Has the church followed the Bible on slavery?

This question is a bit of an old chestnut—but I thought it worth revisiting, not least in the light of an interesting Twitter exchange I had with an Australian academic (whom I do not know in person). Robert Myles is lecturer in lecturer in New Testament and Religion at Murdoch University, and has published academically on slavery. I don’t know what interest he has in the debate on sexuality, but the conversation started (as it often does) in connection with a a discussion about the recent revision of the basis of faith of the Evangelical Group of General Synod (EGGS) in relation to sexuality:

and was sparked off again in a second thread by a comment I made on the TV programme ‘Too Gay for God?

https://twitter.com/robertjmyles/status/1150035418617749504

After a rather unhelpful beginning (which you can trace if you want to follow the Twitter thread—though be warned: it has several branches, includes several hundred tweets, and continues over seven days!) we got to what I think is a key question:

Are there texts in Scripture which offer a deep, theological critique of slavery, alongside the texts that appear to accept the practice? These are the texts and textual themes that I offered.

Creation

The first creation account, in Genesis 1 (running to Genesis 2.3), all humanity is created in the ‘image and likeness of God’:

God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen 1.26–27)

In contrast to other ANE texts, there is a universality here to the image of God in humanity; it is not confined to one sector or class of humanity. Despite the continuing debates about exactly what constitutes being made ‘in the image of God’, this foundational text has been appealed to in a range of contexts (including the debate about the relationship between women and men, and the status of the ‘disabled’) and offers a critique of any system which seeks to divide different groups of humanity into fundamentally distinct categories.

God’s ownership

Flowing from the theological principle of God as creator and sovereign over the world, several texts make clear that human ownership of anything is strictly provisional.

The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. (Ps 24.1)

This is appealed to explicitly in the principle of ‘Jubilee’ expounded in Lev 25.

The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. (Lev 25.23)

This also applies to those who are ‘slaves’, who are also to be liberated at the time of Jubilee. It is important to note that the phenomenon represented by the term ‘slave’ does not exactly correspond to our later use of the term in English, so we need to be slightly cautious here. Within Israel, ‘slavery’ appear to have been much closer to what we would call ‘indentured servitude‘.

Rights of ‘slaves’

Within the OT texts on ‘slaves’, we find regulations which limit the ways that slaves can be used, including language about their rights and protection.

An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth. (Ex 21.26–27)

David L Baker comments on these laws:

This pair of laws is unique in the ancient Near East because slave abuse is considered in terms of human rights rather than property rights. Elsewhere slaves were treated as chattels, and abuse laws were designed to compensate the master for loss or damage to his property. Old Testament law, however, emphasises that slaves are to be treated as human beings and ownership of slaves does not permit a master to kill or injure them. (‘The Humanisation of Slavery in the Old Testament‘)

The Exodus as Deliverance from Slavery

The Exodus is the major event of the Old Testament, and the major theological reference point that is constantly looked back to throughout Israel’s history. This is the key moment of redemption, and offers the key insight into the nature of Israel’s God: Yahweh is a God who sets slaves free. This becomes a practical reference point in relation to the discussion of the practice of slavery in Lev 25, and is the reason why Israelites apparently cannot become slaves (though the OT texts are ambiguous about this; see Jer 34.9).

The universal invitation of the gospel

One of the distinctive features of the early Jesus movement was its wide appeal, including every level of society from the richest to the poorest. It was clear that the movement included slaves as well as free people, and all the evidence suggests that they participated in gatherings of the earliest Christian communities. It is striking that Paul, in discussing the work of the Spirit in 1 Cor 12, emphasis the universality of the Spirit’s gifting, so that ‘all’ contribute to the ‘common good’.

Paul’s use of doulos to describe himself and Jesus

My conversation partner Robert Myles dismissed this idea out of hand—but it can hardly have been of no consequence for slaves in the early Christian movement to have read Paul’s consistent self-description as a ‘slave of Christ’ (at the beginning of most of his letters). And in the so-called ‘Christ hymn’ in Phil 2 (which I think was written by Paul rather than quoted by him), the key movement of Jesus from heavenly pre-existence to incarnation was that ‘he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave’ (Phil 2.7; most English translations soften this by using the term ‘servant’). This pattern becomes the template for all Christians; we were slaves to sin, but have been set free (here again the Exodus motif of a God who sets slaves free) and are therefore (willing) slaves of God (Rom 6.22)

The ethical language about slaves and masters

It has been widely recognised that, in the modern context, the simple application of the haustafel, household codes, in the New Testament letters raises practical and ethical problems, since these are set in a very different social context from our own. But it is important to note that slaves are appealed to as ethical agents, and addressed directly; that the scope of the power of masters is strictly limited, not least in the light of the fact that all, slave and master, have one Master in heaven to whom they are both accountable:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ… because you know that the Lord will reward each one of you for whatever good you do, whether you are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him. (Eph 6.5–9)

Even though this text appears to accept the institution of slavery in a way that we might find problematic, there is a radical theological critique of the underlying assumptions of the slave practice in the first century Roman Empire.

This perspective is found gain in Col 4.1, where masters are called on to treat slaves ‘with equality’; the term isotes is softened by English translations, but also occurs in 2 Cor 8.13 where its meaning is clear. And Paul appeals to Philemon to receive Onesimus back ‘no longer as a slave, but as a brother’ (Phlmn 16).


Robert Myles quite right when he says that these texts do not automatically or unambiguously lead to the practice of manumission (freeing) of slaves, and the history of Christendom has had an ambiguous record in this regard. But there have been significant voices arguing against slavery in the way it has been practiced, or at times against slavery as a permissible institution at all, and these are not mere modern voices. Will Jones summarised these in a previous article:

The formal line amongst Christian teachers was that slavery was contrary to God’s true intention for the world, and not part of the natural law. It was in the world because of sin, taught Augustine (City of God, Book XIX), and Aquinas (Summa Theologica, Q57), Luther (Erlangen, Vol. XV, 2) and Calvin (Commentary on Jeremiah 34) followed him. However, it was in that capacity permitted and thus had a just form and was to be regulated. John Chrysostom described it as ‘the fruit of covetousness, of degradation, of savagery, the fruit of sin, and of human rebellion against our true Father’ (Homily XXII). He did, however, recognise a just form of it, and within that enjoined masters to love their slaves in imitation of Christ (Homily II). Gregory of Nyssa was the standout exception who outright condemned slavery in all its forms, asking: ‘What price did you put on rationality? How much did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God?’ (Homilies on Ecclesiastes).

The general tolerance of slavery amongst Christians did not prevent particular places and peoples from taking extra steps towards its suppression and prohibition. In England, for example, the slave trade was banned by the Christian Normans in 1102. Likewise slavery largely died out in Europe (especially in the North) by the later Middle Ages, though it did persist more strongly in areas which bordered on non-Christian lands (e.g. the South and East) because of its connection with the conquest of non-Christian peoples. The Roman papacy, for its part, restated on numerous occasions its prohibition on the enslavement of Christians in most circumstances, and in some circumstances of non-Christians as well. Its record was far from unblemished, however, and it sanctioned the enslavement of Africans by the Portuguese and Native Americans by the Spanish at the start of the terrible Atlantic slave trade.

It is worth noting that these negative evaluations of slavery precisely pick up on the themes and texts that I have cited above.

Myles points out that there are parallels to Paul’s language of slavery elsewhere in the ancient world; a good example is Seneca’s letter to Lucilius, Letter 47, in which he questions the dehumanisation of slaves:

1. I am glad to learn, through those who come from you, that you live on friendly terms with your slaves. This befits a sensible and well-educated man like yourself. “They are slaves,” people declare. Nay, rather they are men. “Slaves!” No, comrades. “Slaves!” No, they are unpretentious friends. “Slaves!” No, they are our fellow-slaves, if one reflects that Fortune has equal rights over slaves and free men alike…

17. “He is a slave.” His soul, however, may be that of a freeman. “He is a slave.” But shall that stand in his way? Show me a man who is not a slave; one is a slave to lust, another to greed, another to ambition, and all men are slaves to fear. I will name you an ex-consul who is slave to an old hag, a millionaire who is slave to a serving-maid; I will show you youths of the noblest birth in serfdom to pantomime players! No servitude is more disgraceful than that which is self-imposed.

Seneca is an almost exact contemporary of Paul, and is a Stoic philosopher; there have regularly been comparisons between Stoicism and Christian belief. It is also interesting that Seneca appeals in his comments to the universalist of the way Fortune treats people, and the common humanity that slaves and masters share—yet, again, he is not making the case for manumission.

Does this demonstrate that the NT was simply happy to allow slavery to continue, and accepted slavery without question? This is hardly the case; Paul’s most radical statement, such as Gal 3.28, reveal a much more fundamental conviction about the eschatological destiny of humanity as equal in the eyes of God, a destiny which would one day be realised. But the actual ethical texts we have show Paul wrestling with the tension between that ultimate goal, and the reality of the present social situation.

Either way we take this, there are texts in tension on the question of slavery—something that is not in any way mirrored in the texts on sexuality, which are consistent and unambiguous in their affirmation that marriage and sexual union is between one man and one woman. The nature of the texts, the later debates in the church, and the theological issues at stake are quite distinct one from another.


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112 thoughts on “Has the church followed the Bible on slavery?”

  1. Some more help from Peter J Williasms at the Keswick Convention 2017 (There were two separate lectures, with a common link of God’s ownership)

    Slavery and the Bible and Sex Gender
    Some (one) may find the notes of value from the talk by Peter Williams, Principal, Tyndale House They are mostly from the hand-out, with some of my scribbled notes. It is realised that this doesn’t fit into the category of comments, and is lengthy.

    1 The problem formally laid out Intro:
    The contention is that just as the Bible got it wrong about slavery and Christians and the Bible are getting it wrong today about sex(uality) and gender.
    Atheist Sam Harris and many in the church use this argument to support cultural sexual and gender mores of today. Harris quotes Leviticus 26 from the RSV, which uses words, buy, property, slaves, possession. That is, he sets up the bible as against morality :• Bible translations talk of slaves • In the OT no objection is made to having slaves • In the NT Christians are not commanded to free their slaves and slaves are told to submit • Therefore biblical texts approve of slavery • We know that slavery is wrong • Therefore biblical texts approve of something that is wrong

    BUT The use of the word “slave” has increased in translations: KJV used x2 NKJV used x46 NIV used x130 German Luther Bibel used x 0; revised Luther Bibel 1984 used x70 Spanish 1909 used x4; 1960 used x25; 1995 used x65

    After World War 2 society became less hierarchical and terms Master and Servant became archaic so the word slave was substituted (Comment in my study of a law degree the law relating to employment was known as law of Master and Servant)

    The Hebrew word “eved” can be translated “servant” or “slave”. It is not inherently negative. It is related to work, subservient.

    Israelites are “servants of the King. Everyone is a servant of the King. There is no class of “free” people.

    Importantly, all of this was before the North Atlantic Slave Trade.

    OT culture , institutions based on debt servitude/slavery . Person B pledged future work to person C for food now and food in the future , or sell themselves , a future leasing of work.

    BUT this was a system of sub- ownership where EVERYTHING and EVERYONE BELONGED TO GOD. So the “Sub-Owner” was accountable to God and to treat as God would.

    JOB 31 Pre – Mosaic LAW appeals to unity of the human race UNDER GOD.

    In the OT patriarchal system: • work as herdsmen, domestic servants:
    • However servants. could inherit (Genesis 15:3 – Eliezer of Damascus) children of Bilhah and Zilpah
    • Were trusted to travel with valuables (Genesis 24) and weapons Genesis 14:14
    • No approved “selling” of people have to look after runaways (Deuteronomy 23:15-16

    The LAW Given to Moses was because of the HARDNESS Of HEART of the people, to regulate (Matthew 19:8.) Some things were allowed but not approved.
    Have to go back to the beginning for the ideal . There was no servitude until Genesis 9. The Law of Moses is to be read in that light.
    The whole OT system is in contrast to all other empire systems throughout that period .

    2 New Testament does not endorse slavery:
    • Christians could not change the legal systems
    • Slaves who rebelled would be executed under those systems
    • Under Rome there were limits emancipation of slaves and could rarely become a citizen
    • command to love others as Christ loved us
    • brotherhood, family of all believes. Kissing, holy kiss – you only kiss family, Jew and Gentile, master with servant and no hierarchy of believers (Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1; Philemon15 •
    Jesus is LORD, Master, we are His servants slaves, with all gospel freedom and inheritance from Him.
    There IS only ONE worthy to own you.
    All of this is set against the backdrop, the underlying truth that GOD OWNS EVERYBODY,is Sovereign.
    There are 2 main classes of humanity 1 Those who gladly come under God’s ownership 2 Those who contest, rebel, ignore God’s ownership

    Reply
  2. BTW Ian, in that TV prog were you given the opportunity to answer the point made about no longer following laws in Leviticus? It seemed that you weren’t, or it was edited out.
    And the main man had been divorced. Would the CoE have married him after divorce, even to a woman?

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  3. Are we sure we are comparing the right bits of history? Is it worth exploring whether the parallel bit of church history is not between the present debate and the abolition of slavery (at the time the North Atlantic slave trade) but the present and the acceptance of the institution of slavery by the established church? It strikes me that if there is a biblical argument supporting or at least accepting the Institution of slavery (I don’t think there is), there absolutely no biblical justification for the actual practices of the North Atlantic slave trade. How did an institution whose practical realities were so obviously contrary to scripture become accepted and promoted by the established church? It surely can only happen by not letting the debate get beyond the theory about the institution and not looking at the realities of the practice which were so obviously forbidden by scripture. I can’t believe that anyone would read the scriptures and then come up with the north Atlantic slave trade. However some might use the scriptures to try and defend an institution that was already established and accepted by the wider culture, doing this by twisting or dismissing scripture to defend the theory of the institution while ignoring the actual realities of the practice.

    Reply
    • As I understand it the slave trade was primarily driven by a combination of de facto existence from time immemorial and economic forces (many Europeans believed African slave labour was the only practical way to run plantations in the New World). It was especially seen as legitimate to take slaves as captives in war, where the fact that you spared their life was seen as giving you ownership of them (you could have killed them, therefore you own them, was the thought).

      Slavery was something you usually did to your enemies, so that there were usually stricter rules about enslaving people of the same religion or people as you, often outright bans.

      Slavery had long been common in Africa (as elsewhere eg Arabia) and Europeans partly saw themselves as justified in buying the slaves that others had captured. This had the effect of driving demand for slaves, which fuelled the enslavement of Africans by one another and others (including Europeans). Racialist ideas such as the curse of Ham and supposed racial superiorities also played a part in making people feel comfortable with it.

      The Papacy approved the Atlantic slave trade, in part under pressure from the kings of Spain and Portugal, though its relationship with slavery over the centuries has been varied and complex.

      One interesting aspect is how mundanely accepted it was, including by those who engaged in it. The story of John Newton is illustrative. He participated in the trade as a young sailor. Then he actually became a slave himself for 3 years. Then he was (somewhat amazingly) found and freed by his father. And then he went back to being involved in the trade (despite knowing what it’s like to be a slave). Then he became a Christian – and still carried on! It was only later that he saw it as wrong, as he engaged with Wesley and became an evangelical lay minister. He only condemned slavery publicly in 1784, 34 years after he had retired from it. He wrote: ‘During the time I was engaged in the slave trade I never had the least scruple as to its lawfulness. It is, indeed, accounted a genteel employment and is usually very profitable.’ He admitted this was ‘a confession, which . . . comes too late . . . It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.’ (See
      https://www.conservativewoman.co.uk/the-midweek-hymn-glorious-things-of-thee-are-spoken/)

      Abolition couldn’t happen until this dawning of the light of conscience, inspired by scriptural teaching about the dignity of man, broke in enough places. It also helped, of course, that the British were in a position militarily to enforce such a ban well beyond their own borders, without which it may have been much longer before slavery was abolished.

      Reply
      • Of course arguably what really ended legal slavery was the industrial revolution, which made it uneconomical by replacing expensive human labour (and even slaves needed to be fed and housed) with that of cheaper machines.

        I say ‘legal slavery’ because of course slavery, as a symtom of a fallen world, still exists, and like all evils always will exist until the end of time.

        Reply
      • “Abolition couldn’t happen until this dawning of the light of conscience, inspired by scriptural teaching about the dignity of man, broke in enough places.“

        If I was being ‘devil’s advocate’, I’d suggest that this is exactly the assertion of affirming evangelicals: that their argument hinges on ‘scriptural teaching about the dignity of man’ regardless of sexual orientation.

        Typically, supporters of marriage orthodoxy will insist that, unlike race, sexuality is not immutable. However, this missed the considerable development of constructive immutability into a legal doctrine that has wielded significant influence over Western society’s concept of human dignity.

        The corollary is that “a personal characteristic is considered analogous to the ones enumerated in section 15 if it is “immutable” or cannot be changed or can only be changed at excessive cost”

        So, sexual orientation identity is viewed by progressives and liberals as analogous to race because, even if it can be changed, this is only done through what society deems to be an excessive cost to personal dignity.

        To save on comment space, I’ve written a short essay (5 minute read) on it here: https://1drv.ms/b/s!AssphAYLL1d4geUfIw8a_

        I did think it was a good topic for the Festival of Theology, but I’d be happy for comments from both sides of the current debate.

        Reply
        • Hi David

          That’s a good piece. A few thoughts:
          1. I think you need to reckon with the fact that the current ‘consensus’ (or at least mainstream view) in academia is that race is socially constructed, not regarded as immutable, so for progressives that reduces the difference I think.
          2. I liked your point about citizenship and voting and I find it strange that the state cannot see the contradiction between its approach to equality and its approach to immigration and border control, which routinely ‘discriminates’ on the basis of national origin and current citizenship status. Or perhaps I should say that it is this contradiction that inspires so many to be anti-borders and anti-nation state.
          3. The argument about children has been undermined somewhat by the supposed social science consensus that same-sex parenting makes no difference to child outcomes. Walter Schumm has debunked this and I have reviewed and summarised his book here https://faith-and-politics.com/2019/05/20/bombshell-study-explodes-myth-that-same-sex-parenting-makes-no-difference/ but this is the myth that progressives believe.

          Progressives have weaved a veritable web of mythology dressed up as science to cloak reality and conceal it from view, which is why people like Richard Page cannot get away with making those kinds of claims anymore (it is worth noting that he had been warned about publishing his views on these things and that he was supposed to get media comment cleared by the authorities, not that that makes the silencing of truth any better).

          Reply
          • Hi Will,

            Thanks for your feedback. On point 3, I would re-iterate my response to your comment (https://www.psephizo.com/sexuality-2/what-does-research-say-about-same-sex-parenting/#comment-358604), where I wrote:

            “Public policy should be founded on rights. However, the expressive effect of enacting HFEA 2008, civil partnerships and then same-sex marriage has been to legitimise parenthood by mere intention, thereby undermining the child’s entitlement to be raised by both of its natural parents.”

            On the basis that a child is entitled to the care of both of its natural parents, there is a duty on society to provide children who have lost their parents (whether by death or default) with a family environment which mirrors this natural arrangement as closely as possible.”

            So, I would argue on the basis of entitlement, rather than competence.

            However, it’s worth noting that, during the drafting stage of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, During the drafting stage, “several countries expressed concern that the inclusion of a provision referring to the “biological element” of identity might conflict with any domestic policies seeking to implement recent or future advances in reproductive technologies.” (Diver, 2012, Conceptualizing the ‘Right’ to Avoid Origin Deprivation: International Law and Domestic Implementation)

            So, the Working Group eschewed the term “family identity” in favour of “family relations as recognised by law”.

            These were key international developments that have undermined parenthood as a biological relationship to which all other quasi-parental roles (adoption, step-parenthood, etc.) should be subsidiary, instead of supplanting.

  4. See http://www.bearwoodchapel.org.uk/content/pages/documents/1560327280.pdf which looks at the arguments against the Slave Trade focusing on John Wesley. The abolitionists far from seeing themselves as the radical innovators saw themselves as the true traditionalists in keeping with a proper understanding of Scripture and a tradition whereby early Christians had sought to abolish slavery in line with Paul’s teaching but that in more recent times it had been brought back

    Reply
  5. Would large-scale ancient societies have even been able to function without slavery? It seems that prior to the technological advances that came later, slavery was part of the social fabric that allowed civilizations to arise out of more primitive and perhaps more brutal forms of community. That’s not to say slavery is good, but perhaps Paul’s command to treat slaves like brothers and sisters was the best imaginable solution at the time, especially given his insistence that the parousia was at hand.

    Reply
  6. Would large-scale ancient societies have even been able to function without slavery? It seems that prior to the technological advances that came later, slavery was part of the social fabric that allowed civilizations to arise out of more primitive and perhaps more brutal forms of community. That’s not to say slavery is good, but perhaps Paul’s command to treat slaves like brothers and sisters was the best imaginable arrangement at the time, especially given his insistence that the parousia was at hand.

    Reply
  7. “Either way we take this, there are texts in tension on the question of slavery …”

    Indeed, which is why this is just as devastating for biblical authority as straight-up ignoring the Bible on sexuality. Anything short of unqualified condemnation of slavery in all its forms — which, I feel confident in saying, is the position we all take — isn’t just problematic, it’s a moral horrorshow.

    But that’s not fair! Texts that ended up in the canon were written when slavery was normative. For their day, they’re radical. Well yes. Precisely.

    Reply
    • So how do you respond to Tom Wright’s point that any slave rebellion, supported by Christians, would have been counter-productive and doubtless would have ended in either death or redoubled labour?

      Reply
      • Whatever its merits as a pragmatic argument (and hey, big fan of Starz’s Spartacus shows, so totally see where it’s coming from on that score), it just creates extra headaches for biblical authority, seeing as the doctrine rests on scripture revealing timeless truth, not time-bound realpolitik.

        Reply
        • This is the thing, isn’t it, for our understanding of how the Bible is meant to be read?

          Yes, there may be some tinkering around the rules and regulations of how hard you can beat slaves:

          “An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.”

          But the fact remains, if the Bible is God’s words verbatim for all time, and not just human authors writing within their own cultures and through their own social filters, then we are confronted with the stark fact that the Bible (aka God’s views) recognises slavery, but just says ‘don’t hurt them too much’.

          However, it is clear to most decent people today, that slavery is wrong. Totally. Instead of saying ‘Don’t beat them too hard’, why didn’t God say: “Set all your slaves free. It’s wrong. People should not be owned. They should be given fair wages for fair work, and be self-determining to choose their own futures, and that is just and recognises their dignity. Slavery is unacceptable.”

          It’s pretty clear that the toleration and regulation of slavery in the OT should be read as a cultural view, set in the authors’ own culture.

          And if that is so, can’t the same be said for authors’ views in the Bible on man-man sex?

          From the point of view of truth-seekers, trying to understand the message of the Bible, the Bible is afforded more integrity and more credibility if it is explained to people: the Bible was written in social context, through the social filters and assumptions of its authors. Because if we don’t, this generation and especially the young people of the next will step back aghast, and be disgusted.

          Slavery is wrong. That is an absolute. The Old testament writers who acknowledge slavery and assume slavery are trapped in their own culture and fail to call it out for what it is: unacceptable.

          To suppose that God, either today or back then, thought slavery was just, is frankly discrediting God and the Bible with its so many precious teachings about opening our hearts to the love of God and our neighbour.

          We need a better paradigm for reading and understanding the Bible.

          Reply
        • Whatever its merits as a pragmatic argument (and hey, big fan of Starz’s Spartacus shows, so totally see where it’s coming from on that score), it just creates extra headaches for biblical authority, seeing as the doctrine rests on scripture revealing timeless truth, not time-bound realpolitik.

          Mm, but ‘in a fallen world all kind sof evil (including slavery) will always exist, so slavery will exist until this world passes away’ is a ‘timeless truth’. The Bible is always going to have tension because it exists in the tension between what ought to be and what is possible in a corrupted, evil world populated by corrupted, evil human beings.

          Slavery hasn’t been abolished and never will be; just earlier this month a whole bunch of people were convicted of it in Bristol. The Bible exists in the reality that utopia is unachievable. But at the same time it shows us how far we are from how we ought to be.

          So yes it must tell us how to live in a broken world, because that is the world we live in; but we have to be careful that we don’t mistake that for excusing the world’s brokenness.

          Reply
          • “The Bible is always going to have tension because it exists in the tension between what ought to be and what is possible.”

            Isn’t that EXACTLY the argument for moving on from cultural statements in the Bible, or at least considering whether they are cultural and temporary, or eternal truths?

            Abolishing slavery didn’t seem possible to the OT writers, but now it is socially possible (indeed, imperative for justice) and so we have quite rightly moved on, and we realise that the OT view on slavery was temporary and culturally specific.

            In the same way, most religious people in the tradition of Judaism would have gone completely *ape* at the idea of accepting gay sex – there was, to use your own phrase, a gap “between what ought to be and what is possible”.

            But just as in the case of slavery, we find it is now socially possible (indeed, imperative for justice) and so we have quite rightly moved on as a society, and we realise that the Bible’s view on gay sex was as temporary and culturally specific as its view on slavery.

            Until we recognise that the bible authors wrote from inside their own cultures, religious assumptions, and filters, we risk perpetuating exactly the kind of injustices that were upheld in the OT over slavery: indeed, with that assumed religious mandate, Christians for centuries justified themselves for having slaves and even making profit from them.

            If the Bible is provisional and culturally specific in some cases (for example slavery) then why not in others (gay sex, male headship in marriage etc)?

            The precedent is there.

            And indeed, since the Enlightenment, and the liberation of previously unknown truth by scientists, we also have the precedent of the Noah story and the idea of an actual Fall event with the ‘first humans’, and the invasion and ethnic cleansing of Canaan, we have demonstrable cultural narratives that needed to be updated as science and human values evolved.

            Slavery is unjust. Vilification of people’s intimate love and sexuality is also unjust. But those views reflected the culture and society as it was.

            We do indeed, in your own words live in “the tension between what ought to be and what is possible.”

            In our day and age, setting slaves free is not only possible but morally imperative. And affirmation of gay love and sexuality is also possible.

            If one reflected a temporary social situation by your own reasoning… so might the other. If the biblical authors were in some ways fallible and socially influenced by their times, their cultures and their circumstances, is that a disgrace? No.

            If as Christians we perpetuate injustices when socially the impossible has become the possible, is that a disgrace? Some would say it is. It is certainly seen as disgusting by many non-Christians, and I think we diminish the Bible and the gospel message if we cling to old assumptions, whether they be slavery or the condemnation of gay people’s lives.

          • There’s a world of difference between accepting that coercive labor won’t ever be eliminated in an imperfect world while doing all in our power to end it, and accepting slavery as a legal institution. Paul could’ve easily advocated the first, but he didn’t.

          • Isn’t that EXACTLY the argument for moving on from cultural statements in the Bible, or at least considering whether they are cultural and temporary, or eternal truths?

            I apologise for not replying to you any more, but I honestly can’t make it through more than a third of one of your posts without my eyes glazing over.

          • No apology is needed. There’s no particular reason why anyone should read my posts. Some do, some don’t. Have a good weekend.

        • It is not just pragmatic, it is pragmatic in a situation where not being pragmatic could not be an option. You are framing things as though there could be another option.

          I don’t know which doctrine you are speaking about, but anything that is written is not written from an eternal perspective. In an eternal perspective there may not even be events, movement, time of any kind.

          Reply
          • Hi Penny

            Your words to errors/misunderstandings ratio again looks almost ‘equal’. What I am saying is just common sense. All writing of any kind implies movement and time and events. I have never seen a doctrine of Scripture that failed to affirm any of these 3.

            To jump from that to a local issue heavily circumscribed by culture and temporal location is in danger of suggesting that all roads lead back to the same topic, as though our available horizons had vastly shrunk. A bit like when a model called Mel was popular in 1999 leading to suggestions that there was nothing for it, we would simply have to rename the millennium the Mellennium.

          • The other error being the ignoring of the refutations of such a use of the term ‘equal’ which have been repeatedly given in the last 7 years.

          • The fourth error or misunderstanding:
            You are saying that one can jump logically from the idea that movement of some kind is inevitable (on which all agree) to the idea that we must have precisely the movement you prescribe (rather than any of the other X million possibilities) on precisely the topic you prescribe (rather than any of the other X million topics).

            But ‘change’ and ‘movement’ are as vague and trivial concepts as one can get. They are also as ubiquitous realities as one can get.

            You are arguing from the existence of change to the idea that the very particular change you want must be enforced.

            Well, that is precisely the same argument that anyone could use to enforce any change whatever. A change from clean air to dirty.

          • Except that God would of course have known about his man Constantine a few centuries down the road, so could’ve easily added a rider to the effect that slavery must be abolished at the first available opportunity. Alongside a comprehensive set of commands for Christian princes.

            This saving throw creates so many more problems that it solves, which is presumably why Wright’s never advocated it with his usual bullishness.

        • I dont think Scripture always reveals ‘timeless’ truth. Some things are ‘timeless’, such as ‘Do not steal’ as in all societies stealing from others is frowned upon. Such an instruction reflects God’s character. But other instructions seem to have been spoken concerning Israel only, often for ceremonial or health reasons, and are not timeless. Though given the nasty stuff now in our seas and rivers, perhaps not eating shellfish should continue…

          I am Spartacus!

          Reply
        • Well, even if we set scripture aside, surely adherence to timeless truth would fall into question Christ’s own reluctance to condemn Caesar’s tyrannical authority directly.

          Why stop at biblical authority when Christ’s authority and timeless truth about human nature stopped short of overtly and publicly denouncing Roman tyranny.

          Reply
          • I think there’s a difference between political resistance of a whole imperial system, and how you run your own household. You are personally responsible for the latter, but not the former.

            If the Bible is the timeless words of God for all people for all time, then I would be pretty disappointed in God, if God espoused and mandated the practice of enslavement in your own households – and yet the Bible does.

            We treat the Bible with greater integrity if we recognise that what the Bible authors wrote was set in, and was filtered by, the societies, culture, and social assumptions of the communities they lived in. In short, though there is profound and life-changing truth in the Bible (because the Bible acts as a conduit for the actual Word and presence of God, if we read and open our hearts to God’s presence and love)… it is still possible that some of what people wrote reflected their culture, their times, their social assumptions, their limited science. That’s just realism.

            In my view, it’s better to attribute acceptance of slavery and rights to enslave to the fallible humans who wrote these words, than to attribute such abhorrent principles to God.

            It’s probably the same with the biblical claim that God specifically commanded the slaughter of the Canaanite children and the ethnic cleansing of a whole nation. The same God who said ‘Let the little children come to me…’

            The position of the Bible on slavery is pretty disgusting to many modern readers, and with good reason. The position on some other social principles of justice is hardly less disgusting.

            Slavery is wrong.

            I believe in a God who knows that.

            If I practice enslavement in my own household, that is a disgrace, and it’s entirely different to tolerating a whole imperial political authority, because I am responsible for my household.

          • Susannah, are there any instances where what you ‘believe in’ (re God) is any different from what you ‘like’?

            I thought evidence was the only criterion for believing something to be true.

            We are not living in a world where everything we like is also true.

            Far from it.

          • “I thought evidence was the only criterion for believing something to be true.”

            Christopher – what then are people of faith to make of John 20: 28,29?

          • Christopher,

            In the journey of faith, sacrifice is integral, and very often we may be confronted with choices where we feel morally bound or driven by love to take the path we don’t frankly ‘like’ but know we ought to do.

            As a nurse this can confront me day to day. The person who’s soiled themselves needs cleaning up. That’s not something to ‘like’ but it’s right and beneficial to make them clean.

            With regard to God, judgment isn’t something that I’d associate with ‘liking’, but again, if we’ve soiled ourselves then we need cleaning up, though it can be deeply uncomfortable.

            God isn’t about hedonism but about givenness, relationship, commitment, openness to love.

            And that givenness, as in all relationships worth anything, can be costly. And it was costly to God.

            As for the relationship between ‘evidence’ and faith. Not all the evidence is tangible. To me the heart of true faith is trust that arises from opening to love, and that deepens in ongoing relationship.

            Even in human terms, if I say “I have faith in my wife”… I don’t mean that I have scientific and demonstrable evidence that she exists… I mean, that over many years, everything she has given me and shown me and sacrificed for me, tells me I can trust her. I have faith in her.

            I believe that is the basis of relationship and trust and faith in God.

            In the process of that faith, I discover and encounter glimpses of who God is and what God is like. That’s not all second-hand knowledge handed down. It also includes the experience of the flow of God’s love and Spirit and presence in our lived out lives.

            And that introduces us both to loveliness and costliness. Following the way of the Cross – the deeper reality of baptism – is not just about what I ‘like’. It may involve following Jesus into stigma, into marginality, into servanthood, into sacrifice.

            Christianity is not hedonism.

          • what then are people of faith to make of John 20: 28,29?

            If I told you I could fly, would you believe me? I’m not offering any evidence, but you say you ought to believe things without evidence in order tobe blessed, so that shouldn’t be a problem. So why don’t you look up this evening to see me soaring by?

          • You are using ‘faith’ in a very different way from (by and large) the NT but a very similar way to your culture. In the NT (but not for you) faith and belief are the same word pistis, which does not really mean either of them. It means commitment to someone whose reality is unquestioned on the grounds that they have proven trustworthy in the past.

            Their trustworthiness in the past is treated (not unreasonably) as being of evidential worth. John also uses in chs 19, 21 (and chs 5, 8) the 2 witnesses principle. We can believe it because it is attested to by 2 witnesses, he says.

            As to Susannah’s point, no-one could ever accuse me of saying God is about hedonism as normally understood. I do believe Christian hedonism as in John Piper is central. My point was – do you think that God just so happens to have all the qualities you personally like and fails to have all the ones you personally dislike?

          • S: I’m simply quoting scripture, which I know you think is all completely without error. And I’m asking Christopher Shell what he makes of it as he, like Thomas, is saying that we can’t believe things without evidence.

          • I’m simply quoting scripture, which I know you think is all completely without error.

            Then you better look up! Whoosh! Swoop!

          • For my part, I’m anti-authoritarian across the board, and that extends to Jesus of Nazareth being fully human as regards being capable of error. I disagree with his teaching on divorce, which may be culturally conditioned (though I suspect his underlying moral perfectionism would’ve caused him to say the same regardless of time and place), and I also disagree with his apparent acceptance of slavery as regards what the KJV coyly terms the centurion’s “servant.” Christ doesn’t require authority to be Christ.

          • Christopher: you fail to answer the question. Let me ask it again.
            You said: “I thought evidence was the only criterion for believing something to be true.”. What then are we to make of John 20: 28,29? Jesus says to Thomas that not everyone will have evidence doesn’t he? Or are you now saying that because others have believed it we can now take it on trust?

          • Jesus says to Thomas that not everyone will have evidence doesn’t he?

            No he doesn’t. He says not everyone will have seen in the same way Thomas did. There are other forms of evidence (eg, witness testimony).

            By the way, if you don’t look up I’m going to drop a Bible on your head as I fly by. One of the big ones!

          • Andrew, read my comment again. I said that believing certain people (and not others) is something that one does on the *evidential* basis of past experience of trustworthiness. The Bible says the same. Did you think Jesus was recommending credulity? Are there no criteria governing what one is, and is not, to believe? Tell me what you think on this.

          • ” I said that believing certain people (and not others) is something that one does on the *evidential* basis of past experience of trustworthiness.”

            Thank you Christopher. This, of course, is why we find the experience and testimony of those who find themselves to be gay to be trustworthy and why we trust their ‘evidence’.

            It was the reason that David Porter suggested to General Synod during the shared conversations that members should listen to each other and not to trust random e mails sent to all members by people we did not know.

          • This, of course, is why we find the experience and testimony of those who find themselves to be gay to be trustworthy and why we trust their ‘evidence’.

            Evidence of what though? Evidence that they have certain attractions? That is not in doubt. Evidence that those attractions are according to God’s design? They aren’t evidence of that at all. The mere fact that someone is attracted to something is no evidence that that thing is right.

            If you want to use testimony as evidence then you have to be clear that it actually shows what you are using it to show and, in this case, it rather obviously doesn’t.

          • S: we don’t even know what gender you are, or what your name is. We have no basis for trusting anything you say. So I find it better not to.

          • we don’t even know what gender you are, or what your name is. We have no basis for trusting anything you say. So I find it better not to.

            That’s the whole point: arguments should be judged on the basis of their logical validity, not who makes them. So who I am (and who you are, and who anybody is) is irrelevant.

            What matters is our logic.

          • I see. So when Christopher says: “believing certain people (and not others) is something that one does on the *evidential* basis of past experience of trustworthiness.” you think he is totally wrong.

            You are saying it is nothing to do with the people making the argument. He is saying it is everything to do with the people making the argument.

            Which one of you should I believe? 🙂

          • You are saying it is nothing to do with the people making the argument. He is saying it is everything to do with the people making the argument

            Do you really not understand the difference between argument and evidence? Seriously?

            I hope I never have to rely on you in court!

          • Thanks ‘S’. I am delighted I will not need to rely on you in any way. Both you and Christopher are extremely confused and, therefore, not to be trusted.
            Have a good evening!

          • Both you and Christopher are extremely confused

            You could just say that you have been caught out and have no answer.

          • Hi James,

            As ever, while I disagree with you, I find your responses far more consistent than the half-baked reasoning that, in one breath, invokes toleration of slavery as evidence against biblical authority; and in the next breath, they uphold Christ’s authority by conniving at his (apparent)) reluctance to issue an unequivocal condemnation of Roman tyranny.

            You wrote “Christ doesn’t require authority to be Christ”, but, this does no more than to reduce ‘Christ’ (and Christianity) to a ‘pick-n-mix’ ethical grab-bag; a utility-belt for moral reasoning, who provides moral tidbits, some of which might have enduring significance.

            If timeless truth is to be found, your thesis provides no reason to think that it would be found in Christ…whoever you think he might be.

          • S: I’m very happy to let readers decide who is inconsistent here. You have no evidence, for example, that the bible is all accurate or none of it is. That is simply and only an argument. So I understand the difference very well.
            Christopher suggests that some people are trustworthy, and some are not, based on the evidential basis of past experience. I’m totally in agreement with him on that.
            The two of you are making quite different cases. But let’s see how Christopher responds.

          • You have no evidence, for example, that the bible is all accurate or none of it is

            True, but then I have never claimed that (I don’t even know what the Bible being ‘accurate’ would mean).

            The word I have used is ‘reliable’.

          • Christopher suggests that some people are trustworthy, and some are not, based on the evidential basis of past experience. I’m totally in agreement with him on that

            And yet — oddly — you don’t apply the same standard to the Bible. Weird.

          • This thread’s gotten pretty messy, so just a note to clarify that I’m replying to David’s point about Christ, authority and ethics:-

            Glad I’m at least consistent!

            I don’t view what theologians clumsily call the Christ-event as being dependent on Jesus of Nazareth being some kinda ethical oracle. If that’s your thing, he echoed other contemporary Jews, who no-one claims to be divine. The teaching stands, or falls, on its own merits.

            Far more important to me is the effect that the events of his life had on his followers and the world around him, the sense that the wall between heaven and Earth was suddenly thinned. None of that’s dependent on my agreeing with every jot and tittle of his worldview. Judging by the tale of the Canaanite woman, even the man himself welcomed challenge!

          • Andrew, I already answered it in what I said about Jesus not recommending credulity (as on your reading he would be) and also secondly in what I said about the meaning of pisteuo, which does not map onto our English concepts let alone presentday stereotypes of what something called ‘believe’ (or alternatively ‘faith’) is.

            John is not writing as a 21st century westerner.

          • No Christopher, you didn’t answer any of my questions I’m afraid.
            And the fact that John didn’t write for 21st century westerners is exactly my point. The bible reliably gives us a window into other cultures which of course don’t map onto our own. The question always has to be, as my new testament tutor taught me 40 years ago: what did they believe then that made them express things as they did?

          • The question always has to be, as my new testament tutor taught me 40 years ago: what did they believe then that made them express things as they did?

            Surely the question always has to be, ‘What is God trying to tell us?’

          • “the sense that the wall between heaven and Earth was suddenly thinned.

            That statement might resonate as with some Christians of a lowest common denominator of belief, but plenty of other movements and religions laud their own leader’s accomplishments in terms of “the effect that the events of his life had on his followers and the world around him”.

            Even if the “the teaching stands, or falls, on its own merits”, the merit that you assign to such teaching is based on a very limited sub-set of experience. Certainly, it’s no basis for declaring it to be timeless truth.

            As Judas sings in Jesus Christ Superstar:
            “I remember when this whole thing began.
            No talk of God then, we called you a man.
            And believe me, my admiration for you hasn’t died.
            But every word you say today
            Gets twisted ’round some other way.
            And they’ll hurt you if they think you’ve lied.
            Nazareth, your famous son should have stayed a great unknown
            Like his father carving wood He’d have made good.
            Tables, chairs, and oaken chests would have suited Jesus best.
            He’d have caused nobody harm; no one alarm.”

            I can;t see why your thesis wouldn’t lead to the same conclusion.

          • Exactly, Andrew. Which is why you should not have imposed 21st century western concepts of faith and/or belief on John’s gospel.

          • And neither should you mistake apologetic/argument for evidence Christopher. The circular reasoning should be more obvious to you.

          • At which specific point did I do that? I thought I was pretty much the usual candidate for calling out ideology and all its works.

          • Andrew, the fact that some people have proven themselves more trustworthy than others is undeniable.

            However, it has no connection with the (separate and also true) fact that logic, science, commonsense,research, evidence of all kinds etc – these are the ways in which we can know or be sure of things, on those occasions when we actually can be sure.

            You quoted me as disagreeing with S. Don’t speak for another person. I actually agree with him on the relevant point.

            Rather than saying as your stock answer ‘you didn’t answer my question’ (even when we did, as I always try to) indicate *wherein* I did not answer it.

          • Christopher: the question you fail to answer is: does John’s gospel at that point I quoted count as evidence or is it intended to be apologetic/argument? I suspect that you take a very different view of scripture to me and so make an illogical leap, as does S, without having any basis or evidence for doing so. So, for example, I have repeatedly asked S what his/her evidence is for claiming, as he/she does that God actually wrote the bible, but I have, to date, had no answer.

          • So, for example, I have repeatedly asked S what his/her evidence is for claiming, as he/she does that God actually wrote the bible, but I have, to date, had no answer

            Though to be fair, neither have you answered the question of why, if you think the Bible isn’t reliable, you have any reason to believe Christianity is true at all.

          • But nowhere do I say the bible isn’t reliable. In fact even in this thread I say that the bible reliably tells us what the authors thought when they wrote what they did – hence my key question above, with which Christopher agreed. (Please scroll up to read)

          • But nowhere do I say the bible isn’t reliable. In fact even in this thread I say that the bible reliably tells us what the authors thought when they wrote what they did

            But you don’t think the authors were necessarily right in what they thought, do you? So you don’t think the Bible is a reliable source for information about God — just a reliable source about what some people (who, you think, might have been sometimes wrong — ie, you think they are unreliable) thought about God.

            So what reason do you have to believe that, say, Jesus actually rose from the dead, if the evidence of the Bible doesn’t prove that He did, only that some people (who might have been wrong) thought that He did?

          • Answer my question to you about evidence first S, (scroll just up to see it) and then I will answer.

          • Answer my question to you about evidence first S, (scroll just up to see it) and then I will answer

            Do you at least want to confirm that you do think it is true that Jesus rose form the dead (and not just that He rose ‘in a very real sense’, but that He physically left the tomb and was seen, and touched by, and spoke to, witnesses, as described in the gospels).

            I mean, you’re fond of quoting the story of Thomas. Can you just confirm that you think that the incident described actually happened, roughly as described, that is, Jesus and Thomas physically faced each other and had a conversation after Jesus’s death, and that the story isn’t a fiction, or a parable, made up in order to illustrate a point?

            Confirm that you do think those things are true and I’ll answer the question.

            If you respond something to the effect of, ‘I asked first’ then I think we all know that that really means you don’t believe Jesus actually physically wandered about first-century Israel after His death.

          • I can confirm that S. And very happy to explain exactly why it’s fine to believe some scriptures and not others. Now please, as you indicate, provide us with your evidence.

          • I can confirm that S.

            Oh good. You’ll understand, I’m sure, why it was reasonable for me to have my doubts.

            And very happy to explain exactly why it’s fine to believe some scriptures and not others. Now please, as you indicate, provide us with your evidence.

            Well, as I’m sure you know, I have no direct evidence for such. It is better than evidence: it is a logically sound argument. The argument goes, that when you have a source, if any part of it is demonstrated to be unreliable, then that necessarily casts doubt upon the reliability of all of it. If a witness’s testimony is unreliable in part, then you cannot rely on any of it, unless you have some way to distinguish the reliable from the unreliable.

            So. Assume the conclusion you want to reach: that the Bible is not wholly reliable. Some bits of it are reliable, some are not. Therefore, logically, as we have no way to distinguish which are reliable and which are not, we cannot rely on any of it. The whole must be regarded as suspect if any of it is. So any individual bit of the Bible must be regarded as unreliable.

            However, if we are to accept that Jesus rose from the dead — something for which we have no evidence other that the Bible — then we must accept that the Bible’s accounts of Jesus’s post-death appearances are reliable.

            So this is a contradiction. The Bible accounts of Jesus’s post-death appearances cannot be both reliable and unreliable.

            If assuming the truth of the conclusion leads to a contradiction, then the conclusion must be false. This is called a ‘proof by contradiction’ and is a standard part of logic.

            Therefore the conclusion, that the Bible is unreliable in parts, must be false. So the Bible must be completely reliable.

            Unless you can show a flaw in my logic, which you can’t because there isn’t one, you must accept that the Bible is wholly reliable.

          • S: there are all kinds of flaws in your logic, but you aren’t even answering the question I put to you. So that makes your testimony very unreliable to begin with. The question was: how do you know that God is the author of the bible, which is your claim. It wasn’t inspired by God, you said, it was written by God. And I asked you what evidence you have for that. Nothing about reliability.

            But as to your flaws in logic. Firstly, suppose I ask you, as a witness, to describe what happened in church this morning. I’m sure you could reliably tell me what the readings were. But I am sure you could not reliably tell me what colour dress Mrs Jones had on. But your unreliability about the second question doesn’t cast doubt on your reliability about the first.

            Secondly, even if your logic did work, it doesn’t apply to the bible for many reasons. For one thing, the bible is not a single source. It is many sources. Even within a single book within the library, there will be many sources. You can’t apply your logic to a library.

            Secondly, the bible is not a piece of evidence. It is an argument. The writers, in many cases, are deliberately writing to persuade people to believe – not to give straight evidence.

            And then thirdly it is very clear that the early church had disagreements about things. The answers to those disagreements are not all contained in the writings. We are left to work some of them out ourselves, with the benefit of other knowledge.

            And even if all the answers were there, in fact there is a concept of adiaphora. So we can disagree, for example, about matters like women teaching in church, even though some will say the bible is very clear on that matter.

            Now maybe you could answer the question I put to you, as you indicated that you would?

          • there are all kinds of flaws in your logic, but you aren’t even answering the question I put to you.
            You haven’t put any direct questions to me. I was answering, as promised, your charge of 7pm on the 19th of July:

            ‘You have no evidence, for example, that the bible is all accurate or none of it is. That is simply and only an argument.’

            Firstly, suppose I ask you, as a witness, to describe what happened in church this morning. I’m sure you could reliably tell me what the readings were.

            Not without referring to the order of service I couldn’t (I could give you the books and the subjects, but not the chapters or verses) .

            But I am sure you could not reliably tell me what colour dress Mrs Jones had on. But your unreliability about the second question doesn’t cast doubt on your reliability about the first.

            It absolutely would if I said, ‘Yes she was definitely wearing a red dress’ and it turned out she had on a blue trouser suit. If that was the case — if I insisted absolutely that she had been wearing the red dress — then you should definitely not believe my memory about the readings, should you?

            Secondly, even if your logic did work, it doesn’t apply to the bible for many reasons. For one thing, the bible is not a single source. It is many sources. Even within a single book within the library, there will be many sources. You can’t apply your logic to a library.

            Not a library, no, but the Bible isn’t a library: it’s a collection of writings carefully curated and brought together. The reliability comes from the editor who selected the different articles, and who vouches for their individual reliability: in the case of the Bible, that editor is God.

            Secondly, the bible is not a piece of evidence. It is an argument. The writers, in many cases, are deliberately writing to persuade people to believe – not to give straight evidence.

            Some of it’s argument. Some of it — the eyewitness testimonies of things like the resurrection — is evidence. Eyewitness testimony is evidence, not argument. Wow, again I am so glad you’re not representing me in court. Some of it’s liturgy, some of it is law, some of it is poetry.

            All of it — and this is the point — is reliable about matters of God, sin and salvation.

            And then thirdly it is very clear that the early church had disagreements about things. The answers to those disagreements are not all contained in the writings. We are left to work some of them out ourselves, with the benefit of other knowledge.

            True. But would you agree then that where the early church did agree, we are not to claim on the basis of ‘other knowledge’ that we know better than them?

            And even if all the answers were there, in fact there is a concept of adiaphora. So we can disagree, for example, about matters like women teaching in church, even though some will say the bible is very clear on that matter.

            The concept of adiaphora applies only when the Bible is silent on a matter: it applies to things that are neither commanded by scripture, nor forbidden by it. So I don’t see what relevance it has to a discussion of the reliability of the Bible.

            Now maybe you could answer the question I put to you, as you indicated that you would?

            Already did.

          • No S: the question is the one specified at 1.40 pm today. Very easily located above.

            “So, for example, I have repeatedly asked S what his/her evidence is for claiming, as he/she does that God actually wrote the bible, but I have, to date, had no answer.”

            That’s the question you said you would answer.

  8. I am somewhat concerned about frequent references to the “North Atlantic slave trade” as if that was a noticeably different type of slavery. Those involved might have argued that it was only ever a small variant on pre-existing and established ideas of slavery. On the other hand you could argue that racism was an added twist to the “North Atlantic slave trade” but then again, racism in slavery existed also in some of the cases beforehand.

    If the argument is that the “North Atlantic slave trade” was on a vast industrial scale, but then that doesn’t work either because to have one person as a slave is wrong, and just as wrong as having many.

    No slavery existed before the North Atlantic slave trade and continued through it. The slavery of the Bible is often that of a “slave” being a member of your household and has some similarity with feudal ideas.

    Reply
    • Sorry, but there’s a missing comma in the first sentence of the last paragraph which was meant to be:
      No, slavery existed before the North Atlantic slave trade and continued through it.

      Reply
    • House slaves in antiquity were a tiny minority: there’s hair-raising accounts of untold thousands of slaves worked to a mercifully quick death in mines, flour mills, and on farms. Roman slavery’s at least as bad as the antebellum kind, and there’s no way that Paul wouldn’t have known about it.

      So trying to mitigate Paul’s words by downplaying the horror of ancient slavery’s a road to nowhere. Rome treated the major of her slaves brutality. Yes, a tiny, tiny handful of house slaves may’ve — at the whim of their master — led tolerable lives, been manumitted, and become part of the paterfamilia’s extended family. Even they remained chattel, and could, before the Stoics got some basic rights enacts in law under the Empire, been legally killed at their master’s whim.

      Paul can entreat masters to treat slaves as Christian brothers and sisters all day long, but absent a means of enforcement, it’s just so many pious platitudes.

      Reply
      • Even if everything you say is true (and Id have to read up to confirm it), your last point is salient – ‘but absent a means of enforcement.’ Paul had no way of changing the situation for those slaves/servants. If they had rebelled they would have been killed and Paul knew that.

        Reply
        • Which wouldn’t have stopped Paul from denouncing slavery in principal in typically ferocious style, operating a Roman underground railroad, and leaving Christian princes in no doubt of their duty to abolish slavery at the first opportunity.

          Instead, slaves are to submit to their master’s dominion. That he didn’t denounce the instructions with fire and fury speaks volumes about his being a man of his time.

          Paul was radical in saying that slaves were of equal spiritually worth, yes, but his views on slavery are alien to our values, and far from being the most progressive in antiquity (we know from Aristotle that some ancients denounced slavery outright, centuries before the epistles were penned).

          Reply
          • But do you not think it’s very easy for us today, especially in Western societies, to criticise those living in quite different cultures from long ago? Paul’s overriding concern was that the Gospel be preached, not to rail against society’s norms at the time.

          • “operating a Roman underground railroad….”
            quo vadant? in ulteriorem Germaniam?
            There is no Moses in this story, not Jochebed’s boy, nor Granma Moses.
            There was nowhere in the Roman Empire that didn’t have slavery and captured runaways were branded F for ‘fugitivus’ if they weren’t crucified. That’s the significance of the Philemon story.
            And of course, there were no Christian princes.
            A bit of historical knowledge is helpful here.

          • Interesting that arguments on context only appeal to matters such ss slavery and not to others……

          • Interesting that arguments on context only appeal to matters such ss slavery and not to others

            But they do apply equally to all matters. For instance, the reason why Christians didn’t try to free all the slave sin the Roman empire is the same reason why Christians didn’t try to have pederasty outlawed: they simply hadn’t the ability to do so.

          • “the reason why Christians didn’t try to free all the slaves…”
            “they simply hadn’t the ability to do so.”

            They had the power to free all the slaves in their own household.
            Also, the supposedly infallible ‘Word of God’ accommodated slavery in the OT and not just in the NT. People had the power to free slaves in their households back then as well. But there seems to have been a cultural assumption that owning people was OK.

            I don’t think God thinks it’s OK.

            Not now. Not then.

            And sadly, what we get is the writers’ assumptions about slaves. It’s cultural. It’s their voice. The important thing is that we don’t take their voice and assumption as the Word of God on the issue. Some things in the Bible are so clearly not meant to be applied in out time and society. Some things are better than the Bible’s compromised approach to slavery. ‘Don’t beat them too hard.’ ‘It’s okay to enslave defeated enemies.’ ‘Slaves obey your masters.’

            These are the narratives of human beings, writing within their own cultures.

            Sometimes we now know better.

            (Of course this can also apply to other issues, not just slaves, but the slavery thing does provide example and precedent for critiquing bible passages, and distinguishing between human narrative and God’s actual views.)

            And none of that implies that everything in the Bible is valuable or relevant today. Just that we need to see the Bible as a conduit through which God seeks to open our hearts, and not as the verbatim word by word dictation from God.

            Your mileage may vary, and yes, I realise and respect that you may not choose to reply, and that’s fine, and you’re probably a decent man and woman. I’m just putting the more (so-called) ‘liberal/progressive’ Christian view. It’s widely held these days.

          • “And none of that implies that everything in the Bible is valuable or relevant today…”

            should read

            “And none of that implies that nothing in the Bible is valuable or relevant today…”

          • Agreed Brian, it is.

            Not only was it possible to get beyond Rome’s borders (the plan of the original Bri… sorry, Spartacus 😉 ); but there was no practical way to identify an unbranded runaway within the Empire’s vast territory, which is why masters resorted to the fugitivus stamp and/or collars for previous runaways. There was once talk of making all slaves wear a visibly mark: soon dropped ’cause they’d realize just how numerous they were.

            Sure it’d be risky — just like the later one — but it wasn’t in Paul’s mindset to try.

          • Didn’t Paul have enough on his plate? He half killed himself with the commitments that he *did* take on.

        • As regards the accuracy of how Rome treated her slaves, this famous passage from the novel Metamorphoses (Book 11), describing slaves toiling in a flour Mill, is illustrative:-

          “You blessed gods, what a pack of dwarves those workers were, their skins striped with livid welts, their seamed backs half-visible through the ragged shirts they wore; some with loin-cloths but all revealing their bodies under their clothes; foreheads branded, heads half-shaved, and feet chained together. They were wretchedly sallow too, their eyes so bleary from the scorching heat of that smoke-filled darkness, they could barely see, and like wrestlers sprinkled with dust before a fight, they were coarsely whitened with floury ash.”

          And bear in mind that Apuleius was writing in the late 2nd century A.D., after the Stoic-inspired reforms had begun to come into effect, theoretically granting slaves Rome’s idea of basic human rights. (Her notions on that front are of course in another universe to ours.) There’s every reasons to believe that, back in the days of the Republic and early Empire, when slaves were entirely chatted who masters course kill at will, things were even worse.

          Reply
          • There was, in fact, a wide range of experiences of slavery in the Empire, of which working in the mines was the worst and agricultural slavery probably the commonest. Some Greek slaves were highly educated and served as doctors or tutors. Some slaves acquired money and bought their freedom.

  9. Here are my thoughts on slavery and the Bible based around the letter to Philemon. I’d be interested in your, or anyone else’s, thoughts on it…
    (3 A4 pages)

    57. PAUL’S LETTER TO PHILEMON
    THE GOSPEL AND LIVING DIFFERENTLY
    A 10 min walk with Slavery, with Paul and with God

    After all those letters to churches and Christian leaders, why should such a brief personal note like Paul’s letter to his friend Philemon have found its way into the New Testament?

    Probably because it gives a unique and very important insight into how Christianity responds to the universal, deeply ingrained and persistent social evil of slavery.

    Philemon was a man who was wealthy enough to own slaves. He had become a Christian – probably led to faith by Paul himself (v.19). Paul knew him well, regarded him as a fellow-worker and partner in the gospel, and loved him as a brother. A church now met in Philemon’s home (v.2). One of his slaves, called Onesimus, had run away, probably after stealing from him (v.18). He had somehow found his way to Rome where he met Paul who was a prisoner there. And Paul had led Onesimus to faith as well! (v.10)

    Under Roman law Onesimus was a fugitive, and if caught, Philemon was entitled to execute him. So what did Paul do?

    “I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you.” (v.12)

    Did Paul approve of slavery? No! Paul did something much more powerful and effective than condemning slavery, or telling Philemon and Onesimus to defy the law, or impotently objecting to this injustice in society from his prison cell!

    He simply urged Philemon (and reassured Onesimus) that in the Christian Church we demonstrate the kingdom of God by living differently…

    “I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you. (I love Onesimus the slave like a brother). I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. (I consider you the master, and Onesimus the slave as interchangeable). But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favour you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. (I invite you to freely act as I do). Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. (You are now so much more than merely master and slave, you are brothers in Christ – and you have always been fellow men).

    “So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.” (Welcome Onesimus the slave as you would welcome Paul the apostle and Roman citizen – and I’ll pay his debts!) (vs.12-18)

    SLAVERY AND THE NEW TESTAMENT

    It is sometimes suggested that the New Testament accepts, justifies or even affirms slavery. Usually, this is to justify the view that if (subsequent to the Bible) the Church can change its view on this matter it can do so on others. As Paul’s words to Philemon show, that suggestion could not be further from the truth. And it’s worth taking a moment to ‘drill down’ into the teaching of the New Testament to demonstrate this.
    Slavery of one form or another is a universal and persistent characteristic of human societies from ancient times to the present day. It has been variously practiced on defeated enemies and criminals, or on the basis of race, wealth and social standing, for the purpose of forced labour, domestic servitude or sex trafficking. It always involves human beings being treated as property instead of persons, it may be regarded as legal or illegal, but it has become increasingly clear that no society has succeeded in totally abolishing it. Roman slavery ranged from galley slaves, forced farm labourers and gladiators who were simply worked to death, to bonded domestic servants with menial, managerial or even professional responsibilities. Wealthy Romans often freed their slaves as a reward for loyalty, or freed them in their wills.

    In line with Paul’s words to Philemon, everywhere in the New Testament the response to the unchanging presence of slavery in society is the same…

    In the Church we demonstrate the kingdom of God by living differently…

    “For we were all baptized by one spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”(1 Cor. 12.13)

    “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal.3.28)

    “You know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.” (Eph.6.8)

    “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Col.3.11)

    But in case we are in any doubt about Paul’s attitude to the institution of slavery and what the biblical view of slavery is…

    “We know that the law is made not for the righteous but for law-breakers and
    rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave-traders and liars and perjurers – and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God.” (1 Tim.1.9-10)

    LIVING CHRISTIANLY DESPITE SLAVERY

    And when Christian slaves and masters are instructed about how to live as Christians in a world where slavery is an unavoidable reality, it is clear that in the Christian church we demonstrate the kingdom of God by living differently…

    “Slaves obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart… And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him.”(Eph.6.5-9)

    “Slaves obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord… Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.”(Col.3.22 – 4.1)
    And where Christian slaves find themselves working for non-Christian masters, they are to demonstrate the kingdom of God and live differently in order to witness to their masters…

    “All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of
    full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing masters are not to show less respect for them because they are brothers. Instead they are to serve them even better, because those who benefit from their service are believers, and dear to them.”(1 Tim.6.1-2)

    “Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive.”(Titus 2,9-10)

    SUFFERING FOR CHRIST

    The Apostle Peter even has words of encouragement for Christian slaves who find themselves unavoidably subject to harsh, unjust treatment by non-Christian masters. He counsels them to take this as an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Christ…

    “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who
    are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? If you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

    ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’(Isaiah 53.9)

    “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.”(1 Peter 2.18-25)

    WHOEVER WANTS TO BE FIRST MUST BE SLAVE OF ALL!

    And there are some challenging words of Paul which point to some even more challenging words of Jesus about how demonstrating the kingdom of God and living differently in the church involves living lives of service towards one another…

    “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.”(1 Cor.9.19)

    So finally, those challenging words of Jesus
    that make slaves, not masters, examples to follow…

    “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them,
    and their high officials exercise authority over them.
    Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you
    must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
    (Matthew 2 .25-28 and Mark 10.42-45)

    Reply
  10. The other error being the ignoring of the refutations of such a use of the term ‘equal’ which have been repeatedly given in the last 7 years.

    Reply
  11. “It’s pretty clear that the toleration and regulation of slavery in the OT should be read as a cultural view, set in the authors’ own culture.”

    This is a common view of the Bible among most liberal and many moderate Christians. The problem with this viewpoint is this: If some passages in the Bible can be ignored as “the culture-derived views of the author” what about the rest of the Bible? If the Bible’s statements condoning slavery can be ignored then why believe anything else in the Bible to be the “divine word of God”? Maybe the whole book is just a collection of culturally-based human opinions and stories.

    Reply
  12. Trinitarian Christians often forget that the God of the Old Testament and Jesus of Nazareth are one and the same, in Trinitarian doctrine. That means that Jesus condoned slavery. And that means that Jesus condoned the genocide of the Amalekites. And Jesus condoned the slaughter of the Midianite women and little boys.

    Now I know that many moderate and liberal Christians will cry “foul” and say that these stories are allegorical. They never really happened, so Jesus is not responsible for genocide and the mass murder of mothers and their little boys. There are no actual quotes of Jesus (God) ordering these atrocities.

    But what about this quote in which Jesus (God) praises the murder of a mixed-race couple. If Jesus is God as Trinitarian Christians claim, we should most definitely FEAR him and obey him, but why on earth would anyone “love” such a being:

    “Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman into his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the Israelites, while they were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he got up and left the congregation. Taking a spear in his hand, 8 he went after the Israelite man into the tent, and pierced the two of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. So the plague was stopped among the people of Israel. 9 Nevertheless those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.

    10 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 11 “Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by manifesting such zeal among them on my behalf that in my jealousy I did not consume the Israelites. 12 Therefore say, ‘I hereby grant him my covenant of peace. 13 It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites.’”

    Reply
  13. “Trinitarian Christians often forget that the God of the Old Testament and Jesus of Nazareth are one and the same, in Trinitarian doctrine. That means that Jesus condoned slavery. And that means that Jesus condoned the genocide of the Amalekites. And Jesus condoned the slaughter of the Midianite women and little boys.”

    No he didn’t Gary.

    Those narratives belong to human authors.

    Otherwise, what sense can be made when Jesus says “Let the little children come to me.”

    The Bible is written within culture, and within social narratives.

    But just because some bits are very human and fallible does not mean as a logical imperative that every single thing in the Bible has no worth.

    Reply
  14. Hi Susannah,

    Would you kindly address the passage in my last comment from Numbers 23. It is a quote of Jesus (God) praising the slaughter of a mixed-race, mixed-religion couple. Do you believe that this couple deserved to be butchered?

    Reply
    • Hi Gary,

      No I do not believe this couple deserved to be slaughtered.

      But what makes you think God would have been happy about it either?

      What makes you think that the words attributed to God were actually words that God spoke?

      This is a human being’s narrative, and it is written in a religious and social context, that assumes that Midianites were less valuable and (in this case) were disposable. It is the narrative and story of a religious group in a social setting, telling the story from their own slanted perspective.

      Surely that makes sense as a feasible and quite likely analysis.

      best wishes,
      Susannah

      Reply
    • Gary
      Your Numbers 23 is NOT a quote of Jesus at all and you are stretching it to suggest that God supported absolutely when not even that is clear.

      Reply
  15. Good morning, Susannah.

    You said, “This is a human being’s narrative, and it is written in a religious and social context… It is the narrative and story of a religious group in a social setting, telling the story from their own slanted perspective.”

    If that is the case, then maybe the same is true for the following stories:

    –the virgin birth (virginal conception) of Jesus
    –Jesus feeding five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish
    –Jesus walking on water
    –Jesus healing lepers and the blind
    –the burial of Jesus in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb
    –women finding the tomb empty with angels announcing that Jesus is risen
    –the detailed appearance stories of a walking, talking, broiled fish eating (resurrected) Jesus
    –the Ascension

    If we can’t trust the stories in the Old Testament to be literally true, why should we trust the stories in the New Testament to be literally true?

    Reply
    • I think it’s basic logic, Gary.

      Because some things are fallible and untrue, that does not mean that ALL things are fallible and untrue.

      Obviously your question is itself a fair one, but I don’t think one has to be absolutist and say “Either all things in the Bible are true OR no things in the Bible are true.”

      I may believe in supernatural events, but that doesn’t mean I believe in evil and immoral things being accurately attributed to God.

      Obviously, if I believe in God, I believe there are supernatural dimensions to existence.

      I believe in God.

      However, I do not believe in an evil, hateful God. I could, but I don’t.

      The reason I believe in God is not down to proof, or specific reliability of text, but encounter and relationship and faith.

      To me, the Bible is a conduit for encounter with God. It may (in some of its writings) prompt a person to open their minds and hearts to God. The Bible is not itself God. The Bible is not itself infallible. But I believe the living God can indeed interact with us, and help us to open to love, through things written in it. Of course, that is my own experience.

      That said, the Bible is written by fallible human beings, who have their own cultural prejudice, their own time and place and society, and they write within the scientific limits of their time.

      But on the other hand, they seem to have been trying to make sense of their own encounters with the supernatural (aka God), and though they struggle to explain such mysteries, and filter their understanding through their own limitations or cultural assumptions, nevertheless they do repeatedly seem to be trying to express and describe encounters with God that can only be described as supernatural in their minds.

      Fundamentally I don’t believe all the Bible is true, and I don’t need it to be, to trust in God. Trust comes from encounter and relationship.

      I find profound spiritual wisdom within the Bible, even though it’s like a chipped and soiled conduit. Even so, I believe the power and presence and love of God flows through that conduit, like it also flows through life in general. The Bible is just a container made by fallible people.

      Not sure where this dialogue is going, or what you want to say. That we shouldn’t believe in God, or Jesus Christ, because the Bible has some dodgy stuff in it? I don’t buy that as an argument. I just think we should read the Bible intelligently, and not in some servile submission to it as some infallible oracle, where the authors are right to claim Adam had no ancestors, Noah saved the sole surviving animals on the planet, God commanded the Canaanite children to be killed, and applauded the death of the Midianite woman as you mentioned.

      The Bible needs to be read critically, and be de-constructed, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t deeper purpose and insight going on as well.

      No, in logical terms, “some things are represented erroneously” does not = “all things are represented erroneously”.

      We treat the Bible with more integrity and intelligence if we acknowledge it’s written in social and cultural contexts.

      Yet supernatural encounters occur again and again, and to be honest I find that congruent with the supernatural encounter at the heart of my own life experience.

      best wishes,
      Susannah

      Reply
  16. “No, in logical terms, “some things are represented erroneously” does not = “all things are represented erroneously”.

    So if you believe that to be the case, how would *you* logically decide which is which?

    Reply
    • Susannah: “No, in logical terms, “some things are represented erroneously” does not = “all things are represented erroneously”.

      Chris: “So if you believe that to be the case, how would *you* logically decide which is which?”

      Hi Chris, I think God has created us with conscience, powers of thought and discernment, and I also think we each have a moral compass. I think we need to exercise those faculties.

      We may not all agree on what we can trust and believe as erroneous or not erroneous. But nevertheless, that’s what I think we’re faced with, and what we should set out to do.

      It’s not exactly an unusual concept. We face decisions like this again and again in our daily life. Do you believe politician x is telling the truth? Do you think politician z is less erroneous? Or simply making decisions for our families. We do this all the time.

      Is it all a logical process? I think logic is very valuable. But I also think that some truths are ‘felt’, some understandings come through encounter, some decisions are taken in trust without knowing for sure.

      As I read through the Bible, surely it’s a case by case basis. Is what the writer saying actually a reflection of the writer’s own culture and assumptions, or lying behind it, are there deep and profound truths to reflect on, maybe motivating the author.

      Sure, if I was a fundamentalist, I’d want a watertight Bible, where everything’s direct from God. That would feel all safe and cosy, or at least quite clear.

      However, I believe God has given us conscience and minds and wants us to exercise them compassionately and responsibility.

      And, above all, I think God wants us to live in relationship with God, to open up to God’s tender love, to learn how to give and share and serve.

      Spearing the Midianite woman does not fall into that category.

      Nor do some of the Bible’s passages, where they seem to be appeasing the institution of slavery, and accommodating it.

      But each of us has the conscience and free thought to take responsibility, and exercise these God-given gifts, and form a judgment case by case, verse by verse, day by day.

      As we do, already, in our everyday life.

      Reply
      • Thank you for your long and considered reply. It does seem to me that the line you are taking essentially amounts to what you see as right in your own eyes and your own experience rather than any real appeal to an objective truth. The ‘moral compass’ you speak of – my question would be -how do you know it is trustworthy?

        And — if each of our moral compasses are pointing in different directions, which direction is the right one? Logically, all compasses that are true must point in the right direction unless they are distorted by some other (magnetic) influence. It is hard to detect if a real compass is not reading true unless there are some other reference points that remain invariant that indicate otherwise.

        I agree there is much to be said in factoring in cultural appropriation in the way scripture is understood but I gain the impression from your writings that you have all but abandoned any real objective truth and replaced it with ‘felt’ truth. Would you say this is your moral compass so to speak? Essentially a subjective understanding of scripture? What would be your invariant reference points?

        Please correct me if I am mistaken but I believe it was you in an earlier post ( I can’t find where) that you stated that we needed a new paradigm for the Bible. If you did state that could you explain what this paradigm would look like?

        Reply
        • In my experience, most Christians accept majority expert opinion until that majority expert opinion disagrees with their faith (emotion) based beliefs. The majority of experts say that Jesus was a real historical person, so we should believe it. The majority of experts say that Jesus was crucified by the Romans, so we should believe it. The majority of experts say that the empty tomb of Jesus is historical, so we should believe it.

          But when presented with the evidence that the four Gospels and Acts—which are the only known documents giving details about the alleged resurrection of Jesus—were not written by eyewitnesses or even the associates of eyewitnesses, but by persons one or more generations removed from the alleged events they describe, then all kinds of excuses are made why we should NOT believe majority expert opinion on this one issue.

          You are completely correct, Chris. Most Christians are guided by their feelings not evidence when it comes to their religious beliefs.

          Reply
  17. Susannah: “Fundamentally I don’t believe all the Bible is true, and I don’t need it to be, to trust in God. Trust comes from encounter and relationship.”

    I never said that every claim of fact in the Bible is false. Experts (historians and archaeologists) believe that some claims/stories in the Bible can be backed up with evidence. The majority of experts believe that King Ahab, for instance, was a real Israelite king. I therefore accept the majority expert opinion on this biblical claim. Most experts believe that Jesus existed and was crucified by the Romans. I accept the majority expert opinion on these issues.

    But what do we do with those biblical claims for which most experts question or doubt their historicity??

    –Was Jesus really born of a virgin?
    –Did Jesus really walk on water?
    –Did Jesus really reattach the severed ear of the high priest’s servant?
    –Did a group of women really find angels at Jesus’ empty tomb?
    –Did Jesus really appear in bodily form to his disciples after his death; or, did he “appear” to them in their minds, in “heavenly visions”, as Paul claimed happened to him, according to the author of the Book of Acts?

    You said, “Trust (in your God) comes from encounter and relationship.”

    It sounds like you have very strong feelings about your belief in Jesus. You probably have experienced some odd, rare events which you perceive to be the miraculous works of your God. But are feelings and personal perceptions reliable indicators of universal truths? Millions of Hindus, Muslims, Mormons, Jews, etc.. have strong feelings and personal experiences with *their* Gods. They believe just as intensely and devotedly as you do.

    So if many of the stories in the Bible are not historically reliable, as even you admit, and statistics demonstrate that personal feelings and perceptions are highly unreliable…how can you be so sure of the historicity of first century stories involving a brain dead corpse coming back to life, levitating into space, where he currently sits on a golden throne as Lord and Master of the universe??

    Reply
    • Let’s take the Jesus walking on water bit. I very much believe that.

      But you want to lean on expert opinion. How can an ‘expert’ possibly know that there’s no historicity to that, apart from on the grounds of perceived physical impossibility?

      And if you are going to pitch in with the ‘experts’ who discount anything supernatural, well then we’re talking across one another because my take is that when it comes to God, OF COURSE God is supernatural.

      And which point, ‘experts’ who refuse to believe in the supernatural aren’t really very useful in determining the belief (or lack of it) when it comes to a supernatural God.

      You talk of levitation as if it’s by definition non-historical, and yet Teresa de Avila levitated in deep contemplative state, and we are talking about supernatural activity here. And she’s not the only person who has levitated. Even today, I know someone who has. And anyway that phenomenon is reported across other traditions, not just the Christian one.

      The resurrection of Jesus was a supernatural event.

      If your ‘experts’ claim, that because that defies known physical possibilities, therefore it’s ahistorical and not true… well maybe they’re basically saying they don’t believe in a supernatural God. Fine. They can have a good life. Millions of people disagree. Millions of people experience deeper levels of experience and reality and believe, in various ways, in the supernatural.

      And I would stress, at this juncture, that the deepest supernatural spirituality of all is the flow of LOVE, but that does not invalidate other expressions of God and the supernatural.

      * * * * *

      Yes, you observe correctly. I have “very strong feelings about [my] belief about Jesus”. I’m a Christian so you can hardly be surprised!

      Feelings and personal perceptions may or may not “be reliable indicators of universal truths”. But the fact remains, they may.

      I don’t have a problem with people of other faiths (or none) also having strong feelings and personal experiences of the supernatural. Humans believing in deeper levels of reality is a global phenomenon.

      I don’t recall saying “many” of the Bible stories are not historically reliable. I believe *some* are.

      You ask “how can I be sure?”

      I don’t seek to prove, and I don’t demand certainty. But on the basis of the encounters I have had, and the experiences I have had, I have concluded it would be irrational for me to disbelieve the person of Jesus and the central aspects of his life, death, and resurrection. Experience can be evidence too. It may present to the individual, and other individuals, as overwhelming evidence.

      Unlike fundamentalists who seem to ‘need’ certainty, and seem the Bible (or the Koran) to be watertight, my own Carmelite spirituality and contemplative practice takes a different approach – the via negativa (which, incidentally, can be a valuable scientific tool in other disciplines too).

      To me, ‘not knowing’ is as important as ‘knowing’ when it comes to waiting on God and living a life in relationship with the supernatural God. Encounter happens when God chooses it to happen. And returning to Jesus, God intervened when God chose to intervene. The medieval treatise ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ graphically expresses the basis of opening up to the possibility of meeting with God. We do not control. We do not understand very much at all. But only see through a cloud of our own limitations.

      And yet, notwithstanding the limits of our own ‘knowing’, at times of God’s own choosing, God comes in supernatural perfection and encounter is engaged. Love meets love.

      And the practice of faith, and the experience of relationship, builds trust. Trust in who we find God to be. Trust in God’s grace and love. And givenness: our givenness to God, and God’s tender givenness to us (as epitomised and fulfilled by Jesus in his life and death).

      It’s about relationship.

      Proving my wife scientifically exists and is historical is hardly the point of the faith I have in her, and our relationship, and the trust of many years. In a similar way, I don’t find the need to “prove” God, or God who is Christ, or God who is the Holy Spirit. But what really matters is relationship, and openness to grace, and trust, and habitual givenness.

      Now that involves supernatural interaction. But surely, that’s the very nature of religious faith, so what would one expect?

      As a Christian I don’t pretend to understand the mechanics of the resurrection, or what happens if we become brain dead. But I believe in a supernatural level to existence and consciousness in deeper reality, and I believe in the soul.

      And contemplative practice teaches astonishing lessons about deeper levels of consciousness, and awareness, and shared consciousness.

      If I should defer to those ‘experts’ whose starting point is ‘there is no such thing as the supernatural’ then I’d be denying the relationship I live and experience with God, day by day. I don’t need to. That love and relationship empowers and energises my life – not just in ‘religious’ contexts, but in my work as a nurse, my life as a parent, my solidarity with my community. And in all this, yes, there is constant fallibility and vulnerability, (not to mention my own capacity to **** up). Just like the authors of the Bible were fallible.

      And yet, if God actually does exist, as I believe God does, then we are sustained in eternity, regardless of our limited knowledge in this lower-dimensional world. We are known. We are loved. We are invited to grow, to engage, to open up to love, to give, to share.

      In this vast picture and prospect, I am almost completely undisturbed if some Bronze Age writer ‘claimed’ God endorsed death for mixed-race sexuality. That’s just a writer being a writer. Do I seriously need to exercise brilliance to get that’s them speaking, not God? What concerns me far more is when fundamentalists try to perpetuate these fallibilities, as if they are indeed by God, and should be exercised today – be that slavery, or the vilification of gay sexuality, or the submission of women to their husbands. These are the ephemera.

      A different paradigm can be applied to the Bible. It becomes a conduit, not a text message from God. A conduit through which the love and person and Spirit may flow, and if we read and receive, and open our hearts, may break alive in our souls and minds. Because I do believe in the soul, Gary. And right at the centre of each person’s soul, there’s God, waiting for us to open the doors of our hearts, waiting for us to open to love, to open to the flow.

      When the Bible says “streams of living water will flow up from within you”, that’s not Jesus teaching us that we have to vomit up water. It’s about the flow of God’s love, welling up within us, and the invitation to us to open the doors, to open our hearts.

      I realise I am using language and concepts you appear quite set on rejecting. But what can I do? I simply accept the spiritual and supernatural levels of existence. I believe them encounter and relationship.

      best wishes,
      Susannah

      Reply
  18. Thanks to the people who have generously exchanged opinions with me. But now it is time for me to sign off. Sunday evening.

    And tomorrow is the first day back to working routine after holiday. Which for me means, farewell to religious forums, and other distractions, and priority to home and family and church.

    God’s blessing on you all, and thank you Ian, for your hospitality. My favourite of your recent articles was the one on Martha and Mary, which I thought was really thought-provoking.

    Reply
  19. Hi Susannah,

    You said above that you believe that the story of Jesus walking on the surface of the Sea of Galilee was an historical fact. On what do you base this belief? Evidence? Faith?

    I personally trust majority expert opinion on all matters about which I am not an expert. That is what most educated people in western industrialized societies do. The majority of experts believe that Jesus existed, that he was crucified, and that shortly after his death some of his followers believed that he appeared to them in some fashion. While it is true that most historians will not comment on supernatural claims, they will comment on any historical evidence surrounding the alleged supernatural event.

    The foundational story of the Christian Bible is of course the story of Jesus’ resurrection. How can Christians such as yourself trust the historicity of the “appearance stories” found in the last three Gospels (not found in Mark); the stories about a resurrected Jesus physically appearing to his disciples, eating food, allowing them to touch him, etc.. when you don’t believe in the historicity of so many other stories in the Bible?

    Reply

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