Understanding the BibleMay 21, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
There is probably a good year’s worth of material (at least) that we could examine to find overwhelmingly consistent examples in which the real-world evidence takes precisely the characteristics that would necessarily result from the truth of the Myth Hypothesis, and that fails to correspond to the consequences that ought to result from the truth of the Gospel Hypothesis. I think we’ve seen enough of it thus far, however, to give us a basis for beginning to approach the question of how we are to understand the Bible.
Obviously, there’s two ways we can do this: we can interpret the Bible in the light of the real-world evidence, assuming that the real-world evidence is necessarily correct, or we can interpret the evidence in the light of the Bible, assuming that the Bible is necessarily correct. The latter is sometimes called “interpreting the Bible on its own terms,” and I think it can be fairly said that this is a biased approach. The Bible makes no secret of the fact that it is written to promote belief, and to prejudice people against unbelievers (“The fool says in his heart…”). Putting the Bible ahead of the evidence means guaranteeing that you will come to some sort of Christian conclusion.
But what if we put the real-world evidence first? Is that not equally biased? Yes it is. The same principle applies equally to both. If we put the Bible first, then we are going to be biased in favor of Biblical conclusions, and if we put real-world evidence first, we’re going to be biased in favor of real-world conclusions. It’s up to us, then, to pick which bias we want to have.
To interpret the Bible in the light of the evidence, we need first of all to understand what the evidence is telling us. This is what we have been doing up to now. The real-world evidence is most consistent with the Myth Hypothesis, because the Myth Hypothesis successfully predicts the actual nature of the real-world evidence with the fewest appeals to alternative interpretations and special pleadings. In fact, it does not need to appeal to any of those special-circumstances adjustments: the consequences we find in real life are already consistent with those that would necessarily result from God’s non-existence (the Christian God’s non-existence, anyway). The Gospel Hypothesis can be made to conform to the Myth Hypothesis via alternative interpretations and special pleadings, but it’s the Myth Hypothesis that sets the standard that the Gospel Hypothesis has to live up to.
If we are going to understand the Bible in the light of the real-world evidence, therefore, the most reasonable course of action is to understand it in the light of the Myth Hypothesis. This is especially true considering that the characteristics of the Bible itself are precisely those that would necessarily result from it being written in the absence of a genuine Christian deity, as we saw earlier. It is an example of myth-building, a reflection of people’s best hopes, values, and wishes, and also of their biases, fears, and flaws. It is a commentary, not on God’s nature, but on Man’s.
Speaking as a former student of the Bible, I can say from personal experience that the Bible makes a whole lot more sense and possesses far fewer perplexities and mysteries when seen from this perspective. And indeed, most of the problems people face in understanding the Bible in Christian circles stem from trying to force everything to fit into an anachronistic, falsely homogenized theology. The average Christian, doing their daily Bible study or personal devotional, cannot help but take the words out of their historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts, despite footnotes and study aids, and repurpose them to suit a modern Christian preconception of what the Bible ought to be telling them. One need look no farther than the pro-life movement to see this dynamic in action.
Can we take the other approach? Can we make the Bible our trusted guide into “all truth,” and use the Bible as our basis for interpreting the real-world evidence? Yes and no. We can try to do that, and in so doing can give ourselves access to the accumulated, multi-millennial experience of millions of believers reconciling their faith with God’s real-world absence. But the Bible is ultimately ink on paper: it does not speak, it cannot think, it does not react to any external stimulus. What we actually end up using as our trusted guide is our own interpretation of what we think the Bible is trying to say. The Bible can give us ideas for how to rationalize our beliefs with God’s absence, but we pick, choose, and adapt those ideas according to our own personal interpretations and biases.
That’s a doubly-risky approach, because the Bible itself is a document that merely records how other men have interpreted their own beliefs and experiences. Instead of understanding the document based on the real-world evidence, then, we are adapting our interpretation of the evidence to conform to an interpretation of someone else’s interpretation, adjusted to fit our own world view. Inevitably, we end up believing whatever is right in our own eyes, because we first adopt the interpretation of Scripture that seems right in our own eyes, and then we use that interpretation to come up with a derivative interpretation of the evidence that seems right in our own eyes.
Of course, the apologist can accuse skeptics of doing the same thing, because skeptics base their interpretation of the Bible on an interpretation of the evidence. And that’s true to a certain point. The difference is that we have reliable, scientific tools for assessing which evidence-based interpretations are most consistent with the evidence. Because our interpretations must be evidence-based, we can work out what consequences would result if our interpretation were correct, and then compare those predicted consequences to the actual evidence, and see which interpretation produces consequences that are most consistent with the facts.
No such mechanism exists for theology-based interpretations of the Bible. The believer who is intellectual and/or academically inclined can appeal to grammatico-historical arguments over parsings and cultural definitions and historical allusions, and can build an interpretation that satisfies an academic expectation of “what seems right.” But the charismatic believer can just as easily claim that God has chosen the foolish things in order to shame the wise, and that the true meaning of Scripture is accessible only to those whose Spirit-filled insights allow them to unlock meanings that mere linguistics can never decipher. And given the ambiguities we encounter even when speaking our own language in our own cultural context, who could say that the charismatic is necessarily wrong?
There’s a reason why excessive study of Scripture has a marked tendency to lead the honest and intelligent believer into greater and greater agnosticism. When we reject an evidence-based interpretation of the Bible in favor of a Bible-based interpretation of the evidence, we ultimately deliver ourselves to our own ignorance as a source of knowledge. In God’s absence, we can never really be sure we know what the Bible means, and if we’re putting the Bible ahead of the evidence, if we have to know what the Bible means before we decide what the evidence means, then we really have no basis at all for what we believe. Our faith becomes something we believe for no better reason, and with no more justification, than the fact that we want to believe it.