Critical Reflections on Bible Based Belief Systems

ATTENTION:  This Section is primarily for skeptics and critics, but may also be of interest to more orthodox believers who are willing and able to entertain alternative religious or philosophical perspectives.  The propositions below are not presented as the Truth, but only as several (more or less) skeptical or critical points of view which the average skeptic or critic may find (more or less) compelling.

Note to (more orthodox) Believers:  Until we are willing and able to acknowledge the concerns of the sincere skeptic and honest critic, we are hardly in position to share with them the Good News of the Kingdom.  There is no need for us to abandon any belief that we hold in good faith, but if we are unable to entertain skeptical questions or really listen to honest criticism, we would do well to speak more tentatively and more respectfully of those outside or on the margins of our particular tradition.  [Return to Home Page]

WARNING:  Orthodox believers proceed at your own risk…

Critical Reflections on Bible Based Belief Systems:

Many Christians— particularly those describing themselves as Evangelical —position themselves impregnably (or so they imagine) behind “what scripture clearly teaches” based on what they consider to be “sound hermeneutical principles.”  But the apparent strength of their position can only be maintained by dogmatically ignoring (or otherwise refusing to consider) propositions such as the ones outlined below.  The evidence for most of these, if not readily apparent, should— with some reflection —be clear enough (whether or not it is accepted as decisive).

  • “The bible” exists, as a unity, only because particular communities recognize it as such.
    • It is a collection of 66 “books” written over a period of roughly 1000 years.
    • Many of these “books” are, themselves, compiled from multiple sources.
    • Their authority emerged, over time, as they became recognized as “scripture.”
    • This recognition was at first granted informally— in practice —and later, more formally, by various religious authorities/institutions.
    • While it may be reasonable to think of the Spirit of God guiding a community, it seems unreasonable to imagine that only “our” community is so guided.
  • It is up to a particular community to decide what constitutes sound hermeneutical principles and to what collection of texts these principles apply.
    • Jewish communities, for example, accept a different cannon of scripture than do Christians and they interpret that cannon differently.
    • Muslim communities give some measure of authority to some of the Old and New Testament scriptures, but, again, would interpret them differently.
    • The Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church, while agreeing in some respects with an Evangelical hermeneutic, would also reject some of the principles that Evangelicals accept and accept others that they would reject (while at the same time differing from one another in some respects).
    • Evangelical Christianity is a particular Christian tradition—one among many. The hermeneutical principles that seem sound from that perspective are those that reinforce that tradition.  Generally speaking, we tend to find most reasonable those “principles” and “presuppositions” that reinforce the worldview in which we were raised.  And while we can “grow up” and “grow out”— and may, in some respects, “leave our roots behind” —there is usually a good bit of continuity between the road that we travel in our adolescence and young-adulthood and the destination at which we arrive in late middle age and beyond (the branches do not typically survive if they are completely cut off from their roots; and the fruit does not usually fall too far from the tree, in any event).
  • The Problem of Evil is not adequately addressed by “orthodox” Christian doctrine.
    • Based on Romans Chapter 9 and other relevant passage in the Old and New Testament, it is difficult to deny that God creates the “vessels of wrath” which are said to have been “fitted for destruction.”  In Romans chapter 9, St. Paul doesn’t say that anyone has “resisted God’s will”, just that “the potter has power over the clay” and that we aren’t in a position to object.
    • Moreover, it must be acknowledged that even if our fall into sin is due in some sense to the free will of human beings (in Adam), it is nevertheless God who, in the beginning, chooses to create in such a way that leaves the door open to the possibility of sin and perdition.  It certainly appears that the “good” of creation, from the beginning, necessarily involves the damnation of some— if not most —of the souls thus created. As such, if we accept an “orthodox” account of sin, salvation and judgment, either God’s “goodness” or his “power” must be called into question—i.e. either he was not powerful enough to create as glorious a creation apart from the eventual sin and perdition of many, many souls; OR, he preferred this possible outcome to any other possible alternative that could have been just as glorious, but without any souls being ultimately lost.
    • On a related note, it strains credulity to speak of Christ as reconciling the world to God if only a minority of human beings throughout history have been exposed to the gospel. God, it seems, has provided enough light to condemn everyone, but not to save them (see also “Other Religions” below).
  • Historical Critical Method, on the one hand, and Modern Physics, Cosmology and Biolology, on the other, has rendered important elements of the hermeneutical principles of Evangelical Christians obsolete.
    • Without claiming any particular expertise in biblical criticism— and by no means imagining that the biblical critics can, themselves, pretend to any measure of inerrancy —it seems clear that “sound hermeneutical principles” (by Evangelical Christian standards) can only be defended if one wears blinders with respect to modern biblical scholarship.  This is facilitated by raising children in Evangelical Christian Schools and sending them to Evangelical Christian Bible Colleges.  One can live and die and never take time to seriously study divergent points of view and discuss them with intelligent instructors that are willing and able to explain and (in some respects, at least) to defend them.
    • Without claiming any particular expertise in physics or biology— and by no means imagining that experts in these fields can pretend to any measure of certainty with regard to many of the particulars of their theories —it seems clear that “creationism” (as preached by many Evangelical Christians) can only be defended if one wears blinders with respect to the scientific research of the last 50 or 100 years.  As with biblical criticism, this is facilitated by raising children in Evangelical ChristianSchools and sending them to Evangelical Christian Bible Colleges.  To repeat, one can live and die and never take time to seriously study divergent points of view and discuss them with intelligent instructors that are willing and able to explain and (in some respects, at least) to defend them.
  • The Adherents of Other Religions may realize the Way, the Truth, and the Life within the context of their own faith and culture.
    • Understanding another religion is somewhat like trying to understand someone else’s marriage from the outside.  If one is to succeed in any significant degree in understanding another culture and/or another religion, one must to some extent become a “participant observer”—doing one’s best to see from the inside, too, and not just from the outside.
    • One who believes that adherents of other faiths are automatically deluded and going to hell (unless they become Christians) can hardly hope to understand them. It would be like asking Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens to give an accurate account of traditional Christianity.  With little or no first hand knowledge or appreciation of the goods intrinsic to this faith and culture— and being strongly predisposed against it —it is not possible for them to really understand it.  As such, they would do well to speak more tentatively and respectfully.
    • All the major religions have absorbed elements from other religions and philosophies that were relevant prior to (or concurrent with) their founding. You can see it in some of the names of God and other ancient narrative strands in the Old Testament. You can see it in the influence of Greek religion on that of the Romans.  You can see it in the influence of the Greek mystery religions and Greek philosophy on Christian theology (sometimes indirectly, through Islamic philosophy).  And you can see it in the influence of Judaism and Christianity on Islam.  This is an ongoing process.  [The transformation of "Satan" in the Old Testament into the "Devil" of the New Testament—  and into "Iblis" in the Qur'an —offers a good case study of this process.  There are a couple of good YouTube videos on this, for example: The History of the Devil.]
    • It may be reasonable to think that God never changes, but the way we speak of God and worship him obviously does change, however much the religious establishment of any culture or era may want to portray their understanding of their revelation as the final and authoritative one.  Religion is always “in the making” (to borrow Whitehead’s phrase).
  • It is reasonable— if one is so inclined —to look for spiritual truths in the scriptures and/or traditions of other cultures and other religions (instead of OR in addition to the Bible and Christianity).
  • It is possible— perhaps even probable —that a new synthesis of the world’s wisdom traditions will emerge over time.
    • The advent of the Internet marks a qualitative and quantitative shift in the way that diverse cultures and religions are interacting with one another. No one person can hope to cobble together an adequate synthesis of the world’s religions, but a collective synthesis does seem to be emerging.
    • While there is a sense in which you can’t put new wine into old bottles, there is also a sense in which the emerging synthesis— insofar as it is conducive to an authentic experience of the Divine —will, over time, be reflected back into the more conservative traditions out of which (and beyond which) it is growing (a kind of counter-reformation, if you will).
    • As such, even very conservative Churches will be affected by this emerging synthesis of the world’s wisdom traditions. In the beginning, many churches will probably tend to become more rigid, in reaction to it. But over time, they will adapt and respond in more positive and creative ways.

What do YOU make of the propositions outlined above? Which ones seem false, to you, and why? Is your acceptance or rejection of a particular proposition primarily a matter of:

  • Logic?
  • Empirical evidence?
  • Indoctrination or conditioning?
  • Ideological and/or practical commitments?
  • Fearful or wishful thinking?

To what extent do your commitments (or does your conditioning; or do your hopes and fears) influence your consideration of the evidence?

Insofar as you offer empirical evidence in favor of your position(s), is there any imaginable evidence that would change your mind? If not, then would you agree that your “belief” or “acceptance” of the proposition in question is not really based on empirical evidence, in the first place?  Note: This is not meant to imply the empirical evidence offers the last word on truth, just that it is easy to imagine we are basing our beliefs on empirical evidence, when in fact we are filtering the “facts” through our belief system which, in turn, is guiding our interpretation of the data that we choose to consider.

Thus, it is not enough to appeal to “what the bible clearly teaches based on sound hermeneutical principles” [i.e to do so "begs the question" in the original sense of that phrase; such principles can only seem valid or compelling if (or to the extent that) someone already sees things from that perspective].

In addition, it creates a lot of (potential) problems when children and young people are educated in relative isolation from open and honest inquiry about these matters.  To be sure, they may hold their beliefs more sincerely, and may— in some, limited respects —enjoy an enhanced capacity for spiritual life. But if such sincerity can only be maintained in isolation from more universal lines of rational inquiry which are, as a result, portrayed in the most superficial and pejorative terms, it comes at a rather high price. They have been conditioned to “believe” in this way at the cost of being emotionally and intellectually incapable of entertaining any compelling evidence offered in support of alternative points of view. As a result, those who disagree with them are judged to be “deluded”, at best, and in some cases positively evil. Not only does this not do justice to those outside or on the margins of the religious community, but the community, itself, so isolated, becomes fair game for demagogues who can appeal to “faith” and “fear of God” to gain its support for various causes which may be far from Divine.

The question for believers, then, is what might remain of your religious teachings and traditions if all the evidence in favor of the propositions, above, were given a fair hearing— in the light of reason —without undo regard for personal preferences and wishful thinking? There is little doubt that some— perhaps much —of what has been perceived to be fundamental to the “faith” of many Christians would be undermined. But how can it be that our access to that which is ultimately true and real depends on the preservation of that which cannot stand up to rational scrutiny?

The key, it seems— the key to Getting to Know Jesus in the 21st Century —is to clearly distinguish between the written word (which points to Christ) and the living Word, which He IS.  And, as indicated above, when it comes to the living Word, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  Thus we can continue to employ traditional modes of Christian discourse to point to the living Christ while at the same time fully acknowledging the perspective of the sincere skeptic and honest critic (without, however, giving skepticism and criticism the last word).

–>  Getting to Know Jesus in the 21st Century

10 Responses to Critical Reflections on Bible Based Belief Systems

  1. My name is Shelby, and if you are Wayne…hello! It looks like you are new to WordPress. I have a blog as well and have enjoyed it. I have been able to touch quite a few lives through it as well. I really enjoyed thid article, and you could never offend me when it comes to Apologetics and the erroneous assumptions of rigid doctrine and tradition. I am a Spirit-filled Christian and understand exactly where I stand. We need your type of website in the world…if people would take the time and effort to read it! Thank you for a great article…may the Lord bless your path.

  2. Josh Foreman says:

    This is excellent work and great thought-stimulating questions. I’ve been down this road for a while now, having started in the ‘orthodoxy’ of modern evangelicalism, and have come out as a hopeful agnostic who loves Jesus and lives for Him. I especially like what you said about the coming synthesis of traditions. All I can see now is the rigidity you speak of as being an initial impulse. It will be interesting to see how this is moderated by time and experience.

  3. Thanks for those comments! I reblogged them to my Against Apologetics: http://apollamb.blogspot.com

  4. Kevin Ross says:

    In response to your paragraph on the unity of the Bible, you claim, >>“The bible” exists, as a unity, only because particular communities recognize it as such.<<

    How do you know it isn't the other way around? The early church fathers explain that part of the canonization process was the recognition of what books were universally recognized as inspired and used accordingly in the churches for worship.

    It is a difficult fact to understand, but according to the prophet Amos, God hasn't related to all people in the same way. What do you make of this text? “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities." Amos 3.2

    • yeshua21 says:

      Your point is a good one, insofar as communities do form and persevere in recognition of (and in dialogue with) particular sacred texts. But in the case of the church, clearly, early Christian communities preceded the writing of the New Testament. As time went on, and the writings of the Apostles and their followers began to accumulate, different local and regional communities seem to have had their own cannons which were later superseded (to some degree) by the final cannon which was decided on by church as a whole. To be sure, the sacred texts inform the life of the community, but in this case, the community clearly selected certain texts, over the course of time, and rejected others.

      With regard to Amos 3:2, any sincere, open-minded student of the world’s wisdom traditions will find some things that are of value in all of them. While all– or nearly all — may have, at some point, portrayed themselves and their approach to God or “the Truth” as the best way (or even the only way), we are under no such restriction. See The Universality of Christ.

      • Kevin Ross says:

        I agree that there is some truth to be found in most of the major religious traditions. But not enough. Knowledge of the kingdom of God and God’s purposes for mankind are contained uniquely in the Bible. And salvation involves knowing God (Jn 17.2) personally.

        I don’t doubt that all people have access to God. But there is a sense in which God’s revelation to and through Israel was unique in the world, as Amos said. Other religious founders don’t have anything like the credentials of Jesus Christ, and he said that no person has access to the Father except through him.

  5. MNb says:

    “It is reasonable— if one is so inclined —to look for spiritual truths in the scriptures and/or traditions of other cultures and other religions.”
    It’s not reasonable to look for spiritual truths anywhere (including the Bible), until you have formulated a standard that enables you to decide which spiritual truth you will acccept if two of them contradict each other. For this purpose I recommend you to study the spirituality of the Papua’s, of the Trio’s (living on the Surinamese/Brazilian border) and some Siberian and African tribes as well.
    Until you have don that you’re not reasonable.

    • yeshua21 says:

      The teachings of any tradition can be said to be “true” insofar as they point us to “the Way, the Truth and the Life” that Christ IS and that we ARE (in Christ). As indicated in the article, “the Way, the Truth, and Life”– the living Word –is its own standard (the proof of the pudding is in the eating). A particular “pointer” or “sign-post” may be more or less effective (depending on our background, temperament, and circumstances). Since there are thousands of spiritual traditions– and it is impossible for us to examine them all –perhaps you could provide a little more information as to why you feel that the spirituality of these particular tribes is so important. Feel free to share a link if there is some information on the web that you think would be helpful. Thanks for sharing!

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