Is the Bible Clear? Depends upon the year

Source:  by Rachel Held Evans


“The Bible clearly teaches, starting in the tenth chapter of Genesis and going all the way through, that God has put differences among people on the earth to keep the earth divided.” – Bob Jones III, defending Bob Jones University’s policy banning interracial dating/marriage. The policy was changed in 2000.

In 1823: 

 “The right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.” - Rev. Richard Furman, first president of the South Carolina State Baptist Convention.

In the 16th Century: 

“People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. This fool…wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.” -Martin Luther in “Table Talk” on a heliocentric solar system.

In 1637:

“Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents…We have sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.” – Captain John Underhill, defending the Puritan decimation of the Pequot tribe.

In 1846: 

 “The evidence that there were both slaves and masters of slaves in churches founded and directed by the apostles, cannot be got rid of without resorting to methods of interpretation that will get rid of everything.” – Rev. Leonard Bacon, in defense of American slavery. (Christian ministers wrote nearly half of all defenses of slavery, often citing Scripture to make their case.)

In 1869: 

“The Bible is the revealed will of God, and it declares the God-given sphere of woman. The Bible is, then, our authority for saying woman must content herself with this sphere…Who demand the ballot for woman? They are not the lovers of God, nor are they believers in Christ, as a class. There may be exceptions, but the majority prefer an infidel’s cheer to the favor of God and the love of the Christian community.”  – Rev. Justin Dewey Fulton in his treatise against women’s suffrage. 

In 1960: 

“Wherever we have the races mixed up in large numbers, we have trouble….These religious liberals are the worst infidels in many ways in the country; and some of them are filling pulpits down South.  They do not believe the Bible any longer; so it does not do any good to quote it to them.  They have gone over to modernism, and they are leading the white people astray at the same time; and they are leading colored Christians astray.  But every good, substantial, Bible-believing, intelligent orthodox Christian can read what the Word of God and know that what is happening in the South now is not of God.” - Bob Jones Sr., in his treatise against integration entitled, ‘Is Segregation Scriptural?’


Of course, for every Christian who appealed to Scripture to oppose abolition, integration, women’s suffrage, and the acceptance of a heliocentric solar system, there were Christians who appealed to Scripture to support those things too.

But these quotes should serve as a humbling reminder that rhetorical claims to the Bible’s clarity on a subject do not automatically make it so. One need not discount the inspiration and authority of Scripture to hold one’s interpretations of Scripture with an open hand. 

It’s easy to look down our noses at the Christians who have come before us and discount them as unenlightened and uninformed. But to accept Galileo’s thesis, our 17th century forbearers would have had to reject 1600 years of traditional Christian interpretations of passages like Psalm 93:1, Ecclesiastes 1:5, and Joshua 10:12-14. And to accept the arguments of the abolitionist, our great-great-grandparents had to see beyond the “plain meaning” of proof texts like Ephesians 6:1-5, Colossians 3:18-25; 4:1, and I Timothy 6:1-2 and instead be compelled by the general sweep of Scripture toward justice and freedom . (I wrote more about this in my post, “Is abolition biblical?”)
We like to characterize the people in the quotes above as having used Scripture to their own advantage. But I find it both frightening and humbling to note that, often, the way we make the distinction between those who lovedScripture and those who used Scripture is hindsight. 

So before you share that MLK quote on Facebook today, ask yourself: If your pastor told you that integration was “unbiblical” and MLK was a dangerous, anti-Christian communist, (which is what plenty of white pastors in the South did), which side would you have chosen? Would you have defied your own religious community to stand with MLK?

I wish I knew for sure what I would have done…but I don’t. I’m humbled, and a little frightened, by how often true justice is only recognized as such in hindsight.

From Susan cottrell:

It’s easier to say God never changes (repeated to the point of cliché), and pretend we can remain literal about the Bible, than to realize that Bible-believing Christians, all with Bible in hand, can disagree wildly on interpretation and principal. We must make moral decisions. I never said God changes. But let me ask you this: which God is yours? The one who approved of multiple wives (Exodus 21:10)? The one who allowed a man to sell his daughter as a bride (Exodus 22:16)? Or the one people claim requires marriage to be one man/one woman? Which God is yours? The one who gave us multiple laws about slavery (Lev. 25:44-46; Ex. 21:20-21)? Or the God we understand today who opposes slavery? I know this is hard compared to what you have learned in church. But our interpretation of God has changed radically over the history of humankind. This does not indict God but us as humans driven by self-interest, power and control. [We’re not under the Old Testament (old covenant), but we still have to reconcile vastly different pictures of God just between how God’s been shown in Exodus and how Jesus shows God to us.]

We must deal with a real world with real intelligence and not pretend we can follow the Bible literally or fully – no one ever has, and not for lack of trying. Take a close look at how literal and scripture-following the religious leaders around Jesus were, and how he called them a brood of vipers! (Matthew 23) To follow literally is an impossible task.

I would return your request back to you: don’t mold God into who you want Him to be to justify your beliefs and then pass this along to others who need to justify their beliefs about those they disagree with. The church reaction throughout history has been deadly: to women, children, Jews, slaves, varieties of ethnic groups, and the LGBTQ community. It is nothing like what we see in Jesus’ life and teachings. Remember that religious leaders viewed Jesus as disobedient to God! (Matt. 15 and Mark 7) If you view me the same, I am in good company. More atrocities have occurred throughout history in the name of Christianity than we can count.

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