Questioning Your Beliefs Critically

Only by critical questioning can I tell whether I am reading into the text, not only my own presuppositions and questions, but also those of my own generation and even those of my own church and religious tradition. Evangelicals have been too afraid of the word “criticism,” when only by critical questioning can I sufficiently disengage myself from my own worldly or religious (even evangelical) tradition to ask: Is this what the Bible is really saying?

— University of Chester (UK) Canon Professor Anthony C. Thiselton, BD, MTh, PhD, DD, DD

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14 Responses to Questioning Your Beliefs Critically

  1. Of course, if one is really going to think critically one must ask not just “is this what the Bible is really saying” but “is the Bible incorrect in what its saying”.

    Else we may just find ourselves creatively reinterpreting the Bible all the while telling ourselves we’re discovering its “true” meaning—when, in fact, what we would conclude if we were being more objective in our thinking is that the Bible is simply mistaken.

    A possibility to at least keep in mind.

  2. David,

    Thanks for your insightful comments!

    I am in complete agreement with you and I would venture to say that not only is the concept that “the Bible is simply mistaken” a possibility on certain points, but that it is indeed a fact that “the Bible is simply mistaken” on certain historical and scientific points.

  3. David,

    What an excellent comment. You’ve put your finger on such a key consideration, they most important distinction between eisegesis and exegesis. It’s made more difficult by the faulty bibliology handed to us by evangelical/fundamentalist leadership.

    That said, another danger comes in with starting with the presumption that the text is false until verified in a way different than we treat other ancient literature.


  4. That said, another danger comes in with starting with the presumption that the text is false until verified in a way different than we treat other ancient literature.

    That, truly, would be a bad presumption.

    But, in fact, skeptics like myself don’t generally do that. I treat all claims of extraordinary, supernatural, magical, paranormal or miraculous events with the same standard. The same one that christians probably employ when addressing nonchristian claims of that sort (like the claim that ancient pagan statues of gods could perform miraculous healings or that some Hindu yogis can levitate).

    What it comes down to is that, in most cases, an ancient document or even several of them making an extraordinary claim is inadequate to provide reasonable basis for belief in the claim.

    There can be exceptions. For example, if a medieval document claimed that three legged intelligent beings came down from the sky in a metal sphere and visited a village in France we would not have adequate reason to believe extraterrestrials visited earth in medieval times.

    But if we found documents from the other side of the world, from the very same time period, making exactly the same claim it would become far more credible.

    Mostly, this is simply common sense that we have little trouble employing in regard to OTHER people’s religious beliefs. Just not so much our own.

  5. Pete

    Else we may just find ourselves creatively reinterpreting the Bible all the while telling ourselves we’re discovering its “true” meaning—when, in fact, what we would conclude if we were being more objective in our thinking is that the Bible is simply mistaken.

    Alas, in my culture this is simply not allowed and the fact that I do this is going to get me in trouble when I finally admit it. Or better yet, some of the leadership does know that I am doing this and they are waiting, presumably assuming eventually I will return to “maturity”, and probably not open to any sort of fellowship with me as a believer (in Jesus that is) with this concept mixed in.

    I am in complete agreement with you and I would venture to say that not only is the concept that “the Bible is simply mistaken” a possibility on certain points, but that it is indeed a fact that “the Bible is simply mistaken” on certain historical and scientific points.

    It never ceases to amaze me how easy that is for you to say. But then again, perhaps we are talking about different portions. Denying as historical reality the first few chapters already assigns error to the history and science of the Bible, but that doesn’t seem all that troubling. It is when I start questioning the Exodus as history that things seem to get more troubling.

  6. …in my culture this is simply not allowed and the fact that I do this is going to get me in trouble when I finally admit it….

    You’re not alone, Pete.

  7. Pete,

    It never ceases to amaze me how easy that is for you to say. But then again, perhaps we are talking about different portions.

    ‘Twas not as easy as I make it seem, believe me. But it did get easier to say (as you put it) once I understood that the foundation upon which I desired to rest my beliefs regarding Scripture was actually located underneath a thick layer of sand (total inerrancy) atop the bedrock foundation of what the Bible really is: a reliable record of God’s dealings with mankind, communicated through various genres at various times in human history. Once I got rid of the sand, I actually found solid footing.

    It is when I start questioning the Exodus as history that things seem to get more troubling.

    What do you find troubling about the Exodus? The alleged numbers of Hebrews wandering around the desert eating manna-burgers for 40 years, or the story of their enslavement and eventual release by God’s hand?

  8. Cliff’s right, Pete. There are a number of us that have been shunned by the congregations in which we worship(ed) and serve(d). Although some situations turn out badly, do not give up hope. In my particular case, I am a regular participant in the life of my church despite their refusal to grant me official membership. Moreover, I am in dialogue with several staff members and attenders — dialogue that I did not seek but instead sought me.

    I can’t promise smooth-sailing, but I can promise that God will be with you through it all. I’ve got your back, too. =)

  9. Pete

    My problem stems from multiple angles. First, I have known for quite some time that modern archeology has ruled out the Exodus for some time, in all of its three phrases. Ie, no evidence that a vast amount of people left (nearly half the population of Egypt) after a vast amount of people died (of which there is also no written historical record). Second, zero evidence of anyone walking around the desert for 40 years much less 3 million people. And finally, no evidence for a single campaign and conquest of Canaan. But as a good dutiful conservative I ignored all that as liberal tripe. MAN’s philosophy at its worst set out by people who hated God and wished to destroy America and make us communist. Besides, what could they REALLY know anyway, just looks like a bunch of sand to me, how can they REALLY tell how big a city is. But I’ll return later to these heretics. It wasn’t them that sowed the seed of doubt.

    Pride and place for that accomplishment would go to source criticism, or the recognition that multiple authors shaped the Pentateuch. Just that alone isn’t a huge deal. I hadn’t thought that Moses had written it for some time, at least not in its entirety. It would have to be noted that most of the sources and editing was done much later but that is not impediment to an inspired text with God’s hands active in the making. Its when we start examining some of the actual details that things get a bit troubling. Sometimes the multiple sources contradict each other, and while in the past I might have bent over backwards to reconcile them, it makes much more sense now that since multiple authors were involved, it probably is a contradiction. That alone is not acceptable at my church but within this blog ring we can accept such minor errors of history. But with respect to the Exodus, and this time I mean right at the heart of the red sea parting (or did it?) I find one such discrepancy very troubling. There are two versions intermixed in this part of the narrative, J and P, and they tell a slightly different tale. I don’t have any text in front of me to sort out the details but the most striking difference is the parting of the red sea. Because in J it doesn’t part at all, it says God blew a strong east wind all night that pushed back the sea. In P, we have the more familiar story of the sea actually parting into two walls of water. What is interesting is that the other claim, that there was a strong east wind all night that pushed back the sea is still there, but we don’t talk about it much. I checked some modern versions and it seems it is translated as to smooth it over quite a bit. Later, when the Eyptians follow (actually in the J version God stirs them up and they flee towards the sea) God reverses this east wind and lets the water flow again, in another doublet to the P story of the walls crashing in and further confirming there was two different events here.

    So what? So the details are a bit different, who cares right? Well, I must admit I am continuously troubled by this for the single reason that this is one of the major miracles of the Bible, and yet the Bible itself records it two separate ways in which one is much less miraculous sounding then the other. It doesn’t lead me to a lot of confidence that the more miraculous one is correct, thereby removing one of the great supernatural narrative events of the Bible. First no Noah, now no parted sea, and I begin to wonder what supernatural event DID take place to which I put confirmation on the supernatural acts of God in history. I feel I am sliding towards the 19th century liberalism where they reduced it almost solely to Christ’s resurrection. But woa, I have tangented. Let me return to the Exodus.

    Seeing the narrative this way opens the door to suspicion and which can begin to spotlight some other difficulties, one of which you mentioned. The VAST number of people. Most conservative brothers would misunderstand me at this juncture assuming I just don’t believe in miracles, ie God could sustain them with said named mana-burgers, but that is not my trouble. My trouble is on many just down to earth fronts. How does 3 million people (not to mention the livestock!) organize to travel every day. Can you imagine when the back of the pack realized the front was moving, it would already be the end of the day. And then there is some specific references to things that just don’t make sense. For one, several times the WHOLE assembly met at the tend of meeting . . . SAY WHAT? 3 million people gathered around the tent, for what, 10 miles in each direction. The majority of people are hearing and seeing nothing. And then the soldiers had to go to the bathroom outside the camp. Man, that would be one long walk to pitch one, like 12 miles. And let’s talk about those soldiers, all 600k of them. From all other historical sources this would be a vast army, one that could easily sake Eygpt. But not only do they flee from Eygpt in fear but it is said all seven nations of Canaan are larger, meaning any historical or archeological examination of the population of Canaan is off, probably by a couple orders of magnitude.

    I don’t want to return yet to the secular God-mocking archeologists, but let me add just one point that they seem to claim that if 3 million people inhabited a land for 40 years, they would leave a huge trace, and yet seem to have left none. I’ll let that close this portion of the huge number issue.

    Now, I already know what you might say, namely that the numbers are simply exaggerated. And for sure, a lot of the problems I might have dissolve away if the Israelites were a much smaller group. They may leave the much larger Eypgt without the devastating economic consequences, travel around as a semi-organized group, and even leave little evidence of having been there. Even evangelicals will try to make this claim, though they assert a mistranslation as opposed to exaggeration due to genre. And something like this might very well be a resolution, but let me continue first with a few other points.

    At the end of the Exodus is the conquest. Here to, the textual evidence itself causes problems, namely inconsistencies about regions being taken as told separately in Joshua and Judges. I haven’t examined these myself in detail, so but I am not holding my breath they are not there. Now let me finally bring archeological evidence in, this internal evidence is supported by the external that suggests there never was one sweeping conquest of Caneen, that many of the cities mentioned were either not conquered in that time or worse, didn’t even exist (until much later, around the time of the writing of the Pentateuch…) etc. As I said from the start, I used to ignore such claims, and truthfully I don’t know enough about archaeology to say I have been personally convinced. But I no longer find confidence in my ignorance. I did that for many years in science only to learn my own conservative crowd was wrong, very wrong, and confirmably wrong, and I am open to showing a little more humility this time around. I now see my earlier questions, “how do they REALLY know that” and “it looks like just a bunch of sand to me” was mere ignorant hubris very much akin the science hubris as outlined in the video you posted on Jan 19, “Skewed Views of Science”.

    So lets due a quick rehash. We have source critical evidence that some events didn’t happen followed by internal narrative details that are near implausible, followed by external examination of history and archeology that claims the entire ordeal is mostly fabricated and you can see why I “question” the Exodus as per my former evangelical look at history. Now, we already briefly touched on a solution here, maybe it was a much smaller group, and maybe they were not solely the ancestors of everyone who called themselves Israelite in the future. Ie, maybe only one or two of the twelve tribes (those tribes that are always listed as 12 but often different tribes with some people tossed and others combined to make up for still others that only show up in some lists). I know one book popular in this web-ring is “Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction by Lawrence Boadt”, a very decent book. He offers this possibility and many other resolutions as well. And perhaps this small exodus did occur, even under God’s guidance or even supernatural control, though obviously some of it appears to have been embellished with time. I guess at this point I have to clarify that I might be personally okay with this, and wouldn’t lose much sleep over my change of perspective. But I can’t emphasize enough that my church is not okay with this, nor most of anyone who are fellowship with who claims Christ, spare only you guys. And whenever I try define what I believe I immediately pretend I am presenting it to my pastor . . . and the outcome is never good. And truthfully, it does raise even more issues for me. For one, if there wasn’t one Israelite Exodus but instead multiple groups combining in Canaan, surely this rules out the “one family” approach to history where all of those tribes were once brothers in a family, and indeed, every single Canaanite was a close relative to those few generations, either by Lot (Moab, Ammonites) or Esau (Edom), or Ishmael’s descendants, etc. Sounds OFTLY suspicious. Besides, how does one person become a nation. Must he not intermarry with some other people. Having done so, why do we think he is the father of that nation (and even name the nation after him, hmmmmm) and not all the other men that must be involved in a viable breeding population. But once I get suspicious about the factual details of Jacob and sons, well then you start questioning Abraham. Now Boadt has no problem asserting these figures are national heros that were slowly grouped together into a family tree, and maybe that is true, but all of this leads me to doubt God really spoke to Abraham and gave Him such and such a covenant. The Lord spoke…. actually that is my major problem. Because it is in that Exodus narrative that the Lord lays down the law, literarily. And as I wrestle with the historical nature of this event (never mind Deuteronomy laws and Exodus/Leviticus laws seem at ends at times), I get extremely weary with the idea that some of this could be myth as some of it is recording God’s spoken commandments itself. Did someone dream those up too? Or are they part of the core historical kernal of the real Exodus? At times, the first option actually seems more pleasing, as indeed as my wife has struggled with the last few months, the Law itself often seems sexist, raciest, and completely supportive of slavery. If God is going to speak one time in history to lay down a perfect law, this isn’t the law she would expect to find, so full of their cultural baggage and seemingly written by a men in a male dominated society.

    I probably could write a lot more but I have now opened up to many different subjects and have overwhelmed myself with tangents to flesh out. I’ll just quit here on page 3.

  10. Funny, Pete: I was just writing a blog post that takes some (not all!) of these things into account. It might take a little while to finish up, but trust me when I say that I don’t find anything you said troubling, except of course for the idea that loved ones may want to throw you out of fellowship for it.

    I actually was dreadfully afraid of that myself and so have been letting it leak out slowly at my church. I’ve been pleased to find that while they do think I’m wrong (atrociously wrong, in fact — a border-line heretic), I think they realize I’m a well-meaning heretic; in short, I grossly underestimated my friends’ and loved ones’ willingness to live at harmony with me, even though I believe outrageous things. Fellowship is a little strained on spiritual issues, but they want to maintain friendship. One has even made it clear that he is more committed to our friendship than he was before.

    Just saying, don’t despair yet, and especially not sight-unseen.

  11. Anonymous

    I find it sad and disheartening(but not surprising) that some members of your churches are acting differently around you, once they find out your beliefs.Of course rigid, dogmatic minds offer little leeway.I would guess some feel you heretics and infidels:a label(compliment)I live with, as a functioning atheist( Mike correct terminology)
    The critical mind is restless and never satisfied. Genesis and Exodus aside, did the author of Luke really know what was said at Gethsemane?
    Brian

  12. Genesis and Exodus aside, did the author of Luke really know what was said at Gethsemane?

    He certainly wasn’t an eyewitness, but Luke could have received the information directly from one of Jesus’ disciples, to whom Jesus related His anguish the night He was betrayed. Not far-fetched at all. 😉

  13. Anonymous

    I think the story of Jesus in Gesthemane is a pivotal and underestimated moment in Christian history and to this day brings me to my knees.I dont believe a word of it, but when I need help,I frequently read this story and feel whole again.I cant begin to grasp the burden and anguish this suppossed man/god might have felt.

    Brian

  14. Pete,

    Firstly, thanks for venting. I appreciate your honesty when it comes to your struggle with God’s Word. A lot of your “issues” with the Exodus and, I presume, the rest of the Pentateuch, are just now coming to the surface in my own studies. I’m on a year-long Bible reading plan (using a chronological approach) and knee-deep in the Pentateuch. I’m noticing a lot of what you’ve mentioned. It certainly doesn’t help that I’ve been reading Kenton Sparks’ God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship. 😉

    I feel I am sliding towards the 19th century liberalism where they reduced it almost solely to Christ’s resurrection.

    I thought 19th-century liberalism did away with that too!

    And let’s talk about those soldiers, all 600k of them. From all other historical sources this would be a vast army, one that could easily sake Eygpt.

    This one is interesting and I’m not going to argue for the correctness of the number insofar as the biblical text is concerned. I’d rather mention the fact that there are 67 million Persians in Iran who have the means by virtue of their numbers with which to overthrow the current government. But they don’t, despite the fact that they hate the Islamic regime. Why?

    But I digress … 😉

    I no longer find confidence in my ignorance. I did that for many years in science only to learn my own conservative crowd was wrong, very wrong, and confirmably wrong, and I am open to showing a little more humility this time around.

    Can I get an “Amen” and another “Amen”?!?! Well said, Pete.

    perhaps this small exodus did occur, even under God’s guidance or even supernatural control, though obviously some of it appears to have been embellished with time.

    That’s a reasonable approach, especially if you recognize that the majority of the Pentateuch was written 400-900 years after the alleged event.

    I guess at this point I have to clarify that I might be personally okay with this, and wouldn’t lose much sleep over my change of perspective. But I can’t emphasize enough that my church is not okay with this, nor most of anyone who are fellowship with who claims Christ, spare only you guys.

    Brian (see above) sent me this quote from Mark Twain:

    A man is accepted into a church for what he believes and he is turned out for what he knows.

    I’ve experienced this all too well, as you know. But I don’t worry about it too much. God is much bigger than our differences and He can still work through thoroughly faulty Christian communities. If God can talk through an ass, how much more so can He talk through a YEC church? In fact, I’ve found more spiritual fulfillment in a church that has rejected my membership application than in any other body with which I’ve been officially associated.

    my wife has struggled with the last few months, the Law itself often seems sexist, raciest, and completely supportive of slavery.

    “Seems”? I’d say it is, without a doubt. Of course, one could appeal to the theory of accommodation in which God works gradually through societal confines, not rocking the boat too much, and transforming a people (or an individual) slowly, one step at a time.

    Anyway, thanks again, Pete, for expressing your concerns. You’re always welcome to vent here. =)

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