[Contents] [About the Participants] [Opening Statement by John Rankin] [Opening Statement by Robert Price][Dialog] [Questions from the Audience] [Closing Statements]
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Is the Bible Coherent?
Opening Statement by Robert Price
Is the Bible coherent? The Bible is not gibberish, I'm not taking that side of it, it's far from incoherent in any such sense as that, and if anyone thinks it is, the problem is in the reader, not in the text.

The Koran, by contrast, which I love and have read many times, has been so corrupted by its early editors who sought to obscure its original teachings that one may say that the text of the Koran is, often, incoherent. Not so the Bible.

But if we're asking if the Bible speaks with many voices, and if it features contradictory opinions and accounts on the same subjects, then we might say the answer is yes. And by the way, John doesn't exactly say the answer is no, there's more in common than you might think.

Two attendant considerations are important from the outset. First, if we really want to approach the Bible with a grammatical-historical method of interpretation as Martin Luther advised us. And I happen to think it good advice. That is if we really intend to read it by the same rules we use to read any ancient text, then we must approach the Bible open-endedly, prepared to discover anything we may find there, whether or not our theological systems and religious desires square with what we find.

We may find the text coherent or not, to one degree or another. We have to make that decision after we read it, not before. If we approach the Bible with the a priori demand that it shall say this or that, or that it shall be coherent or incoherent to such and such a degree, we're not playing fair. We're wasting our time, just opportunistically hunting for proof texts to support our pet opinions, like the atheist in the joke that says, "The Bible teaches atheism, you see, right here it says there is no God! The fool has said in his heart …"

Basically, I'm saying that you have no right to read a Bible passage and say to your self, well, it can't mean so-and-so because if it did my theology would be sunk. We have no right to twist the text, nor is there any reason to, unless we're just trying to deceive somebody, namely ourselves. Most Bible readers would like to think they have the courage to modify or reject a doctrinal opinion if they could be shown that the Bible contradicted such a view, predestination, whatever you believe in. You find some text that seems to knock it out, all right, I'll change my mind.

But for most, I'm sad to say, at least I think, this courage runs out when the doctrine contradicted by a straightforward reading of the Bible, is the very doctrine that the Bible cannot contradict itself.

Well, my second precaution is that the stakes are not as high as some fearful souls think they are. If we judge that on our best reading there turn out to be contradictions between Bible writers or Bible passages, we have not thereby rendered the Bible invalid. I mean, I associate with some atheists who think the Bible is Mein Kampf, well that's utter nonsense, that's not the alternative.

If we have debunked anything, we have debunked a childish view of the Bible, if we admit it contradicts, on the same level with the childish view of prayer that expects God will grant every request for a new bicycle, or as some TV preachers like to say, "financial blessings, hallelujah." Well, my friends, don't reduce Christianity to shamanism, a God to a genie, the Bible to a magic lamp that will yield infallible answers to save you the hard work of thinking and risking. If, as serious Bible students, we discover inconsistency, ambiguity, contradiction in the Bible, it just means we have a lot more work cut out for us than we expected.

And it means we must be more tentative, more provisional in our use of scripture. We would, seemingly, like to speak from the pulpit like Mark says Jesus spoke, with a voice of inerrant authority and not like the Scribes, but I've got news for you, you and I are not the Son of God.

We are, at best, only scribes. Like our ancient counterparts, we're reduced to pouring over a collection of ancient texts, we're pouring over these old texts, comparing them, and trying to make careful judgments about beliefs and courses of action.

The careful student of scripture is the one with the least boastful claims about Biblical authority. He or she knows good and well that it's no easy matter to determine what the Bible says on a single topic, many of them, or we wouldn't have all these denominations, we wouldn't have all these debates. In the Bible, as elsewhere, the saying is true and worthy of full acceptance, thoughtful uncertainty is better than cocksure ignorance.

Now, how inconsistent is the Bible? Well, it appears to have great consistency if one begins by reading the text through the lenses of a theological system which will have long ago interpreted and reinterpreted any and every text in such a way as to assign it a neat and tidy place in a vast system. Bible texts, then, mean pretty much what they have to mean, once you read them as a Lutheran or a Calvinist or a fundamentalist, whoever, a theologian, assigns that they be read, "Here's the way we read that one." The trick is to try to get a fresh look at the Bible.

This is what Martin Luther did, or there wouldn't have been any Reformation. This is what the pioneers of the so-called Biblical Theology movement did, beginning with Semler, Eichorn, and Gabler in the 18th century. Let the Biblical writers speak with their own accents, as foreign, as antique, and as alien as they may seem to us. Put your theological system, with its demands that the Bible say this or mean that on the shelf for the moment. Read the Bible as un-coached as you can, and then let the chips fall where they may.

Most of these scholars I mentioned were hoping to find some broad band of consistency in the Bible. And most did find it in what they call Heilsgeschichte, or salvation history, the developing understanding of God as encountered again and again in the history of Israel, or at least the sagas of ancient Israel, historical or not, and again in Jesus of Nazareth and his church. This schema enabled these scholars to recognize a variety of evolving different beliefs in the Bible, different attitudes toward violence, toward the after life, toward sexual ethics, to name a few.

But not so new, fundamentalists have long done the same thing with their doctrine of Progressive Revelation. Either way you could afford to bracket early Biblical calls, say in Joshua or First Samuel, for genocidal jihad, in favor of later calls to turn the other cheek. Either way you could recognize that the Bible contained a great many different opinions, beliefs and commands. You knew they were not all on the same level. Some were more worthy to be listened to than others.

Now I hope you don't find that strange sounding or threatening. It's what you, yourself must believe if you believe that Christ came to bring the Mosaic Torah to an end. You don't feel guilty for eating a ham sandwich, though it would have meant apostasy in ancient Israel. We were out at a Thai restaurant today, one of the guys had shrimp, he would have been killed for that in ancient Israel. If I'd have found any stones around …

But this implies that the consistency, the coherence of scripture, is largely in the eye of the beholder. I think it's evident to everybody that the Bible says very different things. The question is, how plausible are the maneuvers, the devices, the rationales we use to negotiate these sea changes.

Take the Old Testament law again. Here you have a Pentateuch full of minutia concerning incense, recipes, the weave of the alter cloth, torte laws about oxen goring thy neighbor, how far outside the camp to bury your dung, whether you can eat bats, and so on, the cultural code of an entire ancient civilization. And I don't mean to ridicule any of it, down to every detail. To flout these laws knowingly was to die. And then one day an apostle tells us, no, it was all an elaborate charade, a shadow play to hint that we needed to be saved by grace.

But can one really read Deuteronomy, as John says, on its own terms and get the impression that all this was meant as provisional, ad hoc, an elaborate object lesson to make way for Pauline Christianity?

Well, that may satisfy you, as it did Luther, but to me it seems a desperate hermeneutical maneuver by a theologian, Paul, who wanted to get his gentile converts out from under the weight of laws from a cultural tradition alien to them. Either way you're talking about a major sea change. What?! The Torah, the eternal word of God is no longer binding? Now is that kind of a change a mark of coherency or incoherency?

Well, it depends on whether you can accept the rationale offered to mediate the difficulty, it's a huge jump any way you look at it, right, just how do you make sense of it? Again, everyone recognizes a major element of incoherence, if you want to call it that, in scripture, insofar as they admit there are even apparent contradictions in the Bible. The fundamentalist Gleason Archer even wrote a book called An Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties - an encyclopedia! Now that's a lot of incoherence.

The challenge is to re-read those many passages so as to bring some sense, some theological order to them, that is to, as we say, harmonize the apparent contradictions. But have you ever asked yourself what an apparent contradiction means? Is it any better or even any different from a real contradiction?

I don't think so. Because remember, we always say that we're looking for the apparent sense, the plain sense of the text.

Now, we say that in opposition to the kind of thing medieval Catholics did, trying to read in the doctrine of purgatory or popery into passages that didn't seem to say anything about it, by saying, well, here's a less obvious meaning, it's hidden beneath the surface. And if the Bible means this, then we can elect a pope and sell indulgences and Girl Scout cookies and so on.

Well you say what, wait a minute, I'm sticking to the plain sense of the text, but you've got to pay the price there. If the apparent, plain sense of the text is contradictory, well you don't have any right to start retreating into some phony, less-than-obvious, possible meaning to get yourself off the hook.

For instance, when you say, well, James only appears to be contradicting Paul on faith and works, if we read him as meaning so and so, then we wouldn't have a problem. As if James were up there in heaven with Paul, the two of them looking down at you puzzling over the text and James says, gee, I knew I should have put that differently.

If that's what you think, then you're doing what you won't let the allegorizers get away with, retreating into some imaginary, hypothetical meaning that only looks good to you because it would get you out of a tight spot. Use this as your Bible reading conscience. Does this interpretation only look good to me because it would be convenient, like the Church Lady says, "How convenient!" Then you'd better find another one.

And besides, how do you know you shouldn't twist the text the other way to make Paul agree with James, like our Roman Catholic friends do. Why don't you just admit that they don't say the same thing and take the theological medicine like an adult?! Why not admit that the Bible isn't as simple as it would be if it were completely consistent.

That doesn't mean you write off the Bible as useless. If you do, you're the fool, not me. That would be absurd. The Bible is, on any serious reading, a treasure house of riches. There is other, less edifying material there too, don't want to hide that. Did you ever notice -- I don't know if anybody reads the new Scofield Reference Bible anymore, but it certainly is as orthodox and fundamental as you can get. And when you start reading Ecclesiastes in it, if you've ever done it, you know it's rife with cynicism, pessimism, hedonism, and what does the Scofield Reference Bible commentator say? "Well, this is an inspired example of unregenerate thinking."

Is the Bible incoherent? The Bible contains different notions of salvation and damnation, of ethics, eschatology, Christology, ritual requirements, church government, and so on. Not that that's bad, it's just what you'd expect of a library of writings stemming from innumerable scribes and prophets, wise men and oracles, psalmists and priestly bureaucrats, story tellers, and historians. As such it is precious.

Every bit of it tells us something. Every boring genealogy, every pun, every commandment, whether noble or primitive. Psalm 137 blessing the butchers of Edomite babies is only a problem if you expect the Bible to say nothing but good, nothing but what you must emulate and obey.

But it's more complex than that. If we want guidance from the Bible, it must be much more nuanced and, inevitably, more subjective. We're really going to have to heed Paul's advice in Romans, to leave the brother or sister who thinks differently to go his own way before God, because not everybody's going to agree.

Even every contradiction in the bible is to be valued as a clue to disclosing a different underlying source document, for example, or a careful theological change by a redactor. How did Matthew edit Mark to make a different point of view? I'd like to know both. There is so much in the Bible that the poor fundamentalist will not let himself see, because he closes his eyes and insists that all the Bible writers agree. I think I have a better view of the Bible than the fundamentalist, because my view allows me to rejoice in whatever I find there.

The contradictions of the Bible, when recognized as what they are, act as keys to unlocking the world of the Bible, a much, much bigger and more fascinating world than I imagined when I used to regard the Bible as a pocket promise book of infallible dogmas and inflexible commands.

And seeing the Bible this way is, in turn, a key to a vast ocean of Bible scholarship predicated upon the study of scriptures, a variegated collection of different, sometimes discordant, voices. I want to hear all those voices, even if sometimes what I hear is chaotic. I will not always be able to accept what I read in the Bible, sometimes because of what else the Bible says that I can agree with. But I'm always, in any case, challenged to think of new things I would not have considered but for scripture, to examine my conscience in the light of it. The saying goes that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, I would say that is equally true when it comes to the Bible.

We must take care that consistency, coherence, not become a fetish, not function as a set of blinders for the interpreter and a straitjacket for the text.

  [Contents] [About the Participants] [Opening Statement by John Rankin] [Opening Statement by Robert Price][Dialog] [Questions from the Audience] [Closing Statements]
[Return to Mars Hill Forum]