Is the Bible right? Yes, I know how provocative that question is. Be assured that I’m not being frivolous or just trying to cause a reaction.
The reason I ask is that different kinds of Christians will answer it in two distinctly different ways. The question is about the authority of the Bible.
For many Christians, the Bible is the authoritative word of God for all time. They believe in a doctrine called “biblical inerrancy”—which means that every single word in the Bible is without error and fully revealed by God. These Christians will call themselves “Bible–believing Christians”, and for them it’s a central element of their belief.
But that’s not the only answer to the question. There are other Christians who take the Bible equally seriously, but not in a literal way. They read the Bible with a clear sense that it was written at a particular time and context, and needs to be interpreted with that kind of historical sensibility. We understand that the Bible was written by human beings, and that the Bible reflects different ways of understanding who God is and how God acts.
As an example, literalists believe that the Bible condemns homosexuality on the basis of passages like Leviticus 20:13—“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.” You will know from my previous columns that I don’t interpret this passage quite that way.
But here’s the thing. Even if they don’t go quite as far as the Bible commands, which is to kill such people, they still use this passage to condemn gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. They say that God will send them to hell. The sad reality is that there are some literal Christians— notably members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas—who do kill gays and lesbians.
So let me ask again. Is the Bible right?
Suspend your answer to that question for a moment. In Leviticus 20:9, just four verses earlier, we read, “All who curse father or mother shall be put to death.”
Now if you believe that the Bible is the authoritative word of God for all time and completely without error, that would cause a problem. Should we really put disobedient children to death? Obviously not!
But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t condemn the behaviour of gays and lesbians and then say that we ought not condemn kids who curse their parents.
One of the most troubling aspects of this for me is the kind of image of God it presents. Is this a true image of God? Does God really order us to mete out this kind of punishment?
Other stories, if taken literally, are equally troubling. The Bible is filled with images of a violent God — drowning the earth in a flood, commanding the people of Israel to kill all the inhabitants of the land they are conquering, and so on. Let me ask: how is this different from the slaughter of aboriginal populations when Europeans first moved into North America? How is this different from genocide when it happens around the world today?
Jack Nelson–Pallmeyer poses the question sharply in his book, “Jesus Against Christianity”. He asks, “How do we deal with such violent images of God as they are presented in the Bible?”
The first option is to agree that this is who God is. The Bible is right, and this portrait of God is valid for all time and for every situation.
The second option is to suggest that these are Old Testament references, and that the New Testament paints a different portrait of God. If you take this tack, then it also means that you can’t use the passage from Leviticus to condemn homosexual behaviour.
However, that option doesn’t work particularly well. In Acts 5 we read about Ananias, who gave only a part of the proceeds of the sale of his land to the communal pot. Because he lied, he was struck dead. Peter attributes that murder to God. We also find this kind of bloody and violent imagery in the book of Revelation. The New Testament presents equally violent images of God.
A third option is to take seriously the question I asked at the beginning: Is the Bible right? Are these the kinds of images we want to keep of who God is? Do these violent images fit with the picture of God which Jesus taught, a compassionate and powerfully loving God, a God whom we can approach as a God who seeks to find the lost and restore them to the fellowship of the community?
Let me suggest the same kind of answer as I gave last week about the Bible. We need to read the Bible carefully and critically. We need to be aware of the context in which the different parts were written. I no longer believe some parts of the Bible to be true. God does not urge us to kill our rebellious children. God simply doesn’t care if we wear clothing made of different kinds of fibres. God doesn’t condemn members of the LGBTQ community. God doesn’t prevent women from exercising ministry in the church. God won’t kill us if we give only a portion of what we own to the church. Those parts of the Bible are not true for us. They are certainly not the authoritative word of God for all time.
The Bible did not descend to us straight from heaven as the authoritative word of God for all time. It contains the reflection of two communities of faith — ancient Israel and the early church — on what it means to live life in the presence of God.
We are called in the 21st century to continue to reflect on who God is, and to find contemporary ways of discerning and describing God’s presence in our lives.
Rev. Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook