Disassembling how we read the Bible?

Growing cocoa

Last post I looked at some comments by Tim Keller on gay marriage and its possible future acceptance by evangelical christians. I concluded by pointing to a broader issue that Keller also raised.

So let’s look at whether changing an apparently Biblical doctrine is acceptable.

Changing views on homosexuality?

In a talk on the future for conservative (evangelical) christianity in the US, Keller argued that while many younger christians are coming to the view that they shouldn’t oppose gay marriage, he didn’t think they would change their views on sexual morality, including homosexuality.

Reasons not to change

But as Peter Enns has pointed out, Keller’s reasons for thinking this are worrying. Keller quoted gay activist Jonathan Rauch as recognising the Biblical teachings on homosexuality, so if you want christians to change their views (as he does): “You are going to have to ask them to completely disassemble the way in which they read the Bible.”

Keller then adds: “Completely disassemble their whole approach to authority. …. You are basically going to have to ask them to completely kick their entire faith out the door.”

Is it that drastic?

Enns is concerned about these statements. He says:

Leaving aside the specific issue of homosexuality, Keller’s observation about evangelical notions of biblical authority is correct but also concerning. In my opinion, Keller has, perhaps unwittingly, put his finger on the entire problem evangelicals face when confronted with any issue that runs counter to evangelical theology: “You’re asking me to read my Bible differently than my tradition has prescribed, and so I can’t go there. If I do, my faith is kicked out the door.”

Surely Keller has exaggerated?

There are many areas where christians have had to reinterpret Biblical teaching in the past:

  • The Jews were strong monotheists, yet in the few decades after Jesus, Jewish Christians began to worship Jesus in a way that was reserved for God, out of which came the doctrine of the Trinity.
  • In Acts 10 & 11, Peter was forced by the Holy Spirit to completely change his attitude to gentiles, which was based on the Old Testament Law. This later led the whole church (in Acts 15) to agree that much of the Law of Moses should not be applied to gentile Christians.
  • In the fourth century, Augustine warned against interpretations of Genesis which were contrary to science, and in the past few decades we have seen many christians accept evolution, thus changing how they interpreted Genesis 1-3.
  • When the Catholic Church disciplined Galileo, it was not on religious grounds, but scientific. The church said it was quite willing to change its interpretation of scripture regarding cosmology if science required it, the problem was that Galileo, although correct, could not show it at that time.
  • More recently, christians in the US and South Africa had to repent of racist attitudes which led to segregation, apartheid and gross disadvantage for black people, and change the Biblical interpretations which supported those attitudes.
  • The Protestant reformation required priests such as Martin Luther to change how they interpreted the Bible and the authority they gave to it.
  • Some Protestants teach that the charismatic gifts were confined to the age of the apostles, and are not for today, but many had to change how they interpreted the Bible when it became clear to them that the Holy Spirit was restoring some gifts to the church.

So it seems that sometimes reviewing how we interpret the Bible is necessary, and this does not amount to “disassembling” faith.

Dangers in Keller’s approach

It seems to me (and apparently to Peter Enns too) that evangelical rigour or inflexibility (take your pick) has several dangers:

Fear and control

Evangelicalism arose in reaction to liberal theology a century or more ago. In an effort to protect the faith, evangelicals developed a strict interpretation which they tried to set in concrete. Fear led to strong control. But the remedy was too strong, and the Holy Spirit has been replaced by fixed doctrinal statements as the interpreter of the Bible. What was meant at the time as a protection has become a bondage.

Standing still is death

The church is supposed to be a living body, with Jesus as the head, leading us via his Spirit. But evangelical attitudes like those expressed by Keller make it difficult for the Holy Spirit to correct and lead the church. Our culture is changing all the time, and we can easily be left behind and irrelevant. Equally, we can be blinded by our culture and need the Spirit’s correction and vision.

Bleeding at the edges

Keller’s statement suggests that to question one aspect of evangelical orthodoxy (in this case, the ethics of homosexuality) is to lose one’s faith. Sadly, this is often true. I have met many ex-christians who questioned some aspect of faith, generally related to the Bible, and that led them to believe they couldn’t accept any of it. But it needn’t, and shouldn’t, be that way.

There is a better way

The New Testament shows little sign of the doctrinal inflexibility that grew up later, and which we see today. True, there were early statements of faith (scholars think Philippians 2:5-11 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 are examples) but they were simpler than what we see today.

Instead, it seems clear to me that the teaching of Jesus (John 1613) and of Paul (Romans 12:1-2), and the example of the disciples in Acts (e.g. Acts 10:15, 13:1-3, 15:28, 16:6-10), is that the Bible interpreted by the Spirit should be our guide in all matters of belief and living, not the Bible interpreted by fixed doctrinal statements (see Interpreting the Bible for more on this).

This does amount to a new way to see spiritual authority – residing in both the Bible and in the Spirit, and in the Spirit interpreting the Bible.

Not a Spirit of fear

But we shouldn’t be afraid of this, for the Spirit brings freedom and life (e.g. Luke 4:18, 2 Corinthians 3:6 & 17, Romans 7:6). If we can’t see that then I don’t think we have a correct understanding of New Testament teaching. Of course there is scope for abuse, but that occurs anyway.

If we follow New Testament practices to discern the Spirit’s guidance (e.g. 1 Corinthians 14:3 & 29, Colossians 3:15-17, Galatians 5:16, Romans 12:1-2), many potential problems can be overcome. Doctrinal statements have their place, but they shouldn’t prevent openness to the Spirit.

I will develop these themes further in the future.

Cautionary Note

  1. Nothing I say here should be interpreted as being critical of Tim Keller. I think he is a good man, an excellent leader, thinker and writer, and very much deserving of respect. I just disagree with him at this point, while agreeing at many others.
  2. No-one should interpret from this that I hold a given view of the ethics of homosexuality. I have not addressed that question at all, only the issues of gay marriage (previous post) and of “disassembling” the Bible and faith.

This post is part of a series on Christianity is changing.

Photo Credit: pamhule via Compfight cc

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8 thoughts on “Disassembling how we read the Bible?

  1. Hausdorff says:

    “When the Catholic Church disciplined Galileo, it was not on religious grounds, but scientific. The church said it was quite willing to change its interpretation of scripture regarding cosmology if science required it, the problem was that Galileo, although correct, could not show it at that time.”

    Do you have some kind of a reference for this? My understanding is that Galileo made observations that lead him to believe the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. How can you conclude that he couldn’t show it.

    Also, on what do you base the assertion that the church was willing to change if science required it? The whole situation with Galileo seems to be a perfect example showing that this is not true.

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  2. Robert Martin says:

    Something I was thinking on this… there is this sense and aspect of our faith as expressed by the evangelical movement that our faith is determined by what we get out of The Book…specifically, how we interpret what we get from The Book.

    And I don’t want to say that reading The Book is not important. I think it is vital. I think it is extremely important. Because it is in The Book that we find the stories of those who have gone before, the journey of faith, and the witness to who this Jesus person is and, furthermore, what Jesus wants us to do.

    But we must be careful… Sometimes we like to, along with Jews and Muslims, identify ourselves as a People of the Book. but we are not. We are People of the Way. We are followers of Jesus. We are disciples of the rabbi Yeshua ben Yusef. We don’t follow a book, we follow a person. Our PRIMARY revelation is not the Book… it is the person we know as Jesus, the person who actually is God, setting aside the privilege of BEING God to come down here and be one of us… to be a “prodigal God” as Tim Keller puts it to extravagantly and with great risk set do whatever needs to be done to come to US so that we may know Him.

    So, this whole thing about “well, if we can’t trust our interpretation of the book, our whole faith is destroyed” is a falsehood from the beginning because it is dependant upon the Book… not the person.

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  3. unkleE says:

    “Do you have some kind of a reference for this? My understanding is that Galileo made observations that lead him to believe the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. How can you conclude that he couldn’t show it.”

    Hi Haussdorff. These are common ideas, but modern historical study has shown that they are not correct. My references are James Hannam God’s Philosophers and Ronald Numbers Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. For an online summary see Armarium Magnum blog (go down to where you see the picture of Galileo).

    Hannam (p313) says the established model of the Solar System and Universe was Ptolemy’s, but Galileo’s (and others’) observations using the newly invented telescope showed it couldn’t be correct. But there were two competing ones, by Galileo and Tycho Brahe. At the time, almost all scientists supported Brahe’s model, and Galileo wasn’t yet able to demonstrate his model was correct.

    “Also, on what do you base the assertion that the church was willing to change if science required it? The whole situation with Galileo seems to be a perfect example showing that this is not true.”

    That statement was made by Galileo’s accuser, and it was subsequently proved to be correct when Galileo’s model was demonstrated as correct. If you read the story in detail by a genuine historian (Like Numbers or Hannam), you’ll find it much more complex than the simplistic view often given out. For example, the Pope at the time was a personal friend of Galileo, and initially encouraged him, and for a while Galileo was a hero. This is not to say the church behaved well, but the Catholic Church has a long history (from Augustine onwards) of accepting scientific results and adapting theology to suit (for example, its acceptance of evolution), and it wasn’t mainly science vs religion that caused the problem but more personal and political issues.

    These things are a bit off-topic, but I think worth raising, thanks.

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  4. unkleE says:

    Hi Robert, thanks for your comments. I agree we are people of the Way (hence the title of this blog) more than people of the book, but I believe (as you do) that the book is a very important part of the Way. My two emphases are:

    1. I would probably make slightly stronger statements about the authority of the New Testament than you would.
    2. I think we need to stress the role of the Holy Spirit (who is after all the “Spirit of Jesus”) more than you may.

    But I think we are pretty much agreed.

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  5. wandererwrites says:

    Thank you unkleE for your blog – being a Christian in the modern world presents challenges unimagined by previous generations. There is so much misunderstanding by “non-Christians”. You and Robert have expressed the modern faith so much better than it is generally viewed.

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  6. unkleE says:

    Thank you so much. I think your statement “challenges unimagined by previous generations” is a very good description and understanding. I hope you find more here that helps.

    Like

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