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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Scripture - Is It True?

Below I have pasted part of Debby's comment from my June 4th post, "Let's Talk About Article of Faith #4":

"Until I hit about 37 years old I never really thought about whether God’s word was literally true or not. No one ever really talks about this in church circles, do they? So, I have had a child’s faith in believing all scripture was literally factual, which has always been very mind blowing; but I chalked it up to, 'With God anything is possible.'  So, I understand that the Bible is inspired by God and written by men and each person has their own style of writing; but how does one determine what is factual and what is for learning purposes? For example, is Jonah just a big fish tale or is it literally true?"

These are important questions.  Perhaps the one that stood out to me, most prominently, was, "No one ever really talks about this in church circles, do they?"  This stood out to me, first, because having been blessed to spend so much time in the world of academia, I am always talking about this!  Sometimes I forget that not everyone (or maybe not anyone) is having these kinds of conversations.  But second, it caused me to consider the reactions I have had from others when I begin to talk like this in non-academic circles.  No wonder people sometimes react so vehemently.  This is new material to them.  This requires change.  How did I miss that?

Before I even begin to dive in and answer some of the other questions, I think we have to agree to make a distinction between "literal" and "true", because (as I mentioned in the earlier post) these words are not synonymous.  I think Debby also added another layer of depth to this discussion by using the word "factual".  Interestingly enough, I would also not accept "factual" as a synonym for "literal" or "true".

Let me reiterate, I believe that all Scripture is true.  But I understand that you're asking, "What does that mean?"  Let me also make it clear that it's OK if this post is frustrating to you, and let me share a brief story about myself that might make you feel better about that...

I recently took an Old Testament Interpretation class.  As much as I love school... and theology... and philosophy... Can I admit to you that Bible classes scare me to death?  I'm not sure exactly why, but I think it has something to do with this vague notion in my head that if I mess up a philosophical principle the world will go on, but if I mess up Scripture it could be devastating to... well... someone...  At any rate, I am not especially conservative when it comes to Biblical Interpretation, and sometimes I probably even scare the people in my cohort a little bit, so I am sure it was super funny to them when we started discussing the patriarchs, and whether or not they were literal people who actually walked the earth and lived these particular stories, and apparently it was more of a deal breaker for me than I realized, because I was sitting in a synchronous chat and just about freaking out over the notion that the patriarchs might not be "real".  And, of course, I was also trying to defend myself, "I'm not a fundamentalist, I'm not a literalist, really, I'm kind of liberal, even..."  Cue cohort members trying desperately not to laugh in my face, because they know all of these things about me, but something about needing Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be very real raised some enormous red flags for me.  I say all of this, really, to say that it's OK if something here raises some red flags.  We can work through this. 

The question, "How does one determine what is factual and what is for learning purposes?" is valid.  I could go a lot of different ways with this.  There are several methods of biblical interpretation that could be employed here.  But before I give you a list of things to do in order to discern factual information from Scripture, I'd like to say that the more important issue is that Scripture is all for orthodoxy (right beliefs, perhaps "learning purposes")... and orthopraxy (right conduct)... and orthopathy (right heart).  At its core, Scripture should be transformative.

Are facts transformative?  Maybe some of them.  As an example, I think we have to accept the resurrection as fact.  Of course, the resurrection narrative is written in the gospels, two (maybe three) of which are widely accepted as firsthand accounts of the life of Christ.  I really can't find a compelling reason to question the historical authenticity of this event, which, let's face it, is central to our understanding of salvation. 

With that said, I think that a "plain reading" of Scripture is often the best place to start.  As we read Scripture, we should allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through us in such a way that we begin to think theologically, we begin to look for various meanings in the text, we allow Scripture to speak to us.  And, sometimes, I think we find that what is written is, simply, what is written.

However, it always serves us well to dig deep.  Exploring various translations of Scripture can be helpful to determining what particular passages mean.  If you are fluent in biblical languages, which I am not, it is certainly worthwhile to read the earliest possible translations.  Even if you are not fluent in biblical languages, a good lexicon can help to guide you through word studies and the understanding of specific terms.  It's worthwhile to grasp what was actually written in light of the polished versions we most commonly possess today.

Context certainly matters, as well.  A good question to ask might be, "Why was this originally written?"  Whether or not a portion of Scripture contains historical facts, it was certainly written at some historical time, so there are naturally going to be significant truths found in these words that were important enough to write down and pass on during an age when it wasn't nearly so easy to do so as it is now. 

You might ask, "Who wrote this?"  Often people become very distressed over things that are seemingly contradictory in Scripture, but we need to remember that differing narratives can often be accounted for by differing perspectives.  You and I could experience the same event, and our stories will be different based on all kinds of things.  Does this make one account true and the other false?  Absolutely not! 

This bleeds over into the interpretation process, itself.  It's a regular occurrence for multiple people to glean multiple meanings from the same passage of Scripture.  In fact, the same person might come away with something different when reading the same passage at various times.  To borrow from Richard Kearney, in his book, The God Who May Be, he talks about the potential for an unlimited number of interpretations of Scripture.  Are some interpretations more true than others?  Undoubtedly.  But that does not negate the truth of Scripture, itself.

To specifically answer the question about facts, I don't think it's really all that difficult to do some research that leads to the understanding that there are certainly people, events, and dates within Scripture that line up with what we might find in a history textbook.  A task such as this one is undoubtedly easier to undertake in regard to biblical literature that is historical in nature to begin with.  Many of the biblical texts are not.  What about poetry, metaphors, and parables?  Can't truth be found even in fiction?  These are difficult questions, because the natural tendency is to push back against this, but I might suggest that we stop doing that!

An example from my life that is quickly becoming a favorite is a conversation that my daughter, Grace, and I had on a long car ride a few months ago.  We were talking about how important (or not) it is for every word of Scripture to be literal, and I asked her, "Grace, is God a rock?" (see Psalm 18:2).  And then, we laughed and laughed.  Even the most literal of interpreters I have met don't actually hold to a completely literal view of Scripture.  I think this is evidenced by the fact that I know absolutely no one who has cut off a hand or gouged out an eye (see Matthew 5:29-30).  Perhaps we should start asking, "What is the best interpretation," because I'm pretty sure none of us are really literalists.



  1. I agree with your overall assessment of Scripture not being taken literally in all areas. You are rocking my world a little bit with the idea that the OT men and women of faith that are also referenced in Hebrews may not have been real, living, breathing human beings that walked the face of this earth. That is stretching the boundaries of my belief system! Look at you, making us think outside the box. That would take a lot of convincing though.

    1. Just to be clear, I do not think this is the case with *all* OT stories, not by a long shot. I'm still holding pretty tightly to the patriarchs as real people, for example. But something worth considering is, even if these people weren't real, would we still hold to the truth found in Scripture in these stories.

  2. I guess I should've thought before I started to write this in response to your blog that maybe I would be better off to keep my mouth shut. I guess it frustrates me that people want to piece meal and pick apart Scripture. Either a person believes it is ALL true and REALLY did happen as described and that ALL the people did exist or they do not. To begin to pick it apart and say that some of it really happened and that some did not, to me is foolishness. There was a fish and there were lions in the den and Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. And Abraham and Sarah and Matthew and Paul and all the rest did live and we will see them again someday. If someone discounts the Old Testament stories why should they then believe the New Testament stories? And I think it is literal except for the obvious: God is not a rock. But "rock" is being used as a descriptive word (adjective). And who would not agree that Song of Songs uses a "lot" of descriptive words. Psalms is another example of this.(like "rock") And also: each one of us is an individual and we have individual hurts, situations etc. So therefore, as each one reads their Bible of course God is going to say different things to us through the same verses. And the second or third time we read a verse of Scripture it may speak to our hearts in a new way from the original reading simply because we are in a different place of time and experience. And if we both read the same verse and come away with a different sense of what God is saying, could it not be that we each got what was most appropriate and needed in our individual lives? Oh my, I started sentences with "and." Bad grammar! I guess I better quit.

    1. I think when Lisa states that "a task such as this one is undoubtedly easier to undertake in regard to biblical literature that is historical in nature to begin with. Many of the biblical texts are not. What about poetry, metaphors, and parables? Can't truth be found even in fiction?" is really important in regard to what you have said, here.

      Jesus did much of his teaching in parables - are we to regard those parables as 'factual' or 'literal'? The very idea of a parable is that of either an analogy or a metaphor that is used to illustrate truth through stories. Ultimately we want to know answers to the age-old question, "what is truth?" Jesus even uses metaphors for himself.

      For example: "I am the good shepherd" - did Jesus ever actually work as a shepherd? Wasn't he a carpenter by trade? And yet we learn truth about who Jesus is and what God is like from this metaphor that Jesus uses about himself, that he is the "good shepherd."

      So when Jesus tells the parable about the lost coin, do we really believe that Jesus meant to tell a factual, literal historical account about a woman who lost a coin? Or is he telling a story, a parable, that never actually happened, but that illustrates the way in which God's grace pursues us when we are lost and alone, and that God never gives up on us until we are found?

      If Jesus himself tells stories like this, and accepts parable and metaphor and analogy and poetry and fiction as valid means of conveying truth - do we not also think that the Scriptures that Jesus inspired would themselves accept these as valid means? I think sometimes we try to hold Scripture to a modern standard that not even Scripture - nor the One who inspires it - actually holds.

      I think this illustrates again what Lisa also said when she wrote, "I'm pretty sure none of us are really literalists." What we believe about Scripture is usually seen most clearly in how we actually practice it - through interpretation (orthodoxy), how we ourselves actually live (orthopraxy), and how we interact with others and our dispositions towards them (orthopathy).

      So what do we actually do, in practice, then? Most Jesus disciples in practice do not obey every command in the Old Testament. Most Jesus disciples in practice do not try to keep women from ever uttering a single word when gathered with the church. Most Jesus disciples in practice do not attempt to live by the Song of Songs as their standard means of relating with everyone they know. All of this, of course, because context matters, as Lisa outlined in a number of ways in her post.

      There is a definite flaw in the argument that "either a person believes it is ALL true and REALLY did happen as described and that ALL the people did exist or they do not." It is a false dichotomy, because historical-cultural context, types of literature, theological persuasions, and interpretive choices all play into what we think about any given passage or verse of Scripture. I really like the way that I think that you actually addressed this very idea in the last half of your comment. You say a lot of good things that I think support this very idea. I'm just not sure that when you are saying those things in the last half of your comment, that they are consistent with the statements you make in the first half.

  3. Nazarenes are not literalists, and we are not inerrantists, for which I am grateful. I, too, am content to say that Scripture is true and authoritative, without needing to say that it is literal or inerrant. Our article of faith, of course, says that it "inerrantly reveals" the will of God, but I wonder if that is even worthwhile to contend for, since this was a concession to the literalist constituents of the Nazarene Church at the time the phrase was coined.

    What is interesting to me is the term "factual." Frankly, I'm not sure that I have given much thought to using this word for Scripture. It evokes images of data and more quantitative measures--things that we know for certain do not always agree internally in Scripture (take, for example, the Last Supper chronology differences between John and the Synoptics.) But "factual" could mean something different, and may become a bit of a red herring in the debate, for it may incorporate nuances of "truth," which we all agree on.

    The dictionary defines a fact as "something that actually exists; reality; truth" and "something known to exist or to have happened," along with some other definitions. As we already established, Scripture is true and contains truth. We might also say that it is real (at least in an ontological sense.) But to say that it "happened," like to say that the creation story "happened" in the "literal" way that many try to claim, might not be "factual" by this definition.

    So, I think I want to completely abandon the term "factual" because it actually encompasses both the idea of "true" and "actual," which just muddies the water too much in this debate for me.

    1. I agree that I like "real" better than "factual". Factual seems to indicate that there is some sort of proof, and that can lead to all kinds of issues. You're right that there are conflicting accounts, and I would imagine that we cannot find a way in which to prove multiple accounts as facts, although we could certainly accept them as differing true perspectives.

  4. I was going over a statement of faith from a Christian University that I thought had a pretty good way of summarizing their thinking on Scripture, and I thought it might be useful/relevant/interesting to the discussion here:

    "The Bible: We believe that God inspired the Bible and has given it to us as the uniquely authoritative, written guide for Christian living and thinking. As illumined by the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures are true and reliable. They point us to God, guide our lives, and nurture us toward spiritual maturity."

    I think this statement stays away from making the kinds of claims I wouldn't want to make about Scripture. I like the language of "uniquely authoritative."

    I like the last sentence describing what it is the Scriptures are expected to actually do (and by extension, things left out that are often included in these kinds of statement...these things are *not* expected for Scripture to do).

    What I like most of all though, and what I think is most relevant to the specifics of the topic/post here, is the statement in the middle, "...*As illumined by the Holy Spirit*, the Scriptures are true and reliable." Thoughts, anyone?

    1. I agree with you that I like the usage of "uniquely authoritative", and I certainly like the thought process that says that the Holy Spirit continues to inspire not only the writing but the reading (and interpreting) as well.

      If there is a weakness in this statement, I think it is the word "guide". Maybe it's just me. "Guide" makes me think of "suggestion" more than "transformative truth".

    2. I would agree that's not the strongest part of the statement. But, perhaps thinking of 'guide' as in 'spiritual guide' or 'spiritual director' (one who listens to Holy Spirit alongside us) makes the statement stronger. Imagine that: Scripture as a companion on the journey, listening together *with* us to hear Holy Spirit's voice speaking to us. There's something about that I like very much. Thanks for encouraging that thought process with your reply!

  5. 2 Timothy 3:16. All Scripture is God breathed.......
    There is no question that the Holy Spirit inspired all of Scripture. He also speaks to us where we are at, as has been mentioned. I have heard it taught all my life that the Scriptures are living and breathing. They speak to us differently specifically because the Holy Spirit has inspired them and is continuing to do so!

    1. Hebrews 4:12 comes to mind, "For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (NIV).

      I probably need to study Hebrews 4 in more detail, because I actually find this particular verse to be oddly placed between a discussion regarding Sabbath and a description of Jesus and grace. With that in mind, though, I wonder if I can open a conversation about the "word" or "Word" of God. Do you think this particular "word" refers to Scripture or Jesus?

  6. RED FLAG ALERT! “… we started discussing the patriarchs, and whether or not they were literal people who actually walked the earth and lived these particular stories…” Say what? There are Christians who believe that the patriarchs are not real/literal people? My brain is caught up on this…why do they not believe the patriarchs were real? Please explain how you understand their thoughts?

    Richard says,
    “Frankly, I'm not sure that I have given much thought to using this word (factual) for Scripture. It evokes images of data and more quantitative measures--things that we know for certain do not always agree internally in Scripture (take, for example, the Last Supper chronology differences between John and the Synoptics.)”…What are the Synoptics?

    1. Easiest question first. The Synoptic Gospels are Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

      Now, the patriarchs...

      I think we have to start with an understanding that Scripture contains so many different genres, and in ancient times the people were often less concerned with passing down historical fact and more concerned with passing down stories, from generation to generation, that left a legacy and taught their descendents about the attributes of, and relationship with, the God of Israel. We often consider parts of the OT as the history of Israel, but there are not always additional sources to back up "factuality". The more I study this, the less comfortable I am with using "Scripture" and "fact" in the same sentence, not because it shakes the foundation for Scripture as truth, but because I think it makes Scripture less than what it should be to reduce it to a list of facts and figures.

      I tend to think that many of the accounts we have in Scripture describe real people and real stories. I also tend to think that it is possible that some of the stories are not literal, were never intended to be read as literal, and are still just as true and useful for teaching. The intent is really important here, because if Scripture contains stories that were not intended for literal interpretation, we have to recognize that we have put that burden on Scripture, ourselves. It's not as if the original authors were attempting to deceive anyone. They wrote to an audience who would have understood the intent of their narratives.

      Generally speaking, I think it's fine to view the OT stories as depictions of actual events unless there is a compelling reason to view them as a different type of literature. However, I have a lot of concern for people who are devastated when they first hear that there are, indeed, instances when the reasons are compelling.

      I keep going back to the same question, though. How much does this matter?

      For me, when I was first presented with the possibility that the patriarchs were not literal people, I had just completed a very intense, in depth study of Abraham and the Mount Moriah near sacrifice of Isaac. I have to tell you, that study solidified so many things for me about God, and faith, and covenant. To have someone suggest that maybe that didn't happen rocked my world. I think Abraham existed. I think Isaac existed. I'm going to hold to that. But... even if they didn't, does that change my understanding of God and covenant? Realistically, I don't think it does.

      And so I find myself in the place where I so often find myself, lately, asking what matters *most*...

  7. Here's a link to a new post by Tom Oord, reviewing a book by Karl Giberson that touches on many of the issues in Lisa's post and the comment thread here as well. Oord doesn't necessarily take a specific position on the issues discussed, but it is a good review of the book and the issues at play when we talk about the 'truth' of Scripture and historicity of biblical characters: