It has been five months since I last posted anything here. Last fall, the last few times I posted, I apologized for the scarcity of posts. This time I won’t, because I’m not sorry at all. I quite simply had nothing to say.
You see, for most of the last five months I’ve been going through what I’ve referred to in conversations with my wife as a bout of “low grade depression.” What exactly that means, I’m not sure, but I had to give it a name in order to talk about it. Mostly it has manifested itself in an inability, much of the time, to access the deep places of my heart in any expressible way.
Much of this feeling I’ve been talking about relates to what God has been doing in my heart over the last few years – moving me away from convention and “normalcy,” out into the fringes of His body. Some would say I have left it all together, but that is not the case.
This is not, however, going to be another post where I talk of the disappointment and hurt I have felt at the hands of the “normal” church. This crisis has been of a related, but different nature.
In figuring out where I stand in my relationship with Christ, one thing that has come to consume my thoughts of late is the question of where I stand in relationship with Scripture.
I named this post long before I wrote it – long before, in fact, I had any idea what exactly it would say. You see, we often refer to these moments where we are questioning much of what we believe . . . much of what we have believed all our lives . . . as a “Crisis of Faith.”
My faith, though, is not something that is in crisis. This is a crisis of a different sort. It is a crisis of fact.
. . . as in, I am constantly wanting more of them. More facts, more knowledge, more information.
In this case, I want more information about this thing, this book – or collection of books, to be more accurate – that we call “The Bible.”
You see, there are some things about it that just have not made sense to me. I grew up believing something very close to the story that God planted the exact words in the heads of those who penned the original Scriptures, that they wrote them down infallibly, and that those words have been passed on to us completely untarnished.
I do not believe that anymore. My first step away from that belief came with the realization that Scripture itself may claim to be inspired, but its myriad of scribes, copyists and translators do not. Thus I came to believe that Scripture is infallible in its original form, but that minor errors have been introduced in its copying and translation.
Then I began to wonder about that word “inspired.” Scripture claims to be “inspired,” but what does that really mean? Does that truly mean that every word – even in its original form – was absolutely infallible? The word, in Greek, literally means, “God-breathed.” The meaning of that term, in turn, is somewhat of a mystery.
Then I began to study more about what has become one of my passions – one that I have written about here before, as well as on my wife’s blog – the historical context of Scripture. I began to realize that there are little things that just don’t seem to fit. One minor example is found in the story surrounding the birth of Christ. Luke relates that the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem was undertaken when Cyreneus was governor of the Roman province of Syria. Then, Luke says, after Jesus was born, King Herod – fearing for his throne – killed all children in Bethlehem below the age of two.
The only problem with this is that other contemporary historical sources reveal that Cyreneus did not become governor of Syria until after Herod’s death. Furthermore, the entire purpose of a census such as the one recorded here (and mentioned in those same historical writings) was to survey the population of a province like Judea as it transitioned from a semi-autonomous kingship to direct Roman rule . . . something that happened not only after, but because of Herod’s death. Furthermore, there is no chance that the mistake was in the other historical sources, for history has carried down to us exactly when Cyreneus was governor, as well as the names and dates of his predecessors and successors in that position.
In other words, Luke – writing roughly eighty years after the death of Christ, got some of his facts wrong.
In any other historical book, this would be no big deal . . . but discovering this about Scripture left me in somewhat of a quandry. After all, if mistakes exist in little things, why not in bigger ones? And if they exist in bigger ones, then how can we be sure that we have a true picture of what God wanted for us when He gave us the Scripture in the first place?
It makes perfect sense to me that Scripture might not mean everything we think it means. After all, my whole life I have had scriptures spouted at me to justify things like male headship, the duty of tithing, the primacy of the local church fellowship, even the biblical basis of the Republican party . . . all positions I no longer believe.
It is a big step, though, to realize that Scripture might not even necessarily mean everything it was meant to mean.
There has always, in my moving away from the various positions mentioned above, been a small kernel of doubt in my mind about certain things. After all, it says “Wives, submit to your husbands.” Taken completely separate from the surrounding historical context, and even the surrounding verses, that seems to be a pretty straight-forward command. However, it never sat well with what I know to be true of my Savior – the fact that He looks on all of His chosen equally . . . and that He promises, among other things, to be the sole mediator and spiritual authority in their lives.
Whenever I raised these issues to those who still believed as I once did, the question was always the same: “Don’t you think that God is capable of preserving in Scripture an accurate record of what He wants from us?”
This question has always presented a challenge to me. I felt trapped by it. On the one hand I could answer “yes,” and admit that my admittedly more “nuanced” reading of Scripture – together with the belief that God doesn’t necessarily have the same message for all people at all times – is wrong. On the other hand, I could say “no,” and deny the sovereignty of God to manipulate the laws of science and nature to miraculously preserve his written will.
I am willing to do neither. To do the latter would be to deny that God is who He is. To do the former would be to call Him a living contradiction.
This morning, I realized that there is a third option to this struggle I have been waging in my mind for the last several months.
You see, the question itself: “Don’t you think that God is capable of preserving in Scripture an accurate record of what He wants from us?” makes an incredibly deep-seated assumption . . . it assumes that’s what He intended for Scripture in the first place.
I have struggled for so long wondering how I can believe God incapable of miraculously preserving some sort of guideline for his people . . . I’ve never considered that the flawed, incomplete, sometimes incomprehensible story we have of God’s interaction with mankind may be exactly what He intended us to have.
After all, God’s language has been that of riddles for as long as He has interacted with humanity. From his claims on the life of Isaac to his curse of a fruitless fig tree, the simple fact is that God sometimes just does not do what is expected of him. We expect Him to give us a rulebook to live by, so when He gives us something else, we see it as a rulebook anyway. We expect Him to tell us what He wants us to do . . . so when He tells us how He wants us to love, we try to turn THAT into something we’re supposed to “do” as well . . .
He spoke in riddles, even to his closest friends and followers. They rarely made sense of what he meant – and he usually did his best to keep it that way.
What if that’s exactly what He continues to do, to this day?
What if the book we call “Bible” is another grand riddle? What if He’s being deliberately vague, and throwing in a couple seeming contradictions just to make us engage in some introspective head-scratching? Isn’t that just like him? Isn’t it just like a loving Father, when his child asks a question to which he might very easily give a straightforward answer, to instead say, “Why don’t you go do some reading, thinking, or research on that and figure that one out on your own?”
I know my own father did that many times – and I know that I’m better off for having learned how to think for myself.
Maybe Scripture is intended not to tell us what to do or think, but to teach us to think for ourselves, and to live in the shadow of our God as best we can. Maybe we are all suffering from a crisis of fact . . . and are trying to compensate by creating new “facts” – new religious commandments, traditions and “to-do lists” where none existed before.
But aren’t the folks who perverted the Jewish faith in the same way the very ones that He whipped out of the temple courtyard? Aren’t they the same ones he called “beautiful tombs, full of dead men’s bones?” Didn’t he roundly criticize and condemn the people who tried to turn the Scriptures into more than they were intended to be?
. . . and didn’t they kill Him for it?
I don’t want to follow in their footsteps. I don’t want to try to invent some new set of commandments because I can’t accept that the words He left us just aren’t enough to tell me what to do with myself at each and every fork in the road.
I want to think for myself . . . to take what He’s given me and use it to continue onward as I believe He would have me do.
And honestly, I don’t think He ever intended otherwise.
6 Responses to A Crisis of Fact
Deep Michael! I for one appreciate the thought provoking post you made and it is well worth the five month process it took to bring it to us. Most appropriate these days as many Christians banter back- and- forth looking for more than He possibly intended in Scripture.
I enjoyed it, but got lost part way along. I was following your train of thought until soon after the paragraph,
“You see, the question itself: “Don’t you think that God is capable of preserving in Scripture an accurate record of what He wants from us?” makes an incredibly deep-seated assumption . . .“
Following that, didn’t seem to match what you were thinking about before that. (it probably does, but I don’t see it) As a summary of the “before” part, you were speaking of the change and reasons for the change from an infallible-in-every-detail view to an inspired-but-not-detailed-perfection view (use one of several possible errors as example). In the “after” part, you were speaking of how the Bible is not meant to be a list of rules, but rather an exercise and riddle to make us think and grow.
I’m not quite sure where the connection is – how does the second part deal with the errors part? Was God specifically putting/allowing errors into the Bible to give us something to wrestle with – as something to make us think critically about which parts of the Bible to believe? A puzzle and enigma which, upon study, helps us develop into maturity is one thing. There can be lots of puzzles and even contradictions in that, no problem.
Out and out errors are quite different than obscurity and puzzles, though. A riddle and puzzle to help people grow and mature doesn’t do it’s job very well if it gets them growing off in the wrong direction. Errors are quite distinct from enigmas that way.
That’s gonna take a bit of explaining, if I’m understanding you correctly. (that’s always a bad assumption)
Disclaimer – I’m not trying to sidle up sideways to an argument over infallibility vs. inspiration. I’ve worked through these issues too (still working through them). I just don’t quite see how the second half of your through answered the first half, and I’m curious.
“Maybe Scripture is intended not to tell us what to do or think, but to teach us to think for ourselves, and to live in the shadow of our God as best we can. Maybe we are all suffering from a crisis of fact . . . and are trying to compensate by creating new “facts” – new religious commandments, traditions and “to-do lists” where none existed before.”
Wow! I like that. I think He created us to think and many times we are asleep in the pew. Good postings my friend, I look forward to reading more
Dan in KC
I apologize for taking so long to respond to your comment. I haven’t spent nearly as much time with my blog as I’d like to, of late.
I think the connection between the two distinct parts that you noted in my post can be summarized thus: If God intended Scripture not (as we have so often interpreted it) as a rulebook to guide our every thought, choice and action, but as an enigmatic story of His interactions with humanity from the day He created us, then the “infallibility vs. inspiration” debate is completely pointless. If our faith in Him does not hinge on the assertion that every word in Scripture is divinely dictated, then my point in this post was that IT DOES NOT MATTER if Luke got his timeline wrong, or if Paul added a bit of personal opinion into his writing. One thing remains constant – the book is still, first and foremost, the story of God and His relationship with us.
Not so, if it was intended as a book of rules – because if so, then every word has to be perfect, or we might accidentally mess up in following one of those rules.
That was the crux of my post – Rather than staking out a position on the inspiration of Scripture, I was very deliberately NOT staking out such a position, because the more I think about it, the more I think doing so is pointless.
Ok, I’ve been witness to a few debates/arguments on the infallibility vs inspiration vs ……. of Scripture. The most important thing I’ve learned is that I don’t want to participate in one, so I’m REALLY not wanting to debate it. You studied way more philosophy and logic at PHC than I ever did at GCC and could undoubtedly bury me. Since I’ve watched a few of them, I have seen the give and take of people who hold what you’ve put forward, and most of them don’t really resolve at the point you’ve given here.
The typical response at the point you’ve left it here goes something like this:
How do you know that the story of God’s relationship with us is accurate? If the Bible is not at least inspired how do we know that the story is even close to being an accurate story? Moving the purpose of the Bible from “infallibly dictated statements” to “an illustration of God’s relationship with mankind” doesn’t remove the necessity for the Bible to be accurate, it just _maybe_ loosens the requirements some.
(actually, in most “discussions”, it never moves beyond the first posting and response – after that it’s all accusations flying back and forth. “Legalistic a-hole” and “unbelieving satan-spawn” is the usual level of discussion.)
Anyway, there is a point to consider in there. If Paul wrote nothing but his own take on God-Man relations, and it is wildly off-base from reality, then we’ve got a problem. Ditto if John was using Jesus as a puppet to mouth his own story of what he thought Jesus should have been saying/doing. (obviously extreme examples)
So, did God inspire the story of his relationship with mankind, or did God infallibly dictate His story, or did men write a mostly/generally/somewhat/barely accurate account.
That’s what I meant when I said I didn’t see the connection between the halves. The Bible being the story of God’s relationship or a list of rules (or both), doesn’t really change the need to decide whether or not the Bible is infallible, inspired, trustworthy, or other.
i’m an agnostic christian like u and believe the same way.
I agree with most of your text here. I like to say (to myself, mostly) that scripture is authoritative. then, whether it’s accurate or not is moot. It IS the standard by which all other truth is judged. (And that’s my arbitrary choice to believe that).
The other dimension i’d like to add is that i was delighted when you mentioned the riddles that god always throws in. It moved me. It is the way i see it, too.
But i sense that god’s aim is not to make us think (altho i do believe he wants us to apply all our intellectual and reasoning talent to our faith) but rather to assert the primary relationship, that he is god and we are his servants.
If we could ever ‘prove the bible’ the problem in my mind wouldnt be so much that we would not then be able to have faith, but it would rather be that we could stand on our own, and assert truth. I dont feel like god ever intended us to be in that posn, but to rather be always depending on him for truth, and life and breath itself. He is the author of reason, and all our thinking derives from his gift of reason to us. that kind of thing.