Who Really "Explains Away" the Bible
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
August 17, 2008
Fundamentalists routinely charge that those who avail themselves of biblical scholarship “pick and choose from the Bible,” or that they “impose their worldview on the Bible,” or that they “explain away the Bible,” or that they “shape the Bible instead of letting the Bible shape them.” I think that quite the opposite is true. I think that fundamentalists start with their preconceived notion of biblical authorship and of “biblical” theology and they impose it on what they read. In so doing, they filter everything through their theological biases, ignore or subordinate texts with which they disagree, and impose the lens of a twenty-first century, conservative, evangelical worldview on the Scriptures.
For instance, I’ve yet to meet a fundamentalist who will claim any of the following, despite the clarity of the relevant biblical texts:
A fundamentalist will be quick to cite verses which contradict all of these texts, often mentioning that “God is not the author of confusion” and then relying on “common sense” to choose which of the two contradictory texts must be authoritative. Of course, the fundamentalist’s “common sense” doesn’t come from the Bible, it comes from their particular worldview. If something is really atrocious (child sacrifice, for instance) or scientifically impossible (the Sun orbiting the Earth) the fundamentalist will explain it away by saying that the Bible doesn’t really mean what it is plainly saying. Oddly enough, this kind of “explaining away” is just what fundamentalists accuse biblical scholars of doing; but fundamentalists give themselves a pass since the resulting conclusion agrees with their understanding of the world.
It is much simpler and more honest to simply treat the Scriptures as what they are, a collection of writings produced and edited by regular human beings who, having glimpsed in some way an element of God’s presence or divine truth, preserved that glimpse as best they could within the historical and cultural context in which they lived and worked. Scientific and historical inaccuracies are in the Bible because the people who wrote and edited the Scriptures were human, and they wrote in the context of what they knew. Conflicting theological statements are in the Bible because not all of the biblical writers agreed on everything, and because what was assumed to be true in one time was not assumed to be true in others. Behaviors that we consider to be immoral or even heinous are endorsed by God in the Bible because, in other times, people had a different view of those behaviors so they assumed that God did endorse them.
None of this changes the authority or value of the Christian Scriptures. In fact, letting the Scriptures be what they are frees us to actually take every text seriously. Rather than forcing biblical texts into an artificial harmony or ignoring some texts in favor of others; we can allow each text to speak for its own time and place. We can ask, “Where did the person who wrote or edited this text in this way see God in what they are describing?” We can then ask ourselves, “How might God be at work in my own time and place in a similar way? Where is God’s will and God’s presence in my own world?”
Allowing the biblical writings to simply be what they are keeps us from having to attribute absurdities and atrocities to Almighty God, and allows us to let the biblical texts speak with honesty and clarity. The main problem with this, of course, is that where contradictions appear in the Bible we have to admit some ambiguity. We have to admit that we don’t know some things for certain. This is true on historical matters (Note that both Saul and David, for instance, meet each other for the first time twice and attain the kingship in multiple ways. Compare I Sam 9:1-10:16; I Sam10:17-24; I Sam 11:1-11; and, also compare I Sam 16:1-13; 16:14-23; and I Sam 17:1-18:5.) and on theological ones (Is salvation by grace or works? Compare Romans 3:27-28 and Eph. 2:8-9 with Matt. 25:31-46 and Hebrews 10:26-27.).
The reality, though, is that the ambiguity was already there. It was only the compulsive need of some interpreters to explain away all contradictions that forced the texts into an artificial harmony and that hid those contradictions from plain sight. The contradictions, tensions, and inconsistencies have always been there – even in matters of no small significance. If, however, humans cannot admit to some confusion and ambiguity in knowing the mind of God, then our hubris is more damning than any doctrine of the Bible could ever be.