Friday, November 11, 2005

Inquisitive, not an Inquisitor

Smallholder over at Naked Villainy has been posting a series of posts on Intelligent Design and religion, specifically on those who hold to a literal translation of the bible. I made a comment on one of the threads, and he replied. I feel compelled to reply here, since this gives me a much larger space to express my thoughts.

Let me start by saying that yes, Smallholder, to answer your first question to me, I do believe in a literal translation of the Bible. I believe it is the inspired Word oof God, and that it is true in its entirety. Despite this, you may be shocked to learn that:

1. I do not advocate the burning of witches or heretics (though for Oakland Raider fans, I'll make an exception).
2. I do not believe the Earth is flat.
3. I do not reject the heliocentric Solar System.
4. I do not believe that all matter is made up of the four elements (Earth, Wind, Fire, Water). Though if I did, I'd argue for the existence of a fifth: Grooviness.
5. I do not hold to a view of medecine governed by the balance of bile, phlegm, vapors, Funk, or whatever. I have a rudimentary but modern grasp of biology.
6. I am not a literal 7-day creationist. I would probably best be characterized as a "Theistic Evolutionist", though even that term is fraught with all sorts of complications.
7. I bathe.
8. I am (at least semi-)literate.
9. I did not marry my cousin.
10. I don't think that other ethnicities are Mud People" or "Cursed of God".

I know, this may surprise those of you out there who, like Smallholder, ask, "Why is it that the most hateful Christians wrap themselves in the cloak of literal translation? And why does their literal, inerrant translation ignore the words of the Bible that aren't congruent with their hatred? "

That's a good question, and one that troubles those of us who wrap our literal translations in the cloak of love.

The best answer I can come up with is that Smallholder's "Cloak" imagery is appropriate, since what such people do is merely a disguise -- Wolves in Sheep's clothing (if it's alright for me to actually apply a biblical term). I suspect that such individuals came to the Bible already holding to certain hateful beliefs, and then cherry-picked the Bible for bits and pieces to support their prejudice. then they couched their argument as "Just following what the bible says". But This is no more being faithful to a literal translation than any over-tolerant liberal view of scriptures. This is just bad biblical scholarship. But I'll get to that later.

I'm afraid Smallholder has committed several logical errors in his assault on literal translation of the Bible.

The first error is that he's assumed that "All A are B, therefore all B are A". This does not follow. Specifically he has decided that since certain narrow-minded, bigoted, hateful, individuals who hold to certain unscientific, uneducated, archaic beliefs also claim to believe in a literal translation of the Bible, then anyone who believes in a literal translation of the bible must be a narrow-minded, bigoted, hateful, individual who holds to certain unscientific, uneducated, archaic beliefs. But as you can see from my disclaimer, that is not the case.

The second error he commits is the fallacy of False Dilemma. He tells me that I must either reject a literal translation of the bible or accept certain very absurd beliefs. This completely ignores the possibility that I might accept a literal translation of the bible, but reject said beliefs as misrepresenting what the Bible actually says. What he's done is accept that there is only one proper way to "literally" translate the bible.

Notice the similarities between the two errors. I'd submit that they both stem from the same root cause, Smallholder's final error, and the error also committed, ironically, by those with whom he takes such issue. And that error is to engage, as I've said, in poor biblical scholarship.

I'd like to take a moment first of all to address what I mean when I say I believe in a literal translation of the Bible, because that may be the source of the confusion.

Caveat Emptor: While I grew up the son of an excellent pastor, and have SOME Bible College education under my belt, I'm by no means a Theologian. I'm sure my good friend David A. Reed could address this better than I. But I'll do my best.

When I say that I interpret the Bible literally, this is what I mean: I believe that the Bible is Divinely Inspired, that it is inerrant and self-consistent, and that what it says is so, is. However, I also believe in interpreting the Bible Literarily. By that I mean that the Bible, while true, is also a piece of literature, and as such must be read as one.

Divinely Inspired means God-Breathed, not God-Dictated. God inspired the writers to write certain truths, but he allowed them to write them in their own style, while at the same time ensuring that the writer's style did not interfere with the accuracy of what they wrote. It was a partnership between the Holy Spirit and the writer that I'm sure only they understand.

But this means that the writers of the bible wrote in certain styles, used literary devices, and themes, turned certain phrases in certain ways to convey not only facts, but ideas and emotions, to evoke specific moods. The Bible is a story, or a series of intertwined stories. As C.S. Lewis once said, it's the Myth that happens to be True.

So when we interpret the Bible, in order to do so literally, all that is required is that we accept that what it says is the truth. To then go on and interpret it literarily, we must pay attention not only to WHAT truth it presents, but HOW it presents it. This means taking into account things like style, device, context, etc.

Furthermore, there are a few other important concepts to take into consideration: One of these is the idea that the Bible does not attempt to present itself as speaking authoritatively on EVERY topic, only those topics on which it DOES speak. And it's important to pay attention to what it DOESN'T say as much as what it DOES -- whether remaining silent on an entire topic, or leaving certain things unsaid about a topic it DOES address.

Let's use the scripture Smallholder uses (misuses?) as an example:

And Jacob took him rods of green poplar, and of the hazel and chestnut tree; and pilled white strakes in them, and made the white appear which was in the rods.
And he set the rods which he had pilled before the flocks in the gutters in the watering troughs when the flocks came to drink, that they should conceive when they came to drink.

And the flocks conceived before the rods, and brought forth cattle ringstraked, speckled and spotted.

And Jacob did separate the lambs, and set the faces of the flocks the ringstraked, and all the brown in the flock of Laban; and he put his own flocks by themselves, and put them not unto Laban's cattle.

And it came to pass, whensoever the stronger cattle did conceive, that Jacob laid the rods before the eyes of the cattle in the gutters, that they might conceive among the rods.

But when the cattle were feeble, he put them not in; so the feebler were Laban's, and the stronger Jacob's.

Now, William Bennetta (and by his assent, Smallholder) would have you believe that the Bible is presenting this as a description of how genetics works. This just isn't so. What they are overlooking is context. It may come as some shock to Smallholder, but the Bible has quite a bit to say about Jacob prior to this passage, and after. It may also be a surprise to learn that reading the other things the Bible has to say about Jacob might reveal something (or things) about Jacob's personality and character, as well as his family history, that would shed some light on this passage.

Among the things we would learn is that his family, from his grandparents down through his parents, and including him, have a tendency to take promises God has made to them, and then take them into their own hands. In other words, They would believe God was powerful enough to accomplish things, but then decide they were clever enough to figure out HOW God would accomplish them, and take it upon themselves to accomplish things in that manner on God's behalf. They tended to get into all sorts of trouble by doing this -- see also Ishmael.

So let's take this situation. God had told Jacob he would bless him, and would increase his flocks until he was richer than his Fasther-In-Law. He DIDN'T tell him how it would happen. So Jacob decided it would happen by running a con on Laban.

HOW he did it, or THINKS, he did it, is also indicative of another family trait -- all the way back to Abraham, Jacob's family had been reticent to completely abandon their pagan, polytheistic practices. You'll notice that the passage leading up to this section never says that Jacob fashioned the funky woodwork under direct instruction fron God -- he just did it. I wasn't sure why, but a cursory Google search of bible commentaries produced this, which postulates that it was some form of superstitious practice common in the region.

That commentary makes another point that is important when interpreting scripture: Just because the Bible describes someone as engaging in a particular practice, doesn't mean the Bible is endorsing that practice.

Finally, with regards to the end result of the passage, namely, the fact that Jacob's flocks WERE increased, and Laban's decreased:

God had told Jacob that it would be so, and God keeps his word. When God acts, his actions supercede the normal laws othat govern the physical world. That's because God is not confined to the physical Universe, and thus not bound by its laws (laws that he himself put in place). Under normal circumstances, he allows those laws to run their course. But if he chooses to act outside of those laws, he is free to do so. This is the definition of a miracle. And that's what happened in this case. God's miraculous increase of Jacob's flocks intervenes in the normal process of genetics -- it does not negate those laws. To claim that God made an expection in one case is not to claim that this disproves those laws in all cases. And furthermore, God's blessing on Jacob was in disregard of Jacob's little tree-cutting escapade, not because of it. The passage is describing a sequence of events, but is not claiming causality between them:

Clyde M. Woods says:

"There seems to be no valid scientific evidence that the procedure Jacob followed would ordinarily work, although ancient peoples had confidence in such devices. later, Jacob learned that his success was due, not to his ingenious and somewhat questionable devices, but rather to God's providential care which prevented Laban from defrauding him (see Genesis 31:7.9.12)."
Let me make one more point:

In the quote Smallholder posted, Bennetta makes the following comment:

"To persons who imagine that they can learn about nature by rejecting evidence and reason in favor of ancient tribal tales, biblical genetics will certainly look like great stuff. I commend it to the fundamentalists' attention. "

I understand that these are Bennetta's words, not Smallholder's. However, I cannot beleive that anyone can characterize the Bible as merely "ancient tribal tales" without being hostile to Christianity as a faith. Why do I say that? Because Christians are, by definition, followers of Christ. And throughout the New Testament, Jesus, the man we accept as being The Christ (Messiah), presents as his credentials, his fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. After reading from Isaiah in the synagogue, he proclaims to the crowd that the words of Isaiah have been fulfilled before them that very day, meaning he was claiming to be himself the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy. He said of himself that he came not to abolish the law but that through him it might be fulfilled.

John wrote of Christs crucifixion:

"When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom. Let's not tear it, they said to one another. "Let's decide by lot who will get it." This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled which said, "They divided my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing." So this is what the soldiers did."
John 19:23-24

Paul wrote of Christ:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
1 Corinthians 15:3-4 (NIV)
Now if Christ is claiming authority on Earth based on the teachings of the scriptures, and the scriptures are merely "ancient tribal tales", then I see no reason to grant him any greater authority or claim to my allegiance than any tribal Shaman who has ever spoken. The only reason for me to be a Christian, i.e. a Follower of Christ, is if the Scriptures are the Divinely Inspired word of God, and therefore the authority they ascribe to Jesus Christ is that of God Himself.


OK, TWO points. The other:

In the comments to one of his posts, Smallholder makes the claim, "Literalists have tried to supress heliocentrism."

I'd like to point out to him that that's not the case. Or at least, not the kind of literalist I claim to be. Specifically, those who tried in the past to supress heliocentrism were the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. You'll note that the RCC believes that Church Traditions and other extrabiblical teachings hold as much weight as doctrine as does the bible itself. And it is based on these doctrinal sources, I would argue, that they opposed heliocentrism. But most post-reformation non-RCC Christians, especially modern evangelicals, like myself, hold to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, or Scripture Alone. Any other teaching, tradition, etc. is subject to Scripture, and should be used only to expound upon it. And if you take that view, and apply the principles of Biblical Interpretation I mentioned above, you'll see that it is quite possible to be a literalist and still recognize that the Earth orbits the Sun.

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