Who Gets to Decide What God Meant?

The Bible as Word of God: Fatal Flaw Number 3 (of 5)
Is it really smart to push the idea that God wrote a book to get his message across to the world? Of course, he didn’t write it himself, but his holy spirit settled upon authors whom he favored, and they wrote the actual words. Many Christians assume that this is how the Bible was created.

But it seems like a high-risk strategy.

The favored authors—flawed human beings, after all—ended up putting so much drivel and trash into their “inspired” writings. And, yes, even the most devout Christians (with the exception of die-hard fundamentalists) can spot the useless Bible filler that shouldn’t be in a ‘holy’ book. In fact, this damages any confidence that a perfect divine mind had anything to do with it, which I discussed in the second article this series, God Gets a Big Fat “F” as an Author.

But then another problem surfaces. Those ‘words of God’—just open your Bible and take a look—how can we be sure what they mean? There have been so many different interpretations. Which ones are right? Didn’t God see this problem coming?

Scholars have been hard at work for centuries trying to figure out what scripture means, trying to determine what the original authors meant, supposedly with the hope of getting closer to what God meant. The scholars have mastered Greek and Hebrew, which is not an option for most lay readers, who have to be interested enough to read what the scholars have written; they also have to trust the translators and the church tradition in which they were brought up. Chances are, most of those ‘words of God’ in the Bible are not well understood. Do most laypeople even care—as much as they claim they do?

An Amazing Admission

When I was a teenager, my devout Methodist mother—not a college graduate, but a voracious reader nonetheless—purchased The Interpreter’s Bible, a 12-volume commentary that captured my interest immediately. I was curious about how the Bible happened, and I sensed it would take a lot of study to understand it. Little did I realize that this undermines the very concept that God would have chosen an ancient book as a source of wisdom for the ages. Indeed, it would have been a high-risk strategy; it would have been poor planning.

Sometimes I find confirmation of this in the most unlikely places. The Bible is supposed to be God’s Word for the benefit of everyone; the Gideons and the American Bible Society have scattered billions of copies around the world. They seem to assume that its message is not hard to grasp. Why else push it on anyone who will take it? Hence what a stunning admission by conservative Christian scholar, Ben Witherington, in his 400-page analysis of Paul’s Letter to the Romans; he states on the very first page: “…the goal of understanding this formidable discourse is not reached for a considerable period of time.” Oops, that surely was not the way it was supposed to be. Shouldn’t we be able to open the Bible, and, right away, ‘get it’?

God made a big mistake in selecting Paul to write part of the Bible, but that’s another story; see my series of articles on each chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Paul: A Good Case Study, Fatal Flaw Number 3

“Oh that was a such a fun read,” said no Christian ever after making it through any of Paul’s letters. But “fun” is not the point, of course. Can we grasp the mind of God as we soldier on through these dense pages? Wasn’t God supposed to make things pretty clear when he inspired the Bible? Otherwise, why bother?

Whose interpretation to believe? This is the brick wall: The Third Fatal Flaw that sabotages the Bible as God’s Word.

Classical scholar Michael Grant has written candidly about the problem of understanding Paul. He explains what we’re up against; these excerpts are from his 2000 book, St. Paul, pp. 6, 8-9, and 34. I have italicized the words that illustrate Fatal Flaw Number 3.

● The Letters are vividly varied and lively, but unrounded, unarranged and muddled, making their points not by any orderly procedure but by a series of hammer-blow contrasts and antitheses. Paul is far too impulsive and enthusiastic to standardize his terms or arrange his material. He is often ambiguous—with results that have reverberated down the centuries. And he commits flagrant self-contradictions, which caused Augustine, among many others, the deepest anxiety.

● His highly idiosyncratic ways of thinking and expressing himself already make the problem of understanding him a daunting one. And his blend of Jewish thought with Greek expression—a forcible bringing together of two alien cultures—merely serve to make it more daunting still. In consequence, it has always been possible to take widely differing views of what he intended to say.

● One feels sympathy for those who dined at the house of John Colet, Dean of St Paul’s, early in the sixteenth century. While guests ate, ‘a servant would read aloud in a clear, distinct voice’ a chapter from Paul’s Epistles or the Proverbs of Solomon—and then their host was accustomed to ask them what they believed the significance of the passage in question to be. Even Martin Luther would have found this an awkward predicament, for he was not always at all sure what Paul really meant, though he ‘thirsted ardently to know.’

● Paul’s utterances on Original Sin encouraged an immense diversity of opinion on their meaning because they are essentially equivocal. Some of these ambiguities arise from the random contexts in which Paul threw out his views, with haste and emotion, to meet special circumstances. But others are basic and intrinsic to his thought: these are due to unresolved contradictions in his philosophy. Sometimes, too, one feels some things were left unresolved quite deliberately, because Paul realized, for all his apparent confidence, that some philosophical problems were insoluble.

Paul’s letters could be the most written about works in Western history—except perhaps for the gospels. Witherington’s book on Romans includes an 18-page bibliography, and he points out, “This list could go on for miles…” (p. xvii) Every syllable that Paul wrote—every word, phrase, and sentence—has been analyzed, over analyzed, super analyzed. Since, they’re sure, God inspired Paul, they don’t want to miss anything.

In wrangling endlessly about meanings, scholars themselves illustrate the third fatal flaw. For example, at the opening of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he says of Jesus Christ our Lord (v. 1:5): “…through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations…” That doesn’t seem too daunting, does it? Witherington points out, however (p. 34):

“Certainly one of the most debated of phrases in a document full of debatable points is ‘obedience of faith.’” And then he cites the work of C. E. B. Cranfield, who lists seven possible meanings for ‘obedience of faith.’ Guys, you’ve been thinking too much about Paul’s mediocre ramblings! Certainly this is overkill—and certainly Hector Avalos is right in calling for the end of biblical studies. Enough already! But I digress.

That the Letter to the Romans, one of the charter documents of the Christian faith, is “full of debatable points” suggests that the Bible fails as an easily discernable document that can guide humanity. Randel Helms was correct in calling it a “self-destructing artifact.”

Another formidable Pauline scholar, Jesuit Joseph A. Fitzmyer, in his 1993 commentary on Romans, stated the problem in another way (I have added italics):

“Rudolph Bultmann, the great German NT scholar of the early part of this century, maintained that there was no presuppositionless exegesis of the Bible. Every commentator somehow manifests his or her confessional stance in interpreting a biblical text. Yet there also exists a corporate exegetical endeavor engaged in by interpreters of different backgrounds, whether Jewish, Protestant, or Roman Catholic. This corporate endeavor tends to produce over a period of time a less subjective approach to a particular biblical writing and also brings to light the often subconscious presuppositions of the individual interpreter. From such presuppositions no one fully escapes” (p. xiv).

So who decides what God meant?

Jews, Protestants, or Romans Catholics? Your priest, pastor or rabbi?—all of whom are paid propagandists (face it) for their particular faith traditions. Conservative Bible scholars or liberal Bible scholars? When I studied The Interpreter’s Bible in the 1950s I assumed it was something novel, little realizing that there have been hundreds of commentaries; check out the list here. All these thinkers were trying to arrive at that precious commodity: understanding what God meant.

You know who should write a commentary? How about God himself? He created a mess so long ago by inspiring a book of such uneven quality—so many errors, contradictions, ambiguities, and, frankly, so much bad theology.

Warp and Twist When You Don’t LIKE What the Bible (seems to) Mean

Given this muddle, it’s easy to see why the devout wince when they read the Bible: “How can we get out of this?” “Surely God didn’t mean that.” Following what the Bible teaches turns into evading what the Bible teaches—while pretending that’s not what’s happening. Did God intend this? Just three examples:

• Jesus’ disastrous teaching about divorce: Evangelicals, those super Jesus fans, get divorced. They avoid their favorite question: “What would Jesus do,” and punt to “God didn’t mean for this text to apply to my life.” The Catholic Church can’t imagine that Jesus was wrong, and relishing the role of enforcer, has caused so much anguish for centuries.

• In Luke 14:26 Jesus says you have to hate your family to follow him. Believers who have no training whatever in ancient Greek or Aramaic are confident that this couldn’t mean what it seems to mean. And didn’t Jesus say that we’re supposed to love our enemies? Could he have said both? So…who gets to decide what God meant?

• In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:40-42: “…and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.” None of this is common Christian practice, i.e., the devout assume that such generosity can’t be put into practice and cannot possibly be what God meant.

Another Perversion: Turning Bible Verses into Hidden Codes

The gospel writers knew that the Old Testament was about Jesus—in coded verses, and they understood the code. Matthew was a champion at lifting verses out of context, which is what we call it today. His assumption was that God had been planting messages about the life of Jesus hundreds of years before he lived. Matthew based the virgin birth on a mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14; Mary and Joseph taking the baby to Egypt on Hosea 11:1; Herod’s massacre of the innocents on Jeremiah 31:15. John got a little weirder; his is the only gospel to mention Jesus being stabbed on the cross and the decision by the soldiers not to break his legs. He got these details from Zechariah 12:10 and Psalm 34:20. This is not the way to write history.

These are examples of gospel writers just being wrong, i.e., assuming that authors centuries before Jesus knew details about a coming messiah’s life and wrote code words ‘predicting’ what would happen to him. There is no reasonable, logical, honest way to defend this approach. So who gets to decide what God meant in Isaiah 7:14 and Psalm 34? Certainly not Matthew or John. And come on, God left his chosen people without a savior while they suffered for centuries? How can that not be bad theology?

Prayer Won't Help

So God dropped a book on the ancient world, written in languages that would no longer be used by the common people. Then interpretations diverged for hundreds of years, resulting in the ceaseless splintering of Christianity. No amount of guidance from the holy spirit eliminated the confusion, even as thousands of devout scholars have tried their best to do so. Na├»ve believers suppose that they can decide what God meant by “praying on it,” which is just one more example of how critical thinking is sabotaged by faith and wishful thinking.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library can be found here.