Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Fundamentalism and the Bible-- part 5

In Part Four of this series, we began looking at some problem with the "Flat Bible" approach taken by fundamentalist when it comes to the Bible.  It has been stated in earlier posts that fundamentalists believe in a verbal, plenary inspiration.  Plenary basically means absolute or total.  There is no part of the Biblical text that is not inspired.  Verbal refers to the fundamentalist's belief that the inspiration extend to the vary words of the text-- God picked the words God wanted.  The idea of the "Flat Bible" is that all parts of the Bible are equally inspired, or as the epistle has it, "All scripture is inspired and profitable for teaching."  In the last posting, we pointed out several texts from the Hebrew Bible where the text seems to exhibit a moral deficiency-- where it appears less than outstanding in its moral outlook.

Today, we want to look at some New Testament texts and ask if the Bible speaks with one voice from a moral perspective.  A good place to begin is with the text from John 8 where a woman caught in adultery is brought by the Pharisees to Jesus.  They remind him (correctly) of the Torah's command to stone those caught in adultery.  They tell Jesus that she was caught in the very act (one might ask where her partner in crime is in the account...).  They say, here is what Moses said to do (stone her to death), what do you say?

In a very familiar text, Jesus approves of the stoning with one stipulation:  The one without sin among the crowd must be the one to throw the first stone.  Slowly but surely, the crowd slips away.  The story ends with Jesus forgiveness and refusal to condemn.  The amazing thing about this passage is that Jesus faced the Law head on, and appears to find it morally repugnant.  It seems that he values a higher law-- the law of love-- above the literal application of the moral solutions of the Judaic law.  In this case, surely, the Bible does not appear "flat."

Now, consider a passage such as the following from the Sermon on the Mount: 

Matt 5:38-39 (NRSV)-- "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  But is anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also...." 

Had they heard it said?  You bet they had!  It is straight from the Torah.  There are two things to notice about this.  First, "an eye for an eye" is a vast improvement from unbridled revenge.  It deals out justice with proportionality.  Second, Jesus takes on this "improved view of morality" and "ups the ante" by calling for suffering love and mercy.  It seems once again, that in comparing the two notions, one can hardly call the ideas "flat." They differ significantly.  The best one might say is that inspiration is progressive.  It is not static, and earlier ideas can be improved upon.

Jesus follows this pattern, "you have heard it said, but I say...," throughout the Sermon.  He takes the outer conduct described in the Law of Moses and reframes it in ways that reflect inner motivation.  But, make no mistake about it; throughout he sets aside the Law and replaces it with a different style of morality.  It is one much more demanding and one much more merciful and love-based.  He deals with motive, the very heart of morality.  It seems that when it comes to morality, the Bible is hardly flat!

Still, in that same Sermon, Jesus begins by saying that he didn't come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.  How are we to understand this?  It seems to me that throughout the Sermon, Jesus is attempting to get at something much deeper than the Old Law.  He takes the Law, stands it on its head, and identifies a kernel of something generally believed to be right from which he can find a jumping-off point.  He seems to follow an idea something along this line, "You know the moral teaching of the law.  Let's extend it a bit.  Let's re-examine it.  Let's explain it.  Let's get at the real morality God intended."  He does not abolish the Law, that is his starting point from which he derives all kinds of new moral truths.  But the point remains:  The morality Jesus taught is very different from the morality most of his co-religionist accepted.  Their thinking was legalistic.  His was much more along the lines of asking "what does love demand?"  How are love's demands fulfilled.  In this, he had more in common  with Second Isaiah, and many of the minor prophets.  His law was love.  The setting of the Sermon, on a mountaintop, expounding the Torah, makes the connection plain. He is the New Moses giving a New Law-- a Law of Love.

You can see the problem.  If the Bible is a "flat book" with all parts equal to each other, we are in some real trouble.  How can it be reconciled?  And I am not only talking about the difference between the Old Testament and the gospels.  There are similar moral discrepancies within the Testaments.  They do not "hang together" morally.

Is there a way out?  I believe there is, at least for Christians.  On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah.  The story is not without purpose.  Is it real?  Did it happen?  I am quite willing to say that the disciples had some encounter, told and retold that ended in the story we have recorded.  It is the point rather than the actual events that matter. In the story, the apostles suggest building three "churches," one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for Jesus.  Each of these three great prophets would have their own little church from which to preach.

Then something amazing happens.  The sky darkens.  The other two vanish, and Jesus is alone. The voice of God comes, "This is my son hear him."  A similar though occurs in Hebrews Chapter 1 where the writer points out that throughout history, God spoke in many times and in many ways.  Now, however, God has given the final word, the supreme example:  Jesus.  The point is, whatever sense you make of any other moral teacher, Jesus must be the final arbiter of the message of God.  The Bible is not flat.  Christ and his teaching stand on a higher moral plain.

This doesn't mean that we no longer need to seek out the historical Jesus, the one who existed in a certain context, a certain time and place.  It doesn't mean that the gospels do not reflect the theological reflections of the community of faith.  If anything, it means we need more research, more thought, more reflection if we really are to ask the popular question, What would Jesus do?

So, the Bible is hardly flat.  To be a Christian means that the moral outlook of Jesus must take pre-eminence.  All things being equal, all things are not equal.  For me, Jesus is the supreme moral teacher and everything else must be understood from the framework of Christ's doing, teaching, and dying.  As I reflect on the moral stance that a Christian should take, I am compelled to say that I need to take the view of progressive revelation and a Christocentric ethic.

So what can we say then?  There are many differences in the moralities offered in the Bible. They are not all of equal value.  We need critical research.  We need commonsense. Fundamentalists support many positions, such as capital punishment, the support of the current war in Iraq, the subjugation of women, and the like, because they believe the Bible is flat.  The plenary, verbal view of an inerrant Bible results in some bad theology.  As I have heard it said, Bad theology is a cruel taskmaster!

Be certain and visit again in a few days for the conclusion of this series.

For more about fundamentalism, visit my storefront and take a look at my new book, Stories of a Recovering Fundamentalist:  Understanding and Responding to Christian Absolutism at www.recoveringfundie.com.







 



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