“God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” So declares a popular bumper sticker that I am sure William Jennings Bryan would have displayed on his car if he had had a car. It was Bryan who famously said at the Scopes evolution trial, “I believe that the whale swallowed Jonah because the Bible says so, and if the Bible said that Jonah swallowed the whale, I would believe that, too.” Biblical literalists of Bryan's time and of our own time regard the Bible as the infallible, inerrant Word of God, as if God himself dictated the Bible word for word. If that's true, God certainly changed his writing style again and again between Genesis and Revelations. And he certainly contradicted himself repeatedly, like the two stories of Noah's ark. In one, God orders Noah to take into the ark one pair of every sort of animal, and in the other version, God tells him to take seven pairs of each. And there's the inscription on Jesus' cross, which is reported in the four Gospels in four different ways. If God dictated the Bible, then in some cases he was clearly wrong, like when Genesis says that the earth was formed in six days and like when Paul says that Jesus was going to return to earth before the end of his generation.
Biblical literalism ties your faith up in all kinds of unnecessary knots. For one thing, it ties your faith to a pre-scientific world view that no modern, educated person could possibly believe anymore. The Bible contains many literary types -- history, poetry, fiction, biography, drama, sermons, law codes, and letters – but it is not a science book. It couldn't be because it was written from 1500 to 3000 years before the advent of science. The cosmology of the Bible views the world as a two-story house with a basement. The ground floor is the earth, which is flat (not round) and stationary (not revolving around the sun). The second floor is the sky, which is a solid firmament with water stored above the firmament that comes down as rain through the windows of heaven. The sun, moon, and stars move across the underside of the firmament to illumine humankind, which is befitting us because the Bible pictures humanity as the center of the universe. Beyond the sky is heaven, the realm of the all-seeing, all-powerful guy upstairs. Can you imagine what it must do to you to believe that you are being watched constantly? Those of us who were raised in small towns know what it’s like because we were taught that everyone in town is looking at you, knowing what you’re up to even when you think you are being discreet, and, more importantly, that everyone is judging you. It’s enough to make you neurotically hypervigilant and awkwardly self-conscious, to say the least. Add to this the belief that an all-seeing God is monitoring, not only your actions in public and private, but your very thoughts as well, and you have a perfect recipe for paranoia. But I digress.
To get back to the two-story house, the basement is hell, where the damned are condemned to writhe in agony for eternity by a loving God. But it’s their own damn fault (and I’m using the word “damn” literally). They were given due warning of what would await them if they didn’t do right. It is because of this two-story cosmology that the Bible pictures Jesus ascending from earth up to heaven and why his second coming is pictured as a descending from the sky. Let's hope that Jesus is not afraid of heights.
According to the pre-scientific world view of the Bible, the universe does not act according to natural laws. Instead, the Bible has a magical view of the world in which the unpredictable happens all the time, thanks to God’s unpredictable interventions, called miracles. In the Biblical world, a fish can swallow a man, a stick can turn into a snake, water can turn into wine, the sun can stand still (indicating that the earth has stopped rotating), and people can walk on water, be born of a virgin, and come back to life after dying. In the Biblical world, asses can talk, which is a miracle that still occurs whenever our legislature is in session. Again, it is a world which no modern, educated mind can inhabit with any intellectual integrity, nor should we have to in order to have faith. By tying the validity of their faith to the validity of the pre-scientific world view of the Bible, Fundamentalists have tied themselves up in unnecessary and even comical knots. This explains why Fundamentalists have always opposed every advance of science, and they still do in their opposition to evolution and global warming. Every advance of science undermines the very validity of their fragile faith.
Thankfully, neither Unitarianism nor Universalism got tied up in Biblical literalism. It may come as a surprise to some of you to learn that both Unitarians and Universalists did look to the Bible as their source of inspired revelation. When Henry Ware was selected as the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard in 1805, which was a controversial appointment because Ware was a card-carrying Unitarian, the only article of faith required was that “the Bible is the only and most perfect rule of faith and practice.” William Ellery Channing, whom some consider the father of Unitarianism in America, viewed the scriptures as “the records of God’s successive revelations to mankind.” As late as 1853, the American Unitarian Association passed a resolution stating “that the Divine authority of the Gospel as founded on a special and miraculous interposition of God for the redemption of mankind is the basis of the action of this Association.”
What saved Unitarians and Universalists from Biblical literalism, however, was their insistence on interpreting the scriptures with reason, which led them to embrace the scholarly study of the Bible known as Biblical criticism. In fact, it was Biblical criticism that led Unitarians to reject the doctrine of the Trinity. During the early 16th century, the great humanist Biblical scholar, Erasmus, who worked on a Latin translation of the New Testament, discovered that the reference to the Trinity in I John 5:7 was a late textual addition, so he omitted this from his version of the Bible.
The movement that first nudged Unitarians away from the Bible as the final arbiter of religious truth was Transcendentalism, which taught that the religion of the Bible was a second-hand faith because the Bible was a record of the faith of others who lived a long time ago. Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson insisted that inspiration did not end when the last book of the Bible was written but that God speaks still, especially in and through nature and in and through human virtue. A young minister who was influenced by Emerson was Theodore Parker, the most popular Unitarian preacher of his time. His famed sermon, “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity” asserted that the creeds, confessions, and doctrines of the church are transient expressions of religion that are bound to a particular time and culture. Parker went so far to say that even the Bible itself is a transient expression of faith. What is permanent about a religion, asserted Parker, is its ethical teachings, for which you need only your conscience, not a creed.
Throughout the 19th century, the authority of the Bible waned considerably for Unitarians and Universalists. By the end of the century, prominent Unitarian minister Jabez Sunderland posited that there were two Bibles – the outgrown Bible of tradition and ignorance and the new Bible of inquiry and intelligence. Universalist Brainard Gibbons called the Bible “a marvelous work of man, not the miraculous handiwork of God.” In the 20th century, as more and more Unitarians and Universalists embraced humanism, the Bible came to be regarded as one of many religious books from which we may draw inspiration based on Biblical scholarship. In the 1950s, A. Powell Davies wrote a Unitarian pamphlet that pretty much describes the liberal view of the Bible: “Not as a verbally inspired book but as a collection of many books of varying value, written over a long period of time. Unitarians do not think the Bible is a supernatural revelation, but they do find in it many insights and messages of enduring value. Most Unitarians hold that the Scriptures of the great religions are of similar value, and that inspired words are still being written.”
Biblical scholarship destroys Biblical infallibility and inerrancy. A scholarly study of the Bible reveals that there are no original texts of the Bible in existence. All we have are copies made years later, usually centuries later, that are actually copies of copies of copies, and they are all filled with errors, inconsistencies, contradictions, and intentional changes made over the centuries by scribes and editors. Plus, before the books of the Bible were made the official canon, or scripture, there were several copies of other books of the Bible floating around that didn’t make it into the final official version. There is no historical reason to believe that some of these non-canonical books were any less worthy of being included in the Bible than the books that made it in.
When I say that the Bible is filled with errors, I am referring to instances like in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus incorrectly states that Abiathar was the high priest, when in fact Ahimelech was the high priest. And when I say that the Bible is filled with inconsistencies and contradictions, I am not referring simply to instances like the four different inscriptions on Jesus’ cross found in the four Gospels. I am also referring to some major theological contradictions. For example, Mark portrays Jesus as being in doubt and despair about his crucifixion, whereas Luke sees Jesus as calmly and confidently embracing his death. Mark and Paul interpret Jesus’ death as offering an atonement for sin, while Luke does not. Matthew believes that Jesus’ followers had to keep the Jewish law to enter the kingdom of heaven, a view categorically rejected by Paul. John claims that Jesus is divine; Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not.
What we learn from Biblical scholarship is that the books of the Bible were written by different authors at different times in different places to address different audiences with different needs. Many of these authors no doubt felt that they were inspired by God to say what they did, but like us and all human beings, they had their own perspectives, their own beliefs, their own understandings, their own theologies, their own agendas. Mark did not say the same thing that Luke said because he did not mean the same thing as Luke. By the way, Biblical scholarship reveals to us that most of the books of the Bible were not written by the authors who claim they wrote them. For example, only eight of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were written by the people whose names are attached to them. Most Biblical scholars don’t like to use the word “forged,” but the truth is that most of the Bible is, in fact, forged.
One more “by the way” … What I am sharing with you are not some radical, wild-eyed theories from fringe Biblical scholars. The field of Biblical textual studies is over 300 years old. What I am sharing with you is the consensus of mainstream Biblical scholarship across denominations and across the conservative-liberal divide. What I am sharing with you is what I learned at a Southern Baptist seminary. What I and many of my seminary colleagues learned the hard way was that we could not share what we had learned in seminary with our congregations because they did not want to hear it, and if you tried to share it, you would find yourself without a church. A seminary education is the best kept secret of many ministers from their congregations. I am grateful that I do not have to keep that secret here.
Just because the Fundamentalists interpret the Biblical literally doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to. In fact, it doesn’t make sense to interpret the Bible literally because that assumes that the Bible is primarily a book of facts – historical, scientific, theological, and ethical “facts.” In actuality, the Bible is a book of rich stories and images that are better interpreted metaphorically. Facts are one-dimensional, so you can be literalistic about facts. They are either true or false. But stories are at least two-dimensional in that they have multiple layers of meaning. They are, in other words, metaphors. They point beyond themselves to a deeper meaning. They are neither true nor false but either more or less meaningful. Since the Bible talks primarily about the ultimate mysteries of life, then of course it will use metaphorical language. It may use the language of ordinary life – fish, doves, camels, seeds, vineyards, fields, salt, mountains, wind, fire, stars, coins, pearls, lamps, weddings, fathers, sons – but these ordinary words point beyond ordinary life toward the incomprehensible.
For example, let’s return to what was apparently one of William Jennings Bryan’s favorite Bible stories -- the story of Jonah and the whale. If you’re a Fundamentalist, it’s nothing more than a literal story about a large fish with a large appetite. But as a metaphorical story, there is so much more. The book of Jonah was written around 300 BC, a time when ancient Israel was developing bitterness toward Gentiles, no doubt because of the way its Gentile neighbors had been most un-neighborly. In the story, God commissions Jonah, an Israelite, to go as a missionary to Nineveh, a Gentile city, in order to save them from God’s punishment. The only problem is that Jonah hates the Ninevites and hopes like heck that they will get their just desserts from a just God. So Jonah tries to evade God’s assignment by jumping on a ship and hightailing it across the Mediterranean. But you can’t run away from an omnipresent God. God has a large fish (not a whale) to swallow Jonah and bring him back to shore, where he disgorges Jonah on the beach. Don’t you know that caused a commotion among the sunbathers of the Riviera?
So with great reluctance, Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches a pitiful, half-hearted sermon in the hopes that they will not repent and that God will give them the Sodom and Gomorrah treatment. Yet despite his worst efforts, the Ninevites do repent and God forgives them. The story ends with God rebuking the surly Jonah for his prejudice and lack of charity toward the Ninevites. Jonah is the Archie Bunker of the Bible. Jonah represents bigots of every time, place, and persuasion. The author of the book of Jonah was trying to say that the love of God is much, much bigger than our prejudices, which, by the way, was the core message of the Universalists.
I know that for many of us who have come to Unitarian Universalism from other faith traditions, especially from conservative Christianity, we have wanted a clean break from our religious past, and we have accomplished this by avoiding all mention of God or Jesus or any religious language, including the Bible. I, too, have been down that road, but I have come to the conclusion that it would be a tragedy to throw the baby out with the bath water. For while the Bible may not be a reliable history or science book, it is a priceless treasury of spiritual metaphor. Unlike conservatives, who seem to have a concrete, literalistic understanding of religion and everything else, we liberals get metaphors. We think metaphorically in that we almost instinctively look for the deeper meaning of events and the wider ramifications of actions and the patterns and possibilities implied by the facts. The Bible was written for people like us. Wouldn’t it be a shame if we didn’t read it?
Rev. Dr. Neal R. Jones