University Congregational Church
Jan. 29, 2017
“Making Space – Progressive Christian Convictions: Sometimes the Bible is Wrong”
Peter Gomes, the late Preacher to Harvard University observed “intelligent people seem to know less and less about the Bible and religious people revere it and will defend it to the death but seldom read it with any industry or imagination.”
One of the problems is that the Bible portrays the God of antiquity as acting in ways that violate both our knowledge and our sensibilities today. If an all-knowing God had really made many of the assumptions that the Bible makes, then this God would be revealed as hopelessly ignorant. Sickness, for example, does not result from sin being punished. Epilepsy and mental illness also are no longer understood to result from demon possession, even though Jesus was portrayed in the Bible as believing they did. If we are honest, we are required to confront the fact that the Bible has a limited grasp on truth as we know it. No doctor would treat an epileptic child today by ordering the demon out of him or her in the name of God.
Another problem we have is that the Bible is much easier to reverence than to read. We take oaths on the Bible, the Gideons put Bibles in hotel rooms, we present Bibles as gifts to our friends and relatives, we’ve offered to “swear on a stack of Bibles”, and we discuss what we learned about the Bible. Some have even said that the Bible is a cultural icon. It has a talismanic quality, with magical, even oracular powers attributed to it. “It’s in the Bible” is the ultimate way to win an argument! No one wants to argue with you if you say that.
For progressive thinkers, however, it may not be so easy. Helen Keller, referring to the Bible in her autobiography, wrote, “There is much to the Bible against which every instinct of my being rebels, so much that I regret the necessity which has compelled me to read it through from beginning to end.”
I can only guess what troubled her so much about what she read. Perhaps it was this text, from Deuteronomy:
If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives. Deut. 22:28-29
Or this one from the New Testament, which seems to see slavery as a norm in society:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. Eph. 6:5-8
In spite of some obvious problems with Biblical inerrancy (like a rape victim has to marry her rapist and live with him for the rest of her life), there are many people today in the Protestant church who use the idea that the Bible is to be understood literally as a requirement for faith. To them, I say, “I take the Bible way too seriously to take it literally.”
This requirement of literalism is a relatively new idea in Christian history. Martin Luther wanted to eliminate the letter of James and the book of Revelation from the Bible. You can’t do that if you believe the Bible is inerrant.
Richard Hooker, one of the most important theologians of the Anglican Reformation, affirmed 3 interactive authorities: scripture, tradition, and reason. You can’t do that if you believe the Bible is inerrant.
This notion that the Bible is inerrant – without error – is largely the product of the past 100 years. Instead of trying to squeeze the entire Biblical story into this box, I would like to offer a solution that makes sense for progressive Christians. We are continuing in the sermon series “Making Space; Progressive Christian Convictions”.
Sometimes, it is clear to the reader that a few Biblical texts, like the one from Deuteronomy, are a product of Christianity accommodating itself to the values of the world in which it lives. If you look back at the text in your bulletin, notice what the law specifies:
• Payment to the father
• Marriage to the rapist
• Prohibition of divorce
This is obviously an ancient societal understanding of the relationship between fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, and men and women. The father of a virgin daughter is entitled to a bridal price. That is why the rapist must pay him fifty shekels. Further, and most horrifying of all, is because the rapist has violated the woman and made her “worthless” to other men, he must marry her.
In patriarchal ancient societies, women were economically dependent on men – on their fathers at first, then on their husbands, and if they lived long enough, on their sons.
If we took this text as the perfect and unalterable truth for eternity, it begs some rather difficult questions:
1. Is it God’s will that a rape victim be tied to her rapist for life?
2. Does the woman ever have rights?
3. Does the man escape punishment?
4. What is to deter people from raping if it guarantees that you will be married to the one you rape?
Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament have passages that condone slavery. In Titus 2:9, slaves are actually told to be submissive to their masters and to give them satisfaction in every circumstance. I Peter 2:18 goes even farther: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters… not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.”
Is slavery consistent with the will of God? Most of us would answer clearly with a “no!” Was slavery once acceptable to God, but is no longer? And, how are we to understand these texts if we believe in the Bible as the absolute and perfect word of God?
There is a positive alternative to seeing the Bible this way. I believe we can embrace the Bible without affirming that it is inerrant and infallible. We can take the Bible seriously, understand it as sacred, and accept its power to transform lives.
• We can understand the bible as a human product: it tells us how our human ancestors saw things, not how God sees things.
• We can realize that the treasures in the Bible contain a variety of literary forms – stories, wisdom, prayer, songs, questioning, ethics, history, and even politics. It has a variety of writers – prophets, lawmakers, priests, evangelists, teachers, and storytellers. This does not create contradiction so much as it shows a variety of voices and beliefs. Just as if all of us wrote a book about God, they would all be different – so the Bible has the witness of a number of people.
• To be a Christian means being in an unending conversation with this collection of documents. While it may not be sacred in its origin… it is sacred in its status and function.
• The truth of religious stories – including but not limited to stories in the Bible – does not depend on their factuality. Rather, it means that the truth of the Bible is “more than factual”. Just as Jesus’s parables were “made up” stories, there are other tales whose purpose is not to record history but to tell truth. Black Elk said about an important story he told: “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true.” And Thomas Mann defined “myth” as “a story about the way things never were but always are.”
Here is an easy example. At the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus appears to his disciples including Thomas. Thomas had not been with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them on Easter. When they told him about it, he declared that he would not believe until he saw the nail prints. A week later Jesus appeared to Thomas and invited him to touch his wounds. And Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”
Thomas isn’t always portrayed as the most faithful disciple. But through the centuries, he is a mentor to many a doubter. He wanted a firsthand experience of Jesus – and he received it. I don’t know if this encounter actually happened with a disciple and Jesus. But I like to think that the story is true. It is true because Thomas represents all those who question what we believe and ask for something we can trust with our own eyes and our own senses. We don’t want a faith that relies on someone else’s experience. We demand a faith that is palpable.
Faith does not mean believing in the literal-factuality of the stories regardless of how improbable they seem. Rather, faith is about something far more important. It is about our relationship with God and with others. It seems to me that the Bible sometimes gets things wrong. And each time it does, it emboldens us to look again to find the nugget that is less obvious but so very, very true.
Borg, Marcus. Convictions; How I Learned What Matters Most. HarperOne. 2014.