Divine Inspiration: Living Reality or Decrepit Dogma?

Those who are interested in communication between theists and atheists may want to check out Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. If you do not believe in God, you may have friends or relatives who quote Scripture. How do you respond to them? And if you are a believer, you may have wondered to what extent sacred writings reveal divine inspiration. Possible answers include not at all, somewhat, mostly, or entirely:

  1. Not at all. Sacred texts are not based on divine inspiration, either because there is no God or because God doesn’t lead people to write holy books.
  2. Somewhat. God has influenced the Scriptures, but these writings were also shaped by human weakness and prejudice.
  3. Mostly. Taken as a whole, Scripture reflects divine inspiration.
  4. Entirely. Every word of the Bible is divinely inspired.

We could add an option 4A: Entirely, with minor exceptions, such as human errors in copying texts. But God prevents serious errors from corrupting the divine message.

A great many people accept 4 or 4A. But in Did God Really Say THAT!? I try to conclusively prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the only possible options are 1, 2, or 3. Browse through the site and tell me if you think I’ve succeeded.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on this page.

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More on Random Bible Readings

[For the past few weeks this site has included posts from my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. Here’s the latest entry, slightly modified, plus an additional comment. Because I’m going to be extremely busy this spring, this will be the last entry on the Bible blog for a while. I’ll continue to post on Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground.]

In my previous posting I reported an experiment in which I opened the Old Testament at random five times and glanced through the text of the two facing pages before me. It turned out to be very easy to find verses that did not seem divinely inspired. I could imagine a loving deity shuddering at the thought that these passages are part of a book that people read for divine guidance.

Example: Execute anyone who has the wrong theology, which is commanded in II Chronicles 15:13.

Now let’s try the flip side of this experiment. Read five randomly-selected two-page segments from the Old Testament, looking for statements that do sound divinely inspired, or that at least express keen insights.

Here’s what I found when I tried this, and I realize that “your results your vary.”

The pages I picked at random began with Leviticus 8:31, Judges 20:44, II Chronicles 15:7, Proverbs 8:35, and Jeremiah 39:4. Out of the five two-page segments that began with these verses, I found uplifting material only in Proverbs. Even in that section most statements were common-sense platitudes that essentially told the reader, “Be good, work hard, and treat others well.” No doubt we need to hear such messages repeatedly, but a normal individual of average intelligence should discover these principles without a revelation from on high.

Here are the verses that seemed insightful, beyond mere “let’s-be-good” platitudes:

“Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.” (Proverbs 9:8)

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is prudent.” (Proverbs 10:19)

“A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight.” (Proverbs 11:1)

I especially appreciate the first of these items. It pushes against the peculiarly-common human inclination to waste time arguing with fools. I still fall into that trap at times, so it’s a good lesson for me personally.

Again, try this yourself. Open the Old Testament to five different places at random, revealing ten pages. Look for passages that sound like genuine divine revelations, statements which give you that spine-tingling feeling that something transcendent has broken into our human world. (In the New Testament, “Love your enemies” is a good example.) See what you learn. [End of post from Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible.]

Note: I used to see the Bible as roughly a 50-50 mix of helpful and unhelpful passages, with lots of uplifting verses along with many erroneous and morally inferior teachings. But now it’s beginning to seem as if the dangerous and morally repugnant passages predominate.

In a few weeks I’ll resume blogging about the Old Testament and then move on to the Gospels and other New Testament material. I’ll cross-post most of these entries on Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Three Puzzles about Biblical Death Penalties

[For the next few weeks this site will include items from my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. About once a week I will also post an entry that deals specifically with theism and atheism. Here’s most of my latest entry on the Bible blog.]

The Christian Old Testament prescribes punishments for lots of banned behaviors, including execution by being burned or stoned to death. Oddly, even though the Bible often spells out ceremonial regulations in meticulous detail, death-penalty commandments are tossed off almost casually, with little or no wiggle-room for unusual or extenuating circumstances. This tends to confirm the idea that even though the Bible’s human writers tried to accurately express the will of God, they were limited by their personal and cultural biases.

Here are a few examples, beginning with those found in Exodus 20-22, which begins: “And God spoke all these words, saying, …” (Exodus 20:1)

“Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:15)

“For every one who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his blood is upon him.” (That’s Leviticus 20:9, which I mentioned in an earlier entry.)

“You shall not permit a sorceress to live.” (Exodus 22:18)

“Whoever lies with a beast shall be put to death.” (Exodus 22:19)

“Whoever sacrifices to any god, save to the Lord only, shall be utterly destroyed.” (Exodus 22:20)

And from a list of regulations in Leviticus 20-21:

“For every one who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his blood is upon him.” (Leviticus 20:9)

“If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall be put to death, their blood is upon them. If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall be put to death; they have committed incest, their blood is upon them. If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them. If a man takes a wife and her mother also, it is wickedness; they shall be burned with fire, both he and they, that there may be no wickedness among you. If a man lies with a beast, he shall be put to death; and you shall kill the beast. If a woman approaches any beast and lies with it, you shall kill the woman and the beast; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.” (Leviticus 20:10-16)

“A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned with stones, their blood shall be upon them.’” (Leviticus 20:27)

“And the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by playing the harlot, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.” (Leviticus 21:9) (I guess it’s always been tough to be a preacher’s kid!)

And here’s one I’ll discuss in a later entry: Whoever does any work on the Sabbath, even kindling a fire, “shall be put to death.” (Exodus 35:3) A strict Biblical literalist might have found it hard to live in Medieval Scandinavia during the winter.

Obviously some of these verses don’t sound like higher guidance. Here are three puzzles about these passages.

1. Many punishments seem absurdly extreme. If a child kicks Daddy or curses Mommy, that would seem to suggest a time-out rather than capital punishment.

2. A supreme divine intelligence would realize that offenders can be reformed. For example, those who engage in peculiar sexual practices might learn to obey social norms. How about giving first offenders a second chance?

3. As noted above, lists of rules in the Bible seldom allow for extenuating circumstances. If one actually thinks parent-strikers should be killed, the regulation should say something like, “You must kill a child who strikes a parent, unless the child is very young, or was drunk with wine, or is mentally incompetent, or unless the parent has done something terrible to the child, or unless there is some other reason that this penalty should obviously not be applied.” (And even that greatly-softened rule still sounds horrible!)

How should a Biblical literalist deal with these three puzzles? Literalism accepts every bit of the Bible as true. Is it possible to do that with these passages? I’ll comment further in my next post.

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Inspiration: Dictation or Filtration?

[Note: For the next few weeks this site will include items I post on my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. About once a week I will also post an entry that is more specifically related to theism and atheism. Here’s an adapted version of my latest entry on the Bible blog.]

Before considering other problematic Bible verses, I want to suggest two different ways of understanding the divine inspiration of scriptures.

A sacred book can be inspired through dictation. God, or an emissary from God, can speak to a human (or put thoughts into a person’s head) and these can be written down word for word. In this scenario, the person is a passive instrument, serving as “God’s pen.”

On the other hand, inspiration may involve filtration. Communications from God or some other source of wisdom are filtered through the minds of human beings. Sometimes people are so thoroughly conditioned by their cultures or so full of their own prejudices that most or all of the message gets filtered out. And sometimes they think they’re hearing God when they are actually listening to a very different voice.

Something similar can happen with guidance that comes from within, and this suggests the possibility of a secular humanist interpretation of inspiration and filtration. At times people unconsciously realize something important, and that realization “tries” to push its way into consciousness. But for one reason or another they suppress or distort this message. The classic example is a revelatory dream that the dreamer misinterprets. Sometimes people discover, years later, that they completely missed the point of what a dream was trying to tell them.

Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that a personal deity did communicate with those who wrote the Bible. If the Bible seemed like perfect heavenly guidance from Genesis 1:1 through Revelation 22:21, then one could reasonably believe that this book was divinely dictated. But if there are numerous passages that clearly do not reflect higher guidance, perhaps such guidance was filtered through the minds and hearts of fallible humans.

Isn’t that how Christians often experience prayer? Even if they have been listening carefully for the voice of God, they may see later on that they were mostly hearing themselves. “Uh-oh! That was my ego talking, not God.” Or: “That was my anger … my stubbornness … my attachments … my narrow-mindedness … my self-righteousness … my fear of change.”

And maybe that sort of thing sometimes happened to those who wrote the Bible.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Four Reasons People Believe that Every Word of the Bible is True

[Note: For the next few weeks this site will include items I post on my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. About once a week I will also post an entry that is more specifically related to theism and atheism.],

The idea that every word of the Bible is true is often called “inerrancy,” meaning that the Bible is free from error. This belief is very common in the United States. A 2007 Gallup poll showed that “About one-third of the American adult population believes the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally word for word.” On the other hand, about half of Americans believe that the Bible “is the inspired word of God but that not everything it in should be taken literally.”

Importantly, “Some denominations hold the belief in a literal Bible as a hallmark of their faith. The statement of ‘Faith and Mission’ of the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, states that: ‘The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.’”

See: http://www.gallup.com/poll/27682/OneThird-Americans-Believe-Bible-Literally-True.aspx.

Similarly, the influential minister Rick Warren writes in The Purpose-Driven Life that “What we need is a perfect standard that will never lead us in the wrong direction. Only God’s Word meets that need. Solomon reminds us, ‘Every word of God is flawless,’ and Paul explains, ‘Everything in the Scriptures is God’s word. All of it is useful for teaching and helping people and for correcting them and showing them how to live.’”

Warren continues, urging his readers to “Resolve that when God says to do something, you will trust God’s Word and do it whether or not it makes sense or you feel like doing it” (p. 187).

Biblical literalists are often stereotyped as uneducated and unintelligent. But with tens of millions of Americans believing that everything in Scripture is true, there are obviously a great many smart and well-informed individuals who accept inerrancy. Certainly Rick Warren himself has a fine mind.

Even so, I am going to suggest that there is essentially no chance at all that inerrancy is correct. How can this be, when so many competent people accept this doctrine?

Here’s an even harder question: How can I myself write off Biblical literalism when I have stated that “Whenever significant numbers of sincere and competent people persistently disagree, one suspects that the truth remains unknown”? (Do Think Twice: Provocative Reflections on Age-Old Questions, p. 51.) If that’s true, then literalism must at least be a valid option.

Not necessarily. In some cases lots of very bright people believe something that just isn’t so. So let’s consider why so many accept inerrancy. Are they all Biblical scholars? Have they read the whole Bible through, in the original languages? Obviously not, and it would be silly to expect that of the average churchgoer. So why do they think this book is not only God’s Word, but in a sense, Gods words?

I’m going to mention four reasons, and suggest that all of these suffer from one huge problem.

Many people believe that every word of the Bible is true because:

1. Reading the Bible inspires them and guides their lives in helpful ways.

2. They love their church, and their church endorses literalism.

3. People they greatly respect teach that the Bible is word-for-word correct – friends, family members, writers, ministers, and lay leaders.

4. To say that some of this book is inspired and some is not would be complicated and confusing. God wouldn’t make such a muddle.

I can absolutely understand the appeal of these ideas, but here’s the catch:

This way of thinking about the Bible would justify all sorts of other religions and religious books that disagree with Christian Scripture.

Consider Islam. Muslims view the Koran as the ultimate holy book. They also accept the divine inspiration of Jewish and Christian scriptures, but if there is a contradiction between the Bible or the Torah and the Koran, the Koran wins.

With just as much sincerity as Christians who love the Bible, Muslims could say that:

1. Reading the Koran inspires them and guides their lives in helpful ways.

2. They love their Muslim community, and their imam teaches that the Koran was dictated to Muhammad by an angel of God.

3. People they greatly respect teach that the Koran is word-for-word correct – friends, family members, writers, and spiritual leaders.

4. To say that some of the Koran is inspired and some is not would be complicated and confusing. Allah would not make such a muddle.

But since the Bible and the Koran sometimes contradict each other, it’s impossible for both of these books to be literally true.

Furthermore, in ancient times there were religions that contained beliefs that neither Christians nor Muslims would accept today. And yet these obsolete religions also inspired their followers and provided communities that were helpful and comforting. But that doesn’t show that their scriptures expressed the voice of their god(s).

Here’s a good test: If following a certain line of reasoning makes it possible to prove things you know aren’t so, watch out!

In short, accepting Biblical literalism because the Bible is inspiring, because attending church is helpful, because people we respect teach literalism, and because rejecting literalism would be confusing would also justify accepting other books that contradict the Bible. That can’t be right.

Let me emphasize: I realize it’s easier to just accept everything in the Bible (or at least to tell ourselves we do) rather than decide for ourselves which verses reflect deep wisdom and which do not. But I just don’t think it works.

In a later entry I will include an example of a Bible passage that was certainly not inspired by God.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Introducing My New Project: “Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible”

My attempt to encourage communication between theists and atheists reflects my broader interest in bridging the gap between different theologies and philosophies of life. And one of the key issues dividing us is the question of Biblical inspiration. Is the Bible divinely inspired?

Here are six possible answers to that question:

1. The entire Bible is divinely inspired, and every verse is literally true.

2. Except for minor problems such as errors in translation, everything in this book was inspired by God.

3. The Bible may contain incorrect statements due to human error, but God ensures that no harm will result from these mistakes.

4. Some passages of the Bible reflect human opinions rather than divine wisdom, but the Bible as a whole is divinely inspired.

5. Much of the Bible is God’s Word and much of it is not.

6. None of this book was inspired by God. It is entirely a human creation.

My new blog is primarily intended for those who accept statements 1, 2, or 3, and are open to considering the possibility that these options may be incorrect.

Although millions of people believe that virtually every verse of the Bible was divinely inspired, some are troubled by passages that seem morally repugnant. Others are concerned about seeming contradictions between the Bible and modern science. Still others accepted the complete literal truth of the Bible when they were young, and feel that it’s time to revisit this decision.

Most readers of Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground are either humanists or liberal theists. But even if you reject Biblical literalism, do you have friends who say the Bible is entirely God’s word, but who might be open to reconsidering this belief?

In a series of at-least-weekly postings I will attempt to show beyond any reasonable doubt that options 1, 2, and 3, above, are incorrect and lead to dangerous and destructive consequences. I will take no position about items 4 – 6.

Some will wonder why I am bothering to address Biblical literalism when there are already web sites purporting to show that the Bible contains errors, contradictions, and hazardous ideas. But many of these web sites sneer at Christianity and Christian beliefs. They will persuade no one. I wish to explore this issue in a way that respects the three “Abrahamic” religions — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, which all say that at least part of the Bible is Holy Scripture.

I have friends who are Biblical literalists, and I have no interest in denigrating anyone’s faith. I hope the conversation I am beginning will bring us all closer together, not push us farther apart.

I will publish most entries from “Did God Really Say THAT!?” on this blog. If you’re not interested in this topic, just skip these items. I will continue to post entries that specifically deal with theism and atheism, about once a week as usual.

For the new blog’s first entry go to: http://didgodreallysaythat.wordpress.com/. Or click “A blog about the Bible” on my blogroll. I’m looking forward to feedback about “Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.