Faith came first

By Blogger Bill Ellis

Rev. Bill Ellis

There is an old and trite joke – with many variations – which goes something like: “There are two types of people in the world, those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don’t.”  Just for now I am with the former; I am going to divide the world, for the sake of argument, into two types of people.  One type says that the Bible is the basis of faith.  We read the stories of scripture, believe they are historically accurate, and because of that come to have faith in God.  For many people the nativity stories of Jesus found in Matthew and Luke function this way.  It is the historical truth of these stories which creates the intellectual framework for people to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah.

As we enter Advent and begin to prepare for the celebration of the Incarnation of Christ, and hear again those very important birth stories, I realize more and more that I just don’t see the relationship between scripture and faith in this way.  The historical relationship between scripture and faith is not that scripture is the presupposition of faith, it is that faith is the presupposition of scripture.   Long before there was any sacred literature whatsoever there were people who believed in God and told stories to illustrate that faith.  Over time those stories were put together in what became a single library of many books by people who already believed in God.   It wasn’t that these people believed because they put the Bible together, they put the Bible together because they believed.  That is true both with the Hebrew Bible, which we Christians call the Old Testament, and with the New Testament.  Without a living and powerful faith that was prior even to the earliest of Paul’s letters there would be no New Testament.  Only because people believed in the first place did they first create and then collect those stories and letters which became the New Testament.  For early believers the stories did help shape and inform faith, but they didn’t create faith.  Rather, faith created scripture.

That is how it is with me.  I don’t read the Bible in order to decide if these stories are plausible enough for me to have faith in God.  I read the Bible because I first have faith in God – that God is real and present – and then because I have faith I seek to understand this literature and what it is telling me about God, about us, and about the world in which we live.  What matters to me therefore is not whether or not the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are history, nor do I care whether or not they can even be harmonized successfully. What I care about is what these stories say about God and the world. Matthew declares that in Christ the covenant God made with the Jews is universalized, it is now for everyone, all are chosen.  Luke says something different, but equally significant, that the presence and power of God is made known not in marching armies and royal palaces, but in a baby dispossessed so completely that his mother had to give birth to him in a stable.  Luke and Matthew didn’t hear those birth stories and then come to believe in the revelation of God in Christ.  The first believed in that revelation, and because they believed they wrote those stories.  So, the question for me at Christmas is not: “Are either or both of these stories history?”  The question for me is: “Are either or both of these stories true?”  Do they tell us the truth about where God is in this world and who God is for?  Though I don’t believe either story is history, I deeply believe both are true; they tell us where God is in this world and who God is for in this world.  Where people believe because they are convinced the Bible is history, historical research, critical studies and scientific advances will always be a lurking danger.  Where faith precedes scripture, and informs our reading of it, such things will always be a welcome sign of a growing understanding of God and God’s ways with people.

Advertisements

8 responses to “Faith came first

  1. Is it possible to have too much faith in the Bible? Hmm, makes ya think!

  2. That’s a great point. Many classical-period biographies (Cicero for example) have birth stories that show the subject of the biography was great even at their birth. The writer of Luke followed this format, showing how Jesus was worshiped at his birth. It’s not whether the birth narratives are historically accurate, but what they tell us about Jesus.

  3. Great insight! Indeed faith existed before the Bible as we have it. Perhaps the Bible offers an instantiation of faith.

  4. In my experience this view is held by some people of faith, especially those in ‘Mainline’ churches but many other Christians don’t hold this view. I know that in some circles of academia and in some religious circles, the issues of faith vs scripture are at odds or seem to produce contradictions. But it is equally true that the perspective above is not shared by other followers of Jesus, particularly those who would describe themselves as Evangelicals. I would fall into the latter group and found myself disagreeing with a number of statements in this post. My tradition and practice of spiritual orientation places scripture at the center and guides the shape of my faith not my personal experience. With that orientation in mind, my first lens that I read through is whether one’s statements of ‘truth’ reflect written truth. Below are a few that I find contradict the word as I understand and read it.

    You said:
    “The historical relationship between scripture and faith is not that scripture is the presupposition of faith, it is that faith is the presupposition of scripture.”

    The Bible says:
    So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. -Romans 10:17

    You said:
    “Long before there was any sacred literature whatsoever there were people who believed in God and told stories to illustrate that faith.” 

    The Bible says:
    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. -John 1:1

    You said:
    “Rather, faith created scripture.”

    The Bible says:
    Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. 2 Peter 1:20

    All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness -2 Timothy 3:16

    You said:
    “Are either or both of these stories history?”  The question for me is: “Are either or both of these stories true?” …Though I don’t believe either story is history, I deeply believe both are true”

    “Where people believe because they are convinced the Bible is history, historical research, critical studies and scientific advances will always be a lurking danger.  Where faith precedes scripture, and informs our reading of it, such things will always be a welcome sign of a growing understanding of God and God’s ways with people.”

    I would say that placing biblical truth in the category of ‘stories’ devalues the authority of scripture and the historicity that those within scripture held to various people, places and events in the biblical narrative. Jesus referenced many historical people in his teachings, not as story but as history. To place the New Testament into a category similar to greek literature because of similar other narratives in various cultures is a common method of reducing scripture to mere literature in some circles. If one finds a way to remove the authority of scripture then one is no longer accountable to the message of scripture. Literature is not authoritative…scripture and the truth it teaches is…at least in my circle of faith.

    To me the fact that there are stories within cultures that are common shared visions of creation or savior-hood speak of a Divine witness within the human heart and experience that point to the fulfillment of an eternal echo. God’s truth is present in creation and the human heart and all cultures have witnessed to this reality to some degree or another but in Christ and the New Testament gospels, we see who cast those shadows.

    Not trying to be contrary or negative, just weighing in with a bit of friendly disagreement.

    • Eric,
      Thanks for your comments. I sensed no negativity in your response. I am aware that my view represents the minority report of Christianity, and yours captures that of the majority, perhaps vast majority of Christians. I remain unconvinced, since every single citation you offer is a statement of faith. This neither denigrates nor minimizes the significance of what the Bible says, rather it provides with an understanding of the kind of literature we are reading. Thomas Thompson (I know, he is anathema to Evangelicals, but I believe he is telling us the truth) has put the matter extemely well in his “History of the Patriarchal Narratives.” He writes “The question of whether the Bible is a true source of faith will not be decided on the basis of the Bible’s historical acceptability. Of far more importance is the question whether we are prepared to see literary forms which are foreign to us, and phhilosophical presuppositions which are antagonistic to historical positivism, as media of truth; for it is only then that we can take the Bible seriously.” That is the question to me. Do we believe that God can speak through cultures other than our own? Do we believe that the truth can be conveyed in ways other than the historical and quantifiable? Or is it really impossible for us to believe that if a story isn’t historical it isn’t true? If we believe the former, then the Bible will remain relevant. If we become convinced of the latter, that the only vehicle of true is modern historical and scientific postivism, then Christianity is ultimately doomed.
      I believe that the literature of scripture is fully authoritative, but it isn’t history, and it isn’t science. And indeed it is because I realize this isn’t history and this isn’t science that my faith leads me to see it as authoritative. If I believed that scripture claims to be history and science, two disciplines that had not been invented when this literature was created, then I would have to reject it as false. But my faith tells me otherwise, and teaches me how to read this stuff in a manner that leads me on to God.

  5. Bill,
    I recently read another dialogue that reminded me of your thoughts based on Christian Smith’s arguments in ‘The Bible Made Impossible’ (http://www.amazon.com/Bible-Made-Impossible-Biblicism-Evangelical/dp/1587433036 ). He talks about the ‘biblicist’ and the resulting evangelical malaise of “pervasive interpretative pluralism”. Many of the thoughts discussed there are from the same limb of the tree that you seemd to be hanging out on as well. I read this review (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/08/02/christian-smith-makes-the-bible-impossible/) from Gospel Coalition that I think best reflects my concerns and response to the issue you raise. A good read for those so inclined. I guess for me, stating that Bible based ‘Christianity is doomed’ is an amazing statement in light of history and how the Bible has survived countless similar death sentances. I imagine more will follow, but I think God’s words will remain when heaven and earth fade and the arguments against them dissapear too.

    • Eric,
      We seem to be speaking at cross purposes, which is often what happens when our only choice for communication is the blogosphere. I didn’t say bible based religion is doomed, far from it. I said was that an interpretation of the bible that misunderstands the kind of literature we are dealing with, and mistakenly believes it is history or science – two genre that dominate modern sensibilities but were unknown in the antique world – a religion based on that kind of interpretation is doomed. That is a very differnt thing than to say that bible based religion is doomed. It isn’t. Bible based religion will once again start to do very well, once we get clear on the kind of literature we are dealing with and what it is saying to us.

      • Point clarified. But do you really think that the bible isn’t at all historical? How far do you take that? Christ was or wasn’t a real man? Is that too elementary to ask? Pilate yes, Adam no? Moses yes, Herod no? Tabernacle, Temple? Moab, Egyptian or Persian captivity?

        Does the biblical record get mythologized in your opinion? Is Jehovah the same idea as Odin? Are we simply following fables with good moral meanings?

        Im curious who gets to determine all of this in your court?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s