Thursday, February 16, 2006

Sword Drill

It is a bit of a sticky wicket, trying to figure out how to use the Bible, in these debates.

The other day I read (and it is quite common) a claim by an atheist, requesting Christians to refute it, with a closing statement, “…and don’t use the Bible to defend your position.” We have all seen it.

I understand exactly where the atheist is coming from. The Bible is no more authoritative on the properties of God, than the movie ”Oh God; You Devil” or the Boston yellow pages. Just because a few men or women got together 1000’s of years ago, and wrote down their particular version of God, and another group of men and women pared it down to just a few books, does not exactly bowl us over with enthusiasm.

If we concur that the Bible is authoritative, how hard is the argument for God? “The Bible says so.” Boom—we’re done.

To analogize, for the Christian, imagine debating with a Muslim. They may refer to the Qur’an, but as you do not hold it authoritative in any way, as to what God’s properties are, it does not move you one little ounce, if the Qur’an purports a concept on theism. It’s a book about a God, sure. But not authoritative to the Christian.

Your telling me “According to the Bible….” is the equivalent of my telling you, “According to the Book of Enoch…” Unmoving.

BUT I certainly relate to the objection of the Christian in this regard. The very basis of their belief is in the Bible. The description of their God is in the Bible. The roots and foundation of their entire belief system is embedded in the book.

It is the equivalent to telling a lawyer to argue his case, but he cannot use the law! I can see why the Christian would mutter, “Then what in the blue blazes CAN I use?”

Worse, there are people like me that do not hold the Bible authoritative, yet feel free to cite passages against the proposal the Christian is making. I sense they feel it is hardly fair for me to use it against them, yet not hold to the truth of its precepts.

Is there a middle ground? Is there some level of definition, by which we can agree, “At least here it has viability, and from here we separate.”? I find it difficult to arrive at such a definition.

Take the most basic—Christianity is described by the Bible. Whether true or not, that we can say, “There is a Christian. To determine what they believe, we can use the Bible.” But even that has become nebulous. Using the Bible, we have liberal Christians that do not hold the stories of Jesus to be completely true. We have inerrantists, literalists, allegorists. We have varying numbers of books in the Bible. Even taking someone like a Calvin or a Luther, we struggle to understand their position on the Book of Revelations.

Simply saying, “That person believes the Bible is inspired” leaves a whole world of questions to limit their beliefs.

The atheist may say that since the Christians can’t seem to agree on what the Bible says, why should they hold it as authoritative? The Christian may say that their interpretation of the Bible is the correct one, and the others should be dismissed.

Even if we agree on the matter of what the words themselves are, this matter of interpretation becomes problematic. The other day, I was reading an article on the “Problem of Evil” and the author was emphatic that God not only is responsible for the existence of evil, but since there is no such thing as free will, and God controls everything that happens, God actively decrees evil. The author went on to note how God performed the greatest act of moral evil and injustice in human history.

The author further noted that God loves. Therefore, the author interpreted scripture as saying that the love of God must include the existence of evil. Because the Bible has both, so therefore it is true.

It is this type of argument that drives a non-believer to say, “…and don’t use your Bible.” Not the Bible itself, but these interpretations the believer demands as truths.

And it is difficult, for me, having now studied the Bible, and realized it is just human thoughts, to hold it in the high regard necessary for the Christian to appreciate my position.

For example: One verse says “God incited David to take a census…” and another says, “Satan incited David to take a census…” Both use the same word, “incited.” Later we find out this census was immoral. For me I can shrug this off as two different writers, that, just like other human efforts, result in a contradiction. I hardly think twice about it.

For an inerrantist, it becomes difficult to explain God and Satan both performing the same act that results in a sin. We end up with the notion that “God incited David..” must be translated, “God allowed Satan to tempt David….” and “Satan incited David…” must be translated, “Satan incited David.”

But what really baffles me, is how little many (maybe most?) Christians know about their Bible. I have a friend that said, eloquently, “Christians do Bible study. They don’t study the Bible.” I find the book, its creation, its implications, and how it has wended its way through history a fascinating subject. Rather than cage it in a doctrine, it is free to be studied as it developed.

Mention the translation problems and most Christians look off into space. Comment on the synoptic problem, and they look puzzled. Allude to the fact that Paul didn’t write 1 Timothy, and they think your brains fell out of your head. Now, this is true of the predominance of Christians, but not all Christians. There are many that can hold their own on these arguments, and even prevail to make a point.

What to do?

I am not sure there is an easy solution. How would a Christian take the Qur’an seriously? How can I take something that is man-made and elevate it to a more authoritative position than other man-made products?

Here is an area in which it appears we cannot find easy middle ground.

Suggestion to Christians? Want us to take the Bible seriously? Study its creation. Study the translation problems. Study the Canon. Learn the history behind it. Study the Hebrew Culture, and the Greek/Judean world of the First Century.

Perhaps within that study, you can learn why I do appreciate the Bible as a literary document, but consider a human creation. Not asking you to do so, but perhaps see why others do. Just like you consider the Qur’an a human creation.


  1. Dagoods,

    I don't think it's possible for two people to really argue unless they share something in common. If I'm arguing with another Christian on theology, then we can both appeal to the Bible to make our points. But I can't appeal to the authority of the Bible to argue with somebody who doesn't accept the authority of the Bible.

    But that doesn't mean I can't use the Bible at all. Even an atheist can argue, "This and such is what the Bible means." So I can argue with an atheist about what a particular author intends to convey without either one of us having an opinion on whether the author was correct.

    The Bible can also be used as a source of information for what various Jews and Christians believed at various times. Two people can use the Bible as a source for that without ever thinking it's God-breathed.

    As long as the Christian isn't appealing to the Bible as source of authority (i.e. it's true 'cause the Bible says so), then there's no reason he can't use the Bible. He can use it to make historical arguments, to explain his view without necessarily arguing for it, to defend his interpretation of it, etc.

    So basically, I think it all depends on exactly what is being argued whether it's appropriate for a Christian to use the Bible when talking to somebody who denies its authority.

    In my own experience, I have had people cry "foul" when I used the Bible in a debate with them. In almost all of those situations, their cry of "foul" was because of a misunderstanding on their part about what I was arguing.

  2. Yeah, ephphatha, I agree. It does depend on the argument. I do not see many Christians arguing from it without appealing to it as an authority of some sort, though.

    And at some point, authority DOES come into play, and we part ways fairly quickly!