Christians Are Not Obligated to Treat Every Passage of Scripture the Same

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Every so often, while in a discussion about the correct interpretation of this or that passage in the Bible, a certain claim will be articulated.  The claim goes something like this:

If a Christian decides to treat a particular passage of Scripture as something other than a straightforward historical and/or scientific account, then they no longer have good reason for treating the central claims of Christianity in the same manner.

For example, let's say that I express a belief that the story of Jonah being swallowed by a fish is an allegory (this is just an illustration, I am not presently intending to express such a belief).  I no longer have good reason, my detractors might say, to hold the narrative of the resurrection of Jesus Christ to be a historical account rather than an allegory or some other non-historical literary device.  Such a claim comes from Christians and non-Christians alike.  The Christian is concerned that treating some portion of the Bible as other than history or science will effectively undermine our trust in the rest of Scripture.  The atheist, on the other hand, might see this as a Christian's way of dodging some deadly argumentative projectile which has been launched at him (it seems, rather tragically, that dodging bullets is only cool in the movies): if the external evidence corroborates some biblical detail, then it is historical.  If it contradicts it, then it is a metaphor. (This is almost verbatim of something that was said to me by an atheist recently, tongue-in-cheek).  Both of these views are misguided.  The Christian is under no obligation to treat every passage of Scripture the same.  In fact, to do so is irresponsible and wrongheaded.

Yes, that's right.  I'll say it again.  Christians are under no obligation to treat every passage of Scripture the same. This is true whether one is an Inerrantist or not. Those who believe that such an obligation exists, do so because they have made two grave errors in thinking. (Perhaps, to go along with our combat analogy, they were so focused in their violent pursuit of me that they stepped on a landmine.  The consequences of such an explosion will be rather harder to avoid than the landmine itself).  The first error is that the objection treats the totality of Scripture as homogeneous, thereby ignoring one of its most unique characteristics: its literary diversity.  The second is that it fails to recognize the vast canyon which has inconveniently situated itself between our own perspective, and that of an Ancient Near Easterner.

LSD and Ice Cream, or On the Diversity of Scripture

Suppose a friend of yours has unwisely consumed LSD or some other hallucinogenic drug.  In such a state she appears to be tricked into thinking everything is made of ice cream (the horror!).  Thus she, very rationally considering her condition, treats all objects in the same way: namely by trying to eat them.  You put up with it while she begins licking a bar of soap, chewing on a piece of paper, and gnawing on the kitchen table.  But when she makes after the beloved family dog, she's simply gone too far, and you must restrain her!

Now, in the interest of sensitivity, I should be up front in mentioning that there is actually very little in common between the situation described and the one regarding biblical interpretation. That is, I am not accusing those who disagree with me of having taken LSD, or otherwise tampered with their cognitive faculties. The one point these do have in common is that, like the LSD connoisseur, our detractor is not able to discern the diversity of  objects in front of him.

The Bible is a compilation of sixty-six books, written by around forty different authors, in at least four different genres, over a span of 2000 years or more.  Such diversity is even found within single books when characters in historical narratives reference books of law or tell parables, for example. The Bible is not homogeneous, but rich with diversity from the In the beginning of Genesis to the Amen of Revelation. It is only appropriate then, that we respond in kind, applying diverse methods of interpretation.

Still, these methods must be appropriate for the passages to which they are applied. We don't try to eat every household object as if it is ice cream, but neither do we write on the kitchen table (an offense which was punishable by death in my own household as a child), wash our hands with a piece of paper, or serve food on a bar of soap.  We rather write on pieces of paper, wash with bars of soap, and serve dinner at the table. In the same way, it is appropriate to treat those poetic books in the Bible as poetry ought to be treated, those historical narratives as historical narratives ought to be treated, those collections of wisdom as collections of wisdom ought to be treated, those books of law as books of law ought to be treated, etc.  However, it is not always easy to tell what genre an ancient book is intended to be, which brings me to my second point...

The Grand Canyon of Worldviews

Consider how a canyon is formed.  It starts as a river winds through a landscape.  After years and years of erosion, a gap is formed between the banks of the river.  Over time, this gap becomes wider and deeper as the river continues to carve it out slowly and patiently.  Eventually, like the Grand Canyon, such a gap may become so massive that it is very challenging to move from one side to the other.  This is the situation we have with ancient literature in general, and the Bible in particular. Two to four thousand years of change have eroded away at the literary landscape leaving us with an enormous gap to bridge in order to understand Ancient Near East literature.

One of the biggest hurdles in studying the Bible is being able to temporarily exchange our post-Enlightenment worldview for an Ancient Near Eastern one.  I am often told that I should take Scripture at face value until I have good reason to think I should take it another way.  The problem with such a question is, what is face value?  Would the Ancient Near Easterners for whom the biblical books were originally written have understood them prima facie the same way we would?  The answer is: not always.  One example is the way in which certain concepts in Genesis 1 were conveyed.  Here's what Gordon Wenham has to say:

[T]he sun and moon are not given their usual Hebrew names [...] here, which might suggest an identification with Shamash the sun god or Yarih the moon god.  Instead they are simply called "the larger" and "the smaller light."[1]

The polemic intent of Genesis is even more clear in its handling of the sea monsters and the astral bodies: for this writer they are not gods who compete with Yahweh; they are merely his creatures who display his power and skill.[2]
These parallels, these responses, to other Ancient Near East beliefs are simply not readily apparent to those of us living in the twenty-first century.

So, don't incapacitate yourself by making these grave mistakes (feel free to use this blog as a type of metal detector to avoid landmines).  I'll say it one more time: Christians are under no obligation to treat every passage of Scripture the same.  And one more thing: don't do LSD.  It's bad, mmmk?

1. Wenham, 1987, p. 21
2. Ibid. p. 37
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