I was never one of those kids who could be appeased by the response, “Because I said so…” It was insufficient, to say the least, and did nothing to quell the true curiosity or intent of my question — whatever that question may have been. And, while I am sure that this personal quality may have been the bane of my parents' existence, I believe that it has also propelled me to where I am today.
I was raised in a tradition where the Bible had ultimate authority and also contained every answer possible. And the questions it did not answer could simply be answered with, “Ask God when you get to heaven…”. Eventually, I was frustrated with the process to the point where I did not ask questions any longer. It is not that I was satisfied with the unknown nor did I want to live ignorantly, but I was sick of getting ignorant responses.
By the time I hit college, I had become one of those robots who would simply say, “Because the Bible says so…” This infuriated my first several religion professors and sent me searching for a different school to attend. Eventually, I decided to stick it out and do what I could to teach the professors a thing or two (because my 17 years of Sunday School could easily win me a battle against someone with a PhD).
But something happened the summer after my first year in college.
I spent a summer as a counselor at a Christian camp in Virginia for inner-city kids from Washington D.C. In order to keep myself grounded (and to prepare for the following year of more religious arguments…ahem…education), I decided to read A LOT of scripture every day. I read a psalm, a chapter of Proverbs, several chapters from the Hebrew Bible, several chapters of a gospel, and an entire epistle every single day.
And it was good. Well, it was good until I stumbled across two passages — both written by the Apostle Paul — that completely contradicted each other. If it had been a text from the Hebrew Bible and a text from the Christian Testament, I could have handled it. But both texts from Paul? This was problematic. And, in all honesty, I let this occurrence shatter years and years of faith. But not just faith in the Bible — faith in those who I believed were learned individuals and who had said things like, “There are no contradictions in the Christian texts!”
As I continued in my studies, I learned about interpolations (an insertion within a text that was not part of the original author’s text) and the idea that, because human hands have copied manuscripts and original text has been edited, there are errors within “sacred” scripture. That is not to say that the underlying message is not the same (most of the time, it is), but there are many unknowns when it comes to ancient texts — even those that have been studied for centuries.
Ultimately, then, my challenge is not to throw out the entirety of scripture because human hands have touched it, but rather, to consider scriptural texts (from any faith tradition) with both the heart and the head. And when there are difficulties within a set of texts, be honest about it! It is important to respond to these difficulties boldly and with openness rather than having the 'right' answer. “Because the Bible says so…” is not a sufficient response for anyone if we are truly honest about the difficulties of living a life of faith. “Let’s work through this together…” is much more indicative of a sincere community of faith.
Kyle A. Franklin is a recent graduate of Gonzaga University, where he earned his Master’s in Religious Studies. He completed his bachelor’s degree in history and religion at Pacific Lutheran University in 2007 and has worked in both the ELCA Lutheran Church and the United Methodist Church.
I’m glad you were able to work through your crisis. For some, that might have been a deal breaker. It is sometimes tough to grapple with scripture, and to try as best we can to reconcile the problems.
It seems that part of the faith-based college experience is unlearning some of the things we had been taught in Sunday School — or at least learning them differently than before. It can be life-changing, and a liberating way to grapple with our faith. On the other hand, it can be disconcerting.
I think you’re right, though, that we should be honest about the Bible and its evolution over the years. And honest about the problems we might encounter. A friend of mine noted that when a Christian claims to have all the answers, or claims the Bible has all the answers, a person may see it as rather disingenuous. So I really like your, “Let’s work through this together” approach.
By the way, what were the two contradicting passages?
The passages are Romans 1:16 and 1 Thessalonians 1 2:13-16. I have a 30 page paper on the issues between the two!
Very bad answer. That’s why I like my church – I am free too form my own opinions!
Good article Kyle! Unfortunately, your struggle is too common today.
I don’t see the contradiction myself. The NT in many places says that Jesus came to the Jew first, His chosen people, but was officially rejected by them as a nation. Individual Jews have always been saved the same as NT Christians, by grace through faith. Paul wants to win as many of his Jewish countrymen to faith in their true Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, thus becoming a part of the theretofore unrevealed organism, the church. As a nation the Jews continue to reject Jesus, but the Bible says that one day in the future all Jews destined to be saved will be and the nation will be restored in Israel. Praise God, but again, what’s the contradiction?
And by the way, to say the Bible is “all I got” displays an astonishing bit of arrogance. God’s miraculous revealed Word is worth more in one sentence of it than all of men’s babblings over all the centuries. You may be a scholar, but only a saved man can really understand the scriptures (I Cor. 2:14-16). But then again, I guess that’s all I got!
Dennis–thank you for your comments.
Let me respond to your second comment first. I am arguing here that using the Bible without depth or examples (or understanding) of specific situations is insufficient. I am not diminishing the authority of the text–only the ignorant use of said authority. And while I disagree that only particular people can understand scripture, my position is more based simply on the idea that no one can fully understand scripture. Authors wrote intentionally to specific audiences regarding particular situations. Even the deeper meaning of simple things (like Jesus crossing the lake) are lost on most modern readers but the original audiences would have understood (crossing the lake meant moving to and from predominantly Gentile communities).
Second, the issue with the two passages takes some unpacking. 1) The order of the epistles in the Bible today is not chronological. 1 Thessalonians was written in 49 CE while Romans was written in 60 CE. Paul, then, would have had to condemn the Jews many years prior to saying that salvation is first theirs. 2) Paul always considered himself a Jew and most likely would not have heaped condemnation on all Jews (because he would be included in that condemnation). 3) The ancient manuscripts show a major derailment in the terms and phrases Paul used from the 1 Thessalonians text. And 4) Anti-Jewish texts like this did not begin to appear until after the Jewish uprising in 66-70 CE in an effort to separate Christianity in the eyes of the Roman Empire (as the uprising caused Jews to be highly persecuted by Rome).
I recognize that these main points are very shallow here, but I have completed much research regarding the passages.
“no one can fully understand scripture”
Eric–I am not saying that we cannot grasp the underlying notions or get much from scripture, but there were cultural undertones that modern readers simply cannot understand. Our cultural lenses are different. Our language is different (even the Greek that is used today is very different than the Greek used in the earliest manuscripts).
So, I stand by my comment–no one can fully understand scripture.
Kyle, how would you then interpret, I Cor. 2:14-16 if not by agreeing that only the spiritual, and according to Paul the would mean a born of the Spirit Christian, man can truly understand the Scriptures?
Kyle I agree with you. We have between two and three thousand years of cultural difference, in addition to the other side of the world, between us and the authors of the Bible. There’s a lot that’s happened to our perspective during that time, including modern science and technology, that’s completely changed the meaning. Just as an example, the precision with which we read ancient texts today was never intended by the original authors.
Unfortunately, there are many today who think they do understand the Bible, and in my opinion they are causing untold damage to Christianity. I think we need to approach the reading of the Bible with much more humility than what we do.
Dennis, thank you for your additional comment. Simply put–there is no cut and dry answer. Personally, I believe that God is able to work in ways that humanity cannot understand (and the ways in which God can work is greater than how humanity could even consider). God is too big and we are too small.
That being said, there are things that we read in scripture through an academic perspective that are different than how we would read them from a spiritual perspective. But one must consider both in order to get the fullness of the text. We cannot look at a sacred text from a PURELY academic standpoint but we also cannot read a text with only our hearts (forgetting to use our heads). It is a “both/and” situation rather than an “either/or” situation.
Faith and reason MUST inform each other!
Kyle, I would add that Augustine, one of the most important fathers of the church, agreed with you also. Writing back over a millenia ago, he said that interpretation of the Bible was very difficult, and each of us should be careful and provisional in our reading. Thomas Aquinas wrote in a similar manner. Unfortunately, most of the church leaders today don’t even know who Augustine or Thomas Aquinas were.
Bruce–I am in the middle of a major portion of Aquinas right now (and I just read a MAJOR portion of Augustine for class last week). I appreciate your perspective!
As an example of how faith and reason must work together, I recommend a short (30 page) book by Justin Cannon. It is called “The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality” and is available on Amazon. Cannon alludes to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral in the idea that we must consult scripture and tradition. His argument, though, is based on linguistics and is rooted in the text.
Please note–I am not intending for this comment stream to move to the issue of homosexuality and Christianity. I am simply noting that the book is a positive example of faith and reason working together.
I usually have to come back here days after one comment or the other. As I read back through the thread, that was exactly the point I was thinking of, that if it is to be understood according to the culture in which is was written, then study to understand that culture! Right on. You made it for me and well. One of the miracles of the Bible is that it’s history is so precise and also amazing in its (God’s) ability to precisely predict the future centuries and millenia in advance. Thank you!