Misreading the Bible

2014-05-15 00:00

THE Bible is vital for Christians and a powerful, indirect influence on others, especially with regard to ethics, but sometimes its readers give us conflicting messages.

Recent correspondence in The Witness about the morality of gay practice is a good example.

Thus there are Christians who quote biblical passages that say gay practice is sinful. They take them as final simply because they are in the Bible, and they believe that what the Bible says, God says, and he cannot err.

Such Christians believe that theirs is the only way to interpret the Bible. While the term “fundamentalist” is not scholarly, it has stuck, so I will use it for them. I do so with much sympathy as I myself once read the Bible their way, before wise and loving Christians showed me another way, which has been a spiritual and ethical liberation.

These Christians regard some biblical passages like the ones about gays as invalid. They include some evangelicals and moderates as well as liberals and radicals. For them it is not true that everything in scripture comes from God.

Which group is right and why is there this difference about the Bible?

I am not a biblical scholar and have no mandate to speak for Christianity. Nor am I now a liberal theologian. My field is religion and ethics.

So I turn to Christians who are experts on biblical matters. We go to trustworthy experts about bodily health, so why not also about spiritual health?

I particularly recommend Keith Ward, a top theologian and born-again Christian.

Mindful that all Christians seek to live by a God of perfect goodness and love embodied in Christ, my questions to these experts are why there is this difference about how to read the Bible, and why so many committed Christians reject certain biblical passages like the ones about gays.

Overall, they answer that scripture itself shows that fundamentalists are inadvertently misreading the Bible. I give three details of this verdict.

Firstly, they point to passages they say cannot come from a God of perfect goodness. Here is one example. Deuteronomy chapter 20 verses 16 and 17 (NIV) says that the ancient Israelites were told that “in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave anything alive that breathes. Completely destroy them — the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivities and Jebusites — as the Lord your God has commanded you.”

Could a God of perfect goodness and love demand genocide, these Christians (and others) ask?

Those who say God could never do that have identified a biblical passage which most of us would surely deem utterly ungodly and unethical.

You don’t have to be unbiblical to reach that conclusion, just a caring and reasonably thoughtful person, especially if you also try to live by a loving and just God.

Secondly, the Christian experts tell us that the Bible itself shows that some of its teachings are superseded by others. Here is one example. The law of Moses says that God requires male circumcision of all Abraham’s descendants. Christians regard Abraham’s descendants as all who have his kind of deep faith and not as just his ethnic Jewish descendants. The New Testament makes it clear that the earliest Christians, being Jewish, naturally accepted circumcision as binding. Then gentiles began to convert to Christianity. Did they have to undergo circumcision? Some said they should be circumcised. But as Acts in chapter 15 makes clear, the leading apostles Peter and Paul both ruled otherwise, in effect saying that there are some biblical laws that no longer hold for Christians.

Thirdly, Keith Ward contends that fundamentalism inadvertently fails to follow the central rule of biblical interpretation for Christians. This is to ask of any passage whether it is fully in line with the perfect, unconditional love of God revealed above all in Christ, the core Christian belief. If a passage isn’t, like the one about genocide and anything involving injustice towards women, gay people and anybody else, it cannot be from God, say Christians like Ward.

There are ways of reading the Bible in conformity with divine love and there are ways of misreading it, which can have devastatingly cruel consequences.

This is all too clear from our own South African history when certain Christians read, or rather misread, the Bible as sanctioning apartheid.

• Martin Prozesky is an ethics trainer and writer and former academic.

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THE Bible is vital for Christians and a powerful, indirect influence on others, especially with regard to ethics, but sometimes its readers give us conflicting messages.

Recent correspondence in The Witness about the morality of gay practice is a good example.

Thus there are Christians who quote biblical passages that say gay practice is sinful. They take them as final simply because they are in the Bible, and they believe that what the Bible says, God says, and he cannot err.

Such Christians believe that theirs is the only way to interpret the Bible. While the term “fundamentalist” is not scholarly, it has stuck, so I will use it for them. I do so with much sympathy as I myself once read the Bible their way, before wise and loving Christians showed me another way, which has been a spiritual and ethical liberation.

These Christians regard some biblical passages like the ones about gays as invalid. They include some evangelicals and moderates as well as liberals and radicals. For them it is not true that everything in scripture comes from God.

Which group is right and why is there this difference about the Bible?

I am not a biblical scholar and have no mandate to speak for Christianity. Nor am I now a liberal theologian. My field is religion and ethics.

So I turn to Christians who are experts on biblical matters. We go to trustworthy experts about bodily health, so why not also about spiritual health?

I particularly recommend Keith Ward, a top theologian and born-again Christian.

Mindful that all Christians seek to live by a God of perfect goodness and love embodied in Christ, my questions to these experts are why there is this difference about how to read the Bible, and why so many committed Christians reject certain biblical passages like the ones about gays.

Overall, they answer that scripture itself shows that fundamentalists are inadvertently misreading the Bible. I give three details of this verdict.

Firstly, they point to passages they say cannot come from a God of perfect goodness. Here is one example. Deuteronomy chapter 20 verses 16 and 17 (NIV) says that the ancient Israelites were told that “in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave anything alive that breathes. Completely destroy them — the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivities and Jebusites — as the Lord your God has commanded you.”

Could a God of perfect goodness and love demand genocide, these Christians (and others) ask?

Those who say God could never do that have identified a biblical passage which most of us would surely deem utterly ungodly and unethical.

You don’t have to be unbiblical to reach that conclusion, just a caring and reasonably thoughtful person, especially if you also try to live by a loving and just God.

Secondly, the Christian experts tell us that the Bible itself shows that some of its teachings are superseded by others. Here is one example. The law of Moses says that God requires male circumcision of all Abraham’s descendants. Christians regard Abraham’s descendants as all who have his kind of deep faith and not as just his ethnic Jewish descendants. The New Testament makes it clear that the earliest Christians, being Jewish, naturally accepted circumcision as binding. Then gentiles began to convert to Christianity. Did they have to undergo circumcision? Some said they should be circumcised. But as Acts in chapter 15 makes clear, the leading apostles Peter and Paul both ruled otherwise, in effect saying that there are some biblical laws that no longer hold for Christians.

Thirdly, Keith Ward contends that fundamentalism inadvertently fails to follow the central rule of biblical interpretation for Christians. This is to ask of any passage whether it is fully in line with the perfect, unconditional love of God revealed above all in Christ, the core Christian belief. If a passage isn’t, like the one about genocide and anything involving injustice towards women, gay people and anybody else, it cannot be from God, say Christians like Ward.

There are ways of reading the Bible in conformity with divine love and there are ways of misreading it, which can have devastatingly cruel consequences.

This is all too clear from our own South African history when certain Christians read, or rather misread, the Bible as sanctioning apartheid.

• Martin Prozesky is an ethics trainer and writer and former academic.

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