News from the Tennessee Valley Religion

Rev. Steve Bateman

Agreeing with atheist about cherry-picking Bible

Sam Harris is a bright, articulate atheist with the zeal of an evangelist. The message he preaches to the world is that there is no God. In his best-selling book, “Letter to a Christian Nation,” he makes one of several insightful observations: “People have been cherry-picking the Bible for millennia to justify their every impulse, moral or otherwise.”

Now, it’s hard to argue with Sam Harris about that. History proves that ripping Bible verses out of context to give credibility to some social or political agenda has been an art form among priests, preachers, politicians and presidents for, well, for as long as anyone can remember. Condemning interracial marriage? Surely we can find a verse or two to support that. Condoning same-sex marriage? Through tortured exegesis, a clever wordsmith might make a convincing case to the biblically illiterate.

When church leaders do such things, contrary to the teaching of Jesus, skeptics like Harris have good cause to be suspicious. I ask for no special treatment for the Bible in this sense. Thomas Jefferson did not believe the Bible was the revelation of God, but he counseled his friends, “Read the Bible then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus.” These Roman historians deserved to be rightly understood before they were summarily dismissed. They were entitled to have their words received in their context, readers ever seeking the author’s original intent. They expected their readers to consider the historical and cultural context from which they wrote. Don’t we all?

Surely Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, expected future generations to consider these things as they sought to interpret the Declaration, and later, the Constitution.

It is an old strategy to retain the external form of historic Christianity and reject the substance by saying the church doesn’t much need the Bible anymore. Instead, some believe, the church should follow the “spirit of Christ” in addressing contemporary issues. Groups of professing Christians get together, pray, talk, sing, emote and then decide on a course of action unbound by the authority of Scripture. They might cherry-pick some Bible verses that seem to support their innovative decision, but in the end, the Bible is not treated with the respect it deserves.

Though I am not Episcopalian, I am rather drawn to the way Article 20 of the “Thirty-Nine Articles of Faith of the Church of England” (1571) addresses the matter: “The church hath power to decree rites and ceremonies, and authority in controversies of faith, and yet it is not lawful for the church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that is repugnant to another.” So much for cherry-picking.

The Rev. Steve Bateman, pastor of First Bible Church, Decatur, is one of several local ministers writing religion columns for The Daily. For more information, call Melanie Smith at 340-2468.

Rev. Steve Bateman Rev. Steve Batemann

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