Cherry Picking

When it comes to believing what the Bible says, there are many atheists – and many Christians for that matter – who insist that it’s an all-or-nothing decision. They say that if one wishes to accept any part of the Bible as fact, then, by necessity, he or she must assume the facthood of the whole. Cherry picking is not allowed.

I agree that cherry picking is an abuse of scripture, but I also think the same of the all-or-nothing approach to defining biblical truth. Such a false dichotomy is dangerous for the Christian, and, for the atheist, is a pitiful straw man argument.

I have been accused of cherry picking scripture on numerous occasions, but this accusation has little ground. Yes, I accept some parts of the Bible as factual while rejecting others, but I am not cherry picking. When it comes to scripture, there is a difference between cherry picking and separating wheat from the chaff. Cherry picking is when a Christian isolates the convenient and sensible parts of the Bible, while ignoring any ugly parts that might do their worldview a disservice. Separating wheat from chaff, on the other hand, is a consistent method of testing the character of scripture to discern what parts come from God, and what parts come from man.

When I separate wheat from chaff, I stand of the threshing floor of biblical criticism. All scripture is at once thrown up into the air and, once the wind of reason has done its work, the flawed things that are of man are blown away, while the good things that are of God return to the floor for harvest.

Before I begin filtering scripture in this way I must first cast out the indefensible idea that scripture is inerrant and directly authored by God. In my eyes, the Bible is a human document – an anthology – telling the story of humankind’s experience of God. Indeed, it is a story about God, but the reality of this God is veiled by the cultural-historical trappings of it’s imperfect, but nevertheless, inspired authors. It could be said that the Bible is inspired by God in the same way that one’s diary is inspired by the events of daily life; it’s a careful reflection on past experience. By understanding scripture in this way, it becomes subject to the honest interpretation of reasoning minds guided by the Holy Spirit.

With scripture removed from its pedestal, I can begin applying my criteria. My personal experience of God leads me to conclude that the the expansion of the life and love of the Trinitarian community is God’s ultimate intent for all creation. It is this lens – the lens of self-emptying love – that filters my view of scripture. This lens, placed over reasoning eyes, yields an understanding of the Bible that enriches and empowers the Christian life and thereby brings good to the world. When I read the Bible, I continually ask myself if the character of what I’m reading reflects the character of who I know God to be. Does this part of scripture reflect the self-emptying love of the Trinity? The answer is not always immediately clear, but with careful study everything falls into place.

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  1. Mark Hamilton

    True, but how do you discern what is wheat and what is chaff? Do we just go with what we agree with, or with what the culture of our age agrees with? The danger, I think, can be illustrated with how some people interpret Shakespeare. They say his ideas were ahead of his time and really true in some areas (such as gender roles), and in others (like supporting the divine right of kings) his ideas were merely a product of his times and can be discarded. But really all that comes out to is taking all the ideas we agree with (in other words, all the ideas that are a product of our own time) and rejecting all the ideas we don’t agree with as being “a product of his time”. How do we know that the ideas that are popular in our own time are correct while the ideas that are currently unpopular in our own time are false? It seems like chronological snobbery. Imagine if someone from the past could do that to someone today. He might look at our culture and say that some things are the good wheat and true (from his perspective, perhaps that would be capital punishment and pre-emptive strikes) while some things reveal themselves to be evil chaff (such as considering homosexuality to be anything but a most grievous sin that must be purified with flames). It’s not hard to imagine a medieval inquisitor believing such things if he could get his hands writings from our own times. Why then should we believe that we fare any better with writing from times in the past?

    • Brandon McGinnis

      Firstly, I provided a method of discernment between wheat and chaff: if the character of a particular part of scripture reflects the character of God, then that scripture is wheat; if it does not, then it is chaff (Deuteronomy 22:28-29 is the chaff of ancient humankind, but Leviticus 19:18 is the wheat of God). any parts of scripture that serve to uphold the love of the Trinitarian community return to the threshing floor.

      Secondly, I think we are blessed with the gift of modern insight. We know far more about creation than our ancestors did and we must account for their relative ignorance. We know from the outset that Deuteronomy 22:28-19 is forcing a traumatized woman to marry her rapist. This law is not from the mind of an omni-benevolent God; it is from ancient Middle Eastern minds. The modern mind, armed with science and reason, is far better equipped to understand such things.

      • Mark Hamilton

        How does science give us moral insight? And how are we any more accomplished in “reason” than the ancients were?

        What’s more, how do you know the character of God? How does rejecting Deuteronomy 22:28-29 and accepting Leviticus 19:18 reflect more than your own cultural biases and understandings? I’m not saying I disagree with you, but what argument can you give is someone claims that the Levitical verse is chaff and the one from Deuteronomy is the real wheat? What if they too claim that their method of discernment is reflecting on the character of God? What would you say to such a person? That your conception of God is superior to yours because you know how a steam engine works?

      • Brandon McGinnis

        Studies of the human brain tell us that rape has lasting psychological consequences on the victim. Knowing this, the idea of forcing her to marry her rapist is simply cruel. Science gives us information, and we use that information to inform our moral insights.

        The only way to know the character of God is by personal experience. When we spend so much time philosophizing about God we sometimes forget about the real thing we are arguing about. My experience of God has led me to conclude that His character radiates shalom. I sense that shalom coursing through my being when I meditate and pray. The scriptures that harmonize with this experience are what I call wheat. All else is chaff. My method is grounded in my experience of God. Now, I know someone else could use the same line of thought to reach a radically different conclusion, but I know of no other rational way to go about understanding scripture.

        I should also mention that Biblical criticism sheds light on what comes from man and what comes from God. We can (to a limited extent) trace the evolution of scripture. We can see where human agendas were sometimes injected into the narratives (i.e. the political differences between the Northern and Southern kingdoms in the OT). Knowing about these things also helps us separate the wheat from the chaff.

  2. Mark Hamilton

    “Studies of the human brain tell us that rape has lasting psychological consequences on the victim.” Are you saying that we didn’t know rape was wrong before we could study the human brain?

    But what do you do when the Bible contradicts your understanding of God? Do your trust your own emotions, in the scriptures, or in orthodoxy?

    • Brandon McGinnis

      I don’t think any culture condones rape, but the scripture in questions seems to think it is just to force the victim to marry her rapist. In the ancient world, women were chattel and they only had value as long as they were virgins, so when they were raped their market value was destroyed. The law we find in the passage of Deuteronomy only enforces restitution to the father for the loss of his asset. This certainly could not have come from an all-knowing and all- good God.

      I trust my experience of God. Christian doctrine (orthodoxy) is a map, so it help guide my understanding of God in the context of my experience, but it is not the only thing I found my beliefs on. It is the undeniable personal experience of the divine upon which I found my understanding of God.

      • Mark Hamilton

        “The law we find in the passage of Deuteronomy only enforces restitution to the father for the loss of his asset.”

        This seems like a very crude interpretation of the meaning behind the verse. In that culture if a woman was raped then no husband would want her. She would be forced to live her life alone, unprotected, having to scramble her own living wherever she could. Considering that women had few career options in that time and place she essentially would be condemned to a life of poverty. Forcing the rapist to marry her forced him to provide for her economically and ensure that she did not spend her days as a pauper. In other words, to clean up the mess he made of her life.

        I agree that Christian doctrine is a map, but I disagree with the idea that we can ignore any section of the map that doesn’t conform to our personal understanding of God. If a map shows a mountain range in the middle of your planned route it does you no good to decide that the mapmaker was lying or mistaken simply because you’ve can’t see the mountains from your home. Similarly if doctrine says that the scriptures were inspired by God (though there are different interpretations on what exactly that means) then it does us well to take all scripture seriously, even if it’s difficult to understand or seems contrary to what we currently believe.

      • Brandon McGinnis

        I acknowledge that the law also requires the rapist to provide for the women he violated, but that still assumes that women are valueless apart from their place in the sexual-economic system of the ancient world. I maintain that this law, even with its “protection” of the victim could not be of divine origin.

        That’s assuming the map-maker is God. It would be nice of God handed down a systematic theology, but He hasn’t. Doctrines are formulated by men who had the same things we have: a text and their experience. We are all traveling through the mountains, sometimes our topography differs. That does not mean we are have stopped taking the scripture seriously.

  3. Mark Hamilton

    “that still assumes that women are valueless apart from their place in the sexual-economic system of the ancient world”

    Does it? I don’t see how. If anything I see this rape law as harsher than our own. The rapist must not only pay a steep fine, but must also provide for his victim for the rest of his life, with no possibility of “parole.” In what part of this do you get the idea that women had no value? Do you think the ancient Jews did not love their daughters? We look at this law and find it strange, but what would we have them do with rapists? Throw them in jail? They didn’t have jails at that time, and that certainly wouldn’t have been practical when traveling through the desert. Execute him? But even today we do not execute rapists. Cut off his hands? But how does that help the victim, who is condemned to a life of poverty because of his actions? Imagine if an ancient Jew could read our rape laws. He would be flabbergasted! The rapist is merely sentenced to a few months or a few years in a prison, where all his physical needs are provided for him? He does not have to make restitution? How callus! He might decry our own nation as a cruel one that gives no value to women.

    Yes, doctrine has been formulated by men who have used both the text of the scriptures and their own personal experiences with God. That is why we can trust them when they say that the scriptures are inspired. Hundreds and thousands of Christians have combined their own experiences with God to make this map for us. They’ve passed down their insight to us today, and we should take it serious. One of the doctrines that has been held is that all scripture has God at it’s base. Some say that man has added much to it, while others believe that it’s all God through and through. But it seems that your position is to reject all God in verses that you do not like or understand. That is what I take issue with.

    • Brandon McGinnis

      This does not negate the fact that a severely traumatized woman is being forced by her male-dominated culture to marry the person who violently rapped her, taking away the only thing that gave her value in her culture. The law, regardless of what good intentions it may have behind it, is at its core flawed and unethical. Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way saying that our modern laws and justice system are perfect. They are flawed in many ways, but that does not excuse the wrongs of the past.

      As for the map metaphor, I think it is worth noting that not all maps are made equal. Maps can be inaccurate. If I were traveling around the world I would not use a map made in 1500′s. It would misguide me in many ways. Similarly, if I am seeking to understand God, I need doctrine that is informed and relevant. We need a method of discernment; a means of navigating a truer path. This can only happen in a conversation between the theologies from all times and all places. Episcopalians have a three-legged stool for founding theology: Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. All three must be present and equal or else the stool will topple over. Unless God hands every person a copy of His systematic theology/autobiography, there will never be a perfect theology, but I think it is still worthwhile to engage in a conversation about the validity of the array of Christian doctrines.

      • Mark Hamilton

        I don’t agree that the law is flawed at it’s core. Again, what would you have the punishment be? When that man raped his victim he ruined her entire life, condemning her to a life without resources, protection, or children. People rarely married for love in that culture: it was primarily an economic arrangement. The law is saying “You need to fix her life. You’re responsible for her now. You have to clean up your mess.” So unless you can tell me what a more righteous punishment would have been then I can’t take you too seriously on condemning the punishment they had.

        It’s true that not all maps are made equal, but that’s because our knowledge of geography has been expanded. But what exactly has happened in the past few hundred years to overturn our knowledge of theology and doctrine? What informs our doctrine today that didn’t inform doctrine in the 1500s? What makes our knowledge more relevant to understanding God today than 500 years ago? What do you have today that Thomas Aquinas didn’t have? Reason wasn’t invented in 1950. Honestly the Medievals understood reason and rational argumentation a heck of a lot better than your average 21st century Christian.

      • Brandon McGinnis

        Assuming we couldn’t change the whole culture the law comes from, I would say the rapist should be required to pay for the women’s livelihood in the same way that parents often pay child support. This allows the women to potentially marry another suitor while providing for her in the event that none can be found.

        In our day and age I think that rapists, along with other social dissidents, should be incarcerated for the purpose of psychiatric rehabilitation.

        Our modern awareness of the natural world shines some light on things that in the past had been shrouded in the darkness of ignorance. This, couples with with our reason, can hone our doctrinal map of theology.

  4. Paul Barnett

    Time to insert myself into a conversation that is more than a year and a half old. I wonder if any of your views regarding the inspiration of scripture have changed over that time. In reading the above conversation I am struck by the subjective way that you appear to judge the veracity of the Bible and the fact that you may be using 21st century morals and attitudes to interpret 3500 year old scripture. I take the view that the original documents are directly inspired by God but, unfortunately that leaves the problem of not having any of the original documents. Therefore, ultimately, even this view becomes somewhat subjective. I believe that the final argument comes down to the power and sovereignty of God. If God is omniscient and omnipotent, would he have had no hand in how scripture was handled by man through the centuries?

    Unlike you, I have no theological training so my reasoning may not be as coherent as I would like it to be. We can explore the above in greater detail in the future if you wish as I have not gone into any detail.

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