Monday, December 15, 2014

Ask the Pastor: What if the Bible is wrong?

Before getting to the meat of this post, I need to say that I am a reformed theologian. The quick definition is that I am, and always have been, Presbyterian. All of my answers to these questions are shaped by the theology of my denominational heritage. There are different branches of theology – Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal, Evangelical/fundamental, etc – and I’m going to answer all of these questions from a Reformed standpoint for two reasons. First and foremost, I am being asked most of these questions by my congregation. As a Presbyterian minister, my answers are naturally given from the theological standing of our denomination – this is the theological foundation that I have vowed in my ordination to preach and teach. Secondly, this is the theology I adhere to personally and have steeped in my entire life and especially in my seminary years. The implication of this is that if you’re not Presbyterian, I might answer something differently than you have been told by your pastor. I encourage you in those cases to go to your pastor and have a conversation about denominational differences. When I quote theologians, they will be reformed theologians like John Calvin, for the most part. If you ask me “Why didn’t you mention what X has to say about this?” My answer is likely to be “Because I don’t think X has a reformed answer to this question.”

The premise that I’m answering these questions from a reformed standpoint is very important to this question’s answer. Theologians are all over the board on this one. So my interest is not in giving the end all – be all answer that can’t be beat for this question - even though I think I’m right - my interest is giving an answer that is appropriate for my own congregational setting and is congruent with my own thinking.  This is generally assumed in other types of writing that I do – church articles, sermons, papers for school – but the internet is a weird world full of trolls and I know there are people who are going to disagree with me.

I do not pretend to have all the answers and my posts are not remotely intended to offer a definitive and comprehensive answer to these questions. They are intended to be a conversation starting point. If they start to point you in the direction of finding a helpful answer to the question, I’ve accomplished my goal. If you do disagree with me on this one, please feel free to A) mind the discussion rules on this blog (http://www.thesquirrelfactor.com/p/care-to-comment.html) and B) comment or link something that says, “This is what XYZ denomination believes is the answer to this question.” This can be a hot one, so let’s all play nice and dive in.

What if the Bible is wrong?

This question was asked by a very sharp kid at my church. I love this little guy and I love that he’s thinking about these things so deeply. He certainly keeps me on my toes.

I think the first thing we need to consider in regards to this question is “what is the Bible?” The way we answer this question affects the answer to the first question drastically. If we see the Bible as the rulebook that we have to get right in order to not burn up in eternal flames, then “What if the Bible is wrong?” is a really terrifying question. Because under this understanding of Scripture, any little mistake in the Bible, or worse if it’s not all literally true, could mean that our salvation is in jeopardy. I truly believe this is why many people cling so dearly to ideas like young-earth creationism. For some people, to say that the Earth is old is to say that there is some sort of flaw in the book of Genesis and that the whole Bible would therefore be nullified and salvation would be forsaken.

According to John Calvin, we can find the Word of God – Jesus – through the Scripture when it is “illuminated” by the Holy Spirit. In other words, there is no magic in the pen and paper involved in the writing of Scripture. The Bible is not Scripture without the power of the Holy Spirit. The church can’t develop any doctrine or rules that are outside of what Scripture (illuminated by the Holy Spirit) reveals to us about God. Scripture reveals God to us.

Calvin also does not believe that the law – the “rules” in the Bible – has to do with our salvation. We’re a mess and we can’t possibly live up to God’s law. Jesus secured our salvation regardless of our inability to follow any law. The law in the Bible has three functions: it acts as a mirror to show us where our hearts/lives are pulling away from God, it acts as a way of restraining evil in the world, and it shows us what sort of world God wants us to live in. The Bible is not a magic code of how to get to heaven. 

In Calvin’s understanding of the Bible, it doesn’t matter if the stories and narratives are literally accurate to every tiny detail. God speaks through poetry and song, through story and letter, even through apocalyptic visions (we’re not even gonna try to go there today). All genres can be illuminated by the Holy Spirit to reveal to us the Truth (Jesus Christ.) In other words, Genesis 1 can be beautiful poetry that tells us about God and God’s goodness in creation and it doesn’t really matter if it was 7 literal days or not. I personally think it’s cooler that way and doesn’t take any of the thunder (figurative or literal thunder – take your pick) away from God. And in Calvin’s understanding of the law part of Scripture, it doesn’t matter if we nail all the rules because we’re human and we’re not going to so Jesus came to redeem us. We are forgiven, end of sentence.

According to Karl Barth, the Bible is not in and of itself the Word of God. Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God’s goodness and forgiveness. Jesus’ entry into the world is God’s decision to be “for” humanity. Jesus cannot be contained by anything, let alone pages in a book. But when the faithful gather around those pages, God can speak through them, thereby making them a word from God and a revelation of the Word of God. God speaks through the words in the Bible unlike those of any other book or person or bit of creation and that is why they are powerful. That is why we hold them as central to our community life, our worship services, and the development of church doctrine. When the Holy Spirit gets involved in the reading of Scripture, God’s Word is revealed.

What does this all have to do with whether the Bible is right or not? Well, when it comes to the little details, it means that it doesn’t matter if they are all literally factually and historically true. It actually makes Scripture more powerful and less vulnerable to nit-picking and arguing over minutia. While I’m not actually sure exactly my little friend was looking at when he asked “what if it’s wrong,” most people who I have talked to about this problem of the Bible being right vs wrong are primarily concerned with the implications of the historical facts being true or not. 

If the question is “what if Christianity is wrong?” or “How do I know this Christian God is real?” is at the heart of this, then it changes the direction of the whole conversation. And my answer to that a little wonky, so bear with me.  The only way to really understand the Christian faith is to ask God to show you what it’s about. Jump in. Start going to a church for a while. Walk the walk and ask God to meet you there. Ask questions.  Have coffee with a trusted Christian minister (trust me when I say we’ll dive into any and all your theological questions if you’re buying the coffee.) Read the Bible and ask God to illuminate it for you. Ask that Jesus would be revealed by the power of the Holy Spirit interacting with the ancient pages of Scripture. The way we know if Christianity is real is quite mystical. We cheapen it if we leave it to academia. We have to leave it to God, not people to fill us in on it’s importance. Just like Scripture cannot be a revelation of God without the movement of the Holy Spirit, the Christian faith is meaningless without the movement of God’s Spirit. Arguing people into believing Christianity is right or wrong doesn’t help anything. It simply creates divisions between people which is the opposite of the important Christian tenants of relationship and love. Besides. . . what do you have to lose? A few hours of sleep on Sunday morning? 

I sincerely hope that this post prompts more questions than it pretends to answer, because really. . . that’s what this journey is. It’s a constant search for more. So keep asking questions! What other questions does this post pose for you? Are there other questions about Christianity, the Bible, or church that are just bugging you? Let’s start a conversation!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Liberty: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Sunday, December 14, 2014 | Advent
Third Sunday of Advent
Year B




Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Ask the Pastor: Why are there so many different versions of the Bible?

This is the first post in what I hope will be an ongoing series called "Ask the Pastor." The whole intro is in a post from last week, but the basic premise is that I've been starting to keep track of the theological questions I'm asked by my congregation, my friends, and my family. I get asked a lot of questions about a whole range of things and it occurred to me that it would be a great idea to keep track of the answers somehow. So along with a running file on my computer that I'll pull from for church newsletters, website, etc, I'm going to start answering the questions here on my blog too. We're starting today with one that was very easy for me to answer, but that has huge implications for how we see the Bible.

Why are there so many different versions of the Bible?

This question was posed to my by one of the teens at my church, as are many of the best questions I have on my list. We read the New International Version in church on Sunday mornings, but I sometimes slip up and read the New Revised Standard Version before my sermon because that's what we read at the last church I was at. A few people in the congregation swear by the King James Version and others like the English Standard. This is barely scratching the surface of English translations of the Bible. If the Bible is central to what we believe, why are there so many "different" Bibles out there? The Bible wasn't originally written in English, so we can't say there is one definitive version of the English Bible that is the "right" version. 

The Old Testament was written in ancient Hebrew originally and the New Testament was written in ancient Greek. Especially in the case of Hebrew, it's difficult to translate anything into another language, let alone something that can be so abstract as the Bible. Hebrew is a strange and quirky language (which is EXACTLY why I love it so much) with bizarre idioms that just don't communicate well in English, so translators have to do their best to figure out how to say certain things in English to communicate them. It's a matter of trying to balance getting the words all the there and still making sense to the modern English reader. There are words in Hebrew that could mean a bunch of different things depending on the context, and the context isn't always very clear. Greek is structurally a little closer to English than Hebrew, but it's still a difficult process. There are verb tenses in Greek that the native English speaker can barely understand, let alone put into common English language. 

The Bible has also been around for. . . oh. . . 2000 years, give or take. There were a few hundred years where the church was sorting out the canon (what goes in and what doesn't), but it's been around for a very long time in some form or another. Language changes. Just think about how differently teens today use words from how their grandparents use them or how the word "literally" is literally being redefined around us as people insist on using it to replace the word "figuratively." As language changes, we need to change how we have translated these biblical texts into English in order to make sense to the people reading them. That's why the King James may be pretty to read, but is hard to make sense of. People just don't talk like that anymore. And people in the Bible weren't going around saying, "ye" and "thy." They were talking in Hebrew and Greek and Aramaic. 

So what's the best translation?

This really depends on what you want it for. There are some versions that are considered more scholarly and better used for academic purposes. In seminary, when we're not using the Greek or Hebrew, we're usually asked to stick with NRSV or ESV, depending on the professor. At my church, we use the New International Version (NIV) because it's a pretty good modern translation that's easy to read. My home church uses the New Living Translation, which is similar to the NIV. In Bible study small groups, I often get out The Message, which is a really fun modern translation that I don't find helpful for scholarly purposes, but is really good for devotional purposes. 

If you're looking for a good translation to read at home and take to church and you can only have one Bible, I recommend getting an NIV or an ESV. If you want to dig deeper, look into a parallel Bible or a Bible app on your phone or tablet that has different translations lined up together. For a web-based Bible, I like biblegateway.com. If you want a good, free app, I recommend Youversion to my classes. For further study and investment, I like Logos Bible software. It's pricy, but if you're writing sermons or lessons, etc, it's well worth it.

The point is to find a version you like to read and read it. God doesn't have a favorite English translation that I know of. God just cares that people are reading and paying attention to what God has to say. And the Holy Spirit can reveal Jesus in any responsible translation of the Bible (I say responsible because if your odd uncle just wrote his own translation or something, there is just cause for suspicion). 

What questions do you have? They might be general questions you've been dying to ask someone or questions that this post prompted. Next time, we're going to talk communion. I've actually had two people - one from my church and one family member - ask about communion lately. Who's allowed to take communion, and what if you miss it for some reason? 

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8: Start the Car

Sunday, December 7, 2014 | Advent
Second Sunday of Advent
Year B




Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Ask the Pastor

Recently when cleaning out a drawer or file in my office, I found a file of "Ask the Pastor" questions. A predecessor had collected things that the congregation had asked and did a newsletter article or snippet in the service to answer the question. I love this idea and I love the interesting questions this super congregation has been asking me. Especially the teenagers. The teens here have wonderful questions. Everything from technical questions about the Bible to questions about heaven and faith.

I've started keep a collection of these questions and I think I'll start using them in the newsletters like the previous pastor and will also muse about them here on the ol' blog. If you have any questions you'd like to ask, let me know and I'll add them to the list. Please comment you questions or email them to me directly.

Here are the questions I've been asked so far (and have answered in person, but will answer here too now in more depth.)

  1. Why are there so many different versions of the Bible?
  2. What if the Bible turns out to be wrong?
  3. Satan was an angel and sinned against God and if God forgives us of our sins has God forgiven Satan and if he did why is Satan still evil?
  4. What is a heathen?
  5. What’s heaven like?
  6. What is communion for and who is allowed to participate in it?
  7. Do I need to be baptized again now that I'm an adult?