Biblical Literalism – it’s not biblical

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Stephen Tomkins

Where does biblical literalism come from? What is the genesis, if you will, of the habit of mind that makes many Christians read the Bible with a different brain to the one they’d use with any other writing?

It is by no means an essential Christian tenet. No creed says anything about how to read the scriptures. The highest claim the Bible makes for itself is when the writer of Paul’s letter to Timothy says the Hebrew scriptures were “God-breathed”, which is wonderfully suggestive but hardly precise or dogmatic. I mean, Adam was God-breathed, and look what happened to him.

The Bible is the word of God, Christians believe, but why should the fact it’s God’s mean it has to be read with naive absolutism? Many Christians call the church “the body of Christ” without considering it anything like infallible, or refusing to see its rites as symbolic.

Part of the problem is historical. The deification of the Bible is a result of the Protestant reformation. Before then, the final authority, the ultimate arbiter and source of information in religious matters was the church, with its ancient traditions and living experts. When Luther and friends opposed the teaching of the Catholic hierarchy, they needed a superior authority to appeal to, which was provided by the Bible.

Fair enough. But in defending or reclaiming the Bible from papists and then liberals, evangelical Protestants made it the very heart of the faith. Hence the ludicrous situation where many evangelical organisations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, have statements of faith where the first point is the Bible, before any mention of, for example, God. Hence the celebrated idolatrous aphorism of William Chillingworth: “The BIBLE, I say, the BIBLE only, is the religion of Protestants!”.

One practical problem of this text mania is that the Bible, unlike the church, can’t answer questions, clarify earlier statements, arbitrate disagreements or deal with new developments. So those in search of religious certainty have to find it all in the text: if it says the earth was created in six days, or that gay sex is an abomination, them’s the facts, end of story. And if it forbids charging interest, well there’s always wriggle room.

The other practical problem is that for more moderate Christians, Christ is the heart of the faith, and the Bible offers information and ideas about him and is one of the things that point us in his direction. But if the Bible itself is the heart, then to read it is to enter the Holy of Holies, making it that much harder to accept any normal human ambiguity or inaccuracy in its words.

This effect is magnified by a more recent historical development: the charismatic movement. Even among evangelicals who don’t speak in tongues or put their hands in the air when the sing Shine Jesus Shine, the movement has had profound effects, one of which is that they don’t read the Bible just to be reminded and shaped by its teaching, but to hear what God has to say to them today.

If you read the Bible asking: “What was St Paul saying to the Galatians?” all kinds of critical questions arise: How would first-century Asia Minor have understood these words? Would Paul have phrased it differently to a church he was less pissed off with? Would other witnesses have recalled the events he describes differently? But if you read the Bible asking: “What is God saying to me today?” it seems less appropriate to do anything but accept it at face value.

One last factor in biblical all-or-nothingism is the part that biblical criticism plays in evangelical conversion, which is none at all.

People who convert to evangelical Christianity, including those who grow up with it, are persuaded by the experience of a religious community, and by finding that evangelical theology seems to hold water. All this is totally underpinned by the Bible – it’s the foundation and guarantee. But the only test of its reliability that inquirers are invited to make is to read it and ask “Is this something that I can accept wholesale and entrust my life to?”

It’s generally much later that a convert will have to consider concrete evidence that biblical writers were human beings, capable of being one-sided, of writing myth, of exaggerating, of guessing, of having opinions it’s impossible to agree with.

Some of us, faced with this evidence, shape our faith in the light of it, making the Bible a far more fascinating, revealing and diverse record of human religious experience. But it’s not surprising if for others the evidence comes as an attack that threatens to undermine the foundation of their faith, and has to be beaten off blindfold.

Stephen Tomkins

adapted from an article https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2011/feb/21/biblical-literalism-bible-christians

Did Jesus’ family not understand him? There seems no reference to his Mother Mary and other family members

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Well, apart from the Birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, and after the return from Egypt we hear little more: the story of the finding in the Temple aged 12ish in Luke 2:41-52 and then…

Tradition says Joseph was a much older man (and some claim previously married in order to keep the perpetual virginity of Our Blessed Lady, but I think that is rubbish, because unlike us, the Jewish faith has a healthly view on sex, and it would be unthinkable that when it mentions “brothers and sisters” they are step-brothers etc. (There is a looong discussion to be had on Mary, who isimportant, but essentially all the ever-virgin stuff is more about God’s gracethan the condition of Mary’s hymen).

In Luke 2:19 and 2:51 it says both times that Mary “pondered these things in her heart” and so they key question which is still being fully worked out is “Who is this Jesus?” – If you grew up next to him you might mainly think of him as the Carpenter-guy. I often find it amazing when I see members of my Youth Group or my kids doing great,successful, important things, because I changed my children’s nappies and remember Youth Group kids as gawky teenagers, but Jesus did not fully enter into his ministry until he was about 30 (which is where Mark jumps right in). I shouldn’t be surprised that they do such great things, but as with everybody I and presumably the people of Nazareth, Aunties and Cousins found making the jump hard.

Mary clearly is a part of the early group of followers, which was much bigger than just the 12 apostles (I blame the patriarchy for almost writing out women and the peripheral followers). She is mentioned several times along the way and in passing (possibly if the aged Joseph was dead it was Jesus the firstborn’s responsibility) and is at the foot of the cross and in the Upper Room on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Tradition says she went with John (to whom she was commended to at the crucifixion) to Ephesus and I have visited her Shrine there.

Why does Jesus say ‘Son your sins are forgiven’ – is he hinting that he was sent to forgive us our sins?

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Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’

MARK 2.9

 As the Scribes recognised “Only God has the power to forgive sins” – so Jesus is effectively hinting about his true nature. When I pronounce the absolution of sins, it is not me doing it,but Christ, who has called me to make this known to people.

Very few people Jesus met at the time truly understood who he truly was, and even then oftengot the wrong end of the stick (Peter would be a good example) and especially what the true meaning and purpose of the Messiah would be – not (as many in Israel believed) a great warrior king from God, but a humble suffering servant of the people.

The OT speaks of the Messiah being both but when you are under Roman rule, it’s easier to hope for the former to free you, rather than to truly ‘free’you from your sin.

Question: Why does the crucifixion and resurection of Jesus mean that our sins are forgiven – could God not have done that anyway without this happening?

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FIRST OF A NEW SERIES: Fr Simon tries to explain some common and key questions about the faith in “There is no such thing as a dumb question”

The first thing to say is that there are a lot of different perspectives on this, which is at its heart an almost unfathomable mystery: all theology and faith is grasping the edge of something quite beyond our human understanding, but we can see glimpses, and the best clue we have to getting a grip on what God is, and what he wants, was when he stepped into this world as a human in the form of Jesus Christ.

This mystery is call the atonement and is about the reconciliation of God with us. We broke the system because we do the bad things: ‘sin’. Metaphorically this is described as the Fall in Genesis (eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil – not an apple!) but that is just an ancient way of trying to describe why we as humans mess up. God is constantly trying to win us back (sending prophets etc) but we still didn’t listen and went our own way. Finally he comes himself in the form of Jesus (understand that ‘Son of God’ means the same as ‘God’ himself). That was a bit of a threat, so they had him killed. He foretold this in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33–46; Mark 12:1–12; Luke 20:9–19).

The purpose of the Incarnation (God born in human form) anyway was to overcome the pile of mess we made and wipe the slate clean, to make it right. Some fundamentalist churches will tell you its because someone has the take the punishment and so Jesus (the one who never sinned) takes it for us, but that’s a little child-abuse-y. Others might say that God himself beats sin and death by absorbing and overcoming it (not punishment, but a sort of cosmic moral battle), and so the cross is the weight of our sin and the winning is the resurrection. 

We might be so dumb that we need a very clear demonstration that sin and death is overcome. I can tell you that God has forgiven you, but you might say “how can I tell?” My response might therefore be to point to the Cross and the Resurrection which shows that the God who overcomes death demonstrates the reality of wiping the slate clean.  For all of us, fear of death is the most prevailing and universal fear of all: it’s going to happen to all of us and so the Christian promise is that God makes it alright.

Does that mean that if God has sorted it, then I can do just what I want? Murder? Eat Drink & be Merry? We are called to a good life because it is a response to that forgiveness, not because if I am bad I will be cosmically smacked. This is more carrot than stick. The thing is, although my faith in Christ and the power of my Baptism buys me into that victory, I get up the next day and mess up again. I will have to face up to that, like standing outside the headmasters study (which I did a lot of) which I think will probably be worse than any medieval notion of being poked by demons with little pitchforks. Ultimately, I will gain that which Christ won for me: because he loved me so much he was prepared to take on my bad stuff and overcome it for me in that sign of victory – the cross and prove it by the resurrection.

This is not a dumb question, it’s a very fundamental one, and this is not an exhaustive answer, but merely a scratch on the surface.

This video tries to demonstrate this very powerfully..

Christmas 2018

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The Parishes of Bickleigh & Shaugh Prior are planning on holding it on Dec 25th this year, if that’s okay with you…

For more information call, text, email, tweet or send a carrier pigeon to
Fr Simon on 07976 802123 | fr.simon@rundell.org.uk | @frsimon