Walk Humbly: Your Interpretation is Not My Interpretation (And That’s Okay)

All posts in this series refer to the conversation found here.

“Is there any reason the Bible -cannot- be literally true (where it claims to be) and the infallible message of the Creator to His creation?”

I think Damon gets back to the heart of the conversation here, and helps to refocus what we’re talking about (I’ve gone over the whole conversation multiple times now, and if there’s a common flaw in both of our arguments, it’s that we allow ourselves to get sidetracked by tangents really easily).  My answer to the above question is a rather firm “Yes.”  Earlier in the correspondence, I mentioned the fact that Genesis contains two accounts of creation which contradict each other chronologically.  The first has plant life created before the man, while the second has it created after him.  This is not a minor detail like the discrepancies in the synoptic gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ ministry that can be handwaved away as different recollections of the same events (though that’s not really a strong point in favor of literalism either), but a significant difference in how God went about making the world.  Further, both accounts ostensibly come from the same author under a literalist hermeneutic, so it doesn’t make sense to have that kind of contradiction if we’re intended to read them as accurate history.

Moving along in the conversation, there comes a point where I tell Damon that I disagree with the literalist hermeneutic because the way it’s exercised in America today stems from opposition to the abolitionist movement prior to our Civil War (an excellent, if anecdotal, illustration of this point can be found in the film Twelve Years a Slave where a slave owner quotes from a parable Jesus tells in Luke 12 as justification for beating disobedient slaves).  My understanding on this topic comes from what I’ve read from Fred Clark at Slacktivist (he leans heavily on the book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark A. Noll, which I haven’t read, but do intend to read soon).

I was really disappointed that Damon didn’t address either of these points as the conversation proceeded.  I think they’re worth exploring.  What Damon did respond to was my point about the contradiction between the accounts in Samuel and Chronicles where one writer attributes David’s decision to hold a census to God, while the other writer attributes that same decision to Satan.  I argued much earlier that both accounts couldn’t simultaneously be true and likely reflect the historians’ differing opinions about the census.  Damon’s response to this assertion isn’t a bad one, but it’s worth analyzing because it demonstrates how we’re interpreting the passages differently based on our own theological assumptions.

Here’s Damon’s response in full:

I really don’t have time to go through everything you’ve said and respond to it, but I did want to respond to your proposed contradiction between Samuel and Chronicles. I refer you to the book of Job. If one is describing the events that happened to Job, who is responsible? Who did those things to him? God, or Satan? God, as the sovereign Ruler, is ultimately responsible for everything that happens ever. That does not mean that He literally, directly -does- them, but He allows them. I have heard a quote that, “Even the devil is God’s devil.” “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

Damon uses the story of Job as his cosmological model where Satan is subordinate to God and conducts evil in accordance with God’s ultimately good will (we know his will is good because of the proof text that Damon concludes with).  Under this model, an event may be attributed to both God and Satan simultaneously without contradiction.

There are several assumptions implicit in this model with which I disagree, and which need to be examined.  The text of Job is fundamentally an exercise in exploring theodicy, the problem of suffering in a divinely ordered world.  Large portions of it are parodies of contemporary wisdom regarding the responsibility of the victim in any sort of calamity (come to think, Job is an excellent text on how asinine victim-blaming is).  Job is innocent of any wrongdoing, but God allows Satan to torture him.  The only explanation God offers for this is that he’s beyond our understanding, so shut up and deal with it.

Personally, I think that Job ends in a rather unsatisfying way, but I don’t take the fact that God comes off as a jerk in that text to mean that God is actually a jerk (I belong to the school of thought that Job is not a historical book, but a work of fiction that was intended to serve an instructional purpose).  Further, I don’t believe that Satan actually exists, but that he’s a fictional personification of the evil forces at work in the world that drive people to sin.  Under that understanding, it becomes nonsense to say that God authorizes sin in the world when the work of Jesus shows rather clearly (in my mind) that he’s looking to eradicate it.

The point I’m driving at is that Damon and I spend a lot of time talking past each other here, because our interpretations of certain things differ and have rather far reaching effects on how our theology is shaped.  I’m still very firmly convinced that Damon’s literalist reading of the Bible is flawed, but I don’t believe that because his theology contradicts my own he’s somehow outside the realm of God’s grace.  I’ll get more into that problem next time.

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