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Do You Read the Bible With Your Conscience?

A few months ago, I got to sit at a table with Derek Flood – a guy whose work has helped shape my thinking on difficult aspects of theology for few years now. Derek has a new book out this month called Disarming Scripture, dealing with the problem of violence in Scripture. His book tackles all the tough stuff– from genocide in the Old Testament to passages in the New Testament that have been used to justify slavery, child abuse, and state violence. In Disarming Scripture, Derek proposes that we might be able to move beyond the familiar liberal and conservative arguments about these passages by learning to read the Bible a new way: the way Jesus did. 

Following is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of Disarming Scripture:


The flat and frozen way of reading Scripture often presents itself as the only “safe” way to interpret the Bible. Listen to these words from John Henry Hopkins writing in the 19th century:

“If it were a matter to be determined by personal sympathies, tastes, or feelings, I should be as ready as any man to condemn the institution of slavery, for all prejudices of eduction, habit, and social position stand entirely opposed to it. But as a Christian… I am compelled to submit my weak and erring intellect to the authority of the Almighty. For then only can I be safe in my conclusions.”

The assumption here is that the “safe” way to read the Bible is to disregard our moral conscience, our compassion, our sense of right and wrong, ignoring everything we know about human psychology and mental health, and instead blindly follow a text or law.

This leads Hopkins to support the institution of slavery.

In reality, however, as Hopkins’ example sadly illustrates, a reading devoid of conscience is anything but safe. It is precisely this kind of “safe” way of reading the Bible that has led people throughout history to commit unspeakable acts of cruelty and violence in the name of God. The problem is therefore not so much with the content of the Bible itself as it is learning to break away from a fundamentalist reading that leads to shutting down our conscience and justifying harm in God’s name.

Today in our culture we regard slavery as self-evidently immoral. However, because their approach to the Bible itself has not changed, this leads many conservative Christians to continue to apply the same “safe” reading, promoting violence in other areas.

Consider the following words by a contemporary Christian author (writing in 2005) promoting the corporal punishment of children, noting how similar the argument sounds to the one above by Hopkins:

“I would have never spanked them had I not been persuaded by the Word of God that God called me to this task. It is not my personality. Margy and I were exposed to some teaching from the book of Proverbs that convinced us that spanking had a valid place in parenting. We became persuaded that failure to spank would be unfaithfulness to their souls.”

Again, we have someone going against their conscience, doing something they personally feel is wrong because they think this is what God demands of them, and moreover writing a book urging other parents to do the same—to go against their consciences, against their own parental sense of compassion, because the Bible supposedly tells them to. He continues:

“You have no choice. You are acting in obedience to God. It is your duty.”

At issue here is not so much the relative merit of the exact parental advice given by this author (which I happen to strongly disagree with), but far more importantly his claim that as Christians we are obligated as parents to blindly obey these directives, rather than working through these issues thoughtfully while listening to our conscience.

Parenting is a tremendous responsibility, and so it is vital to pay attention to our doubts and our conscience as we work through what is best for our kids.

To instead say that parents are duty-bound to God to ignore their conscience, ignore their sense of compassion, as well as explicitly instructing his readers to ignore their pediatricians’ advice is a staggering recipe for disaster.

Because the approach to interpretation has not changed, the argument made here by this author in the 21st century is an exact parallel to that made by Hopkins in the 19th century. Echoing Hopkins, almost word for word, he writes,

“Experience is an unsafe guide. The only safe guide is the Bible.”

The tragic reality however is that abrogating our moral responsibility as parents is anything but safe. This is the bitter fruit of reading the Bible against one’s conscience.

It has led countless people in the past to justify the brutal and inhumane institution of slavery, and it continues today to lead many conservative Evangelicals to be some of the most outspoken advocates, not only of corporal punishment of children, but equally of gender inequality, discrimination against sexual minorities, torture, capital punishment, and of course war — all in a tragically misguided attempt to be “faithful” to the Bible.

[ image: ThuyD ]


published December 4, 2014

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