Office Hours: All Those Errors in the Bible, Part 3
Nathan and the professor finish up their conversation by discussing the best way to go about understanding things in the Bible that may seem inconsistent.
“All right,” I said to Nathan, “but your final example isn’t really any harder than the others.”
“It looks pretty tough to me,” he replied. “Like we were saying, in one place the Bible says that the righteous flourish in the courts of God, but in another it says that they perish and that no one understands. The Bible can’t even keep straight whether they flourish or they perish. You can’t have it both ways. Which is it?”
“Which way was it for Jesus?” I asked him.
He gave me a puzzled look. “What?”
“For Jesus,” I repeated. “Wouldn’t you say He was righteous?”
“Ye-es. Crazy, maybe, thinking He was the Son of God. But yes, I’d say He was righteous.”
“So what happened to Him?”
“He perished. He was crucified.”
“What happened then?”
“The story says that He rose again, but I don’t believe it.”
“We’re not discussing whether you believe it. The only question on the table is whether or not it’s consistent. Doesn’t the story say that He died and that His death was not understood?”
“Doesn’t the same story say He rose again, He ascended into heaven and He is seated at the right hand of the Father?”
“Wouldn’t you say that someone who is seated at the right hand of the Father is flourishing in the courts of God?
“I guess I’d have to.”
“Very well, then. According to the story, this model for all of the righteous perished and yet flourishes in the courts of God. Whether or not you think these claims are true, aren’t they logically consistent?”Theophilus might also have called attention to the rest of the passage about the righteous perishing while no one understands: “For the righteous man is taken away from calamity, he enters into peace; they rest in their beds who walk in their uprightness.” (Isaiah 57:1b-2; all scriptural quotations RSV). Or he might have quoted the psalm that Christ began reciting on the Cross. At the beginning the Psalmist cries, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” But at the end he declares, “he has not hid his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him … men shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, that he has wrought it.” (Psalm 22:1,24,30b-31.)
He looked uncomfortable. “Yes.”
“Then your final example of biblical inconsistency suffers the same fate as the others.”
Downcast, Nathan sighed. For a few moments neither of us spoke. “You make reading the Bible so hard.”
I laughed. “You said that once before.”
“But it’s true. I don’t get how you do it at all. How do you — I mean … ” His voice tapered off into silence.
“How do I read it? Is that the dreadful ‘different kind of question’ you were threatening to ask me?”
He looked up. “Yeah. You don’t read it like I read a book.”
“Maybe that’s part of the problem.”
“What do you mean?”
“In one big way the Bible is different from other great books, because it’s the Word of God. But up to a point, I read it the same way I read any great book.”
“What way is that?”
“Nathan, Nathan, you’ve taken two of my courses, and you still don’t know how I think we should read great books?”
“You mean like Plato’s Republic, that kind of great book?”
“Well, sure, I know that. You’ve drilled us and drilled us on your ‘rules for reading great works.’ Like not taking things out of context, and trying to put yourself into the mind of the author; and not pushing our own meanings into the text, but trying to figure out the ones that are already there.” He paused. “I guess I’ve been violating them.”
“Those principles are good, but you’re missing the most important of all. What have I called ‘Rule One?'”
Nathan actually blushed. “You taught us that if we’re reading a book good enough to have survived for generations, and if we find passages that seem inconsistent to us, we shouldn’t assume that they really are inconsistent until we’ve exhausted all the possibilities for, um, harmonizing them. The confusion might not be in the book, but in us.”
“Well, Nathan, I know from class that you’re willing to read Plato that way. You’re willing to read Dante Alighieri that way. You’re even willing to read The Federalist that way.”
“I guess I am.”
“Then why aren’t you willing to read the Bible that way?”
“Maybe I don’t want the Bible to be consistent.”
I smiled. “Then perhaps you should ask yourself why you don’t.”
Nathan dodged the bullet. “But, Prof, shouldn’t the Bible be easier to read than other books?”
I was surprised. “Why? — By the way, you’re changing the subject.”
“I know I am. I don’t want to think about — my reasons — yet. At least not here in your office. Would you answer my question anyway?”
I shrugged. “If you’ll answer mine. Why do you think the Bible should be easier to read than other books?
“Wouldn’t God want it to be easy to understand?”
“I think the fundamental theme — Creation, Fall, Redemption — is easy to understand. Don’t you think so? God comes to lost Man. First He calls one nation to Himself. Little by little He teaches them more and more about Himself, correcting their confusions and breaking their bad habits. He promises a Messiah who will be a light to all nations. Finally He comes among them Himself. He founds the Church, dies for the sins of mankind and rises again so that we might have life too. He is with us now, through the Holy Spirit.”
“Well, I get all that. It’s the other stuff in the Bible that’s so hard. Like the relationship among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If the Bible is really His Word, shouldn’t everything in it be easy to understand?”
I laughed. “Would you say that if the physical universe is His creation, then everything in physics should be easy to understand?”
“No. But that can’t be helped. Molecules and quantum levels and electromagnetic fields — that’s just how physical reality is. You can’t make it easy just for your convenience.”
“Just so. And the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are how divine reality is. You can’t make the Trinity easy for your convenience either.”
“Maybe. But even so, you’re holding back on me, Prof.”
I raised an eyebrow. “How am I doing that?”
“You said that up to a point you read the Bible the same way you read any great book.”
“That implies that after that point, you don’t. Don’t just tell me how the way you read the Bible and the way you read other great books are alike. Tell me how they’re different.”
“Oh, sure. No secrets. First —”
“Hold on. When you say ‘first,’ does that mean you’re starting a list, like your ‘rules for reading great works’?”
“A short one. Only three principles.”
“Wait a sec.” He picked up his notebook of supposed biblical inconsistencies, which he’d dropped on the floor, and he[delete] fumbled in his backpack for a pen. “OK,” he said at last, “go ahead.”
“First, remember God didn’t dictate His Word, but passed it through the minds of human beings who lived in the community of faith.”
“You said that before, Professor.”
“Yes, but I didn’t draw the conclusion.”
For the first time in the conversation, Nathan laughed. “OK, draw it.”
“I was about to say that for the same reason, we need the community of faith to understand God’s Word. There is no such thing as a solitary reader — not of this book.”
He asked, “Are you saying that I can’t read the Bible by myself?”
I answered, “I’m not speaking of your physical location but of your attitude. God gave His Word to His people. When Jesus told His disciples that He would send the Spirit of Truth to ‘guide you into all the truth,’ the ‘you’ in that sentence was plural. So you have to read God’s Word not as though you’re the first person in history to read it, but with the community of the faithful through the ages.John 16:13; the pronoun in question is humas, which is the plural accusative of “you.”
Nathan was scribbling rapidly. “I don’t — well, never mind. Second?”
“The second principle is about how the community of faith has read the Scriptures through those ages.”
“I’m listening. How?”
“Everything that God did in Old Testament times was a preparation for what He did in Jesus — and in Jesus, God said everything He has to say to us.Matthew 5:17: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” Luke 24:44-45: “Then he said to them, ‘These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures[.]” John 14:8-9: “Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, “Show us the Father”?'” So, from time immemorial, the Church has always read the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament, and it has always read the New Testament in the light of Christ Himself.”
“Now it sounds like you’re saying that in order to understand the Bible, I have to be willing to believe it,” he complained.
“Something like that,” I said. “And that leads us to the final principle.”
“What do you mean, ‘leads us’?”
“I mean that the Word of God isn’t a dead word like, say, a dictionary. It’s alive; it responds to you, and it demands a response in return. You can’t expect it to open itself to you unless you open yourself to it.Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” See also 1 Peter 1:23.
Nathan stopped scribbling and frowned. “What does that mean in practical terms?”
“Among other things, it means that you can’t expect to understand God’s Word thoroughly unless you obey it. As soon as you come to understand one thing in it, you have to conform your life to it, because if you don’t, your chances of understanding the next thing you find in it are pretty scant.”James 1:22-25: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing.” See also Romans 2:13.
“I think I see what you mean,” Nathan said. “You’re telling me that it has to, well, become part of me, that I have to assimilate it into myself.” Right?”
“That’s one way to think about it,Matthew 4:4: “But he answered, “It is written, `Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'” Jesus in quoting Deuteronomy 8:3. See also Ezekiel 3:3 and Revelation 10:10. but here’s an even better one. To partake of God’s living Word is to partake of His own life, and His life is greater than ours is. Do you understand?”St. Peter speaks in 2 Peter 1:4 of becoming “partakers in the divine nature.” See also John 6:32-58, where Christ calls Himself the bread of life.
“I suppose. So what?”
“So this. You take in all other food so that it can become part of you — but you take in the Word of God so that you can become part of it.”
Nathan opened his eyes all the way. They were like windows to his mind. I could see it thrashing in there.
Suddenly he closed his notebook and put it away.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Nothing. I’ve just run out of pages in my notebook.”
“I’m not saying I believe any of this, because I don’t —”
“But after I get another notebook —”
“— could we talk about these principles some more?”
“Yes,” I said, then fixed him with my fiercest gaze. “But next time, wait until I’ve finished my lunch.”
Copyright 2008 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of more than a dozen books, including How to Stay Christian in College, Ask Me Anything, Ask Me Anything 2, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and The Line Through the Heart. He teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.