Can Fundamentalists Understand the Bible?

Can Fundamentalists Understand the Bible? July 11, 2019

This blog post started out as being about the old canard that non-Christians supposedly cannot understand the Bible. That claim is often justified by appeal to a passage that the Christians who make the claim, rather ironically, have misunderstood. By the end of the process of putting the post together, I found myself thinking that the relevant question is whether fundamentalists can understand the Bible. And it soon became clear that that question applies equally to Christian and anti-Christian fundamentalists.

Christ Is How We Understand Scripture (Not The Other Way Around)

Non-Christians Can’t Understand the Bible but They Should Read it Anyway

When atheists read the Christian BibleRandal Rauser wrote on that topic: “Sadly, when it comes to the way atheists read the Bible, Shermer’s attitude seems to be more the rule than the exception. The Skeptic’s Annotated Study Bible claims to offer a reasonable and skeptical analysis of the biblical text. But in fact, all it demonstrates is that we should be skeptical of the skeptics.”

Does a Person Need the Holy Spirit to Interpret the Bible? Is John’s Gospel Accurate? Readers Mailbag August 7, 2016

Steve Wiggins wrote:

Modern ways of looking at ancient texts require a degree of facility in understanding how God’s scribes of yesteryear went about their work.  While early experiments in binding books may go back close to the time when the latter parts of the Bible were being written, the scroll—without chapter and verse—contained only the words of the text.  Most ancient manuscripts in Greek, anyway, didn’t even bother to put spaces between the words.  That leaves some room for ambiguity in among all those letters.  The Bible is a complex book with a complex history.  We do it a disservice as modern readers treating it as a modern book. 

Also related to biblical interpretation:

Pete Enns asks what it even means to talk about whether the Bible can be trusted

It turns out the Bible is not so clear as all that

No Bible? Know Christ.

Do You Need a PhD to Understand the Bible?

How the Bible Actually Works (4)

What the Bible Actually Teaches (5) — Open Mic Edition

Red Letter vs. Black Letter Bible People: Or?

A Masterful Primer on Bible Translation

The Road to Atheism is Littered with Well-Read Bibles

Andrew Perriman on whether the Bible is better understood as poetry

Monday with Michael Spencer: How We Sound to Those Who Don’t Believe

Ironically, Atheist Rev reposted something about how fundamentalists are right, and illustrated precisely the problem. Fundamentalist Christians and the atheists who used to be them and are now in many instances fundamentalist atheists do agree fundamentally, pun intended. The idea that no interpretation is needed when dealing with an ancient text written in another language in a very different time and place is something that no one but a fundamentalist, whether religious or anti-religious, could contemplate saying and expect it to be taken seriously. Indeed, without some sort of fundamentalist ideological framework, the patent absurdity would likely be readily apparent.

Finally, see the article about the decline of biblical literacy and the role of imagination in reading the Bible in Christian Century.

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  • You wrote: “The idea that no interpretation is needed when dealing with an ancient text written in another language in a very different time and place is something that no one but a fundamentalist, whether religious or anti-religious, could contemplate saying and expect it to be taken seriously.”

    Who is your target, James? I know a fair number of Evangelicals-turned-atheists, and I don’t know any of them who approach the Biblical text as you suggest.

    You might also consider that some of us ex-Evangelicals try to meet and engage Fundamentalists on their own turf. You seem to be taking subtle potshots, but I can’t tell for sure who you are attempting to hit. Names and quotes would be helpful.

    • Well, a more specific example would be the Jesus mythicists who went from being Christians persuaded that Jesus was predicted perfectly in the Old Testament, to being atheists who believe Jesus was invented based on the Old Testament, but who never read the relevant texts with enough attention to detail and context to realize that the match between Jesus and “prophecies” is often a poor or forced one.

      Here, however, I had a more general point in mind, thinking of the Christian fundamentalists and atheists who are equally happy to read Genesis 3 as history featuring a talling snake, and who merely disagree about whether this is miraculous or stupid, but with neither side ever thinking, “Hey, I know something about literature that features talking animals. Perhaps I ought to entertain the possibility that the genre of this story is something other than history?”

      • swbarnes2

        Why shouldn’t atheists argue against a framework that you admit is in no way extinct among believing Christians?

        “Hey, I know something about literature that features talking animals. Perhaps I ought to entertain the possibility that the genre of this story is something other than history?”

        I believe your fellow believers have concluded that the Bible is its own genre, and you can’t throw inconvenient parts of God’s Word into the genre dustbin just because they clash with 21st century Western liberalism.

        • Atheists who keep the same irrational way of thinking about ancient literature, simply adopting an antithetical posture towards it to the one they previously held, makes them no more rational than the views they reject, because they haven’t adopted a better-informed approach, but are merely reacting against the views they previously held.

          I’m not sure who my “fellow believers” are supposed to be, but your suggestion that the Bible has a single genre, rather than being a collection of literature of a variety of genres, illustrates precisely the sort of thing I’m talking about.

          • swbarnes2

            It’s not atheists who think that a correct understanding of one particular ancient text will give everyone the solution to modern questions. It’s Christians who think that. How is that rational?

        • John MacDonald

          Maybe whoever is ultimately responsible for the talking snake part of Genesis “discovered” this in a dream and thought it really happened. Maybe whoever is ultimately responsible for the Pegasus narratives in Greek Mythology “discovered” the flying horse in a similar manner. Are ancient writings not allowed to contain what we would call elements of silliness and yet still be appreciated as having profound insight into the human condition?

      • You may be confusing what is going on here. I primarily write about Evangelicalism. Thus, I frame my writing within that theological context. Since Evangelicals “believe” that Genesis 1-3 should be interpreted literally, I attack their beliefs from that perspective — pointing out, by the way, that there are multiple Gods mentioned in this passage. The goal is to challenge the belief that the Bible is an inspired, inerrant, infallible text. Once Evangelicals are disabused of that notion, anything is possible. That’s why I recommend Evangelicals read Bart Ehrman’s books. Kick the props out from under the Bible, and down comes the house.

        I don’t believe these things personally, of course. My goal is to help people entangled in Fundamentalist thinking.


        • I think it can be useful to show how someone is clearly wrong even within the framework of their own assumptions, but I think it is important to be clear to oneself and others that that is what one is doing. Simply rejecting the Bible as an authoritative text authored by God, but never recognizing that it was originally a compilation of human texts that was only subsequently compiled into a collection, and that its transformation into something expected to be inerrant is a relatively recent phenomenon, fails to engage critically with the evidence from and about the Bible, and fails to see that fundamentalist Christian claims are wrong not just about the Bible being the inerrant words of God, but at a much deeper level and about a wider array of claims and assumptions.

    • Mark

      The deeper trouble is that American style Biblical ‘fundamentalism’ is an extreme positivism or empiricism. The same mental schlerosis has beset quite a few public ‘atheism’ writers. We can pretty easily see that both tendencies exhibit a sort of ‘anti-philosophical’ attitude.

  • John MacDonald

    I found parts of The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible interesting. I only have a hobbyist background in religious studies, so I don’t really have the frame of reference to judge how good it is or isn’t, but I found sections like the one contrasting lying as permissible vs non-permissible interesting. See The Center For Inquiry used to have a link to the SAB pop up on its Forum every time you went into the religion section, but I just checked and it doesn’t anymore. I haven’t posted on the CFI forum or Sam Harris’s forum in years, although those were my go-to sites for discussion in the past.

  • davidt

    We need to learn proper cut and paste. It seems that understanding the bible was never prepared for this cut and paste era. A new technogy, that requires proper technology to cut and paste the text properly is what is needed.
    We have yet see apps specially designed exactly for this task. Right now its a free for all. Everyone just cut and pasting as they please. This is no way to be an organized faith i say.

  • soter phile

    Sewell: “Mr. Hitchens, the religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement — that Jesus died for our sins, for example. Do you make a distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?”

    Hitchens: “Well, I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”

    Gospel according to Christopher Hitchens, Huffington Post

  • John MacDonald

    I don’t generally pay much attention to Loftus’s web site, but this was just posted and is really interesting regarding how belief arises and is maintained by Dale W. O’Neal, M.Div., Ph.D.(Psychology) See: . Here is an excerpt

    When one’s identity is threatened (ego, gender, family, race, caste, religion, political affiliation, etc.), the amygdala signals the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline into the blood stream. This causes a state of high alert where body and mind are focused on escape by fight or flight. To aid in this escape, the adrenaline impedes or even blocks access to the frontal cortex; it wants the threatened person to react, not think. Rarely, however, does the adrenaline block the frontal cortex completely. The amygdala maintains enough of a connection with the frontal cortex to marshal a host of “answers” which satisfy True Believers, but rarely anyone else. One “answer” in particular serves as a final barrier protecting one’s identity: the subjective authentication of one’s faith: one knows his/her faith is true because it feels true. When combined with other “answers,” this “answer” becomes a protective shield no rational argument can penetrate. (More about this shortly)

    This is exactly the thing Derrida was talking about, that people become mesmerized by the “truthy feel” of something and immediately conclude “objective truth” from this feeling. Check out the essay!