We now come to the fourth and final part of my assessment of the Newsweek article on the Bible. It deals with more claims of contradictions, the role of women in Scripture, and homosexuality.
Remaining Claims of Contradiction
On Differing Creation stories and JE theory: Again we see here the general skeptical formula “difference equals contradiction” is applied. It is not the only option. Genesis 1 is an overview account as seen in its symmetry. Genesis 2 has more detail. This contention is an old one that prefers critical source theory to a sensitive literary reading and seeing distinct ways of summarizing dependent on the form being literarily applied. Only a hyper-literal reading injects issues into this reading of the material.
God Wresling with Dragons: Similar concerns about a lack of literary sensitivity has to do with the Biblical passages on God wrestling with dragons, where Scripture is responding to mythic images from the wider culture with its images of Leviathan. This imagery portrays the cosmic, behind the scenes battle between God and the forces of evil that portray spiritual realities extending beyond our five senses. These are realities most of the world recognizes, even as many secular Westerners question their existence. Here is a worldview issue that is at the core of much debate on the Bible. Are spiritual forces real? Does God speak and act in the creation? Is there real good and evil in our world that is beyond our sensory perception? Important questions whose answers dictate how one also will see and assess the Bible.
• On the term homosexuality: The discussion about the background of the Greek term again ignores historical and cultural background and is a kind of linguistic waving of a magic wand. According to the recognized Greek lexicon (p. 135) the term arsenokoitēs means “a male who engages in sexual activity w. a pers. of his own sex.” The Greek term is not even cited correctly in the article, lacking a final sigma. In 1 Timothy 1:10 it is arsenokoitais. The word “homosexual” was an English word coined to say this in a more compact way. Yet this is what the term means. Add to this the Hebrew Scripture background of what constituted acts that defiled as part of the background to its use here, then the term as having this force is accurate and contextually secure. Judaism of the time did not accept such practice.
We have been so critical of this article, it is important to note agreement with one key point made by Eichenwald on this issue. It is that the Bible does not rank sins. The 1 Timothy text has a list of many sins that are the subject of rebuke (so does Romans 1:29-31). Its claim is that we all sin and all need the forgiveness God offers. No one is immune from this need (Romans 3:9-31). Everyone needs God’s grace according to the Bible. All qualify for forgiveness being supplied by someone other than the one who has sinned. One of the tragic results of our culture’s turn against the Bible is its turning more of a blind eye to the need we all have to be humble before God and exercise care about the character we display, losing our sense of need for why God needs to graciously supply forgiveness to those who recognize they need what he supplies.
On Women: Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann and Claims of Inconsistency
As for Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin, no reading is more thin than the one Eichenwald offers here in saying if these Christian women believed the Bible then these women should not speak on political issues. No text prohibits a woman from speaking out in terms of politics. The limits on women's roles Scripture raises only discuss church contexts. The Bible has women who function as prophets and sources of commentary on events (Miriam, Hannah, Mary, Priscilla, and the four daughters of Philip come to mind). However, Eichenwald is right that Romans 13 does teach us to pray for our leaders. This does not mean that leaders are immune from criticism (see Paul in 1 Cor 2), but it does mean one should engage in political discourse with more respect than some often show. Here is another relational point Eichenwald makes that is worthy of reflection.
Law, James and Paul
As the list of issues with Scripture continues, Eichenwald turns his attention to the question whether the law should be followed or not. Here he argues Matthew does not agree with Paul. He argues that Matthew (with James) is for the continued use of the law, while Paul is against it. Again the citation of a verse without looking at the literary context makes the case look stronger than it is. The article needs to move beyond the kind of proof texting it also is complaining about among Bible believers. There is something different going on than the claim of contradiction. What follows in the fulfill the law citation from Matthew is what is called the six antitheses where Jesus makes the point that it is not the surface letter of the law that matters but the heart issue it raises. This heart focus is what one should pursue. So it is not murder but anger that is to be shunned. It is not adultery but lust that the law is encouraging us to avoid. It is not the making an oath to assure another of our truthfulness but being truthful. So Jesus is talking about fulfilling the law at that level, just as Paul also argues in Galatians 5. They actually agree with each other when we engage in a more comprehensive reading of these texts. Paul’s argument in Galatians (again only partially stated by Eichenwald) is not only that Jesus is the answer for fulfilling the law, but that this kind of newness of life and character concern is where Jesus and the Spirit work to take you in fulfillment of what the law was always about. Again a literarily sensitive reading yields a different conclusion than Eichenwald makes.
Especially misleading is the choice Eichenwald has that must one either follow the law or ignore it. Once again he has one dimensionally read the text. He has limited the options, and in the process ignored other possible configurations of how to deal with all of these texts. What one sees when one works with all of Scripture is a need we all have for God and the way he offers forgiveness. This way of pursuing God gives us access to something we cannot supply for ourselves. We agree with Eichenwald’s warning about the risk of being hypocrites, if we see ourselves as being inherently better than others. The Bible does warn about this, but the New Testament teaches one should care about how he or she lives, be aware we are all accountable to the Creator God who will render judgment one day, and claims the solution is found for all in the same person of messianic promise God has sent to tell us about forgiveness and life. It is here where what Jesus uniquely offers us in terms of forgiveness and life enters into the New Testament message of Scripture.
On Prayer as Performance
Eichenwald is both right and wrong on his claim that public prayer is to be avoided according to Jesus. What Jesus challenged was praying in public in a way that drew attention to the one who prayed. My public prayer shows how pious I am is the point Jesus challenges. Prayer that is prideful and self-serving is what Jesus is against. But Jesus did pray in public when he fed the multitudes, as Eichenwald also observes. The Bible is full of accounts where the people of God gather to pray, even for national concerns. One can think of David’s call to national prayer in 1 Chronicle 16, Solomon’s dedication of the temple or the prayers of Nehemiah. Most of the Psalms are nothing but public prayers! 1 Timothy 2:1-8 speaks of prayer in every place for all people, calling such prayer good and welcome before God our Savior, including prayer for kings and emperors. Again to pick and choose which texts we use and which we ignore distorts what the Bible teaches, an important lack of balance in an article written to Americans about how they should think about the Bible.
Conclusion: On Judging Not- Both People AND Scripture
The final exhortation in the article is to read the Bible and do so carefully. We could not agree more. That means not cherry picking out of it. That means reading all of it. That means appreciating the cultural and historical background as we have shown. It means reading it with literary sensitivity and rejecting an approach that too quickly says difference simply equals contradiction. It means reading Scripture as a whole carefully and accepting the way it challenges the way all of us live. The Bible often leads us into a spiritual self-critique where God's words can challenge us about how we live and lead us into living distinctly, humbly, lovingly in a pursuit of holiness that is as selfless as Jesus' own offering of himself for our sin (Titus 2:11-14).
Our desire is to quickly say, as Eichenwald does, that we should be slow to judge another as Jesus taught. Yet here again the exhoration needs qualification in light of what Jesus actually taught. A closer look at that text says we should be serious about seeing the plank in our own eye before worrying about the speck in the eye of another. Jesus goes on to say do engage the brother after an honest self-examination. So Jesus' point is not to avoid judging all together, but to do so with an awareness of one's own need as well. What is needed by all is a conversation where we all recognize our shortcomings and need for God.
Maybe we should add that one should not be too quick to judge the Bible as well, a point Jesus also taught. The one who commanded love your neighbor as yourself also said, love God with all of your heart was a part of the greatest commandment. That means respecting God's word and recognizing God’s right to make judgments about how we (should) live. It means letting the Scripture tell the story from an array of angles that should not be cancelled out by premature claims of contradiction. It means reading with a literary sensitivity that sees the scope of what a passage addresses and wrestles with the array of proposed options for how to read the text. This is how we understand the Bible and read it well so as not to sin.