More on Biblical Absolutism
The two authors of this blog been having a long email debate with our fundamentalists friends concerning the source and scope of the Bible's authority. In a recent email, I developed my thoughts enough that I thought them worthy of sharing here, in a slightly altered form.
There are two issues that I hear consistently from fundamentalists -- two things they regard as serious problems for anyone who denies the Bible's absolute authority. One actually comes across as something like Pascal's wager, albeit with respect to "belief in" the Bible rather than belief in God: how could believing that the Bible is absolutely true put you at odds with Jesus' message? If believing in the Bible absolutely does anything it should bring you closer to Christ's message....
Well, no actually. Biblical absolutism takes you further from Jesus, I believe, in three related ways.
First, Biblical absolutism represents a fundamental confusion over the source of Christian Truth. It is helpful to contrast Christianity with Islam in this respect. Islam claims a God-given text: the Koran. The religion is centered, not on Muhammad, but on this text. The Koran is the source of truth, the manifestation of God. Christianity, by contrast, claims a God-given person. The religion is centered on Jesus, who is the manifestation of God and the source of Truth. The fact that Jesus is central is easily proven, not only by Jesus' own words (e.g., I am the way, the truth and the light) but also by the fact that Christianity, through faith in Christ, existed for centuries before the Bible was compiled in the fourth century. Jesus' centrality is revealed in the very name of the religion. By positing the Bible as the God-given source of truth, Biblical absolutists deny Jesus His rightful place as the fountainhead of Christian Truth. Even assuming that there is no message difference between Jesus and the Bible as a whole (an assumption we will question later), simply being clear, metaphysically, about the Ultimate Source of our revelation is critical.
Second, Biblical absolutism and the erosion of Jesus' importance (i.e., his role as the Source) leads us to a stilted understanding of Jesus' message as revealed in the Gospels. Jesus tells us that we must emphatically and actively love our neighbors. Jesus tells us to sell all we own and give alms. Jesus tells us that those who do the will of the Father are blessed and will be saved. Jesus tells us that the purpose of His coming was to bring good news to the poor, to liberate the oppressed and to bring sight to the blind. But as Pauline theology (which I suggest is one apostle's interpretation of Jesus' divine message) is pumped up, the importance of these injunctions is reduced. Through a Pauline lens, for example, Jesus' "liberating the oppressed" becomes equivalent to "saving the spiritually lost." And his "bringing good news to the poor" becomes coming into the hearts of the poor spiritually and giving them hope for the next life. Would we have made this reading without Paul? Is it the best reading of the text? I submit that by reading Jesus through Paul's lens that we are refusing to confront Jesus on His own terms and refusing to give Him the central place that He is due.
Third, this misunderstaning of the foundation of Christian Truth prevents us from advancing in our understanding of Jesus. We can learn more about Jesus both through historical investigation (through archaeology and newly discovered primary texts) and through personal spiritual experience. Yet being bound to the Bible limits our ability to accept this extra-Biblical evidence. If any of these things contradict the Bible, say the Biblical absolutists, then they must be wrong. This is clear and practical example of the effects of eroding the importance of Jesus by positing the Bible as the source of truth.
The second issue is related to the first. My fundamentalist friends contend that if I don't believe in the Bible's infallibility, then I necessary pick and choose among Bible verses in which case I am essentially just believing whatever I want to believe rather than accepting Divine Revelation.
The response to this claim is that it based on a false dichotomy: either the Bible is the source of Truth or Truth is relative. I reject this dichotomy. Jesus is the source of Truth. Insofar as Biblical attestation, extra- Biblical historical investigation, and personal searching demonstrates that Jesus said and taught something, it impossible for me to "pick and choose" or believe what I want to believe. I put my faith in Jesus. I don't pick and choose among Jesus' teachings. Furthermore, I don't even pick and choose among Bible verses. The Bible is true insofar as it accurately conveys the teachings of Jesus, and it is false insofar as it fails to do so. I can't pick and choose when this is the case. It is a matter of discoverable historical fact.