Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Christianity Applied Chapter 2: The Inerrancy Of Scripture

Christianity Applied Chapter 2
Inerrancy of Scripture
2 Timothy 2:15 Present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

                To begin with, we should be clear about the terms we use.  Scripture is whatever written document that is used by a religion as its foundational guide for worship and living.  It is the prime source for belief, behavior, and understanding of life.  For Christians, scripture is the Bible.  The word bible comes from the Greek word for book.  So, for anyone interested in Christianity, a really important question is "What is this book and where did it come from?
                The Bible has two major sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament.  Old and New are simply descriptions of the relative age of the two sections and not their relative worth.  The word testament is another word for testimony, what someone has said about some subject.  In the case of the Bible, we have testimony about the relationship between people and God.

                In each testament there are a lot of subdivisions called books, which is a little misleading.  None of  the "books" are what we would call "book length."  Some are less than a page long, while others are forty or more pages, and the styles of these writings are quite varied.  There are narratives, poetry, songs, wisdom, sermons, letters, and strange visions.  There is sex and violence and humor and steadfast love.  There are inspiring good examples and horrifying bad examples of human behavior.   The Bible isn't a single book in the usual sense; it is more accurate to think of it as a library of many writings of various lengths and styles.  It might be called an anthology of things written about the interactions between God and people.

                How old is the older testimony and how new is the newer testimony?  The actual texts were written over a period of about 1100-1200 years.   Sometime around 1000 BC, the ancient stories that had been passed down for many generations began to be written down.   Centuries of oral tradition were written down, preserving stories about Abraham and Sarah, Joseph, Moses and Miriam, and Joshua and Rahab, and lots of other people who were part of the history of the Hebrew people, the Israelites.  Over the next six or seven centuries, more was written, telling of the rise and fall of the nation of Israel, the heroes and the scum-bags, the prophets that preached great sermons of warning and encouragement, the times of ignoring God and the times of close attention to the Holy One of Israel. 

                By the time of Jesus, the books of the law (also commonly called the books of Moses) were used as scripture among the Jews, the descendants of the Hebrew people, the Israelites.  The writings of and about the prophets were also accepted as scripture.  When Jesus talked about scripture, he often used the phrase "the Law and the Prophets," referring to these two groups of texts.   This was the "Bible" of Jesus.  It wasn't until after the time of Jesus, around 100 AD, that a consensus was reached among the Jewish scholars, as to what other writings were worthy to be called scripture.  For example, there was some wrangling over the book of Esther because God is never mentioned in it.  Other discussions were about how the sayings in the book of Proverbs sometime contradict each other and that the Song of Songs is so erotic. Eventually though, the decision was reached to include them in scripture.  These scriptures were written in Hebrew, the language of the Jews.

                The New Testament is the collection of writings about Jesus and his followers.  The oldest documents in the New Testament are the epistles (letters) of Paul , written no earlier than about 49 AD and over the next decade or so.  Paul didn't sit down to write scripture; Paul was writing letters to specific people and congregations.  When we read them, we are really reading someone else's mail.  The gospels are four books written about the life and teachings of Jesus and they were written over a period of time from around 70 AD to about 90 AD.  The rest of the books of the New Testament may have been written by 100 AD or perhaps a couple of decades later.

                The various Christian documents were passed around, copied, and passed around some more.  There was no official list of "these are authentic and useful writings and the others are not so useful or authentically what they may claim to be," not for a couple of centuries.  The issue of what was really worthy of being called scripture became more prominent around 150 AD because of Marcion, a wealthy ship owner.  He decided that the only documents worthy of being scripture were ten of Paul's letters and some edited selections from the Gospel of Luke.  All of the Old Testament and much of what we now call the New Testament were rejected by Marcion.   His father, a bishop, excommunicated him.  It wasn't until 367 AD that anyone (Athanasius) made a list of valuable texts that matched the table of contents in the New Testament we use today.   Not everyone agreed even then.  In fact the part of the church that we refer to as Eastern Orthodox didn't accept the book of Revelation until sometime in the 700s.

                In the 1500s, Martin Luther would have gladly tossed out the books Esther, James, and Revelation, and it is possible that the accepted list of contents of the Bible might change in the future.  For instance, in 1 Corinthians 5:9 Paul mentions a previous letter to the Corinthians.   In Colossians 4:16 Paul speaks of a letter to the Laodiceans.  If ancient manuscripts of these were discovered, should they be added to the Bible?

            What do all of these historical facts tell us?  First, the Bible is not a single revelation from God.  It did not, so to speak, fall down from heaven, bound in black leather.  It was written by dozens of people over about a dozen centuries in as many different situations.  The contents of the Bible have been the subject of deep consideration - by many people - over many centuries.  There have been even more human hands involved in writing and selecting the contents of the Bible.

                 The Bible is about our relationship with God.  Its primary focus has never been to be a history textbook, nor was it ever intended to be a science textbook.  Harvey Cox (The Future of Faith) says that the Bible is about a movement of faith concerned with meaning and values while science is concerned with empirical descriptions of the workings of the natural world.   In many respects, science deals with "how" and faith deals with "why."  The Bible also wasn't organized to be a book of magical numerology.  People who find special meaning in the number of books, the number of chapters, and/or the number of verses in the Bible have lost track of one more important fact:  there were no chapters or verses until 1205 AD, when Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, oversaw the project of adding chapters and verses to the Bible.

                If the Bible has so many human fingerprints on the writing and compiling of the Bible we have today, then can we believe that it is true?  The Bible is not simply a collection of facts and rules.  Some parts of the Bible are obviously written in poetic, metaphorical, or symbolic language.  The purpose and value of the Bible is not in telling us what is true (factual) but in telling us what is Truth.   For instance, the so-called Golden Rule, "Do unto other as you would have them do unto you" is Truth that will serve each of us very well the more we live that Truth.  

                In the first chapter, we referred to Exodus 20:5, which clearly states that children will be punished for their grandparents' sins and Ezekiel 18:20, which says that each person will only be punished for their own sins.  It seems like an obvious contradiction.  If part of the Bible is not factual, does that mean that we cannot trust it at all?  Knowing that human writers left their own personal and cultural marks on the text should drive us to study deeper, to look not so much for specific detailed rules but for the overarching themes and wisdom to be found in this book of Truth.

                There may be no more divisive issue facing modern Christianity than that of the inerrancy of scripture. Some say the Bible is a fax from God, absolutely perfect in every way, right down to the last semi-colon. Others say the Bible was "inspired" by God, but not "written" by God, and therefore very much open to interpretation.

                The fact is, the Bible is a library, not a book, and while God no doubt inspired every word (just as he is inspiring THESE words), he has never been a heavy-handed editor. God tends to say something along the lines of: "Here's the inspiration you requested; please use it wisely."

                Some do; some don't.  When we see the Bible as dictated word for word to human stenographers, as the words of God rather than the word (message) of God, we turn the Bible into an idol that we worship. 

                Before we go much further it's important that we introduce two words that may or may not be a part of your everyday experience. Eisegesis and exegesis are going on all around you, but you may not quite understand exactly how they're being used. So let's take a moment to talk about these ever-important elements of Biblical scholarship.

                Exegesis, which literally means “to lead out of,”  is defined as the explanation of a text based on a careful, objective analysis. Basically, exegesis is the act of reading the Bible and deriving meaning from what you read.

                One of my favorite Bible verses is 1 John 4:18, which reads: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” This passage has meant different things to me at different times in my life, but it always symbolizes the importance of being bold and acting on your feelings of love. Whether that means romantic love or love of life, being brave and pushing aside fear has served me well throughout my life. My study and reaction to this verse is an example of exegesis, as I am deriving meaning from the scripture.

                The opposite approach is eisegesis (“to lead into”), which is the interpretation of a passage based on a subjective, non-analytical reading. In this approach the reader injects his own ideas into the text, making it mean whatever he wants.

                An example of this might be my own dislike for football, and the way I can judge those who play it to be worthy of immediate smiting. You see, according to Leviticus 11:7-8, touching the skin of a dead pig is strictly forbidden, which I take to mean that everyone who plays football is going to hell. This may sound like a silly example, and it is, but it is no sillier than the approach many people take in using Leviticus to suit their own issues.

                Leviticus is used to justify many forms of hatred or judgment, and may be the most abused book of the Bible when it comes to eisegesis.

                In his book, Basic Bible Interpretation, Roy Zuck offers up a more theologically and historically thorough example of the difference between Eisegesis and Exegesis:

2 Chronicles 27:1-2
“Jotham was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem sixteen years. . . . He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father Uzziah had done, but unlike him he did not enter the temple of the LORD.”

First, the interpreter decides on a topic. Today, it’s “The Importance of Church Attendance.” The interpreter reads 2 Chronicles 27:1-2 and sees that King Jotham was a good king, just like his father Uzziah had been, except for one thing: he didn’t go to the temple! This passage seems to fit his idea, so he uses it. The resulting sermon deals with the need for passing on godly values from one generation to the next. Just because King Uzziah went to the temple every week didn’t mean that his son would continue the practice. In the same way, many young people today tragically turn from their parents’ training, and church attendance drops off. The sermon ends with a question: “How many blessings did Jotham fail to receive, simply because he neglected church?”

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with preaching about church attendance or the transmission of values. And a cursory reading of 2 Chronicles 27:1-2 seems to support that passage as an apt illustration. However, the above interpretation is totally wrong. For Jotham not to go to the temple was not wrong; in fact, it was very good, as the proper approach to the passage will show.

First, the interpreter reads the passage and, to fully understand the context, he reads the histories of both Uzziah and Jotham (2 Chronicles 26-27; 2 Kings 15:1-6, 32-38). In his observation, he discovers that King Uzziah was a good king who nevertheless disobeyed the Lord when he went to the temple and offered incense on the altar—something only a priest had the right to do (2 Chronicles 26:16-20). Uzziah’s pride and his contamination of the temple resulted in his having “leprosy until the day he died” (2 Chronicles 26:21).

Needing to know why Uzziah spent the rest of his life in isolation, the interpreter studies Leviticus 13:46 and does some research on leprosy. Then he compares the use of illness as a punishment in other passages, such as 2 Kings 5:27; 2 Chronicles 16:12; and 21:12-15.

By this time, the exegete understands something important: when the passage says Jotham “did not enter the temple of the LORD,” it means he did not did not repeat his father’s mistake. Uzziah had proudly usurped the priest’s office; Jotham was more obedient.

The resulting sermon might deal with the Lord’s discipline of His children, with the blessing of total obedience, or with our need to learn from the mistakes of the past rather than repeat them.

Of course, exegesis takes more time than eisegesis. But if we are to be those unashamed workmen “who correctly handle the word of truth,” then we must take the time to truly understand the text. Exegesis is the only way.

As Zuck so appropriately points out, it’s easy to plop open your Bible and find something that supports your particular view on a particular issue when you don’t take into account the context or full meaning of the section you’re reading.

Is the Bible “inerrant?” As we’ve shown, that very much depends on how you read it. In the first chapter we talked about the Two Commandments – to love the Lord with all of your heart, all of your soul, and all of your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. If we approach scripture with those two commandments in mind, we may, indeed, find a limitless and non-contradictory source of inspiration and a window into the nature of God and his relationship with the world.

If, on the other hand, we enter into our relationship with scripture with a particular end in mind, turning aside the love mandate and seeking to justify ourselves or condemn others by parsing words, we can quickly turn to misusing and abusing scripture, incorrectly "handling the word of truth."  When one overlooks the humorous, the poetic, and the metaphorical writing in the Bible and insists that every word is true (meaning factual) an odd thing happens.   By claiming that the Bible is inerrant, many passages become contradictory.  By refusing to accept human involvement and limitations in the writing, people expect factual perfection instead of inspired relationship.   Those who insist on an "inerrant" Bible may find that the Bible is no more inerrant (and perhaps no better) when thus misused, than the supermarket tabloids that litter the checkout lanes of our neighborhood grocery stores.  Some supermarket tabloid is sure to have a headline that screams "Bible warns of sea monster with seven heads and ten horns!" 

                Rather than having the gall to try to use the Bible to support our own agendas, we would do well to go to the scriptures to learn from the experiences of our ancestors in faith and seek the wisdom that the centuries pass on to us with open minds and hearts.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Christianity Applied Chapter 1: The Two Commandments

Christianity Applied Chapter 1: The Two Commandments

Luke 10: (25)On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
(26)“What is written in the Law?” he replied. How do you read it?”
(27)He answered: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” 

You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. Do this and you will live.”

     It’s probably safe to say that you are all at least anecdotally aware of the Ten Commandments. Even if you can’t quite recite all ten of the “Thou Shalt Nots,” you can probably at least come up with not stealing from your neighbor, refraining from murder and a couple other highlights. If you can’t quote them all without whipping out your Old Testament, don’t worry. People in Jesus' time, who were a couple of thousand years closer to the original story, had trouble with the Ten, as well.

    In many ways, it seems Jesus came to simplify things for his followers. The original Ten Commandments were often interpreted fairly harshly, especially the one about not coveting your neighbor’s Ferrari . . .er, donkey. They also left a lot of room for interpretation.

    The first Commandment says, “You shall keep no gods before me.” This is a clear reference to the widespread polytheistic beliefs of ancient times, first of all, but in modern times we have come to question whether or not the things we spend the most time with have become the gods we put before God, as well. We make idols of all kinds of things, from extravagant housing to expensive cars, fishing trophies to country club memberships, Rush Limbaugh (or Keith Olbermann) to sports teams to our IRA retirement account to our kid's soccer team.  Our idol is whatever we invest a great deal of time, money, or effort into, that which is the determining factor in how we live our life. We all have idols and some of them can be really big idols.  Do we put our jobs before God, and if we do, is that breaking the first Commandment? Do we worship our possessions? Does moving the sermon up an hour to avoid running over an important football game constitute putting a pigskin god before God?

    It’s easy to see how this can start to get complicated, and it was no less complicated in Jesus’ time despite the lack of professional sports.
    The second Commandment starts off easy enough, with God saying that we shouldn’t worship any false idols, but then he goes on to say that if we were to bow down to some graven image he would punish “the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,” according to Exodus 20:5. Really? If I pay homage to Joel Osteen then God will condemn my great, great grandchildren to hell? That might seem sensible enough to some, but also incredibly harsh to others. What happened to being innocent until proven guilty?

     What about Ezekial 18:20, which reads: “The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.”

    At times like this, where we have conflicting scriptural references, it’s important to remember that God is still speaking, giving us continuing revelations and a growing understanding of scripture.

    The third Commandment is fairly straightforward. “Contrary to popular opinion,” the bumper sticker says, “God’s last name is not Damn.” God would prefer we not use his name in vain. If you do it, God will not smile upon you. Got it.     

    Things start to get a little bit sticky when we get to Commandment four. This is where God tells is that the seventh day is holy, and while there is somewhat of an argument at least on the fringes of the Christian community as to whether Saturday or Sunday is the seventh day, there is almost a consensus that it’s now perfectly fine to work on either one or both of those days. The idea of taking a day of rest is almost as archaic as the idea that God actually, literally created the world in six days. What’s more, much of the working class simply can’t afford the luxury of a day off.

     Consider Mark 2:27: Then he said to them, "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” The point is that the Sabbath was a gift to people, not a burden, and the time for rest and renewal included servants, strangers, slaves, and even work animals. When the working class cannot afford a day off each week, that's a sure sign that wages are inhumane.

     Things get a bit easier after that. Commandment five tells us to honor our parents, which is really not all that hard to do before and, especially, after puberty. After that we’re Commanded not to steal, not to commit adultery and not to bear false testimony against our neighbors. Some may find these commandments hard to follow, but they are not at all hard to understand.

    The final Commandment is about envy, and while it speaks of donkeys where we use cars, the gist is that we should not covet our neighbor’s possessions. This one can be particularly difficult, especially living in the United States of America, where our entire culture and economy is based on the business of envy. They may not have had flat screen TVs or luxury cars in Jesus’ time, but there was plenty of envy to go around, nonetheless.

    Needless to say, there was plenty of wiggle room in terms of interpreting the Ten Commandments, and people were wiggling all over the place. Jesus encounters a group of men who have arbitrarily decided that adultery is a more severe (or more clear cut) sin than others, and they are about the task of stoning a woman for the offense. Jesus points out that all sins are equal in the eyes of God, and the stones ultimately go unthrown.

    This is one example, but it was a common theme. Not unlike today, back then people were very busily interpreting the Ten Commandments in whichever way they saw fit and in whichever way gave them some advantage over others. For that reason, primarily, Jesus came to remind his fellow Jews of the core motivation and attitude of the law.  He was, after all, quoting from the ancient scrolls:
(Deuteronomy 6) 4Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.  5You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.

             (Leviticus 19) 18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Here’s Jesus’ take:

            (Mark 12) 29The most important (Commandment),” answered Jesus, is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
            Similarly, in Luke 10, Jesus told a man who asked him the path to salvation that he was correct in saying it was this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.”
            Finally, when the Pharisees tried to corner Jesus on the subject of God’s greatest Commandment, Jesus answered simply: (Matthew 22:37) "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40All of Moses' Teachings and the Prophets depend on these two commandments."
     The Two Commandment story was seen as so important that it was included by all three synoptic gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke).

    The last part of Jesus’ answer sometimes goes unnoticed or even unread, but it may be the most important part of the whole passage. The rest of the Commandments are based on these two. If you’re loving your neighbor as yourself you are extremely unlikely to envy his wife or his car. You’re extremely unlikely to murder him, bear false witness against him, steal from him, or dishonor him. If you love God with your heart, soul and mind, you won’t take his name in vain, you won’t fail to take time out to honor him – be that time on Sunday, Saturday or some other day – nor would you place other gods before him.

    This is at the core of the whole issue.  When we are motivated by love – and love is an action verb – then our attitude toward God and neighbor will be seen in how we treat ourselves, each other, and even God's property (all of creation or all of the universe, if you prefer). It is when we turn all of this into legalistic specifics that we lose attitude and motivation, and seek to rigidly follow rules. In a silly, but actual example, wanting to show respect for God and to show how important taking time to worship God was, people dressed up just as they did for other important events.  You wouldn't wear your bib overalls to meet the governor of the state or for your daughter's wedding, would you?  But it's a very quick transition to you have to dress up to go to church or you can't go.  It's easy to shift from showing respect for God to trying to show up your neighbor by wearing finer clothes.  Focusing on minute adherence to rules, written or unwritten, can sour love and turn it into self-righteousness.

     You see, as today, people in Jesus’ time struggled mightily with the Ten Commandments, and they were constantly looking for ways to justify themselves and empower themselves by using those Commandments as a means to an end. When Jesus came and reminded us of the Two Commandments upon which all other Commandments are based, he made it much more straightforward.           
     People still try to use religion as  a way to judge others and to empower themselves, but in reading and understanding Jesus’ most simple laws we can cast aside those attempts as clear violations of not only the spirit of Jesus’ teachings, but of the letters of his teachings, as well.
      Looking at the law of love as being an innate, basic, not-at-all-an-option law just like the law of gravity, is a helpful way of thinking about this.  This isn't a new law imposed from above, but an insight into how life works and how we can live in harmony with the universe and our fellow travelers in life.  It isn't a burden, but a key to happier living.  Note that Jesus said, "Do this and you will live.
Don't do it, and life will have more suffering and less living.

--- Co-authored by Reverend Michael E. Lamm, First Presbyterian Church of Thomasville, NC


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