Thursday, 30 December 2010

How Not to Defend the Bible

The Bible is pretty central to the Christian faith. Without it, the Christian faith - as we know it at least - would not exist, because everything we know about Jesus and the early church and about the relationship the Jews had with God before this comes from its pages. It is perhaps not surprising then, that the Bible comes in for considerable attack from those who have a negative view of our faith, and who see it as their mission to discredit it.

Richard Dawkins famously declared in, "The God Delusion", that, "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

Leaving aside for the moment, the controversial reference to "fiction", as you can see, Dawkins doesn't pull any punches! Dawkins has a very clear agenda here, which he at least has the decency to be honest about, and the resulting rant above is by no means a balanced or fair assessment of the Old Testament!

Having said this however, there are still elements of some of these things to be found in its pages, parts of the Old Testament have been used to justify some pretty terrible things, and many honest seekers have been put off the Christian faith by some of the stories found there. Marcion in the 2nd century famously concluded that the God of the Old Testament was a different God to the one that Jesus spoke about. This was a powerful idea which persisted for several centuries in opposition to mainstream church teaching.

How do we explain these apparent contradictions? How for example, do we explain why a supposed God of love, would order his people to engage in genocide? Various attempts have been made, including the following:
  1. Morality was somehow different back then. I've never really totally understood this argument so I may not be doing it justice, but it has something to do with everything changing at the death and resurrection of Jesus. By atoning for sin, Jesus' death and resurrection made grace and mercy possible in a way that it hadn't been previously which is why the Old Testament portrayal of God often seems so harsh and uncompromising compared with the God of love that we're more familiar with today.

    I can see some sense in this, but to me it's an inadequate explanation. I still can't imagine the God I love and worship ever ordering his people to engage in the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children (however deserving the victims might have been!). Apart from the obvious damage inflicted on the victims, this has a massive de-humanising effect on the perpetrators and sets a horrendous precedent for future generations!

  2. It is not the Bible, but our imperfect view of morality that is at fault. Yes, God appears to do some terrible things, but they only look terrible because we don't understand all His reasons. If we understood everything perfectly as He does, we would see that His actions as portrayed in the Bible were really all just and good after all.

    I am prepared to accept that in some cases this may be true. I cannot rule out the possibility (remote as it seems to me right now) that it could turn out to be true in every case and that all my discomfort with God's portrayal in scripture may eventually amount to nothing. In the mean time though, there is just too much there that seems too contrary to my own God-given moral compass, for me to just pass it all off in this way. We must always be willing to accept that our understanding - intellectual and moral - is limited, but if something flies in the face of everything that seems to be good or praiseworthy then in all good conscience we surely cannot and should not be trying to excuse it?! 
To me there seem to be 3 remaining possibilities:
  1. God is not really good - at least not completely and consistently. 
  2. There is no God, so nothing the Bible says about him is true anyway. 
  3. The Bible is an imperfect witness to God's behaviour and character. 
1 & 2 are ruled out for me, for all sorts of reasons that I don't have room to discuss properly in this post, which only seems to leave me with number 3.

This is an extremely difficult and controversial conclusion for most evangelical Christians to accept (significantly less controversial than 1 or 2 however!). In fact I think many would claim that you cannot believe this and still call yourself an evangelical Christian. For me though, the Bible doesn't have to be 100% true and accurate in every detail in order to be God-inspired (see 2 Timothy 3 verse 16). I am prepared to accept that it is written by people, who weren't always in possession of all the facts. The Bible is about God speaking to and interacting with people, who are the product of their culture and circumstances. Their circumstances, lives and culture are shaped by this process and God's character, heart and purpose are revealed, but these events are recorded by imperfect people who remain - to a greater or lesser extent - the product of their times.

We must not forget however, that we are also the product of our time, and that our reactions to the text will be influenced by our own, non-universal values and assumptions, coupled with an imperfect understanding of the period in which it was written. For this reason, none of us are in a position to pass supreme judgement on it, but we must be continually weighing it, allowing it to speak to us, and allowing God to use it to challenge our own hearts and prejudices. This doesn't mean we have to agree with everything it says though, or to defend as perfect something which occasionally does seem at odds with so much that we claim to stand for.


  1. Dear Dan,

    Where is the Reference?

    Bible Christians, believers in Sola Scriptura, teach that the Bible is complete and that it is all that is needed. They teach that all answers are given by Scripture.

    I wish to refute that thinking by showing that there are a lot of questions brought up in Scripture that are not answered therein. So where do we go to find those answers so that we have the fullness of truth and not just some of it?

    Matthew 11:21, "Woe to thee, Corozain...For if in Tyre and Sidon had been worked the miracles that have been worked in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes."

    What are these miracles in Corozain? Where is the reference?

    Matthew 23:2, "The Scribes and the Pharisees have sat on the chair of Moses."

    Where is this 'chair of Moses' referenced in Scripture?

    Acts 20:35, "In all things I have shown you that by so toiling you ought to help the weak and REMEMBER the Word of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'"

    Show me the verse where Jesus said these words.

    Matthew 2:23, "And He went and settled in a town called Nazareth; that there might be fulfilled what was spoken through the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene."

    In what verse did the prophets say this?

    James 4:5, "Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, "The Spirit which dwells in you covets unto jealousy.""

    Where does Scripture reference this?

    2Timothy 3:8, "Just as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so these men also resist the truth..."

    Who are Jannes and Jambres? Where is the reference? If you know, by what means did you find it?

    Hebrews 11:35, "Women had their dead restored to them by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might find a better resurrection."

    Who are these 'others', the ones searching for a better resurrection? Where is the Bible reference?

    Jude 1:9, "Yet when Michael the Archangel was fiercely disputing with the devil about the body of Moses..."

    Where can this 'dispute' be found in Holy Scripture?

    Jude 1:14, "Now of these also Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, 'Behold, the Lord has come with thousands of His holy ones.'"

    Where is this prophecy in Scripture? Where is the reference?

    Since non-Catholics are bound to Scripture and Scripture only (Sola Scriptura), the purpose of this post is to show that everything is not in the Bible.

    Answers to some of the questions asked here can be found through Tradition, and others through the seven books that non-Catholics do not have in their Bibles.

    Some can be found in the multitude of apocryphal writings, and in the very large library of writings by the Church Fathers.

    Others simply cannot be found anywhere but have been lost forever for various reasons. It is thought that about 400,000 priceless historical writings alone were lost due to the great fire in the library of Alexandria Egypt in 48 B.C. (the actual date is debatable).

    Others have been lost simply by the deterioration of the scroll media used by the various authors of antiquity.

    Catholics have the fullness of truth since they can draw on so many resources outside of Scripture as mentioned above.

    Protestantism has many pieces missing to their puzzle of GOD's salvation history unless they are willing to search the Catholic sources listed.

    As long as they cling to the false doctrine of sola scriptura, they will never see the full picture. They will never have the fullness of truth.

  2. Michael - I think you're slightly off topic, but you raise an interesting point.

    There is a question mark here regarding what exactly the apostle Paul meant for example when he said "all scripture" was "God-breathed", since the Protestant scriptures (which match the current Jewish canon as far as the Old Testament is concerned) do seem to contain New Testament references to books which are no longer part of that canon (but some of which may be found in some Catholic Bibles).

    Also of course, most of the New Testament did not exist when Paul said that and had certainly not yet been "canonised". So what exactly did Paul mean by "scripture"? Where did he draw the line? Perhaps he just wasn't intending to be that prescriptive and his words have been taken out of context and given more emphasis than was ever intended at the time?


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