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Why are there so many disagreements about certain passages in the Bible?

The short answer is because there are so many people! At least in my experience the question goes back to differences over what the Bible is, how much authority it should have in our lives, and what it means, exactly, to say that the Bible is "true."

Some people believe the Bible to be the literal word of God...that those human beings who wrote the words down were basically taking dictation from God. In this view, if the Bible says there were 500 men in a battle then there were 500 men in the battle...not about 500, not 502, and not 450 men and 50 women. Most people who hold this view also believe that what was said in the Bible is true for all time, rather than something that might have been true in a particular culture or for a particular audience. It also must be true in all ways: It must be historically true, scientifically true, socially true, as well as religiously true.

Others see the Bible as the inspired word of God. These people think that the Holy Spirit had a hand in what was written, but that the human authors also put in their parts, through God's inspiration. In this view it is possible that what was written for, say, the Jews of first century Jerusalem may or may not still be true for 21st-century Americans. It is also possible that human error and bias crept into the writing here and there, so all the tools of scholarship are brought to bear on the texts to help interpret the meaning. Mistakes of the culture...like thinking the earth was flat or condoning slavery...are named as errors in Scripture by this group, while the first group would have to explain those things another way.

Still others see the Bible as the symbolic word of God. This group tends to believe that the Bible was written to give us general principles to live by, and that it does so by means of stories and myths, metaphors and symbols. Whether the accounts have any basis in historical fact is not important here. It's like reading Aesop's fables. In the "sour grapes" story we were never meant to think that there was ever an actual fox who tried to get some grapes and when he couldn't reach them decided they were probably sour. Aesop's point is not to show what some fox did at some point in history, but to give us a symbolic picture of human nature. That is how this group tends to see the Bible...a symbolic rendering of religious truth.

Of course there are many subgroups in these categories...and maybe even other categories. These are just the ones that came to my mind. You can see that because they believe different things about how the Bible came to be written and what was trying to be conveyed, they are not likely to agree on what a particular passage means. And if the passage in question is something that carries a lot of emotional or political weight in our culture, our own biases make agreement even harder to come by. Everybody wants God on their side so, unfortunately, many spend quite a bit of time trying to make the Bible fit their own position. The Bible can be made to say pretty much anything you want it to say. The trick is remaining in close enough relationship with God so that, through the Bible, God can form you, rather than the other way around.

--Anne Robertson

The Bible, like the sacred texts of other religions, has tremendous significance and power. Biblical texts are normative for Christianity, considered by many to be the veritable word of God, although written by human beings. Because the book represents the Word of God, human beings afford the Bible special privilege; its texts are thus often given priority over other documents or forms of inherited tradition. Scripture becomes the ultimate authority.

One reason why Biblical texts become contentious is that personal knowledge—influenced by cultural, social, family, peer, and other experiences—can run contrary to the understood (inherited or traditional) meaning of Biblical texts. For example, many Christians in the United States get up every day and don clothing made of blends of materials such as polyester and cotton or wool and cotton, and never give it a second thought. However, the wearing of clothing woven of two kinds of materials is forbidden by the Bible (Lev. 19:19).

Those who are aware of this Biblical statute and wear blended fabrics anyway may do so because of their understanding that the Levitical text prohibiting the wearing mixed fabrics is more of an exhortation to God’s people to remain pure and undefiled before God than it is anything else. Alternatively, Biblically conscious people may wear mixed fabrics because they regard the text as a quaint statute of a bygone age that is irrelevant to our time. In other words, the issue of fabric is not regarded as an important moral or theological issue. In any event, for these people, personal knowledge or revelation is privileged over the Biblical text.

Certain passages in the Bible are lightning rods for disagreement among people who hold scripture to be the ultimate authority, and other people who privilege personal experience or personal revelation. But people in both camps are seeking Truth plus moral and ethical guidance. Perhaps if both groups stopped trying to convince each other of the rightness of their positions, and sought to find a place where God’s love can be experienced, and where justice and compassion for all of God’s people can be achieved, we would finally realize the peace of God that surpasses all human understanding.

--The Rev. Bill Stroop



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