July 16, 2013
In the Associated Baptist Press, Thomas Whitely argues that all professing Christians “cherry-pick” the Bible to find texts that suit them and rationalize or simply disregard those they find discomfiting.
“Everyone cherry-picks the Bible, (including) those who claim to be ‘staunch believers in the Bible’ claiming its inerrancy and infallibility along with those who view it as a historical and all-too-human text,” he writes. “No one – conservative Christian, liberal Christian, Jew or atheist – reads all of the Bible the same way because the nature of this anthology of texts precludes this possibility.”
Mr. Whitely is candid about his views and, in tone, quite respectful of those he indicts. However, he wrongly conflates hermeneutical difficulties with selective application. In other words, some passages of the Bible are hard to interpret, let alone accept or apply. This makes them no less inspired than other passages whose meaning is more clear and appealing.
Either the Bible is “God breathed,” as Paul claims it to be (“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God,” he writes Timothy), or it’s a hodge-podge of contradictions, fantasy, and distortion. We do not have the luxury of coming to Scripture as if children lying on our backs looking at the clouds – “I see a horsie,” says one, while the other says, “I see a pirate ship.” There are consistent rules of interpretation for all of us; that we don’t like where they might take us is an indictment of our hearts toward God, not intellectual integrity about the meaning of any given passage.
For example, Mr. Whitely notes that most Evangelicals will turn to biblical passages on human sexuality to make the case against homosexual behavior (and any other kind of non-heterosexual, non-marital sexual intimacy) and “while ignoring other parts such as the command to kill a rebellious child.”
Well, no. A serious student of Scripture will look at the text closely, read exegetical and expositional commentators about it, study the historical context, and determine, if the text is part of the Mosaic code, the kind of law to which it refers (ceremonial, civil, or moral). He will not come up with some strange and hitherto unknown interpretation but will take the text for what it says, even if what it says makes him irritated. Meaning is not determined by personal preference but by the intent of the author and the words he uses.
In the case of stoning a persistently and perniciously “rebellious” child (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), it is noteworthy that the Talmud states there was never a single such instance in which this penalty was exercised (“there never was and never will be [one who fits the definition of] a wayward and defiant son”). More importantly, there is never a single instance in Scripture describing the implementation of this command.
As to the specifics of the command, unlike the laws of Greece and Rome, parents did not have absolute authority to put their children to death; Deut. 21:18 makes clear that the case has to be adjudicated before magistrates (elders in governing session) and that both parents have to agree that their son merits capital punishment.
The capital nature of this offense seems grounded in a severe threat to vulnerable parents and the community as a whole by a violent, adult or near-adult bully. It’s not as though mom and dad got tired of junior complaining too much about his matzo.
Perhaps most poignantly, this command appears to be a metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel. As noted by Asbury University professor Victor Hamilton, “The only other places where both Hebrew words (‘stubborn and rebellious’) occur in tandem as descriptors of Israel(or of anyone) are Psalm 78:8, ‘They should not be like their ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation,’ and Jeremiah 5:23, ‘But these people have stubborn and rebellious hearts’” (Handbook of the Pentateuch). And while Israel was sent into exile and spiritually disciplined, God never rejected them – “stoned” them – as His people.
The meaning of all but a handful of biblical texts is, with careful study, pretty obvious. That I might not like what they say simply means that I am not God; not being deity caused Eve to eat a certain piece of fruit, which should encourage all of us against elevating our own judgments ahead of those given us by our Creator.
Mr. Whitley also claims, “The way 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus talk about women does not govern how I view women and their potential for leadership. The unquestioning acceptance of slavery and the treatment of women as property does not govern how I live my life. Yet other passages do.”
To use an arcane theological term, bunk: (a) Paul’s teaching on women is consistent; you might not like it, but it is what it is; (b) “unquestioning acceptance of slavery,” really? Is that why Paul tells Philemon of Onesimus to treat the latter “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philemon 16)?
As to slavery, one perceptive commentator notes that “the New Testament nowhere attacks slavery directly. Had Jesus and the apostles done so, the result would have been chaos. Any slave insurrection would have been brutally crushed, and the slaves massacred.”
However, as New Testament scholar Donald Guthrie observes:
It is clearly incongruous for a Christian master to “own” a brother in Christ in the contemporary sense of the word, and although the existing order of society could not be immediately changed by Christianity without a political revolution (Which was clearly contrary to Christian principles), the Christian master-slave relationship was so transformed from within that it was bound to lead ultimately to the abolition of the system. (New Testament Introduction).
And where does Mr. Whitely get his “women as property” trope? Acts 16 tells us Paul interacted directly with a merchant of expensive fabrics named Lydia, who after her conversion hosted Paul in her home. Paul also affirmed the equality of women and men (Galatians 3:28) even as he taught that they possess different roles. This is patriarchal oppression?
Mr. Whitely has given himself the luxury of accepting those parts of the Bible he likes and jettisoning those he does not. He thus creates an imaginary faith based not on objective truth but those sentiments he finds most reassuring.
J. Gresham Machen, the great Presbyterian theologian, wrote elegantly on how we should view the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. I’ll give him the last word:
The contents of the Bible, then, are unique. But another fact about the Bible is also important. The Bible might contain an account of a true revelation from God, and yet the account be full of error. Before the full authority of the Bible can be established, therefore, it is necessary to add to the Christian doctrine of revelation the Christian doctrine of inspiration. The latter doctrine means that the Bible not only is an account of important things, but that the account itself is true, the writers having been so preserved from error, despite a full maintenance of their habits of thought and expression, that the resulting Book is the “infallible rule of faith and practice.”