A response from Barry Cooper in Can I Really Trust the Bible?
How can we believe the Bible is God’s word to us when it is so clearly out of step with cultural norms regarding what is good and just? To put it another way, how can we possibly trust the Bible to be God’s timeless word when it is so clearly backward ethically? Don’t we want to be on the right side of history? Barry Cooper thoughtfully examines these questions in an excurses found in his book Can I really trust the Bible? Cooper’s response is worth quoting in its entirety:
The past often embarrasses us. Looking at photos of myself growing up in the 1980s, it’s one fashion car-crash after another. It’s impossible to look away. Why didn’t people spend the entire decade pointing at each other and laughing? The reason, I suppose, is that more or less everyone was dressed the same. It seemed normal to us. We’d built up a plausibility structure of pastel t-shirts, neon socks and snow-washed jeans.
Isn’t it the same when we look at the Bible? It reflects the attitudes of a particular time and place in history. It seemed ok to everyone at the time, but now those attitudes appear regressive and embarrassing. We look back and we say to ourselves: ‘What were they thinking? I’m glad we know better”.
But then, a troubling thought occurs. How can we be sure we know better? What will we think of what we’re wearing now, in 20 years’ time? Right now a bearded man in heavy-rimmed specs, skinny jeans and a flannel shirt seems very plausible—especially if we’re living in the west, in a large urban centre, and working in media or design. But will we look back one day and say: ‘What were we thinking?’
Many social, cultural and sexual views which seem self-evidently right to most people currently living in London or Manhattan did not seem right to Londoners and Manhattanites 200 years ago. And they don’t seem right to most people currently living in Nairobi or Jakarta. Presumably, we’ll believe something else in 200 years’ time. If we dismiss biblical teaching as being a product of its time and place, we have to be honest and recognise that we ourselves—the ones offering the criticism—are just as much a product of ours.
And incidentally, the first disciples didn’t think Jesus’ teaching was a product of its time. Many of them were so shocked by how counter-cultural it was, they packed up and left (Jn 6:60-66). Nor did Jesus’ teaching seem uncontroversial to the political leaders, the religious authorities, or the general public. His words and actions resulted in him being mocked, tortured, stripped naked, and nailed to a cross.
If we feel discomfort at some of the Bible’s teaching, is it really because the Bible is a product of its time, or because we are?
And there’s something else that’s worth considering. We may find ourselves rejecting God’s word (or parts of it) because it expresses views different to our own. But isn’t it comically small-minded and arrogant to assume that God, if he’s there, would always agree with us? If God really is God, and the Bible is his word, wouldn’t we expect him occasionally to contradict and correct us? Wouldn’t it be suspicious if he always said what we wanted him to say, or if he always confirmed the views of our particular culture, in our particular moment of history?
We should expect Scripture, if it is what it claims to be, to challenge all of us at some point or other. And that’s what we find as we read it. Throughout history, and across cultures, the Bible has been an equal-opportunity offender of all people, everywhere—even when it was first written.[i]