Basic assumptions about the authority of the Scriptures
I personally believe that the Bible was written by human authors who were inspired by God to reveal God’s truth for humanity. Every bit of it reveals more understanding of a God who loves all of us, wants all of us to love each other, and empowers us to live compassionate, liberated lives using the gifts that God gives us. If there are any parts that initially do not seem to fit that understanding, God directs me to dig deeper into the God’s word to understand better.
But there are other beliefs.
“Our reasons for even discussing this matter arise because of how people read the Bible. There are many ways we interpret Scripture. Some may say that they simply read the Bible and do not interpret it, yet “interpretation” means getting the meaning out of the text. Without understanding the meaning of the words, they are just words on a page. If we want to understand it, we must interpret it.”1
We all interpret everything we see, hear, and read every single day!
Interpretation of Scripture
“God said it, I believe it, and that settles it!” Literalists believe in and adhere to the Word of God “as is” – without alteration. Once a literalist chooses a particular (and sometimes arbitrary) Bible translation, he or she believes that each word found in that translation comes directly from God – through God’s inspired writers – and is not subject to debate. This thought holds to the understanding that every word of that particular translation is equally and totally inspired by God and is without error. Literalists often choose a particular translation based upon traditions established by his or her favorite preacher.
For example, Literalists often refute the sciences of geology and evolution because Genesis tells us that God created the world in six days and then rested.
One of the effects of this view is that when scientists or others prove their findings beyond doubt, Literalists think that science is trying to shake their faith in God. Literalists are challenged to believe “All of It or None of It.” In the face of incontrovertible scientific evidence, many of them end up discarding religion all together.
There are some real disadvantages to this kind of thinking. Some of the Bible stories that have been seriously misinterpreted because of this view include:
- Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-4:1, I Timothy 6:1-2, I Peter 2:18
- Matthew 5:22-29
- Matthew 5:32, Mark 10:1-12, & Luke 16:18
- I Timothy 2:9-10, I Corinthians 11:1-16
Historically, fundamentalists place a very heavy emphasis on the truth that is “revealed” in the Bible. A fundamentalist Bible translation holds that the teachings that are put forth in the Bible are God-inspired truths for all people to embrace and live out in daily life. Emphasis is placed on the usefulness and applicability of the biblical ideas and concepts rather than on the actual words of the Bible itself. There are “Five Fundamentals” that fundamentalists hold sacred.
- The Deity of Jesus Christ (John 1:1; John 20:28; Hebrews 1:8-9).
- The Virgin Birth (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23; Luke 1:27).
- The Blood Atonement (Acts 20:28; Romans 3:25, 5:9; Ephesians 1:7; Hebrews 9:12-14).
- The Bodily Resurrection (Luke 24:36-46; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, 15:14-15).
- The inerrancy of the scriptures themselves (Psalms 12:6-7; Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20). Originally, this was simply a reference to people who claim to have divine revelations apart from the scriptures.
From the core of my being and following a long Southern Baptist tradition, I am a Fundamentalist. However, I define those five Fundamentals a bit differently now.
Within the last fifteen to twenty years, believers who are literalists have begun to call themselves “fundamentalists.” Some believers who formerly held with traditional fundamentalist beliefs began to embrace literalist views. The distinction between the two traditions has become blurred.2
Non-Literalists treat the Bible as texts of sacred worth, stories of wisdom and faith that can be applied to present-day circumstances and life. The non-literalist subjects his or her interpretation to study, analysis, and critical reflection. Extensive use of critical tools of analysis and interpretation are utilized to uncover the deeper meanings that lie beneath the surface of the written text. Non-Literalists believe that there is much more to what is being conveyed in the words than what is actually printed on the page.
“Criticism” does not mean that we take exception to the text or want to find fault with it. Rather, what we do is to apply a methodical procedure to learn what the text really says.
Forms of Biblical Criticism include:
Textual criticism – Language & Translation
This includes understanding what the words meant when they were written and what translations of them mean today.
Source criticism – The intent and purpose of the author
This includes understanding the type of literature of the passage, how it fits in with surrounding passages, and how it fits in with the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a whole. That’s where I rely heavily on St. John 13:34-35 and Romans 13:10.
Form criticism – The context of the times
This includes understanding the historical setting at the time the passage was written and often compares similar but different accounts of the same event.
Application criticism – Application of the text to Christians (like us) today
If the ancient faith stories have any chance of becoming relevant to us today, we must apply the truths that we find in those stories to our own day-to-day living. Without this form of criticism, one might be encouraged to say, “Well, that’s a nice enough story, but it doesn’t apply to me because I would never do anything like that,” or “Who cares what happened to her so long ago? It doesn’t affect me.”
More than any other reason, the failure to apply application criticism to biblical stories appropriately prompts people to drop away from spiritual faith. You may know many who have done that, or you may have experienced that tendency yourself.
Examples of Biblical Criticism
A prime example of Textual criticism would be to examine the ancient meaning of the word virgin and compare it with today’s meaning. In ancient Hebrew culture, “virgin” simply meant a girl who had not yet had her first menstrual cycle. For Jews, the girl had not yet become “ritually unclean.” It had nothing to do with whether she had engaged in sexual relations or not. When translated into Greek, it took on a new shade of meaning. Do you see how that difference from our present-day definition of “virgin” could change the meaning of texts describing the Virgin Mary?
A good example of Source criticism is found in our Gospels. It’s okay that Mark uses different language from St. John and the other Gospel writers when describing the events in Jesus’ ministry. The order of events is different. Some are added and some are omitted. It’s okay to us because the various writers had very different reasons for writing what they wrote for very different audiences.
An example of Form criticism includes the fact that many of us grew up thinking that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible were written by Moses. The King James Version, along with others, names Moses in the titles of the books. However, they were written by someone else. As we approach verses in Genesis, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, we’ll talk about who really wrote them and why.
My favorite approach to criticism involves Application criticism. When the Tuesday Night Bible Study group studied the second chapter of the Gospel of Mark – the story of a paralyzed man who had four friends lower him through the roof into the house where Jesus was staying so Jesus could heal him – we discovered a new question, “Who in your life do you rely upon to bring you back to Jesus in your day-to-day life even if it’s by extraordinary means?” The answers challenge us to live accountable, Christian lives.
Because of an individual’s cultural background, he or she may view scripture through different lenses. Each of these views may be used exclusively or in combination with others. Each may adopt certain principles from each of the three traditions mentioned above and reject others. There are as many different approaches as there are believers, but some of the main groupings and their major distinctions are:
- Liberation theology – all scripture leads in some way to being liberated to lead full, empowered, loving lives through God’s grace
- Women’s theology – special emphasis on re-languaging any passage that seems to belittle the role of women
- Black cultural theology – no emphasis placed on those passages that seem to condone slavery or discrimination against people because of their race or economic standing
The Problem of Biblical Interpretation
Let’s use another example and suspend reality for just a moment. Pretend you are my mom or dad. I’m your little kid, and you’ve just picked me up from preschool. I want to tell you what I learned today. Some of you may remember this nursery rhyme.
“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.”
“Mom (or Dad), I don’t know what they are talking about….”
How would you answer me? What would you tell your child about that nursery rhyme?
Would you say it’s about an egg? How do you know it’s about an egg?
Would you think it’s about a man? Where does the rhyme itself say it’s about a man?
This rhyme is in English. Not Hebrew or Greek! How come we can’t understand who it’s about from the words that are written?
To really understand this rhyme, we have to learn who wrote it and why. We have to ask the author who he or she had in mind. In reality, it was written about one of the English kings who had lost favor from his subjects. As one explanation goes, that king was King James. Yes, the very same one who authorized an English version of the Bible. Do you know the history of why King James lost favor from his subjects?
The Principle of Biblical Selection
This lofty-sounding theological term is actually quite practical. It refers to the way believers choose which portions of scripture are important to them. In actual practice, every believer chooses to embrace particular scripture passages and give little attention to others. A literalist may say each passage is equally important, but that same believer has memorized or quickly recalls only certain passages that are important to her or him. In practice, the “message of the day” gets preached thoroughly while other passages are saved for another day – which never seems to come.
Since each believer selects portions of scripture that speaks most loudly to him or her, the question arises about how that believer decides. Are the passages chosen or not chosen because they speak to a behavior that makes the believer…
- Feel uncomfortable due to a belief that the scripture may condemn personal behavior or basic sexuality?
- Feel superior or inferior to others?
- Feel secure or afraid?
- Encourage love or hatred toward individuals or groups of people?
What Bible stories do you tend to avoid? Why?
Which ones do you love to read again and again? Why?
“Abba! Reveal Your truth for me even deeper!”
If I read a passage of scripture and I come away thinking that God must not love me anymore or that God is rejecting me or others I love, I believe there must be something that I am missing! That’s when I pray: “Abba! Reveal Your truth for me even deeper!” Then – it’s up to me to keep digging until I am satisfied that God continues to love me.
Interesting facts involving translations:4
- Sexual orientation was not understood during Biblical times. There were no Greek words for “homosexuality.”
- Translations from one language to another always include an element of interpretation because words do not mean the exact same thing in different languages. Often, words used originally no longer exist.
The Hebrew scriptures were all written in Hebrew. Some of the passages use very formal language; some use very provincial words. The Christian Testament was written almost entirely in Greek. But there is no evidence that Jesus ever spoke a single Greek word. His native language was a provincial dialect of Aramaic. We also have no evidence that Jesus actually wrote anything. When he drew in the sand, it could have been a picture he drew rather than words.
God does not hate homosexuals!
The Bible does NOT condemn homosexual love just as it does not condemn heterosexual love. In fact, in several passages, it affirms it. The Bible does condemn behavior that is utterly selfish, hurtful, lustful, and devoid of love.
If God really hated loving, same-sex relationships, why would God direct the royal priest writer of 1st Samuel 20 to so vividly describe the blatantly sexual attraction, activity, and friendship between Prince Jonathan and the future King David? Shortly after that relationship became common knowledge, God affirmed David by making him king! Likewise, didn’t God richly bless the close physical relationship between Ruth and her ex-mother-in-law Naomi – one of the most famous, revered, and faithful couples in all religious literature?
God NEVER intended anyone to be excluded from the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! In fact, God wants us to live fulfilled, happy, loving lives!
There are lots and lots of scholarly resources to help us in our thirst for understanding. For centuries, people have spent their lives pondering these questions, and we thank God that they have passed their work on to us. An amazingly clear discussion of Biblical Criticism can be found in a book in The Bible and Homosexuality: Fifth Edition, by Michael E. England.
God affirms and embraces us!
- words by the Reverend Wayne Lindsay
1 Directly from The Reverend Terri Steed’s materials for Sunday Morning Topics, “Homosexuality and the Bible, Session One: Assumptions, Missions, and Interpretations.” Thanks Terri!
2 For an exhaustive discussion of the conservative, political power-brokering that fueled this shift – focusing primarily on the overthrow of the Southern Baptist Convention, see Bruce Bawer, Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrayed Christianity.
3 Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved.
4 from “Who Shall Inherit the Kingdom of God,” a study prepared by The Reverend Terri Steed for Sunday Morning Topics in 1997. Thank you Terri!
5 Scripture quotations marked (KJV) are from The Holy Bible “set forth in 1611 and commonly known as the Authorized King James Version.”