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Interpreting the Bible – Mid-Course Focus

This isn’t a summary of previous posts, but rather an attempt to focus on the issue I’m trying to address with this series before I continue. The problem with a series like this is that the examples begin to take over the topic. Since I have used complementarianism and theistic evolution as examples, and brought inerrancy into the discussion in order to demonstrate that it is not the key issue involved, it is easy for a reader to decide that I’m trying to debate any one of those issues, or perhaps to prefer that I debate them and try to redirect the topic.

Since the posts to which I responded brought up two more issues, homosexuality and violent passages in the Bible, which are again controversial issues, I want to focus back on the point I’m trying to make: It’s both difficult and inappropriate to tell your opponent what his or her position ought to be. In this case I’m responding to the charge that a Christian who accepts the theory of evolution is less Biblical because the “obvious exegesis” of Genesis favors a young earth creationist position.

Also, though I believe that theistic evolution is the best position to take at the moment, I am not attempting to demonstrate that. Rather, I’m attempting to show that it, along with a number of other positions on Genesis, can be held plausibly as interpretations of the Biblical text. The particular position one adopts depends on other factors, including the particular approach one takes to Biblical interpretation. After this mid-course focus I’m going to look at other issues and ask whether the exegesis is so obvious that an opponent of some particular brand of theology can easily dismiss it as “not real Christianity.” Within some limits, Christianity allows, and has always allowed, some flexibility.

The problem often starts with a charge that goes something like this:

1) The Bible clearly teaches X
2) X is unthinkable or false
3) So Christianity must be false

Now there are numerous and huge gaps in the logic as I have written it, but I think those gaps generally exist in the argument as presented by critics of Christianity. (Note to my philosophically inclined friends: To avoid general implosion with possible damage to the space-time continuum, do not try to critique that as a syllogism. Did I say it was a syllogism? I did not!) Let me apply this to a couple of relevant issues:

1) The Bible clearly teaches that the earth was created in seven literal days 6,000 years ago
2) That teaching is false
3) Christianity must be false

One obviously missing element here is “Christianity actually teaches X” but that is generally assumed, as is the direct connection between “The Bible clearly teaches X” and “Christianity accepts X as true.”

For example, one could say that the Bible teaches that an animal must be brought as a sacrifice if one sins, but Christianity does not teach this, for reasons that seem good and proper to pretty much all Christians. Here we have a teaching that is fairly clear, but that Christians believe applied to a particular set of times and places, not including the present. You can try to use this to demonstrate that Christians don’t really follow the Bible, but it’s not going to help as an argument against Christianity because it teaches animal sacrifice. (PETA beware!)

That would fit more with another form of the argument:

1) The Bible teaches that God condones and even commands violence
2) Condoning violence is unthinkable (but where is the demonstration that it is wrong?)
3) Therefore Christianity is false

Now supposing this argument is used against a Christian who is a pacifist. Clearly the conclusion is false with reference to that person’s belief.

The point I am trying to make here is not primarily whether the Bible teaches any of these things, or whether they are true or false, but whether a Christian can believe or disbelieve them and still be a Christian. Is it proper to dismiss theistic evolutionists and even old earth creationists as “not real Christians,” rather than to respond to their actual position?

Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, clearly wants to argue with fundamentalists and then dismiss all Christians based on his arguments against fundamentalists. I blogged about that starting in From the Land of the Deluded, where I make some similar points.

I have two suggestions here. First, that Christianity is not defined by American fundamentalism. I have supported that partially and will continue to do so as the series progresses. Second, that it is better to respond to an opponent based on what that opponent actually believes rather than what you imagine them to believe or what you think they ought to believe.

It is inevitable that this will sometimes fail, but it is an admirable goal in any case, and trying to define your opponent out of existence as the first step to a debate is probably not going to get you very far.

Christians do this to atheists from time to time as well, in particular by concluding that an atheist actually hates God or does not desire to be under authority. This suggests that an atheist isn’t really an atheist, but is rather a rebellious theist. Perhaps it would be a good idea to stretch our Christian imaginations a little bit, and allow that someone might just not find the idea of God convincing, or might not see sufficient evidence to believe. Imagine, in other words, that the atheist is honestly stating his or her beliefs.

Further, we need to realize that what seems to us a certain result of a particular belief might not be so certain for someone else. In talking about grief, I am likely to mention that my relationship with Jesus Christ and spiritual disciplines including prayer and fasting have been critical to me in facing loss. Do I mean that someone without those particular beliefs will not be able to handle what I have handled? Not at all! From personal experience I know persons from other faith traditions who have found their beliefs and spiritual practices critical, and I know non-believers who have also endured and come out of such trials successfully. I mention this particular case because it is very common for Christians to believe that atheists will be unable to endure hardship and loss.

One last illustration might help. I speak frequently to Methodist groups, as I’m a member of a United Methodist congregation. Every Methodist group with whom I have discussed Calvinism has come to the conclusion that Calvinists will not engage in evangelism. Why? If Calvinists believe in predestination–that God has determined who will be saved or lost–what purpose is their for evangelism? The result is already determined!

Now I have always pointed out that Calvinists do, in fact, practice evangelism, and thus attacking them for a failure in outreach would be inappropriate. A few years ago, however, I had the experience of hearing John Blanchard, a Calvinist evangelist (something many Methodists would regard as an oxymoron), who was asked this very question: Why, if you believe in predestination, are you an evangelist?

His answer, as I remember it, was this: Predestination is a doctrine, and I believe it; evangelism is a command, and I obey it.

Hmmm. A bit different logic than we Methodists were assuming he would use, but here we have him believing both things. He is not the person we assumed he would be.

Neither is the theistic evolutionist the person you assumed him to be. He is not necessarily a scientist whose religion is loosely pasted on. He might be a devout believer and a scientist. On the other hand, his training might be in Biblical studies, like mine is, and the church and faith might be the stuff of his daily life. In any case, he (or she) not likely to be impressed when you claim he’s not who he says he is.

As I move forward I’m going to discuss views on homosexuality and the church. It may surprise some to know that many advocates of acceptance of gays and lesbians in the full fellowship of the church are actually quite conservative in their understanding of exegesis. One can fault their results in a number of passages, in my view, but one can hardly say that they lack the intent or a conservative approach, even as one charges them with special pleading in particular cases.

And so as not to disappoint, let me note right now that my intention will not be to argue one side or another here, but rather to look at the types of Biblical interpretation involved.

Previous posts in this series were:

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5 Comments

  1. JuliaL says:

    You said, “As I move forward I’m going to discuss views on homosexuality and the church.”

    Just wanted you to know that you still have at least one reader eagerly awaiting that particular discussion.

    1. I’ve been fighting book deadlines, you know, in the real world where I pay the bills. But I do plan to get back to this. I’m glad to know I have at least one reader!

  2. Lifewish says:

    How about this as a rephrasing of the syllogism:

    1) To the extent that the Bible “clearly” teaches anything, it “clearly” teaches X
    2) X is demonstrably false
    3) Therefore the Bible is either false (if our use of “clearly” is valid) or useless as a source of guidance.

    I suspect that Dawkins et al would say: the Bible is useful as a description of various interesting situations involving humans – but hey, Grimm Fairy Tales manages that too. What advantage can the Bible be demonstrated to hold over Grimm?

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