Atheists, Fundamentalists and the Bible

Atheists, Fundamentalists and the Bible October 29, 2012

Chris Hallquist, Libby Anne and James McGrath have been sharing a sporadic conversation about fundamentalism, liberal Christianity and atheism.

Recently, Chris wrote a post titled “No, atheists do not interpret the Bible like fundamentalists”. But that brings up the question, how do the fundamentalists interpret the bible? Peter Enns recently attended a talk by some fundamentalist luminaries and came away with the following definition of biblical innerrancy: “The Bible is true in all that it affirms or teaches according to the author’s intended meaning.”

I see two components to this definition. The first is that the bible is authoritative. Whatever it says is true, is true. The second is about level of meaning. The intended meaning of the author is the appropriate level of meaning, so none of that “multiple interpretations” crap.

So if the Bible implies that the earth was created in six days then it was created in six days, because the Bible is authoritative. However, when Isaiah says that the “mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hand,” (Isa. 55:12), that does not mean that the mountains are capable of caroling. Isaiah intended this text to be poetic rather than literal.

Atheists accept the second component but reject the first. The meaning of the Bible is the author’s intended meaning, which means that the books should be interpreted in a historical manner. However, the Bible is an ancient work like any other with no special claims to truth. So in theory, atheists and fundamentalists should interpret the Bible in the same way – the so-called historical-grammatical method – but fundamentalists should accept the conclusions as true while atheists are under no such obligation.

In practice, things are a bit more tricky. You can’t neatly separate how you’re interpreting the Bible from why you’re interpreting the Bible. Having established that the Bible is true, fundamentalists go looking for truths. Since the world and their traditions have already provided them with truths, they expect to find the Bible consistent with those truths.

But if the Bible is “true in all that if affirms,” then why are we not living on a flat earth? Why did the world not come to an end within a generation after Jesus? If the Bible is true in all that it teaches, then why do so many Christians live like Dives rather than Lazarus? Why do so many Christian men not follow Paul’s advice that “it is good for a man not to touch a woman?”

There’s no single method for resolving these problems. Sometimes fundamentalists deny the evidence of the world around them, as with creationism. Sometimes they deny that the author says what they appear to say, as with the flat earth. Sometimes they argue that the Bible does not really “affirm or teach” something that the Biblical authors clearly believed to be true, such as the morality of slavery.

Regardless, the result is that fundamentalists do not practice what they preach. They are inconsistent in their approach to the Bible. So, in actual practice, atheists do not read the Bible in the same way as fundamentalists. And of course both side are distinct from the liberal Christians, who start with a faith-based preconception that God is loving and let that alter their interpretations.

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