Is The Bible True? Is This The Right Question?

In the United States, the right-wing side of the Christian community recently became enraged when an evangelical pastor posted a pic on FB and Twitter of a Bible labeled as “fiction” at Costco. Ed Stetzer at Christianity Today is connected with the pastor on Twitter and talked with him about it. Here’s the piece:

Near the end of his comments, Pastor Caleb Kaltenbach said the Bible always confronts people with a question: Is it true or not? This is a valid question, in our Western minds. We always want to weigh things empirically with analysis and ask if “it” is true or not. This may be a proposition or set of propositions, ideas or concepts posed for belief. However, the Bible isn’t on our Western post-Enlightenment wavelength and faith is seated in the soul, not the mind. The mind cannot believe; it can only think.

I receive the Bible as inspired by the Holy Spirit, but written by people. Those people were inspired, but there are different ways in which they could be inspired at one given time. There are layers of inspiration, as there are layers of meaning in the text and the writers did not think as we do. For them, and for faith itself, the empirical question doesn’t arise: not because an answer that “yes, it is true” is presupposed, but because sacred text is an ocean we dive into for exploration. That exploration is, in part, an intellectual exercise – we play with how doctrines look from different angles and through different filters. Church history is rich with different doctrinal structures, and they are sometimes so completely different that they seem worlds apart. Closer together, there are different nuances of meaning that shed very different light on Biblical teachings. So, the question that a Biblical way of thinking starts with is not “Is it true?,” but “How is it true.” We ask this, not because we’ve settled the question “is it true?,” but because we realize we must go on a journey of exploring the matter before we can ask that question.

The whole time, as we are conducting this intellectual exercise, we discover that our eyes themselves (figuratively-speaking) are being changed. We Westerners are obsessed with what we look at, whereas the Bible is more concerned with how  we look at it. Our Western – binary – way of processing information doesn’t quite fit with reading the Bible. To do so is to treat it as a textbook or a constitution, which was how the Old Testament Law was treated and most of the Christian church has brought this way of thinking to the New Testament. There are pieces of Biblical text that should be interpreted literally, but even with some of those, context sheds a unique light on that literal interpretation that will leave us with different understandings of the Bible’s teaching compared to what we end up with when context is not our framework for handling the text. Our perception – how we think – can be changed and in that, it is not just our minds that touch transformation. That re-formative power is the Word of God in the midst of the text. This is the Bible’s power.

Christ is the Word of God

Christ is the Word of God. It is not the Bible itself that transforms us – Christ does by means of the Holy Spirit. The Bible is called out by the Spirit as the training ground in and through which we encounter Christ, the Word of God, who is The Truth.

Christ and the nature of truth

Not only do we Westerners come to the Bible with the default question posed as “is it true?,” we also ask “what is truth?” This assumes the answer is ideological.

In Christianity, the question is not posed as “what” is truth, but “who” is truth. Let’s explore that:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer posed a couple hypothetical scenarios in “Ethics” in which there is a certain tension. In one, there is a schoolboy who is continually late for class. His father is an alcoholic and the boy’s tardiness stems, in one way or another, from his father’s addiction. The teacher knows the child’s father is an alcoholic and on one occasion when the boy is late to school, the instructor calls him out when he enters the classroom. “What’s the matter Johnny, was your father drunk again?” The boy is put on the spot and embarrassed in front of all his classmates. Bonhoeffer points out that there are two Commandments at play here: Thou Shalt Not Lie and Thou Shalt Honor Thy Father and Mother. The boy is in a “catch 22.” He can tell the truth and hang his father out to dry by not protecting him from the disgrace he has brought upon himself and, one may say, deserves, or the boy can lie and obviously break that commandment.

Bonhoeffer reasons that the boy should not only lie, but lie for all he is worth. The brilliant theologian maintained that if the boy tells the truth, he dishonors his father and honors the teacher. If he lies, he honors his father and dishonors the teacher. Bearing relationship in mind, the boy has a greater duty to be faithful to his father and his relationship with his father than he does whatever relationship he has with the teacher. So, for Bonhoeffer, “truth” and “faithfulness” are interchangeable terms.

In the other scenario, a woman living in Nazi Germany is hiding a Jewish family in her basement. After serving them a meal, she comes back upstairs and hears a knock at the door. It’s the Gestapo. They are patrolling door-to-door on the hunt for Jews. They ask her if she has seen any Jews lately. What is she to do? Now, I think common sense dictates she should lie and not so much as blink an eye at the mere hint it could be a transgression or a sin in any manner. However, religion can get in the way when it thinks of truth in philosophical terms. In a college course called “Christian Philosophy,” the professor proposed this scenario and put the question to the class: What should the woman do? One student said she should “tell the truth and trust God.”

In exploring the tension between commandments and how to live out being faithful to them in real-life situations, the point Bonhoeffer makes is that to be faithful is to be true. So, for us, faithfulness to Christ is our very faith. This may play itself out differently from one situation to the next and it may require breaking a rule or two because it is a living faith as opposed to a static religion based on rules and “traditions of men,” as Jesus called them.


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