Everyone Has A Theology

SpockFinal1If you take a peek at my biography, you’ll notice that this blog was inspired by my tendency to get misidentified as a fundamentalist or an atheist, depending on the discussion at hand.  Recently I found myself in the thick of a debate that illustrates my predicament.

Don Burrows has a post at Unfundamentalist Christians that, for the most part, I agree with. He outlines his scholarly case for a less harsh interpretation of one of scripture’s biggest “clobber passages” against gays: Romans 1:26-27, which states:

“For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.”

I recommend reading his post because a brief summation doesn’t do it justice. But his main point is that:

“Some scholarship of late, of which Porter’s article is the most thorough example, has noted that Romans 1:18-32 does not represent Paul’s view, but the prevailing view of Gentiles among many Jews at the time, which this apostle to the Gentiles feels compelled to refute.”

In other words, not only is a liberal, gay-friendly interpretation of Romans 1 a more accurate one, but the passage doesn’t even reflect Paul’s beliefs. My first instinct when I read this was to raise my brow like Spock and say “fascinating.”  I’m not sure if I buy into it, but since I already subscribe to the argument that Romans 1 shouldn’t be used as a clobber passage because addresses male prostitution,  I’m open to it.

However, once I skimmed the comments section, my evangelistic instincts came to the forefront. There were a lot of very good comments in response to Burrows’ post, as well as a few zealous conservatives preaching repentance and arguing for the traditional interpretation of Romans. While I disagreed with their take, I agreed with their “big picture” preaching for salvation and repentance. And since the conservatives had the salvation message covered and the liberal case for Romans had been well stated, I dove in to contest a couple of the more problematic tangents.

I won’t restate my posts since they’re still readily available for you to read, but the two issues that I contested were one person’s disbelief in hell and an argument for treating the Bible as a sort of postmodern guidebook that should be reinterpreted depending on one’s culture and era.

Neither of these arguments were made by Burrows himself, but due to my defense of the conservatives’ responses on these topics, he did assume that I was taking a position against Biblical scholarship (even though I distanced myself from the anti-gay reading of Romans.)

To be fair to Burrows, I stated my case awkwardly. I said that “Any argument a person makes about interpreting scripture is rooted in theology.” A better way to phrase my point would be to say that everyone’s interpretation of scripture is rooted in their assumptions about God.  Everyone has a theology in the sense that their beliefs about God are founded on assumptions (secular or otherwise) that have a historical precedent. This isn’t the same as saying that one cannot set aside their personal convictions about God and do high-quality Biblical scholarship. And I’m not saying that everyone believes in God to some degree.

But it does mean that ultimately ones’ motives for studying scripture (and how they apply those findings to their worldview) are founded upon their assumptions about God. Those views can change, of course. But Burrows defines himself as a progressive Christian, and therefore he views the text through a progressive lens. And that’s a lens with its own theological history. The conservative poster Burrows was criticizing was merely presenting his own lens, and whether the man knew it or not, he too was staking out a position based on theological precedent. Therefore, from my view, the conservative poster’s desire to introduce other passages of scripture was consistent with the framework of the debate.

I don’t know whether Burrows approached Romans with the preconviction that homosexuality is as morally justifiable as heterosexuality, or if his studies led him to liberal conclusions. But usually there is a degree of predetermined reinforcement involved; liberals will read Burrows’ blog seeking confirmation of their beliefs, while conservatives will read Al Mohler’s blog for the same reason. That doesn’t mean that either man has insincere motives or that their arguments are therefore always correct (or incorrect). But it is rare for either side to change their minds based on the evidence presented to them, no matter how well researched it is.

To illustrate my own bias, I have always believed that homosexuality is as moral as heterosexuality. Over the years I have read many arguments from each theological viewpoint, and by default I’m much more willing to consider Burrows’ arguments than anything Mohler has to say about the topic.

But over the years my views have shifted a little bit. I still believe that most of the passages about gay sex in the Bible refer to male prostitution, and that the concept of loving homosexual relationships would be alien to ancient Hebrews. I also believe that Jesus embraces monogamous homosexual relationships. But now I’m much more willing to concede that it’s likely that the Bible would have condemned homosexual love, if the issue had existed back then. So while I feel that conservatives’ Biblical proofs are flawed, I do think that their beliefs about homosexuality are probably more in line with Biblical times. The most we can say regarding the Bible and homosexual love is that it says nothing about it. In my view homosexual love is consistent with Christ’s teachings about loving relationships, but like a lot of other issues (patriarchy and slavery, for example), the people who learned at Jesus’ feet would most likely be on the wrong side of the moral coin.

A Divinely Inspired Mess

the_holy_bibleI believe that the Bible was divinely inspired. I also believe that it is full of errors and contradictions.

Normally questions of the Bible’s reliability as the Word of God rest on two assumptions: all scripture is God-breathed, and therefore because God is Truth, scripture contains no errors. Odds are you either give an emphatic “Yes!” to that statement, or you roll your eyes at it and chalk it up as a misguided assumption that a little bit of education can cure. But I believe that both positions can be true.

Andrew Wilson has a post over at The Gospel Coalition about inerrancy. I posted a few of my thoughts over there and decided to expand upon them here. To briefly summarize, Wilson takes the classic inerrancy position: the Bible is inerrant, and arguments against inerrancy make incorrect assumptions or interpretations about the text.

I began my response by pointing out that the Bible itself cannot be a proof of the Bible’s trustworthiness. That’s a circular argument. But I also took pains to say that, in spite of the holes one can poke into the inerrancy argument,  when the chips are down, in spirit I still side with it.  I recognize that inerrancy is an inherently illogical position. But I believe that the extra baggage that comes with inerrancy – especially the assumption that sinful humans managed to compose documents completely free of errors or incorrect beliefs- are inconsistent with our understanding of man’s nature.

The foundation of Christianity assumes that mankind is sinful, hence the need for Christ’s sacrifice. I embrace that assumption. But the traditional position has been that God guided sinners like Moses or the Apostles to create inerrant scripture. To me this violates the doctrine of sin.

For example, I have no problem believing that some missionary friends of mine are doing God’s work. They say that God called them to Montreal or Tanzania, and I trust them at their word. But that doesn’t mean that everything they do as missionaries is part of the divine message God wants them to deliver. They, like all of us, are full of  the same sins you and I have, and those sins can gum up the message, so that message can be tainted by ego or just plain incorrect teachings.

I see scripture in the same light.  I don’t think that Paul was any less prone to error than my missionary friends are. He even called himself the worst of sinners. So I think it’s quite possible that some of Paul’s teachings are flawed, and yet I also believe that God called on him to write his epistles, and for us to treasure them. Therefore, while at their core most of Paul’s epistles are inerrant Truth, I have no doubt that he let some of his shortcomings as a human being slip in, and therein lies the errors. So in spite of their imperfect condition, I believe that Paul’s teachings exist as God intended, and therefore we should treat them in much the same way as Wilson does, with the one important caveat: we can acknowledge that Paul may have gotten some things wrong.

For now, I’m not going to speculate on what those errors might be. I have  my own suspicions of course, but I don’t wish to detract from my larger point. I believe in what I would call “limited inerrancy:” while the Bible exists as God intended it, its writers probably made a few doctrinal and factual errors along the way, mostly because it was composed by an ancient culture with a limited understanding of the world. In addition, throughout scripture its writers repeatedly confess God’s incomprehensible perfection. If you appoint imperfect sinners to make a valiant attempt at describing an incomprehensibly perfect Creator, then you’re going to fall short of perfection.

Let’s use the documentary hypothesis as an example. The documentary hypothesis claims that the first five books of the Bible were compiled from the writings of four radically different authors, some of whom possessed a polytheistic worldview. I believe that the documentary hypothesis is the most persuasive explanation as to how these books came to be. The traditional teaching that Moses was the sole author of the Pentateuch (i.e. the first five books) doesn’t hold up to modern scholarship.

For Christians who subscribe to inerrancy, this would be a deal breaker. If the documentary hypothesis were true, they say, then the reliability of the whole Bible collapses, making it little more than the ravings of an ancient people. But if God could inspire Moses to write divine scripture, then surely he could have inspired four anonymous authors to do the same, each without knowing how the end result would look.

In other words, each author captured important truths about God’s relationship to mankind, so God deemed each worthy of inclusion. The fact that some authors may have written under a mistaken belief in polytheism does not matter – what they wrote was divinely inspired and spoke truth about God.

Take the creation story as an example. The documentary hypothesis teaches us that there are actually two creation stories, the second one beginning at Genesis 2:4. Both were included because they spoke truth about God. The specific details – which are irreconcilable  if one insists that they depict literal events – are less important than what they teach us about God’s nature and our relationship to God. These allegories do not need to be literally true to convey the spiritual lessons contained within them.

Now, that doesn’t mean that all ancient Hebrews understood them to be allegories, and it’s only the foolish fundamentalists who boxed them in and claimed them to be science lessons. I have no doubt that a majority of ancient Hebrews took them literally. They were, after all, a nomadic culture composed of illiterate craftsmen and sheep herders. But what mattered was that the common sheep herders arrived at the same place of understanding as the Rabbi who interpreted them allegorically. So the messy parts aren’t a bug; they’re a feature.