RFG 7: You Can’t Take the Bible Literally & Intermission

Discuss in ILovePhilosophy.com: RFG 7: You Can’t Take the Bible Literally & Intermission

Tim Keller’s The Reason for God Book Discussion – Part 1: The Leap of Doubt

SEVEN: You Can’t Take the Bible Literally (and) Intermission

Keller says the reason people have a problem trusting the Bible is that some or most of it is “scientifically impossible, historically unreliable, and culturally regressive,” (99-100). Chapter seven deals with the latter two, as chapter six dealt with the first one.

In answer to this: “We Can’t Trust the Bible Historically” (100) Keller replies:

“The timing is far too early for the gospels to be legends,” (101). Keller mentions the gospels were written at most forty to sixty years after Jesus’ death, and Paul’s letters were written just fifteen to twenty-five years after His death – while the witnesses, believers and bystanders alike, to Jesus’ ministry, were still alive (Luke 1:1-4; Mark 15:21; 1 Corinthians 15:1-6) to confirm or dispute the details the authors were writing about. In order for altered accounts to gain acceptance, the eyewitnesses, and their offspring, must all be dead. If Jesus had never done or said the things the gospel writers and Paul wrote about – their writings never would have been accepted because the living witnesses would have stomped them down. Acts 26:26. Look at the Gnostic “gospels” in comparison: “the Syriac traditions in Thomas can be dated to 175 A.D. at the earliest, more than a hundred years after the time that the canonical gospels were in widespread use. …The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, however, were recognized as authoritative eyewitness accounts almost immediately, and so we have Irenaeus of Lyons in 160 A.D. declaring that there were four, and only four, gospels,” (103). Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” is to blame for a lot of misinformation, including the myth that Constantine decreed Christ’s divinity and suppressed all evidence of His humanity in 325 A.D., when clearly “no more than twenty years after the death of Christ, we see that Christians were worshipping Jesus as God (Philippians 2),” (103).

“The content is far too counterproductive for the gospels to be legends,” (104). Keller is answering the claim that “the gospels were written by the leaders of the early church to promote their policies, consolidate their power, and build their movement,” (104). Keller asks, if that is so, why do they not have Jesus speaking on circumcision? Why invent the story of the crucifixion, which makes Jesus look like a criminal? Why invent Jesus’ Gethsemane experience, or crying out on the cross, which makes Jesus look like a weak failure? Why make (culturally incredible) women the first witnesses of His resurrection, rather than (culturally credible) men? Why paint the apostles as “petty and jealous, almost impossibly slow-witted, and in the end as cowards who either actively or passively failed their master?” (105). Why reveal the horrible failure of Peter? None of that makes sense if the claim Keller is countering is true – it makes more sense that the authors did not feel free to fictionalize or polish up the facts. Look at the Gnostic “gospels” in comparison: being rescued from the dark, evil material world by secret gnosis appealed to Greeks and Romans, whereas the canonical gospels offended the dominant views with a “positive view of material creation and their emphasis on the poor and oppressed,” (106).

“The literary form of the gospels is too detailed to be legend,” (106). This is an interesting section that says, if the gospels were fiction, they “suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative,” (C.S. Lewis) – which “only developed within the last three hundred years,” (106). Keller notes there is a lot of irrelevant detail that only makes sense to include if it actually happened and was part of the author’s recollective memory. He notes that “disciples in the ancient world were expected to memorize masters’ teachings, and that many of Jesus’ statements are presented in a form that was actually designed for memorization,” (106). He also notes Jan Vansina’s “study of oral traditions in primitive African cultures, in which fictional legends and historical accounts are clearly distinguished from each other and much greater care is taken to preserve historical accounts accurately,” (108).

In answer to this: “We Can’t Trust the Bible Culturally” (109) Keller replies:

“Here’s how I advised him and other people on how to deal with a Scripture text that appeared objectionable or offensive to them. … slow down and try out several different perspectives on the issues that trouble them. …the passage that bothers them might not teach what it appears to them to be teaching. Many of the texts people find offensive can be cleared up with a decent commentary that puts the issue into historical context. … To reject the Bible as regressive is to assume that you have now arrived at the ultimate historic moment, from which all that is regressive and progressive can be discerned. … To stay away from Christianity because part of the Bible’s teaching is offensive to you assumes that if there is a God he wouldn’t have any views that upset you. … If Jesus is the Son of God, then we have to take his teaching seriously, including his confidence in the authority of the whole Bible. If he is not who he says he is, why should we care what the Bible says about anything else? … If you don’t trust the Bible enough to let it challenge and correct your thinking, how could you ever have a personal relationship with God? … Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in a real friendship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination. So an authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God. It is the precondition for it,” (109-114).

Intermission questions: what do you think of Keller saying it is impossible to prove a belief (as strong rationalism requires) but beliefs can be evaluated to be more reasonable than others, though still rationally avoidable (the task of critical rationalism)? What do you think about Swinburne saying that “The view that there is a God…leads us to expect the things we observe—that there is a universe at all, that scientific laws operate within it, that it contains human beings with consciousnesses and with an indelible moral sense. The theory that there is no God…does not lead us to expect any of these things. Therefore, belief in God offers a better empirical fit, it explains and accounts for what we see better than the alternative account of things,” (121). What do you think of Keller saying that how we come to know God is by using our minds (fideists: read: God-given minds) to evaluate what the Playwright has revealed about Himself in the play, including in writing Himself into it?

Sermon notes for Tim Keller’s sermon on this chapter:

Download: http://sermons.redeemer.com/store/index.cfm?fuseaction=category.display&category_id=29

Literalism: Isn’t the Bible historically unreliable and regressive?

Luke 1:1-4; 24:13-32

Intro. to Theophilus

Road to Emmaus.

Historically/Culturally/Personally should trust the Bible.

I. Historically

Doubt: Jesus’ statements/actions concocted by political winners to build their movement, suppressed evidence to the contrary.


1. NT accounts written too early to be legends. Luke (30-40 yrs later) – investigated and checked w/ eyewitnesses. Paul – (15-20 yrs later) 1 Cor 15 – many people saw Jesus after resurrection-500 at once-most still alive and you can go talk to them. Phil 2 – (15 yrs later) Paul quotes hymn in praise of Jesus’ divinity. Didn’t begin with Constantine-accepted from the beginning. Constantine didn’t help the church win-Constantine backed a winner. These documents wouldn’t have gotten off the ground and past the eyewitnesses unless the events actually happened.
2. Too counter-productive to be legends. Doesn’t build any powerful movement, makes Jesus look weak when He cries blood and asks for an out, and asks God why He forgot Him. Original eyewitness were women (not considered credible in court). The apostles look dumb.
3. Too detailed to be legend. Detail (investigation, etc.) is for modern fiction-not ancient fiction. C.S. Lewis. Either this is reportage, or modern fiction anticipated in ancient times (the author taking on historical pseudonyms).
4. If you accept NT, accept what Jesus accepted == OT.

II. Culturally

Doubt: Offensive, primitive, regressive.

Rebuttal: how to handle these parts of the Bible:

1. May not teach what you think it teaches. How the patriarchs treat women-polygamy, buying/selling-“Art of Biblical Narrative” by Robert Altar: “polygamy and primogenitor …wreaks havoc in every generation, the younger son is always favored by God”.
2. Might misunderstand due to own cultural blinders. Disciples misunderstand prophecies about messiah because focused on Jews, not whole world. Bible does not condone slavery-when Paul says “slaves obey your masters” he is referring to indentured servanthood. Murray Harris-back then, slaves were indistinguishable from others, often more educated than their masters, made same wages as free laborers and could buy themselves out, very few slaves for life. Though modern slave owners tried to use scripture to defend slavery-they misused it-they read it through their cultural blinders.
3. May think your cultural ‘moment’ is superior, when it isn’t. Western ear: sexual rules bad, forgiveness good. Middle-eastern ear: sex rules good (could be more strict), forgiving enemies-crazy. Examine cultural assumptions. The truth will challenge every culture at some point. So if it challenges you-that’s a good reason to trust it.

III. Personally

Doubt: Trust in authority of Bible is cold, legalistic kind of faith.

Rebuttal: is prerequisite for warm, trusting relationship with Christ. “were not our hearts burning within us as He opened to us the Scripture?” heart: seat of whole person burn: uncontrollable desire for someone – as He opened to us the Scripture. V.27 –It ain’t about anybody in the Bible (legalistic: be awesome on your own!)–it’s about what God did through them and would do as Jesus. It’s about what our hearts burn for. If the Bible has no authority, if we don’t submit to it, we’ve got a Stepford God. We must be challenged, and that cannot happen if we pick and choose and put a chip in Him-making Him in our image. Jesus bled Scripture.
Study guide: http://download.redeemer.com/sermons/Literalism_Isnt_the_Bible_Historic.pdf

This entry was posted in Apologetics, Keller's Reason for God, Reviews and Interviews. Bookmark the permalink.

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