Why does the Bible get the blame?

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We’ve ben talking about whether the Bible endorses slavery, and ScottInOh wrote last night,

Like Melissa, I feel like I’ve made my point: no one writing on this thread would consider American slavery… morally justified, but … prominent Christian voices endorsed [it], believing God’s Word gave them the basis for doing so.

That’s all I’ve got. If that means you win the debate, so be it. Thanks.

Why does the Bible get the blame?

I’ve taken the freedom of focusing on just part of what Scott said, because it gives me opportunity to ask a different question than the one we’ve been addressing. This is not about slavery per se, but about Christianity and the Bible. Scott seems to believe this statement about “prominent Christian voices” counts as a statement about the Bible. I wonder about that.

It seems to go like this:

  1. Some prominent voices interpret the Bible to say X, where X is something wrong or evil; therefore
  2. This supports my belief that the Bible is wrong or evil for affirming X.

Here’s my two-part question: First, Why take these “prominent Christian voices as one’s authority on what the Bible says, when it would make more sense to find out what the Bible says by reading what it says? Second, Is it possible that those prominent voices were wrong?

Subjective beliefs with objective answers

In the course of this conversation, several of us tried to encourage Scott to read what the Bible says. We pointed repeatedly to multiple passages in the Bible showing that chattel slavery in the American south was a clear violation of clear Scriptural principles. Did I say repeatedly? See comments 84, 100, 107, 108, 109, 116, 121, 126, 127 (especially!), 148, 155, and 158. (I skipped some.) It’s very clear that southern slaveholders misused the Bible to their own advantage.

Still Scott held to his opinion that the Bible supports American southern-style chattel slavery.

This is not just Scott. I’m using his comments as the most easily available current sample, but I’ve seen it often, in many places. It’s a strange way to draw conclusions about a source. Let’s take the Bible out of the picture and put it in neutral terms. Scott is essentially saying,

  1. “Some people have interpreted source S to say X, where something is wrong or evil.”
  2. “I’m aware of several points of data showing that that interpretation of S is objectively wrong.”
  3. “Nevertheless, because some people have interpreted S to say X, source S is wrong or evil for affirming X.”

Does that make even the slightest sense?

Let’s try filling in the blanks with an example from the other direction.

  • Some people interpreted evolutionary theory as saying that the Aryan race is more highly evolved than all other races.
  • I’ve seen all the science that shows that evolutionary theory doesn’t mean that at all, but nevertheless…
  • Evolutionary theory is evil for affirming that the Aryan race is more highly evolved than all other races.

Do you see how crazy that is? If I tried making that argument, my keyboard would vibrate off my lap from all the laughter on the Internet—and rightly so, because it’s so silly.

Two or three possible reasons

Still people do that with the Bible, as Scott has recently demonstrated. Why is that? Why is it the Bible’s fault when people misuse the Bible? Why isn’t it the people’s fault?

I’d be very interested to hear what Scott has to say. I have two theories for it, one or both of which might apply to some people, although not necessarily to Scott.

  • The Bible is a long and complex book, and it takes some work to find out for yourself what it really means. It’s easier just to assume that whatever someone else says about it must be true.

There is that, and/or this:

  • The Bible’s meaning is so ambiguous, no one can say that someone else’s interpretation is objectively false.*

(I really hope it isn’t a third reason: Any opportunity to attack the Bible is a good opportunity, whether it’s true or not.)

As I said, I don’t know if either of those conjectures applies to Scott. Regardless, I’m calling on atheists and skeptics everywhere to give up relying on objectively false Bible interpretations as your source for what the Bible really says. I’m calling you to be honest enough to quit blaming the Bible for teaching what it really doesn’t teach.

Note on this discussion:

This thread is not a thread about slavery. Please go back to the previous one for discussion on that topic. This thread is on the question I raised here: Why should the Bible get the blame when people misuse of the Bible for their own advantage?

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26 Responses to “ Why does the Bible get the blame? ”

  1. Tom,

    Your reason (long, complex) is my guess. That there even is a Meta-Narrative, and, what that metanarrative’s ontological regressions house requires a bit of exposure over time to contextualize. That there is a singular “descriptive-prescriptive” – that is to say – that Immutable Love’s Means and Ends never change – is often missed as well since we wrongly assume that our contingent means and ends must be His Immutable Means and Ends. The key word is (IMO) “meta-narrative”. The Human Story in all of its existential and intellectual experience through time is housed – completely – inside that larger, wider metanarrative. Extricating / Unlocking those windows without the Key – God’s (Love’s) Eternally Sacrificed Self there in Christ – is another reason Scripture is misapplied / misunderstood. And, of course, critics then in that misunderstanding build atop one-verse straw-men….why? I guess it’s just easier overall……. “See! It says so right here!”.

  2. To be complete: We as Christians often forget that Key as well in how we handle (and have handled) Scripture. That hasn’t helped. God Himself tells us there is a difference between Christianity (Meta-Narrative) and the Christian (Contingent / Fragmented Agent inside the Meta-Narrative). The critic – (perhaps willfully) not taking the time to understand the former – mistakingly equates the latter for the whole show.

  3. I’ve never understood the skeptic’s willingness to believe that American southern slavers took the Bible seriously, at all. As if a slave owner experienced serious moral and exegetical hand-wringing before taking the plunge. “I don’t know Cletus, I’m just having a hard time figuring out what to do here, the Bible is just awfully confusing. I think I’m just going to play it safe and purchase a boat load of kidnapped families so I can get really rich at the expense of their misery. That just SEEMS to be the message of scripture, all self-serving proof-texting aside.”

    Please…

    What’s also equally odd to me is how 21st century western liberals are totally willing to thrust all of their ethnocentric moral assumptions onto an ancient near eastern text, when they absolutely rightly know to NOT do that with any other contemporary foreign culture.

  4. I think we as Christians doing apologetics need to approach some good academics and ask them to compare and contrast both Old Testament slavery and Southern American slavery. At least then we could have some solid facts to help us cut thru the smoke.

    From my position of relative ignorance, I am thinking that the two types of slavery were a million miles apart. For example, the Hebrew slaves had God-given rights and these were carefully described in the Old Testament laws. The American slaves by contrast were totally owned as one owns a dog or a pig.

    So many of these discussions seem to be devoid of basic facts…. so how about it Tom?

  5. I have noticed that there is a tendency to latch on to “facts” that fit into one’s presuppositions with little effort toward checking those facts.

    The Bible is not the only victim.

    Part of the problem is that issues are more complex than we would like and to form an informed opinion on a topic takes time and effort.

    A recent example I encountered was a petition to stop fracking in Pennsylvania. Why should it be stopped? The only reason given was because it is bad. Now whether you are for or against fracking, the truth about the long term impact lies somewhere between it is completely harmless and it will kill all known life forms. Yet, much of the rhetoric I’ve encountered gravitates toward one of these extremes. Nuanced views about the pros and cons are seldom encountered.

    So, like the proverbial horse, I guess you can lead a man to facts, but you can’t make him think.

  6. “Here’s my two-part question: First, Why take these “prominent Christian voices as one’s authority on what the Bible says, when it would make more sense to find out what the Bible says by reading what it says? Second, Is it possible that those prominent voices were wrong?”

    You’re right: to defer to some ostensible “Christian voice” regarding the meaning of Biblical passages is to accept a merely human opinion as authoritative. But the alternative is perhaps no better. If there is any ambiguity at all in the passage in question, then my own interpretation of it is as fallible and human as anyone else’s.

    What we want, presumably, is the divine voice itself, which would be unquestionably authoritative — if only we had access to it without a human intermediary. But of course the Bible itself is a product of human beings; all claims of divine inspiration, Christian and otherwise, emanate from human beings; such claims cannot be taken as unquestionably authoritative for that reason alone.

  7. Tom,

    I think you and I are actually much closer than this post makes it sound.

    I am aware (and said repeatedly in the thread you refer to) that there are many passages, especially in the New Testament, that can be read as condemnations of slavery. Indeed, that is how I have always read them. I grew up in a moderate-to-liberal Christian household where self-sacrificing love for everyone was seen as Jesus’s most important teaching, and there was never any doubt that American slavery had been thoroughly un-Christian.

    At the same time, as you seem to recognize as much as I do, the Bible has been read differently at many points in history by many important people, even though the anti-slavery interpretation eventually won out.

    For a long time, I saw progress on slavery (and on imperialism, on monarchy vs. democracy, on women’s rights, on civil rights, and on many others) as having been driven by more and more people coming to understand Jesus’s message correctly: we are all equal in God’s eyes, and love should guide all decisions. My understanding is that that is how you see it, too.

    That interpretation leads to a number of questions, though, among them the one I was focusing on in the other thread: Why did God allow humanity to get it so spectacularly wrong for so long? Not in the sense of giving us free will, but in the sense of allowing incorrect interpretations of His commands to persist. If I know A is Right and B is Wrong, and I choose B, that’s one thing; but if I honestly but incorrectly believe A is Wrong and B is Right, then God hasn’t been clear enough. Why would He do that, knowing that by doing B I could be harming millions of his beloved creations (for example, by enslaving them) and sending myself (whom He also loves) to Hell?

    Christian apologists, of course, offer a variety of answers to this question, but there is another one that is more straightforward: the Bible isn’t the word of an all-powerful, all-loving god. It is a collection of human statements about history, society, morality, and more, some of which are radical, some of which are reactionary, and some of which are in between. Trying to read it as an unambiguous statement of how we should behave is therefore a mistake.

  8. Scott,
    What appears to be the key to your argument is that people who are getting it wrong, at least in this case of slavery, really did give it their all when it came to efforts to understand what the Bible was saying. That assumption can really only work dialectically in a vacuum of hypotheticals, which I would find very hard to swallow. In reality, never ever underestimate humanity’s ability to justify selfish gains by even the most cartoonish means. The idea that these American Southerners were all good, moral people who were educating themselves with pure intentions gets totally undermined by the fact that they were in the favored class of a deadly power-politic, and there was a bunch of money to be made, and those two things are positively narcotic, especially when combined. These people were missing ZERO special information that would have suddenly changed their minds. I mean, it took a horrifying war of attrition to end slavery: What exactly do you think a few explicitly prohibitive sentences in a book would have done in the face of that kind of determination?

  9. scblhrm @2:

    In your view, what is the meta-narrative? You’ve mentioned it a few different times, I’d appreciate it if you’d describe/explain it more fully?

    (Tom: obviously OT. I don’t plan to follow-up, just hoping for a better understanding of scblhrm’s postings.)

  10. GM @3: What’s also equally odd to me is how 21st century western liberals are totally willing to thrust all of their ethnocentric moral assumptions onto an ancient near eastern text, when they absolutely rightly know to NOT do that with any other contemporary foreign culture.

    Because the Bible claims divine authorship and access to absolute morality. If that is true, its morality should transcend its antiquity and culture.

  11. As for its transcendent morality, one thing that’s been mentioned here but not taken seriously enough is the very real possibility that slavery is not the ultimate evil and personal freedom of choice is not the ultimate salvation.

  12. Keith,
    Fair point, however; The Bible uses moral paradigms within a narrative, across history, as has often been pointed out in these discussions. No serious Christian Bible Student would deny your description of the text having access to moral absolutes, but they would also deny that the way those absolutes are presented is in a universal prescriptive manner, as in, “Read this book, do everything that it says.” It’s just not that simple, precisely because God has chosen to work alongside humanity in history and across cultures.

    So. God has chosen to not judge cultures to the point of refusing to meet them where they are at and go from there, which is sometimes very messy. I would think this would appeal to modern liberals. The alternative is, well, the Iraq War, and other modern catastrophes of just assuming that people will rapidly adjust to a different, more challenging moral and social framework.

  13. Tom @14:

    I’ve read Paul Copan’s “Is God a Moral Monster”, the others are new, for which I thank you!

    Something Andrew Sullivan has been doing over at The Dish is to read books at the same time as his blog readers, and then open up a discussion he moderates in his blog.

    I mention this because I would be pretty excited about reading Paul Copan’s book with this blog’s contributors — I’m pretty sure I’d learn something, and I’d happily support the blog for that opportunity.

  14. Keith,

    @10

    In 20 words? Not so much. Christianity in 20 words…… I’m sure you’re not serious.

    In the thread, “Who is the Bigot” my first post is #108, and perhaps about 15 posts of mine are there which will have to do for now and may be helpful to your question. They touch on some key points briefly, not thoroughly.

    Surely you don’t mean to speak on the nature of Man in all of its philosophical nuance in 50 words, and I won’t in 50 words, but the story of Man in his Privation, in his Fragmentation is there in what is commonly called “Christianity”.

    Genesis, from the get-go thousands and thousands and thousands of years ago, defines Man in Domination as Man in his Curse, in what ends up being Man in his fragmentation, his isolation, not his wholeness, though a form of wholeness begins the metanarrative prior to such isolation. Man’s great Emancipator, God, meets Man right where he is, there in his hell. God does the same in the OT and in the NT, the former in mere juxtaposition, the latter moving towards amalgamation. That 4K ++ year coherent footprint leading up to today’s moral paradigm (you should be grateful Sam Harris got his history wrong) presents that wider, singular descriptive-prescriptive in Christianity’s metanarrative. The moral paradigm which began all those thousands and thousands and thousands of years ago housed within reciprocity’s triune landscape amid all that is personhood’s Self, Other, and Us is the moral paradigm of love’s ontology which we are the recipient of, and which all of our moral semantics are forever dripping, leaking here in the last 100 years of such a Christianized conscience.

    All definitions begin and end within the ontological regressions into immutable love’s triune reciprocity amid personhood’s self-other-us within the Necessary Being (God). Trinity is inescapable from Genesis’ Singular-Us onward. The Self therein Non-Contingent, and, in that Image, in Man the Contingent Self in the community of that triune sufficiency and in his privation, isolation, or what is the fragmentation of that wholeness, all subsist within the far wider paradigm that is the Meta-Narrative of that very landscape in wholeness and in fragmentation.

    Personhood’s, Love’s, triune milieu of Self-Other-Us finds us in Genesis as in Trinity / Christ. And so on ever outward. Christ is therein the singular key for understanding the landscape of Man inside of his painful fragmentation there in the OT and for understanding that landscape in the paradigm of Genesis 3’s Protoevangelium actualizing within Time and Physicality there in the NT.

    It’s the Christian meta-narrative from Genesis to Revelations.

    I’m sure you’ve heard of it. If not it’s easy to find out about.

  15. GM @9,

    I do not deny that some people cynically use Biblical language to justify behavior they know is not actually Biblically justifiable. In recent memory, Karl Rove admitted to being such a person when he said he was “not fortunate enough” to be a believer but was happy to use the Bible to get conservative Christians to vote Republican.

    I do deny that everyone, or even most people, who offer what I consider to be an abominable interpretation of Christian teaching in favor of some awful policy is doing it cynically. I know a number of them personally, and I am certain they think they are doing right.

  16. Keith,

    I put this in another thread, and thought it may be a very brief overview. After all, Christianity in 50 words isn’t what you really meant to ask for, I am sure.

    1) Domination of one human being over another human being is defined as Man in his Privation, in his Fragmentation, as the Dark, as the Outside, from Genesis onward.

    2) 4000 ++ year coherent footprint leading up to the moral semantics of our current moral paradigm, the same as is responsible for this entire thread’s epistemological statement that domination is evil.

    3) Ontological regression to immutable love’s triune reciprocity amid personhood’s self-other-us in what is the Necessary Being (God).

    4) The Triune God in whom we find the very definition of love’s ceaseless reciprocity amid personhood’s self-other-us reveals motions in relation to Man: He does not A) Abandon us by His distance, B) Annihilate us by His nearness. Instead He C) comes into Man’s hell and meets Man right where he is and restrains death, as Life cannot be given, for, Life comes – on metaphysical necessity – by quite another kind of Means/Ends. Such explains how it is that God regulates man’s motions within the arena of Divorce all the while hating all such motions, and so on with slavery, with murder with intent, murder without intent, and so on to the bitter end of humanity’s fragmentation.

    5) The Necessary Being, Man’s Great Emancipator, makes of Himself Man’s Means and Man’s Ends as, on necessity, but for amalgamation with All-Sufficiency, In-Sufficiency has no hope. Guns and Laws and Armies are but Man in his Fragmentation and according to the metaphysical regressions of Immutable Love such vectors are ultimately, necessarily, hopeless.

    6) Guns and laws and armies are not the solution to Man’s Fragmentated Nature. Thinking so is metaphysical nonsense. Another paradigm is in play, or, we are hopeless. Immutable Love’s topography, or, ontological regressions, circumscribes that other paradigm. One which we all intuit out-distancing guns and laws and armies. The Necessary Being, Man’s Great Emancipator, meets Man in his hell and makes of Himself our Means and our Ends. The wider Meta-Narrative which subsumes all such lines is “Christianity”.

    Blaming Scripture Is Incoherent: All definitions of Contingency, of Non-Contingency, of Good, of Evil, of Necessary Metaphysical Means, and of Necessary Metaphysical Ends which fail to satisfy these contours, and those in #17, these which are Christianity’s Meta-Narrative in brief, are without question non-scriptural definitions of the actualized state of affairs within Time and Physicality.

  17. Scott,
    I want to say, first, that I’ve really appreciated your discussion and willingness to hear us out with civility. It really does mean a lot.

    I should be careful to not say scriptural contortions are always a product of cynicism, per se. Evil in men has a certain stupefying effect, and it hits me like a ton of bricks.

    When I read Christ’s warnings about money, particularly His encouragement to just cash out and live for the poor, on one hand, I know He’s right. This is the best thing for an individual and society to do. On the other, I nervously laugh to myself and think “He couldn’t… possibly really mean that…ha… right?”

    The culture of individualistic capitalism has infected me. I find that terrifying, because I honestly just don’t know what to do. I have clear scriptural commands, feed orphans and widows or my soul is imperilled, and yet breaking out of the cycle of self-pursuit is devastatingly difficult. If history looks back and judges us, the richest society of all time who let 2/3rds of the planet rot in abject poverty, as monsters, I’d have nothing to say in defense. I’m stuck, and JUST the existence of words on paper, no matter how much I revere those words, sometimes just aren’t enough.

    I don’t think everyone in the South was a sadistic lunatic who just gorged themselves on cruelty. I think the culture crippled them, and their exegesis followed, just to stay sane in the middle of all that misery.

  18. Scott,

    #17 and #20 may be helpful.

    Also, you seem to hold that guns and laws and armies are the means for Man’s mutable nature to amalgamate with Immutable Love. While Christianity agrees with such Ends, it and metaphysics disagree with such means. Your offered cure for evil seems therein ineffectual and approaches Man’s nature with mutable means and thus will only yield mutable ends – love’s ends of regressions thus escaping your seemingly preferred solution of bigger armies, laws, and guns. History has proven such. Another paradigm is needed, or we are hopeless. We all intuit such a paradigm, one we know our own mutable means of guns and laws and big armies can never achieve. The Meta-Narrative of that other Paradigm is Christianity. In it you will find that God – Who is love – calls ugly those same relational motions you call ugly, from A to Z.

  19. Part of the problem is that we all have a world-view that dictates how we interpret/see the world around us. Unless we are aware of this world view and the assumptions that go with it we will likely never think to challenge it.
    If someone has a world-view where atheism/humanism/secularism etc. is primarily a good influence on society and that religion is primarily a bad influence on society then they will readily accept anything that appears to support this view regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

    thus in the example it is because someone believes that religion is bad that they believe the Bible supports slavery. and that because the increasing secular society has seen the error of its ways that we no longer accept slavery as morally justified. Further that it is the influence of modern secular thinking that has lead to a reinterpretation of what the Bible said about slavery to begin with.

  20. Nigel,

    Genesis has always defined domination as the Dark Outside….for thousands and thousands and thousands of years now…….thankfully that 4K year history gave moderns our current Christianized moral conscience. Atheist Bertrand Russell didn’t make your mis-read of history as he knew what and from where such culminated in our modern moral paradigm as such relates to history and slavery.

  21. I was just rereading my comment in 23. I would like to clarify: Where I wrote “it is because someone believes that religion is bad that they believe the Bible supports slavery…” I meant this as an example of how someone with such a world view may interpret the Bible. Not as a sole reason for taking a position on the Bible/slavery etc.

  22. “The evangelist Ravi Zacharias said that when he visited Mahatma Gandhi’s small home, he was surprised to find in the front veranda a banner on which was written a quote from Bertrand Russell: “It is doubtful that the efforts of the Mahatma would have succeeded except that he was appealing to the conscience of a Christianized people”. Dr. Zacharias was amused that the home of Gandhi, the pantheist, displayed a banner quoting Russell, the atheist, who said the former’s efforts would not have succeeded save for the [Christianized Conscience].”

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