The Bible and Propositional Truth Claims

I was raised in an environment where it was obvious that the Bible and everything it said was completely ‘true’ and literally word for word what happened and the ultimate guide to life for any hard questions we have. Not sure what to do about some current moral issue? Look in the Bible, you will most certainly be able to extract an answer with a bunch of proof texts. The Bible had this special power over us and for whatever reason very few people questioned it. The power slowly became suspect to me over time because if you asked any questions at all, you slowly started to see the entire thing unravel. You started to see that the Bible had no power at all in these contexts. The Bible was merely a tool to retain powerful ideologies that were passed on from the pulpit and in Bible studies and to win arguments against anyone that believed something different. If there was any questions, well you just point to the Bible and say we can’t really question it because it’s just what the Bible says.

For me it started by seeing the circular logic and inability to ‘prove’ things that were obviously giant leaps of illogical ideology. The Pentecostals hold the belief that the initial evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues. When I was around sixteen I scheduled a meeting with the senior pastor at the time and was genuinely curious about this core belief and asked him to explain it to me. He explained that this doctrine comes from three or so stories from Acts where someone was baptized in the Holy Spirit and then after spoke in tongues. This lead some to believe that unless you speak in tongues you were not baptized in the Holy Spirit. This didn’t make much sense to me to make an absolute statement of the Spirit’s infilling based on examples of the early church spreading in Acts, especially when we have millions of examples today of Christians who do not speak in tongues who clearly are lead by the Holy Spirit. I asked a few questions, he didn’t have answers but said he would get back to me. He never did.

That started my long trek through understanding what the Bible was and why it was used the way it was. For this pastor and my church at the time, no one actually knew what they believed, why they believed it or why it was important. It ended up being a lot of emotional hype and turning salvation into a three step process until you were able to access the full power of God in your life. Over the last 12 years, so many issues have arose where the Bible gets used as an oppressive tool to force upon beliefs that were never intended to come from the Bible and are pretty hard to come by. My wife was never allowed to be called a pastor or paid as much as men, my gay friends are constantly bombarded with hurdles to be recognized as Christ followers, the poor are looked at as lazy and bad stewards, alcohol and tobacco have become worse sins, destroying the environment is excused, building projects are divinely ordained, tithing to a institutional church became mandatory, swearing means you have backslidden, going to church on Sundays is the main duty of a Christian and burning fossil fuels is as protected as our right to freedom. All of these things have been backed and proven by the Bible.

This poses a number of problems. First, it means that the Bible is not actually the authority, our interpretations are the authority. As soon as someone says “the Bible says so” to explain to you a morality or an obligation you can almost be certain that this is a belief that they inherited from within a community of people that believe a certain ideology and call themselves Christian. You can pretty much win any argument with a Christian just by saying “well let’s see what the Bible says about that” and then pointing to a random verse somewhere and you win.

The way to recognize very quickly if you are having a conversation with someone with a dominant ideology is just to show them the story where Jesus tells the man to go and sell everything and give it to the poor and follow Him (matthew 9:21, mark 10:21, luke 18:22) and ask them why they haven’t done that. If you hear a string of excuses about context, it not being for everyone and that’s not what he really meant. You can then discard any other ‘biblical belief’ that comes up in the conversation as not being biblical at all but rather being part of that person’s worldview that was shaped around a specific sect of Christianity that talked a lot about the Bible and how powerful it was, but the power only came in their own use of us as a way to be right. Believing the Bible is inerrant generally means that their interpretation is inerrant and if someone believes that, only God will be able to change their mind.

The perfect book, in almost too subtle of ways, becomes a distraction leaving us unable to see the living reality of the mission of God recounted and extended to us through the Scriptures as handed down to us in the church. Instead, through the way we speak and the way we practice Scripture as evangelicals, we are held fixated by the sublime object of “the inerrant Bible.” We parse it, exegete it, defend it, uphold it, inductively study it, take notes on it, all the while distracted from ever fully participating in the story it tells of the mission of God.

The belief in “the inerrant Bible” dares to promise certainty regarding truth about God independently of God. In other words, it dares to say we can know this truth objectively, through modern science and historiography, and we can prove it by these means! In its excess, it puts the true believer in the false position of making God an object of our own control-a truth we can know without knowing Him.35 This over-exuberant claim to “objective absolute truth” in effect fetishizes the Bible.

Fitch, David E. (2011-02-04). The End of Evangelicalism?

In my recent discussions with my friend who has recently become an Atheist, the question keeps going back to ‘is it true?’ or ‘can you prove it?’ For him, what can be proven and come to logically is the ultimate deciding factor for him if he will consciously believe it or not. I can’t help but see this as subconscious result and backlash against this kind of belief about the Bible and what it has done to humans. When people just believe things and are assured they are absolutely correct it makes them do all sorts of crazy and stupid things. So when someone’s foundation of belief is the Bible and they are absolutely certain that it is inerrant and 100% true then they no longer need to seek truth, or ask questions or think about their decisions. They’ve already made up their mind about what is right or wrong. Basically whatever they believe about the Bible is their moral guide to truth. There is no wonder that the New Atheist movement pushes so strongly for proof of Christianity and religion and how there is none. What fascinates me even more is the amount of Christians that understand their faith strictly as being the right and true one and then use the Bible and their certainty as the only means of this so called proof that they are right. I’m thankful that the Bible or Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything. I’m also thankful that it isn’t a set of propositional statements that must be adhered to whether true or not.

There is a document that records God’s endless, dispiriting struggle with organized religion, known as the Bible. God the Creator is not a celestial engineer at work on a superbly rational design that will impress his research grant body no end, but an artist, and an aesthete to boot, who made the world with no functional end in view but simply for the love and delight of it.

Terry Eagleton. Reason, Faith, and Revolution

Christians desperately need to approach the Bible differently. Not as some book of rational and logical propositions that prove why women are different than men, why gay people have something wrong with them, why our way is the best way, that God does in fact exist and how the world was created. The Bible is a fascinating collection of literature that invites us into seeing the world as a gift and gives a story to live into that will radically transform any community that sees it this way and lives into it. We cannot enter into God’s story, know where we came from and know where are going and know how it happened and remain unchanged. I have no interest in proving the rightness of the bible through logical arguments. I have no interest in proving one doctrinal statement more correct than another or using it as a proof text from where I get my morals. What matters to me is if we actually see ourselves as a community of faith working alongside of our creator bringing the Kingdom of God wherever we go.

The Bible is essentially an open, imaginative narrative of God’s staggering care for the world, a narrative that feeds and nurtures us into an obedience that builds community precisely through respect for the liberty of individual Christians.

-Walter Brueggemann

3 Comments

  • I am amazed at the discussion making the round about regarding the nature of the Bible. Here it isn’t my privilege to show where I disagree with the likes of Fitch et al. (though Brueggemann is a gem). Nonetheless I am wary of a methodology that attacks methodology and wary of a very presuppositional tact to trounce the presuppositional nature of biblical narrative (i.e., truth). Can anyone should me “a truth” that isn’t presuppositional? Even Breuggeman’s insight stating what the Bible is is presuppositional. I don’t think abandoning inerrancy is a necessary conclusion to all these arguments—I find it immensely significance that the Bible is inerrant which provokes me to take it seriously in all that it contains (contra Žižek and Fitch) and results in behaviors that are consistent (I try anyway) with all that it affirms a believer in Christ in God is to be and do.

    I find it immensely hilarious that writers who denounce inerrancy do so with words and intend that we read those words grammatically and historically correct in order to get the other’s meaning. Again, I ask you, what truth is not presuppositional?

  • To me this is a both-and situation. We use simple statements (which is what propositions are) to summarise, encapsulate what we think we should be believe, like “God is faithful” – some will want to say define. We read the story or stories in the Bible, in which God acts faithfully, and we infer or deduce “God is faithful.” In some of the psalms, the psalmists also state these conclusions in their prayers, from the stories of their own life and that of Israel. However, surely it is important to recognise the two parts of this: reading the story, and then what we as readers and as a community conclude and summarise for ourselves. Some of this concluding is also expressed in the epistles. It is not wrong to want a summary statement – that is helpful to us. What is wrong is to fail to recognise the storied nature of the text that we draw these conclusions from. If we do that, or worse put our summary statements in the place of the story, we may well fail to recognise a lot of what God is doing and saying. Thanks, Nathan, for your life and work! – and story…

  • Nathan, you like the Pharisees of old, have a low view of scripture, but then you already know this. May God yet reveal his majesty to you and may you come to see that if you distrust the word you have no basis to believe in the Word made flesh and obviously his claims of any afterlife, good or bad. You sir are a pragmatist, just as I once was.
    I hope you refrain from writing more in this vein, it is one thing to go astray, quite another to lead one astray, but then I guess that really wouldn’t man much to you either.

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