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Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Spectrum of Scripture Skeptics

I had a really good theological education from high school to college to seminary.  But one thing that was not so good about it was a tendency of my theologically conservative teachers to paint all theological liberals with the same brush.  A notable example was that during my college days the Jesus Seminar had recently wrapped up and was still big news.  For those unfamiliar with this, the Jesus Seminar was a colloquium of highly skeptical scholars who met together to assess the five Gospels (yes, five—they included the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas) and give their collective opinion of what in the Gospels genuinely happened or Jesus said, what definitely didn't, and a couple gradations in between.  (Their published report can be found here.)  Unfortunately, I was left with the mistaken impression that all theological liberals—and by extension all clergy (though not necessarily scholars) trained by theological liberals, and by further extension all members of churches pastored by those clergy—took the same skeptical, anti-supernatural approach to the Bible as the Jesus Seminar.

Now my impression wasn't entirely without merit.  Once I went to a Mainline church that acquaintances of mine occasionally attended.  The semi-retired parson started his sermon by reading Romans 3:27-30 (we're justified by faith, not works) and James 2:24-26 (we're justified by works, not faith alone) and concluding from this, which any halfway-decent seminary student could explain, that the Bible is a useless mass of contradictions.  His conclusion was that the Bible doesn't matter as much as "the Bible you are writing."  I know—gag.  (By the way, I'll give you the halfway-decent seminarian's answer another time.)

Nevertheless, that experience doesn't reflect all Liberal Protestantism.  My opinion was corrected in a remarkable class I took during seminary at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University called Religion, Politics, and Public Policy in the U.S.  The student makeup of the class was very religiously diverse, and my bigotry against Liberal Protestants was thoroughly challenged (particularly by the Liberal professor).  I found that it's as unfair to assume that all Liberals disbelieve that Jesus rose bodily from the dead as for Liberals to assume that all Evangelicals hate gays.  It's never good to take the extreme edge of a movement as a reliable sample of the bulk of that movement.

I learned that just as there are different ways that believers under the conservative umbrella regard Scripture, there are different ways that people in the liberal camp do too.  There is a broad and diverse spectrum from the Jesus Seminar on the left to those who believe that God audibly dictated the Scriptures word-for-word (in the King James Version), every sentence of which is to be interpreted literally (including, "The trees of the field will clap their hands" [Isa. 55:12]?) on the right.

I'm currently leading my church's youth group through a curriculum developed by a publishing house of a liberal Mainline Protestant denomination.  So far it's great stuff (I hope to review it on the blog at the end of the school year), but sometimes I cut or reframe lessons because I don't agree.  A couple of these have to do with the Bible, and I want to quote from them here as examples of a Liberal take on Scripture that is a lot more respectful than the Jesus Seminar but still raises some concerns.

A lesson that examines how the Bible is true contrasts biblical stories that enjoy significant scholarly support on extrabiblical grounds with those that don't.  Then it concludes,
For the very first people who heard these Bible stories, the difference between a factual historical account and a really powerful story didn't really exist.  For them a Bible story could be very true indeed whether or not anybody could prove that it actually happened.  The important thing for them was the meaning behind the story, that it demonstrated the character of God, the God they knew was active in their everyday lives and throughout history.  You see, their faith was never in the story at all or in the storyteller or even in the pages of a book.  Their faith was in God.
The lesson raises a good point that we easily overlook about the difference between the ancient writers and readers and ourselves, because the differences are significant.  The ancients tended to be less precise in their accounts than we would be.  They often don't have a high regard for putting things in chronological order but rather tell, flash back, jump ahead, and retell in confusing ways if it gets a point across better than retaining the actual order of events.  (Think of the last time you recounted a conversation you had with someone else for an example of this.)  They never intend to report "objective" history—every story they tell is to prove a point and is intentionally shaped according to that bias, so fact and opinion (which may in fact be a true opinion) are always blended.  And for all we know, some biblical authors may have intentionally employed fiction to get points across like novelists do today, but back in those days their works weren't published with "NOVEL" stamped on the back cover, so it's harder for us to tell which in the canon is which.

But to say that ancient readers didn't distinguish between fact and fiction at all or care about the difference is a big stretch.  The ancient Israelites and early Christians couldn't have faith in God detached from faith in at least some (I would say nearly all) stories about him.  In fact, that's exactly what sets the religion of the ancient Israelites and Christianity apart from every other religion we know of.  You could totally discredit the existence of Buddha and still have Buddhism.  You can't eliminate Jesus and have Christianity.  Mohammed's revelation was witnessed by no one but Mohammed and was detached from any historical events.  Part of God's revelation to Moses was witnessed by the entire Israelite nation, and all of it rested on the claim that Yahweh historically brought Israel out of Egypt, the land of slavery.

In fact, it was this very feature of the ancient Israelite religion and Christianity that won new adherents.  Rahab of Jericho shifted her allegiance to Yahweh and the people of Yahweh not because of a powerful story that expressed truth detached from fact but because all of Jericho had heard the report of what he had actually done in Egypt and across the Jordan.  Likewise, time and again the apostles insisted that "we are witnesses of these things" (e.g., Acts 3:15)—factual events that led to the inescapable conclusion that Jesus is Lord and Christ.  And in these cases people did indeed believe the story because they believed the storytellers were credible.  (How else would one come to believe it?)  Even if one were to argue that these stories in Joshua and Acts are themselves fictional (I don't), at the very least they reveal the point of view of the ancient Israelites and early Christians that their claims about God rest on historical fact, which sounds more "modern" than many today would like to admit.  (In fact, one could argue that biblical religion is where the modern obsession with fact sprang from.)

Another lesson in this curriculum examines how on occasion the Bible contradicts itself.  It doesn't examine foolish, so-called contradictions like between Paul and James that I mentioned previously but rather blunt, literal, factual details that anyone who looks at them can see don't line up.  For example, the lesson points out that in his resurrection account Matthew (also Mark) says that there was one angel; Luke (also John) says there were two.  (If you add Mark and John in the mix you run into other problems, like whether the angels appeared inside or outside the tomb and whether they were present before or after the women showed up, plus other weird issues that I think can in fact be reconciled.)

The lesson does a good job of pointing out this fact about the Bible that conservatives prefer to avoid, and it rightly points out that God's inspired Word was written to direct people to him, not to itself, that God is God, not the Bible.  However, it concludes by saying, "It doesn't matter if there was an earthquake at Jesus' tomb or whether the tomb was open before or after they got there or if there were guards or if it was an angel or two men or a tree that told Mary and Mary that Jesus was risen.  What's important about the story is that Jesus had risen."

Really?  Those recorded details, even conflicting details, aren't important?  That's a strange claim to make in light of a previous lesson in the curriculum that did such a great job of explaining how the Bible and its authors were inspired by God.  It's a strange claim given Jesus' own opinion of Scripture (in his day the Old Testament) that it couldn't be broken (John 10:35) and that neither the tiniest letter ("jot") nor serif that distinguished one letter from another ("tittle") would disappear from it until everything had been accomplished (Matt. 5:18).  It does matter whether there was one angel or two—not in the sense that the resurrection of Jesus rests on it, but because no matter how many angels were actually there, God wanted Matthew and Mark to say that there was one and he wanted Luke and John to say that there were two.  I can't tell you why in this particular case, because I don't know.  But I believe that it's intentional, because every word of Scripture is inspired by God, and everything that God does is intentional, and everything that God does matters.

Liberals who are relatively close to the center of Christian thought about Scripture have some important things to teach Evangelicals, because they are willing to look squarely at some things that we would rather ignore.  We owe it to the God who inspired Scripture to grapple with the relationship between truth and fact in his Word from the perspective of original authors and readers.  And we don't love the Bible as fervently as we claim to if we refuse to get close enough to it to see and acknowledge its relatively few direct, factual self-contradictions.  But examining these things gives us no excuse to conclude that occurrences that we think are unlikely are therefore fictitious or that the only thing that matters is the big picture while the details are irrelevant.  God is still the God of all Scripture—even the incredible, even the details.

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