Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask, Week 3: Can we trust scripture? (Part 3)

bible on table

This is the third and final installment of our third small-group Wednesday-night discussion on The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask (inspired by the book by Mark Mittelberg). The third week’s topic is the reliability of scripture. You can read the first and second installments of the third week here and here. My husband wrote about the first two weeks here in a combined post. I may share more of my own thoughts through conversation in the comments, but for now I’ll mostly just offer you the conversation I heard and participated in. As I typed the last comment of the discussion (the last line of this post), I honestly didn’t know what else to say after that. It was sort of like a gaudy bow that wrapped up this week’s discussion, and I can’t skillfully explain on a keyboard why the comment jarred me at the end of what felt at times like a straw-man bonfire. How can we ever progress to the point of understanding each other if we don’t recognize what the real problem is? This isn’t a word game. You might see what I mean when you get to the end (if you don’t, just ask—I’ll try to articulate). For now, my friends, let’s start at the beginning:

The next video clip replayed a section of the sermon where the pastor discussed what he believes is a popular claim against Christianity: The Bible is filled with contradictions and myths. In this section, he provided an example of a “contradiction” and his reply to it. The example he gave involved the words in John 3:16 and in 1 John 2:15, written below.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” 1 John 2:15

The pastor explained that John used apparent contradiction many times as a tool to get his message across. He said that these verses seem like a contradiction, but that it’s important to read the whole picture instead of reading scripture out of its context. He believes that the verse in 1 John is not really contradicting the words in John 3:16; instead, the writer is simply warning us in 1 John not to let our hearts pursue the world before God.

The video ended, and the pastor opened up the live discussion, saying, “People accuse Christians of taking the Bible literally. Any response to that?”

“Not all of us do,” said one man—“It was written by imperfect men. But I dare someone to try to write something that is as applicable 2000 years later as the Bible is.”

“I do,” said the woman who rebuked the skeptics’ biases in the early portion of the discussion. “The parables were meant to be understood as parables, but the rest of it I take literally.”

“I don’t,” I said. “At least not all of it.”

“Tell us about that,” the pastor probed—a response I expected and appreciated. I gave the example of the 6-day creation, but I also explained my feelings that people could adopt a looser understanding of some parts of scripture without necessarily having to forsake their belief in God. My friend Pascal has asked before, “What happened before the Big Bang?” His own answer?—“God spoke.”

The pastor made an assertion that we shouldn’t take the Bible literally—“It’s not written that way.” He explained that we have to understand the nature of language and literature, and that there is symbolism like what we find in Song of Solomon 4:1-4. Our interpretation of those verses as metaphorical is evidence that we don’t take scripture literally, and that can be our response when others accuse us of incorrectly doing so. I wanted to point out that obvious metaphors are not likely what skeptics are referring to when they challenge a literal interpretation of scripture and that it probably has more to do with sections that do not seem compatible with scientific evidence. The rest of the group considered the case closed and moved on, and I didn’t speak up.

He went on to discuss the importance of context and the author’s intent, using Proverbs 26:4-5 as an example:

“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. 

Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

“What do we do there?” he asked. “Which one is right? Is this a contradiction? You could easily see how someone reading that passage could conclude that there are inconsistencies in scripture.”

After the example in John and 1 John, he was now 0/2, and I wanted to tell him. “I do identify contradictions in scripture,” I began, “but this is not something I would point to. Neither is the example you gave earlier about loving the world. This is just a paradox. The first line tells us not to argue with fools the way they argue. The second line tells that sometimes foolishness needs to be confronted. Maybe it’s saying that you just can’t win when you’re reasoning with fools. I don’t know—but I see it as a literary tool, not a contradiction.” I stopped before I said what I wanted to say: “If you’re going to respond to the difficult issues that skeptics raise, you’re going to need to start by doing a better job of identifying them.” I’ve never heard a skeptic bring up either of these two “apparent contradictions.”

The pastor moved on from the context of “author’s intent” to the historical context. He read some statistics about scripture: “Greater than 5000 fragments of manuscripts. The next closest to scripture in number of manuscript fragments is Homer’s Iliad with around 600. The time between the first writings and the copies of scripture to the original is 30-40 years. 99.5% of those copies agree, with the only differences being spelling errors.” I have recently been hearing this number, and I made a mental note to look into it later. At that moment, it sounded absurd, and if I had the ability to raise only one eyebrow, I would have done it.

Another voice in the group of more than 30 commented on the objection to contradictions and myths, asking “What myths are they talking about? I think their perception might be off.” She explained how she has a son who takes everything literally, and she continued, “When adults think that way, I see them as very immature, and I think we need to explain to them that not everything is to be taken literally. I am a believer that the Bible is the word of the Lord, but sometimes it’s a map with clear instruction, and sometimes it’s a compass with general guidance.”

Her next question shocked me: “Do you want to take it literally that Jesus died on the cross and rose three days later? Really?!”

Things happened quickly from here. An emphatic “YES!” rang from across the room. The woman who asked the question backed down. “Well, it’s what the Bible says, and that’s what I believe,” she retreated. I may be misinterpreting, but it seemed to me that her question was genuine. I felt that her statement of belief came only after the enthusiastic affirmative response to her question—that she felt that there wasn’t room for doubt in the face of another’s confidence. Maybe I’m projecting. Maybe I’ll ask her in the future.

The pastor jumped in and offered examples of what skeptical people are sometimes thinking of when they point out parts of scripture that resemble mythology. He mentioned the flood and the story of Noah’s Ark. “People say there’s no way Noah could have put all those animals in the boat.”

“Well, the animals probably weren’t adult sized,” one attendee offered. “And if God wants something to happen, it’s going to happen.”

“That’s right,” the emphatic “YES” voice added. “God provided everything Noah needed to complete his task, because God can do ANYTHING.” I started, and I was not the only one who jumped. Her last word was loud and strangely spiteful-sounding.

The words that startled me moved me to speak, and I spoke to the pastor. “You said in the sermon that if we know who God is and can trust that, we can believe scripture. So many people aren’t coming from that standpoint, and they’re evaluating scripture to see if they can believe in God at all—not approaching it with a currently held belief in God. When you tell them that they can trust scripture—even the impossible parts—because God is trustworthy and can do the impossible, they’re going to say “I’m not there yet.”

A woman responded before the pastor could. “You have to be careful about the person you’re speaking with,” she warned, “because they are either very immature or they have no knowledge of these things. It can be tricky to—”

Another woman interrupted her, adding, “Or they just want to prove you wrong. You do have to be careful.”

Be careful. Like they’re dangerous. Like I’m dangerous. “I don’t think they’re necessarily any less intellectual than anyone else or setting out to prove someone wrong. They may have a good intellectual reason for doubt, and if they don’t know God already, they are going to have a hard time reconciling some of the issues they encounter in scripture.”

The pastor had my back. “Excellent point,” he offered before other arrows could fly. “There are those who are intellectually pursuing and asking whether or not God even exists. Some are angry and immature and out to prove Christians as stupid, but I think a larger segment are not. If you truly believe we all have a God-shaped void, then all these people really are searching for something.”

The participants’ tones softened. They spoke of planting seeds and acknowledged that it may not be up to them to ultimately convince. They spoke of praying for the lost. They spoke of love. The well-spoken college-aged girl contributed her thoughts, and she reminded me of myself 8 or so years ago. “Even as a Christian I’ve had questions like these. God doesn’t fear my questions, and we shouldn’t fear each others’ either. Some of us have legitimate questions, and we should have the freedom to ask them, even of each other.”

Yes, sister. Where were you a few years ago? I told her I agreed, and I added that I agreed with the earlier statement that it’s not up to individuals to convince each other, although we should each be able to give reasons for what we believe. I asked them to not consider skeptical people as automatically less intelligent or more stubborn or devoid of morality—it’s simply not a fair assumption. “If all else fails, just love them and let that be how you show them who Jesus is to you.”

The pastor brought the conversation to a close. “Gone are the days when you can walk up to a non-believer and say ‘The Bible says…’. It comes down to whether or not we believe that God loves all people. We believe he does, so we need to do everything we can to reach those people—with the goal not being to show them their error, but to show them Jesus. Our motivation is love—but we need to know why we believe what we believe. We can’t boil the Bible down to proof and lectures and context and criticism. It does change lives. It does point us to Jesus—and I hope that is our goal: that those we discuss this with will be able to see Jesus through the scriptures.”

That would have been a good place to end. That’s not how it happened.

A contributor chose that moment to add, “When people ask me if I’m a Christian, I say ‘No. I am a Christ follower.’ Christianity has such a bad reputation these days.”

Image courtesy of © Phatthanit | Dreamstime.com – Bible On The Wooden Table Photo

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22 thoughts on “Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask, Week 3: Can we trust scripture? (Part 3)

  1. I am intrigued by two things here:

    1) As you pointed out, as contradictions go, the two he picked are just ridiculous. The first two aren’t even talking about the same thing, and I’ve never heard anyone juxtapose them before like that. As for the second two, as you also pointed out, wisdom literature is just that–literature, in the most poetic sense of the word. Those are terrible examples (and, I have to suspect, very carefully chosen; no pastor worth his salt is going to think that those are the passages that’ll come up in serious conversations with skeptics).

    2) Are we suggesting that the Bible’s authority rests on the amount of pieces of it we’ve discovered? ‘Cause only 4401 more pieces, and we’d all be taking Achilles as our Lord and Savior…

    On the whole, though, it seems you had a little more connection with some folks on this subject. Don’t be shouted down. :0)

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    • Thanks, Toad. And don’t worry, no shouting other than the one loud and passionate word “anything”. I did feel more connection by the end (until the last comment, at least).

      I was so happy to see the pastor’s email to Russell the next day, where he asked him for examples of contradictions. He is definitely trying to learn the obstacles to belief that will come up in real conversation.

      I agree completely with your comments about what intrigued you. They only discussed “arguments” that were easily dismantled—a straw man massacre. And having an entire original Bible perfectly preserved and consistently copied would not make it any more true, right? I also couldn’t understand the point of that argument, and I know I need to do more reading before I could explain why my sources (which give vastly different numbers) are more reliable than his.

      Surely some of them know by now where I stand, without me having to confess it. I’m really looking forward to this week.

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      • A straw man massacre–I like that. :0)

        Do you think his examples were in good faith? Not to be a conspiracy theorist, but he’s either an evil genius or completely clueless–neither of which is a terribly comforting option. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I must confess that, due to my own time as a racketeer, I find the ministry “profession” as formulated by the Southern Baptist denomination to be just that–a racket. However, I also know from experience that the contradictions (and the appropriate rebuffs) are drilled into prospective ministers’ heads in ministry school. At the very least, you’d think he woulda gone with the old “Paul vs. James” chestnut–it’s clearly contradictory, but fairly easily explained, so it makes for good show.

        But I’m cynical that way…

        Liked by 1 person

      • It occurs to me that perhaps “evil genius” was not the best turn of phrase. As you can probably tell, I don’t have a whole lot respect sometimes for my former occupation. :o) I didn’t mean “evil” as in “malicious.” More “skilled.” So let’s leave it at “genius.”

        What I meant to say was: What better way to play down the problem of biblical inconsistency than to introduce “contradictions” that aren’t contradictions in the first place, and then explain that they’re not?

        Liked by 1 person

        • To introduce the straw man!

          There are a lot of clear errors between the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles – however in recent years the translators of some Bible versions (such as NIV) have actually been changing the text (such as numbers, names and places) to remove the inconsistencies – their rationale is the Bible can’t be wrong so there must have been a copying error in the transmission.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yes. Another lesson learned (this one quite useful) in ministry school: Every translator is, to one extent or another, an exegete. I remember working with ministers whose approach to a lexicon was to figure out what the Greek root of a word was, and then pick out whichever definition/transliteration best fit their previous understanding of an English text. This led to one memorable occasion in which our interim pastor, in his Sunday School class, informed eveyone that the phrase “cheerful giver” actually meant “to give hilariously” (the Greek being “hilaros”); this in turn translated to several of his class members cackling like banshees during the offertory. Anyway, all that to say: confirmation bias ought to have its own heading in systematic theology texts…

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            • OMG Vance. The cackling like banshees during the offering happened in my home church after a sermon in which the phrase “give hilariously” was brought up. Baptists don’t traditionally speak in tongues, but I have heard it in other churches and filed this on a similar shelf.

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              • “Tongues.” Hmmm. Yes. And, since you’re not supposed to do it unless there’s someone there to interpret, I’ll step up with “He whack!” :0)

                Apparently this is a popular hermeneutical tactic…

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        • Don’t worry, Vance—I knew exactly what you meant. You were speaking of clever manipulation of conversation, and I certainly asked myself the same question: was he directing the conversation in that way so he could destroy easy targets, or does he really not understand the arguments? I love to think the best of people (that’s going to get me killed someday), so I’m choosing to believe the latter. How did he get this far without knowing the iron man arguments that are not so easily torn down? He had to know them—but perhaps his heart wasn’t ready to consider them before. It seems to be now (he has been gracious to us in outside communication), and I’m thankful for the place he has provided for these discussions. I could absolutely see him steering the conversation last week to allow me time to speak—even giving me opportunities to explain why the arguments he dismantled are not the ones that matter. Parts of that discussion were difficult for me, but over all I think it’s a step in the right direction—and one I’m not sure all pastors would be willing to take.

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          • Perhaps you are right. Like I said, I’m a bit cynical when it comes to all that. It does sound like he interprets most skeptics’ difficulties as lexical rather than logical. Maybe you and Russell will be helpful to him in that regard. :0)

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for another informative report. Whenever I get thinking about Noah’s Ark my mind screams at me that it can not possibly have happened as described in the Bible. Leaving aside the logistics, modern science should by now have identified three things if it really happened, firstly a mass death of animals worldwide, secondly the geographical evidence of an immense flood and thirdly DNA evidence in every species of them being contracted down to two individuals at same period of the past.

    Creation scientists seek to provide evidence for the flood, but time and time again they have been shown to be wrong. I can’t believe that there is any sort of conspiracy among conventional scientists hiding the truth.

    Sometimes it is necessary to amputate a limb to save the body. In my view Biblical literalists are in danger of killing the whole body.

    When a Christian in the past I had come to a sort of truce with my intellect by consigning the first 11 chapters of the Bible to ‘myth’. It was when I realised that much of the rest was not real history either that my faith crumbled.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “It was when I realised that much of the rest was not real history either that my faith crumbled.”

      I wonder what we mean here by ‘real history.’ Do we mean a ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’ view of history? If so, we are holding the Old Testament to an impossible standard. If you read the Histories of Herodotus, written in the 5th century, long after some of the Old Testament texts, you will find numerous ‘deus ex machina’ occurrences employed by Herodotus to confirm the gods’ support for the Greeks in their struggle against the Persians. If you read a text more chronologically contemporaneous to the Pentateuch, namely Hesiod’s Theogony, you will find the creation myth in Genesis extraordinarily mundane by comparison.

      When we point specifically at the flood myth, we must remember that this story pervades ancient mythologies. The account in Genesis is merely a ‘typos’ of the stories found in Sumerian, Babylonian, Greek, and Latin literature. Some scholars interpret this ubiquity as validity of the flood’s historical occurrence; others believe that the stories were prompted by a dramatic increase in sea level in the Mediterranean area; yet others, in whose camp I pitch my tent, view the flood myths as literary manifestations of the deep reverence of ancient peoples for water- its ability to sustain life, or to destroy it.

      Let us view the scriptural texts through the lens of socio-historical awareness. Much of what is written is subjective to the authors’ respective geographic and temporal situation. The consequent cleavage is intransible by those without a pervasive understanding of the ancient world- except, perhaps, by spiritual discernment.

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      • Hi I agree with the thrust of what you are saying. My concept of ‘God’ very much relied on the Scriptures being supernaturally inspired. They make a lot more sense being seen as human works where people, especially the Jews, seek to understand the world as they find it. But the problem then is I don’t what part (if any) is God and what part is human.

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        • I think that it is that precise question that drives me day by day. It is what the German theologian Paul Tillich referred to as ‘The Courage to Be.’

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            • A couple of years ago I undertook a unit in Theology. Tillich was seen as being an innovator in thinking and theology. Now whether one sees this as good or bad says a lot about one’s attitude to faith and its relationship with the modern world.

              The seminary I studied was fairly mainstream evangelical and basically mentioned him in passing and left it at that.

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            • I have not read Tillich’s Systematic Theology cover to cover, but I have read what I consider his quintessential writing, Theology of Culture. His conception of God is the only plausible one in my view. You refer to it as the “God above God.” Tillich’s realization was that if God exists, then he is merely a being among other beings, which allows one to ask who or what created God. In other words, a God who exists cannot be Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover,’ or the first cause. The Greek verb ‘histemi,’ whence the word ‘exist’ derives, means literally to ‘stand out.’ Tillich denies that God exists in this sense, but postulates that God is the source of being out of which everything else exists. The result of this conception was an impersonal God relative to traditional Christian theology, which alienated Tillichian thought from the high regard I believe it deserves.

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  3. Pingback: Love Backwards Is Evol | Amusing Nonsense

  4. Bringing up Tillich in some of the responses here brings me to what I consider to be my own questions. I am very much attracted to the Tillich-Spong-Borg (among others) notion of God, but in the end there are two questions I must ask myself. The first is this notion of God really God, or is God which one must accept or reject be the God of supernatural theism. The second is, is this, even if right, a Christian way of seeing things. I have enjoyed reading these comments.

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  5. Pingback: The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask, Week 4: Suffering // My Deepest Fear and the Greatest Risk | The Counterfeit Christian

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