This is the second essay in a collection entitled, A Course in Understanding the Bible. The full collection is organized as follows:
- The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration
- Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth
- God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture
- Why the Bible is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration
- All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning
One of my fondest memories as a child was spending the night with my grandfather to go fishing the next morning. We woke up early on Saturday morning and grandpa started the coffee in an old stainless steel percolator. As it was brewing he said, “Markie, go get the cookies.” I shuffled off to the low-lying shelf in the dining room where a black flower print tin sat within my reach. As grandpa peeled-off the lid a puff of air filled the room with the smell of coconut macaroons. After pouring his coffee he took a thick blue plastic cup, filled it three-quarters of the way full with whole milk, and topped it off with a splash of coffee to make me feel like a big boy. After slurping cookies drenched in coffee flavored milk, he helped me get dressed and we loaded the fishing gear into the old Scout truck.
This pale green tank looked like it was made for war, and one of its distinguishable features was a concrete reinforced steel bumper that could level a small tree. Once the rods and tackle boxes were secured in the back, we opened the creaking doors and jumped in. If the noise of the doors where not loud enough to wake the neighbors then the roar of the cold engine surely was. The truck rumbled through the old neighborhood until we got the major road that would take us from downtown Lakeland to the Fin and Feather fishing ponds on the outskirts of Polk County in the old phosphate mines.
As we were driving down South Florida Avenue, a young man in a blue Camaro started tailgating the old Scout truck. Grandpa eyeballed him in the rearview mirror and then casually spit Red Man tobacco over his left elbow hanging out the driver side window. I could see a glimmer of anger in his eyes, but he kept his cool as the Camaro accelerated and barely squeezed between the front end of the truck and the back end of a car in the left-hand passing lane. Grandpa knew this scared me, and so he looked over with a smile lopsided by a wad of chew and said, “Well, if he woulda got a piece of that concrete bumper that woulda taught ‘em!” His laugh made me laugh, and I thought, “My grandpa is so cool.” This man taught me many things in life other than fishing, and with the exception of my parents was the person who had the greatest overall impact on my life. The greatest gift he gave me was the experience of unconditional love. Grandpa adored me and I knew it.
Most of you never met my grandpa, but after reading this story you probably have some sense of who he was and the kind of impact he had on my life. In addition, the way that I tell the story gives you some insight into my life as a child. What makes this possible is good character description. The more stories I tell, the more you will come to know this great man, and the more likely it will be for him to impact your life indirectly though the storytelling. If this is my purpose, then what is not important are the factual details of the account.
What if I told you upon further reflection that the cookie tin was not black but indigo blue, or that grandpa filled the plastic cup two-thirds of the way with milk instead of three-quarters. What if the Scout truck was yellow instead of pale green, or what if the passing car was a Corvette instead of Camaro? What if this account does not describe a single historical event in my life but is a composite story that draws on my fading memory of several different fishing trips with my grandpa? Does any of this make the story untrue? Would knowledge of factual errors or artistic license render this story incapable of giving trustworthy testimony about my grandfather’s personality and character? I think not. I can get many of the facts wrong and still tell the truth about grandpa in a way that will move and inspire you.
This example helps us to understand that there are different ways of telling the truth. In addition to factual analysis, truth can be powerfully communicated through metaphor, analogy, simile, and symbol, and in various mediums like poetry, music, visual and performing arts, story-telling, fables, fiction, preaching, personal testimony, wisdom sayings, and philosophical discourse. Indeed, sometimes figurative language is better suited to express the truth, as when writing a love note. What better communicates love: (1) “When I see parts of your body, neurotransmitters are released into my bloodstream and create a surge in dopamine levels,” or (2) “In your eyes, the light the heat; in your eyes, I am complete; in your eyes, I see the doorway to a thousand churches; in your eyes, the resolution of all the fruitless searches.” It is not only possible to communicate truth in figurative language, but sometimes it the best way to do so.
Although humanity received many gifts in modernity with the birth of the natural and social sciences, an important problem followed in its wake: the hegemony of factual analysis. According to this view, truth is equated with factual claims verified by empirical evidence. Any other way of telling the truth is seen as inferior and must be subordinated to the facts. Modern people seem obsessed with the question, “Did that really happen?”
A clear example of this hegemony in Christian theology can be found in Charles Hodge’s theory of plenary verbal inspiration in the nineteenth-century. In an attempt to ground his religious claims in objective truth, he developed a theory of divine inspiration that reduced the Bible to a compendium of facts dictated by God to infallible communicators. (See the first essay in this collection, “The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration.”)
However, this hegemony of factual analysis creates enormous problems for religion because (as most Christian theologians readily acknowledge) religious language is inherently metaphorical and analogical. This is true because there is a qualitative difference between God and the world, which is determinative of how human beings experience, reflect on, and communicate divine revelation. All God-talk operates on a principle of metaphoricity because it seeks to bring to speech what we cannot directly apprehend or express. Human thought and language is limited and cannot capture or contain the infinite ground of being. If truth is construed as a one-to-one correspondence between factual claims and empirically verifiable evidence, and if there is never a simple one-to-one correspondence between God and what we say about God (as if God were an object in the world subject to our investigation), then we can say nothing true about God. Such a constrained definition of truth also creates problems because the Bible is constituted by many different genres that cannot be reduced to a compendium of facts without doing violence to the text. Finally, it is widely acknowledged by scholars that many biblical claims are false when considered on a purely factual level in light of contemporary historical studies (“The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration“). If the only way to assess truth claims is through factual analysis then we are left with two equally bad options: either (1) dispense with the Bible as untrustworthy, or (2) dismiss the findings of scientific research by accentuating the fallibility of human proposals and the infallibility of scripture (i.e. appealing to blind faith to defend an irrational ideology).
Thankfully, postmodern philosophy has called the hegemony of factual analysis into question and provided an escape from this false dichotomy. Important studies in hermeneutics have generated new conversations about how to understand and evaluate truth claims. Although this huge body of literature is beyond the scope of this piece, I will present some of its most salient insights in the fifth essay of this collection, “All Reading Is Interpretation: Important Insights in Theological Hermeneutics.” At this point, it is sufficient to highlight that there are different ways of telling the truth. If we are open to this reality then we can begin to rethink what we mean when we say that the Bible is true.
In the next essay, “God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture,” we will draw on insights from contemporary theology and biblical studies to see how the Bible came to be. Then we will be in a better position to understand what it means to call the Bible “scripture” and what we mean when we say that it is inspired by God. Any claim of inspiration assumes that the Bible is in some sense true. How it is true is yet to be seen, but once we are freed from an overly constrained definition of truth as “just the facts” we get some interpretive breathing room to reflect on more creative proposals.