In Conclusion: The Bible

This will not be an apologetic. I don't believe in apologetics. I feel the temptation to justify, even to proselytize, but any such effort would be a distortion and a betrayal. I came to this point through years of struggle and confusion, and I can't (and when I think about it, I wouldn't want to) bring the reader to comprehension or appreciation or agreement with a few well-chosen words.

In any case, I don't believe that everyone ought to see things as I do. My worldview changed because I was no longer capable of believing as I had, and I was compelled to find something I could believe.

The essential change in my life over the last five years is that I no longer see the Bible as infallible. What I mean is that I don't believe everything the Bible says is completely true - theologically or otherwise. I don't believe, for example, the part about the Egyptian plagues. I don't believe that's how it happened, and I particularly don't believe what it says about God.

Inevitably, then, people want to know which parts of the Bible I do believe in. By what means do I determine what to believe or disbelieve? Do I just ignore the parts I don't like?

I don't have really satisfying, concrete answers for these questions. I do have some hermeneutical principles (I'm certainly interested in understanding what the Bible really means to say) but they don't tell me which parts of the Bible are True and which aren't. Honestly, I have a hard time really thinking about the Bible (or anything else) in terms of some absolute, objective standard of truth.

I would say that the Bible is God-breathed (a beautiful, mysterious term), and I would certainly say that it is useful, but I reject the doctrine of inerrancy because, for one thing, I don't think the authors of the Bible thought in terms of inerrancy. Of course they believed that God's word was true, but "true" meant different things to them than it does to us. I've said more about this in other places, so I won’t delve too deeply here.

This is the best explanation I can give: The Bible is the fulcrum of my faith - not the foundation, not the containing walls, but the point around which I orient myself, and in relation to which I take my bearings. I don't always agree with the Bible, in fact it sometimes angers, frustrates and disgusts me. But I am never done with the Bible. I can disagree with it, even rebel against it, but I cannot dismiss it. To put it succinctly, the Bible is the voice that I cannot ignore.

Having such a voice is valuable to me in many ways:

It gives me a sense of belonging, reminding me of the ancient and enduring tradition that I inhabit.

It reminds me that I am the spiritual progeny of thieves, murderers, genocidal conquerors, and all other kinds of sinners, that I am no better than they, and that God loves me nevertheless.

It reminds me that I am not the final authority on any matter, that different people have wildly different perspectives on God and morality, and that my own views are no more likely to be right.

It reminds me that there is great evil in this world, and that I must stand against it, no matter what.

It reminds me also that God is in the business of redemption, that the sick can be healed, the broken restored, the dead raised to life, and the wretched made agents of grace.

And it reminds me that God and creation alike are complex and mysterious, and that the pursuit of knowledge, like any meaningful pursuit, will never come to an end.

I do not accept whatever the Bible says without question, but I respect it, and I commit myself to it, and I wrestle with it. I don’t ignore the parts that bother me. If anything, I tend to concentrate on them. I live in this tension: recognizing that I am a small, frail creature in the midst of something deep and ancient and holy, and yet still maintaining my autonomy.

There is a question of where my disagreement with the Bible is leading. In the future I may be called to submit to Scripture on even the most difficult points. But I feel that at this point it would be a betrayal of my convictions, and even (if I may make such a grand claim) a betrayal of God’s calling to me, if I were to give up the struggle.

Again, this isn't a sales pitch. I don't think everyone ought to approach the Bible this way. Some are called to struggle; others to sacrifice. I do worry about people who are wholly unperturbed by verses like Psalm 136:10, but I think it is possible to engage the Bible honestly, having predetermined, ultimately, to submit. The essential point for me is that the Bible is a very complex and difficult book. It was not written to provide comfort and certainty. If we can agree on this one thing - that the Bible is to be wrestled with, that it blesses us, but also wounds us - then we are not so far apart.


Jeff said...

Thanks for this, Joel. It's subtly thoughtful and readily generous -- I especially appreciate the kind of heterogeneous unity you suggest in the closing paragraph. I can't say I agree fully with all your points, but I'm glad that I'm starting to learn more about the beautiful ecumenicism of difference. I look forward to your next two posts.


Jens said...

Nicely written, Joel. I like it.

I especially appreciated this line: "I don't believe, for example, the part about the Egyptian plagues. I don't believe that's how it happened, and I particularly don't believe what it says about God."

It reminds me that (6 day creation aside) I tend to accept the stories of the Bible at face value. Perhaps this results from naivety or indifference to Biblical scholarship, but usually accept even pretty fantastical stories- such as the 10 plagues- as historically accurate. It's the theological statements, or implications of scripture I sometimes struggle with.

Jacob said...

Thanks Jeff.

Jens: I don't spend too much time pondering the historical accuracy of Bible stories. It's not that I deny their historicity so much as that I am (for the most part) indifferent to it. Like you, it's the theology behind the stories that really gets me.

I think the point I was trying to make there was that there's a difference between theological inerrancy and historical or scientific inerrancy. A lot of people accept the former and deny the latter (which I think is a very sensible approach) but I go further.