Sunday, April 15, 2012

It's not that Simple (sorry)

In my Logic and Critical Thinking class this semester, we are using the topic of creation and evolution.  It's the first time I've used this, and there seems to be more intrinsic interest from the students than topics I've used in the past (like illegal immigration or global warming).  I suppose that part of the reason for this is that it is supposed that the Bible has more to say on this topic.  I wonder if that's really true, though?  I'll perhaps come back to that question in another speech.

Today's speech, instead, is more about interpreting the Bible in general.  I think we who teach impressionable young minds have to be careful doing this, but I'm convinced that for the long-term benefit of Christians (and thereby for the Kingdom of God) we need to expose the selective and non-literal reading of the Bible that all of us engage in.  What I mean is this: It's hugely common and holy sounding (and not without value) for us Christians who are thinking about some topic (perhaps evolution, global warming, or illegal immigration) to appeal to a Bible verse in support of our conclusion.  What we've seen in Critical Thinking class is that the implicit logical form of such an argument is:

Premise 1:  The Bible says X
Premise 2:  Whatever the Bible says, we should accept (or depending on the passage, "Whatever the Bible says we should obey").
Conclusion:  Therefore, we should accept (or obey) X
The problem is that premise 2 needs massive qualification and all sorts of ad hoc fiddling with in order to accept.  For example, not many of us accept or obey Deuteronomy 21:18-21 which clearly tells parents to take their rebellious sons to the elders outside of the city gates and have them stoned to death.  Instead, we "interpret" the verse to be not applicable to us today.  Usually we say something like, "That was part of the old covenant."  But then, of course, so are the ten commandments.  Are these not applicable to us today?  Furthermore, Jesus claimed that he did not come to abolish the law, and that not one letter shall be omitted from the law until heaven and earth pass away.  By most counts, heaven and earth have not yet passed away.

It doesn't get much easier if we confine ourselves to a straight or literal reading of the New Testament.  Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus famously tells us to pluck out an eye if it causes us to sin.  The other day my son and I were following a pickup truck with Luke 22:36 bumper stickered in its back window next to the gun rack.  Not knowing that reference by heart, Trevor looked it up on his phone and laughed pretty hard as he read Jesus saying, "The one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one."  Then of course we could refer to the verses on women, or my favorite:  Greet one another with a kiss (which is given in at least four places in the New Testament).  We could give a much longer list of things the Bible pretty clearly says that most of us don't accept or obey.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we can't use the Bible to help us know what to believe or how to act.  What I'm suggesting (actually, I'm engaging in something stronger than suggestion here), is that it's not quite so easy to open your Bible and point to chapter and verse in order to prove your favorite theory.

I don't think that we should be stoning our sons, plucking out our eyes, or kissing everyone we meet.  I believe that there are legitimate interpretations of these verses that show they need not be taken literally by us today.  But in closing, a couple of things about interpretations:  1)  It's a lot of hard work to arrive at interpretations that are faithful to the text, to the cultural context, and to our situation today.  I believe that anyone can pick up the Bible and read it profitably; but there needs to be people who devote their lives to studying the Bible, learning the original languages, and learning everything they can about the cultures in which the books were written.  And we need to trust them--though not blindly so, which leads to 2)  Interpretations are not infallible.  If they were, we'd have a big problem on our hands when we recognize that there are gobs of interpretations that are contradictory (just for starters, think about eschatology or eternal security).

I believe that the Bible is inspired and authoritative.  And I also believe that it under-determines most of the doctrines that we derive from it.  That's not to say that those doctrines are wrong, just that it is not quite so simple as saying that the Bible says it.  This is a call to thinking Christians everywhere not to perpetuate simplistic (and often bone-headed) uses of the Bible.  Seriously.  Please.


Anthony Parrott said...

This seems to be the main topic of my reading as of late. I think the conversation on the topic has finally gotten some irenic writing in the past few years (though one can always find some overly-angry blog--not this one fortunately!).

Do have any thoughts on Christian Smith's, The Bible Made Impossible? I've started it, but my grad studies have pulled me away from it recently.

Anonymous said...

Very nice post--we were just talking about this in small group last night.


Sarah said...

I LOVE this post. I've been really struggling with this lately in relationships with many friends. They say the Bible is True (Ok, I believe that) but don't say what they mean by True. Usually, what they mean is that their worldview is fully supported by the Bible. And often (sadly)they are saying the Bible is 'clear' about something that it's not clear about at all. It's nice to see a man who has earned respect intellectually, spiritually, socially, etc., both of myself and everyone around him, share the same views.

Shanda Sargent said...

Outstanding post!