A Lovely Book
I love the Bible. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom reading me its stories. I can remember dear old saints teaching it to me on Sunday mornings. As I grew, I began to read it on my own. At one point, as an adolescent, I committed to a reading plan that took me through the Bible, cover to cover, three times a year. I did this for at least seven or eight years. In college I majored in the Bible. In seminary, I earned the degree, Master of Divinity. I know. Ridiculous. Then, throughout my doctoral studies, I have been able to examine biblical genres and their rhetorical functions.
I love the Bible. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and all of his children, Moses, and all of those crazy judges, Kings David and Solomon, the prophets, Jesus and his twelve disciples, and that transfigured pharisee, Paul. These are kindred friends. And the stories! Creation, estrangement, flood, Babel, slavery, liberation, the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, the wilderness, the land, the divided kingdom, exile from the land, Babylon and return to the land, the incarnation, the church, and the apocalyptic vision of the city of God descending on earth. These stories give shape to how I understand the world and my place in it.
A Troubled Book
I love the Bible. And, I am troubled by this sacred book. Genesis 1:7 states that God made an expanse, a dome – literally, a firmament – in the sky. Ancient people actually thought this to be true. In their mind, there was some kind of solid firmament that hung in the heavens. At night, they thought that the stars were actually holes in the firmament that light shone through. And when it rained, they thought that water was spilling through those same holes. Of course, we now know that there is no firmament hanging in the sky.
The book of Exodus explains that nearly a million Israelites were liberated from bondage. However, scholarship today reveals that around the time of Israel’s exodus, that Egypt was itself around a million people. Despite this mass exodus that would have reduced Egypt’s population by nearly fifty percent, there is no record of Israel’s exodus in any writings in or around Egypt at that time. This doesn’t mean that there was no exodus. In fact, there is general consensus that there was. However, it’s more likely that the number of Israelites liberated from bondage, was much smaller in number, than the biblical account.
One more example. In Deuteronomy 20:16-18, the Lord is said to give this directive:
But as for the towns of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the LORD your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD your God.
But then, in contrast, we have a passage like Matthew 5:43-45, that reads:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
So there you have it. In just a few examples, we have a cosmological contradiction, a historical contradiction, and a theological contradiction. What are we to do?
Well, growing-up, I wasn’t given any tools to do anything. As a child I was told that God doesn’t make mistakes, and so, since the Bible is God’s word, neither does the Bible. This in turn meant that when the Bible is contradicted by cosmology or history, then cosmology and history are clearly wrong, because the Bible is always right. As a student in theological studies, the solutions that I was given became even more perplexing. Using God’s directive to annihilate every person in the land as an example, I was offered a handful of possibilities that attempted to make sense of this difficult text:
God in his sovereignty could have created these people for the sole purpose of destroying them. His judgment is providential.
God knows all things, and so, he knew that the people in the land would never come to salvation. His judgment is just.
God takes holiness seriously, and he did not want his people to be tempted and to stray into idolatry and sin. His judgment is loving.
Now, I could spend a lot of time writing about why these responses to mass genocide are concerning, but I’m going to hold-off on doing that to keep the big picture here. For the purpose of this reflection, I’m less interested in the answers that I was given for difficult texts, and I’m more interested in the construct through which these answers were given. You see, at the time I didn’t know it, and nobody named it, but the construct through which solutions to troubled texts were given to me, was called harmonization.
Harmonization is grounded in a belief that the Bible is perfect and without error (side-note: without error in the original manuscripts, which we don't actually have), because it is the very word of God. Therefore, any and all apparent contradictions – whether they be cosmological or historical or theological – are not truly contradictory. Either our cosmology or history is wrong. Or, our theological understanding is wrong. Either way, the Bible is right, and our theological work, in order to take this sacred text serious, is to harmonize any apparent contradictions. And it’s this construct that then “harmonizes,” for example, mass genocide in the name of a loving divinity with explanations such as providence, justice, and love.
For the longest time, I thought that this was my only option for reading the Bible if I was to truly love God and to take the scriptures serious. And over time, this became part of the impetus, for my crisis of faith. I got to the point where I was unwilling to do all kinds of mental gymnastics to harmonize troubling texts. Continuing with the example from Deuteronomy, if providence, justice, and love were the “solutions” to mass genocide in God’s name, I was out. I could no longer do it. It didn’t make any sense to me, and I didn’t want any part in spending the rest of my life attempting to harmonize a violent, blood thirsty God, who is Love.
Fortunately, my studies led me to another construct. Surprisingly, it’s a construct that is more ancient and historical than harmonization. It’s called accommodation. I’ll offer a definition in just a moment. First though, consider these words:
And therefore like a Tutor or Physician He partly removes and partly condones ancestral habits, conceding some little of what tended to pleasure, just as medical men do with their patients, that their medicine may be taken, being artfully blended with what is nice. For instance, in the first he cut off the idol, but left the sacrifices; the second, while it destroyed sacrifices did not forbid circumcision. Then, when once men had submitted to the curtailment, they also yielded that which had been conceded to them: in the first instance the sacrifices, in the second circumcision, and became instead of Gentiles, Jews, and instead of Jews, Christians, being beguiled into the Gospel by gradual changes.
Gregory of Nazianzus 329-390, Orations
Anything in the divine writings that cannot be referred either to good, honest morals, or to the truth of the faith, you must know is said allegorically.
Augustine, 354-430, On Christian Doctrine
Undoubtedly the words of the literal text, when they do not agree with each other, show that something else is to be sought in them.
Gregory the Great 590-604 Moralia in Job
If the literal sense of these Scriptures is absurd, and apparently contrary to reason then we should be obliged not to interpret them according to the letter, but to look out for a looser meaning.
John Wesley 1703-1791, The Works of John Wesley
Not only part but all that they say [in the Bible] is historically related and conditioned.
Karl Barth 1886-1968, Church Dogmatics
We must read this book of books with all human methods. But through the fragile and broken Bible, God meets us in the voice of the Risen One.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945, Reflections on the Bible
Gregory of Nazianzus. Augustine. Gregory the Great. John Wesley. Karl Barth. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These giants of Christian faith are working with a biblical construct that is different than harmonization.
Gregory of Nazianzus wrote about God’s patience with the slow progression of human consciousness. Augustine was so certain that some biblical texts failed to be good and honest that he determined to interpret them allegorically instead of literally. Gregory the Great and John Wesley were comfortable abandoning literal readings of the scriptures when they determined them to be in contradiction with each other, or just plain absurd. Barth made clear that the scriptures were set down in historically-culturally conditioned times. And Bonhoeffer referred to the Bible as fragile and broken.
This is a different way of understanding the Bible and of reading it. A few key points:
The Bible is the book of books, yet it is fragile and broken. (Bonhoeffer)
Contradictory and absurd texts should be understood as something other than literal. (Augustine, Gregory the Great, Wesley)
The Bible cannot escape the consciousness with which it was written. (Barth)
The Bible reveals a progression of human consciousness that begins with Law – sacrifice, circumcision, etc. – but moves forward into Gospel – grace, good news, etc. (Gregory of Nazianzus)
This construct for the Bible is called accommodation. Accommodation is grounded in an understanding that the Bible–albeit sacred, inspired, the book of books–is penned by humans. Thus, recognizing and accepting the Bible’s mistakes and problems – “accommodations” or “condescensions” are made for the spiritual and/or intellectual limitations of its human authors.
So, instead of trying to harmonize “a firmament in the sky,” one could note, “That’s how the ancient’s understood the world.” And instead of trying to harmonize a million person exile with historical findings that reveal otherwise, one could appreciate, “The meaning does not derive from this story’s literal-ness, but from its narratival-ness.” And instead of trying to harmonize mass genocide in God’s name, one could reason, “Every ancient people went to battle in their God’s name, but that doesn’t mean that their God actually commanded the annihilation of every man, woman, child, and animal.”
Much could be written at this point. But I’m attempting a reflection, not a book. For me and my story of faith, accommodation redeemed my love for the Bible. It afforded me a historically supported, theologically sensible way of reading, understanding, and appreciating it. Yes, accommodation raises questions that harmonization does not, such as: When do we accommodate? Which texts should be read literally, and which should be read trans-literally? Who chooses when a text is absurd or contrary to reason? The questions could go on and on. Put simply, I’d rather wrestle with the questions that accommodation raises than I would with those that harmonization raises.
Accommodation sets me to wrestling with a text, in community with others, with sensitivity to human consciousness, in order to discern the heart, voice, and pleasure of God for today. Harmonization, on the other hand, often feels like an attempt to protect the Bible from its foibles, in order to protect its legitimacy. I don’t think the Bible needs protection. I for one, love it. In all of its texture and complexity and nuance – a lot like life – I love it. And through its characters and stories I am realizing more and more a Divinity who through these very things – texture and complexity and nuance – is patiently moving humankind forward into love. And according to this biblical story, the Lord will not cease moving everything forward until the garden is cultivated into a radiant city of light, which is the consummation of peace in a world integrated by love.
I’ll conclude with an invitation to the Bible, by Bonhoeffer:
The Bible remains a book like other books. One must be ready to accept the concealment within history and therefore let historical criticism run its course. But it is through the Bible, with all its flaws, that the risen one encounters us. We must get into the troubled waters of historical criticism. Its importance is not absolute, but neither is it unimportant. Certainly it will not lead to a weakening, but rather to a strengthening of faith, because the concealment within the historical belongs to the humiliation of Christ.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center