21/3/2011

Literalism and Bibliolatry

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:58 am

Recent forum discussions1 are just the latest manifestation of an issue I’ve been thinking about for quite a while now. I’ll let one of the forum denizens, ‘John317’, speak for himself:

People have to decide whether to accept their feelings & opinions about this or whether they are going to trust the Bible[…]2.

If the Bible […is] untrustworthy on something so central in Scripture as this {whether God kills}, perhaps it is wrong on many other things.

Do you trust the Bible […] when it comes to telling us that Christ is both fully man and fully God? Or that homosexuality is a sin? […]

My point is that once we start jettisoning ideas and teachings that we don’t like for whatever reason, it becomes a matter of accepting what we like and rejecting everything else that we might find personally objectionable. At that point, people are no longer placing their faith in the word of God or even in God Himself but in their own opinions.

That particular post was in response to a discussion about whether God kills, and John317 kind of had the wrong end of the stick. I was agreeing with him: if you take the Bible literally, then God does indeed kill. He killed pretty much everyone on earth in the Flood, making God the most effective mass killer in history.

Now, what one does with that is obviously more complicated, but all I was trying to do at the time was to force believers to take their own beliefs face-on: if you believe in a literal Bible, you believe in a killer God. Whether or not God has every right to kill is another debate.

But the bigger issue is that one about ‘do you believe the Bible or your own opinions?’

The Bible is full of contradictions. I don’t think that statement is even controversial. There’s a list here, and sure, some of them are kind of petty, but there’s mountain of them.

Different people do different things with that. Some, like my friend Lawrence and other friends, throw out the Bible. The claim is made that it’s infallible, yet they see the contradictions and feel they have no choice.

Others deny that it is so, and find ways to explain away the apparent contradictions. If pushed into a corner they tend to fall back on ‘well, we can’t know everything, so you just have to have faith’.

What that also tends to mean, though, is that they then cherry-pick the bits and pieces of the Bible they like – pick their preferred pole of each contradiction, if you like. Of course, if one picks the opposite poll – well backed up with Biblical evidence – one is ‘trusting to your own opinions’.

I guess the position I’ve come to, if it can even be called a position, is that I trust God, but have to discern God through what is a human document. It’s a human document with particular purposes, and one with flaws. And yes, I know that there are particular texts within it that claim it is all perfect, but whence the contradictions?

(PS I’ll be particularly interested in comments from Paul, my brother, who is the person I know who knows his Bible best.)

Given that, of course there’s the temptation to rationalise away anything inconvenient! I have to trust myself and my own honour and honesty not to do that: and recognise that I’m flawed and fallible.

But if we recognise that the Bible is a library of books written by humans, then we can recognise that *perhaps* the Creation story is a religious origins story about God’s role, rather than a literal history of how the universe and world came to be.

We can recognise that *perhaps* the Flood was actually a local event that covered the *known* world rather than the entire planet, and perhaps people ascribed to God’s wrath what was a natural event.

We can recognise that it was the war leaders of the time who claimed God’s imprimatur when they commanded that all the men, women, children and babies be slaughtered and just the young virgins kept to be ‘wives’ for the soldiers.

We can recognise that human homophobes projected some of their fears onto God.

And so on.

There are arguments about where to stop and what is real and what’s the point and…

But there is, in my view, no alternative to consulting our own minds: there is simply no coherent and consistent Biblical set of doctrines and practices that can be unproblematically drawn from the text. And, as I’ve discussed before, God is too big and too strange to be captured in one book – or a billion.

Hence the reference to ‘bibliolatry’ – book worship – in the title. When the book itself is worshipped, rather than God, that’s not that different from any other form of idolatry.

The book points to God, and God is bigger than the book.

  1. Paul is probably correct when he says in the comments that those are not always helpful, but they do provide food for thought
  2. Given that it’s a Seventh-day Adventist forum he referred to Ellen White in the same breath as the Bible but IMO that’s a separate and narrower issue. If you want to follow that up I’ve discussed it on the ClubAdventist forum (google it)

One response to “Literalism and Bibliolatry”

  1. Mark says:

    I think SDAs should have an easier time of this than other Bible-believing denominations. EGW was a prophet in the biblical tradition in many ways, but from a wordier age and we have records of how she worked. She didn’t claim inerrancy or literal inspiration. For the Great Controversy for instance she apparently received glimpses of scenes from history and it was up to her to put the flesh on the bones by her own research. And with the health stuff, there is one study that has something like 95% of her advice now according with current knowledge, but her explanations for those same health counsels are from the 19th century and haven’t aged as gracefully.

    Jesus said in Matt 5 not one jot or tittle would pass from the law, in other words God means what he says, but then he went into the 10 Commandments, which is a special sort of revelation. God used his pointy own laser inscription device to write it, and that bit has stood the test of time if you are open to it.

    The text that says “All scripture is inspired by God” uses the word theo-pneustos, sometimes translated God-breathed, which I think the literalistic evangelicals prefer taking the meaning “uttered by God”, but the verb pneo in that compound can also mean “to blow”, and is used in John 3:8, where it compares the holy Spirit to a wind, a gentle, diffuse influence, not a force giving dictation.

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