The Bible and Religious Certitude

November 26, 2006

Gutenberg BibleWe’ve had many discussions here about the nature and purpose of the Bible.

I’ve argued many times that the Bible is a narrative of our faith, and needs to interpreted accordingly.  It is divinely inspired, but as it is a narrative of our journey as a people of God it has to be looked at with a critical eye in order to understand God’s message for us.

Others see it as a historical document; a rule book straight from the mouth of God.  Solo scriptura, and all that.

I read an article by John J. Collins of Yale entitled The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence that I found extremely interesting for a seminary class (you can find it here, full MLA citation below).

It discusses how the Bible has been used repeatedly as justification for violence throughout history, recent and not so recent, using passages we conveniently leave out of our Sunday lectionary.

I’m particularly interested in this, because as I have pointed out again and again there are those who would point to the Bible and our Tradition as the sole and “unalterable” source of the Spirit’s revelation to us.  This line of reasoning, so they claim, makes it impossible for the Holy Spirit to be doing what they call “something new” (what I call ‘the same old thing’) today in revealing to us “new rules” (what I call ‘the same old inclusive God’) by showing us how limited our historical tradition has been in excluding gays and lesbians from full inclusion in the church.  “The church has always said it was wrong”, so they argue, so God must think it is so.

That line of argument is based on the inerrancy of the Bible.  That line of reasoning has been used for many sins of the church in the past.

To quote a few from the article:

  1. Oliver Cromwell, on treating the Catholics of Ireland as Canaanites: “there are great occasions in which some men are called to great services in the doing of which they are excused from the common rule of morality.”  Uh-huh.  And who gets to decide that?
  2. The Puritans of New England, casting out the Native Americans from their homelands– one of the great unspoken tragedies that allowed us to live here, summed up in these quotes by Cotton Mather who urged the colonists to go forth against “Amalek annoying this Israel in the wilderness” and Herbert Gibbs who gave thanks for “the mercies of God in extirpating the enemies of Israel in Canaan”.  And how do the Native Americans feel about that?

Collins says, “There is… some irony in the way in which [the] commands of destruction are emedded in the story of the exodus, which has served as the great paradigm of liberation in Western history.  But the liberation of the Israelites and the subjugation of the Canaanites are two sides of the same coin.  Without a land of their own, the liberated Israelites would have nowhere to go, but the land promised to them was not empty and had its own inhabitants.  Read from the Canaanite perspective, this is not a liberating story at all.”

For me this parallels the plight of many of the church’s oppression of marginalized peoples.  Right now, gays and lesbians are oppressed.  From the orthodox perspective, we (GLBT persons) need to make room for the light of Christ to wash away our sins.  From our perspective, this isn’t liberation at all but oppression as those who wish to cleanse us are only trying to eradicate that which is not like them at all.  It is the purging of the Canaanites– to the orthodox we have become the Canaanites and must be eradicated, in this case by assimilation or conversion.  In places like Nigeria, it may be worse.  It is spiritual violence– as Collins quotes, “Violence…is the attempt of an individual or group to impose its will on others through any nonverbal, verbal, or physical means that inflict psychological or physcial injury.”

Often I hear things like, “But this isn’t my will I’m imposing, it is God’s will.”  Right…  How about Judge not lest ye be judged, or:

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?

(See my post from a few days ago.)

We have to recognize that the Bible has some stuff in that isn’t right.  It has stuff requiring human sacrifice.  It can be contorted into things that are not godly.  The only consistent message of the Bible focusing on correcting the behavior of others is social justice; of bringing those who are at the margins of society to the center.  So what to do of the rest?  Of the stuff that doesn’t fit with our moral values of peace instead of violence?

So Collins says:

The least that should be expected of any biblical interpreter is honesty, and that requires the recognition, in the words of James Barr, that “the command of consecreation to destruction is morally offensive and has to be faced as such,” whether it is found in the Bible or the Qur’an.  To recognize this is to admit that the Bible, for all the wisdom it contains, is no infallible guide on ethical matters.  As Roland Bainton put it…”appeal to the Bible is not determinative.”  But historically people have appealed to the Bible precisely because of its presumed divine authority, which gives an aura of certitude to any position it can be shown to support;  in the phrase of Hannah Arendt, “God-like certainty that stops all discussion.”  And here, I would suggest is the most basic connection between the Bible and violence, more basic than any command or teaching it contains.

Because the Bible can be used to make unethical decisions, and hopefully we can agree that by definition God only acts ethically, it is not substantive to say that a gay or lesbian orientation is a sinful orientation simply due to a Biblical argument.  One must find a more sound justification.  I would argue the other way– that the more common theme in the Bible is that of treating others the way that you want to be treated; of not judging each other– and I for one do not wish to be treated the way that the orthodox treat me.  I try not to judge them as I do not wish to be judged by them.  I am willing to let them believe what they believe and hope that in return God will work within their lives to give them the freedom to let them do the same.

What, then, is the power of the Bible?

I agree with Collins, in that “The power of the Bible is largely that it gives an unvarnished picture of human nature and of the dynamics of history, and also of religion and the things that people do in its name.  After all, it is only in the utopian future that the wolf is supposed to live with the lamb, and even then the wolf will probably feel the safe of the two… The Bible does not demystify or demythologize itself.  But neither does it claim that the stories it tells are paradigms for human action in all times and places.”

A final quote from Collins:

Oliver Wendall Holmes, the great American jurist, reflected late in his career that he had entered the Civil War brimming with certitude over the righteousness of abolition, which surely was a righteous cause.  By the end of the war he had drawn a different lesson, that certitude leads to violence.  The Bible has contributed to violence in the world precisely because it has been taken to confer a degree of certitude that transcends human discussion and argumentation.  Perhaps the most constructive thing a biblical critic can do toward lessening the contribution of the Bible to violence in the world, is to show that that certitude is an illusion.

“Transcends human discussion”– discussion requires communion.  We must not place Biblical certitude over communion, over relationships.  When we decide to leave– when we decide to walk apart, when we decide to say “these people need to go” or “we need to become separate”– we are placing our own certitude above the value of that communion.

That, I believe, is a mistake.


Collins, John J.  The Zeal of Phinehas:  The Bible and the Legitimation of ViolenceJournal of Biblical Literature.  O’Day, Gail.  Atlanta:  Candler School of Theology.  Vol 122, 2003. p. 3-21.


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