Since writing the last Blog post, I have come to see that the way the Bible is taught to the young is a deadly serious business. We have imbibed even through ordinary culture certain ideas about the Bible and its ‘truth’ and we indicate this assumption in expressions like ‘Gospel truth’. The fact that solemn oaths are taken holding a copy of the Bible also gives to scripture an apparent authority which makes it powerful in to our culture. Many people, including those outside the churches regard Scripture as having somehow a special even magical quality. Even if the contents of the Bible are almost entirely unknown to them, the ordinary person in the street will often claim to respect the message of the Bible.
This respect for Scripture alongside ignorance of what it is actually about, means that Jehovah’s Witnesses sometimes gain a grudging audience with some individuals they accost on the doorstep. The same appeal to the ‘truth’ of the Bible is the ploy of many evangelical groups when approaching ordinary people in the street. These same individuals cannot see that the ‘evangelist’ may be involved in a very one sided and selective use of Scripture as a means of making their pitch. Even Christians who have studied the Bible find it difficult to counter the apparent confidence with which verse after verse is quoted to create the patchwork of a theological system. These systems of theological thinking seldom begin with Scripture but have arisen elsewhere and then suitable verses from Scripture have been harnessed to provide a structure on which to hang these ideas.
I was struck recently in reading an account on the Scriptural support for the two divergent systems of Protestant theology, Calvinism and Arminianism. By way of summary Calvinism taught that salvation was the gift of God alone and that we could never be sure of our salvation. Hell was a very real possibility for all but the ’elect’. Arminius taught a more hopeful version of the faith and there seemed to be the possibility that our attempts to live a good life would be a factor in determining our ultimate destination beyond the grave. The book that I was consulting examined the whole of the New Testament and found that there were almost an equal number of New Testament verses to support either position. In other words both Calvin and Arminius were guilty of selective use of Scripture. In making this statement one asks how many people have died rather than admit that the other point of view on some theological position has equal credibility from Scripture. The modern claim by evangelical preachers that the ‘substitutionary doctrine of the Atonement is the only one to be read out of the Bible is of course complete nonsense. It can be found there but they are other models and images to explain the significance of the death of Christ.
Reading the Bible to suit our doctrines has gone on for centuries and continues today. And yet it is alarming for a young Christian to find that the clergy know these things while the new Christians have been fed on a simplistic idea that the Bible is ‘true’. To talk about ‘truth’ in the Bible raises the question ‘Which truth?’ . The discussion about the gay issue or the position of women are of vital importance to many people but it is simply dishonest to claim that some ambiguous words in Leviticus and Romans sort out the problem of gay marriage once and for all. That is taking us back to magical thinking, raising the Bible to be a magic talisman rather than a witness to a profound search for God. Let us never short change those who are to be taught about the Christian faith with simplistic dishonest statements about Scripture. If we feed them this then we cannot be surprised if they become profoundly shocked, disturbed and overwhelmed by a sense of betrayal that they have given their lives believing half-truths and simplistic formulae.