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Thursday, September 08, 2011

A Reliable Bible

In the discussions of late regarding biblical slavery and such, one of the key problems from my perspective has always been that the standard objection to these texts would either make God a monster or make Scripture unreliable. And, of course, those who would like to keep these texts in question as meaning such horrendous stuff as the protesters would have them mean tell me this just isn't the case.

Some would argue that these texts aren't to be taken at face value. They were the product of their times, not to be understood as literal. They were legend, myth, lore. I mean, no intelligent person would actually believe that there was an historical Adam. Surely no one would believe there was a literal Flood or some real Noah person who built an ark. There was no "crossing of the Red Sea", no "Mount Sinai", no God-given law. It's all made up to express what they believed. The Romans had their gods and the Greeks had their gods and the Iroquois believed the world was on the back of a giant turtle and Israel believed that they conquered at God's command -- myths created to justify their existence. This, of course, would come from the rank skeptic.

The more sophisticated skeptic would want to retain something "biblical" and would want to believe that the Bible is "inspired", even if that does not mean that it was actually "God-breathed" as per the traditional, historic view. This approach would then say that this text is an accurate reflection of their beliefs at the time and, as such, "reliable", but certainly not a factual representation of God's words or His character. We know this because God would never do the things in question, right? So in this version, the writers reflected the viewpoint of the day, but did not accurately reflect God. The argument then goes that as long as you understand that, you still have a reliable Bible.

There are a couple of major problems here. First, if the claim is that they did not accurately reflect God and His words, then you are at the point where you have to determine what is accurate and what is not. That is, if the presentation of facts as given in the texts are not, indeed, facts, then they are not a factual representation of historical events. The suggestion, in fact, is that first 17 books of the Bible (at least) are not historical literature accurately reflecting what happened, but a sad attempt by mistaken men who inaccurately represented their own history. You can call that "reliable" all you want, but it isn't in any genuine sense of the word.

A second major problem is a biblical one. In the Bible, a "prophet" was not merely a "foreteller". He wasn't just one who told the future. A biblical prophet was a "forthteller". He was the one who said, "Thus saith the Lord" and expounded on what God said. Sometimes it was future events. Sometimes it was not. Moses was, prior to Christ, the highest prophet they had. He was a prophet when he predicted their release and he was a prophet when he brought the Law from God. Both were functions of the office of prophet. Now, biblically, there was a test for prophet. Anyone who wished to do so could claim to speak for God. However, the test was that their words had to be true. If it turned out that they were not, this prophet was a false prophet and would be put to death. (The death penalty for misrepresenting the words of God was a serious penalty.) So, if you look at the texts in question of late, you'll find that they all are presented as God speaking. They are all written from the perspective of "Thus saith the Lord." They are, therefore, all written from the prophetic perspective. So, if, as the skeptic of any stripe claims, the texts in questions are not an accurate representation of what God actually said, we are not dealing simply with the culture of the day or a faulty perspective of a writer. We are dealing with false prophets. To claim in any sense that a Bible written by so many false prophets is reliable would be nonsensical.

The bottom line problem, however, is that these texts always been understood to be historical narratives. The Jews took them that way. Historic Judaism has taken them that way. The New Testament takes them that way. Jesus took them that way. The Church has taken them that way. It is only the skeptics and "modern scholars" (who, as it turns out, are ultimately skeptics) who have decided that they know better than ... well ... Christ. Now that is a problem.

I know that the Bible is under assault today. I know that it has always been under assault. It was the first assault. "Did God say ...?" And it will continue to be. True believers have always held the Bible in high regard as the Word of God. As such any faulty, "culturally-based-and-mistaken", "not-to-be-believed-as-genuine-history", "not-to-be-taken-as-it-appears" Bible cannot be understood as reliable in the final analysis. Claiming "The Bible shouldn't be understood in any sort of literal fashion, but is certainly reliable" doesn't make it so. If the accounts of Scripture are not an accurate representation of God's words (that is, some Scriptures actually present God's spoken words), they are not merely unreliable, but to be rejected as the product of false prophets, and that eliminates the possibility of a source document for Christianity and any grounds on which to disagree. Further, it eliminates the Jewish heritage, the New Testament confirmation, and any sense of a reliable Church (and its inherent functioning of the Holy Spirit to leading His own to truth). That is not a safe place to stand.


Dan Trabue said...

Stan, I applaud your bravery in at least looking at these issues, good for you! However, one problem I continue to see is that you continue to build up strawman versions of the Other argument and then proceed to knock those down.

Maybe more on that later. Right now, I've a question:

Do you think that IF the Creation story (told in what appears to be quite obviously a traditional mythic form) turns out to NOT be literal factual history - as even many conservatives will concede - that the world WASN'T created in six literal days, 6000 years ago, do you really think that makes the story unreliable?

If it wasn't TOLD with an eye for literality and facts, but to pass on the truths of God's creation, WHY would it be unreliable simply because it was true to form?

For what it's worth: I/we think the OT stories DO reflect an historical narrative, just ones that were told in the idioms of the day, and not in a modern literal history style of OUR day. It's a historic narrative, based loosely on real people and real events, but not with an eye towards getting every fact right. That was not the purpose.

And where you say...

if the claim is that they did not accurately reflect God and His words, then you are at the point where you have to determine what is accurate and what is not.

We already have to do this: That is, we have to (you have to, I have to) read these stories and strive prayerfully and carefully to determine what reflects eternal truths and what reflects ideas and truths that were in place AT THE TIME. You do this when you acknowledge that we are not under OT law, that it's okay to eat meat, to cut your hair how you want, etc.

Stan said...

Dan's method of endless argumentation has required that I prevent his comments from being posted, but I think that the comment here is necessary to explain the point of the post.

Here he argues that "we think the OT stories DO reflect an historical narrative, just ones that were told in the idioms of the day, and not in a modern literal history style of OUR day. It's a historic narrative, based loosely on real people and real events, but not with an eye towards getting every fact right." His argument is that this is "epic" literature, not historical narrative like the Jews and the Church have always assumed it to be. And herein is the difficulty.

Setting aside, for the moment, the Bible and its issues, what does "epic" literature teach us? What can we know from "epic" literature? Take, for instance, Homer's The Iliad or The Odyssey. These are classical epic literature. What do we know from reading these pieces? Well, we know that Homer had quite an imagination. We get a glimpse into the story-telling of the day. We do not know anything at all about history, theology, personalities, events ... in fact, just about anything at all. No one would argue that Zeus and Hera and the rest of their gods actually played any role in the events. None of the events, in the eyes of scholars, were actually historical events. They are lore, myth, legend, but not actual events. Such, in fact, is the nature of "epic" literature.

The argument remains, however, that just because perhaps none of the events actually happened and none of the words ascribed to God were actually God's words and none of the people listed actually existed, we have "a historic narrative, based loosely on real people and real events". Even Dan admits that it is "not with an eye towards getting every fact right."

When a text is not written to get the facts right, it is not considered reliable by normal people. It is considered "epic" and "legendary" and "mythology", but not reliable history. The events have been misrepresented as fact and, worst of all, God Himself has been misrepresented. This doesn't even fall to the level of "unreliable". Misrepresenting God is called "idolatry" ... at best.

And, no, Dan, I don't have to figure out what is and isn't applicable. I assume all is applicable unless the Bible tells me otherwise.

Craig said...


I find your view on this compelling, (especially the fact that Jesus treated the OT as history) but where else do you turn for support for you view? What sources would you look to? Why would people at some arbitrary point change how they compiled their history?

Stan said...

Well, it has historically been treated as history by the Jews and by the Church. That's one point. It is also interesting that there is no archaeological evidence that opposes the history of the first 17 books of the Bible. On the contrary, all archaeological evidence thus far has supported the Bible as factual historical accounts.

I was interested to do for my own benefit a Google search on "the historicity of the Bible" and found both Christian and Jewish sites that explained that this stuff is history, not merely fable or myth or "epic". Thus, it's not just my own opinion.

Now, keep in mind that the Bible was not written as a history text book. The goal was to tell (wait for it) His story, the pertinent historical data that God wanted to get across. It isn't intended to give us "the History of the World". Thus the focus almost exclusively (for instance) on Israel while the rest of the world just spins on without mention. Nonetheless, what is presented as historical narrative has been believed by the Jews, the writers and principles of the New Testament, and the historic Church to be genuine historical narrative.

David said...

I'm not sure how an "historical narrative" can be an "epic" literature. To my understanding those are 2 separate types of writing. In fact, they are mutually exclusive, from what I can tell. A high school history book would be a historical narrative. The Iliad is an epic.
And what sources say it is an epic type writing? For a specific, the Creation account is not written like other Hebrew "tales", but is written as an account of actual events. This was from a Jewish scholar that could read the original Hebrew and test it against other non-biblical Hebrew texts.
And, as Stan has pointed out many, many times, why, for all of Jewish and Christian history, has it been believed to be thus, but only now, by our "enlightened" minds have we figured out differently? How could God allow His Word to be so wrongly believed so widely for so long? To me, that speaks to a lack of belief in the power of the Holy Spirit. Your type of people would have to say that the Spirit has not been faithful in His God given task of teaching God's people "in all truth".
So many times I hear contradictory beliefs held that should cancel out many other beliefs, but are staunchly held to. You say the Bible is reliable, yet its not a true story. If it claims to be the Word of God, and yet isn't true, in what way is it reliable? This isn't the claims of Jews and Christians, but of God Himself. Of course, He only said it in His Bible, and since its only an "epic" tale, it can't necessarily be true. Sure, it has some basis in truth, but every good lie does too. You take a stance and refuse to follow it to its logical conclusion. Inconsistency bothers me. If we disagree on something, fine, but be consistent and true to the logic.
There was a movie I saw that was a debate between a Christian Creationist and an Atheist Evolutionist (I can't recall the names), but I flat out disagreed with the atheist, but I could at least respect him because he consistently held to the logical conclusions of his beliefs.

Stan said...

Actually, David, the claim is that it is NOT an historical narrative, so the claim is NOT that the historical narrative is epic literature, but that it is literature based loosely on historical events, but not relating them with historical accuracy.

David said...

Dan T "For what it's worth: I/we think the OT stories DO reflect an historical narrative, just ones that were told in the idioms of the day, and not in a modern literal history style of OUR day. It's a historic narrative, based loosely on real people and real events, but not with an eye towards getting every fact right. That was not the purpose."

Seems like he is calling it historical narrative.

Stan said...

I need to make a correction. I tried to defend Dan by saying that he does not view the Old Testament as historical narrative. He responded by assuring me that he did, and that such "grade school stuff" was beneath Christians. So, I'm clearing that up. He does believe that the Old Testament is "historical narrative" that is "epic literature". The fact that the "epic" scheme of literature is defined as non-literal and not actual history, most often depicting fictionalized versions of historic events or myths, legends, and lore doesn't seem to bother this perspective. As Brian McLaren puts it, "The historicity of an epic poem's storyline is not terribly important. Its actuality transcends its factuality." See? It is not factual. Robert Fulk contends that "the role played by history itself in epic literature is fundamentally a fictionalizing one." That is, epic literature by its nature fictionalizes genuine history. That's its goal. So Dan is back to defending "epic literature" as genuine history in some sense and I'm back to asking "What can we know about anything historical that we read in epic literature? And in what sense is it 'reliable'?"

Craig said...


Thanks, I've used most of those arguments before, I just wondered if you had any other thoughts. Personally I find the fact that they have been considered historical for thousands of years pretty compelling. It seems as the only way to counter that is to assert that somehow, at some point humanity became more sophisticated or smarter or something and just stopped settling for "epics" when they could have the real thing. Personally I find this kind of thinking shallow. The question I would ask is; Wouldn't the Israelites be just as interested in maintaining an accurate history of their journey as anyone today? I can't see any reason why they'd be willing to accept less than the facts. The other huge problem I see is that if one accepts the "epic" theory, then one must construct some sort of coherent, logical, consistent way to interpret the "epic" and extract some sort of meaning from it. I think that actually sounds pretty hard to do, but I'd love to see what someone could come up with.

Anyway, thanks again.

starflyer said...

Sorry, I'm going to jump out from the shadows and then back in again...I just wanted to comment on Dan T's assumption that most conservative Christians have ( his view) conceded that the universe was not created in 6 literal days. The original word for "day" meant a literal day. That is what the Genesis account says. Why is it so hard to believe that a God that can create the universe is fully capable of doing it in 6 literal days? He said He did His word...but I guess you will find a way to make it say something else...

Stan said...

Craig: "The other huge problem I see is that if one accepts the 'epic' theory, then one must construct some sort of coherent, logical, consistent way to interpret the 'epic' and extract some sort of meaning from it."

Me, too. I've asked this question of several who view it as "epic" literature and no one has ever offered me any answer. I do not mean that they haven't answered me in a way I accept. I mean that no one has ever offered an answer. Well, okay, to be fair, someone once said, "Use your mind!" Not helpful criteria for determining meaning or truth. Just like the problem of figuring out what of Homer's Iliad is historical and what is fanciful (and historians find very little in the way of common ground on the question), I can't imagine what might be the answer for the same problem in the Bible. Another reason it calls into question the concept of a "reliable Bible" if it is so lacking in any means of determining truth therein.

Stan said...

Yes, starflyer, it would seem obvious that the Creator of the Universe could do so. (Their problem is "It doesn't align with modern science", the current standard to which all truth must be compared.) Of course, if "day" turns out to mean "time period", that doesn't negate the literal truth of the passage. On the other hand, if "Adam" turns out to be a mythical, "epic" being who never actually lived, then we have a real problem because Jesus believed the story to be real and Paul believed there was a real Adam and so on, so there goes the whole reliability of those folks down the drain. Along with the Jews and the Church up until the last century.

starflyer said...

I'm probably being redundant here, but if I wasn't clear to anyone reading, the word used in Genesis for "day" is used elsewhere in the Bible for "day" as we know it...24 hours. So the readers back then would have known the Genesis account to be 6 literal days, not "time periods".

Craig said...


I actually just asked Dan what in the story of Jonah he considers factual and what meanings he draws from that story. It should be fascinating.

Personally I think there is enough Biblical support to make either the 24 hour day or day age work with the narrative. So I can go either way, where I draw the line as at Adam. Once you make him myth then too much of the rest of the Biblical redemption narrative becomes worthless. I agree that folks have no trouble saying that God created everything, but can't accept that He could have done it in 6 days or the blink of an eye.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

Well, if you make "day" equal more than a 24-hour literal day, then what do you do with how it is described? And how old is Adam on day 7?