25 Dec 2011

Taking the Bible Seriously

Religious 14 Comments

In my last Sunday post (which occurred two weeks ago, because of the issues with my blog host), I said that Christians start running into trouble, if they try to pick and choose which Bible passages they will interpret literally and which metaphorically. In particular, if we try to “soften the edges” by substituting in doctrines that seem more reasonable than what a plain reading of the text suggests, then we end up contradicting ourselves.

The particular example I gave in that post was the doctrine of “age of accountability,” for which there is (apparently) no Biblical basis. (Some people in the comments suggested that Jesus talked of entering the kingdom of God with the faith of a child, so we can quibble on this point.) The problem is that if you say infants can’t go to hell because they never really had a chance to accept Jesus, then you should say that aborigines living in the jungle shouldn’t go to hell for the same reason. And in that case, the worst thing you could possibly do is spread the gospel of Christ, because you might thereby send somebody to hell.

In the comments of that post, Thomas Knapp had a good zinger that apparently showed the absurdity of the Bible. However, it also proved my point in the post. Here’s how his comment went:

[Bob Murphy:] “I don’t consider myself a Jew bound by the Mosaic Law. I consider myself a disciple of Jesus Christ.”

[Thomas Knapp:] Would that be the same Jesus Christ who said “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled?”

Or are we talking about some other Jesus Christ?

At the time, I didn’t have a good comeback except to say, “The same one, Tom.” I knew that was the correct answer from a Biblical Christian viewpoint, but I didn’t have a more satisfactory answer.

After considering it more, the answer (ironically) involves the advice I gave in the post itself. In order to make sense of this apparent contradiction–where Christ apparently frees us from the punishment of the Law, while claiming that He is its ultimate fulfillment–we have to draw on other principles laid out in the New Testament.

For example, Paul says in Romans 6: 3-5:

3 Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? 4 For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.

5 Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was.

I have to confess, I never really liked this kind of stuff, in Paul’s epistles. It seemed too much to me that he was just speaking weird analogies or metaphors. But actually, the doctrines he lays out–if we take them literally–solve a lot of the problems in reconciling the “Old” and “New” Testaments.

In other words, the reason Thomas Knapp thought he had a great zinger, was that he was assuming something like, “Jesus is a distinct being from all of us, so that when He died on the Christ, that had nothing to do with our own deaths.” But who said? If God wants to become incarnate, and enter the world through the womb of a virgin, I don’t see why He can’t also declare, “By the way, when I said you would die for your sins, there’s a sense in which that is perfectly true–Jesus and you will become one from a certain vantage point, and you will in fact die. But there’s another sense in which Jesus the man bears the brunt of it.”

Incidentally, this is difficult for me because I’ve never liked Paul personally. In fact I can’t stand him. To give you a sense of what I mean: If Peter pulled me aside and said, “Hey Brother Bob, just to let you know, I think you drink too much. I mean, we drank wine with the Lord when He walked among us, but we didn’t get smashed,” I’d say, “OK yeah I’ve been thinking that myself.” But if Paul wrote me a letter telling me he was disappointed in the reports he’d heard (in prison) about my habits, I would bristle.

I think the reason for this is clear: Peter is a “normal guy” who can relate to everybody (and vice versa), who isn’t haughty and “lording it over” everybody. In contrast, Saul was a zealous Pharisee, who was so sure of his doctrinal convictions that he actually oversaw the execution of heretics. So it makes sense that (given my libertarian views) I can’t stand Paul even after his conversion.

And yet, I now am forcing myself to appreciate him. After all, the Lord Himself claimed Paul as His own. Peter (and the other apostles) were necessary to win thousands of converts for the early Church. But they were fishermen. Paul, in contrast, had been well-trained in the Mosaic Law. So he had the ability to reconcile Jesus’ teachings with the Law, and to show why Jesus fulfilled it, rather than contradicting it. Also, note that Paul probably wouldn’t have been able to write such important, foundational documents had he never been locked in prison for his beliefs. There wasn’t much for him to do, except reflect on Jesus and the early Church at that point. Had he been a successful businessman who threw wild parties every week, those epistles never would have been written.

God has a plan, and He doesn’t contradict Himself. If you think He has, it’s because you assumed something that is wrong. Perhaps your assumption would be perfectly innocuous in the context of man, but not when it comes to an omnipotent Being.

14 Responses to “Taking the Bible Seriously”

  1. Thomas L. Knapp says:


    I ‘m not sure what you thought the intent of my comment was, but it certainly wasn’t intent as a “zinger.” Or at least it was not intended as an indictment of the point of your article, but rather to reinforce that point.

    To re-hash:

    The point of your article was not note that instead of trying to categorize different parts of the Bible as literal versus metaphorical, etc., one should go with a plain reading.

    Making allowances for translational problems, etc., I agree.

    But one of the reasons for imposing metaphorical readings is to resolve apparent contradictions in the text. The alternative to imposing metaphorical readings is to reject parts of the text.

    Jesus said the Law would be in force until heaven and earth pass away. I can’t speak authoritatively on the status of heaven, but I just looked out my window and it appears that earth is still there.

    So, whose words should I trust on the matter of the Law? Jesus’s or Paul’s? Which text should I accept, and which text should I reject?

    In my opinion, “The Old Testament says and Jesus affirms” trumps “Paul thinks.”

  2. pvw says:

    In Matthew 5:17-18 when does it occur that “… all be fulfilled”?

    One reason to consider the Mosaic Law not binding upon Christians is to consider that all the Old Covenant law and prophecies have already been fulfilled (dispensationalist’s will disagree). If all has been fulfilled, then the jot’s and tiddle’s can now disappear.

    Jesus established a new covenant and the old is no more:

    – 1 Cor 11:25 “In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood…”
    – Hebrews 8:13 “By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.”

    The fulfilment of all the OT promises was already accomplished ~2000 years ago:

    – II Cor 1:20 “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ.”

    In Matt 5:17 Jesus said he came to fulfill the both law and the prophets. It is easy to see how Christ fulfills prophecies, but the fulfillment of the law is less obvious. I have been taught that the OT laws were designed to be symbolic of realities that would later be fulfilled when Christ came about 2000 years ago. Here are two examples which, to me, seem quite clear:

    #1 – In observing the law of celebrating the passover (killing a lamb without defect) the Jews essentially “acted-out” what would be fulfilled when Christ died on the cross.

    #2 – In observing the Sabbath, the Israelites rested from their work. Per Hebrews 4 this was symbolic of how Christians would find their rest in Christ and rest from their sinful works.

    Since the substance of what was foreshadowed by these two laws has arrived, these is no longer a requirement to observe the passover or cease labor on one day of the week. There are many other OT laws, and we are not given exhaustive knowledge about how each OT ceremonial law symbolizes some aspect of Christ – In fact, I think only a few cases were revealed. Nonetheless it seems to be affirmed that the ceremonial laws were pointing forward to Christ:

    – Col 2:16-17 “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

    The OT law is thus not applicable to Christians, but Christians must obey all the commands Christ gives:

    – Romans 7:4 “you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead”

    As for the phrase “heavens and earth”, there is OT precedent for non-literal use of the phrase. One example is Isa 34:4 which referenced the destruction of the nation of Edom. If the above view is correct, then must be assumed to apply as well in Matthew 5:18. Note the beginning and end of the old covenant are described in similar language (Isa 51:15-16 and Heb 12:18-28).

  3. Thomas L. Knapp says:


    Nice exegesis … of Paul.

    Good catch on Isaiah, too … but remember, this discussion is taking place in the context of Bob’s discussion about taking the Bible literally instead of imposing metaphor when it suits our purposes.

  4. pvw says:


    Thanks. I had not read the discussion you had with RPM on the prior post — just this one, so I am have missed some important context in your discussion. I had been taught from my youth that taking the bible as literally as possible was the only valid hermeneutic. A few years ago I came across the lectures of a bible teacher who presented what I thought was a compelling argument that the OT prophecies were never intended to be understood in a mainly literal fashion. The evidence he cited was that the bible itself provides a precedent for how the OT should be interpreted – namely in those places where we can observe a NT author quoting the OT passage and proclaiming its fulfillment. They often did not follow a literal approach. On the road to Emmaus it was said “Then [Jesus] opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures”. If the scriptures were written to be understood literally, there would have been no need for Jesus to do this. Thus, it is my present understanding that the right approach to be accepting the way the NT author’s quote the OT as valid, and to proceed from there. That is to say an approach which, to the best of our understanding, follows the NT author’s purpose as opposed to our own purposes.

  5. Robert McKeown says:

    You made a good point about the age of consent or majority not being mentioned in scripture. My point is, why do some assume that infants and Aborigines are going to “hell” in the first place? How is hell defined in scripture? I mean in in the Greek or Hebrew. A real non-biased study on “hell” may well surprise you. Most Christians today think of hell in context to Dante’s Inferno, but where is that mentioned in the scripture?
    It would require too much space to go over all of this here. The big question is, do we believe that God’s will is supreme or not? Is the Bible the infallible word of God? How do we explain 1 Tim. 2:4 in which, Paul referring to God says. “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”

  6. k Sralla says:


    You have much more in common demographically with Paul. You have a PhD. So did Paul. Peter was a blue collar guy pulling up fishing nets, eeking out an impoverished living. Paul was an upper middle class intellectual turned heterodox teacher/preacher.

    I have always been curious about those who claim to be evangelical but have no affection for Paul. How can this be? When I took NT as an undergrad, it was mostly the young rebels who disliked Paul. You could almost predict whether one was an evangelical by their like or dislike of Paul.

    Evangelical theology has come down to us mostly straight from the pen of Paul. Take away Paul, and we arguably are left with John as the only theologial writer of the New Testament. Without Paul, we can make no systematic sense of the Jesus school as explained by the synoptics. This is why in Luke’s two-volume set of of the history of the early Church, the second half of his second volume focuses almost exclusively on the ministry of Paul.

    The theology of the gospel is unpacked uniquely by Paul.

    Most people fail to recognize that Paul is a *contemporary* of Jesus (not two generations removed) who studied philosophy, law, and theology under Gamaliel the Elder in Jerusalem during the same time that Jesus was training to be a carpenter up the road in Nazareth.

    Of all ancient writers, Paul (IMHO) is uniquely positioned to possess a birdseye view the various sects of 1st Century Hellenistic Judaism, including John the Baptist, the Essenes, the Pharisees, the Saducees, and the various early messianic movements. He also uniquely understood the systematic theology and teachings of the radical school of Jesus of Nazareth. At times Paul, like Jesus before, needed to instruct/correct even Peter. If one wants to know the fullest unfolding of where Jesus was headed with his teachings, read Paul.

    Paul was the liberal scholar turned radical follower of the Way.

    P.S. If one wants to read a complete repudiation that the pure logic of choice leads one to know God, then read Paul deal with this issue in the second half of the first chapter of 1 Corinthians.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      K Sralla, I totally agree with you. That’s what I was trying to say in my post; I should have an affinity for Paul but I don’t. I am trying through an act of will to make myself appreciate him more. But for whatever reason, when I read some of his epistles, I don’t have an urge to hang out with the guy, whereas I think it would be amazing to talk to the 11 original apostles.

      You’re right, perhaps this is because he is so similar to me, and whatever aspects of my own personality I don’t like, I’m projecting onto Paul. I had actually thought of that too, but forgot to mention it.

  7. Tzadik says:

    “Paul, in contrast, had been well-trained in the Mosaic Law. So he had the ability to reconcile Jesus’ teachings with the Law, and to show why Jesus fulfilled it, rather than contradicting it.”

    As a Christian, you probably miss the irony of this statement. Look through the Rabbinic commentary on the bible and the Talmud. Rabbis–people well-trained in Mosaic Law–were and are experts at rationalizing just about any contradiction, no matter how seeming irreconcilable two statements seem to be. Furthermore, they can, did, and do find multiple hidden layers of meaning and significance in every line, word, and LETTER (seriously) in the Bible. Give a rabbi any verse from any book of the Bible and he will be able to prove anything you ask (I’m hardly exaggerating). It’s no surprise that Paul, someone well-trained in the Mosaic Law, would be one to reconcile the contradictions between the different accounts of Jesus Christ, his sayings, his actions, and his purposes. I’d be disappointed if Paul couldn’t do that.

    “God has a plan, and He doesn’t contradict Himself. If you think He has, it’s because you assumed something that is wrong. Perhaps your assumption would be perfectly innocuous in the context of man, but not when it comes to an omnipotent Being.”

    Suppose there were a chapter in the Bible titled “Kill Children.” It consists of a single verse, which goes, “Kill children! Innocent ones! The smell of the blood of children is pleasing to the LORD! This commandment should be interpreted as literally as possible, followed in modern times, whenever they may be, and the coming of Jesus Christ most definitely does not, I repeat, does not make it so that you do not have to kill children, on the contrary, you had better kill more children! I’m being completely literal!”

    Does it not bother you that you could almost certainly find a way to interpret this passage so that you don’t have to kill children and still be perfectly in accordance with God’s law, and furthermore, God and Jesus are definitely against the killing of children?

    • RichardsDay says:

      Tzadik –
      1. Discernment is the gift of God that allows one to determine when one is dealing with a rascal, be it a Rabbi rascal, a Priest rascal, a Pastor rascal, or a secular humanist rascal, and when one is faced with the very Word of God.
      2. There is no such chapter in the Bible titled “Kill the Children”. See the last lines of Bob’s post.
      God bless.

      • Tzadik says:

        Where in the Bible does God give people this power of “discernment?”

        There are some pretty violent parts in the bible. My point was that Bob seemed determined to rationalize anything and everything.

        • Anonymous says:

          Tzadik –
          Too many to list!! Cut and paste this url:
          Specific instructions are found in Proverbs 2:1-5.
          Yes, sin is an awful, awful thing, and we see a lot of it in the Bible. And it will surely be ugly when God finally punishes sin. Thank you, Lord, for giving us ears to hear.
          God bless you, sir.

  8. K Sralla says:

    For any evangelical wanting a scholarly treatment of the life of Paul in an easy to read format, may I recommend two works by NT scholar F.F. Bruce

    1) New Testament History
    2) Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free

    And to get a unique window into 1st Century Judaisim and the facinating doctrinal connections to John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul, read this: Especially notice the section on Community Rule.

    Complete Dead Sea Scrolls by Geza Vermes.

  9. RichardsDay says:

    “God has a plan, and He doesn’t contradict Himself. If you think He has, it’s because you assumed something that is wrong. Perhaps your assumption would be perfectly innocuous in the context of man, but not when it comes to an omnipotent Being.”
    Fer sure!
    I’m always tickled with your postings on Christianity (for lack of a better term). You never liked Paul?! You liked Peter more?! I’m glad to hear that you are coming (apparently kicking and screaming) to appreciate Paul. That’s a good thing! Paul’s was clearly one of the great minds of humankind.
    The book of Romans is a remarkable exposition of the Old/New Testament dispensations. It requires, though, considerable familiarity of the texts of both times.
    God bless, and thanks for the ending lines of your post.

  10. Ben Kennedy says:

    One reason to like Paul is Acts 26:24, after describing his conversion during his appeal:

    ‘And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words.” ‘

    I like this passage because it summarizes the how the world views people who are taking the Bible seriously (that they are insane), and how Paul confidently responds that his position is both truthful and most importantly rational.

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