The Reason for God

Timothy Keller

Chapter 7: You Can't Take the Bible Literally

"I see much of the Bible's teaching as historically inaccurate," said Charles, an investment banker. "We can't be sure the Bible's account of events is what really happened. ""I'm sure you're right, Charles," answered Jaclyn, a woman working in finance. "But my biggest problem with the Bible is that it is culturally obsolete. Much of the Bible's social teaching (for example, about women) is socially regressive. So it is impossible to accept the Bible as the complete authority Christians think it is. "

The Christian faith requires belief in the Bible.

Skeptics say "they know there are many great stories and sayings in the Bible, but today 'you can't take it literally.' What they mean is that the Bible is not entirely trustworthy because some parts - maybe many or most parts - are scientifically impossible, historically unreliable, and culturally regressive."

"We Can't Trust the Bible Historically"

There is certainly an abundance of attacks on the Bible, but in the main, they have much less historical reliability than the Bible itself. They come from anti-faith agendas, like that of the Jesus Seminar or are totally fiction like The Da Vinci Code.

No document has been so thoroughly studied, criticized, dissected over the last two thousand years.

Evidence that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are historically reliable.

The timing is far too early for the gospels to be legends.

  • Gospels written at most 40 to 60 years after Jesus' death.
  • Paul's letters written 15 to 25 years after the death of Jesus and they outline the events of Jesus' life found in the gospels.
  • The Biblical accounts of Jesus life were written down within the lifetimes of hundreds who had been present at the events of his ministry.
  • Luke got his material from eyewitnesses who were still alive.
  • Mark says the man who helped Jesus carry his cross "was the father of Alexander and Rufus", inviting contemporary corroboration.
  • Perhaps even more powerful as an indication of authenticity is the fact that officials, opponents, bystanders were still alive and would be anxious to contradict falsehoods.

The content is far to counterproductive for the gospels to be legends.

Challengers suggest that the gospels were written by leaders of the early church to promote their policies, consolidate their power, and build their movement. The fact that this is not true of the gospels is powerful evidence for their historical authenticity.
  • Circumcision was an intense conflict in the early church, yet nowhere in the gospels does Jesus say anything about circumcision.
  • Having a leader who was crucified is hardly a way to get a movement going.
  • And a Gethsemane account where Jesus asks God if he could get out of his mission?
  • Why invent women as the first witnesses of the resurrection in a society where women were assigned such low status that their testimony was not admissible evidence in court?
  • Why constantly depict the apostles as petty and jealous?
  • And the denial of Peter? Why would anyone in the early church want to play up the terrible failures of their most prominent leader?

The literary form of the gospels is too detailed to be legend.

C. S. Lewis: "I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this."
  • Ancient fiction was nothing like modern fiction. Modern fiction is realistic, and it didn't appear until about 300 years ago.
  • Mark reports that Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern of a boat.
  • Peter was 100 yds out in the water when he saw Jesus on the beach.
  • Peter jumped in the water and together they caught 153 fish.
  • Such details were not in any ancient literature, and the only explanation of them is as recollections of eyewitnesses.
"as the popular media is promoting accounts of Jesus's life based on the highly skeptical Biblical scholarship that arose a century ago, the actual foundations of that scholarship are eroding fast."

"We Can't Trust the Bible Culturally"

Keller finds people who are upset with what they see as "outmoded and regressive teaching in the Bible. It seems to support slavery and the subjugation of women. These positions appear so outrageous to contemporary people that they have trouble accepting any other parts of the Bible's message."

No document has been so thoroughly studied, criticized, dissected over the last two thousand years.

Ephesians 6:5-8 "Slaves, obey your earthly masters..."

It is right to react with outrage at human slavery. But consider the cultural and historical era in which it is written.

  • Not the African slave trade of the eighteenth and ninetheenth century.
  • Not chattel slavery, not life-long, not ownership of the person.
  • Worked their way to freedom in 10-15 years.
  • Enslavers among those condemned in 1 Timothy 1:8-11
  • Kidnapping and slavery is a capital offense in Deuteronomy 24:7
  • Matthew 22:36-40 gives the basis for Christians working to abolish slavery.

"I can't accept what the Bible says about gender roles."

"But I can't accept the Bible if what it says about gender is outmoded..."

"If you dive into the shallow end of the Biblical pool, where there are many controversies over interpretation, you may get scraped up. But if you dive into the center of the Biblical pool, where there is consensus - about the deity of Christ, his death and resurrection - you will be safe. It is therefore important to consider the Bible's core claims about who Jesus is and whether he rose from the dead before you reject it for its less central and more controversial teachings."

"If you don't trust the Bible enough to let it challenge and correct your thinking, how could you ever have a personal relationship with God? In any truly personal relationship, the other person has to be able to contradict you. For example, if a wife is not allowed to contradict her husband, they won't have an intimate relationship."(Uses Stepford wives as example.)

  • What if you eliminate from the Bible anything that offends your sensibility and crosses your will?
  • If you pick and choose, how can you have a God who can contradict you?
  • You'll have a god of your own making.
  • Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in a real friendship or marriage) will you know you've gotten hold of a real God.
  • An authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God. It is the precondition for it.

Doubt: The Bible's teaching is historically inaccurate and culturally regressive (women, slavery, etc.)

  • For a long time the view that NT scripture was relatively recent and had been manipulated by the early church grew in influence.
    • But for the past thirty years, this view has been crumbling, despite attempts such as The DaVinci Code to revive the older view.
  • Christian faith requires belief in the Bible.
    • Many "arguments" for Christianity depend on Biblical reliability.
      • Think CS Lewis' "Liar, Lunatic, Lord" which only works if Jesus is not Legend!
  • Keller says he personally takes the whole Bible to be reliable not because he can somehow "prove" it all factual, but because that was Jesus' view of the Bible!
  • So what are the main areas that support the Bible?
    • The timing is far too early for the gospels to be legends.
      • Paul's letter come from 15-20 years after the death of Jesus and Philippians shows Christians already worshipping Jesus as God.
      • Numerous eye-witnesses were still around to challenge the reports supporters and critics.
      • The Gnostic Gospels all date from much later (eg. Gospel of Thomas 175 A.D.).
    • The content is far too counterproductive for the gospels to be legends.
      • If the Gospels had been written to support the church hierarchy, why all the information which puts early Church leaders and even Jesus - in such dubious light?
    • The literary form of the gospels is too detailed to be legend.
      • CS Lewis, who read myth and poetic literature all his life, found the NT totally different.
      • In modern novels, details are added to create the aura of realism but not in ancient times.
      • For a contemporary understanding of the state of Biblical scholarship see Craig Blomberg's, "Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?" in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus , Wilkins and Moreland, Zondervan 1995.
  • But can we trust the Bible culturally?
    • This objection has moved over the last decades from science and history to slavery and women.
    • Slavery: Moderns typically see the Bible in terms of American chattel slavery. But slavery in Rome when the NT was written was very different.
      • Slaves were not slaves for live often released within 10-15 years.
      • They received wages and could accrue enough personal capital to buy their freedom.
      • They were generally not segregated from the rest of the society. [I like to say that in Rome, your accountant and secretary were likely your slaves!]
      • The Bible condemns kidnapping and trafficking in slaves (1 Tim 1:9-11).
      • Anti-slavery sentiment began to appear in Christian writing shortly after the fall of Rome.
      • New World slavery was instituted over Papal 0pposition.
      • New World slavery was eradicated due to efforts by Christians of all social strata.

Further considerations for those who are offended by the Bible.

  • Keller urges people to consider that their problem with some texts might rest on unexamined belief in the superiority of their historical moment over all others!
    • Remember we began with a challenge for each side to examine its beliefs.
    • To reject the Bible as regressive is to assume that you have now arrived at the ultimate historic moment, from which all that is regressive and progressive can be discerned!
  • To reject Christianity because part of the Bible's teaching is offensive to you assumes that if there is a God he wouldn't have any views that upset you.
    • Put another way, if the Bible is God's word for all people for all time, wouldn't you expect it to rub against you worldview at some point? If it didn't, what would be it's purpose?
  • And besides, doesn't it make sense to distinguish between the major themes and messages of the Bible and the less primary ones?
    • So don't worry about gender roles until you've grasped essential teachings. Focus on the deity of Christ, his death and resurrection and you will be safe!
  • And finally, if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in a real friendship or marriage) you will know you have hold or a real God.
    • So an authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God, but a preconditions for it!

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