An essay donated by Susan Humphreys
Initial Suppositions, Uncomfortable Truths, & the Bible
All arguments are only as good as their initial suppositions. If you can show the factual flaws with those suppositions you pull the foundation out from under the argument. A supposition is simply what you believe to be true. Beliefs have no proof of truth; knowledge has proof of truth. Just because you believe something, with all your heart doesn’t mean that it is truth. Truth is also not determined by popular vote.
Many of the arguments against homosexuals and same-sex marriage, about the use of birth control, access to abortion, about salvation, whether Christianity is the only true religion…… are based upon the premise that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and Gods word must be obeyed.
Like many liberals I believe that people have the right to believe what they want to believe, to follow whatever religion or secular philosophy they wish to follow. They don’t however have the right to interfere with the rights (secular or religious) of other people even if they claim that their religious beliefs are based upon the inerrant words of God as expressed in the Bible and that Gods word must be obeyed.
When they do so, I have a right to speak up and point out why I disagree with their position, why the “truths” they speak of are in error and are not valid reasons or justification for their actions or for public policies that affect the rights of ALL people even if voicing my opinion makes them feel very uncomfortable.
There are three issues that should be addressed:
- Whether “God’s word” as interpreted by Christians must or should be obeyed by people that don’t believe in God and by people that don’t believe that Christians speak for God. We can save this issue for another discussion.
- Whether the Bible is even relevant, has the answers to help us solve today’s problems? Some of the words of wisdom are as valuable today as when they were first written. Some were written for a specific group of people at a specific point in their history for a specific purpose. Problems arise for people that search the Bible for justification for and sanctification of their actions and opinions on a whole host of issues (homosexuality and marriage, abortion, birth control, place of women in the church….) Today we know and accept that slavery is wrong even though the Bible supported slavery. We can also see how man’s concept on the issue changed over time from the Old Testament to the New Testament where we see Paul telling his followers that it is okay to enslave non-Christians but not okay to enslave Christians. We have progressed as human beings, and some of “God’s words” we have rejected as no longer applying to our world. It is pure hypocrisy to reject some and then insist that others have to be followed simply because they are “Gods word”. We have to find other evidence or reasons to support our positions.
- Whether the Bible is inerrant? This website has a good discussion about errors and contradictions and I don’t need to repeat those arguments here. Some folks will refuse to even look at the discussion. Pretending the errors and contradictions aren’t there doesn’t make them go away.
Some problems with inerrancy arise over contradictory passages. An example is with the idea of salvation. This website has a good discussion on this topic. Will people be saved by faith alone, or only if they accept Jesus as their savior, or by good works alone, or by faith and good works. There are passages in The Bible that support each of these positions. Which passage is the inerrant word of God? Which one is the TRUTH and which one a lie? OR were they all placed in the Bible because there was recognition from the compilers of the Bible, that there are many ways people can find salvation (some suitable for one group and some more appropriate for other groups)? Who is wrong -- the compilers of the Bible for including contradictory passages, or the writer of certain passages that said their way to salvation was the ONLY way?
Some problems arise because folks don’t understand the concept of inerrancy. Inerrant does NOT mean that words are literally TRUE. If something is NOT literally true that doesn’t mean that it is a lie. By literally true what is commonly meant is if a name is given that person actually existed and actually did what the story describes, the events described actually happened, exactly as described, in the actual place the story is placed. I think those that try (or continue) to insist every word in the Bible is literally TRUE don’t understand concepts of mythical stories or metaphorical truth.
I understand why many reject any discussion of Biblical errors or contradictions. Such a discussion makes them very uncomfortable. Any claim that the Bible is NOT inerrant TRUTH would mean for them that it is NOT the word of an all wise and perfect God who wouldn’t make mistakes, it would be the work of a lesser, imperfect God, the work of men, or the work of the Devil. Men make errors, and men sometimes tell outright lies to prove their points or when they want to manipulate people. The Devil is known as the great deceiver, nothing is more deceptive in my mind than convincing folks they are following God's word or doing God’s will when they aren’t. Could the Bible contain some words of God as well as some words of men? If the Bible isn’t the word of God but only the word of men does that mean that it is worthless? Does it even matter since we still have to decide what is relevant for us today and what isn’t?
If the Bible isn’t absolute inerrant truth it throws open a whole host of other questions. What else might not be true? For those that want to believe in a literal “resurrection”, the “Virgin birth”, and other doctrinal issues it puts them in a difficult and uncomfortable position. It is better (some believe) to have “blind faith” than to open that can of worms.
I see the Bible as a wonderful mix of mythical stories and metaphor, poetry and prose, fact and fantasy. We know that good story tellers never tell the exact same story twice. They change parts to fit the needs of a particular audience or for a particular situation or place in time or when they want to pass on a different message. The story is a vehicle, a means to carry and pass on a message. If the story teller gets a “fact” wrong it is unimportant, it is the message that matters not the story itself. We know that many of the Bible stories were passed from person to person before they were written down and we know from our own experience that people often make errors (mishear or misunderstand what they hear) or add their own bits when they retell a story. I will grant that when the Bible is understood to be a mix of myth and metaphor many of the problems with errors and contradictions disappear and a whole host of even more complex theological issues arise.
The Bible is what it is. I suggest people tackle this issue of inerrancy and literal truth by doing a simple comparison between the order of creation in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.
- Light & darkness on the 1st day;
- Dome of the sky and the waters on the 2nd day;
- Dry land from water, plants on the 3rd day;
- Stars in the heavens, sun and moon on the 4th day;
- Sea creatures and birds of the air on the 5th day;
- Land creatures and man on the 6th day;
- God rested on the 7th day;
- Verses 4-5: “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field has yet sprung up ..."
- Verse 7: “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground. ...”
- Verse 18-19: “It is not good the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner. So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air. ... ”
They are two different stories: In Genesis 1 man was created last after the animals and birds. In Genesis 2 man was created first before the animals and birds. This isn’t a mistranslation or transcriptural error or misinterpretation of the passage. Both can’t be literally true. Are they lies or just good stories with a message?
Mythological stories are designed to entertain and to convey a message. They often do so in terms that humans can understand. Myths are also designed to explain something that was at the time the story was created incomprehensible, beyond human understanding. The story of Creation is explained in terms of days because humans at the time had no concept of billions of years. We now have a better understanding of how the world and life came into existence and just how old our planet and the Universe really are. To be honest from what we have learned from Science, Genesis 1 got the basic sequence mostly right! It is the message that is important.
Saying that something is a mythological story doesn’t mean that it is a lie. It simply means the message is hidden within the story and people have to do some serious thinking and probably some additional research, (learn about the history, what was happening when a passage was written), and consider the context of the adjoining passages IF they want to understand the message.
A metaphor makes a comparison between two things. For example there are passages in the Bible where humans are called sheep and God the good shepherd. The writer knows humans aren’t really sheep, he just implies that like sheep, humans need a good shepherd to look after them and keep them from harm. Metaphors can be “true” as in what we call a “good” metaphor, something that is understood by many people and makes sense to people from different cultures. Jesus refers to “God” as his father. Does he mean that as metaphorical truth or literal truth?
IF there is any “truth” as in sound advice, in what the Bible teaches, we should be able to extrapolate a lesson from one area and apply it elsewhere. The Ten Commandments tell us not to “bear false witness” against another person. Bearing false witness means spreading misinformation/lies. In regards to the Bible it is denying any conflicts or contradictory passages when the evidence is right in front of yours and everyone’s eyes, denying what we have learned from Science and History and even creating “pseudo science” to bolster your position. Doing so it seems to me --if anything I read in the Bible has any sense of TRUTH -- would displease God and take people further away from God not closer to God.
The Bible and the stories within are a means to an end. A means is a tool designed for a specific purpose, to help you reach some goal, accomplish some task or convey a message. I have met some Christians that are so sure the TRUTH they seek is hidden in those pages, they spend their lives pouring over words and phrases, they teach themselves Greek and Hebrew in order to read the passages in their original form and seem to lose sight of their goal, what the Bible is trying to teach them. It is the end that is important, not the tool that was designed to help you get there.
The Old Testament was written down to preserve what had originally been oral stories and the laws for a people that found themselves without a temple and enslaved in a strange land -- Babylon. It was put together in writing to help hold the community together, to keep them from abandoning their traditions and teachings. The New Testament was put together to help spread the new word to a broader, diverse, and widespread audience. Both books were designed to help people become better people, to provide rules appropriate for their time and place and needs-- rules that would enable them to live in some sort of harmony for the benefit of all in their community, and help them find their way to God.
There are some Atheists who think the Bible is a horrible book and would ban it. I think they are very wrong. Banning something (or burning as some have done with the Qur'an) doesn’t destroy the ideas it contains. Some people claim that the Bible has inspired some terrible actions, and it has. It has also inspired some people to do great and good things. The Bible isn’t responsible for people’s bad or evil action. People that want to commit evil or do something bad will misuse and abuse anything if it serves their purpose.
I think the Bible is a beautiful book. I accept it as it is and see no need to pretend that it is otherwise, though I grant that doing so creates theological problems for others. It is full of great wisdom for those that will read it thoughtfully and critically. It is a must read for those that want to understand world history. NOT because it is a literal account of world events (they are just stories with some factual elements to them) but because it has shaped the thinking of people that caused and will cause world events.
People have been moved by some of the passages to create some truly magnificent works of art and inspiring music. Some of the poetry is the most beautiful ever written. Many of the places are real, you can visit them today. Historians have found corroboration of some events in the writings of others of the period but not of all the events. We know that many continents have experienced catastrophic floods and we know there was never a world-wide flood as reported in the story of Noah.
Do some people really think that God wouldn’t be wise enough or clever enough to teach with myth and metaphor? Do some people really think that myths and metaphors can’t contain “true” or “wise” messages? Do some people really think that a story has to be literally TRUE or it is a lie?
We know some stories are not literally true they are just good stories with a message and we have to figure out what the story is trying to teach us, whether that message has relevance for us today, and how we are to apply it to our everyday actions IF we are going to make this a better place for ALL people.
I think the claims of inerrancy are a distraction, people get so involved in arguments over inerrancy they ignore the message. I don’t think any book needs the claim of inerrancy to have important and wise words for us. Good advice and wise words stand or fall on their own merits and need no claims of divine or inerrant inspiration to have value for us today.
Originally posted: 2012-DEC-02
Latest update: 2012-DEC-02
Author: Susan Humphreys