You Can’t Take the Bible Literally – Right?

Bible - 2Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God grew out of his experience talking with young professionals and others skeptical of Christian faith. The questions are similar to those raised on many college campuses – among both faculty and students. Come on, many ask us today, you can’t really take the Bible literally—Can you? Or more often in my experience there will be derisive comments about those fanatics who do take the Bible literally.

The question of the Bible is addressed in Chapter 7 of The Reason for God, although Keller does not really answer a question about the “literal” nature of the Bible in this chapter. A better formulation and a more important question is: You can’t take the Bible seriously—Can you? Keller explores two kinds of issues commonly raised against taking the bible seriously – historical skepticism and cultural questions.

Consider the Bible, especially the New Testament: How can we trust this two thousand year old book? Isn’t it a politically motivated collection of early texts designed to enhance the power and prestige of the Roman emperor and the Church hierarchy? Isn’t it full of error and uncertainty – so that we cannot even know what Jesus said or taught with any confidence?

After all, we are told, there are more textual variants than words in the text…the early church suppressed the true diversity of early Christianity for its own benefit…The Gospel of Judas provides important new insight into the early church understanding of the crucifixion…Jesus was married and we have the tomb and ossuaries to prove it…Matthew didn’t really write Matthew…John didn’t really write John…Peter didn’t really write Peter…Paul didn’t really write half of the letters attributed to him…many of the documents were written 100 or more years after the fact…we can reconstruct a Q gospel and a gospel of the cross providing better insight into the early church and historical events before mythology and legend took over…the New Testament is culturally bound, repressive, and not a valid guide for the 21st century…women are oppressed…slavery is supported — you name it. We see the news, watch the documentaries, read the books.

The answer, of course, is that it perfectly reasonable to take the Bible seriously with respect to the life and death of Jesus Christ. One need not check one’s brains at the door to do so. Keller has some of the usual discussion and good list of resources. I have found Mark Robert’s little book Can We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John very useful in looking at these questions. On a more scholarly level there are books like Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. If then, one grants the reliability of the narrative, the real question is not “can I trust an old book?” but rather “is Jesus who he said he was?” and perhaps “did the disciples and apostles have a true understanding of who Jesus was?”

I have a personal reflection here. One of the biggest issues for many is a doctrine of scripture that seemed to pit faith and reason in mortal combat. But this need not be. We must be able to take the Bible seriously – but quite honestly faith does not really demand any more than that. When it comes right down to it I believe the Bible is inspired and authoritative because I am a Christian – I am not a Christian because I believe the Bible is inspired and authoritative. Even more importantly I have come to the realization that we must let the Bible be the book it is and let the book we have, preserved by God, for us, through the work of the Spirit in the church, define what it means for the Bible to be inspired and authoritative. We get into big trouble when we first define what the Bible must be and then try to make it fit our mold, our mode thinking. This, I think, has been a major problem in much of Protestant, especially evangelical, Christianity.

Table the Problem Passages. In his book Keller also suggests that non-Christians considering the gospel should not worry about the hard texts (like 1 Tim 2:11-15 for example) and the intramural squabbles of the church. Christians disagree over these texts, so non-Christians should ignore them and look at the whole message – the core doctrine. Is the Gospel of Jesus attractive and viable? If so worry about the details later. Many (but not all) of the intramural squabbles of the Keller chooses to sidestep arise more from a culturally shaped definition of what scripture “must be” than from the sweep of the biblical narrative itself.

The Old Testament. In his interview Martin Bashir noted that Keller made a reasonable case for the gospels and then homed in on other aspects of scripture:

1:01-1:13 What am I supposed to make about Old Testament texts about murder, about dealing with concubines, about this bizarre book of the Revelation where there’s horses and scrolls and images. What about all of that? What about those parts of the Bible?

2:37-2:47 Do you not find that what you say about those passages may well be robust but elsewhere the case is undermined, undermined rather badly?

Don’t questions about the reliability of the Old Testament (or the “absurdity” of Revelation) undermine any confidence in the Bible as a whole?

I found this excerpt interesting. Keller doesn’t give a slam dunk answer to Bashir’s question, but he does make what I consider some very important points. These points may direct us to a more complete answer.

1:40-2:18 If you decide that Jesus is who he said he is, then Jesus himself looks at the rest of the bible with the greatest respect. Almost every book of the older testament, the Hebrew scriptures is actually quoted by Jesus authoritatively. … If Jesus is who he said he is then you have to look at the whole bible because Jesus himself took it as authoritatively. If Jesus is not who he said he is, who cares about the rest of the bible because that means that the core of it isn’t true.

And then near the end of the clip:

5:20 – 5:26 Normally what people do is they read very superficially the Old Testament, they see all these horrible things happening, and they say this is a bunch of, this is a crock. And the answer is, they haven’t really learned how to read it.

Take the Old Testament Seriously! I think Keller is absolutely right that if Jesus is who he said he is we must take the Old Testament very seriously. The entire sweep of the Old Testament points toward Jesus. And Jesus saw himself, as N. T. Wright points out quite persuasively in many of his talks and his books, as the culmination of the sweep of the Hebrew scripture. His actions, deeds, and words only make sense in this context. And in this context they make complete sense. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus is a good place to start here.

This does not mean that we must ignore questions of genre and authorship when we look at the scripture. Too often evangelicals are all wrapped up in a theory of scripture and argue rather piddling points to shore up their theory of scripture (Jonah, Job, Babel, Authorship of the Pentateuch, of Isaiah, of Daniel … ) as an argument for … resurrection! And in the process they totally skip over the actual sweep of the narrative. We are left with a picture of scripture as a bunch of disjointed stories and tidbits of prophecy we must believe (God does not lie), but they bear no theological weight beyond this supernatural proof.

Jesus took the Hebrew Scripture seriously, but we too often don’t – even in our most conservative churches.

I think (although others may wish to argue differently) that if we actually take the sweep of scripture seriously and read it with this narrative in mind, many of the arguments leveled against Christian faith would be far less potent, both for those raised within the church and for those with no background in the church at all.

There are a number of different questions we could raise for discussion.

Do you think that Keller makes a good case for the reliability of the Gospels?

Is he right that this is where we should concentrate our efforts, at least initially?

Is it reasonable to ignore the problem passages on a first go – especially those like 1 Timothy 2?

What does it mean to take the Old Testament as seriously as Jesus took it?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If you wish to comment on this post please see You Can’t Take the Bible Literally – Right? on Jesus Creed.

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