The Bible has been used to defend every imaginable belief, so what authority does it really have?
It happened again. Another friend of a friend of a friend on my social media page felt the need to defend her beliefs. She accused me of persecuting Christians, ignoring the horrors of Muslims, and defending homosexuals. All I did was post a meme on how “traditional” marriage has changed throughout the Bible. I didn’t add any narrative, just posted a meme.
I also didn’t engage with her, other than point out she was defensive and brought nothing new to the conversation. She felt the need to share her “credentials” with me, as though that would change my mind. If this were merely an argument on credentials I have her beat there, too. But this has nothing to do with education, or who is more qualified to take a stand in one direction of the other. Her mind was made up by the time she saw the post and belief trumps reason every time. Every time.
I’ve learned from my time in ministry, and from vigorous Biblical studies, that the Scriptures have been used to justify behaviors and actions of all kinds throughout their history, including killing, discrimination, hatred, arguments, and divorce. A Scriptural case can be made, and has been made in many cases, for virtually anything.
In fact, the Scriptures have been the source of disputes and wars since their inception. In EVERY case it was a matter of interpretation. Examples can be found in the Bible itself, such as Matthew 12:2. “But when the Pharisees saw this they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is against the law to do on the Sabbath.’”
And Acts 15:1-2a says, “Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them.”
Roman Emperor Constantius II, the son of Constantine the Great, instituted the first anti-pagan laws between 337 and 361 A.D.1 This is when Rome was considered a Christian Empire. By the 350s the death penalty went into affect for anyone who performed or attended pagan sacrifices, or worshipped idols. 2
“Christian Empire” sounds eerily familiar to “Christian Nation.”
The Bible, like any other book or document, I eventually realized, can mean almost anything, especially when you introduce complexities such as literal vs. metaphorical vs. allegorical vs. poetic meanings. On top of that you have historical and cultural overlays, not to mention language and concept interpretation.
When my Mexican-American fiancé tells me it’s difficult to interpret simple Spanish to English phrases because there are no English words to capture the language, I can only imagine how hard it is to capture the meaning and nuances of an ancient language from a culture we can only surmise from history.
According to World Christian Encyclopedia, there are over 33,000 Christian denominations worldwide.3 Of course, every one of those 33,000 denominations would tell you that they are right and others are wrong.
Evangelical Christianity, similar to what we know today, began in the 1730s, according to David Bebbington, historian and professor at the University of Stirling in Scotland. However, religious scholar, Randal Balmer, noted that:
“Evangelicalism itself…is a quintessentially North American phenomenon, deriving as it did from the confluence of Pietism, Presbyterianism, and the vestiges of Puritanism. Evangelicalism picked up the peculiar characteristics from each strain – warmhearted spirituality from the Pietists (for instance), doctrinal precisionism from the Presbyterians, and individualistic introspection from the Puritans – even as the North American context itself has profoundly shaped the various manifestations of evangelicalism: fundamentalism, neo-evangelicalism, the holiness movement, Pentecostalism, the charismatic movement, and various forms of African-American and Hispanic evangelicalism”4
In spite of what many evangelicals think, their interpretation of the Bible most certainly does not date back to the beginning of Christendom. It has changed and morphed with time and culture, just like “traditional” marriage. Really, one needs to look no further than the concept of slavery.
In 1860, Rev. James Thornwell wrote:
“The parties in this conflict are not merely Abolitionists and slaveholders, they are Atheists, Socialists, Communists, Red Republicans, Jacobins on the one side and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other”5
Change a couple of words and you have this today:
“The parties in this conflict are not merely anti-gay and pro-gay, they are Atheists, Socialists, Communists, Democrats, Radicals on the one side and the friends of God and Tea Party Republicans on the other.”
I don’t deny the efficacy of Scripture. However, when one group claims it as “absolute truth” and proceeds to interpret it without any historical, cultural or contextual references, refutes scientific facts, and oppresses another group, Scripture becomes purely tyrannical. The Bible is then fodder for enforcing a set of beliefs and ideals. It is the centerpiece of endless and futile debate based on personally-held and culturally reinforced beliefs.
I refuse to engage.
There are many, many books on biblical interpretations from every imaginable angle. One does not prove nor disprove another, nor set itself up as the final word on all things Christian. Remember that theology is simply the study of God and doctrine. It is merely a system of teachings related to a set of beliefs. Neither, in and of themselves, declares absolute authority.
As an educator, when I teach a class, regardless of the topic, I scan the room and take my best guess at which cultures, backgrounds and experiences are represented. I know that I’m going to say the same thing multiple times in multiple ways to make a point. Even then, some will interpret my words to mean something else, others will understand it only within the confines of their own experiences, and many will not grasp the concept at all. And I don’t teach rocket science.
Humans, in our finite state, cannot comprehend concepts beyond our own cultural, group and individual experiences. We will always interpret information and understandings based on our beliefs and backgrounds. Always.
The more experiences we have and the more people with whom we come in contact will expand our understanding and perceptual interpretations, but we are always at the mercy of the amount of information we are physically able to comprehend. By design, I believe, that amount of information is limited and requires us to interact with people unlike ourselves.
Confining God to a single book reduces Him to a mythical genie, incapable of anymore than He has already been predefined as, and predetermined to do. It nullifies His hand in the wonders and discoveries of modern day science. It stymies the mystical relationship of the human-deity paradigm to a system of religious tradition and institutional practice.
I will let others interpret and defend what they may or may not consider Scriptures. They can hash out and argue definitions and words. I have excused myself from fruitless discussions and arguments. I’d rather spend my time being grateful for the life God has given me and loving others no matter what they believe.
- Kirsch, J., 2004, God against the Gods, pp. 200-1, Viking Compass
- Theodosian Code 16.10.6
- Oxford University Press, 2001
- Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002
- USHistory.org, u.d.
This article was adapted from Why I Don’t Talk About The Scriptures, first published on TimRymel.Com, © 2014
Photo – Flickr/James~Quinn