“ReThink the Bible (1)” – September 19, 2008
Thomas Jefferson thought it was hard to read the Bible because there were so many unbelievable things in it, so he made a new one. He took the 4 gospels and literally cut everything supernatural out of it, creating his 46 page book Morals and Teachings of Jesus of Nazereth. He said this in a letter to John Adams in 1813:
In extracting the pure principles which [Jesus] taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled…I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently [Christ’s], which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.”
Jefferson liked the morals of the Bible, but didn’t really like the Bible itself. I think this is a problem for lots of reasons, but this is the one I want to address in these three posts: Jefferson thought it was hard to read the Bible because it was wrong and he needed to cut things out of it to make it right, but the Bible’s answer is that it is hard to read because we are wrong and it needs to cut things out of us to make us right. You might say, of course that is what the Bible’s answer is, it is speaking of itself. But look at what Jefferson did closer and it begins to unravel.
The prerequisite for doing what Jefferson did was attaining a certain height of knowledge form which he can look down and discern right from wrong as he looked at the Bible, from which he would be able to separate that “diamonds from the dung.” That is exactly what he was claiming with his scissors, that he had reached this height of omniscience. That is what every culture thinks, whether it be 18th century Enlightenment, Easter Buddhism, the worldview of the American New Age spirituality, Postmodernism, etc. Every worldview and every culture thinks it’s finally hit on the truth, and every culture is wrong. Every culture is wrong.
No culture in any time period has had a stranglehold on truth. If this is true of a culture, it is certainly true of an individual. Jefferson wasn’t speaking out of omniscience, he was just speaking from cultural arrogance. He was a product of humanistic (counting man as the center of all things), rationalistic (all things can be known through the reason) Enlightenment thinking which discounted the supernatural from the beginning. He made the mistake of assuming the boundaries of his knowledge were the boundaries of all knowledge and he cut out what didn’t fit his preconceptions.
What of the Bible’s answer to the question “Why is it hard to read the Bible?” It says that the Bible itself is not what is wrong, but it is we who read it that need correction. The truth of this answer is in its humility and its realism. It’s humble because it recognizes that no one culture or individual is omniscient. If we are too see beyond the horizon we need someone from that country to return from there and describe it to us. There is always much we do not know. It is realistic because it assumes that we don’t want to hear what we don’t want to hear. The engine of censorship doesn’t’ stop just because we are reading the Bible.
So what needs to be re-thought? Rather than scissors, we ought to approach the Bible with that same humility and realism, living with the questions and holding out the possibility that it may be we who are wrong, not the Bible.