|January 6, 2010
Living by the Bible is not Possible
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 This idea discards large parts of the Torah as no longer valid for Christians—so some parts of the Bible are not included in “living biblically.”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
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.
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!
Hi, Dr. Hedrick,