XFiles: Scriptural supremacistsDecember 13, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 14.)
Geisler and Turek, as you recall, have been spending the first part of their next to last chapter using Jesus to validate the Bible’s authority, which they had previously used to validate Jesus’ authority. Sadly, though, their choice of examples so far has done more to discredit Jesus than to validate Bible (as understood by conservative Christians). And their final attempt fares no better:
7. Has Ultimate Supremacy—Since Jesus taught that the Old Testament is divinely authoritative, imperishable, infallible, inerrant, historically reliable and scientifically accurate, you would expect him to assert that it has ultimate supremacy over any teaching of man. This is exactly what Jesus said. He corrected the Pharisees and the teachers of the law by claiming that they should be obeying the Old Testament Scriptures instead of their own man-made traditions.
Right. And these same Old Testament Scriptures, remember, are the “inspired” writings that upheld selling your daughter as a sex object, keeping a man’s wife and kids as slaves to induce him to “voluntarily” become permanently enslaved to the owner, committing genocide against an entire people including the children, babies and livestock, death by stoning for anyone caught gathering firewood on Saturday, and of course ritual mutilation of the genitals of babies. This is what Jesus gave “ultimate supremacy” to. Not the New Testament, which men had not written yet. This.
That’s actually rather a problem for Christians, because Christians would like us to believe that a very different set of moral, spiritual, and ethical guidelines—those of the New Testament—have ultimate supremacy for this day and age. And yet the New Testament is merely the written record of the new traditions which the early Church leaders began to teach after Jesus’ death. As Paul instructs the Thessalonians, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.”
Modern Christians, of course, have another tradition that wasn’t around at the time of Jesus: the tradition of regarding the books of the so-called New Testament as Scripture themselves. Yet Geisler and Turek would have us believe that Jesus presented the Old Testament as the imperishable, infallible and inerrant Scriptures that ought to be obeyed instead of the traditions of men. That’s rather a catch-22, however, because Geisler and Turek are making their claim of Old Testament supremacy based on what is written in the New Testament, so if their claim is correct, then they’re making it on the basis of traditions that do not have the ultimate supremacy, and thus should not be used in asserting the supremacy of the Old.
The Christian rationalization, naturally, is that Jesus was God, and therefore had the right to change things if he wanted to. And that’s fine as far as it goes. But is it too much to ask a God not to be so darn hypocritical about it? If you’re getting ready to replace the “ultimate supremacy” of the Old Testament Scriptures with a new set of traditions, it’s a bit inconsistent, to say the least, for you to go around condemning the Pharisees on the grounds that we should reject new traditions and stick exclusively to the Old Testament Scriptures. Condemn them for following wrong traditions if that’s how you feel, or declare yourself to be a prophet with exclusive rights to create new traditions that must be obeyed, but don’t just make a blanket statement that it’s wrong to do the very thing you yourself are about to do.
But that’s probably a side issue, because despite what they actually wrote, I rather doubt that Geisler and Turek really intended to bestow ultimate supremacy on the Old Testament rather than the New. If they’re like most conservative Christians, Geisler and Turek believe that the whole Bible, in both Old and New Testaments, is the inerrant, infallible, and imperishable authority, the “ultimate supremacy,” that Jesus allegedly upheld. Only even there, they’ve got problems.
The most obvious problem is why ultimate supremacy should be given to a book written and canonized by men, rather than to God Himself. Granted that giving ultimate authority to God wouldn’t work either, since He so consistently fails to show up in real life, it still seems to me as though He ought to be at least the titular supreme authority, instead of some collection of old scrolls.
The book, however, has one major advantage that God does not (besides the advantage of actually being a visible part of the real world), and that is the fact that the Bible does not and cannot contradict the reader’s interpretation of it. This is why the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura led to an immediate explosion in the number of divisions and sects within the Christian faith. By placing the ultimate authority in a book that has to be read in order to be obeyed, the Protestants effectively placed the ultimate authority in whatever interpretation seems right in the reader’s own eyes. And that’s the doctrine that Geisler and Turek are trying to push!
If you think about it, this argument makes Jesus look pretty bad. As I’ve mentioned before, a truly wise and good God would never make a mere book the ultimate authority over anything He actually cared about. As history documents with almost embarrassingly excessive detail, when you give people a book whose words are supposed to control their lives, the first thing people do is try and use that book to control other people’s lives. And if anyone disagrees with their interpretation of the book, all they have to do is invoke the rule that God gave ultimate supremacy to the book, and not to the critics, and therefore it is good and right and just for them to follow their own interpretation instead of listening to the critics.
But this intellectual invulnerability goes beyond just giving believers a pretext for dismissing their critics out of hand. By diverting the supposed authority into a book, rather than claiming divine inspiration for themselves, the believers have an ingenious trick for maintaining their claimed authority even when circumstances prove them to be wrong. Pharyngula has been “blessed” with a repeated example of this phenomena recently: some guy has been writing in with predictions of imminent Rapture. It keeps failing to come true, not surprisingly, but does that mean his source of authority has diminished? Nope: the blame all goes to the guy, and the authority goes to the book, which the guy then turns around and uses as the authority for his next prediction.
A wise and good God would know—or would figure out after the first few centuries of abuse—that if you try to build a “kingdom of heaven” by giving people a collection of ambiguous and inert written statements, you merely create a context within which religious frauds can manipulate the credulous and gullible, or worse, within which the credulous and gullible can delude themselves. A book just doesn’t do the job.
Walter Martin used to have a radio show that I loved when I was a Christian. It was called The Bible Answer Man, and it was a show where Martin would take call-in questions about the Bible and answer them, usually in response to doctrines being taught by Mormonism and other so-called “cults.” It’s gotten a lot more commercialized since Hank Hanegraaf took over, but the basic format is the same. But there’s one question I’ve never heard asked or answered on that program. Why does the Bible need an answer man?
Why do we need preachers talking to us if we already have God’s word? Why do we need missionaries, evangelists, witnesses, if the Bible is God Himself speaking to us? Because we all know, even believers know, that a book all by itself is not enough. You can pretend that you’re investing ultimate supremacy in the book, but it’s the men and women who interpret that book who actually exercise that supremacy, and believers are submitting to that authority every time they let a preacher, a friend, or a tract or commentary, tell them what the Bible says.
Scriptural supremacy is a scam that gives believers an excuse to reject the people they don’t like (on the grounds that their opinions are merely “the traditions of men”) while ascribing divine authority to the people whose teachings they do like (on the grounds that they’re Bible-based), even when these teachers teach things that turn out later to be completely wrong. Each believer follows whatever interpretation seems right in their own eyes, which is why there are so many divisions and conflicts within the Church. The Bible has been powerless to prevent the rise of competing religions like Islam, Mormonism, and the Unification Church. The Bible is a bad foundation for Christian living.
If, as Geisler and Turek claim, Jesus really was trying to establish the idea that the Bible is the ultimate authority, then it just goes to show he’s not a wise and/or good God.