January 6, 2010

Living by the Bible is not Possible

Read/Post Comments (4)

     It’s a bit of flimflam on the part of pastors or Bible teachers when they encourage us to “live biblically”—or they simply don’t know the biblical literature. Trying to live a life obedient to Bible teaching will drive a person “bananas”! “Living biblically” means trying to do what the Bible says. But people who aim to govern their behavior by the Bible’s teaching are never able to succeed at it. Here is why. The Protestant Bible is different from the Roman Catholic and Jewish Bibles. The Jewish Bible is comprised of the religious texts of ancient Israel whose ethics and values are markedly different from the New Testament because they record the values and culture of a different time period. And the ethics and values of the New Testament books are equally different from those of modern Christianity.

     We read the Bible in the context of a community tradition. What I mean is this: Baptists read the Bible from a Baptist perspective, which differs from the perspectives of other denominations. Each community has a way of resolving those texts that do not fit its traditional understanding of the Bible. In general, a community will repeatedly celebrate passages from the Bible reflecting its religious values, but ignore others. Community leaders usually have perfected theoretical rationales for explaining passages conflicting with the community view. In the final analysis, even the understanding of God is shaped by the community’s view.

     Here are some examples of dissonance in the biblical texts. Christians and Jews ignore what the Bible says about how to worship. In Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (Lev 7-10, for example), the nature of corporate worship is specifically defined. But today since there is no “tent of meeting” or Jewish Temple where such sacrifices are performed, all of these instructions for ritual and sacrifice are simply ignored by Jews and Christians alike. Few, if any persons, in Jewish and Christian traditions today offer animal sacrifices as a sin offering, and, what is more, they have no intention of doing so! Christians appeal to the ancient Christian view that the death of Jesus satisfied the legal and ritual requirements of the Jewish Torah once and for all (Heb 8-10). This idea discards large parts of the Torah as no longer valid for Christians—so some parts of the Bible are not included in “living biblically.” Thus the question is raised: Are there other parts I can ignore? How does the Bible believer handle the ancient ethical commands of Torah, which are not accommodated by the argument in Hebrews? For example, many (most?) conservative Christians regard the Ten Commandments (Deut 5:7-21//Exod 20:2-17) as part of a “Christian” ethical code; some even want to mandate the Ten Commandments as the basis for the legal system in America. On the other hand, other ethical directives of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament are simply ignored. For example, adultery should be punishable by death (Lev 20:10). Stubborn and rebellious sons should be stoned to death (Deut 21:18-21), and daughters, found not to be virgins, are also stoned to death (Deut 22:13-21).

     Here are two conflicting directives between Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament: how should the one reconcile the clash between “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:27-28) and Paul’s advice that Christians should remain single (1 Cor 7:8), or the order from God to his prophet, Samuel, to utterly annihilate the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15) and Jesus’ directive to “Love your enemies” (Matt 5:44; Luke 6:27)?

     One must pick and choose between directions for ethical behavior even between texts in the New Testament. For example, is a man permitted to divorce his wife when she has been unfaithful (Matt 19:9), or is divorce absolutely forbidden (Mark 10:10)? Is it mandatory that Christian bishops and deacons be married, as the Pastor says (1 Tim 3:1-13), or should we listen to Paul again, who has a rather low view of marriage (1 Cor 7:1-9)? Was Paul correct that salvation is by faith alone (Gal 2:15-16) or was James right that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:21-26)?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 9:53am

Cody is thinking of A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (http://www.ajjacobs.com/books/yolb.asp.) It made quite a splash last year.
Posted by Mark Given on 1/9/2010 at 8:32am

Hi, Charlie—
I have come to the conclusion that the most important questions that confront us in our lives give us choices that are neither good nor bad, but, as you term them, “the lesser of two bad alternatives.” This is true not only for individuals, but groups as well, particularly our modern nation states.

Marcia Morriset
Posted by Marcia Morriset on 1/7/10 at 1:40pm

Good question, Charlie. And as one of my students inquired when I pointed out some ambiguities in early Christianity, “Dr. Shurden, which is right?” I suppose if I had picked a point of view, she would have, willy nilly, followed it as truth! So, which is right, Dr. Hedrick? I’ll follow. Maybe!

2010 Blessings,

Posted by Walter B. Shurden on 1/6/2010 at 3:00pm

You pose a very difficult question yourself—one that has no easy answer: What is right? I can only answer for myself; I gave up persuasion, white bucks, and revivals a long time ago. I begin evaluating my own ethical behavior from a saying that unquestionably originated with Jesus the Jewish man: “Love your enemies,” he said. That becomes my principal guide for behavior, which I take to mean don’t do any harm to others but on the contrary love as you truly love those dearest to you. The world, however, is a dirty shade of gray (few absolute rights and absolute wrongs), so I must apply my principal guide in ambiguous situations where one positive action may actually do harm to others—a situation ethic. So sometimes one decides on a course of action that one thinks is wrong for a greater “good” (Bonhoeffer comes to mind). This does not mean that the choice under these conditions is right; it only makes it the lesser of two bad alternatives—in other words no matter what you do someone gets hurt. I also would like to point out that many of Jesus’ sayings and all of his parables leave decision up to the individual. For example, when he says render to Caesar his due and to God his due, he never specifies what the percentages are! We are adrift in an amoral universe as moral beings and called upon by God to act responsibly—meaning there is no default code of ethics that fits every situation. This is the best I can do off the top of my head. And now over to you: which do you think is right?


Posted by Charles Hedrick on 1/7/10 at 11:54am

Hi, Dr. Hedrick,

I can remember someone telling me that he watched something--I don't remember what it was--about someone trying to live literally by the Bible, and this person simply said that it was impossible.

A lot of what you wrote in your blog is of similar substance to what I mentioned to my Religions of the World students last semester, when we discussed Christianity, and entered into the Protestant Reformation. Luther supposedly said that the farmer's daughter could read the Bible just as well as the pope could, and that this statement--if he actually said it--was pretty radical. Even if he didn't say it, it still reflected a lot of his views at that time, and it revealed something he didn't consider. For the 1500 years prior to Luther, the Church had always had the final say, now an individual was having a final say, and, of course, Luther assumed that he or she would read the Bible just as he did. What resulted was various interpretations of scripture, and Luther lashing out at "heretics," who did not agree with his views--even though they were doing exactly what he said they should be doing.

Take care,
Cody Hayes
Posted by Cody Hayes on 1/6/2010 at 12:28pm