2.8.2 Bible Fundamentalism: Some Caveats
I feel that a caveat needs to be sounded about the way in which we believe the Bible to be the infallible word of God. This belief has led many groups into a form of blindly dogmatic Bible fundamentalism, which is not only astray from the spirit of our Lord but which also leads, paradoxically, to major failures to perceive the truth of God’s word as He intended. Our belief in the Bible should not be in such a form that the book becomes merely tokenistic for us, as if to merely append Bible quotes to our statements imparts some aura of holiness and effective infallibility to them. It makes a good exercise to look up some of the quotations that are inserted in brackets in some of our writing; not infrequently is it apparent that the verse quoted simply doesn’t appear relevant to the proposition it is supposed to support.
A critic of ‘fundamentalism’ writes as follows: “The Bible in fundamentalism is comparable to the virgin Mary in Roman Catholicism: it is the human visible symbol involved in salvation: as she through the immaculate conception is free from the contagion of human imperfection, so it has a kind of perfection and sublimity that makes it sacreligious for us to analyze and criticize its seamless fabric”(1) . I don’t totally agree with this, nor with the overall thesis of the writer in the rest of his work. But there is a certain warning for us here- although I don’t think our community has succumbed to the excesses of the KJV-only Bible bashers. Yet we need to ask ourselves how we use the concept of an inspired Bible. Do we use ‘the inspired infallible Bible’ to justify our tradition, certain that the faith of our fathers is true merely because we append bracketted quotations from the infallible Book to it? Rather we ought to be using this amazing Book to question, analyze and re-check our beliefs. Contrary to James Barr’s approach, I do believe that the Bible is indeed “seamless”. Yet I sense that because we accept the Bible as ultimately “seamless”, i.e. it is without contradiction from God’s viewpoint, we can tend therefore to eagerly seek to own the correct interpretation to every Bible verse, so that we can feel there are no contradictions in the Bible. For me, there are apparent contradictions, many gaps in my understanding, but these are my problem, and they don’t impact my faith- they don’t affect my belief and assertion that ultimately the Bible is not contradictory and is indeed “seamless”. Yet I sense that for some of my brethren, there is an earnest, urgent need to have explanations for any apparent contradictions, of text or teaching, clearly explained away in carefully written notes in their Bible margins- lest their belief in a seamless, infallible Bible be made to look broken. I would argue that a belief that the Bible is indeed inspired by God Almighty rather demands that we accept that therefore and thereby, there will and must be contradictions to our limited minds and understandings, seeing we are reading Divine words and not human ones. Bible fundamentalism as it is often understood doesn't seem to allow for this.
There is a certain psychology associated with all religious experience, whether or not the experiences are valid or not. By this I mean that a Catholic may experience some of the same feelings when they take the eucharist as a true Christian does at the breaking of bread, or as a Hindu does when they participate in a ritual. We must ensure that our belief in the Bible as the inspired word of God isn’t merely part of a spiritual experience which is just part of ‘mere religion’; the Bible becomes our ‘holy book’ just as the Koran is for a Moslem, and elicits the same basic psychological reaction from us. For there is truth in the inspired Bible which far surpasses any other book; putting it bluntly, the Bible is the only God-inspired book around, and all other books which claim this are frauds. That said, here are some points to beware of:
- Many people today want to believe that somewhere there is some one book that is absolute truth; we too have those same basic instincts. People almost want to believe in Bible fundamentalism. May it not be that we see the Bible as merely the source of satisfaction for our credulous appetite, just as people in other times or cultures have fixed upon another such ‘holy book’.
- The fact we can put Bible verses in brackets after the statements of our interpretations doesn’t mean that our views are inspired as the Scriptures are. Belief in the inspired Scriptures can lead us to think that our views are therefore inspired; this leads to an unhealthy lack of self-criticism and complacency.
- The fact the Bible is inspired is the foundation clause of many statements of faith. But an inspired Bible, nor our belief in this proposition, will not in itself save us. The redemption that is in the blood of the Lord Jesus will.
- Especially has our community, in some places, come to think that matters of latter day prophecy are in fact the Gospel, ‘Because they’re in the Bible, and the Bible is the word of God’. This is Bible fundamentalism at its worst. Yet many of these prophetic predictions, attractively presented as they are and often written about in racy journalese, are no more than science fiction fantasy. They are stabs at understanding, they contribute nothing to real spirituality; and the fact they are possible interpretations of the inspired word doesn’t make them inspired of themselves, let alone part of the Gospel.
- We must beware of a mentality that goes something like this: ‘I am quoting the word of God, which is inspired and infallible, therefore what I am saying is absolutely true on any Biblical subject, therefore you are seriously wrong if you disagree with my interpretation, in fact, if you don’t agree with my view, then, you don’t believe the Bible is inspired’. In other words, we must not allow our interpretation of the inspired word to become the same as the inspired word.
- We believe that the “original autographs” were inspired; holy men of old spoke or wrote as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. The more we appreciate this, the more we will recognize that any translation of those orignal words is not in itself inspired. The originals alone were inspired. Yet the majesty and familiarity of the translations we read can easily lead us to think that every word we are reading in that translation is in fact inspired. Yet it is a translation of an inspired original source. It might also be worth bearing in mind that none of the original documents exist. We are, strictly speaking, believing that there was an original message that was inspired, which has come down to us through centuries of copying out and translation. I think we all accept that there have been cases of textual corruption- 1 Jn. 5:7 is the classic- and that many Hebrew words can be pointed [i.e. have the vowels inserted] to read in very different ways. And then there are the questions of which original manuscripts we should be translating from, etc. Because the Bible is the only inspired book there is, this can lead us to seeing the book as some kind of icon; it is the only ‘thing’ we have in our experience which is directly from God. Realizing, however, that the original autographs alone were inspired can help us see the Bible we read for what it is- the living, albeit translated and passed down, word of God Himself. God spoke “by the mouth of all his prophets” (Acts 3:18). It was their spoken words which were inspired; but there is no specific guarantee that the written form and transmission of them was likewise inspired. Their mouths, and not the pens of every scribe who wrote the words, were inspired by God- even though it would be fair to say that the preservation and transmission of their written words was the work of ‘providence’, and the Spirit of God in some way also at work.
- The view that every single word we read in our translations of the Bible is ‘true’ can lead us into the problems evident in many Bible fundamentalists. Take the words of Eliphaz against Job (Job 5:13). They were wrong words (Job 42:7). Yet they are quoted in 1 Cor. 3:19. Wrong statements can still be recorded under inspiration and even quoted. Take the mocking of Sennacherib. It’s recorded under inspiration, blasphemous as it was.
- Because the Bible is inspired, we can come to define the Christian faith as an assent to a set of infallible Biblical interpretations- rather than a personal relationship with a real, living and ultimately true Being.
- There is a difference between inspiration and revelation which Bible fundamentalism doesn't recognize. God’s revelation in the Bible is based around personal relationships and events. Yet it is possible to use the inspired Bible to reduce our faith and relationship with Him to a mere system of rationalistic argument. Faith and truth are in persons, the persons of the Father and His Son; whereas those who misuse the concept of an inspired Bible have reduced faith and truth to mere issues of doctrine and rational anaylsis. In the Bible, events, encounters, personal decisions etc. are the ways in which God deals with and defines His people, rather than by assent to propositions. This latter view can only lead to division, as a believer’s orthodoxy and faithfulness can only be measured in terms of how they reply to certain questions. The community built on such a propositional view of truth will become fearful of any infringement of their positions on anything in any area of Biblical interpretation; the church no longer is a place where opposites and extremes can be tolerated; no longer can it be held together by faith and trust, but rather by a uniform interpretation of statements. Suspicion and instant defensiveness become the order of the day. The free exchange of ideas, spontaneity and freedom cannot be tolerated. ‘Bible study’ becomes a ritual repetition, either consciously or unconsciously, of the positions the local ecclesia has adopted; rather than an exciting, confronting and challenging experience of hearing God speaking to each one directly, and perhaps, therefore, to each one somewhat differently [cp. “All men cannot receive this…”].
- The fact the Bible is inspired mustn’t be used to reduce the book to merely a set of true propositions; Bible fundamentalism tends this way. This can lead to our thinking that God reveals some information about Himself in His word; when in fact He is revealing Himself as a person, not just information. This tends to reduce God to a God who has acted but doesn’t act now; to a God who has acted but doesn’t now speak. An inspired Bible should mean to us that God Himself is communicating with us personally; and not just revealing to us facts which are right. Those who hold the ‘propositional’ view of Bible truth find it very distressing to find that the God revealed in the inspired Bible can change His mind, regret actions, and can be argued with. He is so active and personal. If we understand that God is revealing Himself as a person in the Bible rather than just giving us factual propositions of information about Himself, then these things are no longer disturbing for us.
- The end result of this kind of thinking is that we become totally objective in our view of truth; truth is not to be found in a person, only in cold statements. And yet the whole message of Christianity revolves around faith in and relationship with a real, living person.
- Because the Bible is the only inspired book there is, this can lead us to seeing the book as some kind of icon; it is the only ‘thing’ we have in our experience which is directly from God.
(1) James Barr, Fundamentalism (London: SCM, 1977) p. 37.