then I confess a certain sense of wonder as to whether you know any non-Christians at all.

            Have you ever read any books by the atheist Sam Harris? Very popular in America these days. You should, because he thinks the same way about the Bible that you do. In fact, his very case against Christianity depends on your views.

            People need to know the truth – that there are options. That there has always been historical diversity about various issues discussed in the Bible, and that their pastors can be wrong and the Bible can still be true, and the Big Bang could have happened and the Bible is still true, and empiricism and science can be fully valid mechanisms of acquiring knowledge and the Bible can still be true, and that Luke can get his governors off by a few years and still be true, and the stars could not have fallen from the sky when Egypt was conquered and the Bible is still true, and so on and so forth.

            What’s more, we need to produce a Christian church that is actually good for the world, and historically speaking, equating a particular understanding of the Bible with God’s Word has done nothing but give ammunition to people who want nothing to do with it. It is those people who kill in God’s name, condemn other Christians to Hell, prop up oppression, and generally behave no differently than any pagan emperor who ever lived. They beat up homosexuals with baseball bats because, you know, the clear Word of God says gay people should die.

            “Oh, no,” one might reply. “They’re just reading it wrongly.”

            OH REALLY? Well, that would suggest that there are ways of reading and understanding biblical passages above and beyond the literal sentences that appear, and that people who affirm the text in the Bible can also be 100% wrong.

            3) I could probably find many of those things in a “progressive” church, but as you’ll recall, one of the things I value about my church is that I am often hearing voices that disagree with me. Not only does this help me learn and keep me humble about my own beliefs, but it requires me to stretch past my disagreements in the greater name of love, community, and service. These are valuable things that I know from experience I do not get as good a workout from when I surround myself with people who confirm my prejudices. This is why, even when I was a traditional, conservative, Reformed type, I did not want to go to Westminster seminary. I wanted to go somewhere that said something different than what I already thought. I value that.

            The other thing is that I’m sure I would find myself disagreeing about a great many things in a more progressive church as well, so I’m not sure I’ve really improved anything in that situation. I look at things on a congregation-by-congregation basis, and I love the one I have, so why would I leave it? On the off chance that I might disagree marginally less with the pastor or a Sunday School class? I’m ok, thanks.

            I think you’d find that, in the midst of a congregation that thought about the Bible as you fear they might – as just a nice collection of moral stories – you might be able to mistake me for a conservative.

          • soter phile

            you said: “Because, to you, “biblical authority” and “soter phile’s position” are the -same thing-. If I critique your reading, then I’m critiquing the Bible.”
            no. i am not claiming that carte blanche. hence the reference to my ongoing growth & repentance.
            however, I *am* claiming there is such a thing as “biblical authority” – and, as the Scriptures themselves explicitly state, an expectation that they would be heeded.

            much of this progressive sophistry is an attempt to dodge blatant & clear repeated teachings found throughout Scripture. Again, that is spiritually deadly. Can authority be misused? Certainly. Has it? sometimes. Is that an excuse to ignore the words of life? Absolutely not.

            you said: “Here’s my copious ahistorical proof-texting completely bereft of context.”
            again, this is a shallow caricature. pick the passage – ANY of the ones I cited. go to the commentaries. check the scholarship. quite ironically to your claim, my views are NOT ahistorical, but match a rather consistent theme across millennia – including the theme of believers *surrendering* themselves to biblical authority, not vice versa.

            you said: “Everyone’s reading is critique-able.” – Even Jesus? Because how he reads the Scriptures is *normative*, not critique-able, for those who believe the biblical claim that he is God in the flesh.

            you said: “I have the same Spirit all the other Christians do…”
            this is where the debate rages. 1 John 4 leaves me doubting that – on biblical grounds – for ANYONE who claims Christ did not rise from the dead, as many self-professed “progressives” claim. By the same token, I doubt that among self-labeled “evangelicals” who preach a Gospel unrecognizable to Scripture (Gal.1:6f), such as the prosperity Gospel. Yes, the Holy Spirit beautifully operates well beyond the bounds of my limited knowledge & finite ponderings, but he himself has set limits on what is and is not to be labeled of “the Spirit.”

            you said: “…you’d think after 2000 years, Bible believers would all have nearly the exact same doctrine.”
            ironically, i find the Apostles’ Creed to be just such an example. despite your anti-Constantinian narrative, the 2nd century bishops *also* excluded such teaching.

            you said (basically): “…when people equate their understanding with God’s Word, cities get sacked…”
            ironically, despite your list of failed examples, it is precisely that same conviction which led to the undoing of many of those failed examples. consider MLK or William Wilberforce. It was precisely *because* they wanted to be biblical that they stood against such views – not because they were so much more open-minded, etc. The resolve arose because of an exclusive conviction that God was not ok with the other position. You can’t have it both ways: if your position is, “well, variance is just ok and part of it”, then one would have to be commensurately accepting of such views. a) you aren’t accepting of mine (because it leads to the “sacking of cities”), b) how is your position not self-defeatingly claiming “we can’t know… but we KNOW it’s not that!”?

            you said: “…evangelicals have catapulted a man to power who ostensibly resembles the Antichrist in a bid for power to make their views the law of the land…”
            quite ironically for your claim here, it has been from among so-called “evangelicals” and biblical conservatives that some of the harshest criticism has come. for my part, a) it reveals what Flannery O’Connor called “the Christ-haunted South” & b) I can’t stand Trump, didn’t vote for him, and seriously press any biblical conservative who argues to the contrary. i think Tim Keller wrote a recent article in the New Yorker pressing that very point.
            but what if this is the way in which the Southern cultural reformulation of “Christianity” is called to account – just like MLK did 50 years ago? note well: it will not effectively happen through calling them to leave their bibles behind, but – just as MLK argued – rather insisting that they actually pick them up, read them, and believe what’s written there. or do you rather argue the Bible supports Trump – since it’s so arrogant of conservatives to think there is clear teaching found therein?

            you said: “…This fact of human reasoning should moderate all dogmatism. Every creed should have an asterisk and a footnote…”
            this is a self-refuting position.
            a) it elevates human logic to ultimate authority – an authority it then claims no one should have.
            b) this claim itself is a creed of sorts – does it thereby have the same asterisk that makes it according useless.
            you here appear to give a nod of objectivity to something – but it’s not the God who has chosen *by his own prerogative* the means of Scripture to self-reveal. that is faith! but it’s not faith in the God revealed in the Bible. it’s faith the god one constructs… which again falls to Feuerbach’s critique.
            it’s the illusion of humility – most poignantly found in how (again!) virtually ALL of the mainline denominations are now wrangling over central tenets of the faith. the pride of subjectivity has used “humility” as a foil for fabricating whatever one wants, leading to a faith in self… again, death.

            you said: “I realize the Reformed community benefits by portraying church history as a basically unbroken theological line from themselves to Jesus, but only the grossest of selective memory makes this work.”
            a) i did not say Christianity spread evenly throughout history. i pointed out that it is spread almost evenly now (note: roughly 20% of all Christians) on each of the 5 most populous continents. no other religion has such trans-cultural migration – maybe 1.5 continents. that should raise any sociologist’s eyebrows as a significant deviation from the norm.
            b) i have not claims history is an unbroken line (again, caricatures seem to be the progressive m.o. for dodging major, established points). i pointed out that the central tenets of the faith have been pervasive from the beginning across varied, disparate cultures. note well: the Apostles’ creed is a complex set of beliefs shared by virtually all who claim the name of Christ – especially if viewed through the lens of denominational authority & not just subjective individual “well, maybe I don’t think this one thing”.

            and I was not talking about the AME. I was talking about the church in Africa & its several splits from American & European leadership, particularly over theological concerns.

            2a) so do you disagree with Jesus or think the Jesus found in the Bible is a false portrait?

            2b) “trivial” is your word. no, i mean minor in comparison with central tenets of the faith. infant vs. believer baptism is not essential to salvation. the resurrection of Christ is.

            2c) so you don’t believe the Great Commission, missions, the missions movement inherent throughout the NT church, the term “Gospel” (Good News), etc… you don’t see those as a rather salient call to reach others for Christ? as Penn Jillette (yes, the atheist) said: “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

            on the contrary, Jesus taught us to be concerned with the Church – his bride. and if one is part of denomination… a “member” of that church… how would those concerns not be applied to the local body & its government (by extension)?

            you said: “…in the West, secularism is rising…”
            a) I don’t believe the Bible teaches the earth’s age (despite your comment here)
            b) Europe has gone through its own secularization over the last 50 years, but there are encouraging signs there as well
            c) the Roman Empire into which Christianity exploded was likewise rather at odds with many (if not most) biblical & Christian convictions

            I have one of Sam Harris’ books on my shelf. No, we do not think at all alike – not even in the view of America, but especially not in the shallow way in which he depicts biblical conservatives. The fact that you would invoke his view affirms my concern here that you are consistently (and conveniently, as he does?) building a caricature so you can (falsely) dismiss those with whom you disagree.

            you said: “People need to know the truth – that there are options.” this may be the most (unintentionally) honest thing you’ve said here. this increasingly seems to be a central tenet of your re-narration of the Christian faith. note well: that is NOT at all how Jesus portrays himself, nor how the NT shares the Gospel. the “options” are to come to Jesus – on *his* terms – or continue pushing him away… whether through legalism, liberalism or any other -ism that avoids coming to Christ as Lord of one’s life.
            Is there variety among adiaphora? As Augustine wrote: unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, charity in all things. But note well: progressives want to criticize conservatives as forgetting the last two while nonetheless progressives themselves seem to want to utterly ignore the first point. the *whole* is needed, in so far as it reflects the God we worship, as he has presented himself in Scripture.

            you said: “What’s more, we need to produce a Christian church that is actually good for the world…”
            this is the crux of your logical problem, especially in relegating Scripure’s authority to mere subjectivity. if Scripture is unclear, one has no such definition of what IS “good” for the world.

            you said: “…equating a particular understanding of the Bible with God’s Word has done nothing but give ammunition to people who want nothing to do with it…”
            people objecting to my particular theological eccentricities? good point. but to the core of the faith? the stumbling block of the cross? see, when central tenets are seen as subjective or just one’s “particular understanding”, that is when biblical conservatives (on biblical grounds!) regard such a church as apostate and begin leaving it. the Spirit-led conviction of surrendering to biblical authority on major tenets of the faith is absent. and that is a dying church. saying “that gives ammunition to others…” only applies if one is talking about peripheral matters.

            3) quite ironically for your set of assumptions about me here, as I said last time, I attended schools at every level of my education that were (often) directly contrary to my convictions. you have noted I am conservative and Reformed – despite the fact that I’ve never used those labels. likewise, the institutions I attended did not fit those labels.

            but when it comes to Church, we must be fed. i was pointing out that you will rarely hear the Gospel preached at a progressive church. how do i know? again, i’ve attended. i went to school alongside many of their leaders – many of whom did not believe in sin in any tangible way, much less actively repent of personal sins, despite that clear & repeated theme of Jesus’ own preaching. and the list just grows from there. do conservative churches have their own challenges? absolutely! i would be harder on those… if you were a conservative. (i love reading Flannery O’Connor for that very reason.) but since you are not, i am laboring to point out how deadly your “enlightened” views actually are, especially how directly at odds they are with Scriptural themes. Being a contrarian is not valuable when one is perennially at odds with one’s God.

            when I go to church, i do not go to have my predilections (or worse, prejudices) confirmed. I go to meet with God as part of his Bride. I will not hear from him in a church that refuses (on “humble” grounds!) to preach the Word of God. again, that is death. if you don’t feed the sheep, they starve or leave. In that regard, I’m glad you are attending a church where you will at least hear God’s Word.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            no. i am not claiming that carte blanche. hence the reference to my ongoing growth & repentance.

            This is why I despair of this discussion. You are literally incapable of recognizing that your reading of the Scriptures and the Scriptures are not equivalent. There’s really no point in continuing, because what’s in your head and God’s Word are the same, according to you. That may have been the position of Jesus, and you are not him. That was also the position of Jim Jones.

            however, I *am* claiming there is such a thing as “biblical authority” – and, as the Scriptures themselves explicitly state, an expectation that they would be heeded.

            And if we were debating if the Scriptures have authority, that would be a good point. We’re debating whether or not your understanding of the Scriptures is authoritative. I don’t think it is. You think it’s God’s word.

            much of this progressive sophistry is an attempt to dodge blatant & clear repeated teachings found throughout Scripture.

            I suppose it could be, but I’m not. I just don’t think you understand the Bible very well or even care about it very much, and this is a common factor I’ve experienced in conservative evangelicalism. Your common theological story is infallible; what its relationship is to the biblical text is irrelevant because, a priori, your narrative -is- the Bible.

            I think conservative evangelicals -revere- the Bible, but they don’t take it very seriously. They take their version of the story seriously.

            you said: “Here’s my copious ahistorical proof-texting completely bereft of context.”
            again, this is a shallow caricature. pick the passage – ANY of the ones I cited.

            Ok, I did this elsewhere with your 1 Thes. citation. The next passage you cite is John 6:68, where the disciples say that Jesus’ teachings – not the Bible – are the words of the ages to come. Interestingly, any of them could have gotten the Old Testament readily in synagogues and the Temple. They recognize that Jesus and his way will enable their survival into the ages to come, not the body of Scripture Jesus carries around.

            “Oh, but John wrote this down and it’s Scripture, now!”

            I suppose, but it sure wasn’t when Peter said what he said, now, was it? This is what I’m talking about. What the text is likely to mean isn’t important to you. The Bible is only meaningful insofar as it provides raw, textual material for your theological edifice.

            I could keep going with your other references, but you should know that actually interpreting the Bible on its own terms and taking seriously takes time and effort. I realize what you do does not, and I envy that. But it actually takes a long time to study passages and try to interpret them along the lines of the people who actually said and wrote and heard and read them.

            you said: “Everyone’s reading is critique-able.” – Even Jesus? Because how he reads the Scriptures is *normative*, not critique-able, for those who believe the biblical claim that he is God in the flesh.

            This is like the seventh time you are claiming something for yourself that we seem to find in Jesus. Are you God in the flesh? Does that have any ramifications at all for what authority we should give your understanding of Scripture compared to… I don’t know… Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior?

            I mean, I honestly don’t know how much more out of control your veneration of your own understanding can get.

            you said: “I have the same Spirit all the other Christians do…”
            this is where the debate rages. 1 John 4 leaves me doubting that – on biblical grounds – for ANYONE who claims Christ did not rise from the dead, as many self-professed “progressives” claim.

            Wow. So you don’t think I have the Spirit? That is quite a judgement to make, but I understand you must submit to the biblical authority of 1 John 4.

            Except 1 John 4 says NOTHING about denying the resurrection.

            It says that every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God and is the spirit of antichrist. Later, it says that God lives in anyone who says that Jesus is the Son of God. In fact, despite mentioning the death of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice, 1 John 4 doesn’t even mention the resurrection, let alone the necessity of believe it to have the Spirit.

            Really, this is so pointless. Obviously, the actual content of the Bible is not important to you. And now, disagreeing with you means I don’t have the Spirit.

            I do believe in the resurrection, btw, not that such has anything to do with 1 John 4.

            I don’t know, SP. I do have lots more to say about everything you wrote. I’d love to walk you through the Great Commission and its relationship to missionary activity in the early church as well as Paul’s theology of world evangelism as it is found in the text and the historical situation of the first century. I just don’t see the point. You relentlessly run roughshod over the actual Bible and repeatedly declare that your own understanding of Scripture has Jesus’ own authority. What could I possibly say? You’re infallible.

            All I’ve got to say is, if the only thing keeping a church alive is that they believe their understanding of the Bible is equivalent to God’s, I’d rather be in the dying church. Obviously, your mileage varies, and you’ll probably do just fine being in a community of people who agree with you, and disagreement with you will serve you as a helpful yardstick for determining who does and doesn’t have the Spirit.

          • arcseconds

            Perhaps it would help if you gave an example of a Biblical passage where the traditional reading is most clearly at odds with the most plausible interpretation of what it meant to the original writer and audience, that hasn’t otherwise been involved in this discussion?

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Sure. One quick example would be Matthew 1:21 –

            “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

            The standard, evangelical/Reformed reading of this verse is that this is referring to the atoning death of Jesus for elect individuals throughout time paying the penalty (Hell) that they deserve.

            I would maintain, however, that it is unlikely that hearers or readers of these words in the first century would have interpreted them in that way, especially considering the strong orientation Matthew’s gospel has to the Jews.

            He is named Jesus (after the man responsible for Israel’s conquest of Canaan) because he will save his people from their sins. I think it is far more likely Matthew would understand “his people” as Israel and saving them from their sins meaning overturning the covenant curse Israel is suffering under – dominion by a pagan oppressor, assisted by corrupt religious leaders in league with them, that has resulted in close-to-the-bone lives of poverty, sickness, and years of distance from their God.

          • arcseconds

            Well, we’ll see what soter phile makes of this… 🙂

          • Matthew

            How did first century Jews understand sin?

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            With the usual footnote that there’s a diversity of Jewish theological thought, not just in the first century, but in the span of the Old Testament….

            The sins that Israel needed to be saved from are more corporate and national than we, today, usually think of sin. That’s not to say that the idea of personal sins didn’t exist, but personal sins did not invoke the covenant curses. The covenant curses get invoked when the -nation- breaks faith with God. For a picture of what that looks like, we only have to read the indictments and warnings of the prophets – injustice, national idolatry, mistreatment of the poor, worship that keeps the form of the Law but displays a lack of caring (e.g. offering blemished and weakened animals that would be hard to profit from), allying with pagan nations for safety, etc.

            The sacrificial system addresses the ongoing, personal failings everyone experiences, and there’s no indication that system fizzles out by the first century. What we do see, however, are the prophets telling the people that God is coming to despise their sacrifices and religious observances because, as a nation, their hearts are far from God and they pursue the kinds of things listed above.

            One could argue that, technically, corporate sin is composed of a bunch of individuals’ sins, but God did not make a covenant with each individual Israelite – He made a covenant with Israel. They keep it or break it as a nation and enjoy the prosperity or the curses as a nation. During the idealized reigns of David and Solomon, there were individual Israelites who were unfaithful. During the years leading up to the Babylonian exile, there were individual Israelites who were faithful. But the scope of God’s dealings with them is corporate.

            So, in the first century, we find Israel under pagan rule even in her own land, and the highest ranks of their religious hierarchy and the Temple itself have been compromised. There are Israelites under this state of affairs who are faithful and long for the recovery of Israel (e.g. Luke 1:5-6, 2:25) but the nation as a whole is in dire straits, both spiritually and politically.

            Jesus is coming to save his people from this condition. Note, for example, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), where Mary says nothing about spiritual conversion, but instead sings about God bringing down the rich and the rulers and caring for the poor, coming to the aid of Israel because of the promise He made to Abraham. In the same gospel, Gabriel tells Mary that Jesus will be given the throne of David – the kingdom message is what he announces to her.

            Now, this will not happen apart from a spiritual renewal of Israel. Look for example at Luke 1:16-17 where the angel tells Zechariah that Jesus will turn many of Israel to their God, but he compares this to Elijah’s ministry to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” It’s a corporate, national spiritual rebirth. This concept, I believe, also lay behind all the plural “you”s in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘[All of you] must be born again.”

            Yes, obviously there is an individual component to this. Israel as a nation turning back to God consists of a bunch of individuals turning back to God. But the corporate story is where the action is. This is something of a reversal of our modern spiritual sensibilities. Today, we make the whole story about the individual. In the Bible, the individual spiritual journey has meaning and context and importance insofar as it is part of the corporate story of the people of God.

            So, that, I believe, provides the contextual meaning for the original audience. How we apply that text to our own situation and narrative is not bound by that and, in fact, can’t strictly be since we are not Israelites suffering the penalty of breaking our covenant with our God. When I think about what it means for God to save Gentiles, or God to save people today, or God to save me, I’ll adapt these concepts to my present context, which is what the biblical authors do as well. But the original meaning is key to that process. Matthew 1:21 only fits my narrative insofar as my present circumstances can be explained by its meaning.

          • Matthew

            Thanks so much Phil. How do you think individuals are saved in our present context?

            Also …

            Are you still around on Ben´s blog?

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            I pop over whenever Ben puts up a new article, but I don’t actively monitor the comment threads much beyond that. It was bad for my health. I know that makes me a bad moderator, but I told Ben at the outset that I couldn’t commit to moderating beyond what I saw when I was over there, which is basically how Ben moderates as well, so it work(ed) out.

            I think being “saved” today is shorthand for “belonging to the people of God who were saved and whom God is committed to seeing through future crises up through new creation.” “Saved” is always contextually defined – what are you being saved from? Israel in the Old Testament had various crises where the salvation of the Lord appeared, as did the first century / early church, as do we, today. We also have to acknowledge that God saving is entirely His prerogative – He sets the terms, the timing, the extent, etc. I’d encourage the Church to see herself in a line of God’s people that extends back to Abraham and forward into the indefinite future. At any given point along that history, things threaten the people of God, and God (who has made promises to Abraham) enacts His plans to save so that His purposes will be accomplished in the world.

            So, to me, the question is more along the lines of, “How do I become part of this people?” In the New Testament / early church, Gentiles were included in that people by believing in what God had done in Jesus Christ. It was through that faith, that manifested in both words and actions, that they were considered spiritual children of Abraham and co-heirs of the promises, demonstrated by the fact that they also received the same Holy Spirit. The ritual that formally marked this transition was baptism.

            I don’t know that today is much different than that. Those who are called into service of the God who created the heavens and the earth live out that priesthood in the world, both in word and deed. We testify to what God has done in Jesus and that the risen Jesus is Lord. We live out our hope of a renewal of creation while embodying that new creation in the present age. The people who see what we do and hear what we have to say and believe it and want to serve this God become part of us by their faith. We still believe that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ, and this development keeps the new creation mission going forward.

            Might God choose to save those who do not belong to this people? This is where I might part ways with my evangelical brothers and sisters. I think this is entirely a possibility and not without historical warrant. For instance, the people who took care of Jesus’ disciples in the days of their persecution received the reward of the righteous. I’m not ready to sign on to full-blown universalism, but I disagree with the narrative that only deliberate converts to the Christian faith can be saved. That doesn’t seem to square with the Bible, to me.

          • John MacDonald

            My mom is a secular person. She says, for instance, that just like bacteria and plants and chickens don’t go into an afterlife when they die, neither do we humans. She is one of the most caring and compassionate people I have ever known. If there is an afterlife, and my mom is excluded due to a perfectly reasonable lack of belief, that isn’t the kind of God I would want to have anything to do with. She’s also a great cook!

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            And that’s the interesting thing to me about, for instance, Jesus’ instructions to his disciples prior to their persecution or the parable about the sheep and the goats. You have these cases where Jesus talks about a group of people who seem completely unaware they are serving him in any way, but because they are loving and just and compassionate and actually act on this, they receive the reward of faithful Israel – entrance into the coming kingdom.

            In my city, we have a small, active, philanthropic group of atheists whose mission in life is to prove by their actions that atheists can be compassionate people motivated to do good in the world, and this they do. I consider them allies in God’s overall scheme. I have this thought in my head about the general resurrection and renewal of creation, and God saying, “Hey, you know those houses you built for Habitat for Humanity? Well, you were doing that for ME, nerds. Who doesn’t exist, now? Anyway, good luck in the new creation and try to keep the attitude in check.”

            Interestingly, it’s actually the religious power structure of Jesus’ day who finds themselves shut out of the kingdom, and they plead their case on the basis of the acts they did in God’s name.

          • arcseconds

            Movement atheists often exhibit a certain amount (or sometimes rather a lot) of attitude, but I feel two points need to be made here:

            1) they hardly have a monopoly on attitude. There’s an athiest being a bit of a brick on another post right now, but if you cast you mind back a couple of days a theist who exhibits a certain amount of attitude might spring to mind — or you could just read a Christianity Today editorial.

            So if this were to happen they’re not going to be the only ones being told to watch their attitude, and Christians with attitude might also be told to mind their hypocrisy…

            2) I’m pretty sure they’re a small minority in terms of the overall atheist population.

            The USA is unusual in the majority-European English-peaking world in terms of both the comparatively high level of religious engagement and the extent to which religion is involved in public discourse. I think it’s understandable if they feel beleguered and marginalized, which often leads to a certain amount of attitude (especially among otherwise privileged people).

            Outside the USA, atheists are just like regular people — in fact, they are the regular people, along with other flavours of None and self-identified Christians who barely engage with Christianity, and not noticeably more arrogant than anyone else.

            I know and have known quite a few atheists, and apart from a small handful I’ve met online (mostly through forums like this one) they seem pretty disinterested in proving anything ‘as atheists’, or engaging with atheist movements, and treat religion roughly speaking as a kind of music that doesn’t resonate with them. I don’t think it would occur to most of them to join an atheist charity group — if they wanted to engage in charity, and some of them do, I think they’d just join a charity group.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            All good points. I did not mean to imply that atheists had more attitude than Christians. I was trying to provide a silly confrontational undercurrent to my afterlife scenario. Atheists don’t have a monopoly on being nerds, either. 😉

          • arcseconds

            I understand that you weren’t being serious, but I just think we need to be careful about painting with a broad brush and entrenching stereotypes, even as a joke — and particularly when it’s an out-group.

            There are plenty of people who do think atheists are inherently arrogant, and plenty of atheists who are sick of this assumption.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Your point is well-taken. I appreciate you raising it and will be more aware of that in the future.

          • arcseconds

            Maybe street (or trying to be street) 20-something youth leader trying to corral a bunch of unruly teens God could be off to tell some newly arrived Christians that they also need to mind their attitude?

            Everyone being told to mind their attitude sounds about right to me 🙂

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Me, too. Everyone in the new heavens and earth or in the present heavens and earth, mind your attitude!

          • arcseconds


          • Matthew

            Thanks so much Phil. I need to read this again tomorrow. You have greatly helped me. Please consider writing a book :-).

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            You greatly help ME. And thank you for the kind words. You know I don’t think the world needs a book by me, but I appreciate the encouragement all the same. Thank you for it.

          • Matthew

            Who else is writing about these type of things? N.T. Wright?

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Yeah, and N.T. Wright probably deserves the credit for bringing these things into popular discourse. There are others. Scot McKnight has put out a few books in this vein, and he’s a theological conservative. The King Jesus Gospel and Kingdom Conspiracy come to mind. G.B. Caird (one of N.T. Wright’s teachers). Andrew Perriman. Peter Enns, to some extent.

            Those are all guys whom hard-line conservatives might not consider conservative, but I would, more or less. Conservative enough.

            I also read a really interesting book a few years ago written by a guy I’d never heard of and haven’t heard of since – The Fall of Jerusalem: How AD 70 Changes Everything by Adam Taylor Ross. I didn’t agree with everything in the book and I have no idea what kind of credentials Mr. Ross carries, but I thought it was a very good popular-level introduction to looking at the Scriptures historically and the challenge and applying them to the Church.

          • Matthew

            Thanks as always Phil.

          • Tim

            I can’t see his comments, but yours have reminded me why I blocked him.

          • arcseconds

            so, you keep throwing out the caveat that demographic decline doesn’t prove anything, but then you cite Bible verses to argue it does, and say things that indicate you’re sure it must be the theology’s fault. Which is it?

            Does the fact that white evangelical Protestants in the USA declined as much as mainline Protestants in the last 10 years show that evangelical theology is just as flawed? Does the huge growth in ‘nones’ suggest something about theology to you?

            White evangelicals were 23% of the US population in 2006, and only 17% in 2016, white mainline Protestants went from 18% to 13%, white catholics from 16% to 11% according to PRRI.

          • soter phile

            see my response above to your previous comment – especially the repeated biblical warnings about a protracted lack of bearing fruit.

            a) check the Gallup & Pew research on this.
            i) “evangelical” has become a political term rather than a set of theological commitments in the last 10 years – and that muddies the discussion here some.
            ii) the group found in the classic meaning of the term (i.e., biblical conservative) have at least matched the growth curve of the US, and have *grown* internationally – especially when compared over the same period with which I’m contrasting these concerns (1950-present).
            iii) the growth of the nones has been *disproportionately* found among the mainline, though it certainly poses a concern for the entire Church.

          • arcseconds

            Evangelicals are also declining as a proportion of the USA population according to Pew:


            More slowly than the Mainline churches, but it’s still a decline, so presumably your comments about not bearing fruit still apply?

            I don’t think the data really suggests that the Nones are growing disproportionally at the expense of mainline churches. See Pew’s data about ‘young millenials”:


            versus the American population in general:


            The millennials are famously trending ‘None’ (at 36%), Christians only account for 56% of them.

            But of those who are Christian, about the same proportion are Evangelical: 33% of Christian millennials are Evangelical, as opposed to 36% of (American) Christians in general. Mainline protestants are again about the same: 20% of Christian millenials, 21% of Christians in general.

            So it looks like the generational growth of the Nones is affecting all Christian denominations about equally, perhaps Evangelicals are being affected more, in fact. Does that show that Evangelicals have as bad or worse theology than everyone else?

            Sure, Evangelical may not mean ‘biblical conservative’ any more, but presumably this means there are even less biblical conservatives (so biblical conservativism is therefore even worse as a theology, as Evangelical numbers are being propped up by cultural/political evangelicals?) — unless biblical conservatives hide in other categories?

            Anyway, every study I’ve seen only tracks self-declared evagelicals, so I’m not sure how we could tell what is going on with biblical conservatives in terms of numbers. At any rate, their numbers and growth do not seem to be large enough to halt the growth of Nones in the USA.

            If we’re going to buy into your idea that demographic success tells you something about theology, then biblical conservativism looks to be just as much a failure as everything else. Time to look for an entirely new theology, maybe?

      • arcseconds

        so why are their churches dying so rapidly?

        Is popularity proof that one group ‘knows better’?

        • soter phile

          Popularity isn’t proof. And dying rapidly isn’t proof. But both should be a reason for significant pause – especially for anyone who takes seriously the task of the Great Commission, and its many examples in the NT (“and God added to their number daily those who were being saved…”).

          • arcseconds

            What reaction are you hoping for when you try to point out that someone’s church is dying?

            You admit it’s not definitive, so no-one needs to change their mind about anything, and presumably the person is aware of the decline (if there is one), so you’re not giving them new information.

          • soter phile

            On the contrary, there are repeated biblical warnings about ongoing lack of fruit.

            “It’s not definitive…” If you’re looking for a loophole, you miss the point. A follower of Christ, however, should be heeding the warnings that accompany such a protracted problem, rather than looking for a loophole to dodge the diagnosis that would actually lead one to greater thriving in Christ.

          • arcseconds

            I am trying to work out what your position on this actually is, and therefore whether there are loopholes built into it — you have made statements that point in different directions.

            However, I take it for now that you are prepared to see ongoing decline as always being a problem, and I hope you won’t be looking for loopholes to exempt your personal favourite theology from the same diagnosis you give others for the same symptoms.

          • arcseconds

            I am trying to work out what your position on this actually is, and therefore whether there are loopholes built into it — you have made statements that point in different directions.

            However, I take it for now that you are prepared to see ongoing decline as always being a problem, and I hope you won’t be looking for loopholes to exempt your personal favourite theology from the same diagnosis you give others for the same symptoms.

          • arcseconds

            I am trying to work out what your position on this actually is, and therefore whether there are loopholes built into it — you have made statements that point in different directions.

            However, I take it for now that you are prepared to see ongoing decline as always being a problem, and I hope you won’t be looking for loopholes to exempt your personal favourite theology from the same diagnosis you give others for the same symptoms.

  • james warren

    Because the Bible [only in John, by the way] asserts that Jesus is the Lamb of God, that then means that Mary had a little lamb.

    • Cynthia Brown Christ

      Laughing my butt off.

    • LOL!

  • David Evans

    David Schell says that most fundamentalists and many atheists start with what he describes as a problematic premise:

    (1) If there are contradictions in the Bible, then the Bible is false.

    I would say that the premise is indeed problematic if “the Bible is false” is interpreted as “all of the Bible is false” (and I don’t know any atheist who would say that). It’s valid, in my opinion, if interpreted to say that if there are contradictory statements in the Bible, about matters of fact, then at least one statement in the Bible is false. That seems a modest enough conclusion.

  • soter phile

    “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thess.2:13)

    See, what Paul actually meant was… in context… he’s having “a painfully difficult time distinguishing God from his ideas about God…”

    • What he meant does indeed seem clear to me. He was convinced that the message he proclaimed was from God. He was not at all convinced, but on the contrary clearly understood well, that this did not grant him some sort of papal-style authority that turned his every word or his written letters into the words of God.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        Not to mention soter’s apparent claim that he and all Christians are in the same position as the Apostle Paul when it comes to producing the word of God, which is a pretty intriguing direction for conservative Protestantism, and I’m interested to see where it goes and when we can expect them all to agree on whether or not infants should be baptized.

        • soter phile

          No, I’m not claiming we *produce* the word of God. But I think you knew that when you typed it.

          I was simply pointing out how directly David Schell’s comments contradict direct teaching in Scripture. And if the same logic being used to dismiss conservatives also dismisses central claims of Scripture… I’d hope Schell would admit that’s a foundational flaw in his argument as a Christian.

          Infant baptism is not as clear of a theme as the self-authenticating nature of Scriptural authority. And – note well – a higher view of Scripture’s authority IS something conservatives *already* agree upon, certainly in contrast to the frequent assault upon that authority found as a theme in this blog.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            I did know you didn’t mean that, which is why your citation doesn’t support your point. Paul isn’t talking about the Bible in 1 Thess. The Bible didn’t exist! He’s talking about his message that he and the other apostles brought to Thessalonika. He didn’t bring pocket-sized King James to them. He’s not advocating a high view of Scripture – he’s advocating a high view of the preaching of the apostles.

            You used this citation to counter Schell’s statement about Christians not being able to distinguish their own thoughts about God from God. This only works if you are claiming that a Christian speaking their thoughts about God is in precisely the same position Paul and the apostles are in when they preach the news of Jesus to Thessalonians. Is that what you claim? If so, then you should probably stop arguing with James McGrath. They apparently have apostolic authority.

          • soter phile

            you said: “He’s not advocating a high view of Scripture – he’s advocating a high view of the preaching of the apostles.”
            That argument (to divide the two) would only work if Jesus & the Apostles didn’t treat the OT in the same manner… which certainly DID exist at that time (as I said: “Scriptures”). Despite your claim, they did not separate the two as – as is evident from NT practice.

            So yes, Paul does have apostolic authority (unlike anyone today). However (despite your second contention), once that is conceded, how is it logical to divorce that apostolic teaching (i.e., the NT) from holding that authority today? No, McGrath is ignoring the clear authority the text is claiming – especially in regard to core tenets of the faith. The supposed “humility” in the progressive hermeneutic of suspicion is an end run to dodge central & obvious teaching of the text (e.g., see PCUSA arguments over the divinity of Christ at last year’s GA, the UMC’s current debates, etc.).

            In attempting to divide “the apostles’ authority” from the text today, one dodges the very thing God has given us to know him: namely, his Word. That is why those churches are dying. Without God’s word being more normative than “my experience”, there’s no hope for life transformation – at least not in any practical sense. (And that’s why I’m arguing with McGrath: that hermeneutic is a hermeneutic of death, leading people directly away from Jesus and toward themselves.)

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            So, you’re saying that, the passage you quoted, when Paul says he brought them the words of God, he meant the Old Testament? That seems very unlikely to me, considering the content of his letter.

            Jesus most certainly did separate the notion of the Scriptures from a person’s understanding of the Scriptures. One might argue a large part of his teaching was exactly that. His accusations against the scribes and Pharisees were not that they didn’t believe the Bible or accept its authority – it’s that their understanding of the Scriptures and consequent behaviors were, in fact, things God did not want. It was the Pharisees, as it turns out, who maintained that Jesus’ disagreement with them was blasphemy against God.

            How logical is it to divorce the New Testament from apostolic teaching? I suppose insofar as the New Testament isn’t apostolic teaching. That’s at least part of the point of biblical scholarship. How logical is it to divorce apostolic authority from the church today? Well, the apostles were writing into concrete historical circumstances. Paul did not write his letter, “To the Thessalonians and American believers 2000 years later.” We have to interpret what he wrote, discover the narrative, and then discern how that applies to us. In some cases, maybe that’s directly. In others, perhaps tangentially. In others, not at all (Have you gotten Paul’s cloak and books from Troas, yet?). It’s a hermeneutical task performed by the Spirit-led community.

            In attempting to divide “the apostles’ authority” from the text today, one dodges the very thing God has given us to know him: namely, his Word. That is why those churches are dying.

            That is a fascinating claim considering many Christians did not have a Bible and many many more have not been able to read it or have their own access to a copy. The early church was not formed out of thorough exegesis of the Old Testament – it was formed by the proclamation of the apostles of what God had done in Jesus accompanied by signs and wonders and the outpouring of the Spirit. In fact, it is Paul’s direct appeal to the reception of the Spirit that forms his argument in Galatians as to why the Gentiles do not need to follow Torah (the holy, infallible Old Testament, you know).

            The Bible certainly plays a role in how we know God, but it is by no means exclusive and arguably not primary, historically speaking.

          • soter phile

            1) No, I’m not delineating between the OT & NT, I’m drawing a parallel. The merely “human” words of the OT are fully God’s Word to them… just as Paul is claiming of his own teaching/writing.

            2) Jesus did not separate *his* understanding of Scripture from Scripture itself – which is where your desire to make the two utterly distinct begins to unravel. Do we have the mind of God? Note well: 1 Cor.2:6-16 directly claims that by the Holy Spirit, Christians DO. You would have us in “humility” believe that we can claim not such certain knowledge of God’s Word. It is not humility to claim a greater understanding than God’s Word (much less one directly opposed to it).

            Yes, the Pharisees claimed God’s Word had authority, but they were missing the primary content. Jesus didn’t berate them for missing the power & authority of God’s Word (unlike the Sadducees, Mk.12:24). He berating them for missing the POINT of God’s Word.

            3) “divorcing authority” – I’m not arguing against understanding a passage in context. I’m arguing against attempting to use context to avoid the universal point inherent in the text – especially one that purposefully *transcends* context. The “divorce” here it to attempt to make the universal principles found in the teaching of the Scriptures merely subjective and contextual, thereby dodging the direct authority the Word is claiming.

            And it is laughable to infer that “to the Thessalonians…” means “but no one else, especially not at a later time” – especially in regard to how such texts were received and SHARED by the communities which received them. How else do you think we came to possess them?

            Your dismissive line about Paul’s cloak & books makes my point. The progressive hermeneutic represented on this blog & elsewhere wants to create a caricature of “literalists” which does not allow for such conservatives to advocate contextualization which STILL highlights universal meaning. Because the bottom line is not that we are fighting over the meaning of Paul’s cloak, but over the very central tenets of the faith which give life. Look at ANY mainline denomination in America today and it is evident.

            4) Your final appeal to mischaracterize my claim as anachronistic fails to see the point of the leadership of the early church. If the Scriptures were not so important – again, why were they maintained? Why passed along? Why did the pastors & bishops keep them? Yes, many were illiterate. That does not dismiss the *function* the Scriptures had among the leadership as well as being read aloud in the community of faith. It is clear that both the OT & even the NT (think: Muratorian Canon) functioned that way well prior to any Constantinian involvement. Along with that, the Apostles’ Creed has similarly early roots. Why were Christians so catechizing their followers & teaching them to own these universal truths from very early on?

            Without the Bible we cannot know God more than in a generic way. Unless one is talking of those who lived *during* the times of its authors, there is no other way to know God efficaciously (and certainly not in a saving way). Anyone preaching the Gospel does so off the basis of knowledge of the Scriptures themselves. In that way, it certainly is exclusively and primarily the way to know God. And the urgency for evangelism – especially in the NT – makes that point all the more directly (Acts 4:12; Rom.10:9,13-15; etc.). Without the foundation of the Scriptures, the faith crumbles – which, again, is why the mainline churches are dying.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            1) But Paul isn’t claiming that about his writing. He’s claiming that what he’s telling the churches – the news of what God has done in Christ – is a message from God. He isn’t saying he’s appending the Old Testament, nor is he preaching the Old Testament to them. He is claiming that the proclamation of what God has just done in Jesus is a message God has given the apostles to carry – a significant claim for Paul who actually received this message mystically (and not, I might add, through study of Torah).

            It is later theologians who play the game of abstracting transhistorical, platonic ideals out of these texts and then use them to construct an edifice. Paul says his message is from God, Paul believes the Old Testament is from God, Paul wrote down some of his teaching, ergo Paul believes he is writing Scriptures that are the Word of God, ergo the Scriptures are the Word of God.

            Every so often, I will talk to a Christian or listen to a sermon, and the person will say, “God wants us to know that….” That person also believes the Old Testament is knowledge and communication from God. That person also writes their thoughts and teaching down. Ergo, they must be producing Scripture!

            2) No, 1 Cor. 2 does not directly claim we have the mind of God. This is you reading your theology into the passage. Jesus is God, Paul says as part of a larger argument (that, by your lights, is totally unimportant to understanding the claim) that we have the mind of Christ, ergo Paul claims Christians have God’s mind, ergo Christians have perfect understanding of the Scriptures.

            Other than the fact that empirical evidence clearly demonstrates Christians do NOT have perfect understanding of the Scriptures, you literally rewrote 1 Cor. 2:16 to say “We have the mind of God.” This is something that always makes me giggle about people who claim to have a “high view of the Scriptures.” Because they make no distinction between God’s Word and their own understanding, they have zero trouble rewriting the actual biblical text. Happens all the time. Honestly, I care way more about what the Bible says than you seem to.

            Hypothetically, if you did care about what the Bible said, you might actually read the entire letter to the Corinthians or, at the very least, the whole of the thought expressed in the section you mentioned. Where Paul is, once again, talking about his -proclamation- and actually denigrates his -words- so that the Corinthians would be persuaded by God’s -power- and not the words Paul used.

            These mysteries that Paul proclaims, he says, are indiscernible to those who are passing away, but are apprehended by those who have the Spirit. But how can this be? Paul cites a passage from Isaiah 40 about the coming of the Lord in power to deliver Israel, and this seems mysterious to everyone. “Who can fathom the Spirit of the Lord?” Isaiah asks. Paul’s answer is that we understand these things from the Spirit because we have the mind of Christ.

            There is NOTHING in 1 Corinthians 2 about the Bible or understanding it better. Further, when Paul says we have the mind of Christ, in context, it means our union with Christ allows us to understand the mysteries revealed by the Spirit, as he did. It does not mean our brains have the same cognitive content as Jesus’ brain. If so, you and I could speak Aramaic. Even less so does it mean that our brains have the same cognitive content as God’s.

            For instance, you might recall Paul’s letter to the Philippians where he urges them to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. What does he mean by this? That they should understand the Old Testament perfectly, as you claim? No, he means they should empty themselves and take the form of a servant, esteeming one another better than themselves. It has nothing to do with understanding the Bible better.

            All this assumes, of course, that we are interested in understanding what the Bible says as opposed to making the Bible say what’s in our heads.

            3) But this assumes there is some universal, transhistorical point to a text. A text -in the first place- means something to the original audience, and that’s our starting point. That’s the way written works work. Once we have that down, we can then make informed decisions about how or whether a given text has implications beyond that. It might or it might not. But there’s certainly no reason, other than a priori theological commitments, to assume a given text speaks outside of its context without first doing the difficult work of exegesis.

            Absolutely, churches circulated some of Paul’s letters. They also circulated several writings that did not end up in the canon. Those early churches were all in the same historically contingent boat. You and I are separated from them by nearly two millennia as well as by culture. 1 Thessalonians was not written to you and your situation. It may say things that can be useful to speak to your present situation. But those are decisions we have to make as we exegete.

            And purposing those texts for our situation is entirely appropriate and firmly in line with apostolic use of the OT as well as Jewish interpretation before them. But they repurpose in line with the original meaning of the text. This is why Matthew can apply a passage about Ramah to Bethlehem. He knows the text is not meant for Bethlehem, but he can take those original historical circumstances and use them to articulate the meaning behind the circumstances he describes.

            But even so, Matthew is still much closer to the world of the prophets than we are to the world of the New Testament. He has a lot less work to do than we do.

            4) Scriptures and writings were collected and passed along because they were a) from apostles or those closely connected to the apostles, and b) useful. However, as you know, churches had what they had, and even your Muratorian Fragment (which translates a document that claims to be contemporaneous with the Shepherd of Hermas, but the actual Fragment is 7-8th century). This document rules out some books you would consider to be Scripture, and perhaps most interestingly validates the Apocalypse of Peter “although some of us are not willing that it be read in church.”

            The Muratorian Fragment also says exactly zero about any of those writings being God’s words. Instead, it criticizes books based on their doctrinal content. It also says that the Shepherd should be read in church, but not alongside the Prophets because they are complete, or alongside the Apostles because it was written after their time. The Fragment makes distinctions because it is necessary for “ecclesiastical regulation.”

            So, what we see early on is the early church’s desire to distinguish writings from legitimate sources from forgeries, heresies, etc. What we do not see is a cognizance that some books are God’s very words and some are not.

            But all of this is beside the point and, once again, you are steering this into a debate about whether or not the Bible is God’s Word, because, to you, my criticism’s of your understanding of God’s Word are actually criticisms of the Bible. Because, according to you, you and Jesus understand the Scriptures with equal alacrity. That sounds blasphemous to me, but you’re the one who’ll have to give an account for your claims, as I will with mine.

            As for the “universal truths” of the apostle’s creed, it appears in the late 4th century. 350 years after Jesus died and rose. It is trinitarian in structure, which is what we would expect after Constantine’s decree. What we see in these early church fathers in the West is an attempt to understand the Scriptures in -their- own context – a context that was also largely dominated by Greco-Roman philosophy, Christianity being the new religion of the Roman Empire with Constantine and Theodosius ending hundreds of years of persecution. This is also a context quite distant from Israel’s first century concerns and even some effort to remove “Jewish” understandings of the Scripture from church doctrine.

            That does not mean they were wrong to try to understand how the Scriptures worked in their own historical context, but it does mean that we don’t take everything Ambrose of Milan or Jerome wrote and equate it to God’s own words or assume that everything that came from the mouth of Augustine could come from the mouth of Jesus.

            We absolutely can know God without the Bible because of the power of the Spirit who falls upon those who believe in what God has done in Jesus Christ when they hear it. This is precisely how the early church came about. Are you saying that we no longer have the Spirit that the first century church did? I’m interested to hear that theory, although it might create some problems for your doctrine that you have God’s own knowledge.

      • soter phile

        “He was not at all convinced…”
        a) “…papal-style authority…” ex cathedra? that’s anachronistic. but divine authority that corrected the churches (and upon which the Roman Catholic notion is based)? on the contrary, that’s EXACTLY what he was claiming – certainly in 1 Thess.2, in confronting Peter, arguing among the apostles (Acts 15), and throughout most of his letters.

        b) “…that turned his every word…”
        Yes, he occasionally appeals to culture (“judge for yourselves…”), but in general Paul’s appeal to remind people of Christ crucified (1 Cor.2:2) is his divine authority, as “least of the apostles.”

        c) “…or his written letters into the words of God…”
        Not only is this claim directly begging the question, but from a merely historical view, it is clear that within a generation that this is exactly how his written letters are regarded – even if one regards 2 Peter 3 as Deutero-Pauline. And if one is left to argue Paul’s own sense of authority, certainly Paul’s repeated affirmation that he was chosen, called & sent by God (as well as Luke’s descriptions in Acts 9) uniquely as an apostle – THE apostle to the Gentiles – is more than just a circumstantial basis for a much higher view of his own authority than you are claiming.

        • Paul makes a clear distinction between those things which he had from the Lord, and his own judgments as one who has the Spirit of God. He even says in 2 Corinthians that he speaks at one point as a fool and not according to the Lord. What could be clearer than that?

          • soter phile

            Really? You think 2 Cor.11 is not a rhetorical device to make the very point? Remember, this is the same author who wrote 1 Cor.1:27f in his previous letter… which then immediately claimed *full* authority to point them to Christ (1 Cor.2:2).

          • You are apparently unable to envisage someone having authority to proclaim a message and yet remaining a human being with human limitations. You are determined to latch onto those texts that can be understood as supporting or at least compatible with your view, and then using them to nullify those texts which are incompatible with your view. In my view, it is better to understand Paul in a way that can do justice to everything he wrote.

          • soter phile

            Nope. That’s the straw man of my position – which again confirms my contention that you *need* to maintain that straw man in order to avoid the obvious (and historically orthodox) view of the Scriptures as being what they repeatedly and overtly claim to be: the Word of God.

            Jesus – assuming you believe he was God in the flesh, the One you claim to worship – certainly viewed the OT that way… which, in your view, is *merely* human writing.

            Again: why wouldn’t you want to have the same view of Scripture as Jesus?

          • Once again you are trying to argue in a circle – assuming that Jesus is God in the flesh, assuming that the Bible provides an accurate depiction of him and his views without any historical investigation, and then going around in a circle between your two assumptions: Jesus viewed the Bible this way, therefore you should accept it. The Bible views Jesus this way, and therefore you accept it. This isn’t going to be an effective means of evangelism!

      • Alonzo

        >”He was not at all convinced, but on the contrary clearly understood well, that this did not grant him some sort of papal-style authority that turned his every word or his written letters into the words of God.”

        The above is a straw man argument in that you project on Paul an ideology not present in his day. At the least you could have said “Pharisee authority.” Tat would have been much more culturally current. But it is a straw man in that Paul never claimed any ultimate authority but that which rested solely with God. He even said of the Bereans that they were noble in going directly to the Scripture to verify the things of which Paul spoke.

        Paul was very convinced that God called him as an apostle and affirmed that in his letters (See Galatians). You read into the biblical text what is not there.

        • I don’t get what you are trying to say or how it is supposed to be a response to what I wrote, since I emphasized that Paul thought that his message came from God – which does not mean that he thought that everything that he wrote was inerrant, as he himself explicitly makes clear.

          • Alonzo

            Tell me what you don’t get in pointing to what I wrote, and I will clarify.

    • Alonzo

      You read modern ideas back into history and completely missed the context.

  • arcseconds

    I wonder what David Schnell means by ‘the Bible is false’? He seems to treat it as an all-or-nothing categorization, and maybe the point is that both biblical literalists and many atheists do treat it as an all-or-nothing affair: either it’s the perfect inspired Word of God, or it’s a bunch of rot, with the two groups seizing their respective horns.

    But as David Evans points out, a contradiction only shows that the Bible contains some false statements, which doesn’t mean it’s entirely rot, although knowing this probably ought to make us more sceptical about the rest of its contents.

    At least, it does that if we read the Bible as a set of propositions and truth as a matter of a proposition conforming to the way the world is. To be sure, that’s also what both groups (and David Evans, apparently ) assume — it’s a widespread and basic assumption.

    But not everybody uses ‘truth’ in this way. Some people use it to mean something like ‘speaks profoundly to us’ (or ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’ maybe) and it’s obviously possible for something to do that yet contain no true propositions.

    So I wonder whether Schnell has something like that in mind…

    • Neko

      Just want to add a note of appreciation for this excellent post. Of course the “God-breathed” characterization of scripture came immediately to mind.

    • Phil Ledgerwood

      Paul’s use of the word “useful” or “profitable” is so awesome, there.

      People see the theopnuestos – which is a word that barely exists anywhere in Greek literature – and they import tons of assumptions to it about what it must mean and entail. Ironically, the one thing we know it meant for Paul, is that it made the Scriptures “useful” for certain topics.

  • Alonzo

    >”The Bible does not literally say anything, because books do not literally talk, and the Bible as an anthology certainly doesn’t speak with a single voice even metaphorically.”

    The above premise really is not a sound literary approach to the Bible let alone to any literary work. Rather, it presents a false dichotomy by positing “literal” and a book actually speaking as opposites. First, such a view of literal is not a literary approach. Second, McGrath neglects to consider that the word “literal” has a dual meaning within the scope of literature. Within the context of literary criticism, the proper opposites are literal as opposed to metaphor. Written composition has both. Within this context, literal can be taken in two senses. One is relative to translation and the other is within composition itself. When one speaks of a literal translation, that person considers such a translation to be as close to the original meaning in accuracy and thoroughness as possible (Thrall & Hibbard, “A Handbook to Literature”). That is, there is an attempt not to paraphrase. Within the context of written composition, literal refers to words taken in their usual or most fundamental sense without the use of figurative language. While McGrath does address metaphor, he does not use such an address to support his thesis statement cited above. Therefore, McGrath raises a straw man in his reference to “literalists.” Since he does not rightly define his term of “literal,” he launches a rebuttal against such “literalist” in a manner that is inaccurate and thereby fails to make his argument.

    Exactly what are literalists doing wrong? The article does not make it clear. He uses a syllogistic argument from David Schell, which is unsound because he assumes an undefined use of “literal” in applying it to “Biblical literalists.” Schell’s syllogism is also faulty in that the first premise is a straw man derived from an assumption of “Biblical literalists.” If certain biblical statements are literal and true, how can Schell determine that they are untrue? He cannot. Yet, he presumes they cannot be, thereby creating a circular argument by having a conclusion in his premise.

    Furthermore, McGrath disregards that numerous statements in the Bible are of a literal nature in that they are plain descriptive statements without the use of figure of speech (“God created…”). Are then Biblical literalists wrong in interpreting such statements in such a literal sense? Does McGrath consider all biblical statements to be metaphorical? If he does, then he has a reading problem, which in turn to lead to an inaccurate interpretation. Therefore, the phrase “Biblical literalists” is really an inaccurate one if indeed statements in the Bible are literal statements. His pejorative also fails to consider that the literal and metaphorical can be used in the same statement.

    The rest of McGrath article builds on his initial faulty premise, thereby rendering the entire article faulty. Taking a potshot at so-called biblical literalists in the manner he does has no merit especially when literal readings of the Bible can occur and when he use ad hominem to describe them (“hairbrained”). Now when McGrath refers to some as having “harebrained ways of explaining away the contradictions in the Bible and between their interpretations of the Bible and science,” he ceases to discuss literalism but digresses into interpretation. He never explains how “explaining away the contradictions in the Bible…” and interpretation has anything to do with literal versus metaphorical reading. Consequently, his statement about “hairbrained ways” is not only an ad hominem but also a non sequitur. In doing so, he invalidates his entire article.

    • Once again, you seem to be arguing with a straw man or with someone else other than me, since I have repeatedly emphasized that the Bible includes a range of material, including some that provides information about historical events, some that seems like it might yet does not, and some that was almost certainly never intended to.

      • Alonzo

        Actually, your reply does not address what I wrote. I never wrote anything about what the Bible includes. Your reply is the straw man by raising something I never addressed. Rather you digress to another issue altogether.

        • Since you make “criticisms” that do not address what people wrote, and then merely accuse others of doing what you yourself have done, I will have to conclude that you aren’t interested in an actual discussion of the topic of this blog post. If that changes, please do let me know.

          • Alonzo

            Dr. McGrath, I did indeed directly address your primary premise about literalists. If that premise is not your argument, then what is? You continue down that line of argument in citing Schell, and you continue to reference literalists throughout your essay. Even your title introduces your primary premise. If you intended to write that “the Bible includes a range of material” and so on, you fail to address this point in your article. If you intended to discuss the range of material the Bible includes, you never really get to that topic in this essay. Given this is the case, what exactly what is your point? Did you not intend to discuss what the Bible literally says, literalists, or the range of material in the Bible? You leave the reader confused if you write about literalists but then take off in another direction about interpretation, and then in dialog with me you digress to the Bible’s range of materials. Can you understand how confusing your writing is relative to your subsequent responses?

          • I have been writing on these topics for a great many years now, and I would have thought that I had written enough to make my own views clear. And so, unless either you just wandered into this conversation that has been going on for more than a decade and jumped to conclusions before joining in, without digging around to find out what had happened previously and what my premises are; or unless you really did mistake a blog post for an article (something that aims to communicate as a stand-alone piece independently of an author’s daily writing), then I must confess that I do not understand why my writing would seem confusing to you.

          • Alonzo

            I also have been writing for decades with two published books in two disciplines (MBA, MA, seminary): finance and theology. I also have written numerous articles on both subjects: (https://actionfaithbookspress.com; http://costmgmt.org/author/floydt). I did not just wander into this discussion. I receive notices through e-mail of postings in Patheos and select those discussions and corresponding articles in which I wish to read and participate.

            When I read articles, blog, or whatever you wish to call them, my expectation is that the author clearly states a premise (or premises) and supports it (them) however brief or lengthy. I do not expect to read a plethora of essays as background to a particular article. I write in this manner and have read numerous theologians, pastors, and professors who write in like manner. When I come across written compositions that fail to support what they set out to do and engage in fallacies (personal attacks), I respond. Your essay include these. When you discussed “literalist,” you never defined about whom you were speaking. I have heard others talk of literalists before in like manner. Unless one can identify who these are, such authors raise a straw man fallacy. You did. Then you referred to a nebulous group as “hairbrained.” That is a personal attack. I have an idea of whom you speak, but you never identify them. Your writing is not clear for these reasons. Given my background, education, and training, I consider such writing as poor and unconvincing.

          • As you should be able to see, even without the specialized background you claim to bring to the subject, this blog post shares a quote from a comment on an earlier post, and also shares other quotes from elsewhere (one of which you mistakenly attribute to me). This post is clearly part of a wider discussion, of a group that I have repeatedly emphasized are not in fact “literalists” because, despite their claims to the contrary, they are always selective in their literalism. One should not have to say “self-proclaimed literalists” on every single occasion one wishes to refer to them.

            Personally, I am unimpressed by your wandering into a conversation that started before you got here, and then complaining about the participants being unclear, paying no heed to signals that the genre of that conversation may be something other than your one-size-fits-all catgory of “article.”

          • Alonzo

            I am not looking to impress and have no need to do so. You create another straw man by imputing that I complain.Nevertheless, you failed to reply to my initial comments but engage in evasion or digression rather than provide direct replies.

            Concerning, defining “literalist,” it would be a good idea to define, however, briefly, technical terms, especially when you cast aspersion on such people you hold to be of that persuasion. Your entire post hinges on your pejorative perspective of this undefined group so that a reminder would be helpful, if indeed you ever defined the term beforehand. The very basic principle of sound writing is “communicate to your audience,” and the burden is on the author to shoulder sound communication skill. Your “one-size-fits-all” comment tells me a lot about your lack of recognition of sound descriptive and persuasive writing taught at basic university level critical writing.

            Most English and literary professors would be appalled at the substandard authorship that occurs in the blog sphere. I have no interest in parsing between “article” or “blog.” Both formal and informal writings hold to the same standards of composition.

            On a side note, perhaps you do not really know this straw man to which you refer as “literalists,” if you are unwilling or simply do not want to define this straw man. With that, I see no useful purpose in continuing discussion with one who digresses and evades and is unwilling to communicate clearly. With that I bid you well.

          • “Literalists” is not a technical term, as hasalready been emphasized repeatedly. It is a common and widespread popular way of denoting the alleged hermeneutic of fundamentalists and conservative Evangelicals. As has been said time and again, it is in many respects problematic, but nevertheless clear in its referent.

            If you had made clear that you were here to pretend that my blog post was a standalone essay and intended to grade it as such, rather than being interested in participating in the conversation, that would have clarified much that only became apparent. For someone who guesses at and complains about the premises of others, it is ironic that you cannot see the extent to which you are even more guilty than those you criticize of the very behaviors that bother you. This is, of course, a very common state of affairs, as I am sure you are aware, but it is still disappointing to see it manifested in this way on one’s blog, especially in a manner that disrupts the conversations that take place here.

          • Alonzo

            Repetition does not support your case nor does dancing around my initial comments without a reply.

            “Literalists” is a pejorative and often an ad hominem.
            Those who oppose Evangelicals use “fundamentalist” in either a pejorative sense or ad hominem. You also do this in your use of the terms, especially when you also engage in personal attack with your term “hairbrained.” Now is that popularly used against those with whom disagree? That word is certainly not used within the Christian community, except by those who render personal attacks against those with whom some disagree. Your use of the word simply invalidated your entire essay.

            That is the reason both terms are normally left undefined. Indeed, both terms are a “common and widespread popular way” of attacking Evangelicals. Now, my use of Evangelical is the way the Puritans and Reformers applied it. In current use, that meaning has shifted somewhat from the earlier meaning centuries ago. For this reason, you and others who use these terms pejoratively should define your use. If you look at any dictionary, you will find multiple meanings of words, The same goes for the cited words you use. If you fail to define your terms, you fail to communicate. As a professor you should know the shifted meaning of “Evangelical” if indeed you have studied the history of the Christian Church, especially the publications of the Reformers and Puritans. But no, you throw everyone in the same pot without making distinctions among those who adhere to differing meanings.

            Because you do, you simply ignored the point I made about the basic meaning of the word “literal” and its true opposite “metaphor” in my initial post. You also ignored my point that “literal” is not opposite the personification of the Bible as you make it to be: “The Bible does not literally say anything, because books do not literally talk.” Your statement personifies the Bible. You, perhaps unknowingly, apply two metaphors in your attempt to describe opposites; but all you end up doing is create a false dichotomy and apply a tertiary meaning of “literally.” In doing so, you become incoherent.

            I believe I made myself clear, but you simply fail to understand my point. Therefore, I thought I would engage in more detail as I did above to elucidate your communication error.

          • Alonzo

            By the way, “fundamentalist,” is not narrowed to hermeneutics alone or the Bible alone as you have suggested in the context of your essay and as represented by your title and opening premise. Rather, it derived from R. A. Torrey’s book “The Fundamentals.” The fundamentals covered the whole range of biblical doctrines. Additionally, the book does not treat the Bible to be taken in the strictest sense of literal in every word, sentence, paragraph, or greater contexts. In fact, words are treated as what they are in any literary sense, some literal in use and some figure of speech as in the following quote, “We have not been trying in advance to bind up the interpreter to an unintelligent literalism in exegesis, which should take no account of what is peculiar to different species of writing, treating poetry and prose, history and allegory, the symbolical and the literal, as if all were the same” Torrey, R. A.. THE FUNDAMENTALS – A Testimony to the Truth (Kindle Locations 3945-3947). http://www.DelmarvaPublications.com. Kindle Edition.

            Because you generalize “fundmentalists,” you create a straw man and totally misrepresent Evangelicals. That said, you are wrong. By the way, not all Evangelicals hold to the same hermeneutical principles, which again exposes your straw man. Dispensationalist, quasi-dispensationalists, and Reformers differ, and sometimes quite widely, from one another.

          • Your responses continue to be baffling – you complain of others supposedly not being clear, commit the etymological fallacy, and fail to listen to or make any effort to understand those that you seem to want to communicate with, and yet on another level seem not to want to understand.

          • Alonzo

            If you would have taken the time and courtesy to clarify your terms at the outset when I asked, this discussion would have progressed much further into a much more substantive exchange about theological and ideological issues. Rather, you continue committing the same logical fallacies and repeating yourself in more time than it would have taken you to define your terms. I understand clearly the meaning of “literal” versus “metaphor, the pejorative term “fundamentalist,” and “Evangelical.” I could cite you far more examples of their use from others who love to ridicule Evangelicals without substance. I also understand that when someone calls others “hairbrained,” they engage in demeaning personal attack. There is nothing wrong with my understanding. Rather, it is your refusal to clarify your terms and to admit that your writing is not sufficiently clear for the audience to know what you are talking about. Good bye. I am off to more fruitful discussions.

          • I simply cannot imagine you having fruitful discussions online anywhere else if you approach them by demanding that those who maintain an online public journal in the form of a blog must define the terminology they use anew in every single entry.

  • Judgeforyourself37

    The Bible was written by men thousands of years ago in a male dominated/patriarchal society. Women were chattel, owned by their fathers and then husbands. If you believe in a literal translation, you do not eat shell fish, or pork, unless you are an Orthodox Jew, you wear clothing of only one fabric/thread. You take your children for stoning by the elders of the city should those kiddos misbehave. WOW, interesting.
    That Bible was written in a different time and place, and most literalists proof text and pick and choose what they choose to believe and what the choose to ignore.

  • Tim

    Haha, excellent quote.