I was recently engaged in an exchange on Facebook when the question of Paul was raised. In the course of the discussion, I mentioned the fact that some of Paul’s teachings had been used to support the subjugation of women and others.
One responder replied to my comment by first insulting me and then by skirting the evidence that indeed there are teachings in Paul’s writings that have been used to oppress women and others, regardless of whether or not this was the intention of Paul; something we will never know.
This exchange raised again for me the issue of how diverse we are in seeing the Bible, and how, for many Christians, the Bible, along with its historical and theological claims, is true and unquestionable.
Such attitudes raise a fundamental question about how we view the Bible and how we ought to approach the Bible. Can we ever question the Bible? Can we critique, and yes, even forgo some of its historical and theological claims? Or are we bound to some unwritten and universal rule that forbids putting the Bible under the same sort of scrutiny we do other works of history and religion?
For me, no question is off limits, and this is particularly true when it comes to the Bible, theology and the practice of faith. Such matters are so important to me that I must ask serious and often difficult questions about them. I am open to new ways of thinking about the Bible and theology, for in my mind Jesus’ statement that the truth will set you free is the hallmark of our quest. I also encourage others to ask such challenging questions.
I grew up in a fundamentalist tradition in which dangerous queries about the Bible and faith were not appreciated. This was particularly true when one tried to ask questions about the inconsistencies found in the Bible, or when one tried desperately to harmonize a belief in a good God with the reality of suffering – something the Bible cannot answer sufficiently.
As a teenager, I was told that such questions are not important and even dangerous to ask. I became satisfied with this answer until a later time when I began to discover the intellectual obstacles one encounters when approaching the Bible for definitive answers. It was then that I returned to ask those serious questions, which opened more questions and which eventually led to evolutionary and revolutionary changes in the way I view the Bible.
A second reason for my critical approach to the Bible is that I perceive a regrettable weakness in the way many churches see the Bible. More liberal-minded churches have almost abandoned the Bible as a source for faith. While they may read from it in worship, many of them see little or no value in looking to the Bible as a source of theology and practice. Though I may have serious reservations about much of what the Bible says, I have not reached the point in my Christian journey where I am ready to throw the whole thing out.
On the other end of the spectrum, more conservative traditions have emphasized the so-called inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible, holding a view of the Bible that ignores the discrepancies in the Bible, and more important, the long and complicated history of the Bible’s transmission. For these Christians, if the Bible says it, then it must be true. For me, it is intellectually dishonest to place that much authority on these ancient texts written by folks who could not foresee our modern and scientific world.
A third motive for my critical look at the Bible and faith logically follows the second, and concerns an insufficient education in our faith and in the Bible on which our faith is based. Not only has this deficiency in religious education led to biblical illiteracy, it has led more tragically to ignorance when it comes to biblical interpretation and theological thinking. Many folks cling to the Bible as if it fell from heaven, and they look to it as if it has all the answers we could ever seek for our questions.
Many Bible study materials and the groups that use them do not seriously consider the complexities and conundrums inherent in reading ancient texts. Instead, they focus on how we as individuals can improve our lives, and the discussions usually center on what the Bible has to say to me about my life.
While this is important for people of faith, it is secondary to delving deeply into the text of the Bible. Failure to take this major step in biblical interpretation will only lead us to assume what the Bible says or cause us to make it say what we want it to say without giving careful thought and attention to the text itself.
But perhaps my greatest motivation for questioning the Bible is the nature of much of its content that sanctions oppression, violence and war – and it does so with what is taken to be divine authority. Passages that command the killing of others and the subjugation of still others ought to be abhorrent to our modern minds, but for some reason, since these are in the Bible, we evade them.
We must understand that not every part of the Bible witnesses equally to God’s character and will, and it is the passages that sanction violence and oppression that do not bear witness to God’s character at all. The historical fact is that the Bible was not written by God but was penned by historically situated humans who were seeking to understand God, humanity and the world. At times, these people got it wrong – horribly wrong – and they erroneously legitimized their violence and oppression as the will of God.
In raising critical questions about these texts, we can assess them in light of those that speak more fully about the God who loves all life. Thus, it is intellectually, historically and theologically responsible for us to raise critical and difficult questions about the text we call the Bible. In fact, not raising these questions may be the greater sin.
C. Drew Smith is the Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.