O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith


Discuss: Trusting the Bible

posted by Jason Boyett

As many of you know, my next book is not a Pocket Guide, but a more personal book from Zondervan titled O Me of Little Faith: True Confessions of a Spiritual Weakling. It’s about my personal struggles with spiritual doubt — where they come from, what kind of impact the have, and how I’m learning to admit and even embrace them.

There are a lot of things that cause me — and others — to doubt, from circumstances and stress to unanswered prayer to the perceived absence of God. In my experience, all of those are legitimate sources of spiritual uncertainty, but they’re manageable. I can handle those, because they’re all tied to my human perspective, which changes.

But one of the biggest sources of doubt — and the kind that’s hardest to deal with — is doubt based on the history of Christianity and the trustworthiness of the Bible. These kinds of doubts aren’t new for me. I’ve had them since late high school, when I started reading the Bible more seriously. (And eventually writing a book about the Bible didn’t help.)

A few days back, I asked you guys to discuss hell and eternal punishment, and asked how we should answer when people have big, messy afterlife questions. Today I have a new question: What do we do when the Bible seems (worst-case scenario) to contradict itself…or (best-case) is really unclear about an important event? What do we do when the historical accuracy of the Bible is a big question mark?

I’ll give you an example. Consider the account of the empty tomb in the four Gospels. This, of course, is a vital event in Christianity, but as many skeptics and scholars have pointed out over the years, the four Gospels each offer different and conflicting details about what happened. Here’s what we get:

———–

Matthew’s Version
The women arrive at the tomb and seem to see an angel roll the stone away from the tomb — while they are there. Then the angel sits on the stone, in an interesting bit of detail. The guards see the angel and become afraid. The angel tells them Jesus has risen.

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen.” Matthew 28:1-6

Mark’s Version
The women head to the tomb and are worried about rolling the stone away, but it’s already been moved when they get there. Inside the tomb, they see a man in white clothes who tells them Jesus has risen.

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here.” Mark 16:5-6

Luke’s Version
The women discover the stone rolled away from the tomb. Inside, they meet two men in gleaming clothes. These men tell them Jesus has risen.

They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” Luke 24:2-6

John’s Version
The women find the stone rolled away, think Jesus’ body has been stolen, and flee to get Peter and another disciple. Then those two disciples return to the tomb, enter it, and discover that it’s empty.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” John 20:1-2

———–

So the testimonies about what the disciples discover at the tomb are all different. In Matthew, the women hear from an angel sitting on the stone. In Mark, the women see a man inside the tomb. In Luke, the women see two men inside the tomb. In John, the women see the tomb and take off, so Peter and the other disciple are the ones who enter the tomb. They don’t find angels, but do find evidence that the body is gone.

These aren’t just stories with different minor details reported. These are stories that seem in conflict with each other. What impact does this have on your faith? Should it have an impact? How do you deal with it?

The most common “explanation” for discrepancies like this one — between different biblical accounts of the same event — is that each one is only giving part of the picture. That each witness or Gospel writer is telling part of the story. So what you have to do is take the full story — the full biblical account — and assemble all the accounts together and that’s how you get accurate historical detail. (Therefore, in the example above, we conclude that there must have been two men/angels in the tomb, though Mark only mentions one…and at one point, apparently, one of them sat down on the stone, as Matthew reports. And John just didn’t find it important enough to mention either of the angels.)

I’ll be honest. That explanation doesn’t satisfy me completely, because the underlying idea behind it is that neither Gospel is complete or authoritative. What you have to have is the full story by way of some comprehensive “fifth” Gospel we put together ourselves, outside the New Testament, using all the details from the four actual Gospels — a “Gospel” only available to us centuries later as readers of the four Gospels in tandem. So is it only that fifth Gospel that’s inspired and inerrant and authoritative? Is that really how it’s supposed to work? Because if so, it completely diminishes the perspective of the original authors, each of whom were writing separate from each other, without knowing they’d eventually be compiled into the New Testament alongside other versions of the story. (This is a point Bart Ehrman discusses in Jesus, Interrupted, which I reviewed here.)

Anyway, enough rambling. The point is that there are some biblical issues that aren’t easily explained away. How do you deal with these? Do you let them impact your faith? If so, to what extent?

Ready? Discuss.



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David Sessions

posted September 4, 2009 at 11:02 am


What's especially interesting about comparing the gospel accounts is that, from earliest to latest, they seem to increasingly conform to the broader Christian narratives emerging at the time. Mark, for example, has lots more inconvenient details that the later gospels work hard to smooth over.It seems there is no way to approach it besides complete honesty and admittance of the paralyzing difficulties it can pose for your faith. There may not be a good solution, no grand theology that can neatly synthesize all of the discrepancies. So being willing to stare them in the face without hiding one's eyes is a huge step for many people. I'm still figuring out where to go from there.



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Lauren

posted September 4, 2009 at 11:05 am


I think that doubting the inerrancy of the Bible is my secret sin — and I am afraid to talk about it in a Christian setting. It's funny, the response I'm sure I'd get from other Christians is, "Well, the Bible is true, so don't worry about it."But, that isn't satisfying. I had a professor last year who told us that the New Testament shouldn't be taken as Scripture, necessarily (at least not the Pauline letters). Because, he said, Paul wrote the verse about Scripture being God-breathed, and he was not implying that his words were Scripture. Then John writes in Revelation about how if anyone adds to Scripture, he/she will suffer the torment listed in Revelation … and then Revelation is added to Scripture.Even in your book PGTT Bible, Jason, you talk about how random some of the compiling of books was. (And what about Jude quoting the Book of Enoch which isn't considered Scripture?)But on the other hand you have that verse in Isaiah 55 which says that God's word will not return empty. Does this refer specifically to the Bible or to what God says through other people, or just the Old Testament or just Jesus' words …?I go to a Wesleyan school and one of our classes freshmen year focused a lot on Wesleyan theology. We learned about this theory that John Wesley came up with called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Each of the four sides of said quadrilateral represent four aspects of Christianity that affect our walk with God: Scripture (which should be the longest side, we learned), Reason, Experience and Tradition.I say that to keep things into perspective. I want to believe that the Bible is ALL God-breathed, but while I'm wrestling with that, I can cling to what IS drawing me closer to God: my experiences, Communion, teachings, etc.



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Stephanie

posted September 4, 2009 at 11:18 am


I think that the bible was written by different people so of course you will get different stories you have it written by a fisherman, a king, a doctor etc, etc they all have a different take and come from a different perspective. I am not a bible scholar or any other scholar just a single mom who was brought up in a Baptist church and has faced the same questions from myself and others.So my comment is. Does it really matter what the stories have that are different?? The important thing is what they have that are the same that Jesus was not there!!



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David Sessions

posted September 4, 2009 at 12:20 pm


Lauren, it's great that you mention how frightening it is to discuss among Christians. That seems to keep any real discussion from happening. But "inerrant" is a horrible word that no book should have to live up to, least of all one written by fallible humans (presumably) doing their best to capture a divine story. What people who insist on the Bible being the "inerrant of Word of God" miss is that if their faith depends on Scripture being 100% historically accurate and free of convenient editing, then they're already sunk.



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Josh

posted September 4, 2009 at 12:54 pm


Because, he said, Paul wrote the verse about Scripture being God-breathed, and he was not implying that his words were Scripture.Of course, there really wasn't a settled canon for even the Old Testament books in Paul's time, so I don't think we would know which books he was referring to. As well, that quote comes from 2 Timothy, which most scholars don't think was written by Paul, so the author(s) may have been referring to the Pauline letters anyway!



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Bill

posted September 4, 2009 at 1:03 pm


The stuff that I find difficult (like the tomb narratives from different gospels) are not "big ticket" items, so I don't worry about it. The gospels all agree that Jesus rose from the grave.



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Lauren

posted September 4, 2009 at 1:06 pm


@davidI believe most people's arguments are that though the Bible was written by humans, it was still God-ordained (or so it claims – going back to that 2 Timothy passage again). And SINCE God inspired it, then it has to be 100% true. Growing up I've always learned to test everything against Scripture. If God tells me to do something, it better sound like something he's told someone else to do. (Like, God's never going to tell me to sin against Him.) If Scripture isn't 100% reliable, how can I use it as a measuring tool like that?(I'm asking questions because I truly don't know the answer, I'm not trying to say you're right or wrong.)@joshuaBut we don't know either way. Maybe Paul wrote it referring to the OT and the Gospels. Maybe someone else wrote it referring to Paul. Maybe "God-breathed" doesn't mean what we think it means. I guess I just want to know what to say to my friends who ask me how I should believe that anything in the Bible is true if some parts are not. (If they are, in fact, not true.)



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Josh

posted September 4, 2009 at 3:17 pm


But we don't know either way.That's sort of my point.As to your main question, I don't know. On a basic level, it can be helpful trying to find the basic themes in Jesus, Paul, the prophets, rather than trying to make every detail coincide. And beyond that, true does not necessarily equal reliable, especially if you try to make a passage do something it shouldn't be doing. (I find Augustine to be helpful here.)



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Lauren

posted September 4, 2009 at 5:25 pm


@joshuaOn a basic level, it can be helpful trying to find the basic themes in Jesus, Paul, the prophets, rather than trying to make every detail coincide.I guess I agree with you. But I think I'd be more comfortable having an solid answer that YES all Scripture is true, or NO some is to human error.But maybe that's where faith comes in. I know where I am with God; I know what I believe measures up to not only Scripture, but God has specificially spoken to me and the Christian tradition.



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Dromedary Hump

posted September 4, 2009 at 6:30 pm


Suffer a non-believer's input, if you will.I wonder that no one points out that none of the synoptic gospel authors, nor John, were actual disciples of Jesus, nor eyewitnesses to any of the events they describe. The vast majority of biblical scholars now attribute Matthew, traditionally believed to be a disciple, to a Jewish Christian writer who drew from both the "Q" document and Mark to pen his version.This is a marked difference from what historians traditionaly accept as reliable & credible "historical" documentation, which typically includes eyewitness accounts and optimally corroborating eyewitness accounts. As an example: the slave revolt in the 1st century BCE, thirty years before Jesus, led by Spartacus, has numerous eyewitness accounts, written by contemporaries of Spartacus. Those accounts are so detailed and so in synch, and by recognised historians of the day, that no one doubts the authenticity of the described events. Of course, no one was out to embued Spartacus with god status either. Which I think is THE critical point here. When second/third hand information, is proffered as evidence in a court of law we call that "hearsay," the least reliable testamony. When it is proffered in an ancient text by authors with an agenda, some call it "Gospel." Bart



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rf

posted September 4, 2009 at 8:25 pm


I have to agree with Bill: "The stuff that I find difficult (like the tomb narratives from different gospels) are not "big ticket" items, so I don't worry about it. The gospels all agree that Jesus rose from the grave."Also, I must add that the stories are not as important to me as the Truths that they illustrate. The Bible is proven Wisdom that trancends any explaination except devine revelation. The inconsistancies among various accounts just don't add up to enough "negative" to take away from the emense "positive" that is this devine wisdom. There's simply not enough there to make me doubt.



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Rachel H. Evans

posted September 5, 2009 at 10:57 am


Sounds like we share a lot of the same doubts – as well as a publisher and a book topic! :-) Mine's out in June 2010. When does yours come out? I'm really looking forward to it. I've always felt like inerrancy is a little beside the point, honestly. The Bible doesn't exist in a vacuum. It cannot be read without being interpreted. And we are errant people, so I'm not exactly sure where this inerrant version exists. Even if we had the original manuscripts, we'd have differences of opinion about what they mean. No one could claim to be reading the inerrant version of the Bible. Regarding the inconsistencies, I like what Robert said about how "the stories are not as important to me as the Truths that they illustrate." But this has been a source of doubt and frustration for me, and I really appreciate your honesty in writing about it. Thanks!



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Gary Rumor

posted September 5, 2009 at 7:19 pm


I stumbled on your site through the Atheist Camel, he recommended you and I agree, you are a thinking Christian. I spent time in a Biblically based gnostic community, that was not specifically christian, but was heavily based on the bible. I also spent time in India with Gaudia Vaishnavites (Krishna believers) and found that the similarities of ritual and belief out weighed the specific differences. I am studying Islam currently, Sufi Feudal Mystical traditions in particular right now. As for the specifics of this subject when I studied with the gnostic group they equated John with the Beloved. They assumed that he was a direct witness and therefore took his word to be factual and the others to be second hand. Accurate or not, there has been a long debate on the subject. I am not a believer in the bible as the literal word of god. I take the new testament as a record of interpretations of the activities of a prophet in the 1st century. When evidence of the historical Jesus comes to light then we will have a material basis upon which to base these suppositions. I split my own time between spiritual speculation, political activism and historical research.



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George

posted September 7, 2009 at 8:13 am


Hi Jason,We just had the Greenbelt festival here last week. One of the talk sessions was titled 'Chapter and Worse', where people were asked to nominate the Scriptures that disturbed them the most. Here's a newspaper report on that session: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/6120373/Top-10-worst-Bible-passages.html



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fliptop

posted September 7, 2009 at 11:25 am


@ Hump –"Hearsay" in an oral culture has different weight than it does in a text-based culture. Generally speaking, stories passed down in ancient times, even from generation to generation, carried a bit more reliability than they do these days. It wasn't not like playing telephone.That said, you bring up the difference between "hearsay" and "gospel." Good point. I'd only say that the word "gospel" has several meanings. For some, it will mean something like "absolute truth" — in other words, the story will, in and of itself, correspond exactly to verifiable (or falsifiable) events. So, the expression "gospel truth" is used to say that something is absolutely true, with no argument allowed. Others (myself included) would use the word "gospel" in the sense of how it is perceived by the reader or listener. If I hear a story as 'good news', it is gospel. So if someone tells me my child has found the love of his life, that's gospel. Not canonized, book-in-the-Bible theologized-story-about-Jesus Gospel (in the technical sense), but good news. In which case the 'truth' of it is not measured by correspondence to empirically verifiable 'fact.' (I make a similar differentiation between 'salvations', which happen all the time, and what Christians call 'Salvation', which they would say is based on a one-time event.) Thus — when one hears several stories, even significantly differing ones, about the possibility that there is some sort of life that transcends the perception that all is sound and fury signifying nothing – one might reasonably hear that as good news. (It could, of course, be a delusion, but people are often comforted or given hope by delusions.)(Or you could go to Pannenberg who avers that the resurrection is a whole other category of event in the first place)



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Dromedary Hump

posted September 7, 2009 at 2:21 pm


flip,I think you missed the point.The the gospel writers were not eyewitnes to any events they desribed. Thus, they heard it from others, or claimed to. Thus it is hearsay evidence… liekly contributing to variances in descriptions of these supposed events . Suposed because they were not witnessed by the writer.I contrasted that with actual eyewitness accounts of other (i.e Spartacus revolt), even earlier, events which were widely corroborated by multiple eyewitneses. Further, these writers of eyewitness history had no agenda relative to supporting a philosophy or promoting a cult. Now..given the two scenarios one holds greater weight of credibility than the other. One holds a much higher degree of liklihood that the event(s) are factual/ that they occured at all.One is more likely to provide a composit of views that are uncolored/unencumbered by a view point or agenda.Any other discussion of word roots, or uses; or oral traditions during a period of literacy, is moot and irrevelvant to my point. Would if you could speak to/ discredit the validity of the points I made.



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fliptop

posted September 7, 2009 at 3:17 pm


Hump,Direct testimony is always preferable to indirect testimony, or hearsay at any level. That the events of the Spartacus revolt have contemporaneous, eye-witness testimony would, in a Western court of law, makes them a more sure guarantee of the events of the revolt.Lots of Christians would say that the gospels are eye-witness accounts. Problem is, imho, the gospels are NOT the same class of literature as biography. If you want to use that term, you would say something like a theological biography. They were written to tell a story of good news (hence my tiny deconstruction of the word gospel) to different communities. They do not all have the same intent. As I said, for many Christians the understanding is that the gospels were eye-witness accounts, but not for me. I shed that notion many years ago.However, it seems odd to me that the 'hearsay gospels' have retained the power over the years to speak to people's lives, leading many to personal transformation. You could mark it up, at least in part, to enculturation, I suppose. And of course it's easy to point out the wretched deeds that theists have done throughout the centuries. I've no idea what the percentages ever have been, but even if you say that 60% of the world's population throughout history were some variety of theists, and 80% of the wicked deeds were done by theists, there would still be plenty of wickedness to go around for the non-theists. So — Spartacus has a greater claim to facticity than Jesus? I guess that's what you would say. But, comparing the stories of the resurrection to the stories of Spartacus, which stories have had the power to change the human spirit? (Assuming there is such a thing, which I do) Sorry if my excursions into word usage seems irrelevant. It's not meant to. I'd meant to simply say that when people use the world 'gospel' they mean different things, and it may take some careful sorting to figure out what people actually mean.



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Dromedary Hump

posted September 7, 2009 at 4:15 pm


Flip,for the first time in our exchanges at two blog sites, I have no disagreement with anything you said. :)It reinfoirces my original position, and explains your perspective and is grounded in reasonable thought.The only thing I would add to whatyou said is this: Unquestionably the impact of the story of Christianity has had far more reaching effects on civilzation than did the slave revolt in Rome. But,the same can be said for the myths associated with Islam, the fastest growing religion on the planet, and Hinduism, which preceded Christianity by a few hundred years. Indeed 65% of the planet holds as true completly different myths. Thus, the conclusion is obvious: that the willingnes of people to accept hearsay/myth in massive numbers and retain it as a truth over a long period of time, is not the sole provience of Christianity or any single religon. Nor does it imply or ensure accuracy or some ultimate truth.



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fliptop

posted September 8, 2009 at 9:20 pm


Hump,I don't use the same terms as you, but there might be some agreement. I'd say that every person needs to locate him/herself within a story, within a narrative of some sort. Or, if not some 'story' in a technical sense, then in an over-arching understanding that makes the universe seem to them an, on balance, friendly place. Many do so within religion, and find a kind of predictability there. Others do in science, and find a very different sort of predictability there. On balance, a lot of bad has been done in the name of religion. So has a lot of bad been done in the name of the hunger for the next guy over's piece of ground. (etc.) Not necessarily in the name of "science." Though people have, from time to time, invoked what they thought was 'scientific' at the time (discrimination on the pseudoscientific belief in the smaller brain cavities of Africans, e.g.)At the same time, much good has also been done by those who locate themselves within explicitly religious narratives. One thinks of the Friends, to name just one example (there are lots of others). The good they have done and still do arises out of their sense of place in a Christian-like narrative. (Some Friends call themselves Christian, others don't). You could also name the civil rights movement — which was not ALL driven by people of faith, but was largely so. (People who had been oppressed by other people of faith!)All I'm saying is — yes, much bad has been one in the name of religion. And much good. Some bad has been done in the name of science, and a lot of good. Also a lot of stuff whose long-term effects we may have yet to see. (All of which has nothing to do with the original thread of this post. Sorry.)



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Saskia

posted September 9, 2009 at 12:07 pm


Seeing as the first writings to eventually make it into the Bible were written around 50 (when Paul wrote certain of his letters), and the Gospels weren't written until even later, I've never believed in the Bible as inerrant, or as dictated by God. What I find in the Bible are accounts by men who saw God in Jesus and tried to live by his teachings. I study at a theological university, and one of my teachers put it this way: Jesus didn't leave us any of his own writings. What we know of him is a oral version of the gist of his teachings that was written down some sixty years after his death and resurrection. Those teachings were talked about, worked with, and thus were still developing in the time of the first christian communities. As an example, he talked about the process of identity formation present in the New Testament. Christianity didn't exist yet: for the longest time (some say the first two centuries, some the first four) Judaism and Christianity weren't two separate things yet. The way the New Testament talks about the Pharisees, for example, has a lot to do with the struggle to define their own identity in the face of specific Jewish groups.Then you have all the other letters, gospels, and apocalypses that were written in that time and didn't make it into the canon. My teacher (the same as the one above) reminded us that canonizing is always a process that involves struggle, strife, and power. So I see a lot of the problems you mention. But they don't bother me because I read my Bible a different way. Learning about the intricacies of the Old Testament (such as the different theologies that influenced the writings) or the forces that shaped the New Testament makes me admire the Bible even more. In it, I read the journey of people trying to have a relationship with God. Every day, when I live with Christ, I add my words and deeds to the tradition. One of my professors explained the Bible as a flowing river, instead of a fortified fortress. Experiences caught on paper (and thus dead, in a way, are remediated when people read them and interpret them in new ways. Reading is always interpreting, and one sees in the history of Bible reading that the Bible is always topical and read in new ways, depending on the reader's situation and experiences.To me, the Bible doesn't lose any power when it becomes what I believe it is: the experiences of a group of people trying to understand their God and do his will. A quote (from a 19th century Jewish theologian/philosopher) sums up why I love the Bible and look to it for guidance, despite that I don't believe in inerrancy:"The Bible is holy not because it is inspired, but because and insofar it does still inspire. It is not true because God has spoken the word, but because in the truth, the comfort, the hope, the final victory of justice which it holds out, you hear God speak to you in soul stirring strains" -Kaufmann KohlerI'm sorry for the long, long, comment that's probably a little rambling in parts. I hope you understand what I mean (you don't have to agree with it!). The short version, I guess, is that I trust the Bible because I read God in it. But my definition of trust is different from yours, and that makes all the difference.



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Dromedary Hump

posted September 9, 2009 at 12:14 pm


Flip,you said: "… that makes the universe seem to them an, on balance, friendly place. Many do so within religion, and find a kind of predictability there. Others do in science, …."Realists / scientists have no interest in seeking to make the universe a "friendly place." It seeks to discover and uncover the unknown, whether the result is friendly or not. THAT, Flip, is PRECISELY the difference bewteen realists and religionists. [Some] Religionists cling to story/fable for its pre-scientific "answers" to the Universe, so they can find comfort in a friendly place. The realist seeks to discover the secretes of the universe purely for the sake of knowledge, not to find a comforting, warm, and cozy "friendly place." To us knowledge is it's own reward. Had man simply embraced fable and not been driven by his inherent thirst to discover and learn the realities of the universe, we'd still assume the stars are set in a "firmament", and that the sun revolves around the earth, and that the "heavens", the infinite vast expanding vacuum that we know know the Universe to be, was simply created to give man light by which to see at night. IMO, accepting unsupportable myth, any myth, as truth simply to gain comfort is akin to endorsing alcoholism because a drunk man is happier than a sober one.



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David

posted September 15, 2009 at 5:24 pm


I am just an average human being who has recently converted. In all of my "seeking" I have struggled with understanding the complete inerrancy of the Bible. I like to reason, and would place my thoughts near the "abstract" realm as opposed to the "concrete" realm. It doesn't make sense that God would just say one day, "You know, I have done enough for these people, so I will stop showing my presence in the book of Revelation." Christians assume the proof that God performs miracles and speaks to us every day. So why should we make the assumption that all inspired words of God end in the Bible. I am by no means advocating adding to the scripture, or saying that it invalidates scripture, but what if someone does in fact draw closer to God based on an experience, or someone elses words or teachings. This would make sense especially if a scholar, or pastor has reached out and made more sense of an idea or even of scripture itself. The Bible is a pretty cool book, that contains the instructions on how to live life. Then again, you have to understand that the Pauline letters is just another form of ministering and mission work. He went from place to place helping the church grow into bodies of Christ. at one point he even used the pagan temple to the unknown God as proof of existence of the one true God. If this is the case, we can reason that when we attempt to make the word relevant to today's body, we are doing the work of Paul and helping bring understanding and truth to the people. We always add the caveat though to "take it with a grain of salt."



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