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NOTES ON RELIGION AND MYTH
In the conflict between science and religion, religion has generally come off second best. Religion has been forced to give ground again and again whether in the field of astronomy, physics, biology, geology, history and literature. It would be hard to furnish one example where religion has triumphed in the conflict with science.
Science has to do with observable facts and verifiable evidence. Rather than proceed on the basis of "faith" or gullibility, science proceeds on the basis of asking questions and challenging assumptions. Science puts forward an hypothesis, then provides solid ground by trying to disprove the hypothesis. A hypothesis is accepted only because attempts to disprove it have failed. The scientific mind is required to ask questions, to challenge assumptions, to doubt.
The flat earth world view was only abolished after people were daring enough to doubt the orthodoxy of the "flat earth".
In the Middle Ages, learned men would argue how many teeth a horse had according to Aristotles. No one was irreverent enough to take a look at the horse’s mouth and look at the evidence for himself.
Religion has to do with believing myths. It encourages credulity. It discourages doubt, questions, investigation. It discourages the scientific method.
Religion has to do with nature and history. It can be argued that religion is simply nature worship in one form or another, and so puts humans in bondage rather than in mastery to "the elements of the world".
All ancients, for instance, invested some aspect of nature – wind, water, stars, fire, mountains or special seasons (time) with sacred significance.
In other words, nature was mythologized.
Moses, the prophets, Jesus or any of the great leaders in human thought didn’t come preaching religion. They were de-mythologizers who showed that the popular beliefs were in fact idolatry.
It is said that Christianity is an historical religion. But we must not conclude it is based on strict historical facts. There is a history there, but that history has been subjected to a great deal of interpretation and embellishment. It has been invested with a lot of mythological significance.
The oldest and most authentic Christian documents are the New Testament.
There are two ways to approach the New Testament. You can come to it with a religious belief, that is to say, you can entertain a mythological view of the New Testament which exists independently of any investigation of what the documents say for themselves. You can treat the New Testament like the "scholars" of the Middle Ages treated the horse’s mouth. Rather than take a look at the real mouth, you entertain religious belief about that mouth and that is the end of the matter. You resolve not to look, not to ask questions, and God forbid that you doubt the religious belief.
The other approach is to see what the New Testament documents say for themselves. This is the scientific method. This is a literary science. It employs not just a grammatical interpretation but the historical interpretation of reading each passage in its historical context. (See my 1983 Verdict essay, The Historical Method.
For instance, you may approach the Bible with the religious belief that it was verbally inspired or dictated by Mighty God, and that for all intents and purposes it dropped straight out of heaven free of all human idiosyncrasies, cultural conditioning, social context, world views etc.
But if you examine the documents on their own terms, you will see the cultural, even educational aspects of the various authors on display, even displaying their own social conditioning, their education or lack of it. That part of literary analysis is easy.
You may have a religious view that the New Testament is the Word of God and as such can never err or be contradictory. You assume that one part has to be in perfect harmony with any other part, etc. because it is the inerrant Word of God. That is a religious pre-supposition. It is a mythological view imposed on the New Testament. When you take up an individual New Testament document you can’t find any hard evidence that the writer (or writers, perhaps editors) are making these claims. They don’t give any evidence of a consciousness that they are writing Holy Scripture. They don’t claim infallibility. They don’t claim their literary production is "The Word of God" The church has made these claims at times for the documents, but the documents themselves stop well short of a claim to holy canon status.
Paul Achtemeier (The Inspiration of Scripture) says that we have to see that the New Testament is the product of the early church. Most of the authors are unknown to us. The different books were the product of different community. Each book reflects not only the historical circumstances but the theology and the ecclesiology of each community.
God did not write the Bible. The church did! Some books were possibly composed by the whole group of people. We need to stop thinking in terms of an inspired individual writer and think of the books as the product of inspired communities. So the church wrote the New Testament and the church canonised the New Testament. Wake up for goodness sake! The Bible is not a reflection of God’s authority but the church’s authority. All the claims which have ever been made for the Bible and about the Bible even which books are included in the Canon rests on church authority.
The church was not infallible back then any more than it is infallible now!
Classical Protestantism has the religious (mythological) belief that the Bible and the Bible only is the all-sufficient rule of faith and practice.
But if you let the Bible speak for itself it doesn’t make such claims. It is not always clear whether some commands or requirements are temporary or permanent, if they apply to an historical people in an historical situation or to all people in all situations: and it is also silent on many social and ethical problems faced by us today.
As for the great doctrines of incarnation, trinity, atonement, etc, if they were always as clearly stated in the Bible as it has often been affirmed, why has the church in all ages resorted to Creeds. The Creeds, it is said, state what the Bible teaches. So when people believe say the Athasascan Creed and what it says about the Trinity, they go to the Bible and sure enough they find the texts which confirm the Athanascan Creed. The SDA’s too find their 27 Fundamental Beliefs in the Bible including the idea of an "investigative judgment" beginning in heaven in 1844 while the JW’s can find that Jesus came secretly in 1914 – "its all clearly spoken of in the Bible".
The fact is that anyone can find in the Bible exactly what he has been conditioned to find there by his religious biases.
The Bible as such, according to the Bible, is not the Word of God. The Word of God is God and the object of worship. Bibliolatry is a form of idolatry – nature worship.
God’s Word is spirit and life and can only be disclosed in a person and through a person. The living person is the locus for the revelation of God. The New Testament declares that the person who reveals God is Jesus Christ. In a secondary sense the Word of God, especially in the book of Acts is the orally proclaimed message about Christ. (See also Romans 10:8 "The Word of faith which we are preaching.") Scripture is testimony or a witness to Revelation.
Judaism was the religion of the book – variously called law or Scripture (graphe) or letter (gramma) meaning, the written or inscribed text. Sometimes Scripture is said to consist of the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets, but sometimes Law means any part of the Old Testament Scripture, as in John 15:25. (See also Galatians 3:22,23 and Galatians 4:21-30 where Law is equated with Scripture).
Jesus did not write Scripture nor did he instruct his disciples to write Scripture. Nowhere does Jesus, especially in his last discourse in John 13-16, instruct his followers to live out of or by Scripture. And neither does Paul in all his letters exhort Christians to study or live by the Bible.
To early Christians Jesus was living Word, Light, Shepherd, Bread, Water etc. – and all those things which Judaism had claimed for the law (see Psalm 119). Early Christianity existed, spread and thrived without a book, without a New Testament. It was not, as in later Protestantism, a religion of the Book. The Fourth Gospel is a repudiation of a religion of the Book. (See John 5:39)
Paul too repudiates a religion of book/law/letter which are all the same. (What Paul calls letter in Romans7:6, Timothy 4 calls "Holy Scripture".)
The Galatian heresy was the reversion to a book/letter/law
II Corinthians 3 is a repudiation of living by the gramma – the written or inscribed text. Paul’s "not under the law" means not under gramma/ graphe/torah! So too for Paul as for "John", the word of God is not equated with the written or inscribed text. To be led by the Spirit (Gal ) is not living out a book religion. Nowhere, absolutely nowhere, does Jesus, "John" or Paul advocate anything that remotely approaches a Protestant Sola-Scripture which is really a kind of Judaism redivivus. This kind of religion has actually made the Bible their Christ, and it has to be said that those who make all these fantastical claims for the Bible are in reality very very ignorant of what the Bible claims for itself.
Jesus "John" and Paul actually demythologized the Bible and Protestantism re-mythologized it. But that is what religion is anyhow – it is about believing myths.
Demasking the Bible Myth.
The problem with people who entertain all these myths about the Bible is not that they take the Bible too seriously; they do not take it seriously enough. They do not let the Bible speak for itself. They do not read and understand it for what it says.
For instance, how can an SDA who believes Jesus started a new stage of his ministry in the sanctuary in heaven in 1844 read the New Testament book of Hebrews seriously?
Or how can a Sabbatarian read Paul seriously. Anybody with even a
rudimentary knowledge of early Gentile Christianity and the socio-economic
world of the
of any stripe or hue. But if you believe in Sabbath strongly enough it is amazing what you can do even with Paul.
Now those who
believe the New Testament never contradicts itself can read in one place where
Jesus last supper was a Passover meal or just the opposite in "John"
- that it was not a Passover meal: But apologists will do a couple of
summersaults, and lo, "John" and the Synoptic gospels all agree. They
refuse to see obvious things – Matthew and Luke’s birth stories are mutually
exclusive. (Try getting the flight into
It is demeaning to God to suggest that his Word is on trial in all the contradictions, historical mistakes and interpretative idiosyncrasies of the Bible writers. The plain fact is that the New Testament was first written by the church, and then gathered together and canonized by the church. It is not Revelation. It is not the Word of God. The documents are the church’s testimony to the Word of God. It is the church’s witness to the revelation given in Jesus Christ.
God is transcendent, beyond our thoughts and imagination. The revelation of the infinite, unthinkable and unpronounceable One cannot take place in a book. His Word is spirit and life it can only be revealed in the spirit and life of flesh and blood.
The claim that the Word of God can be laid out in cold text is bad enough; but to go on then and say that for it to be dissected, analysed and made the subject of scientific literary analysis is blasphemous. One thing that scientific literary analysis has achieved is that it has amply demonstrated the folly of calling Bible documents the Word of God.
Further, to say that any written text is the Word of God is to reduce the Word to definition and proposition. The Word of God is God (John 1:1) and is not a propositional or subject to definition. The New Testament documents make no such blasphemous claims for themselves. They are the church’s testimony to the Word of revelation which is not found in a book but in a person. "God was manifested in the flesh." "The Word was made flesh". Nowhere did the primitive church suggest that the Word was made Book!
This brings us to reflect on the Catholic – Protestant debate. Of course the Catholics were right when they said that the church produced the Bible, and that the acceptance of Biblical authority is the acceptance of church authority.
The Catholics have argued that the teaching authority of the living church must stand alongside the teaching authority of the ancient church, given in the Bible. Both are church tradition. The New Testament documents
there were as in all historical testimony, advantages and disadvantages in standing nearest to a great event in history. Through the New Testament the church of the first century gave its interpretation of the Christ event. Then all contemporary church reflects further on the meaning of the Christ event. It all rests on church authority.
Many Christians will reject the infallibility of the church’s teaching office. But they will claim infallibility for the church’s New Testament. This is inconsistent and of course will not stand up to scrutiny.
Catholics and Protestants have both been mistaken in their search for a vertical authority to live by because all vertical authorities are by their very nature inhuman and ungodly. We should respect the testimony of the church of the New Testament era but no more than a human testimony deserves.
Ecclesiolatry (worship of the church) and Bibliolatry (worship of a book) are in reality the same thing. These are nothing more than creature worship. Like all religion, in one form or another they are Christian versions of nature worship. The myth of the infallible Bible and the myth of the infallible church are all one God denying dehumanising myth.
Copyright © 1983-2008 Robert D. Brinsmead