Friday, September 12, 2008

How shallow are you today?

I have one more bit of advice for people struggling with some of the Bible's teaching. We should make sure we distinguish between the major themes and the message of the Bible and its less primary teachings. The Bible talks about the person and work of Christ and also about how widows should be regarded in the church. The first of those subjects is much more foundational. Without it the secondary teachings don't make sense. We should therefore consider the Bible's teachings in their proper order.

Let's take a hot issue today as a good example. If you say, "I can't accept what the Bible says about gender roles," you must keep in mind that Christians themselves differ over what some texts mean, as they do about many, many other things. However, they all confess in the words of the Apostle's Creed that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day.

You may appeal, "But I can't accept the Bible if what it says about gender is outmoded." I would respond to that with the question -- are you saying that because you don't like what the Bible says about sex that Jesus couldn't have been raised from the dead? I'm sure you wouldn't insist on such a non sequitur. If Jesus is the Son of God, then we have to take his teaching seriously, including his confidence in the authority of the whole Bible. If he is not who he says he is, why would we care what the Bible says about anything else?

Think of it like this. If you dive into the shallow end of the Biblical pool, where there are many controversies over interpretation, you may get scraped up. But if you dive into the center of the Biblical pool, where there is consensus -- about the deity of Christ, his death and resurrection -- you will be safe. It is therefore important to consider the Bible's core claims about who Jesus is and whether he rose from the dead before you reject it for its less central and more controversial teachings.

If we let our unexamined beliefs undermine our confidence in the Bible, the cost may be greater than you think.

If you don't trust the Bible enough to let it challenge and correct your thinking, how could you ever have a personal relationship with God? In any truly personal relationship, the other person has to be able to contradict you. For example, if a wife is not allowed to contradict her husband, they won't have an intimate relationship. Remember the (two!) movies
The Stepford Wives? The husbands of Stepford, Connecticut, decide to have their wives turned into robots who never cross the wills of their husbands. A Stepford wife was wonderfully compliant and beautiful, but no one would describe such a relationship as intimate or personal.

Now, what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will? If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you? You won't! You'll have a Stepford God! A God, essentially, of your own making, and not a God with whom you can have a relationship and genuine interaction. Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as a real relationship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination. So an authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God. It is the precondition for it.



Later, he goes on to say "Sometimes people approach me and say, "I really struggle with this aspect of Christian teaching. I like this part of Christian belief, but I don't think I can accept that part." I usually respond: "If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all he said; if he didn't rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead." That is how the first hearers felt who heard reports of the resurrection. They knew that if it was true it meant we can't live our lives any way we want. It also mean we don't have to be afraid of anything, not Roman swords, not cancer, nothing. If Jesus rose from the dead, it changes everything."

My first reaction upon reading this section: apparently, having moral quandaries about certain Biblical passages is the same as wanting to live in whatever manner I want. The problem here is that whenever the charge comes that people reject God, the person issuing that charge means that the God-rejector wants to just wallow in a sin-fest. A gluttonous, lying, envious, hating sin-fest. If the person *really* wallows, maybe s/he will even murder or steal, too!

So who is truly the person who is not taking the Bible seriously? The one who says that s/he has serious issues with events in the Bible, and certain commands that might support immoral conditions? Or the person who seems to be implying that if you just want to live the way you want if you reject Bible over those issues.

Which is again what frustrates me, because I'm not detecting that the author is taking the problems seriously in any way whatsoever. I'm essentially told that if Jesus rose from the dead, I have to accept everything in the Bible? (Although, I'm not sure how to accept some of those "secondary" issues because there's a vast amount of disagreement, such as proper gender roles. And somehow, the secondary issues such as how widows are to be treated doesn't make sense without the primary Jesus coming back from the dead issue, only I'm guessing the secondary issue still doesn't make sense if there's massive disagreements about the secondary issues).

Not only that, but it's divorcing the resurrection from the moral claims about God. When you say that Jesus is the son of God, you also have to define who "God" is. Is God someone who demands all firstborns be thrown into a volcano to appease His wrath? Yet is this a same God who everyone claims is moral? In which case, the two claims about God are contradicting each other, because our definition of morality is that it is not right to throw firstborn children into volcanoes. So the issue is not "if the Bible says immoral things about gender roles, then Jesus didn't raise from the dead." The issue is, "if the Bible says immoral things about gender roles, then is this truly the work of a good God?"

Second, the false dichotomy between either having a Stepford God or completely trusting all of the Bible completely skews those who are serious about the Bible, and yet don't hold it to be inerrant. Those who find human elements in the Bible find that element because of events that occurred in the Bible, events that would outrage us in any other setting. Take Noah's Ark, for example. Every single person on the planet drowned, and from what I understand, drowning is the worst way to go. Now, the Bible does say that all the people were horrible. But what about the children? The infants deserved to drown? The two year olds? The eight year olds? They all deserved to have absolutely no mercy or compassion? And what if people were in the water, pleading with Noah and his family for help? Pleading for their children? We'd be horrified if people did that today, and yet it's acceptable back then? I have a Stepford God if I believe that a good, moral and just God does not behave in such a fashion? That's a contradiction to assign that type of behavior to an entity that we are also describing as loving?

Yes, in a true relationship, there will be events that piss you off. Such as with a husband and wife. At the same time, though, there are also limits imposed on that relationship. If your wife is a compassionate person, then you also know that your wife won't let infants drown if she can do something to stop that.

It almost seems that the approach in this paragraph is creating an undefinable relationship. If you have an entity that can do something like that, and yet still be called loving, then you have no way to define that entity, because words become meaningless. If you say the entity is loving, and yet the entity can do anything it wants, what does the word "love" mean? Or justice? Or mercy? You're still in a situation where you can't have a real relationship, because you have no way of qualify the entity with whom you have the relationship. There's no way to truly describe the entity, because there's no limits imposed upon said entity. There's no way to truly know who the relationship is with, because those descriptive words -- those qualities -- allow us to know that we are interacting with person A and not person B.

It's like saying that your wife is a loving person, and then watching the wife slaughter everyone on the block for no reason whatsoever. You then have no way of knowing the wife. Words used to describe her are useless.

12 comments:

Heather W. Reichgott said...

I'm in total agreement with this argument about accepting what the Bible says no matter what.

As long as we take the Bible seriously.

Would this author take the Bible seriously enough to accept what the Bible says about, say, the love of David and Jonathan?

What of the conquest of a village in Judges 25 (I think) for the sole purpose of capturing women to marry? Of course we should take it seriously... does that mean we go and do likewise, or that we resolve never ever to go and do likewise again?

The Bible is a large and complex bunch of documents and many contradictory things are said within it. Making sense of what the Bible says isn't always simple. It requires trust in Jesus, the center of all revelation according to Christian faith... and it also requires not dumping one's brain in the garbage can.

OneSmallStep said...

Heather,

**Of course we should take it seriously... does that mean we go and do likewise, or that we resolve never ever to go and do likewise again?**

Exactly. It can be argued that the reason why many don't treat it as inerrant is precisely because they take the Bible and the nature of God seriously, and feel that a God who is both just and loving would not condone or order actions such as those.

It's not even a matter of making a "Stepford God," it's saying that if God is defined in certain ways, such as loving, then there is certain behaviors that God cannot do. It's letting the definitions describing God actually mean something.

Jay said...

I started reading this entry and thought, I've read this blog before, it's so familiar. Then I realized it was, "I've read this author before, this isn't someone's blog entry." Then I realized/remembered what book and author it was! The gears were slow to turn...

I am reading through this book along with my wife because she would like me to come back to a faith in a god, which just so happens to include a faith in biblical inerrancy. It is disparately difficult to explain my own difficulties with the book to her. It sounds so reasonable to her, and from someone who sounds so reasonable himself.

Thank you for taking the time to work through your thoughts in a way that can be shared publicaly. Why are you reading this book I wonder...


"Second, the false dichotomy between either having a Stepford God or completely trusting all of the Bible completely skews those who are serious about the Bible, and yet don't hold it to be inerrant."

I believe this false dichotomy is employed because biblical inerrancy is so foundational to reformed theology, which is the foundation of the author's faith and theology. To him, you can't have the one without the other, so there is no problem pushing an analogy (Stepford God) beyond where it logically should go. Because it is necessary to him to support biblical inerrancy. My problem with this approach, with this book, and with similar writings, is it seems like trying to get a foot in the door with more recent (2000 years ago, not 6000 years ago!) and more emotional ("don't you know you need Jesus") appeals, while all the time waiting to foist biblical inerrancy on the unsuspecting victim.

"It's like saying that you're wife is a loving person, and then watching the wife slaughter everyone on the block for no reason whatsoever. You then have no way of knowing the wife. Words used to describe her are useless."

Right, words used to describe her are useless *if* you are not willing to shift on your original belief that she is a loving person.

Heather W. Reichgott said...

OSS,

On inerrancy: I wouldn't want to be in the position of deciding which texts are true and which are false. For that reason I prefer to say I believe the whole Bible is true. However, many people who also say the whole Bible is true don't examine the assumptions they're making about the text. For example, the assumption that every story in the Bible is meant to be imitated... or the assumption that every verse in the Bible is law meant to be obeyed at all times and places. Those are not assumptions I make.

Where I'm going with this is that our interpretation of Scripture depends hugely on the questions *we* ask of it. Even if all of Scripture is true, we readers are still capable of asking the wrong questions.

Jay: Hello from a passionate adherent of Reformed theology. :) Blessings on the journey.

OneSmallStep said...

Jay,

I'm glad you're finding these posts useful. I've seen this book recommended in a couple different areas as to good support for a belief in God.

The reason why I'm reading is that I get incredibly frustrated when people don't study both sides of the issue, but rather take their side at face value, and essentially strawman the other side. So I figured that it was only fair that I hold myself up to my own standards.

Now I get frustrated for a whole different reason, because of how unconvicing I find the arguments, and because I don't think the author fully grasps the other side.

Heather,

**Where I'm going with this is that our interpretation of Scripture depends hugely on the questions *we* ask of it.**

Hmm. In this case, my "exactly" to your first comment was a little off. And now that I glance back, I see that I might have misread your original comment. When you said you were in total agreement with the argument, I interpreted that as in agreement with my critique, but it sounds like you're in agreement with accepting what the Bible says no matter what, so long as it's taken seriously.

Jay said...

"Now I get frustrated for a whole different reason, because of how unconvicing I find the arguments, and because I don't think the author fully grasps the other side."

I think it may not be exactly that the author doesn't fully grasp the other side, maybe he is just unwilling to accept that the other side, any skeptical view, can possibly be true or have any validity whatsoever. So it ends up being just another apologetic book offering logically possibilities for the bible to be true without any serious questions about the potential for skeptical views to be possible. Presuppositional apologetics couched in gracious (sincerely gracious) tones? Or something like that?

Frustrating, I agree.

SocietyVs said...

I have no clue who this author is – but I am in severe disagreeance with his logic.

“The Bible talks about the person and work of Christ and also about how widows should be regarded in the church. The first of those subjects is much more foundational. Without it the secondary teachings don't make sense.”

I am not a fan of this 2 tier system he is developing here. It seems like, to me, he is trying to separate categories of importance along the lines of:

(a) Beliefs about Christ are very important (doctrinal statements)

(b) Teachings of Christ are not as important (straight from the gospels)

The problem for me is an old and beleaguered point concerning the term belief and its applicable definition. It seems the author believes the importance should be given to the beliefs a person holds (ie: God is 3 in 1) that really are not beliefs at all. My explanation again concerning biblical ‘belief’.

When the authors of the bible use the term ‘belief’ they seem to be addressing the a dual idea – thought and action. If I say I am going to ‘treat you like a king’ (belief/thought) and then treat you like a ‘beggar’ (action) – I do not actually believe what I think I believe – this is shown in my actions.

I think the author, is this Tim Keller?, is going down the path to ‘belief disconnect’ for his hearers. This is when we start seeing Christians becoming hypocrites – because they value doctrinal statements (holding correct ideologies) over and above their own actions towards other people (beliefs).

“only I'm guessing the secondary issue still doesn't make sense if there's massive disagreements about the secondary issues” (OSS)

True. It’s not like believing that Jesus resurrected is going to have any impact on how one interprets ideas concerning ‘gender roles’. That is where the author kind of walks away from the question – replaces it was something we need to believe – and wipes his hands of dealing with the issue – even though it still exists.

“The issue is, "if the Bible says immoral things about gender roles, then is this truly the work of a good God?"” (OSS)

I am not sure I would rush to that judgment in one single leap. Maybe the interpretations are the pieces that need to work – and looking at those letters with less rigidity. I can still take Paul’s words as ‘inspired by God’ and not apply some of his dictates – since they may have been cultural issues for his day.

“There's no way to truly describe the entity, because there's no limits imposed upon said entity” (OSS)

This is a good point – definable qualities. However, to pose a counter opinion, couldn’t the same be said about a human being? I would label some people I know as ‘very nice’ – but those same people can turn around and physically hurt someone – which is not ‘very nice’. I still, however, would consider that person’s interactions with me as ‘very nice’…as much as I disapprove of his actions with another person.

Now I am not saying God is like that – but it does mean someone can call God ‘loving’ – since this could be the definable characteristic they see the most – and makes sense to them to use that label. However, God could also be ‘angry’ with a certain scenario – and still be ‘loving’ (ie: discipline). I guess I see some weird wiggle room here.

OneSmallStep said...

Society,

**I think the author, is this Tim Keller?, is going down the path to ‘belief disconnect’ for his hearers. This is when we start seeing Christians becoming hypocrites – because they value doctrinal statements (holding correct ideologies)**

Not only that, but if we go back to your example in terms of one believes it's good to treat another person like a king, but the action comes out treating the person like a begger -- the Christian doctrine "belief" sets are much easier than this, because they require holding to a set of facts. The Trinity, the Resurrection, death of Jesus payment for sins, inerrancy, original sin, or mix 'n' match among them. But what kind of actions can validate or invalidate those beliefs, unlike your example?

**I am not sure I would rush to that judgment in one single leap. Maybe the interpretations are the pieces that need to work – and looking at those letters with less rigidity. I can still take Paul’s words as ‘inspired by God’ and not apply some of his dictates**

This would greatly depend on the definition of "inspired," though. For some, the Bible is inspired by God the same way a sunset can inspire a poem. For others, the inspiration comes from God almost dictating the Bible, line by line. It also comes down to inerrancy, and this author holds to an authorative Bible. Because one interpretation can be the cultural dicates of the time, which is why some in the Tanakh felt that God ordered "evil" things. Another interpretation says that God essentially gets to do whatever He wants, and who are we to judge? It's the latter situation that bothers many, because how does one reconcile a moral God with certain immoral actions?

** However, God could also be ‘angry’ with a certain scenario – and still be ‘loving’ (ie: discipline). I guess I see some weird wiggle room here.**
This would depend. In calling the person very nice, and yet the person doing a not-nice thing. Is the non-nice thing excused as an abnormality? As in, the person is nice, but just had a bad day? The "not nice thing" is thus not influencing the description of the person, but rather the action is almost overlooked. It's an exception to the norm.

But we would still have a case of people attempting to justify a description such as nice, while seeing something that violates the very definition of nice.

Lorena said...

You scared me there for a minute. I started to read and didn't notice the Italics. As my eyes bulged out, I kept thinking that I couldn't believe you'd write something like that.

Frankly, I find that person's writing a little bipolar. Maybe I need to read more carefully, but it seems like the text is as confusing as it gets.

At first, he actually suggest that we should pick and choose certain doctrines from the Bible, and then, he goes on to say that we shouldn't.

If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you?

Frankly, I feel that a lot of Christian writing and preaching is like that. They make your head spin with a bunch of weird statements, and in the end some think that , because the stuff is hard to follow, it must be intellectual. But in reality, it is just confusing because of the lack of substance.

Heather W. Reichgott said...

OSS,
That wasn't what I meant either...
But it's okay, we can have more of a conversation about it another time. :)
blessings
Heather

OneSmallStep said...

Lorena,

Hopefully, you weren't drinking anything when reading this blog post.

**Frankly, I feel that a lot of Christian writing and preaching is like that. **

I oftentimes feel the same way. For instance, if one chooses to read Genesis 1 and 2 in a metaphorical light, is that not a method of picking and choosing? If one chooses to read the Tanakh from a Christian perspective, rather than the Jewish one, is that not also picking and choosing?

I think what most Christian commentators mean when using that phrase is someone who decides to follow one aspect of the Bible, and not the other. Yet even making a choice between whether the creation stories in Genesis are literal or metaphorical is also a method of "picking and choosing." You're simply picking which worldview you'll use to read the Bible.

atimetorend said...

Something you wrote on Mystery Seeker's blog recently made me remember this post, and I didn't want to comment off-topic there. You wrote (regarding a church web site):

"Unless it's a ruse to get you in there, make you feel good about yourself and accepted, and then want to be just like all those who are accepting you, and so you adopt their belief statement."

...made me think of the Keller book. That's just like the feeling I get from Reason for God, that he is presenting all his apologetics to "get you in the door," without you realizing that once in the door you have to accept a host of doctrines you may not have been counting on, like, say, Calvinism. The book frustrates me.