Taking the Hand of God, Literally; How We Read the Bible

Heaven is my throne, and the earth my footstool. What sort of house will you build for me? says the Lord, or what will be my resting place? Did not my hand make all these things?


Acts 7:49‭-‬50 CSB

I have thought and written about the fundamentalists and the atheists of the world who, ironically, approach the Bible in the same way. Both groups of people read the Bible in a wooden, inflexible, literal kind of way. (See Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Ehrman – Part 2 – Wooden Fundamentalism)

This passage above gets me thinking about these things again. The passage quoted above is from Steven’s address to the Jewish leaders who had him stoned after calling them stiff-necked like their ancestors in the desert (among other things).

Steven recited the Jewish history to them, including the Ark of the Covenant that was created for the Ten Commandments and Tent of Meeting that was carried through the desert. The Tabernacle with the Ark of the Covenant became the inner sanctum of the Tent of Meeting. These structures the people carried with them became the place they would meet with God.

David desired to build God a home, a permanent place for the Ark of the Covenant and Tabernacle, and Solomon accomplished David’s dream. David knew, however, that God does not live in a temple made by human hands. Solomon, David’s son who built the Temple, acknowledged this when he dedicated the Temple:

“But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!

1 Kings 8:27

They understood that the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, and the Temple were symbolic. These physical structures and the activity organized around them and in them were meant to point to a metaphysical reality of much greater substance.

It’s ironic that David, a man after God’s own heart, knew these things, but the people of God generally often did not. David was a man after God’s own heart, but the Israelites on the whole were often stiff-necked, as Stephen said.

I find it ironic that people who try to interpret and apply the Bible in the most literal way fall on opposite ends of the spectrum. Fundamentalists and atheists both tend to interpret the Bible literally. They are the two sides of the same interpretive coin.

At the end of the passage quoted above, the Lord poses the rhetorical question, “Did not my hand make all of these things?” Does anyone literally believe that God’s hand made the universe? (Only one hand?)

I would venture to guess that nearly everyone understands this phrase to be allegorical. Yet, there are so many things in the Bible that people try to take and apply literally that are, perhaps, not as obviously allegorical.

I’ve heard the counter statement that we cannot pick and choose the things we believe out of the Bible. We must believe every word of it, or reject all of it. This is the literalist approach – all or nothing. Never mind that a verse like the one quoted above is clearly not intended to be taken literally!

Not to pick on “fundamentalists” (whatever that term might mean), but those people we tend to label with that term tend to push a very literal interpretation of Scripture. They, in a sense, double-down on the “facts” stated in the Bible and believe everything. Many atheists dig in on the same literal way of interpreting the Bible, but they believe none of it. They both approach the Bible the same way, but one believes 100% and the other believes 0%.

Continue reading “Taking the Hand of God, Literally; How We Read the Bible”

Wrestling with the Accuracy and Inspiration of the Bible

In episode #82 on the BEMA Discipleship Podcast (dealing with “textual criticism” of the Bible), Marty Solomon made the following statement about growing up in a fundamentalist church: “Inspiration means accuracy in the world I grew up in.” Now he says, “That’s not what inspiration means. Inspiration means it was inspired by God.”

Solomon is talking about one of the few verses in the Bible that gives us explicit insight into how we should view Scripture:

“All Scripture is inspired by God and beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness….” 

2 Timothy 3:16 (NASB)

That Scripture is “inspired by God” is what those with a “high view” of Scripture hang our hat on, but what does “inspired by God” mean exactly?

Jesus revered Scripture, and he quoted from it often, He quoted from the Torah at least 21 times and from the Prophets at least 18 times. He referenced those writings when he said,

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them. For I tell you truly, until heaven and earth pass away, not a single jot, not a stroke of a pen, will disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” 

Matthew 5:17-19

His words seem to suggest a high standard of accuracy in “the Law”, but I have often noted that the quotations of Jesus in the New Testament do not often match (if ever) the exact phrases from the passages he quotes. He doesn’t cite “chapter and verse” because there were no chapters or verses then.

Further, the Scriptural texts were written out carefully by scribes who were highly specialized in the tedium of copying the text verbatim, but many people could not read or write. Scripture was committed to memory and quoted often from memory.

Solomon’s comment reveals how his position has changed from the view of the church in which he grew up. He still believes the Bible is inspired by God, but he no longer believes that inspiration means accuracy.

The exact words quoted in the New Testament writings that were spoken by Jesus were likely spoken in Hebrew, or maybe Aramaic, and they were translated into Greek. We have Hebrew manuscripts, Greek manuscripts and Latin manuscripts. We also have manuscripts in Coptic, Syriac, and other languages.

We have a virtual treasure of manuscripts of the biblical texts, so much that they dwarf the text of any other ancient writing many, many times over. We also have many modern translations, each with differences in words, sentence structure, phraseology, etc.

The Bible we have is magnitudes more certain in its reliability and integrity than any other ancient text. We can trust that we have a very, very close approximation in the Bible of what was originally said because of the wealth of texts we can compare to each other. But can we say it is 100%, word for word, accurate in every jot and tittle?

Solomon has a “high view” of Scripture, as I do, but he doesn’t necessarily demand, expect, or hold on to it as if every word is accurate (without error). This can be a difficult “concession” for many people who are Christians and believe the Bible must be viewed as 100% accurate in every word and detail.

A “high view” of Scripture, to me, means to view it with the utmost respect, to embrace it as authoritative and inspired, and to study it regularly as food for the soul/spirit, for guidance in knowing and understanding God and His purposes and how to live as one who would follow Christ.

The idea that the Bible is inerrant (without error) is not to be found in the Bible. Rather, we can find in the Bible that it was inspired by God. In the second letter Paul wrote to his young disciple, Timothy, he said:

Most people who claim to be Christians, and some people who don’t, agree that the Bible is inspired. The idea that the Bible was inspired, and inspired by God, is somewhat noncontroversial, but some people take it further: they say that every word in our modern Bible is from God; they say the Bible is without error; they say the Bible is inerrant (meaning, incapable of being wrong).

When Paul said all scripture is inspired by God, he was likely talking about the Old Testament, as there was no New Testament as we know it when Paul wrote his letter to Timothy. He also doesn’t clarify what he would include in the term, “Scripture”. We have to try to fill in those blanks.

Can we really say the Bible – every word of the text we have today – is 100% accurate to the words that were originally inspired by God, spoken and written down? Which translation? In which language?

Maybe there is a reason Paul did not say that Scripture is an accurate, word for word, and verbatim script of God’s words to the people who were inspired to receive them. Muslims claim that is what the angel Gabriel did with Muhammed. They claim the angel dictated to Muhammed, who wrote down everything exactly as it was spoken to him. The biblical text doesn’t make that claim about itself.

Paul says that Scripture is “beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness“. He implicitly says we can trust it and rely on it. He holds it in the highest regard, but he doesn’t say what we try to claim about the Bible.

Maybe we shouldn’t go as far in our claims as we do. In writing this piece, I am not suggesting that we should not trust the Bible or rely on it. I am not saying we should disregard it or discount it.

I believe Scripture is “alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) Does it need to be 100% accurate to do that? Does it need to “inerrant”?

NT Wright makes the bold claim that we have the Scripture God wanted us to have. Human beings have a strong desire to categorize, define, and reduce to certainty. Maybe we should resist that temptation.

“God’s ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts.” We are finite and limited beings. We will always have a measure of uncertainty. Faith involves placing our trust in what we believe is trustworthy. Faith doesn’t require certainty.

We will never have certainty because we are finite, limited beings. We are not gods, and we are certainly not God.

I realize I have not, perhaps, brought much clarity to the subject. I do have some more thoughts on the subject, including what Peter has to say, and what Peter and Paul say about each other. I will pick where I leave off here in future writings.

From Atheism to Faith: The Story of Mary Jo Sharp

“I really didn’t have a view of God, and I wouldn’t have thought to gain one or why a person should want to gain one. It just wasn’t on the radar”

Mary Jo Sharp grew up in a secular home. Her parents didn’t go to church, and her community in Portland, Oregon was post-Christian. She didn’t know people who claimed to be Christian.

She was aware of Christianity in culture, but her father was a “huge Carl Sagan fan”, and she was influenced by his love for science, outer space and nature. She was influenced by a materialist worldview from a young age. It was the theme that ran through the TV shows her father would watch.

Her parents didn’t go to church. She was raised on nature and science shows that were steeped in a materialist view of the world. “This was the background that formed my view of reality,” says Sharp, “I really didn’t have a view of God, and I wouldn’t have thought to gain one or why a person should want to gain one. It just wasn’t on the radar”

She says she didn’t know that the materialist view – that all that exists is in the material realm – is only one view and philosophy on the nature of reality. She says, “It’s just what I was exposed to.” She didn’t know any other way to view the world and reality.

The Christians she she would meet seemed “nice and innocuous”, but things she saw on television turned her off. She also was influenced by a cult at a compound in her area that attempted a bio-terrorist attack on nearby cities, using salmonella to poison people. Therefore, she says,

“I had a lot of misgivings about what religion was, who God is or was. I didn’t understand what religion was for. It seemed like the kind of thing people did because they were raised that way, and I wasn’t.”

Mary Jo Sharp was an atheist from as young as she can remember, and atheism to her was normative. She had a good life. Her parents loved her. She loved science. She loved music. She had no needs that might drive her to religion for comfort.

Her primary exposure to religion was in the myths of ancient religions. She says, now, that she had a kind of “chronological snobbery”, believing that she was more “progressed” than other people who still had vestiges of a religious faith. She felt her family was better than others who still clung to religious myths.

There was no crisis in her life. “I had it together,” she says, and she saw herself as a good person, but she one thing opened a door, just a crack, to the possibility that reality was more than she supposed.

She was becoming aware of the wonder of the world that caused a subtle tension in her materialist assumptions. She felt a wonder at sunsets and mountain ranges and music that she couldn’t explain on the basis of her view of the world as a product of random and meaningless matter and energy.

Things were about to change for her when a person she respected in her life gave her a Bible. She “didn’t receive it well”, but the timing was fortuitous because of the subtle questions that were beginning to occur to her.

She didn’t have a source for answering the questions she had. She didn’t have philosophy in her background. Public schools did not teach critical thinking or how to tackle the big questions of life.

Though she didn’t react well to the gift of a Bible, she read it. She says, “I was really caught off guard because it wasn’t what I expected.” She was experienced in reading mythology from the Samarians, Greeks, Egyptians and Native Americans, but “As I was digging into the Bible, it was nothing like that…. It sounded more report-like.”

She realized, of course, that some portions of the Bible are poetic, but other portions of the Bible, like Luke, read like reports of factual things. Those portions of the Bible include many details of places, times, people, happenings, etc. On reading Luke, in particular, she recalls, “It sounds like he was just trying to report what was going on.”

That “shook” her because the Bible seemed to be written by people who were just trying to convey what happened. It didn’t read like myth with the primary purpose of conveying moral lessons.

Continue reading “From Atheism to Faith: The Story of Mary Jo Sharp”

Who Was Jesus?


Who was Jesus? A friend recently asked, “Jesus was a Jew preaching Judaism. Right?” He explained his thought that the people who came after Jesus created a new religion using him as the central figure in spite of who he really was – just a Jewish man preaching Judaism.

This is a popular Internet characterization of Christianity. I am not a scholar on the subject, but I did minor in religion in college. I took all the courses for a religion major, including the thesis course, and I even did the research and wrote the thesis. I would have had a religion major if I had turned in my thesis. I didn’t do it because I didn’t need the major. I took the classes because I was interested in them. I didn’t hand in the thesis paper because I didn’t feel good about it.

A religion major at a small liberal arts school meant majoring in “religion” generally. There were no flavors available for particular study. We looked at all religions, though we focused most heavily on Judaism and Christianity. That is because there was one “Christian” professor and one “Jewish” professor.

The Christian professor took the position that “all roads lead to the top of the same mountain”. Of the Christian road, he was very fond of Liberation Theology that took the position that the God has been changing, progressing and more or less learning to be God throughout time. Liberation Theology was born in South America among the people who were oppressed by the corrupt government and military forces in the 1970’s, and the Catholic priests who espoused this theology believed in taking arms in counter-insurgence against the oppressive political and military regimes.

My “Christian” experience included some very progressive literature. We were encouraged to sit in on lectures given by people like Hare Krishnas and a European Muslim – both lectures that I attended, among others. The Jewish professor was very much the modern, reformed variety – not conservative or Hasidic. This was my introduction to religion and to the Bible.

I did read the Bible from cover to cover in college, not only as an academic exercise as part of my course of study, but because I was drawn to it. In the midst of the all-roads-lead-to-the-same-mountaintop atmosphere in which I studied, I began to be taken by Jesus, who said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6) This is because Jesus stood head and shoulders above all the other religious personalities that I read about. There was something transcendentally different about him.

As I have been thinking about the (largely rhetorical) question my friend posed about Jesus, I think of the sweep of the Bible – Old Testament to New Testament, beginning to end. Having been intimate with it for well over 30 years, having read it many times over, and recounting my own journey of discovery, I feel compelled to tackle the question, but the scope of the answer is daunting.

Continue reading “Who Was Jesus?”

The Bible: All or Nothing?

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As Christians, we need to be honest about the weaknesses of our claims so that we can deal with them effectively. We sometimes allow ourselves to be painted into corners that we should be able to avoid if we are honest about those weaknesses. I am reminded of the biblical idea that God is strong in our weakness.

So, what am I talking about? I am talking about the “fundamentalist” positions that we allow skeptics to pin on us. I say that these positions have been pinned on us because fundamentalism is a product of a word war, in my assessment, and one which we have lost to the definition of the word that comes largely from those who seek to discredit us.

Liberal, progressive types are masters at word wars and reinventing words. They know how important words and meanings of words are in manipulating culture. While a fundamentalist was once someone who subscribed to the fundamentals of faith, a fundamentalist is now a dogmatic, backwards, literalist who denies obvious evidence against a strained and rigid view of the Bible – according to the naysayers.

To be fair, however, some Christians prove the point. Some Christians have swallowed the hook, believing that we fight an all or nothing battle. That the battle lines have been drawn on the “literal” interpretation of the Bible, rather than something else (like Christ and him crucified) is extremely unfortunate.

Interestingly, the “new atheists” and modern skeptics exhibit the same fundamentalism that they have tried to pin on Christians who take the Bible seriously, and that has decidedly turned the battleground in our favor. If we would only seize the opportunity and get ourselves out of the corners into which we have allowed ourselves to be painted. Continue reading “The Bible: All or Nothing?”