Mistakes in the Bible?

A deeply devout friend of mine raised a key question about gay Catholic theologian James Alison’s discussion of the stoning of Achan in Joshua 7, which I had quoted in this post. Alison takes the story as an example of the kind of scapegoating Jesus intended us to move beyond, yet the story implies that God Himself sanctioned Achan’s death as the means to remove the people’s guilt.

Thus, my friend asked, “Whenever the Old Testament attributes a command, or some other kind of word, to God, are we called TODAY to take it on faith that God did indeed speak that word? Or do we have the option of seeing in the text a case of misunderstanding on the part of the Israelites as to what God actually said or meant?” Needless to say, this possibility undermines our confidence that any part of the Bible can be trusted as revelation. 

She also suggested a less drastic option, which she attributed to Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy. In his discussion of the “holy wars” in Joshua and Judges, which we find so troubling in our post-Crusades, post-Holocaust moral universe, McLaren reportedly says that God relates to us differently at different stages of human cultural evolution. As my friend summarizes this position, “God may command something that He knows is the only thing that will work in the present socio/spiritual/historical context, even though it is His desire and plan that His people will ultimately be able to transcend this way of being, as they find salvation and liberation in Jesus…just as the Old Testament law was not given to be permanent, but as a necessary tool for the people in that stage of their spiritual growth.” (Gal 3:24)

Thus we find ourselves once again between the Scylla of legalism and the Charybdis of situation ethics! In my opinion, McLaren’s solution is not without its risks, but I’ll take it every time over trying to justify acts that would be clearly evil if performed in our own day. Is it possible that not every action in the Bible is there for us to pass judgment upon? That God’s command to obliterate the Amalekites is not an occasion to debate “Go thou and do likewise: pro or con” but rather to practice the humility commended to us in Romans 14:4? “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls.”

Where the self-styled orthodox are afraid we will go with this is the naive progressivism of some liberal defenders of gay rights, who uncritically assume that contemporary political values are the standard against which to judge the Bible. It was to such people that G.K. Chesterton addressed his great aphorism that tradition was the democracy of the dead. (Read the passage in context here.)

However, I do think that we have made progress beyond the mores of the Vikings in many ways, if not all, and that the Bible itself recognizes the idea of evolving standards, such that practices and concepts appropriate for one generation need not be defended for all time. “The Law was our schoolmaster until Christ came.” There is a way to recognize the superiority of your cultural moment on a particular issue, IN LIGHT OF the Christian standard. In other words, not because it is contemporary but because it actually lines up better with the values of the Bible itself. 

So, to answer my friend’s original question, I think one can accept everything James Alison says without having to believe that the Bible inaccurately records what God said to THOSE people at THAT time.

Yet we also don’t have to believe, contra certain conservatives/evangelicals, that all the mores and circumstances that pertained during a particular episode of revelation should be replicated by all future generations. E.g. if St. Paul mentions in passing, in service of a wholly different point, the assumption that certain same-sex practices are immoral, we are free to reopen the question based on new information about what those practices actually are and whether that understanding of morality brings people closer or further away from love of God and neighbor.

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