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The Bible Does Not Always Speak The Truth


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#1 Ken Gilmore

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Posted 07 July 2011 - 05:20 PM

Recent discussion of the tensions and apparent contradictions in the Biblical text and apparent contradictions have highlighted the fact that for some people, the idea that contradictions or intertextual tensions could even exist is something that they are unwilling to consider.

A recent post by C. Michael Patton at Parchment and Pen blog (hardly a den of liberalism!) with the provocative title "The Bible does not always speak the truth" highlights what should be obvious to even advocates of verbal plenary inspiration - if the Bible contains inspired records of uninspired people, then it is going to contain errors. Patton's post is worth quoting if only to provide a conservative benchmark for what inspiration means.

We follow the Bible in what it teaches, but not everything it records is intended to be teaching in the proper sense. Our goal as Christians is to be good interpreters of the Bible, being able to discern when something is being taught or when something is being told. This way we don’t get flustered, and find ourselves in the odd place of trying to defend the morality of adultery, incest, or child sacrifice (you know, that crazy story of Jephthah in Judges 11:30-39?). (Emphasis mine)

Exactly. We need to be interpreters of the Bible, not readers. I appreciate that apart from a tiny core of uber-fundamentalists, many literalists will recognise the existence of differing genres in the Bible (parable, apocalypse, poetry) and adjust their reading accordingly. Despite this, one can still see the belief that all one needs to do is read the Bible to extract its message. It is hard not to get frustrated with this attitude, particularly when it comes with a hostility towards scholarship that aids one in the process of understanding. Hermeneutics is not a dirty word.

Patton continues with a list of five concepts to keep in mind when interpreting the Bible:

1. Some parts of the Bible are incidental to the bigger picture, not intending to teach any principle.

Be careful that you don’t try to find a principle in every passage. Not every verse or chapter of the Bible has an “application” in the traditional sense. For example, the chronologies of Matthew and Luke are not intending to teach a principle in and of themselves. They are simply attempting to give necessary background material so that Christ as the Messiah can be substantiated. (And don’t get me started on the prayer of Jabez!)

I can remember listening to many expositions on the tabernacle which were determined to wring types of Christ out of every cultic object. Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that there are no types of Christ to be found in the OT, but sometimes we should consider the possibility that we're simply indulging in spiritual pareidolia, that is, seeing patterns where none exist.

2. You have to distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive passages.

This is related to the previous and is especially relevant to narrative books such as Acts. We must be very careful with narratives since their primary purpose is to tell a story that is relevant to the bigger picture of redemption, not to give us prescriptive commands to live by. For example, in Acts chapter 1 we are told that the Apostles “cast lots” to discover who God wanted to replace Judas among the twelve. This is not giving principles on how to elect a pastor! It is simply saying this is what happened, nothing more, nothing less.

Another example (although not narrative) appears in Paul’s second letter to Timothy. Paul tells Timothy to “bring him his cloak” (2 Tim 4:13). There is no abiding theological principle saying that Christians are to bring people coats! It is simply teaching us that Paul asked Timothy to bring him his cloak. Paul was cold! Nothing profound.

The latter example of course brings to mind the question of whether Paul was inspired to write that he needed his cloak. Of course not! There's no spiritual lesson arising from that en passant reference, merely the fact that 2 Timothy is a letter that contains an imprisoned man's request for a cloak to keep him warm. Again, this should remind us of why verbal plenary inspiration is such an unworkable theory of inspiration. (If one remembers that Paul was an apostle who knew his theology backwards, then if one views inspiration as a divine "commission" to write a letter, then Paul would be able to write an epistle that was theologically reliable, while still containing elements of the commonplace, without needing God to dictate every word to him.)

3. Different types of literature have different types of truth.

You cannot interpret a Psalm the same way you do a Proverb. And you can’t interpret a Proverb the same you you do an epistle (letter). And you can’t interpret an epistle the same way you do apocalyptic material. They all follow different rules. And the truths that they communicate will be understood according to those rules. For example, a Proverb is a general truth of wisdom that does not necessarily apply or hold in every situation. Just because the Bible has proverbs does not mean that we are to sanctify the way we interpret the proverb. In other words, just because it is in the Bible does not mean that it is a truth that does necessarily apply in every situation. Psalms are songs and need to be understood under such imagery. Epistles are letters and need to be understood under the “rules” that apply to a letter. And then there is Ecclesiastes…don’t get me started there!

Thankfully, most literalists are able to recognise genre, but it could be better. The early chapters of Genesis contain history, but one needs to recognise the obvious polemical elements against Ancient Near Eastern mythology that crop up in the early chapters. To this one can add concession to pre-modern world-views, such as the flat-earth cosmology held by the ancient Israelites, in common with their neighbours, or the belief in demon-possession as a cause of disease. Failure to recognise this can lead to the same sort of blunder made by the Christian who thinks the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus actually describes the fate of the wicked after death.

4. Sometimes the author does not want you to take him literally.

Authors can exaggerate, speak candidly, be sarcastic, or be in bad moods. This will effect the way we are to interpret them. This will also effect the “truth” that they are teaching. For example, Paul says that “all Cretans are liars” (Tit. 1:12). Does this mean, since it is in the Bible, that at the time Paul wrote this every individual who lived in Crete continually lied? No. We use exaggeration as rhetoric all the time. We don’t intend people to take us literally.
Another example is in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. He says about false teachers: “If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing” (1Ti 6:3-4). The Greek word used for “nothing” is meden. It means “no thing” or “nothing.” (Wow!) Does this mean that in order to be faithful to the truthfulness of Scripture, we have to take Paul literally here? Does this mean that the false teachers did not understand what 2+2 is? Of course not. The meden is limited to what Paul is talking about. It is a rhetorical overstatement—hyperbole—that Paul uses for effect. The false teachers did not understand anything with regard to the doctrines which they were teaching.

There's nothing more to say here other than to recognise the importance of this in Paul's epistles.

5. Sometimes the Bible records falsehood.

I was at a website the other day that had a daily Scripture at the top of the page. This particular day it had Matt. 4:9 “All of this I will give to you if you will worship me.” Out of context, that looks fine. God will give us many blessings if we worship him. The problem is that this is a quotation from Satan when he tempted Christ! This verse is in the Bible, but it is not true. We need to be careful that we are mindful of who is talking, when, and how their words are to be understood. I hear people quoting Job’s friends all the time as evidence for certain characteristics of God. But Job’s friends are not presented in a positive light. Some of what they say is true, but much is wrong—even if it is in the Bible.

This is something that I am surprised needs to be stressed - the Bible contains an inspired record of uninspired writers. If one believes Job is not a dramatic retelling of a historical event (I lean towards this view) but a verbatim record of that event, then we should be very careful to use what his friends said as authoritative statements about God.

When interpreted correctly, I believe that the Bible always speaks the truth. However, when proper hermeneutics (bible study methods) are not used, the Bible does not always speak the true. If the Bible says it, this simply means that God wanted whatever it says to be included. We believe that the Bible is true in whatever it teaches, but whatever it says is not always meant to teach in the way we often assume. Be careful with God’s word. It is the most wonderful book in the world, but it is also the most dangerous.

This is hardly the last word on hermeneutics, inspiration and other topics that have sparked no end of controversy. What is should serve as however is the starting point for hermeneutics that can be agreed upon by everyone who is interested in this discussion.
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” - Galileo Galilei

#2 RobertB

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Posted 07 July 2011 - 05:46 PM

This is good.

I can remember back a few years having some conversations w/MP on this very subject. I was impressed that he would still believe that Jesus is supposed to be God, purely an 'orthodox traditon' and an 'essentiallity' to salvation.

Yet nowhere do we find this to be 'contextually correct'. Especially when "proper hermeneutics (bible study methods) are not used".

So then it must be a true tension that has systemic evolutions dating back century's, that not only fuels fire for "when proper hermeneutics (bible study methods) are not used" but to also create dis-siminations amongst True Brethren, albeit the Apostles must have therefore been a catalyst to be destructive to True Scriptural knowledge and 'Completeness'.

It was a hot topic on his Theologica site for years when it first came into being and still is, the group there are only supportive of you if you are a conformist to traditonal orthodoxy and essential salvation tactics.

Shame, that after all these years he still seems to be doing "lip-service" to a tradition.

My thought here.......

Edited by RobertB, 07 July 2011 - 05:47 PM.

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#3 Phil

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Posted 07 July 2011 - 07:16 PM

Good find, Ken. That's a great series of points. Utterly fundamental you'd think, but quite often neglected. I spent some time the other day talking to the brothers and sisters here in Quito and saying that the chief error of bible exposition is not taking the passage on it's own terms, but instead simply reading the literal words and applying that unthinkingly...

I can remember listening to many expositions on the tabernacle which were determined to wring types of Christ out of every cultic object


I think we've got RR to blame for that one. I think it's in the Law of Moses (one of the few 'pioneer' works i've read) where he says something horrific like "Christ is the veil, the altar, the shewbread, the candlesticks, the laver, the everything".... i can't remember the exact phrasing, but i remember reading "...the everything" and thinking "you can't say that!" But he did.

#4 Fortigurn

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Posted 07 July 2011 - 09:41 PM

I think we've got RR to blame for that one. I think it's in the Law of Moses (one of the few 'pioneer' works i've read) where he says something horrific like "Christ is the veil, the altar, the shewbread, the candlesticks, the laver, the everything".... i can't remember the exact phrasing, but i remember reading "...the everything" and thinking "you can't say that!" But he did.


Yeah, bit of a shocker that one. I never could get much into 'The Law of Moses'. I found Boulton's 'Law and Grace' far more intelligible, and one of the best works on the Law of Moses in our community.

#5 Russell

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Posted 07 July 2011 - 10:48 PM

Barling not Boulton I think.

#6 Fortigurn

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Posted 07 July 2011 - 11:42 PM

Barling not Boulton I think.


Yes that's right, Barling, thanks.

#7 Phil

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Posted 08 July 2011 - 09:52 AM

I had actually been meaning to read that one for a while, but dad wouldn't give it to me when they moved to Perth.

Problem solved - we're moving to perth in November :)

#8 Evangelion

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Posted 08 July 2011 - 10:09 AM

Wow! That's a pretty big step. Change of job or career?
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.

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#9 Phil

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Posted 09 July 2011 - 08:24 PM

Nah, moving across to be closer to Bonnie's family. We'll be looking to sharing property with them, and in the longer term taking over the care of Bonnie's sister Claire. The fact that my mum and dad (and one sister) are there is a bit of a bonus.

I'm going to be working remotely for my current company, at least until i go crazy with lack of interpersonal contact :)

#10 Ken Gilmore

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Posted 09 July 2011 - 09:45 PM

I'm going to be working remotely for my current company, at least until i go crazy with lack of interpersonal contact :)

What sort of "large and dangerous industrial machinery" did you use to play with? The ex-engineer in me is not a little curious. (Sharp blades, pressures in the MPa range, high temperatures or a little of everything?)

Edited by Ken Gilmore, 09 July 2011 - 09:45 PM.

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” - Galileo Galilei

#11 Phil

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Posted 09 July 2011 - 10:12 PM

Ha :)

Probably the best example of large and dangerous is this: i wrote the control program for a massive friction saw in a steel pipe mill. We had two saw blades (each around 1.2m diameter and 8mm thick), one mounted each side of the pipe on a trolley controlled by hydraulic ram. The whole unit weighed around 8 tonnes. As the pipe was formed (from steel strip coils between 4mm and 13mm in thickness) and traveled down the line (at something around walking pace, so not high speed), the trolley would synchronise with the pipe, clamp, and then punch the saw blades (a 250kW motor driving each blade) through the material, before releasing and travelling back to the starting position to await the next cut.

Not the kind of thing you want to get wrong :)

#12 Flappie

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Posted 10 July 2011 - 05:16 AM

Haha, I did wonder what that was about when I looked at it a while ago.
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#13 Ken Gilmore

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Posted 10 July 2011 - 05:22 AM

Ha :)

Probably the best example of large and dangerous is this: i wrote the control program for a massive friction saw in a steel pipe mill. We had two saw blades (each around 1.2m diameter and 8mm thick), one mounted each side of the pipe on a trolley controlled by hydraulic ram. The whole unit weighed around 8 tonnes. As the pipe was formed (from steel strip coils between 4mm and 13mm in thickness) and traveled down the line (at something around walking pace, so not high speed), the trolley would synchronise with the pipe, clamp, and then punch the saw blades (a 250kW motor driving each blade) through the material, before releasing and travelling back to the starting position to await the next cut.

Not the kind of thing you want to get wrong :)

Makes the PLC programming for a powder coating furnace that I did 15 years ago look positively pedestrian.
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” - Galileo Galilei




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