Are you old enough to remember these commercials for Certs mints?
I remember them whenever I hear a pastor claim that the Bible was never intended to be a factual account, but nevertheless some parts (those parts chosen at the discretion of the speaker) were. “The Bible is true!” “No, it’s just a metaphor!” “Stop, you’re both right! It’s two, two,—two two books in one!”
See this argument in a new piece at PuffHo, “Is the Bible true?”, by David Lose, director of the Center for Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota:
Both sides, however, miss the literary nature and intent of the Bible as stated within its own pages. Take for example Luke, who in his introduction acknowledges that he is not an eye-witness to the events he recounts but depends on multiple other stories about Jesus. He writes what he calls “an orderly account” so that his audience may believe and trust the teaching they have received (Luke 1:1-4). Or consider John, who near the end of his gospel comes clean about carefully arranging stories of Jesus so as to persuade his readers that Jesus is the messiah (John 20:30-31). The gospels — and, indeed, all of Scripture — do not seek to prove but to persuade. . .
. . . For this reason, the Bible is filled with testimony, witness, confession and even propaganda. Does it contain some reliable historical information? Of that there is little doubt. Yet, whenever we stumble upon “verifiable facts” — a notion largely foreign to ancient writers — we should keep in mind that the biblical authors deployed them not to make a logical argument but rather to persuade their audiences of a larger “truth” that cannot be proved in a laboratory but is finally accepted or not accepted based on its ability to offer a compelling story about the meaning and purpose of the world, God, humanity and everything in between. To attempt to determine whether the Bible is “true” based only on its factual accuracy is therefore to make a profound category mistake, judging its contents by standards its authors were neither cognizant of nor interested in.
Here we see postmodern theology, a fervent attempt to separate “facts” from “truth”. But when Lose says that the authors of the Bible had a purely “literary merit and intent,” or says something like this:
The gospels — and, indeed, all of Scripture — do not seek to prove but to persuade.
There’s only one response: how do you know? For two millennia the Bible was taken as literal truth, with the exception of a few theologians who are now touted as having been right all along. And many people still see it as a factual, historical and—indeed—scientific account. But liberal theologians have changed their minds: it’s largely metaphor—with, of course, the exception of the divinity, virgin birth, and resurrection of Jesus, which remain as ironclad facts. What has changed? Only the fact that science has disproven many of the Bible’s “factual” assertions. Based on this, theologians like Lose now tell us that the Bible was never meant to convey literal truth.
Well, these people are entitled to say that previous theologians were wrong, but they’re not entitled to backtrack and say that the authors of scripture, whoever they were, never intended to produce a literal account. That’s simply the theological sausage-grinder turning scientific necessities into religious virtues. Who is supposed to be convinced by this ex post facto rationalization?
And if the Bible is a purely literary vehicle, why not too the accounts of Jesus’s life and death?
Lose’s attempts to force an untenable compromise dismisses the beliefs of millions of scriptural literalists—and atheists—as simply one part of a “false dichotomy”. How does he know that the dichotomy is “false”?
Clearly there are many ways to answer the question of whether the Bible is true. If you are interested primarily in its factual accuracy, then your options are clear and you might as well pick a side. If, however, you’re interested in a way out of the stalemate and false dichotomy of the present conservative-liberal debate, then you might join Jules in putting the matter differently. When you read the Bible, that is, do you feel God’s touch? Does God get involved?
Doesn’t that remind you of this now-famous cartoon from xkcd?