Tim Chastain (a great progressive Christian blogger) just wrote an excellent post about how anti-theists and fundamentalists share the same binary way of thinking about the Bible.
“You have probably noticed this as well. I have long observed that certain non-Christians, or former Christians, reject the Bible as though it was written as a consistent document to be interpreted literally.
As I have encountered and engaged these critics of the Bible on various blogs over the past year, the realization is even stronger—many of them treat the Bible as though it claims inerrancy. They agree with Christian inerrantists in this approach.
In my interactions with these biblical critics, I am often accused of cherry-picking the Bible, choosing the parts I like, or making it up as I go. They don’t seem to grasp that there is a legitimate, informed, and consistent way to read the Bible without assuming inerrancy.
David Schell’s Syllogism
Today I discovered an excellent resource to understanding this point better. It fits in perfectly with our discussion on biblical context, so I am going to break from my planned post to bring it to you attention.
This resource is posted by blogger David M. Schell. I encourage you to read his entire post at Why Young Earth Creationism & Biblical Literalism Aren’t Going Away, but right now I am going to interact with his excellent syllogism.
Most fundamentalists were taught that if there are any contradictions in the Bible, then it is untrustworthy. And many atheists became so after discovering that those contradictions did in fact exist. Both start with the same problematic premise:
(1) If there are contradictions in the Bible, then the Bible is false.
Fundamentalists follow (a) with
(2a) The Bible is not false, therefore
(3a) there are no contradictions in the Bible.
Some streams of atheists accept (a), then follow (a) with
(2b) There are contradictions in the Bible, therefore
(3b) The Bible is false.
This is already clear to those of us who do not subscribe to biblical inerrancy, but for some reason it does not seem clear to inerrancy-oriented critics. What I find so exceptional is that David Schell expresses it in terms that anyone should be able to grasp.
He suggests that those questioning inerrancy should begin by rejecting (1) ‘If there are contradictions in the Bible, then the Bible is false’ rather than accepting (1) and rejecting (2).
The Unfortunate Result of this Major Premise
Many fundamentalists, evangelicals, and other inerrantists come to a place where they have doubts about whether inerrancy is true. They might see problems with inconsistencies and ‘contradictions’ or begin to realize that there is, in fact, a strong case for evolution. Some begin to wonder whether the angry, violent, vindictive God depicted in the Old Testament is a true characterization of God or wonder how a loving God can punish people with eternal torment.
These are difficult issues for maturing inerrantists, and it is good for them to work through these doubts on inerrancy. But their quest is in grave danger if they begin with the major premise that ‘If there are contradictions in the Bible, then the Bible is false’.
Let’s change the premise slightly to read: ‘If the Bible is not inerrant, then the Bible is false’. Accepting this premise, and then becoming convinced that the Bible is not inerrant, leads to the conclusion that the Bible is false. The Bible is then rejected. Some lose their way and some become atheists who criticize the Bible as misleading and worthless.
The Alternative of Understanding Biblical Context
There is a valid approach to appreciating the Bible as a valuable book, filled with truth about Jesus and the Father, without assuming or demanding inerrancy: the Bible was written by people who felt they had a strong connection with God. This was true in the Old Testament, but it was particularly so with those who met Jesus, were transformed, and wrote about their understanding of him.
In their writing, these people wrote about their experiences and how they felt about them. However, they used their own words and ideas. They also used literary genre that cannot be read literally because it was not meant to be read literally; this includes apocalyptic, midrash, proverbs, poetry, letters and many other forms of expression.
When coming to grips with the fact that the Bible is not an inerrant book, there is no need to throw out the baby with the bath water of inerrancy. On the contrary, a better understanding of the biblical context makes the Bible an even richer document. So outgrow inerrancy and see the Bible anew!
Next time we will return to our discussion on apocalyptic.”
While I agree with almost everything he has written, I think he should have used the word antitheist (or militant atheist) instead of atheists. There are many respectful atheists in Continental Europe who do not fall into the fundamentalist trap while analyzing and criticizing religious texts.
Most of the time, antitheists turn out to be former religious fundamentalists or Conservative believers who are no longer able to think rationally about religion and have kept a fundamentalist bigoted mind in many domains.
Like Tim, I think we should view the Bible as the founding part of a long tradition of people having experienced God and reported their thoughts according to their own cultural background and worldview (which is certainly compatible with their experiencing genuine miracles).
The basis of our theology should not be an allegedly inerrant collection of books (which turns out to be self-contradictory) but God’s ultimate perfection which transcends anything mere humans could ever achieve. This should be our criterion for evaluating any religious text.
In the same way people of the past were mistaken about many empirical facts they also were wrong about moral and theological truths which they progressively discovered.
In the future I will
debunk critically analyze some characteristic posts of DebunkingChristianity which presuppose a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible and religion.