Friday, December 03, 2004

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.


At 4:40 PM, Blogger PhotoJoeAZ said...

First of all, let me say that I appreciate your quest to know what it is that Jesus stands for and to seek Him according to His teachings. Sadly, I must admit that I spend more time thinking about what Christianity means than actually living it out as a vibrant Christian. But, God's continuing to sanctify us all, right?

That all said, I do take exception to many of your presuppositions that you bring to the table. Chiefly, you presuppose that the Truth (Jesus) can be partly known from the Bible, but Jesus' teachings and Truth can also lie outside biblical revelation. My question is: how can we know what it is that Jesus really taught and what He really stands for? How can we these things know for sure?

The answer is of ultimate importance, for if we seek to worship God in Spirit and in Truth, we need to know the Truth. If God is True and consistent, the Truth doesn't differ from person to person. If we differ in our views, it's because at least one of us is in error, but God's truth remains despite our grasp of it.

You also talk about Paul and Jesus as if they're working for two different gods. Paul wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and was just as much speaking for God as was Jesus. The difference is that Jesus was/is God in human flesh and Paul was not. But that fact does not nullify that Paul spoke God's Truth, just as all OT and NT writers (even the Gospel writers) were non-divine, human authors under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:20-21).

Let me ask this question: was Jesus a fundamentalist? Did He believe in the absolute authority of the Scriptures? Do a search in the Gospels on the phrase "It is written" to get an idea. Jesus could have just answered every question asked of Him in His own words, but instead, frequently chose to answer questions and teach by quoting the Old Testament. Clearly, Jesus believed that the OT writers were teaching the truth. Jesus, while he did expand God's revelation to mankind in huge ways, also said that He came not to nullify the Law, but to fulfill it. Jesus affirmed the validity of the OT Law and the Prophets.

Next, you seem to be saying that Jesus self-proclaimed chief purposes were helping the poor, loving others, being obedient, etc. This is not a surprising view given the name of this blog. :) You write as if Paul, by teaching a gospel of "saving the spiritually lost", is somehow taking Jesus "liberating the oppressed" message off track. Did not Jesus say on many occasions that he must die? The true question on this point is: What is the Gospel? Is it "liberating the oppressed" (that is, meeting people's needs here on Earth, I assume you mean), or is it God saving sinners?

As a small aside, check out the first few chapters of Mark's gospel. Note that Jesus does NOT seek to heal everyone. Frequently, He retreats to lonely places to get away from the crowds. At one point, He sends just for the people He wants to see. Jesus did not come to heal everyone.

And, in contrast to your mis-reading of his command to the rich young ruler, Jesus did not teach that we must ALL sell all that we have. That was not Jesus message to all of His disciples-- it was a challenge to the idolatry of one man who would follow Jesus. Alas, the man did not pass the test.

I'll end this on this one thought: If we seek to follow this Jesus guy, how can we know the Truth about Him? Why is the Bible not the most accurate way?

At 9:35 AM, Blogger debbyski said...

The author of the former comment is still "stuck" in the absolutism of the Bible, thinking that Paul or any authors of the Bible had to be under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit, therefore, infallible. Using this as the only guide to Biblical interpretation misses out on the metaphorical and historical meanings in the Bible. The author also seems to believe that Jesus was a fundamentalist which couldn't be further from the truth. Jesus time and time again stood up to religous authority. The author of the previous comment also seems to find some distinction between liberating the oppressed and saving sinners. (Maybe because saving sinners by accepting Jesus as your personal savior is alot easier to do?) I would also have to disagree that Jesus did not teach that we must sell all that we have. Jesus said that time & time again. The Jesus I know was the author of the Beautitudes, a teacher, a healer, and was the wisdom of God. The most accurate way to know Jesus is to be first and foremost compassionate as God is compassionate. The Bible is a beautiful book full of history and truth, but it is often misused by those seeking to own God by claiming divine accuracy as the only truth. I'll end this on a few thoughts: Try correcting social sin by being compassionate for a change; it's alot harder than saying a personal salvation prayer. Jesus prayed long and hard and I don't think it was because his prayer list was long.

At 11:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think another part of the argument is context. I believe the Bible is God's truth; however, that doesn't mean it wasn't written in any sort of context. Paul's letters are the perfect example, since they were written to specific congregations with specific problems, issues, and cultures--different contexts. I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with the "Pauline lens." What IS wrong is the lens through which WE look at these scriptures. Krister Stendahl wrote a good book on the subject of Western introspection and how we misinterpret Paul.


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