Sherry writes a blog called Walking in the Shadows. She wrote a blog post in January 2011 reviewing Thom Stark’s The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It), a book published in 2010. I found out about Sherry’s review through a listing of the book’s reviews on the website Thom has for his book.
I myself had just written a 12-part review of Thom’s book which begins with this introduction. Sherry gave a positive review of Thom’s book. By contrast, my review of Thom’s book was negative. I hasten to add that my objection to Thom’s book had solely to do with the point it tried to make – not with Thom, his writing ability, the structure of the book, or anything like that.
I made a comment on Sherry’s review post about our respective views and this began an exchange between Sherry and me. I thought that dialogue was worth reproducing here, and so I now do so, beginning with this comment from Sherry to which I will respond part by part as it was brimming with points and questions.
Sherry: I’m hard pressed to understand how you are not a literalist yet believe the Bible to be the literal word of God.
Mike: You are combining two different concepts when you say “the literal word of God.” Let’s unpack that phrase.
I assumed that when you originally said “literalist” you were referring to someone who takes the Bible literally. I only take the Bible literally when it seems to be speaking literally. For example, when in Mark 11:11, it says that “Jesus entered Jerusalem and came into the temple,” I picture just that: Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem and its temple. However, when in John 1:29 John the Baptist says of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God,” I do not picture Jesus as woolly and crawling around on all fours. In the first instance, the Bible was speaking literally and in the second instance it was speaking figuratively.
It’s not always this easy to tell when we should be taking a literal versus a figurative view of a passage, but we each have the Holy Spirit to help us receive the proper understanding. We also have to remember when we are reading the Bible that we are going there looking for moral instruction more than anything else. This will keep us from getting bogged down in semantics, peripheral matters, and other minutia.
Besides, every single day of ordinary life we are constantly adjusting our interpretation of what we’re hearing or reading depending on whether the meaning is literal or figurative – and without a whole lot of guidance from others. For example, when I hear the weatherman say that sunrise is going to be at such-and-such a time tomorrow morning, I do not think that he has forgotten all his scientific training about the actual movements of the earth and sun. In other words, I assume he knows that the sun is not actually “rising.” It’s a figure of speech. Likewise, when I hear the news anchor say, “The White House said today that…” I do not assume that he’s trying to convince me that houses actually talk. We make such swift, subconscious interpretive decisions like this about things we read and hear all day long. We should allow the Bible to speak on its own terms and use the same common sense to interpret it as we do other communications we read and hear.
Now let’s discuss “the word of God” part of your phrase. I believe the Bible is the word of God in the way that Paul meant it in 1 Thessalonians 2:13 when he said, “…when you received from us the word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God…” Is it Paul’s word? Yes. Is it God’s word, too? Yes. How? It’s God’s word through Paul. The fact that it is the word of a man doesn’t preclude it from also being the word of God.
When the president tells his press secretary to tell the public that he is running for reelection, the press secretary then makes the announcement. Is it the press secretary’s word we hear? Yes. Is it the president’s word, too? Yes. How? It’s the president’s word through the press secretary.
Therefore, do I believe that the Bible is the word of human beings? Yes. Do I also believe that it’s the word of God? Yes. How? It is the word of God through these human beings.
To sum up, I believe that the Bible is the word of God, and that it sometimes speak literally and sometimes figuratively.
Sherry: I see [the Bible] as a collection of writings by mostly unknown persons who attempted to put down their understanding of the God they were in relation with.
Mike: I’m pretty comfortable agreeing with this statement. I’d only add that we do know most of the Bible authors at least by name as that is the way the documents have come down to us from antiquity. I’d also add that when they “put down their understanding of the God they were in relation with,” they were providing us with the means to connect with this same God. Therein lies the Bible’s value: its connection with God.
Sherry: Jesus certainly did convey the idea to his followers at least, (to the degree that we can place accuracy on the writings of the evangelists), that his return would be before the deaths of most of them. Paul certainly believed this too.
Mike: Agreed. In fact, on this point, you, Thom, and I are in complete agreement.
Sherry: Both [Jesus and Paul] were utterly wrong.
Mike: Here’s where I part company with you and Thom, and I explain fully why I do in my review of Thom’s eighth chapter.
Sherry: The bible itself is filled with factual errors, and the redactions and recopying have produced untold other errors. This does nothing to take away from the ideas conveyed.
Mike: I think Thom would agree with your first sentence, but not your second. I don’t agree with your first sentence (at least I don’t see the problem as exaggerated as you do), but I do agree with your second.
We do not have the original writings of those who wrote the Bible, but the same could be said of the works of Homer, Herodotus, and all the writers of antiquity. What’s different is that we have far more early copies of the Bible than we do of any other major document of antiquity. Therefore, if we can read Homer and focus on the ideas without worrying about undetected copying errors, then we should be able to do the same with the Bible.
Sherry: That of course is the point–the ideas.
Sherry: We know that the earth was not a flat disc surrounded by water on all sides and protected from the above waters by a metal bowl as portrayed in the cosmology of the ancient Hebrews, but certainly the IDEA that God is the beginning of all things and the ultimate creator of all this is, gets through as the point.
Mike: I thought you eschewed literalism? If so, why do you assume the Bible’s writers must have been speaking literally on this point?
Just because the ancients didn’t speak in scientific terms does not mean they were stupid. They didn’t use scientific language because it post-dated them. Ancient human could not explain all the mysteries of creation, but neither can modern science. If it could, they’d stop researching. Morals have always been humanity’s biggest problem – not science. And, after all, the Bible wasn’t written to teach science – it was written to teach morals.
Nevertheless, I’m glad that you, the Bible’s writers, and I all agree that God is the beginning of all things. As you rightly say, that is the point.
Sherry: So I am still constrained to not understand what you mean when you say you aren’t a literalist? Perhaps you could enlighten me.
Mike: I hope I have by now.
Sherry: Ultimately, when we insist that a collection of writings which a group of men argued about as to which ones would be in the canon (and plenty never accepted that decision and still don’t today) is declared to be “the word of God” we are in over our heads.
Mike: “Over our heads?” I don’t understand why you feel that way. Here’s a paragraph from my concluding remarks to Thom’s book:
I had thought that the issue of the New Testament canon would come up in Thom’s book and so I promised to deal with it. However, it never did, so I’ll comment briefly on it now. Practically speaking, Jesus demonstrated that there is no reason to question the core Old Testament canon. As for the New Testament canon, there is even less dispute about its contents. Apostolic origin as perceived by those who lived closest to that age has always been considered the standard for inclusion. Apostles are significant, of course, because they were personally commissioned by the Lord, just as the prophets had been personally commissioned by Yahweh. (For more, see Why the Bible Can Be Trusted; or The Depth of Corroboration to the Testimony of Jesus Christ; or The Nine Men Behind the New Testament.)
Sherry: Which translation?
Sherry: What about clear archeological, geological, and other hard evidence that proves that the stories can’t be true.
Mike: I am unaware of such “clear and hard evidence.” What I am aware of is that just as there are people who appeal to archaeology and geology to disprove the Bible’s accounts of history, there are also those who appeal to these disciplines to prove it. It sounds like you’ve surveyed the literature and sided with the former. I tend think the latter are more correct. My core reason for trusting the Bible, however, is not archaeological or geological, but rather moral. I can’t believe God would try to teach us about truth by telling lies.
Sherry: Jericho never suffered the destruction claimed in the bible, or any where near in time to the claim. This is also true of a number of other such places and incidents alleged in the bible.
Mike: Your statements are consistent with those who seek to disprove the Bible. They are inconsistent with those archaeologists and geologists who believe it. Each side has its experts to which it can appeal.
Sherry: To declare in the face of real evidence that somehow it is simple “wrong” is disingenuous.
Mike: That’s a pretty harsh judgment to say that anyone who disagrees with your view is being disingenuous.
Sherry: Stark has given the best refutation of fundamentalist thinking I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something, because I ‘ve read extensively in the area, both as to factual matters and to the psychological makeup of those driven to this form of extremism.
Mike: It seems similarly harsh and judgmental for you to say that people who disagree with you are extremists. In my view, the extremists on this issue are both the ones who say that archaeology and geology “prove that the Bible is wrong” and also those who say that archaeology and geology “prove that the Bible is right.” I believe the Bible can be supported by science, but not proven by science. I’m neither an archaeologist nor a geologist so the arguments are for the most part lost on me anyway.
Sherry: If I’ve missed something in your claims, please do set them forth.
Mike: I’ve tried to address all the points you’ve raised and questions you’ve asked.
Sherry: The bible and what it says and means is an evolving thing as far as I am concerned.
Mike: I, too, am still learning from it.
Sherry: Someone like a David Barton for instance, reads a whole lot of what he wants the texts to mean into his “interpretation”.
Mike: I don’t know who David Barton is.
Sherry: I prefer to rely on those who are experts in the field to guide me, along with professionally trained theologians to help me with the pastoral implications.
Mike: When I read the Bible, I realize how many people – experts and otherwise – expended themselves so I can read it. I am dependent on translators, publishers, researchers, historians, and many others. Without them, I would not be able to read and understand the Scriptures. However, when it comes to interpreting what I read, I rely upon the Holy Spirit who is given to us all. He inspires the reading as He inspired the writing. I know that I am morally responsible before God for what I read and understand (God does not hold me accountable for obeying those parts of the Bible that I do not understand). While I can often benefit from insights that others have about the Bible, I cannot abdicate to them my responsibility to understand for myself…and act accordingly.
Sherry: Today we are faced with a right-wing evangelical Christianists who claim that Jesus would not condone government health care, and social security, Medicare and Medicaid. They make all sorts of claims about what “God wants” but it smells an awful lot like justifying one’s own selfish desires.
Mike: I can see what you mean, but must add that I also see similar appropriation of the Scriptures by left-wing Christians for purposes that drive them. I don’t think the answer lies with either side of that spectrum. The following paragraphs are taken from the conclusion of my review of Thom’s book:
I agree wholeheartedly with Thom that fundamentalism has a deservedly poor reputation. And I would add that this is becoming increasingly true for broader evangelicalism as well. However, Thom’s answer to this of moving leftward on the theological spectrum is no solution. Move far enough in that direction and you become agnostic. After that, the only thing left is atheism. Moving rightward is no solution either.
If moving left or right is unhelpful, what then is the solution? Yes, of course…looking upward. Moving leftward or rightward is merely changing the “people of faith” with whom we associate. Only in reorienting ourselves upward do we truly practice faith. For faith must be in God (Hebrews 11:6) – and not in people (Jeremiah 17:5-8). And while we can be encouraged by the faith of others, faith is ultimately a private act of the individual human heart.
Sherry: I agree that better understanding is essential, so again, I urge you to correct my misunderstanding of your position.
Mike: I hope I have done so. If you like, you are welcome to respond here. Or you may, of course, do so at your own site if you prefer. May God bless you. I appreciate the interaction you granted me.