One of the things that struck me during the Chick-Fil-A debacle couple of weeks ago was a curious theme I perceived in the inundation of negative comments I saw on social media regarding the statements made by Chick-Fil-A COO Dan Cathy, who came out (no pun intended… no, really) in favor of “the biblical definition of the family unit.” What was that theme? It was using the Bible itself to “prove” that Cathy didn’t know what the “biblical” definition of marriage and family really is.
Perhaps you saw it, too: We were treated to a trotting-out of biblical polygamists, rapists, provisions of levitical law that require a widow to marry her husband’s brother, et cetera, ad nauseam. A-ha! There’s “biblical” for you! Look at all those sorry miscreants in the Bible, presenting an image of marriage and family life that would make the chicken-and-pickle-chomping Christian suburbanite shudder! Ha! We got ’em! And while we’re at it, let’s also mention that God hates shrimp, that God starts wars, and so on. The idea, of course, is to delegitimize the Bible or at least to claim that people who follow the “biblical” model of this or that are ignoring vast portions of Scripture to suit their own purposes.
What struck me about all this is that these atheists and various other assorted anti-Christians were reading the Bible essentially as sola scriptura fundamentalists. In essence, they presume to claim that their own reading of the Bible is the only possible one, that their reading is also quite obvious (perspicuity), and that the Bible is the sole basis for Christian doctrine, life and legitimacy. If the Bible can be made unpalatable even to Christians, then it just shows that the whole Christian enterprise is bunk.
And, true to form, I saw plenty of sola scriptura Protestants arguing with these atheist fundamentalists on exactly the same grounds. The exchanges just got shriller and shriller, with each side claiming that the other must be stupid, evil or uneducated, which is what brought about their fallacious reading of the Bible.
None of this is new, of course. People have been using the Bible against Christians for a long time. But when they do, they almost always do so precisely in these terms, with a sola scriptura hermeneutic. Here, look: I read this thing in the Bible. Isn’t it bad? Christianity is bunk!
This whole problem rests on what no one is really talking about, that everyone reads the Bible from within a tradition, even sola scriptura Protestants who say they don’t adhere to tradition. (If nothing else, sola scriptura is their tradition, and it’s an extra-biblical tradition, too.) The anti-Christian looking for “gotchas” in the Bible to throw in Christians’ faces are reading precisely with that hermeneutic in mind. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that perhaps ancient religious texts that are thousands of years old, formed by millennia of tradition within numerous communities over those many centuries, heavily spiced with mystical and prophetic language, apocalypse, poetry, metaphor, history, and theology just might not be immediately clear to someone who’s set on cherry-picking passages to turn against devotees.
It doesn’t seem to occur to them that perhaps not everything depicted in the Bible (e.g., polygamy) is actually endorsed by God or that everything revealed in particular language at one point (e.g., “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me”; don’t covet your neighbor’s wife) doesn’t mean that there isn’t more to the revelation that will be revealed later (e.g., that He’s not just Israel’s God, He’s the only God; only one husband or wife at a time). There’s a definite progression visible in the Bible, even to the sola scriptura reader, in which God gradually brings the people of Israel out of the paganism from whence they came, raising their ethics and theology bit by bit until the full revelation comes in Christ. Not everything depicted in the Bible is commanded by God, not everything allowed by God is endorsed by God, and not everything commanded by God is meant to become an absolute, eternal rule.
But, of course, if you really believe that the Bible’s meaning is obvious to anyone who just happens to pick it up and read it for any reason, that your mental context is the only needed context for proper comprehension, and especially if you’re not going to study the whole thing and see if there’s any sort of coherence or narrative to the thing, then quite naturally you can conclude that God approves of polygamy but incomprehensibly hates shrimp.
Now, of course, I don’t expect an atheist or any other non-Christian to believe what the Bible says to be true, even in the non-theological stuff. It’s not their book. They don’t care. They may well hate the Christian message of repentance, humility, conquest over death and the union of God with man in the resurrected Christ. Fine. But why should they then presume to make pronouncements about what the Bible “says”?
Even the laws of our lands, written in the most banal and soporific language possible, somehow still need to have an authoritative community (with people in charge, no less!) to render interpretations in particular cases. We entrust the interpretation of our laws to the judiciary and, secondarily, to juries and law enforcement. Yes, we can all read the laws and comment on them, but in the end, it’s a particular interpretive community who have authority to apply them.
Orthodox Christians look at the Bible as being the Orthodox Church’s book. It’s not so much that it’s so obscure and esoteric that only officially approved experts can figure out what it means (which, by the way, actually is true of much of secular law). Rather, Orthodoxy has the communal historical memory of having actually produced the canon of Scripture. The Orthodox Church also has a robust sense of itself as having been given by God (not because of any goodness on our part, mind you) the full inheritance of the Old Testament, because the Church is “the Israel of God,” to use St. Paul’s phrase. St. Justin Martyr in his apologia addressing Judaism even goes so far as to tell the Jews that they are using the Church’s Scripture when they make use of the Jewish Bible (the Christians’ Old Testament). The authority to interpret Scripture therefore resides in the interpretive community—the Orthodox Church—guided (though not exclusively) by its leaders, especially the episcopacy.
Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church also puts Scripture within a clear context—the Magisterium, which finds its fullest expression in terms of papal infallibility. Protestants also put Scripture within a context, though the more “low church” you get, the less likely that context is to be spelled out. Lutherans and Reformed folks have their various confessions and so forth, but your average Baptist believes in “no creed but the Bible.” Nevertheless, he is likely to interpret the Bible roughly how his pastor does, who in turn interprets it like his own teachers, and so on.
With all this in mind, let me offer some unsolicited (and, let’s face it, likely unread) advice to those who would criticize Christians for what’s in the Bible:
- Don’t presume to tell people what they believe. Find out how they interpret the Bible. If it’s not how you would interpret it, then why are you arguing with them, anyway? You interpret the Bible to allow polygamy, which you despise. Okay, fine. But with whom exactly are you arguing if the Christian in front of you also despises polygamy? A book?
- Don’t presume that all Christians believe the same things. I recently saw a friend who belonged to a liberal Protestant denomination lamenting that he constantly has to defend his religion against critics who are mad about conservative Protestant opposition to same-sex marriage. But his denomination is fine with SSM. So is his religion really being given a bad name by those unpopular moral conservatives? The label Christian is used by everyone from Mormons to Mennonites to Montanists. Don’t presume to know what it means just because someone uses it. Find out what kind of Christian he is, find out whether he really believes the things his communion teaches, and then have at it.
- It’s silly to claim that Christians “pick and choose” what to believe in the Bible. On an individual level, of course that may be true in a sense, but we should really only be concerned with coherent bodies of doctrine, right? One of religious tradition’s communal functions is precisely to “pick and choose” from sacred texts what to apply and how to apply it. This is normal. And aren’t you doing the same, anyway? Sure, you love to point out the hardcore scary stuff from the Old Testament, but when was the last time you lambasted “love your enemies” or “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”?
- Consider that you may have no clue what the Bible “says.” Why do you want to, anyway? You don’t believe it. Now, if you’re really open to finding out what the meaning of the Bible is, then at least admit that the Bible has to be interpreted. You can interpret, of course, but as an anti-Christian your interpretations may look nothing like what Christians actually believe. So, once again, you’re arguing with a book.
If there’s one message I’d like people to get out of all of this, it’s this one: While of course I believe that there is a true meaning to the Bible, it’s because I believe in the authority of a particular interpretive community that was constituted in the preaching of the men who wrote it. If you don’t believe in any such binding authority for any community or person, then it makes no sense at all to use the Bible against people who do. After all, they’re just going to say that you’re wrong about what it says.
And then you’ll just be like a couple of sola scriptura fundamentalists, throwing Bible verses at each other.
Update: Since this post has gotten (as of this writing) close to 6,000 hits in about 12 hours, it should be noted that not all comments are being published. Only non-repetitive comments that are directly relevant to the post—which is about Biblical interpretation, not politics/theocracy, and not (believe it or not) about Chick-Fil-A—will be published.
It’s actually quite interesting how many of the comments on this post have been exactly what the post is talking about—sola scriptura fundamentalist atheism. It underscores how embedded sola scriptura really is in our cultural psyche. We really seem to believe that texts can only mean exactly what we think they mean and that anyone who interprets them differently must be stupid, evil or uneducated. It seems that most hermeneutics are really almost entirely unexamined by those using them. I’m not really sure how to word this all more clearly, though, so I hope perhaps someone else might put together something better than this to make the point more obvious.
For those interested in hurling all the classic anti-Christian canards (e.g., religion starts most wars, the Christian God is an evil monster, Christianity is anti-science, etc.), I very much recommend a reading of David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, which pretty handily takes apart most such urban myths about Christian history.
Readers may also enjoy this humorous take on many of these same issues: An FAQ on Christianity for the Unbeliever: A helpful guide for those who find it impossible to understand the religion thing.
I think I’m going to start linking to this article when I see people posting those “What the Bible REALLY says” infographs on Facebook 🙂
Do you know of any papers or books that deal with the history and trends of biblical interpretation? Im curious about how the literalism and rise of the sola scripture you discuss of today compares to biblical interpretations in the Church’s history
That’s a huge, huge topic. Perhaps one of our other, more expert, readers might weigh in on this. Understanding the interpretation of the Bible in history covers a vast amount of material. One popular place to begin might be Jaroslav Pelikan’s Whose Bible Is It?
Eerdmans’s “A History of Biblical Interpretation” vols. 1 & 2 (3 is forthcoming) Duane Watson and Alan Hauser eds. is also a good (though lengthy) place to start.
“Now, of course, I don’t expect an atheist or any other non-Christian to believe what the Bible says to be true, even in the non-theological stuff. It’s not their book. They don’t care. They may well hate the Christian message of repentance, humility, conquest over death and the union of God with man in the resurrected Christ. Fine. But why should they then presume to make pronouncements about what the Bible “says”?”
Kind of a cop-out, don’t you think? Shouldn’t the Bible be “the truth” apparent to man? If someone said, “Man, I read the Bible, and it brought me to Christ”, when it wasn’t “their book” before that point, I doubt you’d wave off their newly found convictions inspired by their reading of the Bible.
But when others read the Bible, and emerge with confusion, disgust, or skepticism about its claims, then their interpretation is immediately invalid, it’s not “their book”, and thus, what they think about it doesn’t matter.
“Sure, you love to point out the hardcore scary stuff from the Old Testament, but when was the last time you lambasted “love your enemies” or “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”?”
It depends. As a nonbeliever, I think it’s a perfectly lovely idea to wish even your enemies well and spend little time doing pointless things such as cursing them or obsessing over revenge. It’s a good principle. Of course, it’s not really discussed in such detail that there are layers and exceptions to how much one should love his enemy. If I have an enemy who literally wants me dead, should “loving” him involve trusting him? Not sure there. Or on the issue of sin, would I “cast the first stone” of judgment at a child molester, while I “sin” by occasionally being disrespectful to my mother? Certainly, because one of us molests children, and the other says a sharp word to her parent now and then. There’s no contest to me, a reasoning human being with the ability to see shades of gray. But, as far as the Bible and God are concerned, all sins are the same. So depending on the context, yes, I might lambaste those passages, as well. And I’d do so because I think humanity has a perfectly functional moral compass that they oftentimes refuse to use because they’re busy trying to live up to some random ideal, simply because it’s old and a lot of people think it’s useful.
Finally, make all the twists and turns and logical leaps you like in order to justify frankly grotesque behavior. You “believe in the authority of a particular interpretive community that was constituted in the preaching of the men who wrote it.” The point to non-believers using those scriptures is the fact that these people, at the end of the day, want to support GOVERNMENT LEGISLATION based on these beliefs (since the backlash against Chick-Fil-A wasn’t JUST a spiritual opposition of homosexuality, but the fact that the company was donating profits to lobbyists for anti-gay laws). So whose interpretive authority do we use? The Catholics’? The Southern Baptists’? Does it even matter that to do ANY of such is absolutely illegal per the Constitution?
If there’s no interpretive religious body whom the rest of the country has agreed is now allowed to interpret and alter the Constitution, then I think it is perfectly reasonable to submit scriptures in the exact fashion as someone would submit evidence in a court of law. Because that’s what this boils down to: secular law is being poisoned with the half-baked interpretations of Christian bullies. If you don’t like your scripture being analyzed or subverted in that manner, then encourage your fellow Christian soldiers to stand down instead of sniffing at US for counter-clobbering quotes from Leviticus and Romans.
Whether people emerge pouting but with faith intact, or the entire country stops believing, I couldn’t care less; my homosexual friends and family WILL have equality. If you want to protect your religion and your holy book, then I’d passionately take up the cause of church-state separation, if I were you.
Thanks for your contributions. No disrespect intended, but they’re actually exactly what I’m talking about. “Shouldn’t the Bible be ‘the truth’ apparent to man?” is precisely the product of a particular interpretive framework regarding the Bible—a certain kind of sola scriptura Protestantism.
As for the rest, well, it largely makes my point. As for the legal and political issues in particular, that isn’t what this post is addressing.
But I think it’s inappropriate to remove that context. Context is everything; the truth is, as an atheist, I seldom have much use for arguing back and forth over interpretations of a holy book whose authority or validity I find dubious at best.
It’s when that book is then used to politically batter both myself and people I care about with moral laws that absolutely do not apply to everyone else that, as stated, I will take a fine-toothed comb to that book. I’m sure everyone has their own sort of idiosyncratic views of what the bible “really” means or what God actually intends, whether they hold that it’s already complete and finite or that God means for its interpretation to somehow evolve with events yet to come.
But when it intersects with the law, I don’t think there’s any other way than to take it at face value and dissect it in terms of its suitability as a moral foundation in secular law. To take that context away from the argument (especially respective to the Chick-Fil-A debacle) sort of turns it into a strawman.
Truth is, a great many non-believers (and I’m citing this unscientifically) truly have no cause to “pick on” Christians or make trouble for them outside of the realm of public policy. We have our proselytizing jerks like anyone else, but in general, if we’re left alone, we’ll leave others alone.
But what you don’t seem willing to acknowledge is that it’s not really a book that’s being used to make public policy claims, but rather an interpretation of that book. Coming up with your own interpretation of it is really sort of pointless. Sure, you can dissect the Bible all you want, but then you’re actually arguing with people who believe in its value over what the true interpretation of a book you don’t believe in actually is. It’s really rather pointless. Why make an appeal to an authority you don’t recognize?
Anyway, this post isn’t about politics, so insisting that it ought to be is really just saying that you’d prefer to be having a different discussion. Curiously, this is rather like what I’m talking about, though with a different text in question. 🙂
I think I do see what Mr. Manuel is saying, and also what Fr. Damick is saying. But here’s the intersection that makes things even more confusing. Fr. Damick’s point above is that “it’s not really a book that’s being used to make public policy claims, but rather an interpretation of that book.” Well said, and very true. Mr. Manuel’s point is that neither the book nor any particular interpretation of that book should be cited as evidence in forming public policy, unless that book should be analyzed as evidence in exactly the same sort of way that any other document or law would be analyzed, and by the same people. Orthodox Christians believe that the Orthodox Church is the true church with the true interpretation of the Bible. Roman Catholics believe the same, about their church, which is not in communion with the Orthodox. But if an interpretation of the Bible is to be appealed to in public policy, then *somebody’s* interpretation must be held up as the correct one, which can only be done if the state then recognizes one church above all others as being the “true church,” which is precisely what the founding fathers of this country sought to eliminate. So, since the state (which enacts and enforces laws for the public) must be the interpreter and arbiter of the evidence supporting those laws, only the state’s interpretation of the Bible (however construed) could be used…and even then, the state must fairly weigh every other possible holy text also. Which is why I understand the secularists (or Libertarian religious) to be seeking some kind of entirely secular means by which to formulate the laws. For full disclosure, I’m an Orthodox Christian who entirely opposes the very notion of “same sex marriage” as being an absurdity. I can vote as closely as possible in accordance with my beliefs, as can my atheist neighbor. Inevitably, somebody’s philosophical worldview and value system, together with *somebody’s* interpretation of *something* will form the basis for public policy, to the suppression of all competing worldviews. In that sense I question whether there even is such a thing as religious neutrality.
Great post. This is exactly why I stopped visiting certain discussion boards a while back. The atheists and the “fundamentalists” just started to look all the same anyway, without any thought that there might be another way.
Interesting article, but much can also be said of the un-Christian-like gorging of one’s self on fast food chicken in the name of opposite-sex-only marriage is just as absurd. If the author believes the Bible and spirituality can be interpreted and experienced in different ways, then no individual’s interpretation is “correct”. Then all that matters is each person’s own relationship with their own god(s). For instance, some Christians believe that once you are saved, you are always saved. Other Christians believe that once you are saved, you can subsequently denounce that and not be saved. The message there is that both are Christians and yet have a strong difference of opinion.
The question of correct interpretation is really all within the context of interpretation. Clearly, some Christians do not believe in the asceticism that characterizes Orthodox Christianity and which Orthodox Christians see everywhere in the New Testament which would preclude gorging, whether on chicken or something else (Aug. 1, “Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day,” being a Wednesday, was a fast day for all Orthodox Christians, thus precluding meat of any kind, among other things).
In any event, the issue is revealed not to be “What does the Bible say?” but rather, “What is the true Church?” Now, some Christians think there is no such thing, of course, but that also means that they have no possible way to solve exactly how one determines which interpretation of the Bible is true.
“What struck me about all this is that these atheists and various other assorted anti-Christians were reading the Bible essentially as sola scriptura fundamentalists”
I think our definition of Sola Scriptura is very important here. Sure, when the average evangelical interprets SS they (wrongly) understand it to mean something like, “me and my Bible in the closet.” But Sola Scriptura is not against tradition, nor is it meant to be worked outside of the ecclesial body. Thus the evangelicals who are touting the Bible alone, thinking that it gives the individual the authority to interpret Scripture without the help of the church are not actually understanding the Protestant doctrine. Sola Scriptura emphasizes the fact that the Word of God alone is infallible (not popes, our councils, etc.) and thus our tradition is subject to error (just like the Pharisees tradition was). Thus, we must always be examining our tradition in light of Scripture.
The world and Satan will use Scripture against the church. Christ responded to Satan not by appealing to His authority (which He doubtless had), but by correcting the faulty interpretation that was put forward with, lo and behold, more Scripture! I wonder if Paul, when he was reasoning from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ in the synagogues did not look like a “sola scriptura fundamentalist” throwing Bible verses at the Jews?
Grace and peace,
There are of course several different shades of sola scriptura, and that is why I deliberately made use of the (generally rather useless) term fundamentalist.
Sola Scriptura emphasizes the fact that the Word of God alone is infallible…
Really? Where? And where does Scripture define “the Word of God” as being the Bible? John 1 pretty clearly identifies “the Word of God” as being the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
All that said, “examining our tradition in light of Scripture” begs the question, because it’s precisely tradition that is being used to understand what Scripture says. Since it’s obvious that people interpret Scripture in many and contradicting ways, how do you know that your interpretation of Scripture is the correct one?
As for what Jesus and Paul were doing when they quoted and interpreted Scripture, they weren’t doing so as believers in sola scriptura. After all, if they were, why would they be interpreting? Why not just quote? (Of course, even selection of quotations is a form of interpretation.) And why would the Apostles bother writing new Scriptures, when what they referred to as “Scripture” was the Old Testament? And why did Jesus claim to be giving “a new commandment,” if He believed that the Scripture (the Old Testament, in the time of His earthly ministry) was exclusively authoritative?
Ultimately, sola scriptura (in all its forms) fails because it fails its own test: Nowhere in the Bible does it say that the Scripture alone is uniquely infallible, a guide to Christian doctrine and life, authoritative, etc. Indeed, it actually describes the Church as “the pillar and ground of the truth.”
For more on this, see the very thorough article by Fr. John Whiteford: Sola Scriptura – In the Vanity of Their Minds: An Orthodox Examination of the Protestant Teaching.
My point was that the different shades of Sola Scriptura, are actually not Sola Scriptura as traditionally understood by the Protestant reformers. It seemed to me like the Sola Scriptura you were talking about in your post was the common, evangelical understanding of the doctrine which I would take issue with and which is no Sola Scriptura at all.
It’s no mystery that when I was referring to the Word of God, I was talking about Holy Scripture. This does not mean that I don’t believe Christ is the Word of God per John 1, or various other passages, but rather that I also understand the Scripture to be God’s Word to us. Don’t you? If Scripture is exhaled by God to His church, I don’t see any problem with calling it “God’s Word.” Is this just semantics?
Can you please tell me your definition of Sola Scriptura, and where you’re getting it from?
Grace and peace,
I’m using multiple definitions of it here in the comments, but the one the article itself is criticizing is essentially the “fundamentalist” variety, i.e., the Bible is exclusively authoritative in Christian life and its meaning is entirely clear to anyone who reads it.
But pretty much all definitions of sola scriptura still suffer from the same weakness: It’s not actually in the Bible anywhere.
“All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” Westminster Confession of Faith 1.7.
This is what the perspicuity of Scripture asserts.
Furthermore, it’s facile to say that, “It’s not actually in the Bible anywhere.”Jehovah’s Witnesses say the same thing about the Trinity. I would argue that Scripture is very clear concerning the Gospel (i.e. those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation), and that any tradition that contradicts that Gospel is in error (Paul even said if he preached another Gospel, he himself would be anathematized, cf. Galatians 1). We know that Gospel because it’s clearly put forth in Scripture. This is why God’s Word itself is referred to as a light unto our path (Psalm 119:105). It would be odd for the Psalmist to refer to God’s Word this way if it was as unclear as you seem to suggest it is.
I’m curious, why is your tradition infallible, and not Rome’s Magesterial authority? How about the living Mormon apostles? Has your tradition ever erred? If it did, what would be the standard to determine whether it had, or had not? If God did not guard the Old Covenant priesthood from error in tradition, why do you suppose to have an infallible one (Mark 7:8)?
Grace and peace,
Most of what you write is of course true in its way, but it still doesn’t solve the problem that the doctrine that “Scripture alone” is authoritative is not actually stated in the Scripture. Your example of the Trinity is an excellent one—it takes an appeal to authoritative Christian tradition in order to read the Trinity in the Bible. But which tradition? And why is it authoritative?
The rest is a much larger set of questions which are really not addressable in comments on a weblog. In brief, though, the reason why I believe Orthodoxy to be the one, true Church is that I believe it demonstrably has not ever changed the faith given to the Apostles. All other Christian groups have done so (most of them having inherited such changes rather than instigating them).
For more detailed critiques of various other Christian groups (including Rome and her magisterium), I refer you to my book on the subject and also the podcast on which it was based and which is an earlier form of the same material revised and expanded in the book.
Thank you for continuing to dialogue with me.
I believe that the doctrine of the Trinity is legitimate because it is clearly taught in Scripture. God has revealed Himself to us in Scripture and made it clear that He is one God, yet three distinct persons. This truth is not legitimized by our tradition, but our tradition is legitimized by this truth. It’s the same with the message of the Gospel. We don’t make the Gospel, rather it’s God’s Gospel that creates and makes us. This quote from the link I posted might be helpful:
“In his Word and Church (T & T Clark, 2001), John Webster sees this inextricable connection between sola scriptura and the gospel when he observes that the gospel creates the church rather than vice versa. Challenging the growing fascination with talk of the Bible as “the church’s book,” Webster observes that according to its own testimony the Bible is neither the book of the individual believer nor the book of the church, but God’s book. It is not chiefly a resource that we use, but the means that God uses to reveal and save. In fact, he calls the perspective I’ve summarized here “hermeneutical Pelagianism.” This is a theologically precise way of putting the point: To reverse the priority of God’s speaking and human speech is in fact to substitute God’s saving grace for our own works. This can be done in a “low church” (individualistic) manner or in a “high church” (corporate) way, but in either case it is to exchange God’s Word for talking to (and therefore saving) ourselves. ”
Our councils may err, and even contradict themselves. Our people may err and even contradict themselves. Holy Scripture is the canon by which we measure error. The Words of God are perfect (Psalm 12:6). Our tradition is perfect insofar as it aligns with those Words and does not contradict them. Sola Scriptura does not teach that we don’t need the church, or tradition, however it recognizes that the church and her traditions are imperfect. That we are prone to wander, and that like the Pharisees we may have a tendency to substitute God’s Word for our own.
To quote once more from the WCF, which I believe states it well: “We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.”
“The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly. The Supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture ” (WCF 1.5,9-10)
Grace and peace,
How can “the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture [be] the Scripture itself”? At some point, someone has to interpret some Scripture. Books don’t interpret; people do. And once interpretation has occurred, then you’ve got tradition. It’s nonsense to say that tradition is “corrected” by Scripture, when it’s tradition that’s being used to interpret the Scripture to come up with the correction in the first place.
One can also appeal to “the testimony of the church,” but that begs this question—which church? Not all religious bodies calling themselves “church” agree on what the Bible says.
In any event, another major problem for sola scriptura is that the Bible itself has a history—it was more than 300 years between when the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost and when the canon of the NT was recognizably complete. For three centuries, Christians believed, worshiped, lived and died without recourse to what we now think of as the canon of Bible.
The point of Scripture interpreting Scripture is simply that one obscure passage can be made clearer by another, less obscure passage (this was evident in the WCF quote). This happens all the time. Think for example about how the apostles interpret the Old Testament in light of Christ. Isn’t that a clear example of a “book” (written by people!) interpreting a “book?” Yes, we make interpretations, but our interpretations are aided by the Scripture itself and not foreign to it. Since interpretations can certainly be wrong, we pray for God’s mercy in understanding His Word, recognizing that Christ alone gives the illumination necessary for orthodoxy (cf. Luke 24).
You’re correct, not all religious bodies calling themselves “church” agree on what the Bible says. This has always been the case. Would you be willing to admit that even within the Orthodox church, there are a great deal of opinions about what the Bible says about any number of passages? This is a very clear problem in Rome, even with her Magesterium and papal infallibility.
It’s not nonsense to say that tradition is corrected by Scripture, when we recognize that not all traditions are equal. You would agree that not all traditions (interpretations) are equal. I assume you would argue that all traditions are not equal, because only some are infallible (like the Orthodox tradition). I would argue that not all traditions are equal because only those which don’t contradict Scripture are legitimate. Perhaps we could put it like this: bad interpretations of Scripture, must be corrected by the true interpretation of Scripture. I believe the true interpretation is made plain by Scripture itself. Otherwise, how could the Scriptures be able to make us “wise for salvation?”
With regard to the 300 years of silence (which I think is a bit of an exaggeration, since the writings were already in circulation long before the formation of the canon and received by the church) I commend to you the link I provided earlier.
Grace and peace,
Who said anything about “silence”? What existed was the Church, the pillar and ground of the truth, which produced and canonized the Bible. The process that produced it was Holy Tradition – not any tradition of men, but the tradition of God, given uniquely to the Church ad preserved by means of apostolic succession.
In any event, while you can of course quote me many things claiming that “clear” passages interpret unclear ones, I remain unconvinced. Who decides what’s “clear”? Again, every act of reading is an act of interpretation.
Think about it like this: Jesus gives a parable (which seems unclear to his disciples). Subsequently, he provides the interpretation of that parable, which is meant to give clarity. Or, Paul mentions the Law in Galatians, and gives us clarity regarding the purpose of the Law (i.e. to be our tutor to Christ). These are interpretations meant to bring clarity or “clearness” to the text of Scripture which aid us when we approach it. It is true that not all texts are as clear as others. But I believe that which is necessary for Salvation is clearly put forward in Scripture. In this sense it is perspicuous. Sometimes, our traditions serve to cloud this perspicuity. The tradition of the Pharisees blinded them from seeing the Christ who was present in all the pages of Scripture (I’m not trying to equate you with the Pharisees, I’m just trying to make a point) for example (John 5:39).
I wonder if there’s not another way to look at the formation of the Canon. You make it seem as though the Church creates the Word of God (Scripture), instead of receiving it. This quote from a recent blog post put up by Reformed professor Mike Horton is helpful:
“First, it is clear enough from their descriptions (e.g., the account in Eusebius) that the fathers did not create the canon but received and acknowledged it. (Even Peter acknowledged Paul’s writings as “Scripture” in 2 Peter 3:16, even though Paul clearly says in Galatians that he did not receive his gospel from or seek first the approval of any of the apostles, since he received it directly from Christ.) The criteria they followed indicates this: To be recognized as “Scripture,” a purported book had to be well-attested as coming from the apostolic circle. Those texts that already had the widest and earliest acceptance in public worship were easily recognized by the time Athanasius drew up the first list of all 27 NT books in 367. Before this even, many of these books were being quoted as normative scripture by Clement of Rome, Origin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and others.”
Thank you again for dialoguing with me. I’ll give you the last word.
Grace and peace,
But when reading interpretations of the OT in the NT, one is interpreting the NT.
As for the Fathers’ recognition of the canon, it is most certainly true that they did not give it its authority, but they did have the authority to enact the recognition, an act that was not agreed upon by everyone, by the way. There were other canonical ideas out forward. Why do we accept Athanasius’s canon and not Marcion’s? It is because Athanasius is clearly within Orthodox tradition, while Marcion is not. The canon doesn’t fall from the sky. We have to trust the people who did the canonizing. And if we trust them in that, then it only makes sense to trust them on he dogmatic and liturgical context of the canon. If we don’t trust them on anything but the canonization, then we essentially don’t trust them and have set ourselves up as canonizers.
Adriel, I want to provide to you some help in understanding this. You seem to be stuck on the idea that Scripture must be interpreted by Scripture alone. However, there is a problem here. That is, who decides what the Scripture says? Do I, the 21st century believer have the right to decide for myself what someone was trying to say 2000 years ago? This idea is flawed in many ways.
1. I do not know the language. I am reading the translated version of the Scripture, which is different from the original. An example of this is when a woman said to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you…” and Jesus supposedly replied “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God…”. The Greek word translated “rather” is “Menoun”. This same word is used by Paul in one of his letters, to mean “Yes, of course”. So here, we have a flawed understanding of the Scriptures.
2. I am not aware of the proper context within which some of these Bible passages are used. I, the 21st century “Christian” understand things one way, while the martyrs and confessors of our Church during the first centuries of Christianity, understand it in their proper context.
To clarify your confusion here, I would advise you to learn about some of the different Protestant sects of Christianity and see what they believe. Ask them about their doctrines, etc. All of them claim to follow the Bible, yet all of them have conflicting doctrines. Clearly, many of these doctrines did not come from the Bible itself, but from the ideas of the Reformers (Calvin, Luther, etc.). Now, after exploring some of what these Protestant denominations believe, look back to the first, second, third centuries, and see if these beliefs are consistent with what the early Church taught. Look at what Irenaeus, Clement, Polycarp, Ignatios, etc. had to say about early Christianity. Does it line up with the doctrines of these Protestant sects? Most of them do not. So at this point, we know that we are exalting ourselves, rather than the Bible, because our idea of Scripture does not line up with what the early Church taught.
Perhaps you doubt the authority of the early Church fathers. If so, please consider….
1. The Holy Spirit worked through them. If you think that the Holy Spirit is working within today’s modern Protestant groups, then it would be quite blasphemous to deny the work of the Holy Spirit within the early Church. That would make Jesus a liar, when he promised that the Holy Spirit would lead the Church “into all truth”.
2. They lived closer to the time of the Apostles than you and I do . In fact, Ignatios of Antioch was a disciple of Polycarp, who sat at the feet of St. John the Apostle. Did the Apostles fail to deliver the correct doctrine to the early Church?
3. These people were martyrs. The early Church fathers would rather have their eyes plucked out and their bodies burned in hot oil than to compromise the Christian message. Most of them became martyrs, or at least suffered greatly for their faith. I don’t know about you, but I have not suffered for my faith. So should I claim that I know the Scriptures better than they?
4. They taught the Scriptures, too. They did not get their theology from looking at the stars. They studied the same Scriptures that we have today. In fact, they were the ones responsible for canonizing the Scriptures in the first place.
In conclusion, if you were to study the writings of the early Church fathers in their fullness (not just selecting quotes), you would clearly see that their theology is different from that of the “Reformers”. Rather, their theology is purely Orthodox.
If my version of what the Scripture says is different than that of the martyrs and confessors of the early centuries, then I have a problem. I am not exalting the Scriptures, but I am exalting myself. This is a serious sin of pride. So, I urge you to read the writings of the early Church fathers, and humbly submit yourself to the faith which was “one delivered to the Saints”, and see what you find.
God Bless you,
“Those texts that already had the widest and earliest acceptance in public worship were easily recognized by the time Athanasius drew up the first list of all 27 NT books in 367.”
Go look at the local Churches and councils themselves – you will find a variation and immense difficulty in establishing anything that looks like an absolute consensus until at least the 5th century, arguably until the 10th. Even more interesting is that Clement appears as Scripture at times – not sure why Horton neglects to mention that.
PS: I thought this might be a helpful link, regarding the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
This is a deceptively disingenuous article that implies that only those in a faith tradition truly understand that faith tradition’s interpretation of the Bible, thus no one else can possibly have a valid critique of a faith tradition’s stance on an issue.
First, this article entirely ignores critiques from those within the tradition or who have left due to them understanding the tradition.
Second, the author tries to discredit critics by accusing them of being equally dishonest by also “picking and choosing”, yet this clearly is a fallacious since irreligious critics are not assuming that the Bible is a legitimate basis for truth and then only picking the truths that are culturally acceptable. Critics reject the the Bible as a basis for truth and highlight its illegitimacy by highlighting the contradictory and morally deprave parts. Sure it has some nice passages, but so does the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and Mein Kampf.
Third, the author subtly tries to inject the idea that troublesome passages are only there in a historical context, and that everything in the Bible is not God approved. Again, this disrespects the integrity of the critics who often know the difference between divine mandates and historical description. There’s a difference between recording a war, and commanding that genocide must take place and that everyone but the virgins are to be murdered.
Fourth, the author asks the rhetorical question, “Why do you want to, anyway?” when considering why critics want to know the Bible. I can only hope that this was asked tongue-in-cheek, and not that the author is oblivious to the larger issue that most religious are actively trying to convert to their faith traditions, and often stating that without their Bible, there is no basis for morality, and that if you are not a member of their faith tradition, that you will be cast into hell, or extinguished for eternity, or maybe sent to some secondary heaven. In response to the cultural domination of the religious, their continual assertion that their beliefs are true, and their insertion of religion into education, work, politics, and law, irreligious critics have had to educate themselves.
Finally, one does not need to know the minutiae of every faith tradition to critique it. Do you believe that God is justified in sending billions of people to suffer and burn in hell forever because he loves you and you rejected his love? Yes, great. Well, I don’t, and your position on infant baptism or the depravity of homosexuality is irrelevant to me given your moral failure when it comes to the suffering of billions.
This is a deceptively disingenuous article that implies that only those in a faith tradition truly understand that faith tradition’s interpretation of the Bible, thus no one else can possibly have a valid critique of a faith tradition’s stance on an issue….
That’s not what is being said at all. The point is really essentially this: Don’t tell other people what they believe.
To break it down and simplify it a bit further: Mr. Out believes that X is wrong, and Mr. In agrees that X is wrong. Mr. Out says that Mr. In’s religious texts (which Mr. Out doesn’t recognize as authoritative) teach that X is right, but Mr. In says they teach no such thing. Exactly with whom is Mr. Out arguing, and why should Mr. In recognize Mr. Out’s interpretation as more correct than his own?
You are of course right that people can have a certain understanding of a religious tradition without agreeing with it. I (“the author”) nowhere wrote that one has to be a faithful member of a religious tradition in order to understand it, though I would add that there is of course something to that. One cannot really know what it means to be a member of a communion unless one dedicates one’s whole life wholeheartedly to it. That said, one can certainly understand enough about it to fairly safely reject it. The same is also true about fairly safely embracing it. The whole thing is rather like marriage—a man cannot know for sure whether he will have a good marriage with a woman until one of them dies. So much changes and deepens (or gets worse) over the years that a full analysis is only possible over a whole lifetime. But we still have to make choices to get engaged, stay married, etc. So we do the best we can.
These are in some sense the great gambles of life, that there are some things that only become clear over time that cannot be clarified merely by mountains of study. Christianity makes such claims, of course: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Exactly how long does it take to get a pure heart?
In any event, my point really is to demonstrate that it is silly to use the Bible against Christians, as if they haven’t actually read the whole thing and have an interpretation for every bit of it. The best of them do, and arguing with the worst of them is really unfair, both to them and to oneself. A critic can of course “reject the the Bible as a basis for truth and highlight its illegitimacy by highlighting the contradictory and morally deprave[d] parts,” but what of those who interpret it otherwise? Exactly on what basis does one interpretation from outside a tradition criticize an interpretation from inside it? Who adjudicates between them? The only way, it seems to me, is to try to get the other person to reject their tradition (even if implicitly) by accepting interpretations from outside it. But if one is going to do that, one should be up front about it and not claim to teach what the Bible “really says.”
Exactly. This is precisely why the Bible is essentially meaningless. The only thing that matters is what particular interpretations a group makes of the text based on their current socio-political circumstances. It’s like modern art. You can’t really criticize a painting that is a pieced of gunk flung at a canvas because your not addressing all possible interpretations of that gunk.
I wouldn’t say that it’s “essentially meaningless,” but rather that the reception of meaning resides in the interpretation. And as with art, there are canons of interpretation and composition (and I am speaking quite generally here). One is of course “free” to ignore them (or to choose a different set), but when doing so, one should not be surprised if one’s compositions and/or interpretations are likewise found meaningless to those who are still functioning within the canons.
This is like saying I need to tell people that I expect them to chew if I invite them to dinner.
Yes, when I tell you why I disagree with the Bible, you may embrace my perspective, and in doing so, reject the perspective of your faith tradition. Thus, your belief about what the Bible “really says” will change.
Exactly. But it makes no sense to appeal to an authoritative text interpreted in a manner contradicting the interpretation of your listener. He has no reason to believe you. It appears that you’re appealing to his loyalty to the text, but you’re actually just asking him to be disloyal to his tradition, because you yourself have no loyalty to the text.
That’s really an interesting take on things, as it completely undermines Christianities claims to absolute truth and instead turns to the cultural relativity of interpretation.
But, I suppose your real point is just that your tradition of Christianity is correct and that no one except those that already accept it has any right to question or evaluate it.
It is essentially the position that any anachronistic thought system must take. More modern systems of thought, such as secularism, need no such shield when interacting with modern society because they remain relevant to society as a whole and to modern reality. Orthodox Christianity like Dadaism is essentially only relevant within it’s own system of interpretation after one has decided to accept the (somewhat arbitrary) tenets of the foundation upon which it is set.
That’s really an interesting take on things, as it completely undermines Christianities claims to absolute truth and instead turns to the cultural relativity of interpretation.
No, it undermines the sola scriptura Protestant assumption that absolute truth is bounded in a text. Any examination of Christian history will show that most Christians have never believed such a thing. Most still don’t.
But, I suppose your real point is just that your tradition of Christianity is correct and that no one except those that already accept it has any right to question or evaluate it.
Not at all. Everyone has such a “right.” But they should also not expect to be believed or should at least make it clear that their appeals to the authority of elements within the tradition (e.g., the Bible) are made in terms of asking for disloyalty to the tradition: “I don’t believe in your religion, but I’m asking you to interpret your sacred texts in a way that your religion does not in order to criticize it.” But if the point is to discredit a religion, why interpret its texts in a way that contradicts what the religion itself says about them? Again, you’d just be arguing with yourself.
Orthodox Christianity like Dadaism is essentially only relevant within it’s own system of interpretation after one has decided to accept the (somewhat arbitrary) tenets of the foundation upon which it is set.
Orthodox Christianity isn’t a “system of interpretation” (it’s rather unsystematic, actually), but rather an actual community that shares a common life. It’s peculiar to post-“Enlightenment” western theology and philosophy to assume that the door into any way of living is exclusively through discursive reasoning.
I certainly agree that you have to discuss beliefs people have rather then your assumptions about what they believe. But most of the people protesting Chick-Fil-A were doing exactly that, as Protestant belief is far more common in the US then the Orthodox faith. Chick-Fil-A is also affiliated with evangelical beliefs that are based on Sola Scriptura.
I also agree that reliance on discursive reasoning is hallmark of post-”Enlightenment” Western thought, but I would argue that such a foundation is a primary reason for the incredible success of the post-”Enlightenment” Western world.
What “success” is that? The ability and will to slaughter millions more than our “illogical” forebears could have ever dreamed for the sake of ideology? The wholesale dehumanization and commodotization of human persons? The wanton destruction of our planet? The commercialization of nearly everything? The deification of the nation-state? The breakdown of Christendom? The clinicalized holocaust of untold hosts of the unborn? The abdication of personal charity to the cold mechanisms of state? The objectification and commercial display and exploitation of feminine sexuality? The easy and instant availability of pornography, including with children?
Yes, quite “successful.”
A rate of childhood mortality low enough so that most woman won’t know the pain of a dead child. A world in which the majority of people do not suffer from periodic famines or the blight of infectious diseases. The probability of a lifespan that is twice what was average in the past. A per capita level of violence that is a tiny fraction of what it was in the past. Widespread education as opposed to widespread illiteracy. The ability to know more then our ancestors could have ever dreamed. The freedom to practice religion as you see fit without the fear of being burnt alive for heresy. The breakdown of Christendom. The ability of woman to have a choice in what to do with their lives rather then following the will of their fathers and husbands.
A medieval serf could teach you the true meaning of commoditization. A medieval brothel stuffed to the brim with catamites and sex slaves would teach you the teach you the true meaning of exploitation.
Perhaps you would prefer to live under the emperors of Byzantium or the czars of Russia rather then as a citizen of a modern liberal democracy, but few who understand the historical realities of those periods would share your preferences. Our modern life is far from perfect but it is a hell of a lot better then the past.
The things you mention are of course true, but I’d disagree on the “success” of the modern secularized world. We certainly can sustain life better, etc., but we also take it far more easily and in far greater numbers.
In any event, my concern is primarily for eternal life, not the earthly one, and by my reckoning, people are prepared for eternal life far worse than they used to be. I also don’t think earthly life is, on the balance, in better shape, if only because of the damage we’ve done to souls and the cold callousness with which we treat bodies. At least the medieval butcher had to look his victim in the eye. His modern counterpart can vaporize millions with a button.
It is in large part a matter of perspective. Your perspective (I believe) is that Orthodox Christianity is absolutely, and beyond any question, the truth. From that perspective, in which eternal life (determined by adherence to Orthodoxy) is the most important factor, you are right that the past is superior to the present. My perspective though is that humanity cannot know with any degree of certainty that the Orthodox Christians, or the Muslims, or atheists, or the Jains, or those who hold to Shinto beliefs are correct. We don’t have evidence to prove any one religion right and all the others wrong. From the point of view of an agnostic contradictory assertions about the afterlife hold very little sway and what matters is what life is like for the living.
I think the fact that a medieval butcher could look his victim in the eye and still be more willing to kill them than a modern fighter pilot who never sees his victims at all says much about the moral evolution of man (the lengthy basis for that assertion is best described here http://www.amazon.com/The-Better-Angels-Our-Nature/dp/0670022950). If you want to see the callous treatment of bodies just look at the scarification and other forms of self mutilation many traditional societies like the Huns practiced. What’s a more callous treatment of bodies then the brands that used to be applied to the bodies of slaves and criminals?
Regarding this point: Finally, one does not need to know the minutiae of every faith tradition to critique it. Do you believe that God is justified in sending billions of people to suffer and burn in hell forever because he loves you and you rejected his love? Yes, great. Well, I don’t, and your position on infant baptism or the depravity of homosexuality is irrelevant to me given your moral failure when it comes to the suffering of billions.
Well, see, I don’t believe that. This whole criticism is based on a western Christian theology of theodicy, the atonement, salvation, etc., that is not shared by the Orthodox Church.
So, again, find out what people actually believe before criticizing them for it.
You seem to miss the point.
I wasn’t saying you believe in hell, but rather that I don’t need to know the minutiae of your religion in order to critique it, if I disagree with its larger points.
We certainly agree there.
To be fair, there’s a lot of sola scriptura Christianity going on in the other direction. Now I understand that there are reasonable Christians like yourself, but you’re in the minority and voting records show it.
For example, Christians lined up to vote against gay marriage in 38 states to vote Levitical law into American law. But you try to pass a law to do what Jesus said (feed the poor, love your enemies), they’ll oppose it in droves and say that you can’t legislate morality.
Did these ballot initiatives actually put “Levitical law into American law”? I’d be willing to bet that not one of them made any reference to Levitical law nor to the Bible in general or any religious tradition. Once again, this is an interpretation, and I rather doubt that such initiatives would pass so easily if they were so framed. There are many reasons people vote to prevent government support for SSM, and not all of them are religious. In any event, there’s no philosophy test at the doors of the polls. You get to vote for any reasons you like. Lots of people vote for candidates just because they recognize their names. That scares me more than people who vote based on principles with which I disagree.
Anyway, this post isn’t really about politics, so further political comments won’t be published.
There are roughly estimated to be 2 billion or so Christians in the world. Out of that, roughly 1.5 billion are either Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, meaning that they don’t believe in Sola Scriptura, and traditionally have read the Old Testament for the most part typologically and allegorically. Out of the remaining half a billion, about 300 million or so are members of mainline Protestant denominations (the Anglican Communion, the state churches of Europe and their descendants in other countries, etc.) who by and large read the Old Testament even less literally, if at all.
Out of 2 billion Christians in the world, about 150 million give or take are what we call here in the United States ‘evangelicals’. The vast majority of those 150 million are right here in the United States of America (because evangelicalism began here, springing out of the First and Second Great Awakenings).
So, the reality is Fr. Andrew (and the rest of us in the Orthodox Church) are in the vast majority, not the minority, when we think in terms of the world (which Americans rarely do). Evangelicals may be the (very loud) majority here in this country, and may vote at a high percentage, but they really are a tiny minority of Christians, especially when one thinks historically.
The majority of Christians and other believers are a’ok. But when you see non-believers attacking Christians with the Bible, we’re not trying to take down the entire religion. We’re responding to a very particular, very loud, and very influential group of Christians who have made it their agenda to legislate Christian laws into secular law.
So the best way to fight that (other than to point out that the country is NOT a Christian one), is to point out obvious contradictions. If your opponents view is that “The Bible is infallible, and it says homosexuality is evil so it must become law” then it’s like taking candy from a baby to just say “Well it also mentions gluttony WAY more often than homosexuality, so being fat should be a crime too.”
You can’t subject other people to your own interpretation of scripture. Not in this age.
You can’t subject other people to your own interpretation of scripture. Not in this age.
And that is actually my primary point, even if your interpretation of Scripture is as a critic.
Thanks for your article. I appreciated it.
Wonderful article! I do find it quite puzzling that when people hurl criticisms at Christians from “The Bible” they almost exclusively mean “The Old Testament”.
To quote Mr. Damick:
“Coming up with your own interpretation of it is really sort of pointless. Sure, you can dissect the Bible all you want, but then you’re actually arguing with people who believe in its value over what the true interpretation of a book you don’t believe in actually is. It’s really rather pointless. Why make an appeal to an authority you don’t recognize?”
Unless of course there is a true interpretation that the Bible is just the ramblings of primitive societies, revealed in its primitive morality, contradictory passages, and shoddy writing.
So when you come along and tell me that you have an interpretation of the Bible that supports your religious views, well great, but I might have to disagree with you by showing you where your interpretation is wrong. This doesn’t mean I’m appealing to the Bible’s authority, but rather to other authorities like logic, linguistics, moral philosophy, and archaeology to debunk your interpretation.
You may want to play the relativist and say that my interpretation is simply an interpretation and no more valid than yours, but then we’ll agree to disagree. I don’t take such a loose view of history and truth. I don’t think the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor, and gravity is not a theory that I regularly dismiss as an interpretation by jumping off cliffs.
The insistence that this is just relativism is, once again, based on sola scriptura assumptions, that religion is purely about (and derived from) texts. You can of course use logic, etc., to interpret a text, but reason and all of its sub-disciplines really just take one from A to B. If two people don’t agree on A, then the path to B, while perhaps logical, is not actually going to be taken by both people. In the end, people have to agree on a starting point.
I’m not presuming to claim that I can make anyone agree with me on the starting point. I do believe God can get people there, of course.
“Debunk[ing] [an] interpretation” presumes agreement on the authority of a text and certain essentials of hermeneutics. For instance, the typical sola scriptura atheist believes that the “correct” interpretation of the Bible is found only in pure literalism. But most Christians throughout time have never interpreted the Bible (particularly the Old Testament) that way. So while the atheist literalist crows on about all the vile chestnuts he’s discovered in the text, the majority of Christian history is completely unbothered by his interpretations.
“that religion is purely about (and derived from) texts”
Nope, didn’t say that. We’re talking about religious interpretation of a text. You again are switching the argument.
You don’t need to be a literalist to debunk the bible. As to Christians being unbothered, that is not a standard for truth. Again, relativism.
Relativism is the positive belief that there is no absolute truth. You equate belief in absolute truth with locating that truth in a text. Admitting that there are multiple ways to interpret a text is not relativism; rather, it is to locate absolute truth outside of the text. I believe that absolute truth is a person—Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the God-man, the incarnate God Himself. It is only in an experience with the Truth Himself that the actual meaning of a text that witnesses to Him (i.e., the Bible) can truly be found.
Of course, the problem for a rationalist in identifying the truth as a person is that a person is not actually subject to interpretation. He can only be met and experienced.
Does affirming that mean that everyone will automatically agree with me? By no means. It simply means that I do not actually possess what it takes to make someone experience the truth.
“This doesn’t mean I’m appealing to the Bible’s authority, but rather to other authorities like logic, linguistics, moral philosophy, and archaeology to debunk your interpretation.”
But to me, this is precisely what is lacking in most Atheist critiques of Christianity based on quoting (or referencing) the Bible. An example which I constantly hear, “The Bible says a rape victim has to marry her attacker!” This certainly sounds terrible to our modern American ears. But, if we actually look up the passage in question and take it in its Bronze Age context, suddenly its very different. First, we’re dealing with a polygamous society, so marriage doesn’t necessarily imply emotional and sexual intimacy (i.e. there is no nuclear family). Marriage in that culture was a contractual agreement between a man and a woman’s father that transferred the responsibility to care for that woman from father to husband. Women without a husband in that culture had no rights, legal or otherwise, and so if they weren’t married, and their father died, they were left to spend the rest of their lives literally homeless and begging. Likewise in that culture, men were only interested in marrying virgins, and if virginity wasn’t proven on the wedding night, the marriage was annulled. So essentially what the command is saying is that if a man takes advantage of a woman and takes her virginity, he is responsible to provide for her for the rest of her life. Notice that there is no reverse law regarding the virginity of men. Men held all the power in the society that received the commandment, and so the command is directed solely at them.
So, the command in essence is saying that a man can’t sexually use a woman and then cast her aside when he’s ‘done with her’. It stands parallel to, for example, child support laws in our current society (if you get a woman pregnant, you’re responsible to support the child until he or she is 18). Not only is it not morally repugnant, I would say its a moral exemplar, and represents an unbelievably progressive view of the value of women compared to other Bronze Age cultures. Would that we read that text a bit more regularly and a bit more literally. Likewise the commands that call loaning money at interest and eviction sins. It could result in radical positive change in our society. But the atheist argument just wields the literal reading of the text like a club, completely ignoring logic, linguistics, archaeology, and moral philosophy.
That, I believe, is what Fr. Andrew’s article is critiquing.
“It stands parallel to, for example, child support laws in our current society (if you get a woman pregnant, you’re responsible to support the child until he or she is 18). Not only is it not morally repugnant, I would say its a moral exemplar…”
I would have to disagree, Father: a father is not a check, an idea that lies at the basis of the present child support scheme de facto, if not actually acknowledged. There are, for instance, many men paying child support for children proven not to be theirs, but, under the rubric that it is the child’s best interest that someone pay, that is applied. Indeed, there are case of a mother with several impregnators who has only one father paying for all her progeny-otherwise it isn’t “fair” that the child with the father has what the children whose beggettors have absented themselves have not. The law specializes in such absurdities: there are men who as boys were the victims of statutory rape paying child support for the crime in which the state prosecuted the mother as the molester.
And now, since one cannot in pay the mother directly in many jurisdictions, but have to have payments funneled through the child support bureaucracy, its origin in the will to displace the family in favor of the state is more transparent.
Of course, that is beyond the fact that no evidence is required that the child ever sees the benefit of the money: often it being spent by mommy dearest on such necessities as crack cocaine.
The moral exemplar remains a man getting only his wife pregnant (and engaging only in that activity with her), and the two raising the children they have. And not raping anyone in the first place.
(IIRC, the woman’s family had to agree to the marriage to the rapist, and if they refused he still had to pay up the bride price etc).
Nice article, Father. However, if not all Christians believe the same thing, then some of those “Christians” aren’t Christians.
Yes, well, that’s another issue entirely.
So when you say that the Bible shouldn’t be interpreted literally, what does that mean in terms of Leviticus 20:13? Did God not give this commandment? Did no one follow it? Did God actually command the death of homosexuals?
He certainly did command the death of those who engage in that behavior, but I (and nearly every other Christian) don’t regard that penalty as being set for all time. That doesn’t mean that the moral precept has been abrogated, but its penalty has. (The idea of a “homosexual” is not there. Rather, it is the act of same-sex sexual behavior. There is no evidence of a “homosexual” identity in the ancient world.)
In many cases, moral precepts actually get more stringent in the New Testament, e.g., when Jesus ups the ante and says that lust is just as sinful as physical fornication or that hatred is as sinful as murder.
It’s worth noting that, from the Orthodox point of view, what is sinful is not really a matter of condemnation or guilt, but rather of wounds to the human soul. Ultimately, while Christianity does have political implications, applying it to public policy will always of necessity be extremely imprecise, even in an explicitly Christian society, because the Kingdom of God is not of this world. Its purpose is not to set up an earthly utopia, but to heal the human person.
Okay, so you agree that God commanded the death of homosexuals.
Now, is the God of the Old Testament the same as the God of the New Testament?
Hey, look! It’s Marcion, back from the dead! How’s shipping these days?
I’m not going to play this game with you, because it essentially just illustrates my point—an atheistic hermeneutic is not one I believe. Suffice it to say that I do indeed believe there is only one God, but I also do not regard every single command He’s ever given as being eternally given to all people for all time. If I did, we’d all be required, a la Abraham, to attempt to sacrifice our sons on a mountaintop altar.
Father Andrew, you are hilarious.
“How’s shipping these days?”
LOL. In all seriousness though, I’m rather disturbed that your point isn’t coming through to so many commentors. It doesn’t seem that difficult to understand, but maybe I’m just naive…
In the Torah, God commands death for a whole lot of things. But again, verses are being pulled out of context. If one reads the entirety of Leviticus in particular, then one will see that what God prescribes to happen when someone commits a sin worthy of death is not for him to be immediately siezed and executed. What He actually commands is that that person, who has committed a sin worthy of death, repent of that sin, and demonstrate that repentance by offering up a herd animal (the most precious of possessions in an agrarian society) as a ‘ransom for his life’.
So, I disagree with Fr. Andrew’s wording there. The penalty hasn’t been abolished. Rather, Our Lord Jesus Christ ‘gave His Life as a ransom for many’. Which is why we no longer sacrifice animals when we repent of our sins, but rather, as we repent, we take part in the Body and Blood of Christ in our worship services, and give offerings of thanksgiving and praise for the forgiveness we’ve received.
Yes, but if they don’t repent, because they believe there is nothing to repent of, then they will be murdered.
And just to clarify, I am a heterosexual. I just love to watch the religious justify the murder of homosexuals. It really shows the depth to which religion and ideology can create horrific morality.
“If one reads the entirety of Leviticus in particular, then one will see that what God prescribes to happen when someone commits a sin worthy of death is not for him to be immediately siezed and executed. What He actually commands is that that person, who has committed a sin worthy of death, repent of that sin, and demonstrate that repentance by offering up a herd animal (the most precious of possessions in an agrarian society) as a ‘ransom for his life’.”
Would you mind giving the references in Leviticus that describe this in more detail? Thank you.
Great. So we agree that God commands the death of homosexuals, and we agree that the God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament, so when you tell me that your religion worships the God of the Old and New Testament, I point out that God is morally bankrupt by commanding the death of homosexuals, and thus I will not worship him and find his commandments irrelevant.
What exactly have I done that is so wrong? What minutiae of your religion must I know for the murder of homosexuals to be acceptable?
See Fr. Stephen’s reply. No minutiae required, but your hermeneutic again yields a result I don’t believe in, I.e. “murder” of “homosexuals.”
All you’ve done is prove that your interpretation yields bad results. No surprise there. But all you’re criticizing is your own results, not what I believe.
What have I interpreted incorrectly? That is what I am asking. You keep hammering my interpretation, yet I don’t see an interpretation issue; what I see is a moral issue.
You are willing to overlook God’s moral depravity, and I am not.
I do not think anyone is justified in murdering homosexuals.
You keep ignoring my criticisms of your interpretation (e.g., that your definitions don’t even apply: a system of jurisprudence is not “murder,” there is no such thing as a “homosexual” in the ancient world, and that capital crimes in that jurisprudence almost universally do not necessitate actual execution), so I’m not really sure what it is you want.
As for “moral depravity,” I do hope you’ll note the irony here: You’re holding “God” to a standard of morality authoritatively set forth by… whom? You? What happens if someone else finds you morally depraved? Who’s right?
Anyway, you’ve essentially proved my point here, and your unwavering insistence, for instance, that only the words you’ve chosen are correct Biblical interpretations shows the fundamentalism inherent in your position.
Fr. Andrew, you wrote: “Anyway, you’ve essentially proved my point here, and your unwavering insistence, for instance, that only the words you’ve chosen are correct Biblical interpretations shows the fundamentalism inherent in your position.” Made me immediately think of Dennis the Anarchist: “Come see the fundamentalism inherent in your system! Come see the fundamentalism inherent in your system!” T’would seem that IH is the best advertisement one could wish for the veracity of your points. I am reminded of a treatise that Voltaire penned dubbed “The Epistle to the Romans.” It was all a sordid attack on St. Paul and the notion that our Paul in any way represented what Jesus was really all about. Essentially Voltaire believed that any text was open to certain critical tools available to anyone who had obtained the proper training (i.e., himself, even though while he knew Latin he knew precious little Greek). The Jesuits in the Journal des Travaux tore him to shreds on his biblical ignorance, and essentially showed the very things you are arguing here: that the sanitized rationalists view from the outside cannot compete with nor comprehend those who are standing within the tradition. C. S. Lewis wrote two wonderful essays on this: “Meditations in a tool shed” and “Bluspels and Flalansferes. A Semantic Nightmare.” IH from outside the trad wants those inside the trad to accept his reading and his terms, and finds himself too innocent of imagination to be able to even comprehend what you are saying. Great post Fr. and great responses as well.
I think it’s also worth remembering that Christ did mention that the one who is without sin should cast the first stone.
So though the law would require the stoning of people for various sins, nobody is in the position to do it given that we’re all guilty of sin.
The saints that we hold up as examples for all of us were all people who never saw themselves as sinless so they wouldn’t be casting any stones.
The Church does make it clear that none of us is sinless and shouldn’t “cast stones” at others so we are taught to love.
So it still seems odd to play with what’s written in Leviticus without being aware of the whole frame work. How would one know without a TRADITION.
*FYI, ex atheist here and even i knew not make snap judgements on Leviticus given that i didn’t have the knowledge to deal with it.
First, how anybody could believe in the authority of any interpretive community after the horrendous record the Catholic church has at interpreting the Bible is simply beyond me. Sam Harris said it as well as anyone: “It was even possible for the most venerated patriarchs of the Church, like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, to conclude that heretics should be tortured (Augustine) or killed outright (Aquinas). Martin Luther and John Calvin advocated the wholesale murder of heretics, apostates, Jews, and witches. You are, of course, free to interpret the Bible differently–though isn’t it amazing that you have succeeded in discerning the true teachings of Christianity, while the most influential thinkers in the history of your faith failed?” Amazing indeed.
Second, I note there are millions of people on the planet acting on what they believe are the literal words of god written in their holy books: they’re burning witches in Africa, killing homosexuals and burning churches in the US, shooting children in Scandinavia, and so on ad nauseum. Given that fact, the problem you’ve managed to identify is that atheists read your holy books in too literal a fashion.
If you want to do some good, engage with the Southern Baptist Convention on their biblical exegesis; atheists aren’t the problem, and Christians need to get their own house in order.
It is, indeed, amazing how intelligent, sincere, educated people seem to disagree. Why is that? I honestly don’t know. It’s certainly not unique to religions. In any event, even though one can of course come up with a litany of Christians who’ve said bad things, all that proves is that those people said bad things. If you’re a Climate Change Believer, do the existence of fully-credentialed climatologists who aren’t Climate Change Believers therefore invalidate the rightness of all those who are?
As for engaging with Southern Baptists, I respectfully suggest you browse the archives of this weblog. Just because this particular post isn’t about Baptists doesn’t mean that none are. Of course, my experience with the atheists here essentially is rather like many other fundamentalists I know. “The problem” is quite a lot of things. As for putting a “house in order,” well, that’s one of the points of this post, isn’t it? Which “house” do you mean? The SBC? The ELCA? PCUSA? RCC? You don’t really mean to suggest that people who worship separately, believe differently, and don’t know each other are really all part of one “house,” do you? Or would the atheists here be willing to admit people like Stalin and Mao into their “house”?
That’s a false equivalence: Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin aren’t “Christians who said bad things”, or people outside the mainstream of religious thought that can be reasonably ignored.
Those men are the best you’ve ever had. If anybody in Christian religious tradition could have demonstrated access to god and the timeless truths that religion professes, they are the ones. If the best you have to offer cannot demonstrate god or those truths, it’s unlikely the church today is going to do better.
Stalin and Mao: are you saying that believing in the same god, basing your life on the same book, believing in many (most?) of the same doctrines, believing in the same afterlife, and having 1500 years of shared religious history, is logically equivalent to two people who share nothing but a lack in belief in any deity?
Doesn’t it strike you as just a tad ironic that you’re providing Christians with a canonical list of their “best”? It’s an interesting list, to say the least, one entirely dominated by western theological writers, but hardly impressive to Orthodox Christians and, with the exception of Augustine, hardly impressive to most Christians who have ever lived.
Let’s consider your list, then: to restate my difficulty, the problem I have with believing the church can offer wisdom or truth based on scriptural interpretation is that, as far as I know, historical church leaders were usually not people our culture would consider “good”.
Of course, those men did say beautiful and valuable things, but many people have done that, and the church’s access to god and scripture doesn’t appear to have given them any special insight over others.
So who is on your list?
Who should we consider as the historical person or group who demonstrates it’s possible for a person or group to correctly interpret scripture?
Pretty much all the saints of the Orthodox Church are trustworthy in this regard, especially those referred to as the Church Fathers. None are infallible, of course, and some err fairly significantly, but there’s a pretty clear consensus among them. Part of the problem here, though, is that you are searching for a specific, externalized authority that you can nail down (presumably so you can nail it to the wall) and codify, but while western Christianity certainly operates that way (via the Magisterium for RCs and sola scriptura for Protestants), Orthodoxy does not. Orthodoxy does not function according to the rationalistic philosophical categories that have dominated western thinking for the past millennium, which subjugated revelation and theology to (mostly Aristotelian) philosophy.
You also say “as far as I know, historical church leaders were usually not people our culture would consider ‘good’.” I mean no disrespect here, but in the same breath you privilege “our culture” as being the standard of morality and then also admit to what even a secular historian of Christianity would describe as pretty profound ignorance of the actual historical record. No offense, but if you’re going to condemn tens of thousands of people as “not good,” perhaps you ought to learn something about them. I highly recommend beginning with the New Testament itself and then continuing with the first few hundred years of the Church’s history, when a rather large number of the Church’s leaders were martyred.
In any event, to judge the Church by standards that are not the Church’s true priorities (the Church is not, for instance, a club of ethicists or “good people,” but a hospital for sinners) is a priori to dismiss the whole project to begin with. Saying “You are bad because you are not my idea of good” is not a true criticism, but merely a rejection. You are asking Christians to admit to an authority higher than Christ, whether it is the self, the culture, human reason, etc. But that’s not how faith works. Indeed, it’s not how the faith required for any philosophy (even secular ones) works. Even skepticism requires faith that being a skeptic doesn’t impair one’s ability to see evidence and also that one has unlimited capability to see it. There has to be an internal conversion in order for someone to throw off his ultimate authority and accept another.
Religion does not cause you to kill people, and it certainly doesn’t prevent you from killing people. Atheism is the same.
Atheism and religion are only the same in one regard, Keith: they’re both religions. If atheism wasn’t a religion, then the atheists wouldn’t be here acting like religious fundamentalists.
Aquinas, Augustine and Calvin aren’t Orthodox, so that part of the argument fails. To not understand that is to not understand where Father Andrew is comimg from. Don’t compare the teachings and efforts of Roman Catholics and any Protestant group to Orthodoxy.
Augustine is Orthodox (and a saint of the Church), though there are a number of errors in his theology, which was never very influential outside the West. But certainly Aquinas, Luther and Calvin aren’t Orthodox Christians.
To quote my betters, “Atheism is a religion only in the sense that off is a television channel”.
Atheism may certainly be practiced using techniques or approaches that are similar to how people practice religion, but that doesn’t make them equivalent.
Atheism is simply “lacking belief in a god”.
To borrow again, imagine how you feel about Zeus, or Odin, or the other tens of thousands of gods humankind has worshipped so far. You don’t believe in Zeus, I bet. The only difference between you and me, reyjacobs, is that I believe in one less god than you do.
Oh, Vincent. I come from your religious tradition, and yes, I really, truly, do understand what you feel and see and experience. I have felt, seen and experienced it too,in all of its majesty and glory.
Do you understand that everything that happens in your brain may not, in fact, be real? That “religious experiences” can be reproduced, at will, and might not be anything outside of your brain?
Perhaps I can breath some life into this dying conversation: How many of you would be willing to go to a Zen monastery and say:
I know I for one would not, and I would deserve the answer “I hit you thirty times.” I’ll only really know Zen through experience of Zen. But why should we assume we can do the same to Christians?
So you can read Scripture in ways that would be bad. So? Is that how we read it? So why insist that we should read it your way? That’s like insisting to the Zen Master that I understand the Diamond Stura better than he does.
We don’t care how people read it, honestly and truly. What we care deeply about is how people act on what they’ve read.
When people read it in a way that says a clump of 100 cells has a “soul” and so rape victims must carry their children to term, or diseases must go uncured; when people read it in a way that says people can’t marry those they love because their god doesn’t like what happens when they’re naked; when people read it in a way that supports genocide because god gave “us” a piece of land and god doesn’t share well, they inevitably act on those readings. Sometimes they act in the ballot booth, sometimes they act with a rifle on an island or in a temple.
Feel free to read it any way you like. Just admit up front that you might be wrong, and because you might be wrong, you will not try and force the rest of to do whatever it is you think you read.
“How people read it” is what this post is about. If you don’t care, why reply so many times? Also, please note that staying on-topic is one of the basic assumptions made in permitting visitor comments to be published.
As for the rest, well, all those acts are also committed by people with no recourse to religious texts. The “religious people do bad things” argument is kind of pointless, and your litany of the Left’s most hated evils has little to bind it together except something called “religion,” which really has no actual existence and in most cases generally forbids such things. Abusus non tollit usum. In any event, the horrors committed by explicitly atheist regimes have been far more pervasive and “successful” than anything those backward primitives acting in the name of their deities could have ever dreamed.
You mean it’s fine if I believe something, so long as I don’t act as if I believe it?
But yes, people can use Scripture to justify wrong doing. So? People can use [i]anything[/i] to justify wrong doing.
The question is: What is the proper interpretation of Scripture? When Scripture is interpreted properly, does it lead to horrors? I say: no. Though you at times may think something is a horror, while I think the opposite is a horror. For instance: Jesus said “Whatever you do to the least of these my brothers you do unto me” he meant it, and he meant it even about infants in the womb–since He Himself was once an infant. As for rape victims, I can sympathize, but I have a feeling you’re not actually appealing to them, except as a discussion ending “nuclear option”. You’re appealing them to inhibit rational disagreement.
Also, it would be possible for a Christian to maintain (though not necessary) that when a woman is so traumatized by a rape that she cannot bear the child, it is the rapist who is responsible for the murder (since he is responsible for her suffering). (I believe I’m tracking Bonhoeffer here, not an Orthodox saint, so I could be disagreeing with this site.) But my point is: On that interpretation, is my position so evil? Why do you get to pick which interpretation I should use?
Finally, why do you try to force your norms on me? If your objection is to me forcing your norms on you, why turn that around, and try to force your norms on me? Particularly, why resort to unsupported sweeping generalizations? That’s just bad argumentation.
Thank you for an excellent article, Fr. Andrew. The message was simple, clear, and judging from the content of some of the responses, completely misunderstood by many. This puts you in company with our Lord Jesus Christ, come to think of it. Blessings to you and yours!
I just spent the last 40 minutes or so reading the post, then the replies, and honestly I can’t believe the argument goes on for either side. Stuart Chase had the best quote that pertains to both sides of this: “For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.” The religious will always, always continue to believe the Bible is the word of God, or give exceptions and excuses as to why it is a guide, or not the literal word of God, and continue to refuse to see the truth – that truth being the Bible is a work of man. Atheists will continue to continue to point out the ridiculousness of religion and spend their energy metaphorically beating their head against a wall, because no matter how many times it’s said that ALL religious individuals pick and choose what parts of the Bible (or religious/holy book) they want to apply to the world, each being different from the last and still *all* hypocritical.
In the end, it should be left up to the law to handle civil matters (rights, equalities, and so on) and the Church can manage its theology, never the twain shall meet since the demonstrated law of the land is “Separation of Church and State.” It either needs to be enforced and all are equal everywhere no matter what, or not and we start over again with a new country and a new set of laws that applies to all. The wrangling, arguing, fighting, this has to end – it’s not doing anything but the flames of hate, something both sides claim is not on their agenda.
Hey Paul. Yeah, i just spent the past half hour doing the same. Gotta say that the comments have been a blast though.
Good quote from Stuart Chase but in light of the experiences I’ve had in my life, i’d have to disagree for both being an ex-atheist and current Orthodox Christian.
First as an atheist, i wasn’t opposed to any proof of theism, just that most “proofs” came from Oprah and they were less than compelling. (please forgive me, it’s not like i turned the channel to her, my mother used to watch Oprah) lol
Second, as a Christian. I’m not exactly sure what the meaning is when u say that the Bible is “a work of man” (hmm, the topic of interpretation again lol). It’s clearly written by men and is inspired by God so no surprise there. Buuut if you meant that the Bible is a work of fiction then that’s a question that you can look in to.
I didn’t become a Christian by necessity. My challenges to Christianity had to be answered before i would take any kind of step in God’s direction. The challenges that i had almost had no end like: Was Jesus of Nazareth real? Did others believe the things he claimed? Did Jesus of Nazareth rise from the dead? and so on… So my intellect did have to get satisfied. It still does get satisfied.
As far as the law. I see your point that the Church should have no influence in them since they don’t. it’s voting people that do. But if you mean that Christianity should stay out of it in a manner of speaking then i would agree with you only if ALL ideology stays out of it. So since laws are created from ideologies, I can only see this meaning that we should all just stand absolutely still lol.
With regard to the shellfish argument and homosexuality ^^
Wait… the bible is INTERPRETED by Christians? Why? Shouldn’t it already be CLEAR?
Welcome to Christianity outside the narrow minority world of sola scriptura Protestantism.
Doesn’t it ever bother you that god, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and desperately desiring communion with, and the adoration of, his creatures, is such a bad communicator?
If he’s god, he knows we’re going to spend the next few thousand years killing each other over wording he could have clarified.
If he’d just replaced all of the begats with “Wash your hands a lot”, we’d all have been much better off.
Here’s Jesus, god incarnate, living among us and demonstrating god’s love for us, and he couldn’t be bothered to put in one extra verse:
“When I said ‘such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned’, I didn’t mean you should actually burn anybody. Don’t do that. Oh, and there’s no such thing as witches.”
Mysterious ways, yes, I know.
Honestly, it’s really fascinating the lengths folks are going here to prove my point for me.
Communication takes more than a good speaker. And even when there’s an excellent speaker with an excellent listener, it doesn’t mean that excellent listener isn’t going to do bad things. Anyone who’s ever been a parent can tell you that.
In any event, you seem to presume that the Bible is the exclusive revelation of God to man, or at least, your criticisms are based on that assumption. Yet that’s precisely what I’m criticizing.
I don’t care what the bible says – I care whether you have any evidence for your god and the events/people (Jesus) claimed to have existed? If not, what is there to discuss? Case closed. What you assert without evidence, I can dismiss without evidence.
As to this recent conspiracy theory about the non-existence of Jesus, I think Bart Ehrman pretty much put that whole non-scholarly argument to bed in his most recent book.
If there is nothing to discuss, Earl, and the case is closed, why are you asking questions?
Well, you’re pretty much asking the same questions that i was in my Atheist days Earl. So i can relate since i myself am more of an evidentialist when it came to this stuff.
If every post was supposed to go over the reasons we believe then that would constantly be off topic.
Yes, Jesus of Nazareth is a historical person. God does indeed exist. Unmistakable miracles do attest to it and that philosophical deduction and science do also POINT to God and not away.
But, there’s no point in interacting with any of this stuff unless you’ve humbled yourself and be open to what may be revealed to you. And oddly enough, i learned that lesson from my disappointment in watching Superman Returns and finally admitted to myself that it was bad lol
As I read the comments, I cant help but think that speaking to atheists about God is a little Like speaking to dogs about quantum physics, its probably not going to be very successful.
I disagree. Seeing as both the athiest AND the Christian are both created in the image of God, there is an eternal soul in there that even creation itself testifies to. A dog doesn’t chose to ignore quantum physics. Sometimes you just have to learn how to explain quantum physics by barking.
Yeah, i disagree too Carlos. It’s not fair to dismiss an atheist for his pre-supposition. we all have pre-suppositions about alot of things such as faith, morality, politics, movies and so on. It’s hard to break out of ones pre-supposition and be open to what one had never been open to before.
The atheist may not end up jumping up and down proclaiming that Christ is risen but at least he’ll understand why someone would.
Surely the irony of a rationalist trying to win an argument with a theist by appealing to a rational/logical application of an argument from of a book he doesn’t believe is true/rational/logical is not lost on anyone here?
Well said Fr. (just blowing some incense up your cassock).
Excellent job. Well put. Too bad most people won’t listen to what it is you are actually saying in this post and it’ll just fire them up. People are always looking to get higher up on their soapbox and outshout one another. Two ears, one mouth – what’s it mean to you?
G.K. Chesterton says, “If there were no God, there would be no athiests”.
G.K. Chesterton was a bit confused (and trapped within the reasoning of his worldview). If there were no *concept* of god, there would be no atheists. Much like how we have a concept of fairies, and thus people who don’t believe in fairies.
Methinks Chesterton is being a bit more subtle here than all that. One’s starting point is crucial here, though. If you presume atheism, then of course GKC’s comment is nonsense. If, however, you proceed from an actual knowledge and experience of the God Who is, then one could interpret his remark variously, e.g., as follows: 1. If God didn’t create atheists, they wouldn’t exist. 2. Atheists’ primary purpose in their atheism is to rebel against the God Whom they know, even if under a certain measure of delusion. Someone who is really merely “without” God would not see any particular point in blaspheming Him.
Are such interpretations offensive to atheists? Quite possibly. GKC was, alas, not known for being a soft and furry diplomat.
In any event, of course there are people who don’t believe in fairies. They don’t tend to form societies and mount protests, however, nor to give themselves some sort of anti-fairy label that defines their beliefs. This is no doubt partly what GKC is referring to. In his day, as you may know, atheism was a good bit more rare than even the rarity that it is now, and they were something of a curiosity. That is at least part of the context for his comment.
Father Andrew, I think your final conclusion is excellent. As a former professional mathematician, I hate the idea that anybody would construct an argument based on an axiom they do not believe in.
Also, I find it humorous that, especially nowadays, people think that they can take a book and interpret it without a proper understanding of its origins, context, history etc. I always like to compare the confusion caused by reading the Bible outside the Orthodox framework to the confusion experienced when reading an introductory course in group theory: imagine, for example, a construct in which every multiple of 7 becomes zero. And imagine reading a book with all the consequences of this axiom but lacking the description of the axiom. Surely, the fact that 3 times 5 is 1 would seem nonsensical to anybody reading the book, except those trained to understand the tradition in which the book was written. It’s ironical that we spend years preparing to get our degrees in various fields, yet so many assume that the simple act of randomly opening a Bible qualifies them as Bible interpreters.
I’d have more sympathy for the “solution” of trusting the Magisterium if that weren’t to the direct, personal benefit of the people I’m supposed to be trusting, and if trusting those people had historically worked out better for anybody other than the church hierarchy.
Historically, it hasn’t worked out terribly well for the Church hierarchy. In many times and places, it got them killed. In most cases, it also keeps them fairly poor, the target of constant attacks from both within and outside the Church, fairly lonely, etc., not to mention the fairly horrible demonic activity that gets stepped up toward those who are ordained. It’s no wonder that many sainted hierarchs (such as John Chrysostom) tried to flee ordination.
Anecdotally, I also happen to serve as a secretary to my own bishop, helping him with a lot of his day-to-day work. I see very little benefit to him in his office. Indeed, I wouldn’t wish the job on my worst enemy. From where I sit, it’s the worst position in the Church, and anyone who ever suggests to me that they would like such a job I try to steer away from it.
I can’t ignore the phrase “horrible demonic activity”. Supernatural activity on the human plane, is that correct? Yikes! 🙂
You’re just yanking my chain, right?
Orthodoxy is not materialist, which is where your disbelief in the supernatural is grounded.
Be careful when buying the agnostic/atheist line. There is no defense of morality outside of God. Nihilism obliterates it…as I see it’s indeed already begun its work on you: “Do you understand that everything that happens in your brain may not, in fact, be real? That “religious experiences” can be reproduced, at will, and might not be anything outside of your brain?”
You probably won’t hear this; but Dawkins, Harris, et al are selling you a worthless bill of goods. The fruits of their philosophy are already rotten as Neitzsche’s taproot has sucked them dry.
It sounds to me like Jason simply fears mystery. He must put a god in place of where we do not have answers. I understand that as a method of coping, but I don’t think we logically land on it just because we don’t have other answers. I am an atheist, and I’ve never read anything written by Dawkins, Harris, et al. Untangling myself from the ridiculous webs of apologetics and making the simple realization that I can’t be sure that there is a god was enough to make me an atheist.
I don’t know Jason, but I can at least say that the “God of the gaps,” i.e., a “God” Whose only real purpose is to fill in what we can’t understand, is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Father of Jesus Christ. Christianity rests on the foundation of direct revelation from God, not guesswork in making assumptions about where we might need a God to explain certain things.
Kate, if you haven’t read Dawkins then you’ve encountered his parrot. A meme at work? Regardless, your take on the fear of mystery is incorrect, as Fr. Andrew explained above. I wish you and other atheists no ill will. My post is simply a cautionary warning, take it or leave it. While an atheist can make headway against the Western Christian, you’ll discover that your arsenal is worthless against the barrelling train of nihilism.
Excellent article and dialogue. I have no idea how atheists became aware of this post, but I’m glad to see these discussions. It’s truly remarkable to see them standing up to defend Protestant dogma. Hopefully, some will come to realize that they’ve been trapped in a paradigm of Western thought and philosophy, and that Christianity, being Eastern in origin, has more to offer than Luther, Calvin, Aquinas, and even St. Augustine. Unfortunately, we’re likely to experience our own Bolshevik-style revolution and purging as the natural progression from Protestantism is atheism, and from atheism, nihilism.
Interesting article and I agree with your position that one’s opinion on any moral issue is determined by their beliefs and not by someone else’s interpretation of the Bible. As a hermenuetical conservative, I take a literal interpretation taking into acount the historical influences of the writing. But I recognize that my beliefs are dismissed by anyone who denies the authority of God’s Word.
It is theological elitism however to blame Dan Cathy for his comments. He is a simply relating his position on a moral issue just as anyone else would. He is not defending the Bible or his interpretation of it. He is simply stating his beliefs about the Bible as he interprets it. To condemn him on the basis of hermeneutical differences, is to add fodder to the arguments of those who oppose the teachings of the Bible.
Whether we agree with how God chose to reveal Himself through His Word is of little consequence. God is God and He reveals Himself as He chooses. Conservatives recognize the progressive nature of the Bible, and how this explains the vast majority of all the “gruesome” portions of Scripture.
The Bible is the only message that can save. Like it or not, and regardless of the hermeneutic we use, we are commanded to relate its message to society. This is not politics – it is evangelism.
The main area in which I would differ with your comments is that I believe it is Christ Who saves, not a message. Rather, the Gospel (the message) preaches Christ, and the Bible is a witness to the Gospel, interpreted properly and in its fullness only within the Church that gave rise to it—the Orthodox Church. I also do not believe the Bible is the only witness to the Gospel, though it is certainly a central one, as attested to by the Orthodox Church.
excellent article! just wanted to.say thanks!
I haven’t read through the comments but I think this brings up a few questions for me. When you say, “While of course I believe that there is a true meaning to the Bible, it’s because I believe in the authority of a particular interpretive community that was constituted in the preaching of the men who wrote it.” aren’t you just saying that your belief is not in the authority of god, or his word, but in the authority of a group of men who have interpreted these words for you? Aren’t you in essence just saying, “I’m right because the leaders of the Orthodox Church are the only ones who can properly interpret the word for me?” The argument seems to take god completely out of the equation, saying basically I believe because this is what those smart men told me. It is basically saying that this isn’t the word of god, but the laws of man. It says that you are confident enough in the interpretation/beliefs of the men leading the church that to you their words, are Gods. The flaw in this reasoning to me is that it removes all value of the book and basically states, the leaders of the church are smart and they can make it up as they go.
I think you have some misconceptions about how Scriptural interpretation is done and how authority works in the Orthodox Church.
There is not a panel of Important Men in Big Hats who simply decide for the rest of us what we ought to believe and do. Rather, while the episcopacy certainly is tasked by God with leadership in the Church by virtue of their unbroken succession from the Apostles, the bishops are also responsible to the unchanging Holy Tradition of the Church. They don’t get to “make it up as they go.” Such an approach is indeed the very essence of heresy, which is the act of deliberately choosing to step away from Orthodoxy. The task of every Orthodox Christian, including the leaders of the Church, is not to come up with what we think the Bible means or what we think we ought to be believing, but rather to be faithful to what Christ actually revealed to the Apostles and they passed on to their successors. Bishops, even important ones, do err, and the history of Orthodoxy shows that the Church is capable of dealing with such errors, even when they are obstinately promulgated.
Orthodoxy has no externalized authority when it comes to the preservation of the unchanged Orthodox faith—this task belongs to the whole Church, not only to its leaders.
How does this keep God in the “equation,” so to speak? Because the Church is a divine-human organism (not an institution), that means that Christ Himself is the Head and chief Member. As such, the whole Body of Christ (not any individual or even any expert group) is responsible for the deposit of faith given to the Apostles and maintained unchanged throughout the centuries, and the Church is also continuously being led by the Holy Spirit to know and experience the fullness of the truth, which does not alter and expand over the years but remains the same, while getting expressed in new language appropriate to the time and place. God is never out of the equation, because the Son of God is a member of the Church and sends His Holy Spirit into it to give it life and show it the truth.
So while of course God does speak to people individually, the only reliable way to discern whether a particular person claiming to hear God is legitimately doing so is to test whether what he says is consistent with the faith as it’s always been believed for 2000 years.
I think you are making this too simplistic. Clearly, the faith that has been passed down to the Orthodox is understood by the Orthodox to have been passed down from generation to generation, going back to the early first century. It has been clarified, new words have been used to describe it more clearly, but it has not changed in essence. Changed from what “source”? Not some arbitrary “leadership” that can do and say as they please at will and demand proper obedience. The source is the Person of Jesus Christ. The Apostles are only given trust because Christ unravels the Scriptures for them throughout His ministry, especially after His Resurrection (the road to Emmaus?), and most fully in allowing the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit to enlighten all those in the upper room–Pentecost. When we appeal to the “Church”, we appeal to everyone that has held this common faith which has its origin in Jesus Christ, who delivered it to men such that the Church might be established.
The Church, the interpretive community mentioned above, is more than presbyters and bishops: it is the communion on the whole. It is something difficult to grasp because there is no singular head/vicar among mere men: only the Lord. There are examples of laity and clergy that deny Orthodoxy, but there are also examples of both laity and clergy upholding and confirming Orthodoxy.
The Church is the Body of Jesus Christ, and to say we appeal to God, as you suggest is needed, is to appeal to the fullness of Him: Head and Body as One. If the Church is excluded, we lose something essential and as theanthropic as the Son of Man.
I enjoyed this post greatly. I even linked to it via some social media. One of my friends from such a site raised a good point that I thought you would want to reflect upon. So here it is
“…although I find his use of the label “sola scriptura” to be unhelpful. Luther’s doctrine is embedded in exactly the kind of communal context the Damick claims for Orthodoxy. He seems to be confusing the principle that places scripture at the top of the hermeneutical hierarchy with one that divorces scripture from all historical and traditional context. Perhaps something like ‘biblical concretism’ better describes the fundamentalist readings of scripture, both Christian and atheist, that he rightly critiques?”
I was explicit that I wasn’t talking about the sola scriptura of the early Reformers, but of the sola scriptura of Protestant fundamentalism. It’s that latter variety that characterizes most atheists who try to use the Bible against Christians.
Mind you, I still have problems with the Reformers’ sola scriptura in its several varieties, because it still sets the individual against the Church rather than asking what the Church is. I don’t blame them, though, because they inherited what for the Orthodox (and for them!) was a heretical and distorted Christianity in schism from the Church. They needed somehow to claim legitimacy through that heretical body while also rejecting it at the same time. For Orthodoxy, the only real solution would be to take this broken twig off a fallen branch and graft it back into the tree—the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
Reblogged this on The Ruminations of a Orthodox Catechumen.
Fr. Andrew, Augustine is not mentioned in the minaia of the Church until after the 1960s. My set from the 60s does not have him listed. I wonder why he was included after so many centuries? PC perhaps? Or a nod to ecumenism?
St. Augustine is listed as a “Father of the Church” by no less than the Fifth Ecumenical Council, which also cites him in multiple places and had some of his letters read aloud in the Council. He is also called a “saint” in the writings of St. Gregory the Dialogist (“Gregory the Great” in the West) and by the Emperor St. Justinian. He is also referred to as “great” and a “father” by St. Photius the Great. And no less than St. Mark of Ephesus (hardly an ecumenist) cites him favorably and refers to him as one of the Fathers of the Church, using not only “blessed” to refer to him, but also “divine.” St. Gregory Palamas also quotes Augustine extensively in his own works.
Even St. John Cassian, who had much to say in terms of criticizing Augustine, cites him quite favorably in his works against Nestorius. Cassian’s contemporary St. Faustus of Lerins, later bishop of Rhegium, is recorded to have kept the feast of the repose of St. Augustine. St. Caesarius, Metropolitan of Arles, so admired Augustine that he prayed to God to be granted to die on the feast of St. Augustine, a request that was indeed granted to him.
So, I have doubts about your claim that St. Augustine does not appear in the Church’s liturgical works until the 1960s, especially when I am at this moment looking at the akolouthia (liturgical variables) for him approved by the ROCOR Synod in 1955 (also hardly an ecumenist body), compiled by Archim. Ambrose Pogodin at the request of St. John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai and San Francisco (who was then serving as archbishop in Western Europe). Also, St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite (also not much of an ecumenist and hardly PC) included Augustine in his synaxarion in the early 19th c. The Russian church followed suit later that century.
That he does not have an akolouthia in your particular menaion isn’t evidence of much. Most saints have no akolouthia at all. Even St. Patrick of Ireland had no akolouthia for use in Orthodox churches until the 20th c.
Don’t believe the anti-Augustine hype.
I find it quite ironic that a fundamentalist blog, “Pyromaniacs”, just posted an entry today entitled: “What we confess as our sufficient, complete Bible: what’s missing?” Could the folks over there have gotten wind of Fr. Andrew’s Sola Scriptura Atheism article?
Nah…I don’t think so. It’s merely a coincidence. 🙂
I suspect that a disproportionate number of professing atheists today (especially in the U.S.) were raised in Fundamentalist Christian homes. I wonder if anyone has ever done a study to test that hypothesis. Nothing like a severely truncated and attenuated caricature of the “truth” to innoculate you to the fullness of it (as long as you cannot perceive that fullness).
I’m an atheist and went through stages of fundamentalist and more liberal Christian beliefs before becoming an atheist.
Interesting Kate. I have no idea if it’s a coincidence or really is a big explanation of how people tend to become atheistic. And more often then not, it’s found in the US. I don’t know if you’re a US citizen or anything (i don’t wanna assume) but it seems to me that there’s something about the US culture in particular. Where something in the culture tends to mutate a faith or ideology into something so unpleasant and so different that people turn hostile against it that i think in our core, we know something about “it” is really wrong.
Idk, that’s my thought from having thought about it quite abit. I’m Canadian so it wasn’t “American Christianity” that had turned me into an atheist. But i do know that when i did become an initially Protestant/Evangelical, I still felt really uncomfortable and hostile to “American Christianity”. It just still seemed to me really weird and….well….alien.
PS: I am Orthodox now so i know exactly what was rubbing me the wrong way lol
I’m American, but I wasn’t raised under anything related to Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell type teaching. I was kind of pseudo-evangelical, then non-evangelical, now agnostic atheist. My journey was intensely personal, and I was very careful about not letting the cultural portrayal of “God” affect how I navigated my attempts at having a relationship with God. The more I studied Scripture, the less any of it resonated with me until I finally (painfully) had to accept that I didn’t believe it. I’m okay with not believing now, but it used to terrify me. I’ve discovered that Christians-turned-atheists I know in America all have rather different stories from one another. There are many ways to change belief, no matter the belief. I try not to categorize Christians as all the same deal, and I hope that they can have the consideration to see me as not just another statistic but a person with a real story.
I should hope so, but of course just as there are atheists who are rabidly anti-Christian, there are (self-described) Christians who are nasty to atheists. It should be pointed out, though, that the Christian’s own faith should teach him to behave otherwise.
I can sympathize with your journey Kate. I do recall my journey at that time to be very personal as well and yeah, it is very painful when you take the decision to say “no” to a faith that you grew up with and end up seeing the world as such a different place.
Though I can’t say that my atheist/agnostic days were as chipper as some that i know who claimed to be atheists. I usually called them out on it as they wouldn’t go into the philosophical depths of what it meant. So i just called them “posers” and dismissed their opinions.
I agree with Fr. Andrew that Christians that are nasty to atheists obviously contradict what they allegedly believe but i don’t think it needs to be said to you since you’ve shown to be pretty sober in your thinking. Though TV keeps telling us that dialogue is important, one doesn’t frequently see it in practice. (hmm, faith without works??)
I also give you props on what you said about not categorizing people or seeing people as a statistic. It’s something that sadly too many people do without realizing it (guilty here aswell btw). As I tend to say, we’re not elements of the periodic table.
As for how you fell out of your faith, it reminds me of how i really didn’t trust the bible a priori. In my case, my faith got built from the ground up as i didn’t want to be a fool. I had no intention of forcing myself to believe anything. I had nothing to lose. If i saw no reason to believe it, i woulda dismissed Christ 5 years ago.
You’re a cool girl Kate, I hope your journey isn’t over.
Great piece Fr. Andrew. Readers of it might be interested in the conference the Florovsky Theological Society is organizing at Princeton in February 2013, on the patristic doctrine of Scripture. Details on our web site soon: http://www.princeton.edu/~florov
Interesting. The author urges non-believers not to make a bunch of unfair assumptions about Christians while making a bunch of unfair assumptions about atheists…
The post isn’t about atheists in general, but rather specifically anti-Christians (including some atheists) who interpret the Bible in a fundamentalist Protestant manner in order to use it against Christians.
Oh okay, then they are being mislabeled. Those people are called anti-theists. Not all (and not many that I know personally) atheists are anti-theists.
This is the conversation and topic that I need to hear. So what is a good argument against the vindictive God that commits genocide and kills even children. Universities play on this all the time in their “Bible as Literature” classes. I currently know someone who went from having some faith and hope in Orthodoxy to becoming a secular humanist. What do you think would be a good book to read? He is currently reading “god is not Great.” This is what sparked my interests! Thank you for all your work and podcasts father they are extremely helpful! May God grant you many years!
Probably the best counter to that silliness is a book written precisely for that purpose: http://www.amazon.com/Atheist-Delusions-Christian-Revolution-Fashionable/dp/0300164297/
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