Why You Should Disagree With The Bible

In my last post I discussed some of my own biases that I have when approaching the Bible. The first one was that I think being faithful to the Bible–that is, to the over-arching narrative that is told through the Scriptures and continues through the life of the Church–sometimes requires us to disagree with and/or critique certain texts that we find in the Bible.

One of the reasons why I believe we must disagree with certain texts is because this is precisely what we see the apostles doing with the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in the book of Acts:

As [Peter] talked with [Cornelius], he entered and found many people assembled. And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for” (10:27-29a, emphasis mine).

It is true that that the word for “unlawful” in the Greek denotes a cultural taboo rather than the written Law, however, the fact that Peter is willing to break with the ancient Jewish tradition requiring Jews to stay separate from Gentiles is far from inconsequential. Peter’s rationale for breaking from the ancient tradition is that God showed him that no person was unholy or unclean (see italics). In other words, God spoke a new and fresh word to Peter, a word that required him to rethink what faithfulness to his tradition looked like.

Later on in Acts 15 the Apostles debate with a group of Pharisees about whether or not Gentile converts must be circumcised. Sylvia Keesmaat, in her essay Welcoming the Gentiles: A Biblical Model For Decision Making, notes that by arguing that Gentile converts must be circumcised in order to become a part of the covenant people of God, the Pharisees had both Scripture and tradition on their side. In other words, there was absolutely zero precedence for allowing the Gentiles in without circumcision and obedience to the Law of Moses. Yet, this is precisely what the apostles argue for:

The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the necks of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (15:6-11).

After having met personally with Cornelius and seeing that God had poured out his Spirit on him, Peter could not deny that God was up to something radically new. His vision of the sheet and the unclean animals also contributed to his arguing for something that was contrary to both Jewish tradition and Scripture.

The implications of this are huge.

As Christians living in the 21st century do we still believe that God is speaking? Is it possible for God to speak a word to his Church today that would require us to critique our own tradition as well as the Bible itself? Does faithfulness to the living God who moves and speaks sometimes require that we disagree with certain texts in the Bible?

I think the answer must be yes to all of the above.

 

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7 responses to “Why You Should Disagree With The Bible

  1. I think that when we realize that God reveals Himself through Creation (the natural world) Community (the family of believers, past and present), and through Christ as revealed in Scripture, everything changes. The Bible must be interpreted through Christ, and interpreted by the community, in the context of the creation of God. THEN we get a good picture of who God is!

  2. Hey Garret, what do you think of the idea that this event was a specialized transition point from the old into the new covenant, one that God had been foretelling throughout the Old Testament, saying things like “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” to Abram. He always planned to bring Gentiles under his blessing. That is my understanding of this story, which leads me to believe that the Bible is not open to further changes, the way you suggest. Also, Jesus (son of God), said he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. My understanding of God is that he doesn’t change his mind. He knew all along what he would do with the church. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

    • Hey Trilby!

      (1) We’ve inherited a tradition that takes the inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant for granted. Because of that, it’s all too easy for us to read passages like the one you quoted and see the inclusion of Gentiles (without circumcision and w/o obedience to Torah) as a given from the beginning. The problem with that way of reading, in my opinion, is that it ignores the interpretive leap that the apostles had to take in order to arrive at the conclusion that you and I, 2000 years later, take for granted. I’m saying that we should use their interpretive method as a model for how we ought to approach the difficult decisions facing the church in our own day.

      (2) Jesus’ fulfilling the law did not exclude him from reinterpreting it in some radical ways. So, I agree. Jesus did come to fulfill the law but this paradoxical fulfillment required him to critique it in many ways. I don’t think critiquing the Scriptures is synonymous with abolishing them. Critiquing requires thoughtful engagement while abolishing would be totally disregarding the text.

      (3) I can’t agree with the idea that God doesn’t change his mind. I think the OT and NT reveal a God who is so utterly committed to being in relationship with an ever-changing creation that it would be impossible for him to remain unaffected or unchanged. I think God is always changing, always adapting to the way creation responds to his call.

  3. Hey Garret,

    This was a very interesting post. I’d like to two things: (1) Summarize how I’m understanding one of the main reasons you feel it necessary to disagree with the Bible; (2) brief critique this reason; and (3) offer a slight nuance.

    (1)
    Much of your case is built on the Apostles own re-defining, re-envisioning, and re-interpreting the Scriptures. In order for us to be faithful to Jesus in the way the Apostles were faithful to Jesus, we too must take up the task of re-defining, re-envisioning, re-interpreting the Scriptures. I hope this is a fair assessment of your thoughts – I got there because of these thoughts of yours in particular:
    “One of the reasons why I believe we must disagree with certain texts is because this is precisely what we see the apostles doing with the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in the book of Acts…”
    “In other words, there was absolutely zero precedence for allowing the Gentiles in without circumcision and obedience to the Law of Moses. Yet, this is precisely what the apostles argue for…”
    “His vision of the sheet and the unclean animals also contributed to his arguing for something that was contrary to both Jewish tradition and Scripture…”

    (2)
    If I haven’t understood you correctly then the rest of this post will be pointless. If I have understood you correctly then I’d like to present a brief critique. I think your view assumes too low a view of the Apostolic Authority given by Jesus to Paul, Peter, and the other Apostles while simultaneously assuming too high a view of the authority of present day disciples. It seems to me that Paul, Peter and the other Apostles were aware of their own authority as Apostles to be the voices and leaders of the newly inaugurated (already/not yet) Kingdom of God. Paul makes a big deal of his own Apostolic authority, and Peter recognized that what Paul was writing to the churches were considered inspired Scriptures (2 Peter 3:14ff). Scripture was to be ‘re-defined’, ‘re-envisioned’, and ‘re-interpreted’ insofar as it clarified the life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus Christ. The Apostles had a different kind of authority than you and I possess, so it seems to me that claiming such an authority for ourselves is a hermeneutical error.

    (3)
    I agree that God is still speaking to His Church in the 21st Century, but his speaking won’t contradict what he has already revealed to us in both the Word of God (Bible) and the Word of God (Christ).
    I agree that it is possible that God would speak a word that would call us to critique our own tradition and to wrestle (as a community in that tradition) with what is being taught in the Scriptures – however what we perceive as a word from God ought to be tested against the revealed Word of God (Bible) and Word of God (Christ).
    I think faithfulness to God includes faithfulness to the Bible. While we wrestle with and seek to understand what the Bible is teaching and how that ought to be applied in our context, it is not our prerogative to disagree with the Bible.

    • Hey Greg, thanks again for your engagement with these ideas.

      What I’m attempting to do with this post is provide a theological foundation for an interpretive method that I think most of us, as 21st century disciples, already use when reading the Bible. In other words, I think we already critique the Bible, even the NT, in places where it seems to make us uncomfortable. The slavery issue could be cited as an example. Defenders of slavery always appealed to the particular texts that spoke about slavery. “Who are we,” they would say, “to disagree with the written word of God?!?” We could even imagine the defenders of slavery saying that because Jesus granted Paul an authority that later disciples don’t have, we have no right to argue with Paul on this matter. Abolitionists took a different route, however. Instead of appealing to particular texts, they appealed to over-arching biblical principles such as love and liberation in order to justify the abolition of slavery. Their faithfulness to the Bible, in a paradoxical sense, led them to critique certain passages that were being used to enslave and oppress others. You and I have inherited the abolitionist tradition so when we read the slavery passages we don’t think twice about re-instituting slavery. We understand that what Paul wrote was culturally conditioned and that we no longer believe that owning another human being as property is legitimate. In short, we engage in a subtle critique of Paul’s writing despite whatever authority we ascribe to him as a 1st century apostle. So whatever we mean when we say that Paul had authority that you and I don’t possess, I don’t think it can mean that we ought to stop thinking critically about the ways in which Paul’s cultural biases may need to be subverted. Again, I think the way we read the slavery passages, for example, indicates that we already intuitively know this to be true.

      So to say that God’s word to the 21st century church cannot contradict what’s been recorded in the Bible is a complicated statement since it seems like we’ve already allowed God to challenge the ways in which we understand what was recorded in the Bible. Moreover, I would argue that critiquing certain passages in light of the overall narrative of scripture as well as in light of the way in which the Spirit is moving today (just like the abolitionists did in their own day) is a way for us to actually remain more faithful to the Bible than a wooden literalism would allow for. In a sense, I think we show a profound fidelity to the Bible when we engage in a critique of it at certain points. Thus, this post could actually be entitled “Why you should disagree with the Bible in order to remain faithful to it….”

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