Douglas Jacoby on Answering Skeptics: Minimizing the Word Featured

Thursday, 21 May 2015 11:11

Douglas JacobyWe continue our series Answering Skeptics, moving on to possible responses when people minimize the Bible, pretending it's something it isn't.

First, however, a recap is in order. Last week we offered several rejoinders to the allegation that the Bible is unreliable. There were three key points:

  • The biblical story isn't the sort of story anyone would just make up. If the church were fabricating the Bible, why highlight the sins of its prominent leaders? Transparency is a strong reason to trust the Bible's integrity. Further, few growth strategies would have been less promising than showcasing the disgraceful death of their founder. And yet they that's precisely what they did (1 Corinthians 1:23) -- and it was powerful! Learn how to turn the potentially scandalous elements of scripture into reasons to trust it.

  • Translations are made from a wealth of ancient manuscripts, generally the oldest available, and they are accurate. There's no need to fear the message was lost through the course of copying.

  • A minor copying error doesn't invalidate the entire message. In order that the message be preserved, the copying process only needed to be adequate, not perfect. Expect your friends to value normal criteria for accessing the past -- not exaggerated ones.

The scriptures weren't twisted or changed. The only "twisting" is that done by peoplewith self-serving interpretations (2 Peter 3:16)

Minimizing the word

Some assaults on the Bible are mean and ugly. Others are softer, though they serve to push us away from God's word just as well. For instance, we hear the Bible is "out of date," perhaps meaningful in a bygone age but irrelevant to our present concerns. How to respond to this charge? God's word will never pass away (Matthew 24:35); the principles always apply. A modern man might commit adultery in an air-conditioned hotel room with electric lighting and synthetic curtains, but it's still adultery. The betrayal, the guilt, the secrecy -- all are common themes unchanged by time or technology. That is so because people are the same, and our basic concerns remain constant (friendship, meaning, esteem, and so forth). Since the Bible is a book about relationships (with God and with others), it will always be relevant.

A second allegation: "It's all a matter of interpretation." What does that mean? It's true, not because no one can figure out what the Bible is saying, but because in order to get the point we have to interpret carefully. We must recognize grammar, logic, and figures of speech. Ignore grammar, take metaphor literally, and so on, and you can "prove" anything. (Though it won't be what the biblical writer intended.) Good interpreters respect context. They take into account that Scripture is 30% poetry (the rules of interpretation change when we go from prose to poetry). They don't rush through a passage trying to find support for their opinions. Good interpreters recognize that there are multiple ways to convey truth: narrative, letter, poem, hymn, apocalypse, and so on. So yes, it is a matter of interpretation: careful or careless. Which will it be?

A third criticism: "Men wrote the Bible, so it's just the word of man -- not the word of God." The criticism suffers from two failings. First, this is a false choice. God could just as easily relay his message through messengers as he could write it himself. A secretary's involvement in a memorandum doesn't diminish the boss's authority; one person is simply communicating through another. Tertius was technically the writer of Romans (Romans 16:22), yet the letter was still from Paul (Romans 1:1). The Bible is the word of man and the word of God. Second, the criticism is unrealistic. Humans learn and think in human languages, gaining insight by way of human illustrations. How else could God speak to us in an enduring way, if not in languages we can understand (or translate), through analogies we can relate to, and in documents preserved for future generations? The Bible is exactly the kind of book we might expect from a God who wishes to communicate with us!

Finally, the most subtle assaults on Scripture come by way of backhanded compliments. It's easier to call the Bible "good literature” than to live by it. In my part of the country (Georgia), people call the Bible "the good book." Yet the truth is, the Bible is so good that the compliment is almost meaningless. For the Bible is stunning in its accuracy, penetrating in its insight, utterly inspiring in its truthfulness and usefulness (2 Timothy 3:16-17). And the scriptures reveal God. I have observed that those who say "the good book" aren't generally the ones striving to master it -- just as those who refer to "the good Lord" are quite unlikely ever to be caught praying.

At the bottom of resistance to the word -- say, through tactics like those refuted above -- may be a desire to live life with minimal accountability to any ultimate authority. The attitude of our generation matches that of many in the time of the prophet Isaiah:

"Leave this way,
   get off this path,
and stop confronting us
   with the Holy One of Israel!” (Isaiah 30:11)

Coming up: Conspiracy theories

Some skeptics claim the Bible's true message was lost through the copying process, whether by corruption, suppression, or embellishment. Others, as we've recognized today, attempt to dilute the message by suggesting that it's antiquated, man-made, good literature (but not divine), or lacking any clear interpretation. Next week we'll examine one last set of attacks on biblical authority: conspiracy theories. There are several popular claims that easily dupe the uninformed. You probably don't need a degree in theology to refute these wild theories -- just a few pointers.

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