Saturday, March 19, 2011

Why I Follow the Bible

In a recent conversation, a Muslim asked me why I follow the Bible, a collection of "historical books written by human beings." You see, since the Bible directly contradicts much of what the Quran says, the Muslim party line is that the Bible is corrupt, and the Quran is the only valid word of God ( I have addressed this elsewhere). I amply demonstrated that every criticism she made of the Bible was true tenfold for the Quran. I felt that her question was simply an attempt to draw attention away from the embarrassment that the Quran is to Islam, but she returned with, "Forget that I am Muslim. and give me your answer?"

 Ah, heck, might as well go on record. . . .so this was my answer to her.  Part of the reason I acquiesced and did this is that most Muslims are dismally ignorant of the Bible and what it contains.  They relate it to their Quran, which lacks a narrative or a cohesive theme.  The Quran is just a mishmash of disconnected stories, anecdotes, directives and sayings, and the Muslims are under the false assumption that the Bible is similar in format and content.  It is not.

The Bible is the historical account of the development of the relationship between man and God. It was written by eyewitnesses, prophets, Kings and scholars. It begins with the lessons of Genesis (God Created the universe and Man. Man sinned and through sin, separated himself from God), to the contract established with Abraham ( My covenant is with you, And you shall be the father of a multitude of nations). It tells of the tribes of Israel enslaved in Egypt, and God leading them out of enslavement to establish them in the promised land. It tells of how the descendants of Abraham lacked faith and turned to false idols, and so God kept them in the desert until all the adults who had fled Egypt were dead except the two whose faith never wavered. It tells of the conquest of the promised land, driving out those who worshiped false gods, and the establishment of a new Nation of Israel, with no government but faith in their God. It tells of the laws that God gave to that nation to prevent their faith in God from becoming contaminated by false beliefs. It tells of the people declaring that they want a king like other nations, and God warning them of the dangers that would entail, and then giving them their king, who went on to establish a great Israelite empire. It tells of the generations that followed, who prospered when they followed the ways of the Lord, and did poorly when they forgot the Lord and turned to false gods. It tells of a nation chastised by it's hubris and lack of faith, ten of the twelve tribes removed from history, and the remaining two led into bondage in a foreign land. It tells of their triumphant return and the rebuilding of the temple when they returned to God.

This and more is all contained in the books of the Old Testament. It's a history, and a repository of literary masterpieces of Jewish culture - songs and poetry and philosophy, all of which derives from God and faith in God. It's a recipe for success, and a cautionary tale told by those who failed to learn their lessons and suffered the consequences. It's also the reference book that establishes the context of the law, the faith, the culture and the beliefs of the people among whom Jesus walked.

When the time was ripe, God chose to demonstrate that his commitment to the contract with Abraham was as strong as was Abraham's. Abraham proved willing in act to sacrifice his only legitimate son - the heir he wanted all his life - to show that nothing was more important than God. How could God do less?

The New Testament is the accounts of eyewitnesses who walked with Jesus, ate with him, listened to him. They relate what they felt was important for posterity. Like Islam, their traditions were oral, until the second temple was destroyed in 70AD by the Romans, and they realized that they needed a permanent way to record their experiences so they could tell other generations what happened even from the grave. So they wrote what they remembered, told the stories of their experiences with Jesus, and as much of his actual words as they could remember. They included a detailed account of what they did after Jesus ascended to heaven, how they spread their "Good News" (Gospel, in Greek. Injeel in Arabic), beyond Jerusalem to communities throughout the known world. They included letters written to the various communities that address questions of faith that those communities had.

But the Bible is not the sole, unsupported point of reference to the Christian faithful. For John said "And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books which were written." (John 21:25) So we not only look to the Book, we look to the traditions, how the earliest followers of Jesus practiced their faith, handed down through generations by those that they taught and who emulated them. We have copious written records of these traditions which are not part of the Bible, but are part of the history of the Christian church, because the Early Christians were a chatty bunch, and prone to write frequently and exchange and compare notes. Indeed, they enjoyed quoting the Bible in their correspondence, and if we were to assemble fragments of scripture from all the letters written in the first two or three centuries, we would be able to paste together the complete New Testament except for about 11 verses.

Moreover we know how these people lived and acted, and frequently died. They converted whole nations without lifting a single sword. They frequently died for their faith, and did so without fighting back, for Jesus said "Love your neighbor," and "Those that live by the sword shall die by the sword."

I follow the Bible because that's the surviving account handed down for two thousand years by those who witnessed it of Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross. Muslims deny this. That sacrifice was a symbolic sin offering, which you would understand if you read the Old Testament and understood Jewish culture. It was a closing of the circle of the covenant with Abraham, demonstrating that God would actually sacrifice his son to show that nothing - no sin - is greater than his love for us. And it was an incontrovertible, public display of power, because it opened the door for Jesus to demonstrate that he had the power over even his own death: "“For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.” John 10:17-18. His resurrection is the greatest of all miracles. Everyone saw him die a public and humiliating death, so there was no question of what had happened when multitudes saw him and heard him teach later.

I follow the Bible, because it's truth spoken by honest men. They wrote what they saw, even when they didn't understand it. These men were terrified, beaten down, their faith shaken after the crucifixion. By any measure the Jesus cult should have died a quiet death after he was gone, as his followers were pushed to the fringe and the new generation scoffed at them for their ridiculous claims. What was it that put steel into them, convinced them so thoroughly that they cheerfully and frequently accepted death in Jesus' name? Something momentous convinced them of who Jesus was so effectively that they could no more deny it than they could stop breathing. The only thing that could have done this was encountering a man you incontrovertibly saw die - a man you buried - talk to you, walk with you, eat with you.

The Bible is a consistent story. It's an epic plot that spanned thousands of years. It's not a random collection of pithy sayings and self-serving anecdotes. It's living history, told by the people who were there.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Christians and the Old Testament Law

When discussing religion with a Muslim, one of the common tactics you will encounter is the Red Herring fallacy, wherein a Muslim will attack the Christian’s beliefs in order to demonstrate the validity of Islam.  What a Christian believes, or how he practices that belief is irrelevant to the question of whether Islam is the inspired word of God or the insane mumblings of a paranoid schizophrenic with a god complex.  Nevertheless, when debating a Muslim, you will be charged to defend your own beliefs and practices.  This does two things for the Muslim – It places you on the defensive, thus removing the requirement for them to not answer uncomfortable questions about Islam which they’re not prepared to answer, and it attempts to cast doubt upon your moral authority to cast judgment on Islam. 

The moral authority is a logical fallacy – any Muslim should be proud to use such a discussion as an opportunity to instruct the infidel in the ways of Islam and demonstrate why the infidel’s logic is in error.  But they do not do this, they shy away from such opportunities the way roaches run from the light.  This implies that they are afraid of what the harsh light of reason will do to their cult beliefs. 

As far as being on the defensive, no Christian should be afraid of this, and should be well-armed to easily defend the Christian faith and turn to use it to demonstrate the fallacies of Islam.  The advantage the Christian has here is that most Muslims have not read the Bible, and anything they know about the Bible is normally from Islamic apologetic websites, taken out of context and presented with editorializations that twist the meaning of the simple truth.  Twisting the truth to be something other than what it is, this is Satan’s strength.  Witnessing the truth in context is normally all that’s required to reveal such lies.

In a recent debate with a Muslim, A Muslim attempted to turn the discussion away from uncomfortable questions I was asking about Islam with the irrelevant question, “So who gave you right that don`t [sic] follow Old Testament??”  The following is my answer.

Christ is the embodiment of the law.  The Old Testament Law was written for the nation of Israel to follow in the way of the Lord.  It was also very very difficult to keep to that law, which demonstrated the need for Salvation through Christ.  In Paul's letter to the Galatians we see (Gal 3:23-29):

Now before faith came we were held in custody under the law, being kept as prisoners until the coming faith would be revealed. Thus the law had become our guardian until Christ, so that we could be declared righteous by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female – for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise.

Christ's law is simple.  The Law given unto Moses was very detailed, given as if to a small child of what one can do and what one cannot do.  Christ's law was a law for the thinking man, a law that discards the zero tolerance of the Old Testament and allows men to understand the concept behind the law, so they can apply it without having to know the specifics.  (Matthew 22:36-40):

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

Indeed, on more than one occasion, Jesus reminded us that the law is an ass, that the law was made for man, not man for the law (Mark 2:23-28):

 Jesus was going through the grain fields on a Sabbath, and his disciples began to pick some heads of wheat as they made their way. So the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is against the law on the Sabbath?” He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry – how he entered the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the sacred bread, which is against the law for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to his companions?” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. For this reason the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

And Mark 7:14-15 (This chapter has a very lengthy condemnation of people who live by the letter of the law and do not observe the spirit of the law, which I won't repeat here because of space.  I strongly encourage you to read it for yourself):

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand. There is nothing outside of a person that can defile him by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles him.”

In the early church there was a serious question of whether Gentiles needed to become circumsized to become a Christian.  This was answered by the closest followers who knew Christ the best, and showed that the Law of the Old Testament had some common sense injected into it by Christ.  There are several examples of this to the Romans, Corinthians,  Galatians & Colossians.  I quote here from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, 7:18-19:

Was anyone called after he had been circumcised? He should not try to undo his circumcision. Was anyone called who is uncircumcised? He should not get circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Instead, keeping God’s commandments is what counts.

In Paul's letter to the Romans is a repeat of the answer to this question (Romans 10:4-9):

For Christ is the end of the law, with the result that there is righteousness for everyone who believes.  For Moses writes about the righteousness that is by the law: “The one who does these things will live by them.”  But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down)  or “Who will descend into the abyss?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).  But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we preach),  because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Finally, in Ephesians, we see that the law of commandments in decrees was nullified by Christ's sacrifice on the cross: Ephesians 2:13-16.

But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed.

Christians are under the spirit of the Old Testament Law in principle, but have been given the grace through the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross to apply that law humanely, with common sense, in recognition that the law serves Man, not Man the law.