One of the things that struck me during the Chick-Fil-A debacle couple of weeks ago was a curious theme I perceived in the inundation of negative comments I saw on social media regarding the statements made by Chick-Fil-A COO Dan Cathy, who came out (no pun intended… no, really) in favor of “the biblical definition of the family unit.” What was that theme? It was using the Bible itself to “prove” that Cathy didn’t know what the “biblical” definition of marriage and family really is.
Perhaps you saw it, too: We were treated to a trotting-out of biblical polygamists, rapists, provisions of levitical law that require a widow to marry her husband’s brother, et cetera, ad nauseam. A-ha! There’s “biblical” for you! Look at all those sorry miscreants in the Bible, presenting an image of marriage and family life that would make the chicken-and-pickle-chomping Christian suburbanite shudder! Ha! We got ‘em! And while we’re at it, let’s also mention that God hates shrimp, that God starts wars, and so on. The idea, of course, is to delegitimize the Bible or at least to claim that people who follow the “biblical” model of this or that are ignoring vast portions of Scripture to suit their own purposes.
What struck me about all this is that these atheists and various other assorted anti-Christians were reading the Bible essentially as sola scriptura fundamentalists. In essence, they presume to claim that their own reading of the Bible is the only possible one, that their reading is also quite obvious (perspicuity), and that the Bible is the sole basis for Christian doctrine, life and legitimacy. If the Bible can be made unpalatable even to Christians, then it just shows that the whole Christian enterprise is bunk.
And, true to form, I saw plenty of sola scriptura Protestants arguing with these atheist fundamentalists on exactly the same grounds. The exchanges just got shriller and shriller, with each side claiming that the other must be stupid, evil or uneducated, which is what brought about their fallacious reading of the Bible.
None of this is new, of course. People have been using the Bible against Christians for a long time. But when they do, they almost always do so precisely in these terms, with a sola scriptura hermeneutic. Here, look: I read this thing in the Bible. Isn’t it bad? Christianity is bunk!
This whole problem rests on what no one is really talking about, that everyone reads the Bible from within a tradition, even sola scriptura Protestants who say they don’t adhere to tradition. (If nothing else, sola scriptura is their tradition, and it’s an extra-biblical tradition, too.) The anti-Christian looking for “gotchas” in the Bible to throw in Christians’ faces are reading precisely with that hermeneutic in mind. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that perhaps ancient religious texts that are thousands of years old, formed by millennia of tradition within numerous communities over those many centuries, heavily spiced with mystical and prophetic language, apocalypse, poetry, metaphor, history, and theology just might not be immediately clear to someone who’s set on cherry-picking passages to turn against devotees.
It doesn’t seem to occur to them that perhaps not everything depicted in the Bible (e.g., polygamy) is actually endorsed by God or that everything revealed in particular language at one point (e.g., “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me”; don’t covet your neighbor’s wife) doesn’t mean that there isn’t more to the revelation that will be revealed later (e.g., that He’s not just Israel’s God, He’s the only God; only one husband or wife at a time). There’s a definite progression visible in the Bible, even to the sola scriptura reader, in which God gradually brings the people of Israel out of the paganism from whence they came, raising their ethics and theology bit by bit until the full revelation comes in Christ. Not everything depicted in the Bible is commanded by God, not everything allowed by God is endorsed by God, and not everything commanded by God is meant to become an absolute, eternal rule.
But, of course, if you really believe that the Bible’s meaning is obvious to anyone who just happens to pick it up and read it for any reason, that your mental context is the only needed context for proper comprehension, and especially if you’re not going to study the whole thing and see if there’s any sort of coherence or narrative to the thing, then quite naturally you can conclude that God approves of polygamy but incomprehensibly hates shrimp.
Now, of course, I don’t expect an atheist or any other non-Christian to believe what the Bible says to be true, even in the non-theological stuff. It’s not their book. They don’t care. They may well hate the Christian message of repentance, humility, conquest over death and the union of God with man in the resurrected Christ. Fine. But why should they then presume to make pronouncements about what the Bible “says”?
Even the laws of our lands, written in the most banal and soporific language possible, somehow still need to have an authoritative community (with people in charge, no less!) to render interpretations in particular cases. We entrust the interpretation of our laws to the judiciary and, secondarily, to juries and law enforcement. Yes, we can all read the laws and comment on them, but in the end, it’s a particular interpretive community who have authority to apply them.
Orthodox Christians look at the Bible as being the Orthodox Church’s book. It’s not so much that it’s so obscure and esoteric that only officially approved experts can figure out what it means (which, by the way, actually is true of much of secular law). Rather, Orthodoxy has the communal historical memory of having actually produced the canon of Scripture. The Orthodox Church also has a robust sense of itself as having been given by God (not because of any goodness on our part, mind you) the full inheritance of the Old Testament, because the Church is “the Israel of God,” to use St. Paul’s phrase. St. Justin Martyr in his apologia addressing Judaism even goes so far as to tell the Jews that they are using the Church’s Scripture when they make use of the Jewish Bible (the Christians’ Old Testament). The authority to interpret Scripture therefore resides in the interpretive community—the Orthodox Church—guided (though not exclusively) by its leaders, especially the episcopacy.
Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church also puts Scripture within a clear context—the Magisterium, which finds its fullest expression in terms of papal infallibility. Protestants also put Scripture within a context, though the more “low church” you get, the less likely that context is to be spelled out. Lutherans and Reformed folks have their various confessions and so forth, but your average Baptist believes in “no creed but the Bible.” Nevertheless, he is likely to interpret the Bible roughly how his pastor does, who in turn interprets it like his own teachers, and so on.
With all this in mind, let me offer some unsolicited (and, let’s face it, likely unread) advice to those who would criticize Christians for what’s in the Bible:
- Don’t presume to tell people what they believe. Find out how they interpret the Bible. If it’s not how you would interpret it, then why are you arguing with them, anyway? You interpret the Bible to allow polygamy, which you despise. Okay, fine. But with whom exactly are you arguing if the Christian in front of you also despises polygamy? A book?
- Don’t presume that all Christians believe the same things. I recently saw a friend who belonged to a liberal Protestant denomination lamenting that he constantly has to defend his religion against critics who are mad about conservative Protestant opposition to same-sex marriage. But his denomination is fine with SSM. So is his religion really being given a bad name by those unpopular moral conservatives? The label Christian is used by everyone from Mormons to Mennonites to Montanists. Don’t presume to know what it means just because someone uses it. Find out what kind of Christian he is, find out whether he really believes the things his communion teaches, and then have at it.
- It’s silly to claim that Christians “pick and choose” what to believe in the Bible. On an individual level, of course that may be true in a sense, but we should really only be concerned with coherent bodies of doctrine, right? One of religious tradition’s communal functions is precisely to “pick and choose” from sacred texts what to apply and how to apply it. This is normal. And aren’t you doing the same, anyway? Sure, you love to point out the hardcore scary stuff from the Old Testament, but when was the last time you lambasted “love your enemies” or “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”?
- Consider that you may have no clue what the Bible “says.” Why do you want to, anyway? You don’t believe it. Now, if you’re really open to finding out what the meaning of the Bible is, then at least admit that the Bible has to be interpreted. You can interpret, of course, but as an anti-Christian your interpretations may look nothing like what Christians actually believe. So, once again, you’re arguing with a book.
If there’s one message I’d like people to get out of all of this, it’s this one: While of course I believe that there is a true meaning to the Bible, it’s because I believe in the authority of a particular interpretive community that was constituted in the preaching of the men who wrote it. If you don’t believe in any such binding authority for any community or person, then it makes no sense at all to use the Bible against people who do. After all, they’re just going to say that you’re wrong about what it says.
And then you’ll just be like a couple of sola scriptura fundamentalists, throwing Bible verses at each other.
Update: Since this post has gotten (as of this writing) close to 6,000 hits in about 12 hours, it should be noted that not all comments are being published. Only non-repetitive comments that are directly relevant to the post—which is about Biblical interpretation, not politics/theocracy, and not (believe it or not) about Chick-Fil-A—will be published.
It’s actually quite interesting how many of the comments on this post have been exactly what the post is talking about—sola scriptura fundamentalist atheism. It underscores how embedded sola scriptura really is in our cultural psyche. We really seem to believe that texts can only mean exactly what we think they mean and that anyone who interprets them differently must be stupid, evil or uneducated. It seems that most hermeneutics are really almost entirely unexamined by those using them. I’m not really sure how to word this all more clearly, though, so I hope perhaps someone else might put together something better than this to make the point more obvious.
For those interested in hurling all the classic anti-Christian canards (e.g., religion starts most wars, the Christian God is an evil monster, Christianity is anti-science, etc.), I very much recommend a reading of David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, which pretty handily takes apart most such urban myths about Christian history.
Readers may also enjoy this humorous take on many of these same issues: An FAQ on Christianity for the Unbeliever: A helpful guide for those who find it impossible to understand the religion thing.
The Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick is pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, author of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (Conciliar Press, 2011), and host of the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and Roads from Emmaus podcasts.