Theological FAQ

If everything in the Bible is not literally true, then how can I trust it?

There's a time in every semester when we discover together that the Bible is less literalistic than some students might have thought.

That discovery brings a barrage of comments and questions. How are we to judge the Gen. 1 narrative, which has been taken hostage by all sides in the culture wars? Or the flexibility of meaning in the word "day" in the first three chapters of Genesis, on which so many creationist and anti-creationist apologetics have staked their towering claims? Or the symbols of talking snakes, God talking walks, fruit that confers immortality, and people named after an entire species? Or the historicity of a worldwide flood and a boat with every kind of animal Or the normativity of the traditional synthesis of the Genesis serpent, the Gospels' devil, Isaiah 14's Day Star (which explicitly refers to the King of Babylon in 14:4), the "sign" or "portent" of Rev. 12's dragon (who seems to be Rome rather than some prehistoric figure, 14:4)?

My doctrine classes always reach this point. It's always the same text — Gen. 1-3. Why? Because many of us have come from a tradition that rests its entire plausibility on a reading of those texts as scientific and historical in the modern senses of historicity and science. If the texts are not, many of you have been taught that there's no use defending the historicity of (say) Jesus' death and resurrection, and the faith falls in tatters.

I could do the comfortable thing, and avoid these texts. I could teach the doctrine of sin through the psalms, and then there would be no problem. Maybe some year I'll make the switch, and leave the headache to your Old Testament teachers.

But I don't — I just can't — because it's time for you to see something, whatever your church tradition. In fact, it's long past time. You need to see that the integrity of the Christian faith, and the integrity of all the doctrines we're learning in this course, does not depend on a literalistic reading of the Bible.

Here's why this matters to me: A friend of mine has a brother who left the Christian faith when he found out that rabbits don't chew cud.

"Huh," you say? Well, look at Lev. 11:6. There rabbits are portrayed as cud-chewing. They make a cud-chewing motion with their mouths, and so ancient Israel apparently thought they were doing what cows do (and God apparently humored them, because making the point was more important than introducing Israel to modern biology).

Well, I hate to break this to you, but rabbits don't chew cud after all. And when this fellow found out, he decided the Bible was unreliable, and that Jesus might not have risen. And so he left the faith.

Why was this such a reasonable course for him? Because his church had taught him that every "fact" in the Bible had to be scientifically, historically valid — that Leviticus was (among other things) a zoological manual, or else it was a lie.

I think this is not only an incorrect interpretive strategy, it's an immoral one.

The irony is that we're trained to be open to just this latitude with many other texts. When Jesus notes that God causes the sun to rise (Matt. 5:45), we don't worry like our medieval brothers and sisters did. When the Bible speaks of God as being "above" or "in" the heavens, we don't worry that "above" no longer makes any sense in a heliocentric solar system. Why not? I think it's because these figures of speech are so firmly entrenched in our common language that their symbolism strikes us as normal. We don't think Jesus is "wrong" to speak of sunrises any more than we think of each other as wrong to do so!

Now imagine that you are teaching a small group of pre-Copernican Christians. You use the phrase "God above" or "sunrise." Someone asks the innocent question, "How does God make the sun rise?" And now you have reached a Rubicon. You could just claim that it's a mystery and just to take it "on faith." But then what would happen if he found out from somewhere else — say, a physics book written by an atheist — that it doesn't work like he (and apparently Jesus) thinks?

Besides, you have become so used to thinking in Copernican terms that that kind of answer simply no longer occurs to you. You can't get back beyond your world into theirs. So you casually mention that, actually, the earth goes around the sun, and the sun doesn't actually "rise."

And wow, the looks on their faces!

Then one of the bright ones figures out that a revolving earth implies no fixed place for "up," and objects that a revolving earth would dislocate heaven. And the Bible is full of references to God "above." And now you rock their world again by telling them that that's right, but not to worry because all that "above" imagery is just spatial imagery for something that's not spatial. And then your student objects that it's misleading for God to use spatial imagery if heaven isn't really above us, and how can she read her Bible anymore?

And then you realize how we Religious Studies professors feel sometimes.

You see, you've begun to open up a new world to your pre-Copernican students; and that first glimpse terrifies them. Everything is now so upside-down (if "up" even still means anything!) that they feel fundamentally disoriented. (They aren't fundamentally disoriented, but they can't tell that at the moment.) And they don't know whether their old God still fits in the world you seem to live in. They are no longer sure how to read their Bibles — not because the text has changed, but because the interpretive grid through which they saw it has changed.

Furthermore, they were comfortable in their old geocentric world. They knew their way around it. It took you only a few minutes to destroy that old world; but you can't orient them to a Copernican world nearly as quickly. In the meantime, they're at sea, and they're really ticked at you for putting them there, and they don't know what's going to happen next.

So what do you do?

I would tell them: Relax. Trust me. God is still Lord of heaven (!) and earth. Jesus is still risen and ascended (!). Look at me, and my fellow Christians; we still confess the same things you do, even if we're using unfamiliar terms. Look at how what worries you doesn't worry us. We've managed to answer those questions. And be patient. You'll get your bearings again, and soon you won't miss, or maybe even understand, that old geocentric world.

I am working to find ways to teach Christian doctrine that are not as structured according to the modern way of seeing things. Maybe there's a better structure for helping modernists adjust to a postmodern world where Jesus is still Lord, but objectivity is not; where science and history are understood to be communal literary practices just as poetry and fiction-writing are; where we revel in the Bible's premodern ways rather than trying to wish (or explain) them away.

Yet even if I can do this, for some students the transition will still be like a leap from one world to the other, and it will be disorienting. Others will already have made that leap, and they'll be impatient with those who are scared or adversarial or resentful. It will be easy for those to have made the leap to imagine that their grasp of Christian faith is superior, when in fact it is not necessarily so. (How many premodern Christians had faith far more powerful than ours?) It will be easy for both groups to distrust the others as somehow having given up the essentials of the gospel. And it will be easy for your professor, who made that leap some time ago, to forget how to help others across, and to fail to understand why some aren't interested in coming.

Let everyone who is impatient, frustrated, worried, or delighted with these questions, and with those who have different answers for them, hear the words of Paul:

"Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand" (Rom. 14:3-4).

Grace and peace, Telford