Deleting Scripture

Are we looking for truth in the Bible or making our own?

From the time we are young, we develop a narrative that helps us understand who we are, who we are becoming and why we are here, a narrative that we largely adopt from our parents and then develop gradually over time. But perhaps more interesting than what this narrative says is what it avoids saying, what it does not symbolize. While we come to see this story as describing who we are, it often has nothing to say about certain behaviors we engage in. There are behaviors we enact that we treat as taboo—they exist, and yet remain unspoken. This is somewhat analogous to a family who never speaks about an affair that everyone knows took place. It is a reality that has not been given form in the discourse of the family.

In a similar way, there are things we do that clash with the clean, coherent and cohesive story that we have about ourselves. Acts that are patently real and yet not acknowledged as such. By definition, these are very hard to see because they are parts of our personality that have not been brought to the light. In order to find them, we often need others to reflect back what they see in us. These kinds of encounters can be described as “wounds from a friend,” difficult conversations that expose something we would prefer not to acknowledge, yet these confrontations are required if we hope to grow and mature. When confronted with our taboos, we may initially be astounded and then engage in an act of rationalization in which we try to deny the truth of what has been pointed out.

Tabloid talk shows operate with a similar logic. Someone is brought onto the show, perhaps thinking they are there for a reason other than the true one, and then confronted with some problematic behavior. They may have a problem with overeating, aggression or drug abuse. In such situations, the individual might initially be shocked and surprised by the accusations, having never articulated the material reality themselves. Then there is a point where the person considers what is being said but dismisses the accusations (claiming they are false) or defends themselves (claiming the actions were justified and can be explained within the coordinates of their current self-understanding). However, after the initial shock and defense have worn off, the individual might break down and admit that they have a problem, at which point they are often offered professional help by the presenter. Of course, I am not defending such shows; in fact I would be concerned about their effect for attempting to take a number of key moments in the process of human change and make them all happen in a 20-minute slot for entertainment. However, they are useful in seeing how disavowal (not seeing what one sees), defense (trying to justify oneself) and acknowledgment (bringing one's own behavior before oneself) operate.

Cutting up the Bible

We can see the same logic at work with the way that many people read the Bible today. For large numbers of churchgoers, it is presented as a clean, coherent and cohesive text, an image we tend to adopt for ourselves. Then, depending upon what we think the message of the text is, we simply refuse to see anything that might contradict our reading. We treat those parts of the text that might contradict our interpretation as taboo. In other words, we see them without acknowledging them; we look at them in the same way a cow gazes at a passing car.

When we are confronted with the broken nature of the text and the way in which we have repressed some parts of it at the expense of others, we can often be shocked. Talking with young Evangelical Christians about the text, I have often found this reaction. They simply never thought it was possible, even though they have read the text a number of times themselves. When the facts are presented, there can often be anxiety and even hostility. They either explicitly avoid looking at the evidence provided or attempt to find ways of integrating the new information with their already existing worldview. Finally, however, there can be a point of recognition that opens up a different way of approaching and engaging with the text.

There have been various attempts by the liberal tradition within Christianity to remove parts of the Bible that they don’t agree with, something that more conservative Christians have vehemently attacked. However, the truth is that they may simply engage in a different, more clandestine, form of deletion, one that doesn’t require physically cutting up the text: they do the cutting internally.

Philosophically speaking, the claim that the Bible in its entirety is literal and inerrant (i.e., self-evident, internally coherent and a reflection of the mind of God) operates as a master signifier. It is a claim without any specific content, worn as a badge to let you know what team you play for. It doesn’t matter too much how you actually fill in this empty container with true content, as long as you make the claim. It functions as a shibboleth, identifying you as being in a certain tribe.

But as soon as one attempts to enact what it might mean to hold the Bible as literal and inerrant (i.e., to fill this claim with content), one must treat large parts of the text as taboo. The person who makes the abstract claim that the Bible is literal and inerrant, when enacting the claim, always refutes themselves.

Peter Rollins is a widely sought after writer, lecturer, storyteller, public speaker and the author of Insurrection (Howard 2011). This article is republished from his blog with permission.

48 Comments

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remliw commented…

I would have liked to seem some examples of what the author thinks are most likely to be "deleted"

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Tim commented…

But what to do when the traditions contradict the Scripture? Sola ecclesia!

Greg Warner

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Greg Warner commented…

The church is to uphold the truth of Scripture, yes. But if we say sola ecclesia instead of sola scriptura, we have a problem. Traditions of understanding an interpretation are in constant states of flux and debate (either by needlessly disputing in things that are unclear or erroneously challenging those things that are clear and unessential). The church is, indeed the pillar that upholds the truth and is God's means of working in the world, but it is not the church's interpretations that are our standard but God's own words themselves. Man is fallibleonly God is infallible. So the church that is faithful to uphold the Word does have authority, but when we see vast differences in the thinking of the church on specific issues, and even denial of historically crucial tenents clearly seen in Scripture, we can not look to tradition for moorings but the text itself. Paul clearly stated that all Scripture (not some, or those passages that are easy to fit into our perceptions) are objectively God-breathed. Either they are or they aren't. If they are not all God breathed, Paul and his words are not entirely reliable, then we must either be intellectually dishonest or throw out both Scripture and the church. Jesus declared all believers to be kings and priests, and gave the Spirit to empower His children to discern the truth (1 Peter 2:5). Therefore we can read, and we can understand.

Greg Warner

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Greg Warner commented…

Michele, what about 2 Peter 1:21? "For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." It doesn't say that they heard a voice from God and interpreted it as they wanted in their writings. It says their prophecies were the very words of God, given to them to write. Jesus Himself backed every word of Scripture as from God by affirming that "until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished" (Matt. 5:18). Find a good translation that as clearly as you tell mirrors the originals, but if we can't trust that God preserves His Word, we can trust nothing.

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Fr Smith commented…

Michele is entirely correct, although I would say that a more accurate representation of Catholic teaching is that the inerrancy of Scripture is not tied into a literal interpretation of the Bible. The question "By whose authority?" is an important one. As long as one makes the self the ultimate arbiter of Scripture, Christians will be divided. Only when Christians all come home to the Church which has remained united throughout the ages interpreting the Scripture together can the divisions among us be a thing of the past.

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