Theological FAQ

It really worries me how you are reading Bible passages I thought were historical as if they aren't. Which Bible passages are the ones that are true?

This question first came to me phrased a little differently: "When do I get to read the Bible as factual?" In order to offer a helpful answer, I originally rephrased it like this: "Where do I get to read the Bible in the way I grew up reading it?"

My answer is really another question: "Why not learn to read it even better?"

Let me illustrate. If I taught the Bible to my children as (1) a fairy tale, or (2) as a myth illustrating the universal truths of human religion in their Christian form, or (3) as the product of an oppressive, superstitious society that passed away forever with the Enlightenment, or (4) as a document containing nothing but literal scientific and historical detail, then they would grow up seeing it that way. They would approach the texts with those expectations. They would tend to see only the stuff that confirmed those expectations, and they would tend to resist seeing the stuff that disconfirmed them. But in all four cases, if they were honest readers, they might gradually learn that the texts are not what they originally expected them to be. They would find indicators in the texts themselves that led them away from their own expectations.

They could learn (1) that some stories are not unlike fairy tales (such as Jonah), but that most of the stories have decidedly historical qualities: they concern a real society that is delivered from Egyptian bondage, wanders in the desert, is established under judges and then kings, falls apart and is sent packing by its invaders, and returns expecting God's final deliverance. They might learn that while some of its stories had their origins in Israel's oral prehistory (such as the Genesis texts, and even texts that come much farther into the Bible's pages), many came later. Above all, they would learn that the people who remembered the details of Jesus' life were speaking of no fairy-tale figure, but a flesh and blood man who died at the hands of the Romans. That's comforting news, because my flesh and blood needs a redeemer who shares the same kind of flesh and blood.

The stories of Jesus and Israel might also impress them (2) not as illustrations of human wisdom that can be found in all the world's "religious" traditions, but as testimonies of God's actions that were anything but universal: Only Israel represents the living God to the world; only Jesus can deliver the world from its captivity to sin and death. The other nations and their gods are nobodies rather than equivalents. It won't do simply to treat this book as a map up one of the "many roads" to human self-realization.

Likewise, while they would find (3) plenty of evidence of patriarchalism (such as the invisibility of many of the Bible's women) and ethnocentrism (such as the liquidation of Canaanite cities and curses delivered against whole societies), they could find alongside them a strong current of liberation and inclusion — in the equal participation of women in the body of Christ, in God's choice of women throughout history as the agents of salvation, in hope for all the nations rather than simply for Israel. As we'll see, this is why disenfranchised women, American slaves, and the poor of all ages have found in God's words liberation rather than divinely sanctioned captivity.

Finally, they would find (4) a God who acts in concrete historical acts to deliver concrete historical people. They would find a creation story that is far more realistic than the creation stories of Israel's neighbors, despite its poetic structure and imagery. They would find the high point of God's history with us in one undeniably public historical event: Jesus' death on a Roman cross. This is no "myth" in the common sense of the word, as we see when we review Jesus' career. Yet alongside these events they would find events much harder to explain in modern historical or scientific terms (such as the dead who come to life on Good Friday and walk the streets of Jerusalem; Matt. 27:52-53). They would find episodes that probably didn't happen precisely as they are recorded (Acts 5:36 alludes to an event that according to Josephus didn't happen until years after the context of Acts 5). They would find stories that seem to want to be read allegorically (a God who walks in a garden, a snake that talks, trees of life and knowledge, a man named "humanity" and a woman named "living"). Above all, on their dark nights of the soul, they wouldn't find the ultimate comfort in the cold historicity of, say, 1-2 Kings, but in the poetry of the Psalms. They would find that God meets them most profoundly in verses that evoke awe and joy rather than consistency with science and historiographical accuracy.

All four of these distortions of Scripture are right in a small way, but they all fail because they impose on Scripture something foreign to it. In the end, the books of the Bible speak on their own terms. We can't expect them to live down to the world's standards of truth; they always explode those expectations and take us somewhere new. We can't be sure that our lives have given us the perspectives we need to make sense of Scripture, because our lives need redeeming. The perspectives we need only come from the Church, received in the power of the Holy Spirit and tested against the faith of Jesus Christ. They don't come from the department of history, or physics, or sociology, or even religious studies. They don't come from America, or Germany, or even from ancient Palestine. They come from the New Jerusalem.

Lots of conservative churches have sold their people on this argument: If we can't trust the Bible to conform to our expectations of its accuracy in every detail, then we're allowed to disbelieve all of it. If there wasn't really a talking snake in the Garden, then Jesus might not really have risen from the dead, so we'd better hold the line and defend the fact that there was a talking snake in the Garden. I consider this strategy a form of theological coercion: Our faith in Jesus is used to hold entire churches hostage to literalism. But then the Bible (let alone Jesus) is no longer our ultimate authority; the ultimate authority is our presuppositions of what God's truth should look like. And under all this apparent confidence in the truth of the Bible runs a strong current of disbelief. Many churches have fostered not a calm confidence in Scripture, but a hard-line apologetic technique that I think secretly terrifies a lot of evangelicals: What if it's not all true? What if there really is a contradiction in Scripture, as liberals allege? Does it mean Jesus is still buried, and I'm still dead in my sins?

Of course, many conservative churches truly believe that the idea of, say, a "fictional" Eden is destructive of Christian faith, and so they bring up their churches in literalist apologetics designed to keep from falling into error. Rather than sheltering their people, they are innoculating them against what is perceived to be heresy. These pastors and teachers are acting faithfully according to the way they understand God's Word, and I admire them for taking these things seriously. I simply disagree that a "fictional" Eden is heretical (whether or not Eden really is fictional), and would like them to seriously consider the possibility that the orthodox faith is wider than they think it is. We don't want to condemn believers who aren't really heretics!

I know you would like a simple guide to stick in your Bibles that tells you which material you can trust and which you can't. I have one: You can trust all of it, but you can't necessarily trust yourself. And I know enough of myself to mistrust my expectations and agendas. The culture that produced our expectations of truthfulness was not a healthy one. In fact, it was one of the most arrogant, narcissistic worldviews the world has produced. Do you really want David Hume and Thomas Jefferson teaching your biblical studies courses?

At church some time ago I watched as my pastor, usually a terrific preacher, struggled as I had never seen him struggle before. His sermon topic was the extent of God's love for the world, and he simply couldn't preach it. He recounted how in preparing the sermon, personal testimony, analysis, and theological precision all failed him. Even the biblical texts failed him; he knew too many people checked out when they heard biblical texts simply repeated. In the end, he wrote out a frustrated prayer before God, read it to us, and sat down. Afterwards I realized that only someone who knew the sheer depth and breadth of God's love as personally as he did could have struggled so much, and failed so gloriously. He wrestled with God the way Jacob did, and had a dislocated hip to show for it.

Yet in failing, he succeeded. The language of sermons isn't up to the task of revealing the extent of God's infinite love. Only the language of prayer is suitable. We closed our service with communion — perhaps the only symbol truly capable of communicating God's sacrificial love for the world. In the end, says Augustine, even the Bible's light will fade in the brightness of God's presence. Remember, it's not the Bible we confess as Lord; it's Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Finally, I'll answer the original question — "Where do I get to read the Bible as factual?" — with a different question: "How can I prepare you all to hear the Bible as God's Word?" Christian theology is the most powerful, most profound, most radical material that education has to offer. This isn't Sunday School anymore — my students are getting the adult version.

I know it's unnerving. It unnerved me at first, too, when I first went to seminary. I was used to the schlock of Christian bookstores. It was like riding a bike for the first time without training wheels. (In fact, it was like riding a unicycle.) At times I felt as if I were losing my faith. But the pain I felt was actually a kind of adolescence of faith. I survived it, and today (ironically) I can approach Scripture with simpler and humbler faith than I could when I was still trying to fit the Bible into my own image of it. My main regret is not that you have to go through it, but that so many of our churches shelter so many people from it and arrest their Christian maturity. Believe it or not, you are the fortunate ones.

Your teachers have gone through this adolescence ahead of you, and we've returned to help bring you through. Trust us. And, as much as you can, try to look forward to your transformations, not with fear, but with anticipation. God is faithful.

Grace and peace, Telford