In some countries of the world the Bible is contraband. Smuggling operations exist with the sole aim of getting them secretly across closed borders and into the hands of those who want to read it. I will never forget getting off a train in an Asian country at four o’clock one morning and making my way to a rendezvous with three indigenous church leaders. A team of us were delivering bags filled with Bibles that were to be distributed amongst the churches farther north. When our friends unzipped the bags and looked inside, the tears began to flow down their cheeks. These books were so precious to the Christian believers that they were prepared to risk imprisonment and persecution in order to get hold of them. I found it intriguing that the Bible should inspire such sacrifice and courage in the hearts of those who want to read it.
But why is the world’s best-selling book rubbished by so many? Have you ever had the experience of someone turning to you and saying, “You don’t honestly believe all that stuff, do you?” I remember desperately searching for something credible to say when a friend came straight out and asked me, “Noah’s ark—do you believe in that?” I managed a feeble “yes”, which was met with scorn and laughter by the group I was eating with.
I’m sure many of us can identify both with being asked questions about the Bible and asking them ourselves. After that early experience of finding myself speechless I became determined to look for answers that would satisfy. Would the Bible really stand up to tough questioning?
Many good Christian books have been written aimed at giving clear answers to the questions that skeptics often ask about Christian faith. Questions like “Why is there suffering in the world if there is a God of love?” or “Hasn’t science proved that there is no God?” Or, “What about all the other religions?” In these books there is usually a question along the lines of “Can we really trust the Bible?” While the answers given are extremely valuable, I have found that all sorts of questions are raised about the Bible—each of which deserves a good answer in and of itself.
My search for answers took me to study theology at university. But in my wildest dreams as a student at Oxford I never thought that one day I might have to defend my Christian faith before the dons of the university. That is, not until February of my final year. I was reading theology at Christ Church, preparing for finals, when one night I dreamt that I would be “vivaed” for my degree! A viva voce is an oral examination that involves appearing before a panel of examiners and defending what you have written in your finals exams. This particular form of torture is usually reserved for examining doctorates. But sure enough, a couple of weeks after my degree was finished, towards the end of June, I received a phone call letting me know that I was required to appear before the theology faculty. The date that was set for me to “answer a few questions” was the day before my wedding.
During my interview with these professors I was asked a number of questions about my Christian convictions. But one of them stands out, and I remember it as clearly as if it happened yesterday: “You don’t honestly mean to tell us that you think Jesus actually said the words recorded in the Gospels, or for that matter, that the events recorded in the Bible really took place?”
My first impulse was to reply by asking, “On what basis do you assume out of hand that Jesus did not say those words?”
You see, the astounding prejudice demonstrated here by highly intelligent people draws our attention to the skepticism with which the Bible is treated by many people in all walks of life. A conviction that the Bible must be wrong from those at the highest level of academic excellence seems in turn to have been embraced at a popular level by many people who have barely glanced at the Bible but who feel sure that it is not to be trusted.
My viva became the first event of many where I have been involved in defending the intellectual credibility of the Bible, and indeed of the Christian faith. As I go around with the Zacharias Trust and answer questions about the Christian message, I find that again and again many questions are asked specifically about the Bible. In our culture, which many call “postmodern”, the experts tell us that people are not interested in truth any more, and they are certainly not interested in authoritative texts like the Bible. And yet time and time again questions about the Bible come up in our conversations.
Initially I found many of the questions articulated unusual—less about facts and evidence and more about ethics and interpretation. The questions of today seem to contain nuances of pluralism and postmodernism. Yet after six years of working in the field of Christian apologetics, I have become convinced that if we are able to sensibly answer the concerns of the truth seekers we come across then many will be brought to faith in Jesus Christ.
“It’s all a matter of interpretation”
When it comes to talking about the Bible, people have all kinds of questions and suspicions. Often the picture in the mind’s eye is of some strangely incoherent mystical writings that may be frightening. There is also the perception that religious people use the Bible to shore up their own causes, that it is interpreted and used to mean whatever a particular group feels. This kind of statement may take the form “You just make the Bible mean what you want it to mean! How can you expect me to take it seriously?”
I have experienced this question coming in slightly different forms over the years. On one occasion I was talking to a fellow traveller at an airport; she had just finished a book that she explained claimed that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and ended up living happily ever after in Mesopotamia. Another friend of mine had read the same book and had drawn completely different conclusions from it. When I mentioned this, my fellow traveller was not at all surprised. As the conversation progressed it became clear that the historical source material was not really important to her. This new book that she had enjoyed and the differing conclusions drawn from it by intelligent people just went to show that there were many interpretations of any text. This was then extended to apply to the Bible and the events it records. Meaning could not really be fixed—there is just a sea of valid opinions and no one “reality” to be found amongst them all.
The big issue behind the increasing numbers of questions about meaning and interpretation is the question of whether words and texts can have any inherent meaning at all. Does it all just come down to a matter of opinion? Is every interpretation equally valid? Can this text actually speak to me or do I make it mean what I want?
This was powerfully communicated to my husband a few years ago. He is a vicar and had performed a friend’s wedding. Following the church service we sat at a beautiful reception at a round table. I was talking to the young man sitting next to me, and my husband was sitting next to this man’s girlfriend. As we began to talk the man stopped mid-sentence and suddenly blurted out an apology: He said that he found for some reason he couldn’t lie to me and explained that he and his girlfriend had decided before coming to the wedding to swap lives. He was a wealthy management consultant and she was an artist. They had wanted to see if people treated them differently according to status and so they pretended to have the job of the other. As we talked about why he might be uncomfortable about lying to me and other spiritual things, we looked over at our partners and he said, “I wonder if my girlfriend has managed to hoodwink your husband …” I silently prayed.
After the wedding my husband explained to me that the young woman had also found herself unable to lie to him. They had also begun to talk about God and at one point she had said, “The reason I am not a Christian is that I am studying English Literature, and I don’t believe that there is a ‘transcendental signified’, and so I could make the Bible mean whatever I wanted it to mean.” My husband asked her to clarify and she explained that she believed that words have no actual meaning—a word on a page or a word being heard only has the meaning that a reader or a hearer gives it. It does not itself carry any ultimate meaning because there is no God (or transcendental signified) to give ultimate meaning to words.
My husband looked at her and said, “If that is the case—words have no meaning except the meaning of the listener or reader—is it okay with you if I take what you have just said to mean ‘I believe in Jesus and I am a Christian’?” At that moment she looked a little worried. She realized that her argument failed its own test. The standards by which she was judging the Bible were not standards her own thinking could stand up under.
“What do you mean?”
This issue of whether words have any meaning is incredibly important as we look at the Christian faith and as we offer the source materials about the life of Jesus—the New Testament Gospels—to our friends who do not believe in him. If the Bible only means what we make it mean there is no point reading it in order to discover anything about God.
Why do people believe that when it comes to the Bible everything is a matter of interpretation? It may help us to answer the question if we can first understand where these ideas about interpretation and meaning come from. In doing so, we must at least briefly wade through the sometimes difficult ideas of a few philosophers that have been embraced by popular culture so that we may in turn observe four critical challenges to the Bible. Yet you will note, like the young woman’s argument, each of these challenges are actually self-refuting.
First, the idea that there is no ultimate meaning in any text has become extremely powerful in our current postmodern context, and it has enormous implications for any communication about the Gospel. Literary theorist Roland Barthes writes, “Literature … by refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an antitheological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases—reason, science, law.”
This statement echoes the strangely prophetic words of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “We cannot get rid of God until we get rid of grammar.” But of course, in refusing to fix meaning or to ignore all grammar, it becomes impossible for even Barthes or Nietzsche to communicate these ideas! The desire to liberate the human being from the constraint of God is powerfully linked with this issue of language and meaning.
Language as a power play
Second, there is a postmodern suspicion that any attempt to assign words particular objective meaning is to use force and assert power over others. Philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) argued that no firm foundations for knowledge exist at all and that there is no original or transcendental signified to which all “signifiers” can ultimately refer. Clearly this idea has direct consequences for the Christian seeking to advocate the possibility of encountering truth in Christ. But this is not all.
Foucault goes on to argue that there is an essential interplay between knowledge and power. Echoing Nietzsche’s phrase “will to power,” Foucault calls the pursuit of truth a “will to knowledge” that arbitrarily establishes its own “truth”. This “truth” can then be imposed on others, giving power into the hands of the speaker or writer. In this way discourse and the pursuit of knowledge are written off as the pursuit of power, and this power is embodied and expressed in institutionalized languages.
According to this view, when we read the Bible, we must be suspicious of the writers who are exercising power over us and even more suspicious of anyone who might try to help us interpret the Bible. Furthermore, any attempt at preaching from or explaining the Bible is purely a sinister attempt to gain power over another.
This sort of suspicion reminds me of an incident after a preacher in Oxford got up into the pulpit one Sunday and preached his heart out. At the door of the church a young man shook his hand and began to look a little flushed. He had hated the sermon. When asked why this was, he replied that he had found it offensive that the preacher had talked with conviction, believing what he said to be true. He objected to the persuasive nature of what he had heard and was very suspicious of the power involved.
This young man articulated the postmodern objection to meaning as power, expressed in a popular form. But again, we see that the reasoning fails its own test. After all, one wonders how Foucault is able to tell us about power relations and words without falling into his own trap. How can he use words to explain this to us without himself taking power over us? Presumably he is the one exceptional individual who can tell us things without taking power over us.
A further consequence of these ideas about power and manipulation is to deny the idea of a disinterested knower, which means denying any possibility that we can stand beyond history and human society in a vantage point that could offer certain knowledge. Truth is not seen as theoretical or objective; rather, truth is a “fabrication” or “fiction”. Any attempt to assert truth about a historical event or any other kind of reality is perceived as power play. The suspicion is that a writer or speaker is trying to manipulate and control others. From this point of view the Bible is seen as a tool of manipulation used by powerful people to control others.
Yet the same question needs to be asked of this view: How can someone who believes this communicate it to others? If words are tools of oppressors used by powerful people to control others, then isn’t Foucault doing exactly the same thing when he writes his philosophy books to tell us this? Once again, this argument falls at the first fence—it fails its own test.
If the skeptical person wants to use this line of reasoning against the Bible then they need to be encouraged to see that it must also apply to their own reasoning. This reminds me very much of a friend’s mother-in-law. She is constantly criticizing my friend and her husband for failing to regularly telephone her, but she will frequently go traveling for a couple of months at a time without calling or letting her family know the details. Her complaint against her son is exactly what she herself does to her son. In human relationships this is called hypocrisy. In philosophical discussion this is called “special pleading”—the rules apply to you but not to me. This kind of approach ought to be exposed for what it is.
Rejecting a larger framework of meaning
Third, another postmodern idea is that there are no overarching narratives or stories which give a framework of meaning to language. The power of a grand narrative (such as the Gospel story) uniting human beings across the world and into which their own local stories can be integrated has waned. Moreover, it has been challenged as if it were a dictator restricting people’s liberty. Indeed, the thinker Jean-Francois Lyotard argued that a postmodern outlook demands a “war on totality”—a fight against any claim to universal meaning. Thus, any worldview or framework of meaning is rubbished, whether that be the modern myth of progress, the Enlightenment myth of rational beings discovering truth, or the “Christian myth” that God made human beings and reveals Himself to them. Of course, the only exception to this denial of overarching stories is the overarching idea that there are no overarching ideas!
Language and meaning
Fourth, further questions about language and meaning emerge in relation to the question of God. If God does not exist, then there is no foundation for language and words are not able to signify or present any given reality. The late Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) raised similar questions about words and language. He attacked the view that our statements are representations of the world as it actually is and denied that language has any fixed meaning connected to a fixed reality or that it unveils definitive truth. The belief that language can have meaning causes people to search for some ultimate Word or presence that can serve as the foundation of thought, language, and experience—again, some transcendental signified. But, he argues, such a God or idea does not actually exist.
This is interesting because notice that this very approach shows us that unless God exists, language cannot carry meaning. If we want to reject God we have to undermine language. That is, if no such ultimate reality exists, then the meanings of words must arise out of their relationship with an immediate context and not out of any connectedness or dependency upon ultimate reality (God).
This would make language completely self-referential. If meaning changes over time and with changing contexts, the prospect of communication of one being to another is seriously jeopardized. Such a scenario would mean that not only texts are lost to us, but also the very capacity of humans to communicate with one another. Relationships are completely undermined. And when it comes to reading, if the words within a text only have the meaning that I in my cultural and linguistic context give them, it would not be possible for that text to really speak to me. I would be speaking to myself. This is a serious objection and a real problem.
However, notice again that this is only a problem if (1) God does not exist, and (2) language has no capacity to carry real meaning. But if both these propositions were the case then we would not be able to assert these statements using words, because once more the idea fails its own test.
We have seen that the postmodern throws up all kinds of questions about the possibility of texts or words having any meaning. We have also noted the failure to recognize the inconsistency of thought here. After all, how can anyone tell us this? If words have no ultimate meaning then ought not those who believe that remain silent? Is it really possible to express this idea in words whilst at the same time denying those very words the possibility of meaning? If we are to escape complete silence then surely it is more credible to believe that some meaning is possible, that communication can occur.
The text of the Bible
If we are willing to concede that meaning might be possible then we need to begin to ask some questions as to how we might go about looking at a text such as the Bible. One starting place could be the author. Probably the most important questions to ask about an author are to do with his intention in writing. When we come to look at the New Testament and the Gospels in particular, two of the Gospel writers let us know what their intentions are. Luke wrote his Gospel as a Gentile believer in Jesus. He was a doctor, a scientific man. He expressed his intentions for writing his Gospel at the beginning of his account:
“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
Then there was John, one of the twelve disciples. He was incredibly close to Jesus, having lived with him for three years and watched his ministry unfold. John was known as “the beloved disciple.” He expressed his intentions in writing his Gospel towards the end of his testament: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you might have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
Now I am not suggesting that because the authors give us their intentions an unbeliever should automatically take these Gospels as “gospel truth.” Rather, we can question and scrutinize the motives of the author and come up with a number of possibilities: (1) It is possible that the authors have genuine motives but have been deceived and are passing on mistaken information. (2) It is possible that the authors know the information they are writing down is false, and they are intentionally trying to deceive the reader. (3) It is possible that the authors have genuine motives and that by and large they are recording what actually happened.
Asking inductive and deductive questions
We would then need to test these possibilities with specific reference to the text in question. There are two basic types of questions we could ask of the text: inductive and deductive. Inductive questions would ask whether the text of a Gospel makes sense of the world external to it, whereas deductive questions would make an internal examination. Inductive questions would include, Can the reader make connections between what is in the text and the real world all around us? Or is this Gospel purely a circle of reality one has to step into, suspending the real world whilst within it? Do historical and archaeological references fit with the data available to us from the period? Does the text make sense of the world as we know it? Does it diagnose and adequately speak to the human condition? Does the text have the “ring of truth”? All of these inductive questions will help a seeker to think about whether a particular Gospel is trustworthy or even possibly true.
Again, deductive questions also need to be asked. It is interesting to me that many Christians try to start here without first addressing bigger picture questions about the text. But although we do not begin here, these questions must still be asked, such as, Does the text we are reading hold together? Is it internally coherent? Does it contradict itself? When we do step inside the text, does it make sense as a whole?
Testing for both deductive and inductive truth will help those outside the Christian faith to consider the Gospels and New Testament for themselves. It is important for us as believers to resist the temptation to try to force others to accept what the Bible says “because we say so.” Many people need to look at it firsthand, ask questions, scrutinize motives, and encounter the reality of Jesus themselves in the pages of Scripture.
I remember meeting a skeptical non-Christian a number of years ago in Oxford. He had asked many questions about the Christian faith and had found some answers but was still uncertain about who exactly Jesus was and whether we could trust the source materials about his life. As he read one of the Gospels he found himself questioning some of the miracles but was stunned to read that some of the original followers of Jesus were fishermen. When he read that fishermen saw the miracles and followed Jesus, he found himself strangely stirred.
When I asked him why that was he explained that he came from a family of fishermen in Scotland going back over many generations. He knew that these were earthy people not given to hallucinations or being taken in by fraudulent miracles. He finished by saying, “If those fishermen saw it, I believe they knew what they were talking about. I know people like that—they wouldn’t be taken in easily. That is enough for me.”
This is probably one of the stranger reasons I have been given for someone wanting to become a Christian. But as he tested the Gospels for truth, using his brain and his experience in life, he realized that the account he was reading did not just make sense as a document internally. Rather, it also connected with reality for him personally.
I began this article noting that sometimes people ask me, “You don’t honestly believe the Bible literally, do you?” Though it may come across as antagonistic or dismissive, this question has become increasingly urgent as people are frightened of fundamentalism in the world around us. They see September 11th and think that it is fundamentalism (of any sort) that is the dangerous thing. Their reasoning is this: If people begin to believe what their holy books say it becomes a very dangerous thing. To take a religious book literally is perceived as one of the most stupid and misguided things we can do.
Therefore, it is important to observe that it is not the act of believing what a book says or taking it literally that is necessarily dangerous. Rather, the danger is determined by the content of the book. What will we find when we read it? Does the book incite violence; does it lend itself to a dangerous use? It cannot be an inherently evil thing to believe what a book says; the danger is dependent on the message.
So how do we answer a question like “Do you take it literally?” G.K. Chesterton was asked this question and wittily replied, “The Bible says that Herod is a fox. That does not mean that he has a bushy tail and pointy ears. It also says that Jesus is the door—that does not mean that he is wooden, flat and swinging on hinges.” To assert that it is possible for a text to have meaning and to communicate that meaning to a reader or listener is not to take away entirely the responsibility of the reader or listener to participate in the process. The reader must ask questions about the author’s intentions as well as scrutinize their own motivations and reactions. The historical context of the text plays a part as does the cultural context of the reader.
To be dogmatic about the non-possibility of any text having and communicating meaning (as the postmodern asserts) is to be closed-minded. And as we have also observed, this dogmatism is self-refuting and fails its own test. The Christian does not ask a skeptic to naively accept what the Bible says because “we say so,” but only to be open-minded enough to read a Gospel and ask questions of it, scrutinize it, and see for themselves whether what they find is compelling and truthful or not.