on ‘heresy’ and the critical study of the bible

Cap and Gownthought for the day:

it is never heretical to point out the inconsistencies of the biblical text to students. ever! if one’s faith can’t survive a few critical questions, it’s either deeply flawed or it is not worth maintaining. shielding students from textual problems does not help their faith, it only sets them up for a greater fall.

professors should challenge students to examine the biblical text as critically as they do any other piece of literature or legislation. if even half as much time that is spent attempting to disprove ‘other’ religions or unpopular pieces of legislation was spent critically examining the bible, the faith would not only be far better off, but people of faith would be far more educated, and might even know what their bibles say and how to interpret its message properly.

since when are scholars heretics because they ask tough questions of the bible? since when is pointing out inconsistencies within the text harmful to a student’s faith? (unless we want them to believe something that is simply not true or possible.) and since when is the dogma and inbred self-affirmation of systematic theology the final say on all things religious? any system of belief or government that cites itself as an authority is doomed to fail. all systems of government or faith must be constantly examined and critically prodded to ensure their integrity and viability. otherwise, they are not worth maintaining.

12 Responses

  1. Well said, Bob.

  2. well and rightly said.

  3. well said, Bob. I agree completely.

  4. First week of class went that well, did it?

  5. :) quite.

  6. I disagree with several statements.
    First, to use words such as dogma, inbred, etc. reflect more on the author than the subject (biases).
    Second, no inconsistencies are cited, but merely stated as existing.
    Third, the usage of ‘dogma’ is immediately followed by “any system” and “all systems” statements…which is to be dogmatic, and uses self-affirming assertions…in this case false declarative statements.
    Not all systems of belief that cite themselves as authority fail or will fail (Christianity, as in faith in Christ, for example), and the word of God is not dependent upon external examination by man to determine its validity.

  7. I am a “new fundamentalist.” That is the equivalent of a “neo-evangelical.” I come from old time fundamentalism but the reason I have almost entirely left the “click” is because of this problem of which you are speaking.
    I have seen them make things up just to keep the hounds at bay. Anything to be superior and keep the student subjugated. It’s a control factor.

  8. You are so right about this… I second the motion…

  9. gary,

    thanx for the comments.

    of course the language i employ reflects the thoughts, opinions, and yes, biases of the author (me). i’m the one saying it. and if i’m saying it, they are my opinions, and thus, my positions. any claim made by any scholar or commentator is by its very nature biased according to this definition. remember, in the news, it is not the specific stated position that is significant, but the fact that the story is reported (or not reported) that gives it significance.

    i shall stand by my statement that systematic theology is inbred, in that at its core it is a means by which to harmonize ideas that are often times incongruous. were we to begin the process of systematizing xnty today given our critical knowledge of the text, history, archaeology, etc., xnty would look much different. this is not unexpected, however, for the nature of systematic theology is to build upon itself by citing earlier precedent, often including earlier precedent that is/was obviously in err.

    re: inconsistencies – i wasn’t writing a book, chapter, and verse critique, but rather making a statement. however, if you insist upon a few examples, try looking at the harmonization of the two creation stories (gen 1 and 2 – were humans created before or after animals, before or after the garden?), the flood (how many animals were on the ark anyways? gen 6:19 or 7:2), or the conquest of israel (did the israelites wipe out all of the inhabitants of canaan (josh 10:40) or did they miss some (josh 15:63, judg. 1:1, 21)?). purgatory was a nice xn invention, as was the trinity and the concept of original sin. but i digress.

    re: usage of ‘dogma’ – how are they false declarative statements? my declaration is that systems of thought that build upon precedent and tradition, but that lack external critical examination will ultimately fall because they do not allow for external correctives such as archaeological and scientific fact, reason, logic, and innovation.

    as for your final claim, this seems to be your thesis. your assumption is that xnty has not fallen despite the fact that it cites itself and does not answer to the criticism of non-believers. but just look at how much xnty has changed since the rise of critical biblical scholarship (mid 1800s). look still at how much it is changing today. and while you claim that the word of god does not rely on external examination for validity, you concede that it is indeed people that ascribe holiness. the new testament is the word of god and authoritative precisely because xns say it is. of course, many muslims believe the qur’an to be authoritative and the word of god, and yet many xns are quick to dismiss these claims precisely because the claims of authority come from within the qur’anic text. people of faith often lend authority to their own faith systems of internal affirmation, while not affording the same luxury to other faiths. this phenomenon is precisely to what i am referring when i say internal, inbred, harmonized, systematized systems of thought will ultimately fail because they cannot withstand critical scrutiny. people of faith must be willing to allow for critical examination of the faith, or, they must accept and not resist the idea that their faith is indeed illogical and rooted in anomaly.

    if he is truly god, he can survive us asking a few questions. if the faith is true, it too can adapt to a few new discoveries now and again.

    thanx again,


  10. There is no harm in questioning as long as the questioning is in the spirit of seeking truth and to weigh the evidence God has presented to us. He expectt us to examine and test all things because He has provided evidence to support His truthfulness that we may trust in Him. If, however, the questioning is performed in the spirit of skepticism, seeking a sign or tangible ‘proof’, then this is something motivated by spiritual influences not from heaven, for it is test God and weigh His word according to our own criteria, exalting ourselves.
    Your experiential observation of systematic theology is accurate to a degree, but that does not mean that all that it has presented is void or of no use…it too is to be examined for what is good (true).
    Of the references you provided for “inconsistencies”…I did not see inconsistency, perhaps I am blinded by my own understanding. The creation accounts certainly harmonize if one understands that what is presented, as Luke often does in the Acts, is not linear sequential in time. You know ancient Hebrew literature far better than I, so surely you know such writing technique to amplify upon pre-existing statements…very similar to the multi-dimensional writing James uses in his epistle, building on aphorisms of Ch. 1.
    As for the ark and birds, animals, creeping things…two of every unclean kind and by sevens of the clean. If we want nominal numbers (total headcount), that is neither given nor relevant to what God through Moses is communicating. What spirit motivates us to ask for information not provided?
    As for Joshua, God told Moses before the Israelites entered the land what would happen to them [Deut 31]. Your specific verse simply cites by territory who and where Joshua struck, it does not give the entire land as being annihilated, only specific areas, region, and points.
    Your usage of “xnty” is broad, and secular…yes “xnty” as devised by man has devised convenient beliefs which have no support from scripture (purgatory, original sin). While no reference is explicit as for “Trinity”, from total context we can derive a three person heavenly host, or Godhead…usage of plural Elohim, “Let Us make…” and “our image”…the “Yehovah Elohinu, Yehovah echad!” transliterated of course, is reflective of this plurality, as well as the Oneness expressed by Jesus with the Father (I and the Father are One)…and the references to the Spirit as He and His role as communicator and comforter and guarantee, etc.
    Do not confuse what I am expressing as any justification for what man-made ‘xnty’ has devised and ornamented around the idea.
    I understand your point regarding unexamined systems…perhaps we are in violent agreement…which is why what God has presented to us has always been for examination, and is supportable through its own internal evidence and the external evidence of history, archaeology, logic….but I need explanation of “innovation”…that sounds like direct revelation to me.
    That ‘xnty’ changes…we must be specific in our meanings…I know that all that man has devised and exalted has changed and will change and may even vanish, as it should. But all that God has revealed in His Word, stands forever, according to His Word. It does not require external validation to be true…on its own internal evidence it is found to be truthful throughout. Only man’s fragmented knowledge causes him to question it, but in time archaeology and historical discoveries confirm what was true prior to the discovery…as in Luke’s usage of politarchs, his description of boundaries, colonies, proconsuls in the plural in Ephesus when all critics cited it should be singular…etc. etc.
    People of faith do allow for critical examination and invite it, welcome it. Those who do not have placed their faith in their faith, not in Christ and His Word.
    As for the comment “If he is truly god…” ….that may not have been intended to sound as it does, but stating God’s existence in the hypothetical in the context of asking questions simply did not…well…where exactly did that ‘IF” come from?? Faith should not “adapt” to anything…faith is trust in God, taking Him at His Word…the problem has always been with man and his effort to adapt God’s Word to everything else.
    Thank you for replying…and I did agree with the observation of the Great Communion event…I found this whole plan and execution to be abhorrent, taking the Lord’s Supper and adapting it to some other worldly commemoritive event….that is ‘xnty’ from man.

  11. Dr. Cargill,

    You mentioned the 2 creation accounts in Gen. 1 and 2 are inconsistent. I have an idea about that that I wonder if anyone has ever said before. Maybe the animals were created in Gen. 1 for their own kind, but then they were created again in Gen. 2 so that Adam could pick a mate from them, but when he did not, G-d made him a mate from his rib.

    Also, maybe the plants that were created in Gen. 1 grew even though the land had not been watered by rain until Gen. 2 because those were plants that grew in the water or at the edge of bodies of water. Maybe other plants that grew in fields only grew later when it rained.

    These sound like easy explanations, but they were really hard for me to think of them.

    Kenneth Greifer

  12. kenneth,

    most scholars would argue that the two stories are two creation accounts that were simply placed side-by-side (like gospel accounts) even though they don’t match perfectly (like the gospel accounts). it still doesn’t explain why humans are created before animals in one and after in the other, whether plants came first or last, why god is called elohim in ch1 and the divine name-elohim in ch2, or whether humans were created together or one after the other, or why god thought any animal would be a partner for man better than a woman. etc.

    they are two different stories, with a seam at 2:4a (‘these are the generations…created.’)


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