Sunday, December 30, 2007

Biblical Prooftexting for UUs

For a couple of centuries now, we Unitarians and Universalists have tended to hold a pretty relaxed view of Biblical authority. We tend to see the Bible as an anthology of human spiritual insight from an ancient time – some of which may still be useful in our own lives, some of which has been superseded or refuted by more recently acquired human knowledge, but none of which comes directly to us from God’s mouth as a perfect utterance or supernatural set of rules.

As a result, may of us don’t take the Bible as seriously as we might. Which is too bad, because a lot of that ancient human insight is still pretty reliable. In fact, we tend to forget that historically it is the original source of many of the distinctive religious premises that we UUs think define us and set us apart from mainstream Christianity.

Unfortunately, one of the consequences of this is that when we do get into religious discussions with Real Christians[TM], we find ourselves at a disadvantage, because many of them ascribe such overwhelming authority to the Bible that won’t take any religious argument seriously that isn’t supported by Scriptural prooftexts. We UUs generally do not place much credence ourselves in the probative value of Scripture, much less prooftexting, not only because we do not hold the same exalted view of Biblical authority that conservative Christians do, but also because it is so easy to misconstrue or misapply the meaning of a text. We would agree with Shakespeare's observation in The Merchant of Venice that even “the Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” (that is, provided we assume at least for the sake of argument the existence of a Devil). If we remember those Biblical passages that our denominational ancestors traditionally used to support our religious beliefs, though, and if we can cite them when appropriate, we might regain some of the influence we have lost over the years in the larger interdenominational and interfaith discussion.

So, ladies and gentlemen, coming to you direct from a prior engagement at the KJV Fundamentalist Auditorium, here are a few Bible verses that we Unitarians and Universalists have traditionally understood “our” way.

On the validity of religious insights from beyond the Abrahamic tradition:

Matthew 2:1-2 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

John 10:16 And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.

On perceiving Jesus as a human exemplar, rather than a deity incarnate:

John 17:3 And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.

I Timothy 2:5 For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.

On the principle of “deeds, not creeds”:

Micah 6:6-8 Wherewith shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

Matthew 7:21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.

On revering the immanence of divinity in nature, or “earth-centered spirituality” as we sometimes call it:

Genesis 1:31a And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.

Psalm 19:1-6
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.
Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun,
Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.
His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it: and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.

Psalm 23:2-3a
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters: he restoreth my soul.

Psalm 24: 1-2
The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.
For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods.

Psalm 139:7-12
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.
Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.

On the inherent worth and dignity of every person:

Genesis 1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

Matthew 25:34-40 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

More specifically, but to the same point, Unitarians have traditionally denied the doctrine of Original Sin as developed by St. Augustine and emphasized to the point of unhealthy obsession in Calvinism. Contrary to widespread Christian teaching, there is no Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden story, and no corresponding consequence of total depravity and unworthiness or eternal damnation burdening all the descendants of Adam and Eve. Instead, there is only a specific, rather moderate and limited, punishment for their limited transgression -- pain in childbirth, and toil for sustenance:

Genesis 3:16-19 Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

And finally, on the universal reach of divine love and reconciliation, excluding no one on the basis of culture, tradition or belief:

Matthew 18:12-14 How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.

I Timothy 2:3-4 For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.

I Timothy 4:10 For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.


At January 1, 2008 at 1:37:00 PM EST, Blogger Comrade Kevin said...

Excellent examples.

I find particularly ironic how those True Christians, all rights reserved, will often assert that they believe every word of the Bible, as evidenced by the question posed at one of the last GOP You Tube debates. In reality, their version of Christianity is a most specific, narrow narrative that one could argue cherry picks the original text, pulling specific passages out of the book, each of which which serve its purpose and advances its own agenda.

However, in saying that, as you point out, there's some fine old wisdom in that book from which each of us can benefit. There's no need to disregard the Bible altogether or to concede sole usage and interpretation of said book merely to more conservative believers.

At January 3, 2008 at 6:24:00 PM EST, Anonymous Holy said...

And lest we not forget John 14:6..."I am the way and the truth and the life" for those of us UUs with panentheistic leanings.

That passage is always a biblical bone of contention.

At January 3, 2008 at 10:54:00 PM EST, Blogger fausto said...

Holy, I'm not aware of John 14:6 ever having been used as a prooftext to support the distinguishing beliefs of either Unitarianism or Universalism. If anything it has probably been used more often to argue against them.

Nevertheless, we do not forget; we anticipate. For a characteristically UU exegesis and lively ensuing discussion of John 14:6, click here. For the sermon that developed from it, click here.

At January 7, 2008 at 1:33:00 PM EST, Blogger Steve Caldwell said...


There are conservative Christian groups and atheist groups who both point to Mark 3:29 as an argument against Universalism (the KJV text is "But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation"). For the Biblical traditionalists, these are "red letter" words attributed to Jesus himself.

Both groups think that the Bible says there is something you can do that will result in a non-Universalist afterlife (aka "eternity in Hell").

The atheist group using this text is the "Rational Response Squad":

They have an online YouTube project of collecting people videotaping themselves blaspheming the holy spirit by saying the words "I deny the Holy Spirit" somewhere in their videos.

An interesting defense of the rage expressed in the Blasphemy Challenge videos can be found online here:

Defending the Blasphemy Challenge: A Reply

At January 7, 2008 at 10:47:00 PM EST, Blogger fausto said...

It happens all the time that fundamentalists and atheists agree on the meaning of a Biblical passage, and disagree only about its validity. That's because both share a modern, post-Enlightenment, literal, rationalist epistemology in which things always mean exactly what they say, no more, no less. However, when the original author or speaker did not intend to be understood so plainly, both fundamentalists and atheists can be equally mistaken in their understanding. The Bible is full of figurative imagery and rhetorical devices, the original meaning of which can be lost or hopelessly obscured by a literal reading. Jesus' teaching style in particular shows a masterful command of the subtle use of metaphor, analogy, and irony; he is constantly having to explain the meaning of his parables and examples to his puzzled followers.

Christians have long debated just what Jesus might have meant by "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit", which they also call the "unpardonable sin", as well as what the consequences of such withheld forgiveness might be. The same incident is reported not only in Mark 3:29, but in Matthew 12:32 and Luke 12:10 as well, but the context of these passages does not reveal Jesus' intended meaning nearly as clearly as fundamentalist readers with their doctrinaire presuppositions might suppose. I think it was probably another one of Jesus' subtle rhetorical twists rather than a threat of eternal damnation.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus preached the imminent arrival of a "Kingdom of God" in which the humble and forlorn would be lifted up and the proud would be brought low. This was not, however, a future reward in an afterlife conditioned on personal loyalty to him in this one, but a new way of ordering society and reforming his Jewish tradition along principles of justice and compassion. Moreover, in all likelihood, he did not see the Garden of Eden story as representing innate human depravity (for which he was the God-sent cure) as his later followers Augustine and Calvin did, but rather, he probably shared the Jewish understanding that Eden represents the beginning of an innate human moral awareness and corresponding moral responsibility. Nor did he have any sense of the "Holy Spirit" in the later Christian sense of a "person" co-equal to the Father, along with himself, in a triune Godhead.

He did, however, preach consistently against the self-justifying piety and hypocrisy of the ostensibly morally responsible Pharisees, priests and lawyers who were best equipped to show the laity the compassionate, redeeming spirit of the scriptures ("the Law and the Prophets", as he called them), but enforced their burdensome letter instead. To him, precisely that sort of strict, harsh misapplication of the Law stood in the way of the Kingdom's full realization -- far more so than any errors of those who misunderstood or failed to strictly observe the Law, but intuitively grasped its holy Spirit.

Thus, those who innocently misunderstood the Law or were prevented from following it by exigencies were, in Jesus' judgment, nevertheless worthy of entering the Kingdom. Those, on the other hand, who use the Law as a weapon to suppress the coming of the Kingdom in a very real way take the name of the Lord in vain. They are blasphemers of the Spirit and enemies of the Kingdom, and as long as they persist, the Kingdom is necessarily closed to them.

At January 8, 2008 at 9:06:00 AM EST, Blogger fausto said...

I missed a good one on the universality of God's love -- Romans 8:38-39. It's all the more striking because Paul said it, and so much of conservative theology is built on Paul:

"For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

At January 8, 2008 at 9:23:00 AM EST, Blogger Steve Caldwell said...

Another quote from Paul in Galatians 3:28 is "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."

Paul mentions some demographic issues that divided folks in his day:

Jew/Greek (gentile)

I suppose one could expand this list for modern times if one is sufficiently non-literal about it:

windows user/mac user
disabled/temporarily able-bodied

At January 8, 2008 at 9:30:00 AM EST, Blogger Steve Caldwell said...

My commentary on Greta Christina's defense of the Blasphemy Challenge and how it can be viewed through an anti-oppressive lens can be found here:

Keep in mind that any institution that has power and influence often finds itself subject to both humor and anger. And Christianity in North America would qualify as a center of power and influence in our culture.

Humor and anger are both methods that those without power or have less power can address injustice.

At January 8, 2008 at 10:15:00 AM EST, Blogger fausto said...

Paul mentions some demographic issues that divided folks in his day.... I suppose one could expand this list for modern times if one is sufficiently non-literal about it....

Not just could, but should, I would say.

Keep in mind that any institution that has power and influence often finds itself subject to both humor and anger. And Christianity in North America would qualify as a center of power and influence in our culture.

Humor and anger are both methods that those without power or have less power can address injustice.

And the Jesus of the synoptic gospels, who gently teased Martha for her domesticity and his disciples for their closed ears, but who also angrily cleared the court of the Temple with a bullwhip, would no doubt agree entirely with you, Steve.

As Qoholeth, an even more ancient teacher than Jesus, noted, "there is nothing new under the sun."

However, if that injustice is caused by a misunderstanding of the essential principles of a religious tradition, as it was in Jesus' view and (arguably) is again now, the humor and anger ought to be directed toward lifting the misunderstanding. If the water in the sink is dirty, we can't wash any more dishes, but the remedy then is to change the water, not deny the utility of washing dishes. Changing the water is what our U and U predecessors tried to do, with (I think) validity and success.


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