Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Controversies: The reliability and trustworthiness of the Bible

To the best of my knowledge, all groups of Christians use the Bible in some way and consider it authoritative in some sense. But there is controversy over whether it may contain human errors or mistakes, whether it may contain contradictions, and whether some of the narrative material is mythical or legendary rather than historical.

The controversies about the Bible and the role of Tradition will be discussed under the Roman Catholic/Protestant controversies. The controversies about the Bible's moral authority and other matters of interpretation will also be discussed separately. Here I will focus specifically on the liberal/conservative controversies about the reliability and trustworthiness of the Bible as far as whether it can be trusted as a narrative: that the events narrated in it are historical events.

One question that presents itself across all views is, "How do you tell the genre of a piece of writing, and how does that affect our understanding of it?" For example, the question whether something is a poem is a separate question from whether that poem is intended to communicate actual history. All sides acknowledge that the Bible has a mix of genres including historical narrative, preaching / moral exhortation, legal code, apocalyptic vision, parable, poetry, wisdom literature, and personal letter. The divisive question is whether the Bible also contains legend and myth -- and if so, how that affects the overall trustworthiness of the whole.

The additional question of authorship also comes up for some writings in the Old Testament and again particularly with the New Testament where the early Christians believed the books were written by certain authors. Who wrote the texts, and when? Was the early church right or wrong about where these books came from? Does that affect the way in which we receive and understand those texts?

The Bible as God's Word to Man

Some Christians believe that the Bible is the Word of God in the sense of an eternal truth that does not change that comes by God revealing his own eternal, unchanging message. Many would here reserve a special place for the Holy Spirit in inspiring the human authors. This view is also generally held by those who believe the early church was essentially correct about questions of authorship: for example, that Mark wrote the gospel that comes to us under his name, or that Paul wrote the letters that say they are from Paul.

Internal diversity: The most all-encompassing expression of this high view of the Bible is "inerrancy", that each thing contained in the Bible in all its particulars originated with God and reflects God's revelation to mankind without stain or blemish from human hands. On the view that the entire content of the Bible originates with God, it is reasoned that therefore the Bible is free from error in matters of history and science and free from all internal contradiction, as well as free from error in matters about God. On this view, the passages about the earth's primeval history are taken as historical, not mythical or legendary, along with passages about miracles throughout the Bible. Some would grant that there are difficulties with the Bible that cannot be resolved based on the text of any known copy of the Bible, and would here add: this view applies specifically to the original manuscripts, now lost.

While it might seem that inerrancy is an all-encompassing view that demands an all-or-none approach, there is an interesting variation in the "red letter only" people, not a formally-organized group but still a visible presence: those who view the words of Jesus as eternal truth that does not change, but do not give the same unqualified acceptance to the words of other people, who are viewed as being as fallible as any other human. ("Red letter only" refers to some publishers' practice of printing Jesus' spoken words in red letters, while leaving the surrounding narrative in normal black print.)

Another conservative view of Scripture, particularly concerning the four gospels, is to view the writings as witnesses. This view sees the gospels not as dictated by God but written diligently and truthfully by men, still honest and trustworthy as far as it is humanly possible, and leaving us with a reliable record of Jesus' words and actions from which we may know God. While acknowledging that there may be problems, the problems are seen as only occasional blemishes on sources that are generally trustworthy. When problems do occur they are seen as unintentional, honest mistakes that even diligent and conscientious people may make, not something that compromises the overall integrity of the gospel narratives. Since this view does not tend to be highly involved in the controversies, there will not be much more said about it.

Strong points: For many people, the beauty of the Bible in its best passages -- along with the truth and depth of wisdom contained -- calls them to affirm that the Spirit of God has spoken the words, that they transcend the merely human. Others note the claims of the apostle Paul about the Scriptures being God-breathed, and reason from there that each word is fully from God and therefore perfect.

For some, inerrancy is less about the beauty of Scripture and more of a retaining wall: it is meant to keep the slippery slope from collapsing under the weight of the question, "If the Bible is not trustworthy in every way, then how do we know what we can trust?" Inerrantists might have issues with the "witness" view of Scripture which allowed for human error of the "honest mistake" variety.

External criticisms: We have looked separately at the question of creationism, which many people see as the only argument necessary to demonstrate that the Bible contains either mythical material or errors. Some point to records of events that are not supported by current archaeological evidence -- such as the exodus from Egypt -- as evidence that the Bible contains legends or myths. Others point to the records of miracles or prophecies as evidence that the Bible is unreliable, whether because not all prophecies have been fulfilled at this time or because there is the assumption of naturalism that miracles and prophecies are impossible. Still others point to events where we have narratives recorded from more than one point of view, viewing the differences with suspicion and considering possible motives behind the divergences.

The archaeological complaints about the Old Testament narratives have been widespread and substantial. While there are now a few hints of archaeological evidence for the rule of King David, many earlier events are largely without independent corroboration. Particularly questioned are the accounts of the stay in Egypt, the Exodus from Egypt, and the accounts of the conquest by Joshua in the original Jewish settlement of Israel.

The New Testament narratives have come under close scrutiny for times when the same event is recounted by different authors. Some detect patterns in the differences. Others note that the textual evidence is that the earliest gospel written was that of Mark, which calls into question the early church's accounts of the order in which the texts were written. Some point to the appendix of the Gospel of John as a sign indicating the gaps in the early church's narratives in how the gospels came to us.

Critics see these things together as components of a trend: the conservative camp has come under criticism for its seeming indifference to scholarship that might call its beliefs into question.

Response to criticism: Again, the matter of creationism has been discussed separately in more detail. For events where archaeology has not confirmed a Biblical narrative, people mention that many things that were unconfirmed 100 years ago have been confirmed by new discoveries in the last century, and that they are willing to trust the overall reliability of the Bible when it comes to individual points where there is not yet an independent line of evidence.

Some observe that many critics of the Bible seem to treat it differently than other works of ancient times. In some other ancient documents a single reference to an event is enough for the historians to considered it possible or even likely. On the other hand, the Bible is frequently treated by some camps as if everything it contains were assumed to be a lie unless a second independent line of evidence could be found, even if they were talking about a completely ordinary matter of life in their times such as the name or existence of a town. The hyper-skepticism of some dedicated opponents of Christianity has made many Christians doubt the relevance or objectivity of the skeptics.

The objection from naturalism is seen as nothing more than the logical fallacy of begging the question: if someone approaches the Bible with the assumption that either God does not exist or does not act in this world, of course all the narratives that say otherwise must be assumed to be mistaken, or legendary, or elaborate frauds. The question remains whether it is good scholarly procedure (to leave aside the question of intellectual honesty) when studying the Bible to claim objectivity and yet insist that such a central assumption of the scholar as naturalism -- an assumption directly questioned by the matter being considered -- must remain unexamined and exempt from the criticism or challenge of other views, a challenge that would be unavoidable if they were reading the Bible with its own voice and its own authors' perspectives. That is to say, the assumption of naturalism is incompatible with reading the texts on their own terms. It is an amazing phenomenon to see people devote themselves to certain types of study of the Bible while having no intention of taking its authors' point as intellectually worthy of serious consideration. Many Christians see something disingenuous in the scholar who claims to be an objective Biblical scholar devoting his life's work to studying the Bible, but who does not intend to give a fair hearing to the contents and central claims of the Bible or to seriously consider the authors' points. This situation has raised deep and lasting questions about the integrity of the whole enterprise in the minds of many average Christians, and has made them feel entirely justified in not taking the findings as objective and balanced findings.

The slippery slope: It seems there are two sets of slippery slopes for inerrantists. The first we have already mentioned when discussing creationism: How much is a person willing to believe based on the assumption that the Bible is a direct revelation from God, inerrant and infallible? How does that affect their view of the rest of the world, and other people in it? For example, how do they view the scientific consensus that the earth is far older than directly mentioned in the Biblical creation narrative? There is a risk that the group holding such views will become isolated (though possibly untroubled by that isolation), that the members may have an increasingly difficult time connecting with people outside the group, who view it as an isolated fringe movement with questionable judgment.

A related question will come up again when we discuss the moral authority of the Bible; the related moral questions deserve mention here because they are part of the big picture that makes the inerrantists more committed to their views. The tendency of other groups to set aside the moral teachings of the Bible is part of what forms the resolve to stick by the Bible in all its particulars.

The other slippery slope for those firmly and fully committed to inerrancy is the absolutism inherent in the view that absolutely every word of the Bible is absolutely the word of God. While everyone is intolerant of things they see as serious mistakes, the risk at the extreme end of the slippery slope is that even the question will be disallowed. Excluding certain questions from consideration carries the risk of not having thoroughly considered a matter. Some begin to wonder if the views are held after due reflection, or whether the alternatives were never given a fair hearing. There is a risk of injustice to other views and to the people who hold them when the questions they raise are considered out-of-bounds.

Uncharitable moments towards the other side: The inerrantists tend to believe that people who are not inerrantists don't really believe the Bible, since this group defines really believing the Bible as believing that the Bible is a direct revelation of God in every way. The heated rhetoric includes charges that someone might as well throw out the whole thing if they have a view of the Bible other than inerrancy. Sometimes inerrantists will question the faith in God or the moral integrity of people who view the Bible differently. While a hostile or mocking tone is a risk in any highly-charged argument, this argument also has a risk that even the mild-mannered defenders may consider their opponents out of bounds by definition by holding a view unworthy of consideration. This sometimes spills over into treating the other person as unworthy of consideration. There lies one of the problems with considering any view as utterly out-of-bounds: how exactly does that work out when meeting an actual human being who holds that view, and whether that person is treated ethically or with some form of contempt?

Charitable moments: Here, as in many cases, the missing ingredient may be as simple as treating other human beings as worthy of a hearing -- regardless of whether you will ever agree with them, at least to listen. Listening may not be on the basis of their beliefs; it may be simply on the basis that they are another human being. It could allow a conversation in which two people might understand each others' views -- regardless of whether they agree with them. It is a two-way street; it is unlikely that the other side would ever give a fair hearing to each other, if they were not given a fair hearing in exchange.

Fair questions for inerrantists: What do you make of apparent contradictions in the Bible? How can you be sure that it contains no legend or myth? What is the source of information about what happened at creation before there were any humans? How do you know where the author of the creation account got the information -- does it ever say so? When Paul says the Bible is God-breathed, do we also consider that God breathed life into Adam and he was not infallible, or that Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into the apostles and they were not infallible? Do we consider that Paul also said that Christians were letters from Christ written with the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 3:3), and yet they were not infallible? (This list is limited to questions not already discussed with the creation / evolution controversy, and that are not part of the upcoming discussion on the moral authority of the Bible.)

The Bible as Man's Understanding of God

Some Christians see the Bible as reflecting man's understanding of God, so that the Bible originates primarily in the thoughts of man rather than the revelation of God. Some believe the Holy Spirit guided these thoughts and understandings; there is a different understanding of inspiration, one that allows for humanity to play a formative part in what is written. The views on this side of the controversy may be a humanistic view of the Bible, a naturalistic view of the Bible, or a de-mythologizing approach to the Bible.

Internal diversity: The most all-encompassing view here is that the Bible is entirely the product of human hands without any direct role played by God. Some still retain the influence of the Holy Spirit in shaping the texts, so that they do in fact mediate the presence of God and our understanding of God.

At the secular end of this group, some do not believe that God exists. The Bible is retained mainly for the beauty and power of Jesus' ethical teachings and other passages of rare beauty found in various other places in the Bible. A more common view is that that God exists, but that the Bible reflects the human understanding of God in particular cultures over time. This understanding of the Bible allows for errors and myth, and typically views narratives in the Bible with some degree of skepticism. The skepticism varies from taking the narratives with a grain of salt to viewing them with a revisionist's eye. There is skepticism as to whether some material is legendary rather than historical, or whether some material mainly serves to enhance the reputation or self-perception of the group that was the original intended audience. There is also skepticism that some things may be from a culturally-bound perspective that might not be valid today. The historical-critical school of scholarship plays a formative role in how the texts of the Bible are viewed.

Typically, those in this group view the creation material in Genesis as mythical or legendary at least to some extent, often in its entirety. A smaller group also views all of the miracle accounts, including Jesus' resurrection, as likewise mythical, the expression of the writers' wishes or piety but not the record of an actual historical reality. There are, however, many within this group who would object strenuously to all miracles being dismissed on the basis of another book in the same collection -- written centuries earlier -- containing myths or legends; some would contend for the historical reality of some miracles, particularly the ones in the New Testament where there is a stronger historical witness to some of the miracles.

Strong points: For many people, believing in an infallible Bible is simply not possible, or at the least requires reading some of the texts as myth or legend. Some would point out scientific objections to believing the earth was created recently in 6 days; others would point out moral problems (such as the infamous Psalm 137) where the contents strike us as both disgusting and, frankly, evil. While some peoples' views require them to justify these passages, this group takes another approach: that these things are told and understood from the human point of view, and we humans are capable of both mistake and sin. This seems to them the approach that best explains the actual texts in the Bible.

External criticisms: Opponents see this view as rendering the Bible ultimately untrustworthy. They point to large numbers of those who accept some behaviors that the Bible condemns such as homosexual sex, or accept behaviors that are highly questionable (some would say plainly wrong) from a Biblical point of view such as an abortion of convenience. Opponents also note some with liberal views who still call themselves Christians but deny that Jesus performed miracles or rose from the dead. There is concern that, once God is taken out of the picture of how we got the Bible, that God may be taken out of the picture entirely. There is also concern whether the liberal approach really re-evaluates the Bible with principled scholarship or whether it simply undermines it.

One particular way the debate works out deserves notice. Liberals assign some parts of the Bible a genre of "myth" or "legend". It is not always clear how the decision was made to assign those particular texts to that particular genre. It is not always obvious if there was something about that specific text that made people think it was myth or legend, or whether "myth or legend" is a default assignment based on texts containing the supernatural and being disbelieved. There is concern that other criteria for assessing the texts will be dismissed if the assessment is made based on someone disbelieving in the supernatural.

Response to criticism: Because of the wide scientific acceptance of the theory of evolution and the basic loss of credibility of the Bible's creation account as historical narrative, the question whether the Bible needs to be re-evaluated is a necessary question, whether or not we like it. In the long run, it may be more damaging to the Bible's credibility to insist that, if Genesis falls as historical narrative (at least in the creation account), then every other book in the collection must fall with it. Those who take an all-or-nothing approach are fairly likely to end up with nothing, as can be attested by the number of ex-Christians who were once inerrantists.

Assigning some material to the genre of "myth" allows the material to be taken as symbolically true even if not historically true. This allows texts with rich symbolic meaning -- and much spiritual value -- to still be studied by those who do not believe the events described ever happened historically. The Genesis creation accounts may be understood much like they were in the book The Golden Compass: like the square root of a negative number, it may be something you never see except in your imagination, but out in the real world it does help you calculate and understand things you never could have calculated or understood otherwise.

The liberal approach to the Bible takes the existing scholarship seriously. It places a high value on objectivity, with the hopes that the approach that has served us so well in the physical sciences will also serve us well here. Other approaches are seen as less than scientific, and no apology is made for the approach taken to the study of the Bible.

Just as many conservatives are made more loyal to their views by the ethical stand taken in the conservative camp, likewise many liberals are made more loyal to their views by the ethical stand taken in the liberal camp, most notably over the relatively better status of women among liberals.

The slippery slope: At the outer edge of the slippery slope, some people have decided to reject the Bible for all of the aspects relevant to practicing the religion described in it: that none of it is from God, or even that there is no God. Once the process begins of re-evaluating the Bible, the results depend very much on the assumptions used when making that re-evaluation. Once the assumption is made that the whole of the Bible is not from God, it becomes difficult to know what is from God, or to what extent it is a reliable guide to learning about God. While liberals typically see the Bible as time-bound and culture-bound, it is easy to miss that we are likewise time-bound and culture-bound, and so are the criteria we use to re-evaluate the Bible. In the worst cases, this degenerates into taking the hard work of finding good criteria to re-evaluate the Bible and delegating that work to popular opinion. There is some risk of playing to the opinions of popular culture in what is accepted and what is rejected.

A case in point might be what happens to ideas like "sin". It is not a popular idea, and has at times disappeared or been marginalized in liberal Christianity. (The more cynical might add, it goes missing unless it applies to someone else, such as an institution to which we do not belong, or a member of an opposing group. But using a double-standard is a risk in any human venture.)

Uncharitable moments towards the other side: Some of the harshest polemics I have heard among Christians have been from the fallible-Bible camp against the infallible-Bible camp. Those who advocate de-mythologizing the Bible often scorn their opponents as irrational, either incapable of reason or uninterested in reason. Sometimes they compare the inerrantists to terrorist organizations that commit mass murder, although it is against the inerrantists' beliefs or purposes to harm anyone. The polemics at times cross the line of malice; those who are merely condescending and dismissive often seem civil by comparison.

As with the other side of this issue, there is sometimes a tendency to believe there is nothing to discuss. Those with a more humanistic view of the Bible may define "rational people" as those who reach the same conclusions they do, or even have the same starting assumptions that they do. In practice, the other side is seen as unworthy of being heard and answered; the other side perceives this as arrogance and contempt. Given the vocal segment of our culture that deliberately treats conservative Christians with open and unapologetic contempt, it might be best for those those following Jesus to take a kinder approach.

Charitable moments: The liberals might recognize in their opponents an earnest desire to follow God, even if it means being unpopular or disrespected, criticized or mocked. They might recognize the courage that it takes to hold such convictions in the face of so much opposition. They may recognize that the good in the Bible is often defended primarily by conservatives. They may even appreciate the times when the most vocal opponents of Christianity find the only Christian response coming from conservative groups or authors, and recognize the valuable work being done for all Christians.

Fair questions: Granted that the views of the anti-supernaturalists are not the most common view among liberal Christians, the question remains: If you cannot effectively respond to those views, how can you expect people to believe that a liberal view does not ultimately lead to that conclusion? In other words, is the inability to address certain arguments proof that the tools you have retained are lacking in important ways? If you do not believe it is necessary to effectively address those views, does that mean that you believe that view to be equally valid, or maybe that a certain belief does not matter?

What's the effective difference between re-evaluating the Bible and simply undermining it -- and what steps are being taken to ensure that the Bible is truly re-evaluated and not simply undermined? If the Bible is being re-evaluated in terms of some criteria assumed to be higher or truer, what are those higher or truer criteria, where did we get them, and how do we know they're higher or truer?

Related controversies: Creation and evolution. The role of Tradition. The moral authority of the Bible.


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

An admirable treatise.

Weekend Fisher said...

Thank you. You must have a huge amount of patience to read through even half of that!

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

You've covered a lot of ground, and done it well.

I've lately wondered about the historicity of the Book of Job. I've never seen a discussion of that.

Weekend Fisher said...


I haven't really seen any good material on the historicity of Job. I flipped open a couple of study Bibles (one from the Jewish Publication Society) and didn't find any notes of interest on the topic.

Though the sources I checked both mentioned the unusual vocabulary of the book and how it causes translation problems. Apparently there are enough words used only in Job and nowhere else in the Bible that the translation is an issue. Which makes me think it is unique in the collection for its origins.

Which doesn't really help with getting to the bottom of whether there's a kernel of history, or whether Job is meant to be an everyman wrestling with the question of why bad things happen.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Craig said...

While I'm not exactly timely in my own post based on your entry here, I finally got it up on my own blog.

man with desire said...

Often, many researchers who doubt the history of the Bible may say things like: “In the real world, miracles have never occurred.” These statements may influence people’s minds. They may say that the issues described in the Bible are unreliable.
However, it is good to note that such statements are nothing new: They have been presented over the course of the past two hundred years. Actually, it is interesting to note that as Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the theory of the Ice Age became well-known, criticism of the Bible simultaneously began to gain ground. Researchers began to spring up who questioned the writings about the life of Jesus and other Biblical events. They may have thought that if the Creation and the Flood are not true in light of these theories, we would then have no reason to believe information about Jesus. So it is certainly not by chance that all three issues were raised almost simultaneously.
In any case, it is good for us to study this. The purpose is, especially, to help those people who want to know more about the reliability of Biblical information, and to show how reasonable it is to trust in the truth of described events. If you struggle with this issue, it is worth your while to read further.

More info;