The Relationship of the Bible to the Christian Faith: Indispensable?

There is no such thing as Christianity. There are only Christianities, local ones, which operate in local settings. Need I remind you how many branches there are around the world?

As I've said, I left my faith behind when I could no longer believe the Bible. It was a process that began with the recognition that the stories in Genesis 1-11 were nothing more nor less than mythic folktales.

My faith was an evangelical Christian faith, one that believes what the Bible says. So when I could no longer believe the Bible I could no longer believe. It was that simple to me.

The interesting thing about this is that liberal and Catholic Christians will hear my story and pretty much scoff at me, since their faith is not based upon the historical accuracy of the Bible. I find that strange, very strange. But they don't. They claim that if I started out with the correct faith to begin with I wouldn't have left the fold later when my faith in the Bible was shattered.

This is an interesting argument, one I completely reject, since I don't understand why I should believe the community of believers when the stories they preach are not founded on the historical truth. But I raise the issue here. Is the relationship of the Bible to the Christian faith, indispensable?

As an atheist I'm not in the business of settling "in-house" arguments between Christians, and this is one of those type of arguments, one of many. Although, I do think the conservatives have this right.

29 comments:

Andrew Louis said...

Sure,
but we could say the same thing about the Boy Scouts, or Democracy, science, philosophy, the arts, so on.

You merely seem to be recognizing that, just like everything else, Christianity (whatever we define it as) manifests itself culturaly. But theres nothing in that recognition which in and of itself makes it a false belief, and/or useless as a piece of human solidarity or reflection of the human spirit, so on and so on....

But what's being called false? And why?

Andrew Louis said...

I just realized you have to click on the "read more" botton to get the full post...

Are you claiming that the only lagitimate view of the bible to have is the literal view? It's pretty easy and seemingly shallow to be an atheist if this is all your attacking...

Nothing personal - I'm as of yet unfamiliar with your blog and personality.

John W. Loftus said...

Andrew, not at all. What I do think is that if these stories do not have a shred of historicity to them then there is no reason to believe at all.

bob said...

I agree John, and this makes it all the more difficult to...debunk?...Christianity(ies) because you can debunk one, but another one will protest, claiming that they don't agree with the one you just debunked anyway.
So, the debunking will never end.

Perhaps you should wait for all the Christianities to iron out their differences, then you will have only one to debunk.

Excellent thoughts. From now on, when someone tells me that they are a Christian, I am going to ask them which Christianity do they represent.

Andrew Louis said...

To feel out a little:
Does the validity of Platonism rest on historicity? If we find out there was no such figure as Plato, and furthermore there was no such place as Greece, what do we make of Platonism? Is there still such a thing as Newtonian physics without Newton?

Paul said...

Re: Andrew Louis - the validity of Platonism may not exactly rest on the historicity of Plato, but the validity of Christianity, in any sort of "orthodox" form, does rest on the historicity of Christ.

Having said that, Re: the original post, I left Christianity for more or less the same reason in 2006, with a few other technicalities I won't go into. I then came back to faith last year, accepting the general "truth" of the Bible, but not necessarily the historicity of the WHOLE thing. That distinction is important - I don't really care about the historicity of, say, the flood account (although I would argue with you that the rhetoric of "nothing more nor less than" myth is unfair - myth IS truth (and truth is myth!) to some extent - to what extent is certainly complex) but the Christian faith per se stands or falls on the historicity of the person and resurrection of Christ. As Paul (not me) said, if Christ is not raised, you're all dead men, and your faith is in vain.

Point is, I personally don't have a problem with believing in the historicity of large chunks of the Bible, while acknowledging that not all of it is historical. Then again, I would give the same "grace" (for lack of a better word) to any ancient historian, even if they don't subscribe to the same modern myths (*smile*) about historiography and the scientific method as we do. Read (if you haven't) the beginning of Livy, and you'll see what I mean.

Carbon Based said...

"Point is, I personally don't have a problem with believing in the historicity of large chunks of the Bible, while acknowledging that not all of it is historical."

Then that places the bible on the same "truthness" level as L Ron Hubbards" Scientology. Does Scientology have an equal amount of truthiness?

Jeff said...

I think the issue here is a difference between what is literal/historical, and what is true. Liberal Christians (at least some of them) would likely be willing to admit that not all of the Bible is literal or historical, but that it can still be true. I find this an odd distinction myself, but I suppose it would be similar to a metaphor or a parable or a fable. We can say that the tortoise and the hare are certainly not actual figures, but that doesn't say anything about the meaning behind it.

Now, in regard to what Paul (the previous commenter, not the saint) said, some liberal Christians (like Borg or Spong, for example) might argue that the historicity of the resurrection is important. They can re-interpret it as some sort of "metaphorical" resurrection. It doesn't really matter for our purposes what they really say about it, just that to them, the meaning behind the words is more important than the factual information that the words present.

So there you have the result of my ongoing analysis of liberal Christianity, which I find such an odd concept, probably due to my conservative upbringing :)

jbudrdanl said...

I find it troubling, John, that you and all other atheists insist on lumping all Christians into the same box and objecting when we point out how patently unrealistic that is. You don't do that with any other group of people, I'm sure.

You and all atheists don't believe that all Democrats are party loyalists for the same reasons, do you? You don't force all Yankees fans to cheer for their team for only one reason (however ridiculous that may be!). You fully expect various doctors to prescribe different medicines for the same ailments on occasion.

My point is that you and all atheists insist that all Christians be described the same and believe the same things. We don't. Certainly no more than you and all atheists believe the same things.

By the way, I am over half way done reading Why I Became An Atheist and am enjoying it very much. I grew up near Ft. Wayne and much of my adult life has been influenced by the Restoration Movement churches and schools, so I am relating to a lot of it as well. Great research and analysis. I look forward to finishing the book soon.

It would be great to have a blog discussion board to discuss your points in an analytical dialog. Maybe one exists and I am not aware of it.

Dan

corn walker said...

I see only three possibilities here:

1) All of the bible is historically and factually true.
2) Some of the bible is historically and factually true.
3) None of the bible is historically or factually true.

We can easily discount the third case, since since some events recorded in the bible are corroborated by external sources that are considered historically reliable. This leaves us reasonably assured that (2) is true, with the possibility that (1) is true.

Fundamentalists have a consistent and defensible theology in believing (1). The problem they encounter, however, is that no amount of mental gymnastics can reconcile the internal contradictions. This is compounded by the progression of time - where we have better translations of the bible that were unavailable to the fundamentalist of the past. It's conceivable, then, that we will have future translations and perhaps even additional sources that provide further contradictions or alter our understanding of passages critical to the christian faith.

This shifting understanding of the bible implies, if not directly states in concert with our dismissal of (3), that the second case is the one most likely to be true. This is the view that catholics and many liberal traditions hold - that the bible contains many stories that are parables of morality and mythical legends, but that the essence of its message remains true.

Here they have a problem: the bible has no external authentication to delineate truth from mere allegory. For those that hold the belief that some of the bible is true, and some of it isn't, there is no marginal notation within the bible that says, "the following three verses are to be taken literally; those that follow them are metaphor."

Some would claim that there is external authentication: the testimony of the holy spirit. If this is the case, then the plurality of christian sects and christian belief is a testament to the ineffectiveness of the holy spirit to consistently authenticate those portions of the bible that are true or a fundamental failing of humans to understand the holy spirit. In either case, such authentication becomes meaningless when there are no external standards by which we can come to some agreement as to what the holy spirit intended to convey.

What we're left with is a collection of writings, some subset of which is known to be false, and no reliable external mechanism by which we can validate each claim made in those writings. This leaves the liberal christian with no rational basis for their faith either within the biblical writings or external to them. Such christians resort to cherry picking the tenets consistent with their theology or that simply "feel good" while ignoring those that are contradictory.

Genesis 1-11 is a problem for both liberal and fundamentalist christians alike, despite the latter's attempts to simply ignore the inability to reconcile our perceived world with the clearly inaccurate "science" of the bible. For the liberal, however, it is only the beginning of such problems as the remainder of the collection are replete with inaccuracies, internal contradictions, and scattered with a thoroughly reprehensible template for what is considered "divine morality."

Andrew Louis said...

Paul,
There are lots of undefined things here that make it difficult to have this conversation, i.e. TRUTH. When you say myth IS truth and truth is myth, are you here adopting a sort of Cupitt view of Christianity (i.e. Non-realism)? Although perhaps you could define “myth”?

The problem is you seem to take one version of truth and conflate it with another by insisting (as apposed to above) that the objective reality of Christ is crucial - Christianity stands or falls with it. However if faith stands or falls with objective reality, then what’s the point of faith? In other words, If we adopt a materialist/realist view of truth, not only is there no need for faith, but no room in the view for a God either. I say this because of course, you have no justification aside from the authority of the Bible on which to stand – no historical evidence (I’ll suggest) will ever prove a person dying and coming back to life.

James F. McGrath said...

Just two quick points. First, it is interesting to note that you claim is that your evangelical faith was one that "believes what the Bible says". Yet it seems that in fact that faith shielded you from what the Bible actually says in at least some instances (e.g. the characteristics of the creation stories that show there to be more than one, each containing elements of a mythical pre-scientific perspective.

The other thing I'd mention is that, since there was no Christian Bible when Christianity arose (although there was at least the basis of the Jewish Bible), it seems that the only way one can say that the Bible is indispensible to the Christian faith is to deny that the earliest Christians were Christians! :)

John W. Loftus said...

James McGrath, if you think Christianity is a many splintered thing now, what would it look like if there never was a NT at all? My question has to do with whether or not the NT is indispensible to Christians today in the sense that at least some important things recorded in it actually happened as recorded and that we have the interpretive tools to distiguish fact from allegory and myth.

Paul S said...

I don't understand how Christians can claim they don't really care about the historical accuracy of the Bible EXCEPT when it comes to their acceptance of the historicity of Jesus's birth, life, death, and resurrection. I mean, how can a Christian discount many things in the Bible as allegory or metaphor (or contemporary myth) yet be insistent that the accounts of Jesus were indeed singularly historically accurate?

feeno said...

W'dup everybody

Yes John, to me it is very important that the Bible be 100% accurate. And I do interpret it literally.

That doesn't mean I don't think a rich man can't get to heaven, because we know a donkey can't fit through an eye of a needle? If I told you it was as cold outside as a witches tit, but the temperature was 12 degrees and the witches tit was 25 degrees would you not make the connection that I'm just trying to tell you it's cold out.

I am a "fundy" (I guess) i.e. 6,000 yr old earth, Christ conquered death, He's coming back etc.. So for me personally it is very important that the bible be accurate. But I don't have a problem with Gen 1-11 or the historical "inconsistencies" that you seem to believe their is.

Now we do have quite a few differences inside the body of believers, but what do you mean you think that the conservatives have right?

P.S. My daughter is a basketball player and before every one of her games I get butterflies for her. I kinda feel that way about you and this debate on Fri.. In some weird sorta way I do want you to do well. Good luck, I'm sure we'll get a full report.

Peace out, feeno

ahswan said...

John,

I have to disagree with your statement, "There is no such thing as Christianity. There are only Christianities, local ones, which operate in local settings." The vast majority of Christians, regardless of "side issues" affirm the Apostles' Creed, which sets a baseline, as it were, for Christianity. There are certainly different expressions of the church, but most also affirm "one holy, catholic and apostolic" church.

That being said, I think Mr. McGrath answered you well- for a number of years, there were no "New" Testament documents. Obviously the original recipients had various letters first, then they were passed around. It took some period of years for the entire NT to be collected. Obviously, as Christianity spread like wildfire in those early years, the documents themselves were not essential.

It is clear from the documents that the "Gospel" message, however, was being orally transmitted; that message, whether oral or written, is "indispensable."

While most Christians hold the Bible to be authoritative (which is a better word than either indispensable or inerrant), our faith is not in the documents, but in the message.

Bruce said...

John,

Most Fundamentalists and Evangelicals rest their faith on sola scriptura (Scripture alone) No Bible No Faith. As I have been told time and again, If there is one error then the whole book is invalid.

But there is error. There are mistakes. People expect too much from the Bible and it will disappoint every time.

I treat the Bible as spiritual literature. I have no compulsion to make everything fit. Granted, I am a univeralist, nigh agnostic and most Evangelicals consider me a non-Christian (contrary to a 25 yr pastoral ministry in Evangelical Churches)

You are quite right about the sectarian nature of Christianity. I have a blog post brewing in my head-Which Christianity? There is no ONE FAITH.

I am comfortable with the universalist approach of all roads leading to the same place.

While I am not an atheist, I can readily understand how, especially former evangelicals, end up there.

As I watched Religulous over the weekend I wanted to throw up over how Christianity looks (and is)Especially in the US. The Christian Church does more to create atheists than any other thing.

I admit I have not arrived. I continue to read, study, and engage others in discussion. Reading your blog is part of the journey.

I appreciate your blog.

Bruce

Scott said...

As an attempt to understand liberal Christianity, it's unclear how the Bible not be historical and yet reveal truths.

Do stories in the Bible reveal things about the nature of God or Jesus by presenting a sequence of events which would have been historically accurate had they actually found themselves in what are depicted as historical situations, but did not actually occur?

busterggi said...

And let us not forget that the idae for a new testament was originated by Marcion, who was declared a heretic by the church in his own lifetime.

It wasn't until more than a century later that, on request by Constantine, the church started to organize its canon - which still isn't finished as various versions of Christianity use various versions of the "inerrant" book.

Anthony said...

Bruce, thanks for coming by and commenting. I remember you from my past religious life but I cannot place exactly where I remember you from. I'm thinking that we may have been on the same email discussion group. Anyway I am glad to see that you have thrown off evangelicalism and that you continue to think through these things.

Bruce said...

Anthony,

Sponsored the CHARIS discussion list in the 90's. Participated on the Theology discussion list during that time.

The horse s out of the barn......no going back. :)

Bruce

Kenn said...

Ehrman notes that the early Judeo-Christian traditions distinguished themselves by being "bookish" religions (as opposed to pagans whose traditions were communicated orally, for the most part.)

My view has been that Christianity reinvents itself (echoed by John in an earlier post). Consider the most popular Christian flavors of the 17th through 19th centuries and identify those still standing, unmolested. Gone are the Quakers, Mary Baker Eddy, the high-Latin-high-liturgical Catholics, the ghost-popping spiritualists, the big-tabernacle evangelists (Whitefield) and, of course, the Puritans.

The latest invention is the song and dance dramatics designed to attract an entertainment-addicted generation -- and seems to be failing.

But the book is the glue that ties the trends together; generation after generation; change after change.

Anthony said...

Bruce,

Yes, it was the Theology email list during the 90s. That was back in my Landmark Baptist days.

Bruce said...

Anthony,

Yes I remember. We traded some emails. I checked your blogger page I saw your last name then I remembered. Fellow Ohioans.

I would love to hear about how you got to where you are now.

Bruce

Anthony said...

Bruce, I just posted my "deconversion" testimony about a week ago. Click here.

Russ said...

jbudrdanl said,

I find it troubling, John, that you and all other atheists insist on lumping all Christians into the same box and objecting when we point out how patently unrealistic that is. You don't do that with any other group of people, I'm sure.


So, Dan, if Christians should not all be lumped together as a one-size-fits-all mindset, why do they continually refer to themselves with the seemingly all-encompassing word, "Christian?" If they can't all be called Christian why do so many of them use the same word? We know there are many distinct Christian groups which consider themselves to be the one, the only "True Christians," but for every group having those grandiose self-perceptions, there are literally tens of thousands of other groups calling themselves Christian who will strongly disagree.

The current Pope, for instance, regularly and emphatically states in his public addresses that to be other than Roman Catholic is to be hellbound. He's certain of this, mind you. Clearly, the concept of "Christian" is not all-inclusive for that top-shelf Christian theologian. Elsewhere among those embracing that Christian label, the Pentacostals, to pick one of the myriad Christianities, spend a great deal of time enumerating the Catholic-specific sins which they are certain -- again certain -- will elicit a fiery eternity for all Catholics. Both agree that the other is damnedably different from themselves, but not so damnedably different that they would either change their name to something other than Christian or insist that others give it up.

So, be it that Christians lump themselves together, its perfectly reasonable for others, including various critics, to indulge them by following suit. Since there is no standard version of "Christianity" -- notably, there is no Christianity Clearinghouse for Incipient Sects -- the variations among the numerous extant Christianities are so great that the very word Christian is essentially meaningless except in a narrow parochial, almost individual congregation, sense.

Realize, too, that no reliable Field Guide to Christian Subspecies exists. Some Christian are atheists. Some Christians do not believe that miracles ever have or ever will happen. Some Christians do not believe that Jesus was divine, born of a virgin, or resurrected. There are even Christians who insist that are themselves Jesus. But, again, they all persist in identifying themselves as Christians, and since there is no such thing as religious trademark infringement, their claim to Christianhood is as legitimate as Rick Warren's, the Pope's, or any other so-called Christian.

Beyond that, anyone can concoct their own version of Christianity -- think Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church, Joseph Smith and Mormonism, Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science, and David Koresh and the Branch Davidians -- and achieve instant legitimacy among believers simply by adopting the label "Christian." These people need and want the marketing, name recognition, and cash-producing muscle of the Christian Brand.

While they count their offering plates they thank their god for the sales benefits of that broader than broad Christian label, but they cry foul when they suffer the pain of guilt by association when a critic treats them as as much a part of the festering wound as any other sub-Christianity.

Most Christians love being part of the 2.1 billion or so Christians when asserting political and marketing power. But, when the glare of critical scrutiny looms over them, they long for, seek out and melt into the anonymity of their overwhelming Christian variegation. They choose a state of aggregation that best suits their offensive or defensive posture.

As an offensive political constituency they put on the one-big-happy-Christian-family face, as with getting the last US President elected or pushing through Proposition 8 in California. For defense they shrink to a single pixel in an intensely diverse landscape composed entirely of distinct Christianities. They know that no item of doctrine, theology, or practice applies universally across all Christianities, so all criticisms must be directed at the specific goings-on related to at most a few of the nearly forty thousand distinct Christianities in existence. Given the numbers alone, each version of Christianity presents such a narrow profile, such a slim target that the "that's not my Christianity" defense works much of the time.

Brad Haggard said...

I think this is a good question, John.

Coming out of the same tradition you did, I know what you are talking about with "believing the Bible." But I realized that "believing" doesn't mean holding to certain doctrines. Like the pre vs. amillenial debate over Revelation. Are you only a Christian if you are a dispensationalist? No, because that is not an article of faith. So there is liberty in interpretation. I really think this is an outworking of the Restoration call, you know, "in matters of opinion, liberty, and in all things, love."

So how do you tell? I've tried in the last year to let genre inform my interpretation. So when I stopped looking at Revelation as some sort of timeline and read it for what it is, Jewish Apocalyptic literature, it made a lot of sense finally. I then realized I had done the same thing with Genesis 1-11, reading it as some sort of science text instead of as creation myth. It has a much richer meaning. I'm starting to read Job now as wisdom literature instead of history.

So I read the Gospels as historiography, taking the history in them, because that is what they are meant to do. Christ comes before the Bible, and J.P. Moreland has really influenced me in this direction.

Also, I just listened to a debate with Gary Habermas in which he didn't dispute an old-earth position or a global flood, and I don't think you would label him as "liberal".

Andre said...

You know, if only you Christians were able to rewrite the Bible, it would help in making this world a better place. Because if it is the case that it shouldn't be taken literally, then rewrite it and indicate what is literal, and what is myth, legend, metaphor, etc. You people make it seem like everyone reads the bible and knows what is and what's not literal, when most don't have a clue.

There is something obviously wrong if the writers and editors didn't make the purpose of their writings clear. It's obvious they had no idea it would be canonized to be read by people in our modern time. As we can see, it is clearly not speaking to us and makes no sense to us in today's world. Therefore, any message of salvation or faith is likewise, not speaking to us in today's world, especially Christ's supposed resurrection.

James F. McGrath said...

I would point out (in response to Corn Walker) that #1 in his list (the Bible is entirely true) is not really an option. What fundamentalists do is not consistently take the Bible literally and believe all of it, but conveniently ignore or interpret away the "stuff that contradicts the other stuff" (to quote Ned Flanders). They presuppose that "Scripture cannot contradict Scripture", decide which verses are "what the Bible teaches", and then any passages that don't fit are dealt with by saying "they can't possibly mean X, because we already know the Bible says Y, and the Bible cannot contradict itself." Anyone who is not currently a fundamentalist will see the problems with this "reasoning".

As for option #2, namely that some things are true and some aren't, there is indeed a way of sifting through the material. It is known as the historical critical method. It doesn't provide certainty, and it can't help with claims to the supernatural, but it certainly provides helpful criteria by which to evaluate evidence.

Returning to the first point, I suppose that has some relevance to John's question for me. I'm not sure that having or not having the New Testament puts definitive constraints on the diversity of Christianity. Some of the "Gnostic" groups in the early Church had at least some of the New Testament, and since they were quite happy to allegorize parts of it (while being far more woodenly literalistic at times, particularly in reading Genesis 1-3, than modern young earth creationists) it was almost infinitely flexible. Even those groups that claim to believe the whole Bible as God's inerrant Word are so diverse.

So if it were up to me, I'd reverse the question: Can modern fundamentalist Christianity survive with the Bible if all its details were to become common knowledge, and the fact that they "cherry pick" at least as much as the liberals they denounce for doing so became clear for all to see as a result?