TGD – Proper understanding of the Bible

I’ve been trying to decide how to further rebut the views of Dawkins regarding the Bible. Taking a reference by reference approach is madness. It only takes one sentence to say something outlandish and it can take many pages to properly rebut it. But at the same time, something needs to be said.

What I decided what to give a big picture view of how to read and understand the Bible. Please understand that I’m no theologian (by the way, as a quick aside, Dawkins repeated references to all theologians treating the Bible as if it’s all symbolic is as garbage as the rest of his analysis of scripture) so forgive any oversimplifications I’m sure to make. My hope is to give a “big picture” view, which, as all such attempts do, will overlook some of the nuances.

The first key thing to note about the Bible is that is not “a book” it’s two collections of books, both collections containing dozens of books. It should be read not as one cohesive book but as the writings of numerous people all of whom share in common the inspiration of God in their writing. At a minimum this means we need to be looking for different writing styles. Some of them are writing as a historian, some are writing more like story-tellers where the specific facts are not as important the storyline (which in no way compromises the historicity of the events) and uses more metaphorical language amongst the historical facts. Some are writing poetry, some are writing prose. Some are writing laws, some are writing words of encouragement. Some are writing warnings, some are writing good tidings. If one doesn’t understand the intent of each author, one risks massively missing the point.

The second key is that the Bible as a collection is a story of the journey of God’s people. It shows our failings and our successes. It shows our joys and our mourning. It shows our strengths and our weaknesses. In no way should one ever assume that because a holy person did it in scripture that God desired it and the actions were just. If anything it’s quite the opposite. The Bible is a story of a people who want to be close to God but fail at every step. And at every step, God forgives and asks us to get back up and earnestly try again. There are times there are consequences for our actions and sometimes God’s mercy is greater than at others.

Through the Bible we learn of God’s master plan to bring knowledge of Him to everyone in the world. He starts with just a few and then grows it into a larger group and eventually brings that message to the whole world through Christ. By the very nature of the plan, God’s treatment of people changes over time. His rules for the Jewish people were different than they are for us today. At first He treats us like children but over time He continues to let us grow in our understanding of Him, and consequently the rules we’re bound by, over the course of salvation history.

The final key is to make sure you put individual passages, chapters and books in the appropriate context of the whole work. The book of Ecclesiastes, which without the context of the rest of scripture would seem to suggest that our time on earth is a horrible, purposeless, useless and terrifying prospect, has quite a different meaning when it’s put in the context of scripture as a whole. One needs to ask oneself how to rectify seemingly contradictory statements (instead of just throwing up ones hands and saying “gotcha!”). Trust me, Dawkins explanation that effectively nobody has read scripture and if they did they’d reject it, is just stupid. Tons of theologians, clergy and lay people have read all of scripture and are fully aware of all these “gotchas”. But still they believe. Why? Because they understood it in the proper context. Ecclesiates becomes a book about how God is where we should put our trust, not the physical world around us. It’s trying to show just how meaningless our lives are if all we focus on is this short life. “Men come and go, but earth abides,” as it says. The meta-point is to put your emphasis somewhere else; put your trust in God.

For what it is worth, there’s plenty a fundamentalist who makes the mistake Dawkins makes. He latches on to certain scripture passages and fails to see the big picture. He reads “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Not by works, lest any man should boast.” and concludes that a follower of Christ is not obligated to do anything but believe. No works are necessary. It completely ignores the context of the rest of scripture including quotes like “For the Son of Man will come in the glory of his Father with his angels: And then will he render to every man according to his works.” While the mistake comes from a person of faith instead of an atheist, the fundamental mistake is the same.

The Dawkins solution to the above conundrum is to say “Gotcha!” and the fundamentalist solution is to pick and chose their favorite passages, but the proper response is to understand the larger context that while faith is of critical importance, it’s meaningless to have faith if we don’t act on it.

My final rebuttal to Dawkins is to make it clear just how little of the Bible he’s picking on. When one talks to those who attack the Bible, they find that the same few examples get brought up over and over and then they ignore all the rest. It’s like the pounding of the drum about Galilleo. Even though there’s much to rebut about the claims of the scientific atheist, the bigger question is “Is that all you’ve got? Over 2000 years of the Church ‘running the world’, all you have is one guy from nearly 400 years ago?” So while Dawkins is picking on 3 or 4 stories, he’s completely ignoring page after page that condemns rape and murder and all the things he claims the Bible supports based on these few stories. Taken in context it’s obvious that the point of those stories is not what Dawkins claims they are. Stated more fully, the rest of scripture helps us to understand those stories because we know by the rest of scripture that the these things are wrong. If Abraham murdering his son would be wrong based on scripture, we’re left trying to understand why God asked it of Abraham and we find the answer in it being a test.

The Bible is the word of God and our morality of today can very easily be sourced back to the principles laid out in the Bible. While our understanding of the principles in scripture have matured as time has gone on, it’s all there. In fact, so much of what has changed over the centuries is BECAUSE of spending more time getting to understand scripture and what God has told us. The ideals of equality are a perfect example of that. The failure’s of God’s people are not because it’s not clearly laid out, it’s because, as is the case with so much of salvation history, we’re slow to get the message no matter how clearly God tells us.

Don’t fall for Dawkins deception.

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