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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Objections to Bible-thumpers: "The Bible Endorses Evil Things"

"The Bible says that polygamy is okay, but you say it's wrong. The Bible says that slavery is good—do you think we should enslave people? The Bible commands genocide too. No one—not even you—agrees with everything that the Bible says is right, so how can you insist on what it says is wrong?"

Does the Bible have no credibility because of evil behavior that it endorses?

I believe that very few people who think it through would answer "yes" to that question, because the people who are the most critical of what the Bible says draw their critiques from other stuff that the Bible says.

For example, some people blast away at the Bible for being misogynistic and enshrining the patriarchy (fancy ways of saying, "It hates women"). But the basis of that critique is the premise that people in power ought to yield power willingly to those who do not have it on the basis of a common humanity. Whence comes that principle? The Bible, of course. (It is not for nothing that feminism emerged out of once-Christianized places; in other civilizations it grows as a transplant.)

So the Bible has at least some credibility, because it promotes some things we think are good. On some issues, in fact, it contains the only ancient material that promotes what we think is good. Nevertheless, there remains this terrible discomfort over bad stuff that the Bible (apparently) tells people to do. That inclines people to believe that it is up to us wise moderns to sort out what is legit and not legit in the Bible's teaching.

But there is a problem here: people who make that claim often don't know what the Bible says themselves—they haven't actually read it but are just going on what other people have told them about it. And even those who have seen for themselves what the Bible says are often careless about what exactly it says, what it does not say, how it says what it says, and why.

Here are two principles to operate by when you find what looks like an endorsement of bad behavior in the Bible.

Principle #1 – Commands matter more than allowances 

Very often, when people say, "The Bible says we should do _____________," the Bible is merely describing a practice, not commending it. And sometimes when the Bible does contain some law about a bad practice, it is still not commending it. Rather, it is providing guidelines and limitations to ameliorate the bad thing going on in a society for the time being.

The clearest example of this phenomenon is divorce:
Then some Pharisees came [to Jesus], and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her" [Deut. 24:1]. But Jesus said to them, "He wrote this commandment for you because of your hard hearts. But from the beginning of creation [God] made them male and female [Gen. 1:27]. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother, and the two will become one flesh [Gen. 2:24]. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate" [Mark 10:2-9].
Jesus and the Pharisees are debating what is right and wrong behavior according to the Law, as observant Jews have been doing for two and a half millennia. Jesus asserts that the "commandment" God gave through Moses about divorce was only to manage the destructiveness of an undesirable, sinful situation ("your hard hearts"). In other words, divorce was allowed but was not truly commanded. The true command—the original intention of God, to be adhered to by all who would please him—is not to divorce at all, except possibly in cases of sexual infidelity.

Polygamy is a similar example. God's intention for humans at creation excludes polygamy for the same reason that it excludes divorce. Yet God allowed that situation to exist for a while without prohibiting it. Nevertheless, every polygamous family described in the Bible is wracked with strife, the natural result of departing from God's desire.

Slavery, though a more complex issue, follows a similar pattern. Only in rare and specific historical circumstances (which we will examine below) did God command people in the Bible to enslave other people. Otherwise, God (through Moses and the apostles) regulated slavery as a given in the societies and economies that his people lived in. In Israel he laid down law that gave considerable rights and protections for most slaves, especially in comparison with neighboring nations. In the church scattered in the Roman Empire he gave instructions about masters' treatment of and attitude toward their slaves. In both cases, God's commands, though not abolishing slavery, went a long way toward humanizing it if they were obeyed.

This "humanizing" is a very important point, because slavery is undergirded by the idea that a slave is something like a domesticated animal, occupying a place between a full human and an inanimate tool. Any requirement that the slave be treated as a fellow human being attacks the institution at its foundation. When Paul instructed Philemon to treat his runaway slave, Onesimus, as a "brother" because both were in Christ, he may as well have abolished slavery itself. If Philemon as a Christian desired the salvation of all people, including his slaves, and if he were to treat those slaves as full-blooded family members, then the accouterments of slavery, followed by its obligations and then its very structure, would wither away in his household and in all Christian households who lived according to the same principles.

This is in accordance with God's desire to see slavery abolished, a theme that runs through the Bible. The foundational narrative of Israel was the story of God setting a slave people free, redeeming them to be his own servants. This remained the hope spoken by the prophets while Israel was stuck in a sort of national slavery to foreign powers as tributaries and as captives. In the New Testament, Jesus reaffirmed this hope for Israel, and he and the apostles added a layer of meaning to liberation: namely, salvation is pictured as liberation from slavery to one's own guilt, one's propensity to sin, and the death stemming from both.

So it is important to distinguish between what the Bible commands and what it allows and regulates, and looking at God's overarching intentions expressed in creation and new creation (redemption) helps us to distinguish between commands and allowances. That sets up the second principle . . .

Principle #2 – Reasons matter more than commands

When viewing an endorsement of any behavior in the Bible, good or (apparently) bad, it is important to understand as well as possible why that command is there. This has been an implicit theme throughout this series of posts, but it is especially important when looking at commands that appear to us to be immoral.

Sometimes the reasons God issues a command reveal that the command is specific to one situation, which must be considered on its own terms. The prime example of this is genocide.

For starters, let's get clear exactly what we're talking about. Some people have the impression that ancient Israelites committed genocide willy-nilly and that, according to the Bible, God commanded all of it. This is not so. Israel fought many wars over eight hundred years, but God only commanded genocide in situations that pertained to Israel's travel to and possession of the land God promised to Israel's ancestor Abraham. Moreover, even in those situations the massacre was not always total. In a few cases, everyone died. Other times girls, or all women and children, were left alive, and these were enslaved.

Incidentally, massacre and enslavement were standard procedure when a resistant city fell to a besieger in the ancient world. Nevertheless, this is a terrible, dreadful thing, and I do not mean to minimize it. Yet it is important that we look at the reasons. Why did God command the extermination of certain peoples root and branch?

The first reason is that they deserved it. Before you tune this out, hear me out. People who lived in Canaan (modern Israel/Palestine) were well known for their atrocious customs, including burning babies alive as sacrifices to their gods. These were not gentle, harmless people.

Nevertheless, you and I deserve the same fate. The just punishment for any sin of any sort is death. God does not owe us a single moment of life; to the contrary, every breath he allows us is pure mercy as he patiently gives us time to turn from our wicked ways. The real mystery isn't why God decreed the extermination of the Canaanites but why he hasn't yet executed the same judgment on us all.

The second reason for the genocide God commanded is that he knew what would happen to Israel if the Israelites did not eliminate those cultures. He repeatedly warned that if they lived peaceably among the Canaanites together in the same land they would adopt reprehensible Canaanite practices, especially worshiping something other than him—which, to repeat, is the big sin that all of us commit one way or another. In fact, Israel did not completely annihilate the Canaanites, and what God warned is exactly what happened with horrific consequences for Israel.

Third, God's command to Israel is a critical admonition to us, although, as I wrote previously about the Law of Moses in general, we apply these directions to the inward parts of our lives, not to our physical circumstances. Israel was God's physical kingdom, but believers in Christ are citizens of an invisible (for now) and spiritual kingdom. Israel had physical adversaries, but believers in Christ have spiritual adversaries—namely, the devil and the evil embedded in our corrupt selves. But just as Israelites were to take no prisoners of the enemies that could lead them astray, so we are to take no prisoners and make no peace with the influences toward evil in our selves, our surroundings that we can control, and Satan. As John Owen wrote three and a half centuries ago, "Be killing sin, or it will be killing you."

It is noteworthy that God did not command Israel to annihilate its other pagan neighbors even when they fought with Israel. Instead, Israel was to be rigorously pure in its own space in order to lead its wayward neighbors to the truth for their own good. Likewise, our ruthless battle is against impurity within our own selves so that the people around us, even if they hate us, might be led to truth and life.

Therefore, even though God commanded genocide only in a narrowly specific situation, his reasons for that command are universally applicable.

Sometimes, however, with other issues, reasons given in the Bible reveal that a command is for all places and times.

Let's take what Paul the Apostle says about homosexual behavior, for example. In Romans 1:18-32, Paul argues that God repaid humans' universal inclination toward idolatry of one kind or another—despite evidence from nature that he is the Creator—by "giving them over" to foolish thinking, which they consider wise, and wicked behavior, which they justify to themselves. Paul cites homosexuality as the prime example of this degradation.

Some people today want to maintain respect for the Bible as God's Word and at the same time go with society's beliefs about homosexuality. They point out that male homosexual affairs in ancient Greece and Rome were usually what we would call pedophilia—an adult man with an adolescent boy. This, they claim, is a very different thing than two loving, committed male adults today.

Setting aside the issue of how many male homosexual liaisons today happen between two loving, committed, exclusive, lifelong partners (it is a minority), Paul and other biblical authors never condemn homosexual behavior for being pedophilia or for being promiscuous. Paul condemns it because it comes from a flat denial of the God who created human beings in his image, male and female. He condemns it because human beings flipped the script and made their god-concepts in human image, and that inversion is reflected in their perversion. Reasons matter more than commands, and these reasons apply no matter how, where, or when homosexuality is practiced. Besides, ancient lesbianism was not pedophilia, but Paul denounces it too.

In response, some readers note all the bad behaviors Paul attributes to these homosexual idolaters: "every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice . . . envy, murder, strife, deceit, hostility," and so forth (v. 29). They say, "Hey, if I knew a gay person who was like that, I'd call him an evil person too! But the Bible isn't judging a gay person who is good; it's only judging a gay person (or any person) like those people."

To this I say, quite right: the Bible is only judging people like that, gay and straight alike. But all people are like that, so all deserve to be judged. Paul continues, "Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things" (2:1). "There is no one righteous, not even one. . . . All have turned away, together they have become worthless. . . . There is no fear of God before their eyes. . . . No one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law" (3:10, 12, 18, 20).

Exemption from judgment only comes by receiving the merciful grace of God offered in Jesus Christ, a grace that "trains us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age. . . . He gave himself for us to set us free from every kind of lawlessness and to purify for himself a people who are truly his, who are eager to do good" (Tit. 2:12, 14).

The Bible does not call homosexual behavior a bad thing because it is associated with other behaviors any more than it calls stealing wrong because it is associated with lying or murder wrong because it is associated with pride. Reasons matter more than commands, and the reason the Bible gives is that homosexual behavior denies and defaces God's image in humanity, male and female. His grace does not bid us to get clean in all parts of our lives except our sexuality but rather to act holiness out in all aspects of our being.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Objections to Bible-thumpers: "Science, Yo"

Some people believe that we have to treat the Bible skeptically on certain matters because the people who wrote it knew less about the world than we do. They did not have modern science, so in many cases they did not know what they were making pronouncements about. This (people assume) includes scientific understandings of gender and sexuality, for example. So unless we want to return to the level of science and technology of the Iron Age, we should dismiss what the Bible teaches on such topics.

Unfortunately, this assumption not only misunderstands the Bible, it also misunderstands science.

It is true that some of biblical authors' understanding of the world was inaccurate. For example, they sometimes called lightning "fire from heaven," not knowing that fire is composed of gas in a process of combustion whereas lightning is composed of plasma in an electrostatic discharge.

Yet their inaccuracies about nature appear mostly in poetry, and to this day we continue to put scientific inaccuracies in poetry for the sake of artistry. Moreover, what the biblical authors assumed about the physical world is not the same as what they taught in their writings (more on this distinction in the next post). The Bible teaches little to nothing either scientifically correct or incorrect. By and large, what the Bible teaches is not in the realm of science (as we commonly use the term) at all.

Science tells us "what," not "so what"

In science, why? means how? In other words, the answer to why? is an explanation of the physical influences, mechanisms, and processes that produced the thing we are looking at.

In science, why? does not mean for what purpose? The answer to why? does not involve a goal or standard or ideal that a phenomenon is intended to conform to. Or if it does—as in the science of animal behavior—it is not an ultimate explanation. For example, the explanation for a squirrel gathering acorns may be that the squirrel intends to amass a food supply to survive the winter, but the ultimate explanation is that natural selection has produced an animal with an instinct to do so.

Science is good at telling us what is (and sometimes what was) in the physical realm but tells us nothing about what ought to be. It can tell us what, but it cannot tell us so what. Our stubborn ideas that reality should be a certain way come from another source than science.

Let's return to the examples of gender and sexuality. Great effort has been exerted to find a scientific explanation for gender dysphoria and fluidity and for homosexuality. To date, little has been found, and what has been found tends to be overstated by partisans. But even if it were found to be scientifically unassailable that gender dysphoric, genderfluid, and homosexual people were biologically determined to think and desire as they do, it would prove exactly nothing about how they ought to be.

To the contrary, it would actually prove the Bible's point. The Bible maintains that all people are fundamentally flawed; in our very nature we do not fit what moral beings ought to be, what humans once were, and what humans will be again.

One might retort that a moral standard that a person is incapable of ever reaching is unreasonable and unfair. But that assertion is not grounded in science either. Any claim about the way things ought to be, including what the ought ought to be, is beyond science.

So if science, no matter how far it advances, can never tell us what ought to be, how can we know it? How can we know whose ought is right?

The ought must be outside this world, because it is the standard that we are comparing this world to. If only we had some way of breaking out of the world to get it, or for the standard to break into this world to show itself to us.

Christians assert that this is exactly what has happened. This is, in part, what the Bible is—the verbal breaking of the ought into the is, into the human world that no longer conforms to the ought but retains a persistent memory of how it once did and might again.

Whether Christians are right or wrong about the Bible, dismissing what it or anyone else says about what ought to be because of what science says is is a logical error. If you have a problem with the Bible's ought, it's because it contradicts some other ought—your own, not science's.

So where does your ought come from? How do you know it is closer to the real ought than is the ought expressed in the parts of the Bible you don't like? Why should anyone believe your ought? Why should you believe it yourself?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Objections to Bible-thumpers: "That Was a Different Culture"

"Of course I believe the Bible. I agree that it's inspired by God. But it was written to people in a totally different culture. They didn't have to deal with all the things we have to deal with in our culture. God was speaking to them according to what they could understand and according to what their needs were in their place and day. And truthfully, elements of their culture that were no good leaked into the Bible too. We need to apply the Bible to our culture today, and that means ignoring the parts of it that are outmoded and inappropriate to our world."

I've heard variations of this before, and I bet you have too, or you've said it yourself. It is a common rebuttal to a Christian who asserts that the Bible says that something is right or wrong.

There is real truth to this statement, but it contains muddled thinking too. The key is the word culture. What is culture, and what is the nature of cultural differences? How does God's communication to one culture have any meaning or significance for a different culture? How do we figure out what crosses the cultural divide and how?

The basic principle is . . .

Cultures change; people don't

What is culture?

Animals have a strong attachment to a natural habitat, often with great specificity, and a robust array of instincts that direct their behavior to thrive in that habitat. Humans, on the other hand, have very little attachment to a specific natural habitat and a weak set of instincts for us to survive anywhere.

We compensate with our great intelligence—and our thumbs—which allows us to convert the natural world into habitats where we can flourish. However, our intelligence also increases what we require to flourish above what animals require; we need, for example, "meaning," which an ant colony does not require for its well-being.

A human group's construction of a world to inhabit inside the natural world is what we call culture. Culture exists in physical artifacts and shelters, social organization, laws of possession, beliefs, ways of doing things, and ways of communicating within the group, including language and other symbols.

Cultures define meaning for the humans in them. Also, cultures vary from place to place, people to people, and generation to generation. Therefore, certain acts or symbols in one culture convey no meaning or a very different meaning—even an opposite meaning—in another culture. (Consider, for example, how greeting someone with a kiss means something different in different cultures.)

This has a considerable impact on moral teaching. A given moral standard in a culture, which people in that culture may assume to be universal, is sometimes actually the outworking of a universal moral principle in the "language" of that culture. Take, for example, "women must not wear X" because it communicates Y, or "men must not X" because it exhibits Y—Y is the universal; X is how it may be violated in that culture.

It is to be assumed (for reasons I will not supply here) that moral standards in the Bible exemplify universal moral principles that the Creator intends to tell us. But for a given biblical standard, we must examine what that standard communicated in that culture and then consider whether it would communicate the same thing in our culture or not, and if not, to translate it to ours.

Fortunately, the Bible gives us much help, because it was not written in one culture but in several. There are significant differences among the cultures of the patriarchs, of Israel in the wilderness, of Israel during the monarchy/-ies, of exiled Jews, of Jews rebuilding in Palestine, of Palestinian Jews under the Roman imperium, of diaspora Jews in the Roman Empire, and of ordinary Greek-speakers in the empire's cosmopolitan cities.

So the Bible itself is a multicultural collection of books. A careful comparison of book with book, culture with culture, generation with generation often reveals important clues about which biblical standards of conduct vary by culture and which do not.

Many do not vary at all, because, though cultures vary, people don't. I am not talking about comparing one individual with another, of course, but considering humans as humans. When one studies the Bible carefully, aware of the cultural gap between people described in the text and ourselves, one isn't struck by how different they were from us but how astonishingly similar.

Take Genesis, for example, most of which is written about a family of wealthy nomadic herders in the Middle East in the early second millennium B.C. The customs, inheritance patterns, family structures, economy, political environment, technology, taboos, and religion depicted in that book are alien to us in the twenty-first-century West. But with a little understanding of those differences, the reader is shocked by how vividly realistic its depiction of a dysfunctional family is. It is disturbingly familiar. One gets the sense that human beings really haven't changed in four thousand years.

And one would be right. Human beings haven't changed in the core of our humanity. Our makeup of desires, needs, sensitivities, immoralities, and indignations are virtually the same at all times and all places. Of course they vary somewhat from person to person, place to place, and time to time; some are more or less emphasized or intensified in one place than in others. But these differences are slight compared to the remarkable sameness.

So how do we apply the principle "cultures change, but people don't" when we seek to apply the Bible's teaching to our situation? Here are some examples.

When we read Paul's instruction about head-coverings in Christian worship, we have reasonable confidence that whatever he is talking about—for the passage contains numerous puzzles—it has to do with what certain clothing communicated within that culture, in part because there is no real analog to that teaching anywhere else in Scripture.

Similarly, when we read instructions about the inheritance rights of the firstborn in Moses' law, we can be confident that it meant something within the social and economic structure of that culture, because God commanded Abraham to handle inheritance in a different way earlier, and the apostles did not impose that law in the urban Greco-Roman cultural and economic system later.

But when we read what the Bible teaches about sexuality, we are dealing with something entirely different. We are dealing with something in the core of human nature that persists with remarkable similarity across cultures and ages. Humans flourish sexually (or at least prevent damage) according to the same recipe wherever and whenever they live. Conversely, there is no unfaithfulness, excess, or perversion happening in our time that has not appeared here and there—in some cases everywhere—for thousands of years. And that is why it is unsurprising that the bulk of sexual teaching in the Bible appears, or else is assumed, in writings set in various cultures throughout the corpus.

The notion that the basics of human sexuality have remained the same might seem incredible. After all, even in the lifetimes of many people living today there has been an immense shift in how our own culture views sexuality.

I am not saying that cultures do not have widely varying views about what constitutes healthy and moral sexuality. I am saying that healthy and moral sexuality itself does not change. In other words, cultures can get it wrong, some in different ways than others, some more than others.

This is a critical piece of the "times have changed because cultures change" argument that is usually overlooked: the assumption that any given culture is immune from criticism. We have trouble being consistent with this assumption, of course—wife-beating was (is?) part of the culture in Afghanistan under the Taliban, apartheid was part of the culture of South Africa, watching men kill each other for entertainment was part of the culture of ancient Rome, and we condemn them all. But we naively assume that our own culture and most others (which we don't know very well) are by nature exempt from rebuke.

For a reader of the Bible, this assumption just does not do, because the Bible criticizes cultures on every page. It criticizes what they believe, do, make, love, and despise. No biblical book affirms any culture absolutely, including the culture in which it was written, and scarcely any does so implicitly.

Cultures, like the individuals that compose them, are incorrigibly corrupted by sin. So to say that the Bible's prohibitions of a behavior are irrelevant to us today simply because we live in a different culture is totally missing the point. The Bible judges every culture that contradicts God's law—that is, every culture, period—including the cultures in which it was written, and including our own.