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Emails to a Student 4

Katherine,

You write,

4) How can we know, as Christians, that we should put out faith in any part of the Bible? The old testament writings are sometimes historically inaccurate, contradictory of itself, and have many sources and translations; in the new testament, matthew tries to force the idea as Jesus as the Jews’ messiah, Luke and Matthew appear to take many of their ideas from Mark, and John is out on its own for the most part and very mystical in nature; we base most of our ideas of Christian living on the letters of Paul who was one man and never intended for his letter to be “God-breathed” scripture, and so many of his ideas of morals reflected the patriarchal culture of the times.

What does “faith” mean to you? Can faith be reduced to assenting to a list of propositions, or is there more to it than that? Surely faith implies trust, assurance, and (thus) relationship. When I say I have faith in my wife, it doesn’t mean that I believe a set of facts about her—although of course I do! It means I trust her: to be there for me, to exhibit a certain kind of character that I have observed in her consistently for the past fifteen-plus years, etc. Likewise, I can put my faith in the Bible to do and be all that God has promised it would (as for example, in 2 Tim 3:16-17).

It seems to me that God should have no problem teaching, reproving, correcting, and training me in righteousness through the use of literary genres other than objective historical reporting. Indeed, why should putting one’s faith in some part of the Bible be contingent on its genre? Do you put your faith in Psalm 23? But it’s a song—what does it mean to put your faith in a song? What sort of historical accuracy or inaccuracy could a song possibly possess? But if you’ve ever been in “the darkest valley,” you may well have turned to this psalm for comfort. I think that counts as putting your faith in Psalm 23.

Do you put your faith in the Parable of the Prodigal Son? If I told you that the man and his two sons were all fictitious characters, would you cease to put your faith in Luke 15:11-32? I suspect that, like me, you get the point of the parable and cherish its message about forgiveness despite whatever seemingly unforgivable things we may have done in the past. Thus, I suspect that, like me, you put your faith in the parable despite knowing full well that it is a fictitious story.

So yes, the Bible is a very diverse collection of ancient texts, written over a span of maybe 1,000 years, by dozens of authors who used a wide variety of literary styles, forms, and devices. But just as accepting the biblical, orthodox view of Jesus means accepting that he experienced a perfectly human process of development—physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and even spiritual (Lk 2:40)—I think it makes sense to say that a biblical, orthodox view of the Bible also involves accepting that the books of the Bible also underwent a process of composition that was perfectly normal for the times in which they were written. It doesn’t besmirch the divinity of Christ to say that he was once a baby who couldn’t feed himself and needed a mommy to wipe his bottom. On the contrary, that serves to demonstrate the full extent of the incarnation. Frankly, the stakes are higher with the divinity of Christ than they even are with the divine inspiration of the Bible!

So, the biblical writers used previous sources. That’s nothing that Luke doesn’t himself admit in Luke 1:1-4. And it is certainly nothing out of the ordinary for historical writing in any era.

And the biblical writers did not always understand the full repercussions of their words. For example, nobody in the Bible ever denounced the institution of slavery as such, but it was Bible-reading and Bible-believing Christians who led the way in abolishing slavery in the western world.

There is no point disputing that these things are so. The challenge of faith is to remember what else is also true: That God speaks to us in Scripture, and that makes it far more central to the Christian faith than an academic study of its various parts can explain.

Katherine, my experience has been (1) that faith gets stronger when it’s tested, and (2) that it never seems this is the case until the test is over! It’s clear to me that you have a deep love of God and that you receive the Bible as God’s holy word and try to live by its teachings. I hope that nothing I have said this semester would make you think otherwise, because that is what I believe, and how I strive to live, too.

I think I have touched on all of the things you originally wrote me about. If there are specific areas you would like to explore more fully, you know how to find me, and I hope you will. 🙂

God bless,

Dr. P.

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