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Thursday, December 20, 2007

how do you decide?

In response to my recent post the role of the bible, Robert commented:

I believe the meat of [Ebonmuse's] point can be found in these two sentences:

What are the liberal believer's criteria for deciding whether a given verse reflects God's message or human error? Since they don't credit all parts of scripture with equal truth, they must have some way to decide which verses to follow and which ones to disregard.

I too am curious how a liberal believer decides which verses are divine and which are human. I often pose this question and receive a myriad of answers. What keeps it all--including the Resurrection--from being assigned to the figurative (or human-produced) category?

I think there are actually three separate issues here. As I see it, the questions are:

1) How does one determine whether a particular scripture passage is of divine or human origin?

2) How does one determine whether a passage should be followed or disregarded?

3) How does one determine whether a passage should be interpreted as literal or figurative?

These questions are not interchangeable. A passage may reflect the thoughts of its human author, may at the same time be literal, and may or may not be applicable within a given culture today. Another passage may have been received by the author directly from God, and at the same time be a parable, and again may or may not be applicable today.

Furthermore, these questions contain hidden assumptions. Question 2, in particular, is not relevant to certain types of Scripture. What would it mean, for example, to follow Psalm 139 or other psalms of praise? What would it mean to follow Micah 4 or another passage about a future peaceful kingdom? Does anyone really think the stories about Jacob in Genesis are an example to emulate? But just as Jacob wrestled with the angel, the proper response by a believer sometimes is to wrestle with the Bible text, to grapple with it to find a meaning. The follow/disregard dichotomy that the question presupposes may be appropriate for some parts of Scripture, but for others it simply doesn't make sense.

Likewise, the literal/figurative dichotomy presupposed by question 3 is not always appropriate. Sometimes a passage is both. In Galatians 4, Paul allegorizes the story of Sarah and Hagar from Genesis. This does not mean Paul believed the Genesis passage to be non-literal. He found a new meaning in the text. The author of Hebrews says in chapter 9 that the tabernacle, animal sacrifices, and objects relating to worship from Jewish Scripture are merely symbols or copies of the true heavenly worship. Again, this does not mean the author believed the tabernacle did not literally exist. Matthew allegorized passages like "The young woman will be with child" from Isaiah and "Out of Egypt I called my son" from Hosea to apply them to Jesus. In the second and third centuries, some Christians -- particularly those in Alexandria, Egypt -- allegorized nearly all of the Hebrew Scriptures to find references to Christ in every book.

This leads me back to question 1: Which parts of the Bible are of God, and which are of human origin? According to one understanding of inspiration, God uses Scripture to speak to us what we need to hear. The message may not be the same for each person. It may be a literal command or an allegorical interpretation. It may be a word of encouragement. It may simply be a word or phrase that leads to a train of thought that ends with the message God wants to reveal. So the real question is not whether a passage is of God or humans, but whether the interpretation of that passage is of God or of human origin.

And ultimately, we can't know, not in an absolute sense. We can pray, we can study, we can seek advice from others, we can meditate, we can act based on our best understanding. Ultimately, the Bible is far too complex a book to squeeze into a one-size-fits-all systematic theology.

Faith is often described as a relationship with God. Relationships are built on subjective experiences, not emperical data. Every relationship is different. That's why two believers may give different answers to these questions. And that's why I can't give a definitive answer myself.

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At 12/21/2007 12:25 AM, Blogger Jacob said...

Good stuff Bruce. Thanks.


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