Exploring the interplay between ortho-doxy (right belief) and ortho-praxy (right action)...

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15 September 2007

trusting the bible?

The other night, I went to a lecture by John Shelby Spong, an Anglican Bishop and popular author.

The title of Spong's lecture was this: 'The Bible is not the solution - it's the problem.'

Wow.

In one point I agreed with, he criticised those that pick their most favourite verses here and there from the Bible; but then he did precisely that in his lecture - except the verses he picked here and there were his least favourite...

I would like to suggest what I see as a spectrum concerning views of the Bible. At one end, you have Spong's view on scripture, and at the other end you have various teachers of what I like to call 'biblianity'. It may not be a perfect analogy, because I think the issue is more complex and multi-faceted than a simple spectrum can show, but it may be helpful.

What I'm talking about here, has to do with what I think are false choices being presented everywhere you look. The obvious example being the false choice between worshiping the Bible (hailing it as pure, un-defiled and able to do your laundry) on one hand, and on the other hand treating it as a 'sinful' thing, perhaps useful for gleaning a few nice sentiments or putting under a short leg of a table.

I don't want to use the phrase, 'middle ground', as that conjures up images of compromise, but there is certainly a third option other than those two.

Directly or indirectly, we're talking about the Bible's trustworthiness. Can we trust the Bible? Spong would not hesitate to say, 'Not at all.' Most Christians would say, 'Yes.' Now, I agree with the latter, but I want to comment on what this 'trusting the Bible' might look like...

The problem is the vagueness of the question - 'Can we trust the Bible?' A better question is, 'What can we trust the Bible for?' To forgive my sins? As a flotation device? I certainly trust the Bible, but what do we mean by this?

-I don't trust the Bible to cook my food.
-I do trust the Bible to tell how to eat responsibly.
-I don't trust the Bible to teach me how to play guitar.
-I do trust the Bible to tell that music is a gift from God.
-I don't trust the Bible to explain dark matter in the universe.
-I do trust the Bible to tell that the heavens declare His glory.
-I don't trust the Bible to explain micro-evolution and macro-evolution.
-I do trust the Bible to tell that God is the creator of all things.
-I don't trust the Bible to make my website look cool.
-I do trust the Bible to say when to turn off the computer and sit face-to-face with others.
-I don't trust the Bible to fix my car.
-I do trust the Bible to tell us walking might often be a better option for many reasons.
-I don't trust the Bible to contain secret codes that the Bible itself says nothing at all about.
-I do trust the Bible to tell us about life.
-I don't trust the Bible to be a spooky magic trick kind of book.
-I do trust the Bible to be a down-to-earth real kind of book.
-I don't trust the Bible to provide convenient proof-texts to randomly affix to life.
-I do trust the Bible to provide wisdom and orientation to all of life.

The Bible that Spong hates is the same Bible of biblianity. It is a Bible that was handed down on a cloud, leather-bound and ready for quoting-battles. Ready to be chopped up into bits and stuck 'on billboards and backs of cars' (from the lyrics of Derek Webb). Ready to be defended by 'deep-sea-fishing' (term from Hank Hannegraaf) code-finding methods. Ready to be worshipped.

I don't love that Bible of biblianity. I love the actual Bible. I can trust it. Not to answer any silly question I wish to ask of it, but to answer the most important questions.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi, Dale,

First, please accept my condolences regarding your Grandmother. No matter how certain we are someone has gone to heaven, it still hurts to say goodbye to them.

I've been thinking on the topic you addressed today for quite a while now. This is probably in direct relation to our discussions regarding "science" and the Bible that we've discussed earlier.

It is quite common in Evangelical circles to consider the Bible "inerrant" -- litterally perfect in every way. This leads to the conflicts we've discussed regarding creation etc as we've discussed.

Coming from that viewpoint, I read Ehrman's "Misquoting Jesus". I found this quite interesting, although I question some of Ehrman's conclusions.

Ehrman's book was about textual criticsm and the Bible -- how books change over time as they are copied and specifically how the Bible has changed.

These are some of my thoughts:

The Bible is God's message to us, so it must be "perfect" with the following limitations:

1) God formulated his message in human language, which by default (no pun intended) limits the "truth" it contains (how, for instance, can you possibly define "God" in human language?).

2) God transmitted his message through men. These men were limited by their society/time in their understanding of the world, which limited their message (imagine if the writer of Genesis described the creation of the universe using modern concepts of astrophysics. No one would have believed or understood him!)

3) God's message was originally in different langauges than we use today. It is tough enough reading the King James version of the Bible (I prefer the New International Version, myself). Those of us who don't understand Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew are totally dependent on the translator (who may or may not have been "inspired" in the same way as the original author), who may be handicapped by an inability to directly translate concepts from one language to the other. Imagine trying to translate the phrase "I put my foot in my mouth" into Korean. It makes a lot of sense in English, but may not mean the same thing at all in Korean!

4)Then there are the textual changes that Ehrman is interested in. Some are simple copyist mistakes, others are more blatant additions/subtractions/etc.

This is what I think:

God is omniscient. He was aware of human language before humans existed. He knew Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, English, etc before the beginning of time. He knew how His message would translate into each language from the previous one. God also knew every change that every copyist was going to make to His message, and how that would change it.

With this in mind, I believe the Bible is a living, changing document. It is our job to read God's word, not limiting ourselves to any one format, but rather trying to get a fuller understanding of what His message is by examining many translations. I tink we need to go back and see what his message meant to the original people he wrote it to, and see how that message applies to us. Where changes have cropped up over the years, we should ponder their implications and think about their importance.


take care,

Joe

dale said...

Thanks Joe.

Generally, I agree with your comments, though I'd want to tease out a few things...

I don't think the Bible contains even ONE verse/passage that is about 'The Bible' in its entirety. That's fine. It can (and in my view does!) still play its rightful role in our lives.

Most of the Bible-wars are, I suggest, trying to defend the Bible against a standard it never claims for itself. This creates the ugly penduluum swing we see from those that worship it to those that bash it to scorn...

Jesus said of the Old Testament, '...the scripture cannot be broken.', and other N.T. authors say of the Old Testament that it is 'inspired' and 'God-breathed'. What do these things mean? (1. what does it mean for Scripture to be 'broken'? 2. what does 'inspired' mean? 3. what does 'theo-pneused'/god-breathed? I take all three ideas quite seriously, but do these necessarily equate with our modern notions of 'inerrancy'? I don't think so.

For me, the best thing I've ever seen on the 'authority of the Bible' is by N.T. Wright How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?

It's a long(er) read, but very worth it.

We've simply got to get away from proof-texting wars and over-literal interpretations. AND, the silly idea that some of us just 'read the text straight' free of any preconcieved ideas...

Cheers,

-d-

Anonymous said...

Well, as scary as it may sound I agree with you. The concepts in Greek which may be very clear don't necessarily translate into English well. Like my example of the expression "putting your foot in your mouth" (which I do quite often) translating into Korean.

I'm not a trained theologist or clergyman, and I have no understanding of Greek (or Aramaic, or Hebrew). I often find myself concerned that the translations I am reading were made by people with their own theolgical biases. Not that they would lie to me, but that they would shade the translation in directions that appeal to them. Reading multiple translations helps, but I am convinced I would be best off if I learned Greek myself.

I'm going to be travelling today -- flying from Maine to Cleveland via Baltimore to visit my sister before she leaves for a two-year stint in the Peace Corp in the Ukraine -- so I printed out your reference. I'll read it on the plane.

I think the most important "truth" of the Bible is that it is God's word to us, and the greatest way he reveals himself to believers. Every time I read it, I find some new message to learn.


Joe

BC said...

Loving the Bible? Not sure I go with that. Loving the author of the Bible? That's a bit closer. Really, its loving the Creator God, that Jesus revealed fully to us.
It's through the Bible, God's Word, by His Spirit we comprehend Him.
Loving the Bible is a form of idolatry. Picky? Not really. Because certain segments of Christendom have done exactly that: loving the Bible as a lucky charm. They kiss it or use it to justify their power to oppress others without any thought of submitting to the lifegiving, reformatory power of God's Spirit revealed at work in the lives of those featured in the Bible's pages.
No, the Bible is not to be loved save only the One who is revealed through its pages.
I do not require the Bible to be inerrant or inspired, but has anyone shown it to be otherwise? One who claims to is John Shelby Spong.
Jack Spong is not to be trusted with the Bible. Why? Because Jack Spong does not tell the truth.
Having just attended St Matthew-in-the-City's Conference for Progressive Christianity, Spong as guest speaker, based his talks on his book, 'Jesus for the non-religious'.
In this Spong treats Scripture as layered myth superimposed on a lost, Jewish Jesus of the 1st century.
There is no disagreement with Spong that the Scriptures were written from a point of view. No material is written from a neutral point of view. I'm not sure Spong knows this. So it is not surprising that the Gospel writers were pursuing their take on Jesus life.
Among his deprecating (and somewhat disturbing) attitudes to other New Testament and Biblical scholars, Spong purports to have stripped away the layers of male, chauvinist, patriarchal bias from the Gospel record.
However, he only succeeds in adding his own middle of the road, humanistic and naturalistic layers.
For example he contends that the crucifixion did not take place in the northern spring (March) of 30CE. He claims, that the reason it was recorded as happening at passover is that the early church wanted to equate Jesus with the Passover lamb of sacrifice, thereby elevating Jesus as an expression of the 'god experience' they felt when they followed Jesus' teaching. But why not in spring? Because the people would not have had leafy branches to wave at Jesus' procession into Jerusalem, a week before his death.
For one who claims to be in touch with the world, who holds to the current scientific, humanist worldview, he has little understanding of biology. At the moment it is first month of spring and outside most trees are sporting new, leafy branches! Furthermore, he claims that the type of branches used would have been myrtle and palms. Both these trees are evergreen!
In addition, he claims that the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree at that time of the year is strange, spurious and shows Jesus to be cruel. Spong claims that fig trees don't bear fruit in spring. Well, Mr Theologian, figs bear fruit for up to 9 months of the year and often hold their fruit over winter, and develop fruit before the leaf. It would have been easy for Jesus to see that the fig tree he cursed, was unfruitful and displayed no 'faith' in the summer to come.
And so Spong goes on, one (cruci)fiction after another.

Heather W. Reichgott said...

Wonderful post.
You're hinting at what sounds like a distinction between treating the Bible as magic object, as science textbook, or as guide to faith and life.
And yes... you DO trust it!
Heather

(PS Got here from a link from Dr. Pursiful)

R said...

Hi there,
I attended Spong's public lecture on the Bible and also his conference in Auckland a few weeks back and I actually really enjoyed them.

Firstly, I must say that you have not been fair to Spong's intentions in regards to the bible. He doesn't "hate" it. He is merely critical against a literalistic/fundamentalist reading, especially when it is used to beat up on other people.
Throughout his conference and his books Spong constantly says that he loves scripture - he reads it daily, it nourishes him and the like. But he sees it as an abused book. That was really the purpose of his free lecture: to make people aware of the Bible's "texts of terror" that have been used in means counter to the gospel ethos. This is nothing new, nor is it an extreme position. Phylis Trible, a feminist Biblical scholar has done similar work on "texts of terror" against women in a book by the same name. "Is this the Word of God?" is a legitimate question asked by Trible and others. Spong is hardly extreme.

I think if you were fair to Spong and true to yourself you would realize that you and Spong share more in common than you think.

To BC:
Those are some interesting insights you discovered. I do recall Spong mentioning those interpretations of his, although I havn't had a chance to check them out like you have. But to be honest, you are also being unfair to Spong's intentions. He doesn't set himself up as an infallible source. He, like any reputable scholar, allows room for disagreement, and I'm sure enjoys dialogue and argument. I think your pre-existing negative attitude towards Spong has meant that instead of listening to what you ought to have heard, you spent your time defensively trying to poke holes in his scholarship.

dale said...

Hello 'R',

Thanks for happening by and commenting!

I'm glad you expressed your thoughts.

I do maintain the general points I made about Spong's view of Scripture, however.

Yes, there are points where I would stand with Spong in his reaction to extreme, literalistic, fundamentalist interpretations, but then again, there are points where I would stand quite happily with those he severely criticises...

The different genres within the Scripture, necessitate what might be called 'interpretive adaptability'... It seems that this skill is urgently needed.

Of course, the differences between various interpretations need to be worked out not only in principle, but in detail - and this is a lot of work and it takes a lot of time...

I handed Spong a note, suggesting that he seeks a public debate with N.T. Wright. I seriously doubt he will be too interested in that, but would be thrilled to be suprised...

Finally (and quickly), there are lots of false choices throughout the issue... For example, regarding the 'texts of terror', do we only have the choice between a literal interpretation or complete rejection? Surely not!

-d-

P said...

Hi there Dale,

I too went and, having a bent towards the emerging paradigm, took a lot from Bishop Spong’s series of lectures. I think that it is fair to say the most provocative thing about the lectures were the titles. The substance, whilst there were some extreme examples (and perhaps, according to BC, some erroneous science), was sound; and, nothing outside that which non-conservative-evangelicals would be open to.

I found Spong to be explicitly stating that he came to the Bible with a lens, and that was how he got the most out of it, by recognizing his starting point. The feeling I got from reading your post and comment was that there is an objective way to access the Bible, in what I would like to term Bill O’Reilly syndrome, ‘I have no lens.’ In fact bar BC and R, I didn’t get any sense of recognition of perspective, except in the abstract sense.

As such I was really intrigued by how much trust you put in the Bible, and also I failed to really understand what you meant behind your list. ‘I do trust the Bible to say when to turn off the computer and sit face-to-face with others.’-is this not more due to the lens that you bring to the Bible? Likewise with your walking call, I gather that was meant to reflect ecotheological understandings?

On BC’s comments, I must confess I find them humorous, largely down to my own perspective seeing them. Unless you are in love with communities of people from the first century CE, I gather you are stating the Bible is a divine product? If so, why would there even be a ‘male, chauvinist, patriarchal bias’ to strip away? Unless…God endorses such a view? I simply fail to understand how you were able to engage with Spong, especially when you affirm that ‘Jack Spong does not tell the truth.’ I must have misheard him when he articulated that he wore his Episcopal garb so as to show he was an insider of the Church who loved and cared for its wellbeing and that his goal was to provide an alternate way of interpreting the Christian tradition.

Understand, please, my acknowledged frustration at such concentrated, and largely ignorant, efforts to debunk such a loving person. I accept you think he is misguided, fighting only against ‘Biblianity,’ and doing so by poor, isogetical methods. I cannot, however, accept such views going unchallenged.

dale said...

Thanks for the comment, 'p'..

('p' and 'r'... Hmmm... do you guys know each other? :) )

Perhaps my post and comments have not expressed my awareness of my own 'lens', but I am ever-aware of the silliness of anyone imagining that they 'just read what the Bible says'... As Tom Wright has said (and others?) 'there is no view from nowhere'... :)

Indeed, we all have baggage. We all come to the Bible wanting it to mean certain things (perhaps to affirm what we already believe or practice ahead of time...)...

With this in mind, I do not deny the fact that my statements about the Bible's instruction regarding computers and ecology are not made apart from an interpretive step (indeed, a larger step for the former than the latter!)...

I truly do appreciate having my views challenged, so thank you for doing so. I wasn't so much trying to systematically de-bunk Spong or anything, but rather trying to contrast his underlying attitude/approach with what I've called 'biblianity'. I could say nothing about Spong's loving and caring personality. That's wonderful. I'm simply trying to think about contrasting attitudes/approaches to Scripture.

I can appreciate how hard it would be for Spong to comprehensively demonstrate that the Bible is 'the problem' in a mere hour or so, but he made too many un-supported dogmatic assertions, and also presented the false choice of viewing the Bible as a perfect thing or an irrelevant thing... Fair enough, I guess, it's much easier to simply make sweeping and passing statements about this and that text, rather than grapple with the actual complexity of the various issues he swept past... Again, he did only have an hour or so...

(A short aside: I wonder if he even really cared about supporting his statements? After all, he is trying to be provocative...)

But more than what Spong said about various passages, it was his tone which I found... well... too dismissive of anyone who disagrees with him...

One gentleman actually pointed this out in the Q&A time (I was very glad he did).

My wife is in bed already... I must go... I do appreciate the opportunity to dialogue!

Cheers,

-d-

Damian said...

I recently listened to the audio downloads of Spong's recent series of lectures at St Matthews.

I found it quite fascinating that someone could maintain a Christian belief system and be so disparaging of the bible at the same time. Being from a evangelical background myself I've always thought that the bible plays a major role in the foundation of Christian beliefs.

That said, the bible is enormously cherry picked and the most inconvenient parts are largely ignored. Perhaps Bishop Spong is just being more upfront than the average Christian who might, say, be a little manipulative with their interpretation of the bible.

Certainly, from the little I've garnered of modern biblical scholarship, Spong is probably more closely aligned with recent findings on various aspects of biblical accuracy. I'm referring to the likes of Bob Price and the Jesus Seminar stuff.