Seek the truth—come whence it may, cost what it will.
--Motto of Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, Virginia
I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.
--Thomas Jefferson, letter to Francis Hopkinson
For Literalist Christians, defined for purposes of this book as those for whom the Bible’s spiritual significance is inexorably linked to its historical veracity, spiritual truth and historical truth are one and the same thing. For these Literalists, the spiritual teachings of the Bible cannot be understood apart from what they believe are the actual, historical events chronicled therein. Whether we’re talking about the fall of man, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, or innumerable other “events”, Literalists insist that their meaning, their significance, and their spiritual relevance can only be discerned by understanding that these things actually happened exactly as described in the Bible. As one Literalist has stated:
Christians believe that as wonderful as Jesus’ life and teachings and miracles were, they were meaningless if it were not historically factual that Christ died and was raised from the dead and that this provided atonement , or forgiveness, of the sins of humanity. (The Case for Christ at 26 quoting Bloomburg ).
Consequently, Literalists contend that merely following the Bible’s or even Jesus’ teachings is insufficient: To be a “true” Christian, one must accept the historical record as offered in the Bible, especially the parts about Jesus’ physical birth, death and resurrection.
Those who would interpret the Bible’s significance historically are also apt to believe in its infallibility. After all, if the events chronicled therein didn’t actually happen exactly as described, if the Bible is not a reliable witness to history, then discerning its spiritual message via an historical interpretation is silly. For this reason, most Literalists espouse the Bible’s perfection. Consider, for example, this statement from Jerry Falwell:
The Bible is the inerrant…word of the living God. It is absolutely infallible, without error in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as well as in areas such as geography, science, history, etc. (Jerry Falwell, Finding Inner Peace and Strength at 26.)
As Falwell’s quote suggests, a natural inclination of those who read the Bible historically is to interpet it literally. And, if its spiritual significance is tied to the historicity of the events it purports to describe, as all Literalists contend, then there is little use seeking a more nuanced, spiritual, figurative interpretation of those events.
For purposes of this book I will call the above-described belief that the spiritual meaning of the Bible can only be understood in light of its historical veracity and literal interpretation the “Paradigm of Historicity.” And I will call those who espouse such views “Literalists.”
Modern Christianity’s problem is that the Literalist interpretation is increasingly difficult for biblically knowledgeable, intellectually honest persons to accept. During the pre-scientific age in which Christian doctrine developed, it was perhaps reasonable enough for someone to accept the Paradigm of Historicity and all the church’s teachings that are derived from it. But today, that’s just not the case: No rational, biblically educated and intellectually honest person can countenance the Bible’s infallibility in matters of science or history. For those who doubt this, they need only keep reading, as I will go to great pains to demonstrate why this is so. And for those who would condemn me for making such a statement, I would ask only that they first do me the courtesy of reading and reflecting upon the second part of this book.
Furthermore, once we admit that the Bible is not a perfect, infallible witness to history, we have reason to doubt the traditional historical interpretation and all theological principles derived therefrom. As Bishop John Shelby Spong has recognized:
Again and again we discover painfully that our central Christian affirmations make assumptions based upon a literalized view of the biblical narrative that are no longer believable. Hence, when we cast light on those assumptions, they fall apart. They are not based on a reality we can grasp or believe. The Christian church, if unwilling to rethink and reformulate the very basic understanding of its faith, will increasingly not have much to say to a world that will understand neither our language nor our symbols. The Christian church is living now on the basis of capital from the past; traditional patterns of thought that have not yet been challenged sufficiently in the minds of the masses. That will not long endure.
The only churches that grow today are those that do not, in fact, understand the issues and can therefore traffic in certainty. They represent both the fundamentalist Protestant groups and the rigidly controlled conservative Catholic traditions. The churches that do attempt to interact with the emerging world are for the most part the liberal Protestant mainline churches that shrink every day in membership and the silent liberal Catholic minority that attracts very few adherents. Both are, almost by definition, fuzzy, imprecise, and relatively unappealing. They might claim to be [intellectually] honest, but for the most part they have no real message. (Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, at 35.)
As more and more people realize that the Bible is demonstrably fallible and that it is not a reliable witness to history, many of today’s educated Christians find themselves at a crossroads. They feel that they must either convince themselves to believe the unbelievable, or else abandon the faith. As Spong has noted:
The options, our people are made to feel, are either to live in continued ignorance or to abandon the church altogether for life apart from any religious convictions. (Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, at 10.)
Not surprisingly, many are taking the second option. As Sam Harris has noted:
[I]t is important to realize that much of the developed world has nearly [rid itself of religious faith.] Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom are among the least religious societies on earth. (Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, at 38-45)
Many Literalists see the growth of their churches, and the decline of their more "liberal" cousins, as evidence that the Literalist interpretation of scripture is correct. But this is silly. Literalists can feel good about their growth only because they turn a blind eye to the millions of educated persons each year who, unwilling to adopt the anti-intellectual attitude required by the Paradigm of Historicity and unable to find any meaningful alternative within Christianity, abandon the faith altogether, if not in name at least in practice. Among the those who best understand the Bible and its origins, Christianity is in steep decline. To repeat Spong, "The only churches that grow today are those that do not, in fact, understand the issues and can therefore traffic in certainty."
Christianity Doesn’t Have to Die Along with the Paradigm of Historicity
In my view, the reason that no intellectually honest and spiritually satisfying alternative to Christian Literalism has presented itself is due to death grip that the Paradigm of Historicity has had on the minds of even those Christians who can no longer accept it. Non-literalist churches have abandoned the paradigm, and to some degree the theology that developed around it, but they have replaced it with...nothing. At least nothing of substance. So, their message is inherently "fuzzy, imprecise, and relatively unappealing."
The admittedly ambitious purpose of this book is to remedy this situation. After engaging in an exhaustive examination of history and the Bible designed to undermine once and for all the Paradigm of Historicity and all teaching derived from it, I will seek to revive the dead patient by articulating an intellectually-honest, practically workable, clear, relevant and spiritually-nourishing alternative interpretation of Christianity. This alternative will be “historically grounded” without being “grounded in history.” What I mean by this will become clear as we proceed.
In the first part of this book I’ll examine some of the ways in which interpreting the Bible through the Paradigm of Historicity has shaped our received version of Christian scriptures, doctrine and symbols.
In the second part of this book, I’ll provide an overwhelming number of logical and historical reasons for dispensing once and for all with the Paradigm of Historicity and, more importantly, all teaching derived from it. I will demonstrate that an historical interpretation of the Bible is logically untenable, historically unworkable, and was almost certainly never intended by most of its authors. And toward the end of this second part, I’ll pose what are sure to be some disturbing questions for some: Must the Bible be historically true to be spiritually true? What if, in actuality, the Bible was never intended to convey primarily historical fact, but rather to encode spiritual truth in allegory? What if reading the Bible as history actually hampers our understanding of its meaning? In short, if we dispense with reading the Bible as a history book, would we arrive at a different conclusion as to its meaning?
In the third and fourth parts of this book, I’ll demonstrate that, freed of the Paradigm of Historicity, the Bible actually encodes exciting and beautiful spiritual truths that have great relevance, appeal and practical significance for us today. Citing to the Bible itself as my primary authority, I’ll articulate a radical and beautiful interpretation of scripture that I pray will transform a generation of Christians.
And finally, throughout the book, I’ll demonstrate that my interpretation is actually an original interpretation, albeit one that has been suppressed by the Church for centuries. And, I’ll also show how this interpretation is consistent with the teachings of a staggering number of the world’s religions, including some Christian denominations.
Via comments, I invite the reader to offer constructive criticism or feedback, and especially to correct any errors or mistakes I may make.
(CONTINUE TO CHAPTER 1)