Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Devil's Advocate Reads the Bible

More Conversations with Bob!


Very thoughtful and thorough exegesis of those four sample texts
. I am going to respond first as devil's advocate then how I really think.

Women. The church has clearly interpreted this passage and others at face value. This passage from Paul's letter is clear. The worship space is public where men will do the talking. The history of interpretation is on my side. The Pope is not female. Neither is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. If that changes then we will have left the biblical witness. Women, keep your silence. This is the Word of God.

Slavery. Only recently has the church shunned the biblical witness on slavery. Slavery is clearly God-ordained throughout the scriptures beginning with the curse of Noah. There are God-ordained roles. Some are slaves, some are free. We are one in Christ in a spiritual sense, but there are roles for men and women, slave and free. Christ is coming soon, but until then, slaves obey your masters (or you poor, be satisfied with your wages). This is the Word of God.

Jews. The history of the church is clear that the Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus. They will be either converted or exterminated by God's loving hand through Christians, God's instruments. This is the Word of God.

War. YHWH is a God of War. YHWH's enemies are our enemies. The history of the church has been clear about that as well. Christ holds the sword of judgment. We are his holy warriors. Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross. This is the Word of God.

You can do a lot of exegetical gymnastics, Bob, but the witness of the church has been pretty consistent on these topics. You may satisfy the liberals who have given into the culture and no longer find the Bible binding, but not true believers who believe what the Bible says, the Word of God, every word, especially when it is as clear as a bell.

Devil's Advocate

Me again, Bob. I would have to agree with the Devil's Advocate for those who insist that the Bible is the Word of God.

Since I do not think the Bible is the Word of God, these four texts are easy for me. They are bad texts. I have no need to defend them or to explain them. They reflect sinfulness, ignorance, and unjust power relations. They are not truthful. They are false. They are lies. They are bad texts. They are in the Bible. I don't need to remove them from the Bible. In fact, they are helpful in regards to understanding issues of their day. But they certainly have no authority for me today. They certainly do not speak for God, at least in my opinion.

It is kind of nice to say that, you know?

All right, Bob. Here is my bottom line. This is my opinion based on observation and conversation over the years. The real reason I see a need for people to defend bad texts by saying 'the texts are not bad only the interpretation of them is bad,' is so that they don't lose the Bible's supposed "authority." If we admitted the obvious, that a text is simply bad, then we wouldn't have to engage in complex schemes of interpretation to show that it isn't bad, it is just someone else's interpretation of it that is bad. But if we did that, of course, we could not use the Bible as a source of authority for some other point of view that we hold dear, or for a prejudice we do not wish to relinquish.

You knew this was coming. How do you interpret the following?

Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.' John 14:6
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. Leviticus 18:22

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. Romans 1:26-27

The Word of God?


  1. I'm sure this surprises no one, but I agree with John on most of these, mostly focusing on the women and slavery aspect.

    In those terms, I've seen responses that say the slavery portion was actually progressive for those times, or we have to take the culture into consideration and the Bible as a whole. The problem is as follows, though: where do we start and stop in this process? Take homosexuality: why can't we say it was just dealing with those times, and means something else today? And if it just deals with a particular problem in the church, what else could be considered particular problems?

    There's also how to approach the Bible: in responses that seem to "soften" the difficult texts, it's often from a standpoint that the Bible must say truth, slavery is not part of the truth, and so the Bible doesn't really support slavery, we need to do extra interpretation. But that's approaching the Bible with the conclusion already set, almost, and making sure the verses fit the conclusion. Take 1 Timothy 2:11-16. That's pretty much arguing that the woman must be submissive, not teach or domineer over man, because Eve was created second and she was the first to be deceived. Or even Ephesians on marriage -- the husband is compared to Christ, and the wife is compared to the church. The wife isn't really given equality there (and especially in Timothy). And it sometimes comes across as though verses such as these are translated to where they don't mean what's plainly stated there, but have some hidden meaning.

    Plus, if the changes in culture allows one to see the true meaning of the Bible -- why can't that apply to the authors of those particular books? Why couldn't the culture mean that they dictated that women were subordinate, because that was the culture and "naturally," God wouldn't say anything else? Why couldn't the culture of that time simply lead to a bad verse or two?

    Then there's also the question of why the culture changed -- and based on what I've read, I think much of the change happened despite of the Bible, not because of it. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote something called "The Women's Bible" precisely because of how many verses in it were used as weapons against equal rights.

    Now, are there verses that blaze with equality? Yes. Jesus treated women with tremendous respect, and it's a shame that history didn't go more in that direction. Everyone should be much more familiar with the Galations verse than they are with all the slavery or anti-women ones.

  2. Heather wrote:

    "Now, are there verses that blaze with equality? Yes."

    Thanks, Heather. I am not bummin' on the Bible. I think when we view it as a human product, we actually allow the divine to shine through.

    I think the Bible can tell us a great deal about what it means to be human and human in relation to God.

  3. John,

    I have strong sympathies with your post. And I agree with much of what Heather says above. I have no interest in softening the horrific parts of the Bible, anymore than I would want to dampen the magnificent parts of the Bible. Facing it and knowing it head on is important not just for intellectual honesty, but because I believe it is the way to better comprehension of God and ourselves.

    However, I disagree with what I perceive is something of a dismissive attitude in your post toward the areas of scripture you don't like for several reasons.

    #1 We sometimes discover that the parts we don't like have something to say to us even though we don't want to hear it.

    #2 Dismissing any section of scripture cuts off understanding. The goal is to understand not always to like. If we judge prematurely we don't look further to learn more.

    #3 Scripture need not only speak in a voice which we can affirm Amen! Sometimes Scipture's witness can be just as powerful at the parts we reject. What I mean is, Joshua is a book which very accurately presents a look at Holy War and attempted Genocide. We are right to reject it's morals, but by keeping it in the canon and reading against it we preserve in the Bible a warning against what zealous religious people may do.

  4. It is interesting to me as I read both John and Bob's comments, that both seem to be saying similar things, in the big picture. The Bible is written by fallible, historical, culturally entrenched people. All of John's points about verses being bad theology (interpreting things from our present day viewpoint) and Bob's wonderful history lessons (interpreting things from Israel's and the Jew's viewpoint) both show basically interpretation of God and his purpose, people! And just as we interpret Scripture from our viewpoint, doesn't the Buddhist interpret from his viewpoint, and the Muslim from his, and so forth? Obviously, we can all agree historically and in present day that there have been and are some horrible and wretched interpretations that do not come close to the over all picture we are given of a loving God, but they are still all interpretations.
    Bravo to both of you, for your great insights, but mostly to your example of showing that we can have respectful and loving disagreements about our interpretations! Thanks to both of you!

  5. Thanks Laurie,

    I think you are right in your observation that Bob and I are saying similar things. Neither Bob nor I would interpret those passages as suggesting that God desires inequality or violence in our relationships today.

    Hey Aric,

    Point well made. I would not dismiss a text (if dismissal means removing it from the canon or not reading it). I think we should read these texts and understand them. If I am dismissive it is to the extent that these "bad texts" have authority over us in the way we organize our lives today.

    I agree with you that faithful preaching of the Bible includes preaching against texts on occasion.

    Thanks for your input!

  6. I don't know if you read my lengthy tangent on Grapes of Wrath earlier. I think it illustrates the issue you discuss regarding reading the Bible versus any other book. I tried to pick a book I knew well and that most of your audience would be at least somewhat familiar with.

    It is an interesting problem. All Presbyterians acknowledge that we have to do a fair amount of interpretation and sorting when it comes to the Bible. Beyond women and slavery, it comes down to the fact that we don't keep Kosher, we don't allow polygamy, we don't require circumcision to be performed by a priest, and we generally frown on genocide.

    In pious fear of being called "unscriptural", we still refer to the Bible as the Word of God, but throw in all kinds of caveats. I personally believe that the Bible contains the Word of God, but there's an awful lot of noise from historical and cultural debris and translation errors. I further have a suspicion that the majority of Presbyterians believe this but most are afraid to admit it.

    John's use of the terms "good texts" and "bad texts" certainly get folks riled up, but the idea is a legitimate one. We do a lot of discerning, and it would help move the discussion in the church at large if we could all admit that we do selectively edit the Bible and start working on where we draw those lines.

    Barth and students of him (like the late Shirley Guthrie and the great Jack Rogers) did a lot to move us in that direction. By using the life, work and teachings of Jesus as our "lens" to interpret Scripture, we can regard the quasi-historical Joshua narratives and even some elements of Paul's commentaries as less important than the Gospels. We still honor the other texts, but acknowledge that if you had to be stuck on a theological desert island with only one book of the Bible, it would be Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

    Why does this have to sound so revolutionary in a Reformed church?

  7. **What I mean is, Joshua is a book which very accurately presents a look at Holy War and attempted Genocide. We are right to reject it's morals, but by keeping it in the canon and reading against it we preserve in the Bible a warning against what zealous religious people may do. **

    This may be extreme, but I'm wondering how much we can see this sort of behavior in the Islamic terrorists. They are doing all for the "glory of God" and in reality, how much does their behavior differ from some events in the Bible, such as Joshua?

  8. heather, re: you last post

    I've thought that about God's command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. While the top story seems to be about obedience I think the understory is about child sacrifice being evil. And the author really sets that message up well. The story begins with God saying, "take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love to a mountain I will show you and sacrifice him there."

    The other underlying story is the continuing question: will God keep the covenant or not? If Isaac dies, the promised child of the covenant, what kind of God is this?