Saturday, July 4, 2009

Authority of the Bible: a matter of faith or logic?

I'm on a couple liberal/progressive email list-servs and a heated debate came up recently about the authority of the Bible, the Old Testament in particular. That debate brought into clear distinction the notions of accepting the Bible as a principle of faith versus accepting the Bible as a necessity of logic.

It seems clear to me that one cannot claim that acceptance of scripture is a matter of faith or requirement for Christianity. For example, the Christians of the Apostolic church had no New Testament as such, and they were surely Christians. The Greek Christians John wrote to did not necessarily even have much of the LXX (notice how in John Jesus calls the OT "your law" when speaking to the Pharisees, as though John is consciously trying to raise Christ above the parochial boundaries of the Hebrews.)

More importantly, to claim that one absolutely must accept the Bible to be a Christian necessarily means that somehow belief in Christ is no long "good enough." When the matter is put that way, it seems pretty preposterous.

A common defense is "But the Bible speaks of Christ, so refusing to accept the Bible is tantamount to refusing to believe in Christ." I wish I could say that I was just making that up. That is honestly the kind of logic so many people appeal to. By that view one could take any document that refers to Christ and make the same case. "You don't believe in IV Maccabbees? You must not believe in Christ! You don't accept the authenticity of The Book of Enoch, you must not accept Christ."

Greek mythologies speak of Tartarus, Jude also spoke of Tartarus. Does this mean that we now have to accept all the Greek mythologies because they speak of something referenced in our New Testament?

However, while belief in the Bible cannot and should not be demanded as a "matter of faith," the Christian who wants to discount it, especially the Old Testament, is in a rather difficult position. The idea that the Old Testament, at least, must be accepted as a logical consequence of following Christ seems a rarely broached topic.

Jesus regularly affirmed the Old Testament (as codified in the LXX, which was generally what was studied by Jews during that time) and quoted from 22 of its books directly. Jesus was considered (at first) as a gifted rabbi, and then later a prophet. It would have been impossible for any Jew in that tme period to have a following if there was any hint in his teachings that went against Torah. It simply didn't happen. It was perfectly acceptable to debate the interpretation of Torah, but to suggest it was wrong was unimaginable.

When Jesus is brought before the Sanhedrin, His opponents had problems finding anyone who could testify against Him. In the end, various people lied, claiming Jesus said He was going to destroy the temple. Had Jesus ever claimed the Torah was faulty or wrong, that by itself would have easily been enough to condemn Him before the Jewish council.

People point to various stories as proof that Jesus was subverting the Old Testament, but none of these are valid. Most of the time, Jesus is attacking the traditions that had built up around the Torah. An example is the washing of hands before meals. Nowhere is this required in the Torah, but it had become a practice among the Pharisees.

A particularly clear example of this is when Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grain field, hulling the grains in their hands on the Sabbath. Now, obviously there is no specific law against rubbing grains in your hand to remove the hull so you could eat it on the Sabbath. However, the Pharisees claimed this counted as "Work" and hence was not proper to do on the Sabbath. And how does Jesus respond? He defends His disciples actions by appealing to Scripture. He spoke of David's eating of the holy bread when he was in need.

Jesus reasons from the OT, quotes the OT, and constantly refers to how the Jews should have gathered from the OT all that would happen to the Messiah. When Jesus excoriates the Pharisees it is not becaue they were "legalistic." He does not attack them for relying on God's Law for salvatiohn. He attacks them for subverting and perverting God's law for their own political and personal gains. Matthew 23-23 is a wonderful illustration of both sides of this coin.


Dan Martin said...

You're right, Dave. I agree with every statement you make in this post. But you miss an important point that is part of a lot of Christian pronouncements about scripture, and which I think still needs further clarification (you know I did some 10 posts on the authority of scripture myself a while back).

This issue is, that while you have correctly pointed out that Jesus and the apostles clearly saw the O.T. as authoritative, that doesn't necessarily mean that they considered it "the Word of God" or "inerrant" as many would use those terms today. While Torah--the law and commands in the Pentateuch--was inviolable, I don't think that the historicity arguments many make today would have even made sense had anyone asked them of a 1st-century Jew. You can have an authoritative text (someone has called our Bible "the full and final authority for faith and practice") without getting caught up in the minutiae of historical and scientific accuracy. . .or not. . .and it makes a difference in the debate.

David Rudel said...


The point you raise is an important one, which is why I use the term "accept Scripture."

However, the Jews did have a tradition claiming that the entire Torah (Genesis <-> Numbers) was given directly to Moses by God. However, even that does not necessarily grant those works the seal of "inerrant" in the way that term is used today.

And that is the problem, really. The idea of what "inerrant" or "infallible" have come to mean. And the problem there is the modern view of seeing the Bible as an entire book given to Christians hundreds of years after being read by the intended audience of the separate letters. While we should not determine matters of import without considering the whole of Scripture, scripture should generally not be seen as a whole when determining the meaning of the individual parts.

The parable of the lost things (coin, sheep, son) in Luke 15 is an excellent example of how we 21st century Gentiles refuse to take anything resembling a reasonable position as we read the Bible. The Lost Son parable is read and interpreted without any deference to the point Jesus was making to the Pharisees he was addressing, the relationship of these parables to the comment [Luke 15:1-2] that engendered them, or how these parables related to Luke's purpose in writing his gospel or the ecclesiastical issues permeating the early church to which the gospel was written.

But I digress...

I believe (and I think you would agree with this) that people have been given a false dichotomy. Either the Bible is "inerrant" in the sense that term is generally used today, or there is no authority to it at all and any part of it can be accepted or rejected upon any rationale.

Dan Martin said...

I believe (and I think you would agree with this) that people have been given a false dichotomy. Either the Bible is "inerrant" in the sense that term is generally used today, or there is no authority to it at all and any part of it can be accepted or rejected upon any rationale.

You're right, Dave, I do agree completely with your characterization of the dichotomy. In fact, I heard (and took issue) with exactly this dichotomy in a sermon in my own church a few months ago. His statement was "if you don't believe even one detail, you have to throw the whole Bible out." Obviously I don't accept that contention.

David Rudel said...

Yeah, that's pretty absurd.

However, I realized last night that there was a statement you made in your first comment I would take issue with.

The 2nd Temple Jews would have likely called their Old Testament God's Word, if you asked them -- especially the Torah, which was held above the rest as inviolable.

They might not have accepted the dual-authorship theology of the modern church or some other abstract doctrines regarding it, but the whole of the Torah was considered a gift of God given to Israel.

While it's true that mostly the focus was on the commands, there was also a great deal of focus on the promises there. But the narrative itself was quoted and reasoned from by 2nd temple Jews as every bit as solid as the rest.

Indeed, bits from some of the most challenging parts of the narrative are quoted by Jesus Himself: Adam & Eve and the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah being two of them. In addition to these, NT writers reference Noah, Lot, the destruction of Jericho, etc.

There is another level of here pushing for validation of the narrative elements as well: the prophets of the OT were most definitely considered to speak God's Word (often using exactly that language). And many times these prophets speaking God's Word reference narrative elements found in the Torah.

Dan Martin said...

You're highlighting an important issue with the choice of words here, Dave, and one that I would challenge you to examine more closely. N.T. writers, including Jesus himself (as a subject and a speaker, not a writer, of course) refer to "the Law" and "the Prophets." Neither is described as being "God's Word," either in the O.T. or the N.T. That is a conflation we have done. David talks about meditating on "thy law" and "thy precepts" as well as "thy word," and we moderns/postmoderns are being sloppy when we synonymize all those things without consideration.

Surely, the prophets do speak of "the word of the LORD" coming to them, and I don't dispute this here or in my own writings. In fact, I believe an important part of serious biblical study is to determine who's speaking (God or somebody else) when evaluating a text. It is a late invention to assume that "the word of God" is an appropriate label for all of scripture, or even all of the Torah/Law and the Prophets. I see no evidence that anybody before the moderns would have considered the other O.T. narrative books, e.g. the Samuels, Kings, & Chronicles, as God's word.

And you certainly will recognize that just because Jesus referred to certain O.T. texts as authoritative and/or true, does not per se give them the imprimatur "God's word" in his mind. That is a logical leap unsupported by evidence.

Further, I think we need to be more careful in parsing out "God's Word" incarnate in Jesus, from "God's word" that is his decree or his oath or his promise, from "God's words" that is the result of him speaking/communicating. These concepts, also, have been erroneously conflated.

David Rudel said...

Indeed the "Writings" you mention [which are not the Torah] were considered a bit lower in authority than the rest (convenient for Jews who wanted to dismiss Daniel's specificity in his prophecy, for Daniel was grouped with the Writings rather than the Prophets). However, there are pericopes in the Torah (which was considered absolutely sacrosanct) which are rather similar in timbre to the stories found in the Writings. So anyone whose objection to stories described in the Kethuvim lie mostly with what those stories say about God will run into issues when similar descriptions are found in the Torah.

It's true that the OT is not in general called "god's word," butthat does not mean the Jews did not see their scripture as "inspired" [see Philo, a contemporary of Christ].

Furthermore, the formula "It is written" (referring explicitly to the scriptures, rather than the interpretations of the Rabbis) is always used to represent something as authoritative. It would be very odd indeed for someone to defend their position by saying "It is written" and then refer to a narrative element unless at the same time we allow all the OT to be authoritative.

That is a simple matter of logic.

There is also the completely separate point that Christ gave no indication at any time that any of the elements of the written word were incorrect. The Old Testament was good enough for Christ to affirm in toto.

So, the Jews did not necessarily see God whispering into the ear of every Old Testament writer, dictating the precise words used in their sacred texts, but at the same time Christ's "From Abel to Zechariah" (which only makes sense when understood in the Hebrew ordering of the Bible, where Zechariah is killed at the end of II Chronicles 24:20-21, the last prophet to die in the OT as ordered by the Jews), as well as the way the OT was used by the Jews suggests all of it was considered accurate. Jews contemporary with Christ not only claimed the Hebrew scripture was "inspired" but the LXX as well.

Dan Martin said...

Nevertheless, and without disputing any statement in your previous comment, "inspired," "authoritative," and "God's word" (in any of the forms I elaborated previously) are not synonyms. This matters because of all the scriptures that DO refer to "God's word" in one form or another; if we aren't clear on the referent, we can (and Christians often do) misapply the statement. They also wind up with the silliness that comes from trying to turn Genesis into a history or science book the way we, today, construe history and science.

And how, precisely, do you substantiate the claim that Christ "affirmed (the O.T.) in toto?" That he cited numerous passages as authoritative ("it is written") I do not dispute. That by doing so he established the first-century equivalent of verbal and plenary inspiration, IMO remains unproven.

And "Abel to Zechariah" I presume refers to Matt. 23:34-35. Any reasonable reading of that context (i.e. v. 34) makes it clear he's talking about the history of "prophets, wise men, and scribes" sent by God and killed by wicked men (obviously not just the Jews since Cain was neither Jew nor ancestor to the Jews). To use this statement to weigh in any form on the authority of scripture is unfounded.

Finally, while Jesus didn't say that any portion of the scriptures were incorrect, I would merely point out that (1) he did make corrections to them (e.g. Matt 5:21 ff), and (2) flat-out didn't comment on a great deal of them. That hardly rises to the level of VPI.

David Rudel said...

To use this statement to weigh in any form on the authority of scripture is unfounded.

Not unfounded at all.

As I mentioned, this particular choice clearly gives high regard to the scripture of the time because Zechariah is not the last prophet stoned by the Jews, but rather the last such prophet recorded in the Hebrew OT (when using the specific ordering of the books the Jews used). Rather than give a chronological reference, He gave a reference deferring to scripture...and not just any scripture but the scripture as recorded and used by the Jews of His era.

I would merely point out that (1) he did make corrections to them (e.g. Matt 5:21 ff)

Matthew 5:21 ff is in no way a correction to scripture. In Jewish midrash there is a huge difference between "you have heard it said" and "It is written."

Indeed, Jesus uses the exact formula used by any Rabbi who had shmikah to reinterpret the Law. "you have heard it said ___, but I say ____."

(2) flat-out didn't comment on a great deal of them. That hardly rises to the level of VPI.

I responded to precisely this in my last comment (or was it the one before?). If Jesus and other NT Jews used "it is written" (followed by part of scripture) as their proof for a certain claim, then logic demands that anything else that was consider scripture [the Greek behind "scripture" literally refers to something written] must also be considered solid, or else merely saying 'it is written' is not a legitimate proof of the validity of your claim.

John 10:35 is a pretty strong defense of scripture, but it isn't really needed for my case. Paul is pretty clear about the Jewish view on scripture in 2nd Timothy 3:16.

Note: I do believe it is important to understand that "God's Word" to the Jews generally referred specifically to God's promises, prophecies, and commandments. This is particularly important in understand that when Jesus spoke of "His Word" He was mostly referring to the commandments He was giving [I discuss this in my book, highlighting the use in John in particular. See pages 104-106.] Modern Christians who read of Christ telling people to believe in "His Word" generally vastly misconstrue this phrase.

Dan Martin said...

As I mentioned, this particular choice clearly gives high regard to the scripture of the time because Zechariah is not the last prophet stoned by the Jews, but rather the last such prophet recorded in the Hebrew OT

Sure, this is a great literary device, and it's helpful to know why he used the Hebrew Scripture equivalent of "A to Z" (oddly this works in English too). That doesn't on its face say anything about the authority of those scriptures beyond the instant subject, which was the propensity of people to kill the very folks God had sent as messengers.

Re: midrash vs. written, sure, but what is he talking about? One of the ten commandments, against murder. If that's not written, what is? Same way Matt. 5:27. Not all of the "you have heard it was saids" are of the same caliber, but to say that Jesus left the written law as it stood would not be an accurate reading of Matthew 5.

But I digress. More important, I would suggest, is the question: how did Jesus use the phrase "it is written," and what, exactly, was he appealing to? He used it to defend against the temptations of Satan, for one. He used it to refer to prophecies concerning himself, and concerning the apostasy of the Jewish authorities. He did NOT use it the way Christians use their verbal-plenary-inspired scripture quotations to defend dogma. So when you say "Jesus appealed to the authority of scripture," what Jesus actually SAID has very little similarity to the ways people claim to appeal to scriptural authority today. I would go so far as to say that in my quick search of the "it is written" phrases in the Gospels, NONE of them there are 30) even justifies your use of the word "proof" in the same sentence.

And 2 Tim 3:16 is mistranslated IMO. It says no such thing. Even without my proposed reading of the syntax, simple logic dictates that Paul could not have meant "all writing" and "graphe" isn't just canonical scripture in Greek.

David Rudel said...

I noticed you didn't deal with John 10:35. Not only does this include the general "What is written cannot be broken," but it shows Jesus reasoning from a psalm in a very literal manner. One would almost say He is prooftexting!

I don't see how you cannot look at His use of scripture when defending his choices against Satan. Satan tells him to do something. Jesus says why He won't by appealing to Scripture. Note that two of the three scriptures quoted by Jesus are not "commandments" in the normal sense of the term. If we read the narratives from which they came, that becomes evident. [Indeed, were the last one a "commandment" it would pose a contradiction because God later tells Israel to put Him to the test.] The discussion of "do not put your God to the test" evokes the narrative of Israelites in the wilderness (just as the other scriptures Jesus quotes), for the Israelites' wanderings were a type of Christ's own temptation.

The use of Scripture in Mark 12:26 is also a classic case of appealing to what Moses wrote [Note in Matthew it says "What God told you"] to prove a point.

Matthew 19:4 is another such example where Jesus reasons from the written word.

Dan Martin said...

You have still not acknowledged my point from several posts, that just because Jesus appealed to scripture as authoritative, does not mean that it's God's word, does not mean that it's all inerrant, and does not mean that it can be used for purposes other than it was intended (which, I contend, is what's being done when the creationists get their knickers in a twist). Use scripture the way Jesus did, and I'm OK with the claim of its authority. But then notice too, how FEW things (overall in his ministry) Jesus actually based on scripture, and how few scriptures actually figure into his teaching. It's clearly not the be-all and end-all that Jesus' own teachings are.

You appeal to John 10:35, very well, let's look at it. You're a mathematician/logician, try to read that statement as a logical proposition. There are actually two ways to interpret that phrasing:

1) "If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and we know Scripture cannot be broken), then why do you say I'm blaspheming?"

2) "If he called them gods to whom the word of God came, and if, as you teach, Scripture cannot be broken), then why do you say I'm blaspheming?"

The difference, with my explanatory phrases italicized, is whether "Scripture cannot be broken" is a parenthetical declaration, or one of two conditions of Jesus' "if-then" statement.

But this is really a great illustration of my real point about how Christians abuse and misuse scripture. Jesus is using very rabbinical language in this passage to defend himself against the charge of blasphemy by the Jewish authorities. He's not teaching a lesson on the inerrancy of scripture, he's demonstrating the inconsistency in those leaders who on one hand stand as firmly on their scriptures as we claim to, and on the other hand repudiate him to whom those scriptures point. He's certainly not advocating a literal-verbal reading of scripture, because we AREN'T "all gods" (cf. vv 34 & 35) and nothing else he teaches would suggest otherwise.

So I finally return to my basic (and as yet unacknowledged) point: inspiration, authority, inerrancy, and "word of God" are not synonyms, do not refer to the same things DESPITE Evangelical dogma, and just because you have established one point (Jesus using some scriptures authoritatively, for instance) does not thereby establish the whole VPI house of cards. As a logician, you of all people should see that.

Anonymous said...

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