Monday, 20 March 2017

For The Bible Tells Me So

The headland between Totaranui and Goat Bay, looking South to Goat Bay and Waiharakeke

Here are three things which are related. Please bear with me.

1. A couple of days ago I finished reading 1 Chronicles. So many odd names, and so many lists! And so many contradictions and omissions and obvious glosses! It was a tough slog, but I got there. And my understanding of the Bible as a whole is greatly enhanced by the effort

2. A couple of days ago Clemency and I walked the short piece of the Abel Tasman track from Totarauni to Awaroa Inlet. We have walked this short piece of our favourite part of the planet dozens of times before, and the leg over to Goat Bay is easy peasy lemon squeezy: a very short, flattish jaunt around the base of the cliff. But, since we last did it, a landslide had taken out the track, and DOC has cut a new one over the top. Now it is a  steep little 30 minute gutbuster to surprise us as we begin. It was a tough slog, but we got there. And our walk to the inlet and back was one of the best, loveliest, most joyous things we've done together in years.

3. Today I read a survey on Bible readership conducted by the Lifeway organisation. I was surprised to read that, of active church goers, only 20% claim to read their Bibles daily. I was surprised that it was so high. The wording of the survey ( a question which asks, for example, " I desire to please and honor Jesus in all I do. Yes/No" ) shows that it was designed by and probably answered by conservative evangelicals, that is by people who claim to hold scripture in very high regard.

I would suspect that the real, as opposed to the reported levels of Bible reading are actually lower than the Lifeway survey suggest. I think that across the whole spectrum of Christian denominations, they would be lower still.  The fact is, most Christians don't read the Bible. Some of them read parts of the Bible but very few read all of it. I suspect that if you were to ask "have you read every word of the Bible, Yes/No?" and people answered truthfully, when reporting the "Yes" percentage, there would be a decimal point then several zeros before you got to a digit. Now isn't this strange, amongst people who claim that the Bible is the Word of God? If you actually did believe that the creator of the universe left a written record, direct from his (sic) own mouth, then that record would be somewhat compelling, right? It would be unputdownable, surely?

In all things, it is what people do rather than what they say which reveals what they really think. So your friend says "I LOVE tennis!" but doesn't own a racquet or a ball, never goes near a court, is vague as to the rules and never, but never, watches matches live or on TV. He's lying. So your girlfriend says "I love you, I love you, I love you, like never before." But she never returns your emails and texts, it's been years since she gave you so much as a birthday card, she changes the subject when you try to engage her in deep conversation, and you know she is simultaneously dating several other blokes. It's time to dry your eyes and sign up to Tinder. In much the same way, what Christians do with the Bible tells you what they really think of it.

The trouble is, the Bible is hard work. There are some nice bits (everybody answering the surveys seems to mention Psalm 23 and/or John 3) but lots and lots of boring and distasteful bits. And reading it brings you face to face with your own presuppositions about the Bible itself. For example, the ONLY ways to preserve a belief in Biblical inerrancy is either to only ever read parts of it, or to never read it at all. Much energy is spent on the question about whether or not the Bible is the Word of God, but actually, that's the wrong question. Or at least, it's the wrong question for Christians. A better question is: HOW is the Bible the Word of God? and that's a much trickier one to answer; or at least to answer glibly.

The Abel Tasman track is one of the world's great walks. It's comparatively easy to walk the whole thing but it does take some effort. Some people walk bits of it: there are water taxis which will drop you off and pick you up again from almost anywhere along the path, so you can stroll along the prettiest bits and not be unduly challenged by it. But the only way to really know this, the most beautiful corner of the planet, is to start at one end and walk it all: to soldier through the Tonga Swamp, and risk the razor sharp shells and the stingrays as you wade Awaroa Inlet as well as bask on the golden sands of Bark Bay or swim in the crystal clear water at Little Anapai.

The only way to really know the Bible; the only way to come to some real, as opposed to imagined, understanding of what God might be doing with the strange old book is to read it. Not read bits of it. Read it. 

So before you tell others who God's Word permits them to love; or whether or not they can speak in church; or when they should take their days off, read it. Show by your actions, and by your actions alone, that you actually believe the Bible to be what you proclaim it to be.


Brian Kelly said...

1. Hey, some of us haven't just read Chronicles but have written dissertations etc on it! Try my book on Chronicles - 1 and 2! You can get it remaindered cheap on Amazon (or illegally copied on BookZZ) - or my commentary in The ESV Study Bible. To put (one of) my findings very briefly: 2 Chr 7.14 is the hermeneutical key to this work of grace and redemption and its language and ideas reverberate throughout the book. Yes, the great joy of my studies was to discover the gospel of grace foreshadowed in dibre hayamaim. 'Novum in Vetere latet / Vetus in Novo patet'.
2. I believe you about Abel Tasman Park - sounds and looks great.
3. Some of us have read every word and more than once - and we're still biblical inerrantists. Are we insane, invincibly ignorant - or are we trying to follow the Lord Jesus who said 'The Scripture cannot be broken' and the (virtually) unbroken line of church interpretation from the Church Fathers through to the 19th century, before de Wette and German rationalism gained the upper hand in Protestantism? That many self-described evangelicals don't read much of the Bible doesn't surprise me, but the cultural ignorance today extends far beyond the Bible. Still, we will go on lighting candles rather than cursing the darkness. OK, maybe a little cursing. 2 Chron 20.12 (the inspiration of 'We rest on Thee our shield and our defender'). Every blessing.

Elaine Dent said...

Well, inspired by your trek through the Bible, I'm only into Numbers so far. I had the delight on Friday of chuckling over the story of Balaam, his donkey, and the perturbed Balak. Too bad this doesn't make it into the lectionary! :-) And what would it be like if us preachers were so compelled to utter God's words in poetry like Balaam in spite of ourselves? (more chuckles) Then yesterday I read about Phineas and the horrible impaling to death of a couple in bed together. I know, I know, it's supposed to be about idolatry and keeping Israel pure, but this is not the way to convince me! I am grateful it is not in the lectionary. Inerrancy? This latter story was more disturbingly xenophobic to me, errantly slanted in its telling. But fortunately Jesus is the Word of God, not the texts which are, of course, inspired and authoritative. Yes,Jesus is the Word and his Spirit speaks through these strange authoritative words on the page. Friday I was challenged by Balaam (and the Holy Spirit) to preach truth no matter the cost. Saturday? Well, it has taken me more than a day to recover from Phineas. I don't know how our Jewish brothers and sisters deal with this text, but I am relieved to remember how Jesus treated the woman that religious authorities dragged before him---challenging people to judge their own sin, not throw a stone at another's; Jesus graciously writing in the sand to give people time to think, and then standing to forgive. Perhaps that comparison is the way the Spirit is speaking a word and redeeming that text for me. Inerrancy? I left that the day I received a letter warning me that if I followed God's call to become a (woman)pastor, I was in danger of God's judging punishment since in the Christian scripture women were told to be silent. The warning text the elder cited? The rebellion of Korah against Moses who with his family was swallowed up in the earth (Numbers 16). Ironically, I realized how badly that scripture was being twisted to make it apply to me. The opposite of what was intended occurred: I was finally set free to move on and follow God's leading, not human judgement. In the end, I guess, the Word of Christ can even speak through Numbers 16.

Kelvin Wright said...

Well, Brian, I guess I'm wrong. The next logical step would be, I suppose, for you and me to engage in a debate about inerrancy but I'm not inclined to do that, as I know that neither of us is going to be convinced and a discussion would generate far more heat than light. However, I cannot for the life of me understand how you hold the position you do. Inerrancy isn't something with any shades of grey. Something is inerrant or it's not. One small error - of a matter of fact, or a logical inconsistancy, or a genealogy that has two different versions in two different parts of the Bible -, no matter how tiny or irrelevant means that the text is in error somewhere, and therefore that scripture is not inerrant. The only question would be how much is it in error. What interests me is the mental gymnastics that people who profess a belief in inerrancy, present company excluded of course, put themselves through in order to preserve their doctrine: they interpret literally here and metaphorically there, switching at random with no supporting evidence except their own inner conviction of what the text should be.

You know all this of course, but you don't have to look far for errors. As you know, the Kethiv- Qere in the Masoretic text denote various errors picked up by copyists through the ages and there is not a single page of the Old Testament without many of these. Some pages seem to have more of them than actual text. And there are some fairly gross contradictions in the text. Who, exactly, does the Bible say killed Goliath, for example? And the story of the succession of Solomon presented at the end of 1 Samuel is not just a variant of the story presented in 1 Chronicles, it is an entirely different story. And lets not even get into the 4 different and mutually contradictory versions of the resurrection in the 4 Gospels. It is beyond dispute that the Bible is full of errors. A doctrinaire adherence to a notion of inerrancy does nothing to safeguard the Bible's status as the Word of God. Instead, the question must be in what way does the Word of God shine through this very human and flawed book?

Kelvin Wright said...

Thanks for your comment Elaine. I think you have expressed very clearly what I was trying to get at, and which I hope to tease out in a later post; that to treat the Bible as a kind of oracle- as a block of revealed words coming from the mouth of God actually misses the point. The Bible with all its very human history and shortcomings does something far more profound than just acting as a kind of touchstone and rulebook, usually reinforcing the views obtained elsewhere. It points us to the incarnational God, who is present in the very stuff of human life, just as much today as in the past.

Tony said...

Hi Kelvin,
When you do that next bit in your later post about treating the Bible as a kind of oracle, I would be interested if you were also able to say something about how the Quran is treated in that way as something of a contrast.

Brian Kelly said...

Well, as you say, Kelvin, we're not going to get into a debate! Which can sometimes be a prelude to a debate but isn't meant to here. I don't know if 'inerrant' is a helpful word in these discussions; I prefer positive words like 'true', 'faithful' and 'reliable'. I do not think one could ever demonstrate positively that the Bible has no errors. Proving a negative is rarely easy to do. But you can argue that what appears prima facie to be an error has a possible different explanation. I will proffer a few quick comments not to resolve issues (and not to invite a reply) but to indicate how and why the traditional church position proceeds. You may think these are counsels of despair or wishful thinking but I hope at least that they proceed from the desire to be faithful to what we believe about Christ.
1. The truthfulness and reliability of Scripture isn't a modern American fundamentalist aberration but has been Catholic teaching from the 2nd century.
2. The motive has always been Christ's own understanding of the Bible (or Old Testament). John Wenham gave classic expression to this in his 'Christ and the Bible'. As God Incarnate he always spoke the truth and he affirmed what first century Judaism said about the Scriptures of Israel. So we try to understand the Bible Christologically, that is, as the Spirit-guided witness to Jesus Christ.
3. Critics of Christianity (and Judaism) like Porphyry have pointed out the formal (or actual) contradictions from at least the 3rd century and have received replies from the same time. Augustine has much to say on this.
4. Scholars use not simply the Masoretic Text and Qere but the critical apparatus of LXX and many versions. The DSS are of great importance here. Reconstructing the original text is often hypothetical but doctrine is rarely at issue.
5. Historically harmonisation has been used to handle formal contradictions. Some find these convincing, others dismiss them out of hand. John Wenham's 'Easter Enigma' is a suggested reconstruction to explain the formal differences in the resurrection accounts. William Lane Craig offers something similar as well in 'Reasonable Faith'.
6. Many questions in Scripture we treat (in Graham Cole's expression' as 'AFL' - awaiting further light. To rule something a 'mistake' is to preclude the possibility that archaeology (think of John 5 and Jerusalem digs in the 1930s or the rediscovery of the Hittites), manuscripts (DSS etc) or a more sophisticated understanding of literary genres (e.g. hyperbole in ancient conquest narratives- K. L. Younger) and methods may emerge. I don't know yet what to make of OT numbers and tentatively suppose (a la John Bright) that we have some historical kernel told in a supra-historical mode. What, after all, is the 'message' of the Chronicler's genealogies? I've read three German dissertations on that topic alone!
Hmm, maybe that does bring my sanity into question after all....

Elaine Dent said...

Well, Tony, on Sunday afternoon I am going to a gathering of women from Christian and Islamic faiths discussing the Quran/Bible's perspectives on Mary and Hagar and relating it to how we are people of faith in this time and place. Anything you want me to ask?

Brian Kelly said...

Why miss the 800 pound camel in the tent? The real question isn't the Quran's view on Mary (which was shaped by The Infancy Gospel of James, a second century apocryphal novel) but what the Quran says about Jesus (Isa) in contrast to the New Testament. Why are they so hugely different? Other than from Jibril, where did the Quran's teaching about Jesus come from?

Elaine Dent said...

Brian, the real question for me is how the Holy Spirit works through a discussion of holy scriptures in order to create the love of God and love of neighbor in our polarized community. Actually it is not a question; it's anticipation!

Brian Kelly said...

Then that is why the central question, 'Who is Jesus and what did he do?', cannot be evaded. I pray that the Muslim women will hear the Gospel and meet with Jesus Christ. The 'love of God' is not a central Islamic idea at all (the invincible will of God is key here) but is the heart of Christianity because it is the heart of the Trinity.