I’ve been reading a lot of posts lately which focus on Christian Fundamentalism. Some of them I’ve shared on social media. And I’ll repeat here the mea culpa that I wrote there: I’ve shared them because they hit home for me. I once was a Fundamentalist. But in digging into the foundations of what I believed … talking it out with other believers, unbelievers and with God Himself … aligning it with the facts of life all around me … and comparing all that with Biblical texts (and many other texts for that matter) … I realized that my faith had been in a book rather than in a person. I’ve heard this referred to as ‘Bibliolatry’. I share this not with the goal of hurting or offending, but in the hope of getting people to think, discuss, evaluate … and ultimately to zero in on Truth.
First, let me explain why I chose this title, other than that it’s intended as an eye-catcher to get the attention of passing blog-voyeurs. A while ago I recognized a parallel in one of the original “Planet of the Apes” movies (oh how it hurts to admit that I watched them, but in my defense, I was only in my late teens at the time). “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” — the first sequel to the very original POTA movie — features an underground society of hyper-religious humans who worship ‘USA’, a man-made object whose meaning and purpose has been misunderstood and distorted. [Spoiler alert! But, then again, the movie is now 44 years old, so if you haven’t seen it yet then what’s the point?] ‘USA’ is a nuclear missile about which the humans know very little. They know the name of the object of their worship (from the American logo painted down the side of the missile), know that their ancestors made it, and in it see a defense against the hostile world that persecuted them, but not much more. They’re awed by its mystery, and so they develop a whole religion around the worship of USA. I think you can see where I’m going with this.
I recognize that this analogy will be offensive to some, but I draw the parallel simply to make a point. Yes, the Bible is divinely inspired, but it still came to us through human authors, human copyists, human translators, a committee of humans who decided which books should be canonized and which of the thousands of others should not be. It’s got our fingerprints all over it. Nonetheless, do we sometimes risk deifying the Bible, essentially turning it into an idol? Giving it attributes that it doesn’t claim for itself, like inerrancy and infallibility. Do we view re-interpretations and questions of its message as attacks against it, and respond at best by running away with our hands over our ears or at worst by yelling even louder crying ‘blasphemy’ and ‘heresy’ and breaking fellowship with the person asking the questions?
If my words here are beginning to evoke any kind of negative response, is it because I’m tearing down an idol … one which might be taking our eyes off of God and the teachings of Jesus. Many, including Jesus himself, have stood scriptural passages on their side to get people to look at them differently, so I feel a bit safer in doing the same.
The Bible describes the steady revelation of God to mankind. Once we get past the seriously challenging stories in Genesis 1-10, which have a hugely Mesopotamian resemblance, we come to the physical and spiritual journey made by one family, headed by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Thomas Cahill in “The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels”, gives a great summary of the huge changes in our collective view of God as this family transitioned from Sumerian polytheists in Babylon to Semitic monotheists in Canaan. Cahill begins with Abraham merely hearing a voice: “Even in the earliest stages, then, this relationship is different from the relationships of other Sumerians to their patronal gods.” He then explores several of the encounters those patriarchs had with God, ends with Jacob’s physical wrestling with God, and comes to a conclusion: “The religious center is no longer what it had been for the Sumerians and all other ancient cultures — impersonal manipulation by means of ritual prescriptions – but a face-to-face friendship with God”. But old habits are hard to break: all three patriarchs still build altars (Genesis 12:7; 26:25; 35:7) and offer sacrifices (there were no Mosaic laws requiring altars or sacrifices at this point in time), Jacob’s wife Rachel hangs onto the statues of her father’s household gods (Genesis 31:19, 34) and the nation of Israel tries to discern God’s will by ‘casting dice’ (the Urim and Thumim; Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8; Numbers 27:21; Deuteronomy 33:8; 1 Samuel 14:41; 1 Samuel 28:6; Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65). But just the same, they opened up a whole new perspective on God, one that didn’t exist before they left polytheistic Mesopotamia. And we get novel revelations of God through the eyes of people like Job, and Ruth, and David, and Isaiah, and Daniel. As we continue reading, we learn more and more about God, eventually coming to the full revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. And we’re still learning today!
In that sense, I see the Bible now as our notebook or diary. The earliest entries in a typical diary — written when the author is just a child — will lack maturity, will have a naive understanding of the way the world really is, will be full of selfish narcisism and emotional outbursts. But as you continue reading, the entries will become more mature, nuanced, insightful, ‘accurate’ (as in true-to-life), as the author grows older. That’s what I see in the Bible: from the stories of an angry, capricious God bent on disciplining and even destroying humans, to His full revelation in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. We can read that human diary and learn from previous fellow believers, but we don’t have to remain at their levels of theological thinking or repeat their mistakes (especially when it comes to the scientific, intellectual and ethical questions which are often raised against the Old Testament).
Do I still read the Bible and see value in it? Absolutely! I just don’t worship it. I won’t hold the words of the Bible above the words from science, sociology, or history solely on the simple, blind, unquestioned rationale that “it’s the Bible”. The Bible was handed down to us by humans — in fact, all of them from a very narrow slice of the demographic pie (Ancient Near Eastern, male, pre-modern) — and it’s clear to me that it’s been contaminated by the hands of humans. But I’ll also maintain that its writings are divinely inspired, and give us many important insights into a relationship with God through the eyes and lives of previous believers: again, it’s our collective notebook or diary. Peter Enns in “Inspiration and Incarnation: evangelicals and the problem of the Old Testament” pointed out that just as Jesus is referred to as ‘The Word’ (John 1:1-18) and both human and divine, in the same way the Bible is also God’s word and both human and divine.
I still expect that some will accuse me of violating scripture in the same way that the Pharisees accused the disciples of violating the Sabbath by picking heads of grain as they walked through a field. Jesus wasn’t concerned: he told them that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Neither the Bible nor the Sabbath were meant to be worshiped by mankind, but to help in mankind’s worship of God.
At this point, some will quote Jesus’s teaching “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). But this teaching of Jesus is not a commandment to us to take the scriptures as historically, scientifically accurate documents, especially on matters like the creation story, the Flood, the Tower of Babel or the conquest of Canaan. Instead, he’s talking about them as theological documents, and himself being a fulfillment of them (Matthew 5:17): the final answer to mankind getting reconciled with God. In this same passage, Jesus repeatedly teaches “You have heard it said … but now I say …” (Matthew 5:27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39 and 43-44). Despite the many dietary laws in the Pentateuch (and there were indeed many), he teaches “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them” (Matthew 15:11; also see verses 17-20). Concerning divorce: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning …” (Matthew 19:8-9). Each time he does this, he’s emphasizing that the scriptures may be a good starting point, but we need to take them to a higher, more complete and more accurate understanding. For that reason, I feel justified in calling for a more informed reading of the Bible (but not an outright dismissal of it).
To some, this less-than-literal reading of the Bible is wrongly perceived as a new, modern movement borne out of the church abandoning its faith and growing cold. Actually, the truth is that the Fundamentalist movement which holds every word of the Bible as literally true is itself a very recent phenomenon. The Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed — both of which were specifically intended by the very earliest church leaders to summarize the basic, undeniable, bed-rock foundational beliefs that all Christians must hold — make no mention of the necessity of reading scripture literally. The same can be said about the “Rule of Faith” written by Irenaeus. Another one of the greatest early church fathers Augustine of Hippo (354-450 AD) didn’t know what to make of some of Genesis, particularly the six days of Creation; in fact, in his book entitled “The Literal Interpretation of Genesis”, he concludes that everything was created simultaneously in one instant of time, rather than over 6 distinct calendar days (if you take the time to read his book, you’ll see he doesn’t at all use the word “literal” in the same way that many Young-Earth Creationists do today). Many other great church leaders down through the ages since Augustine were very ambivalent about those and other details of Creation. It’s only been in the past century or two that the fundamentalist movement, which demanded a ‘literal’ reading of Genesis, was born and the church has been further divided on that point ever since.
Let’s stop dividing over this. Let’s find common ground in the teachings of Jesus.