Harold Camping, the California preacher who predicted the world would begin coming to an end May 21, 2011, has offered a five-month reprieve. Now, the world will come to an end Oct. 21, 2011.

Camping’s original prediction fell flat; he predicted earthquakes for May 21 beginning at 6 p.m., culminating with the obliteration of the planet Oct. 21.

After a relatively quiet Saturday (May 21), Camping changed his tune, predicting the earth will be destroyed Oct. 21, 2011, without five months of “tribulation.”

Camping illustrates the pitfall of an overly detailed and literalist interpretation of Scripture. He is interpreting Scripture wrongly. His methodology is profoundly flawed.

Much of Scripture is very straightforward and can be interpreted literally: Jesus was born in Bethlehem and died on a cross in Jerusalem; Saul became Paul on the road to Damascus; King David was Solomon’s father.

But much of Scripture is less than straightforward and cannot be interpreted literally. Matthew 27 and Acts 1 both tell of Judas’ death, and they do not agree on the details.

Matthew has the familiar hanging story: Judas returned the 30 pieces of silver, hanged himself, and the priests bought the “field of blood” with the returned money.

Luke (in Acts) tells of Judas using the 30 pieces of silver to buy a field (field of blood). While he was proudly inspecting his purchase, he stumbled, fell over a cliff, burst open his abdomen and died from the injuries.

The two stories do not agree.

Whatever method we use for interpreting Scripture must take into account the straightforward texts and the not-so-straightforward texts. Camping, and those of the literalistic-only persuasion, force biblical texts into a rationalistic straightjacket and then wonder why the earth is not destroyed May 21.

Of course some hold to a different view of Judas’ death: the rope broke and Judas fell down the cliff bursting open his abdomen.

This third story does not appear anywhere in Scripture. When faced with two biblical stories that do not agree, the solution is not in creating a third story.

If we go with the “rope breaking” story, then one must also conclude Matthew and Luke were far less than competent in their Gospel narratives for leaving out significant details.

And even the third story does not solve the problem of who bought the field. Furthermore, Matthew’s Judas is contrite; Luke’s is not.

Creating a third story when two biblical stories disagree is, well, creating a story.

Camping is wrong about Oct. 21, 2011, because his methodology for interpreting Scripture is tragically wrong. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

This is the reason New Testament is required in virtually every seminary curriculum.

Ron Crawford is president of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. This column first appeared on his blog.

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