Biblical Interpretation – March 1999

Question: If people can become demon possessed, why didn’t God warn Moses about this when He warned him about sin (10 commandments)? Why wasn’t Adam deceived? Wasn’t Adam with Eve when the serpent deceived her, Adam ate also, after Eve. Why did God sentence man to death and hell but woman through childbirth is saved? (OT) If we have dominion over animals, why can they eat us? God is an image of light, was Adam created in His image, or mans? Seth was like Adam, was he different? If Noah was the 8th person, does that make Adam and Seth different? Is the garden of Eden in heaven? Why does Jesus say if you cast out devils in his name he will tell you to depart you that work iniquity? Didn’t demons and devils originate in Babylon? Why did the Jews adopt the Babylonian Talmud? Have you seen the tabernacles on Mount Carmel that Daniel spoke of?

Publication Month: March 1999

Dr. Cobb’s Response

This set of questions arises from a way of reading the Bible that creates endless difficulties and confusions. It might be possible to deal with them one by one and give some kind of sensible answer, but that would not be very helpful. I will instead offer a few comments from a specifically process perspective, recognizing that most of what I say could be asserted by almost any Bible scholar in the oldline churches.

The Bible is a thoroughly human document written, edited, and compiled over many centuries by numerous people. From the perspective of process thought, to say that it is thoroughly human does not exclude God from involvement in its authorship. God is present and active in every moment of human experience, and in some moments that activity, the Holy Spirit, is more effective than in others. In extreme cases we may properly speak of someone as inspired. There are many inspired passages in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. 

But inspiration does not by any means entail inerrancy. An inspired author may rely on inaccurate historical information and prescientific notions of the natural world. Inspiration does not guarantee that a writer fully transcend the cultural values of one’s time and write for all the ages. Hence to press even the most inspired words in the Bible for accurate information or definitive judgments will often lead to absurdities.
Christians are fortunate that the Bible does not make the claim to be inerrant or even consistently inspired. There are a few places where individuals do make strong claims for what they have to say. For example, a prophet may assert that the Word of the Lord came to him, and “Thus says the Lord”. We should take these claims to extraordinary inspiration seriously. But we should also note that what follows are typically statements directed to particular people at particular times and places.  It remains for us to discern their relevance today. Despite this lack of claim to divine inspiration in most of Scripture, many Christians want to
claim inerrancy and infallibility for every passage in it. This witnesses to the human tendency to idolatry — treating the earthen vessels as if they were God.

We are now heirs of two centuries of Biblical scholarship based on assumptions of the sort I have sketched. Some of it is iconoclastic and largely negative. It has an important role in clearing away idolatrous attitudes toward the Bible. 
Most of it is extremely helpful in giving us access to the astonishing richness of insight and deep wisdom of the ancient Jews. This insight and wisdom had to do especially with the relationship of God and the world, and no other literature, ancient or modern, supersedes this in illuminating these most important of all questions. The Bible remains our basic source for reflecting on these matters.

For this purpose the diversity within the scriptures is very valuable.  One cannot simply agree with everything one finds there. There are contradictions, and there are depictions of God in some of the earlier writings that a Christian simply cannot accept. But for the most part the diversity of experiences of God reflected in scripture enable the Bible to speak to us now in many and varied conditions and situations. Passages that one generation ignores often become crucially important to a later generation.

Several of the issues posed by the questioner deal with the Genesis account of creation. These stories contain internal contradictions as well as prescientific ideas about how the world came into being. But when we recognize this and move to the deeper theological level, they are immensely important for good and ill. 

For many generations they were read as authorizing human exploitation of the natural world. In the past few decades we have realized that this exploitation is threatening to render the Earth uninhabitable. This has brought us to repentance.

It has also brought us to study the creation stories afresh. We have recognized that, although human beings are given a central place in them, all creatures are affirmed as of value, and the human role for which the stories call is not so much that of exploiter as of steward. The theological importance of these alternative ways of understanding the relation of God, humanity, and the other creatures is not affected by recognition that the stories are told by fallible human beings and cannot be relied on for factual accuracy.

Of equal importance is what the stories say about the relation of males and females. Of the two creation stories, one sees male and female as together constituting the human that is created by God. The other definitely subordinates woman to man. It is this subordination that has dominated the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Today we must expose this account for the patriarchal prejudice that it expresses and establishes.

On what grounds can we pick and choose among Biblical passages and themes? This is the heart of the theological question today. For Christians, the answer is that we read all of the Bible from the perspective given us in Christ. But that is only the beginning of an answer. We must go on to clarify what we mean by Christ and how Christ is related to the historical Jesus. Are the words of Jesus our final authority? No, not if that means that they are treated literally and legalistically. But we do find in Jesus a purity of the way in which he points to God’s love of us and our calling to love God and fellow creatures that guides all our critical
reflection about other ideas and themes in the scriptures.

It is sad, indeed, that for so many people being a Christian is associated with an idolatrous understanding of the Bible. The writings that should liberate us to think critically and creatively in ever new situations have been turned into bonds that tie us to ancient and outdated notions. We become absorbed in petty and even silly questions that have nothing to do with faith in Christ. Paul’s distressed question to the Galatians applies to the contemporary church as well: “Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (3:3)