When Harold Camping, a Christian radio broadcaster, predicted that Christ would return on May 21, 2011, he made national news. Many of his followers paid for billboards, took out full-page ads in newspapers, and distributed thousands of tracts about this day of reckoning. One engineer spent most of his retirement savings, well over a half-million dollars. He took out full-page newspaper ads and bought an RV that he had custom-painted with doomsday warnings. When May 21 came and went as normal, Harold Camping revised his prediction to October 21, 2011. Of course, that prediction failed too.
What happened to those who had so fervently believed? They lost their faith. They stopped reading the Bible. They quit Christianity. Of course, it wasn’t the Bible that was wrong—it was Harold Camping who was wrong.
When we firmly, completely, uncompromisingly put our trust in a particular way of viewing the Bible, ironically we put ourselves at risk of disbelief. Why? Because if one brick of the structure we have built crumbles, then the whole edifice falls.
If we believe a perfect Bible written two thousand years ago should follow the rules of 21st-century historiography but then see a discrepancy between two gospel accounts, what should we conclude? If we think the Bible gives unassailable information regarding science, but then find what looks to be compelling evidence for four-billion-year-old planet, what should we think?
Should we think the Bible is wrong or that our particular way of viewing the Bible was wrong?
Should we walk away from faith, or should we reframe our faith?
Augustine put it this way centuries ago:
In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture…We should remember that Scripture, even in its obscure passages, has been written to nourish our souls.*
We need to learn objections to and questions about the Bible early and often. We need to treat such concerns with respect and appreciation. That way, we won’t be surprised and our faith won’t be shaken later if we find value or insight in those concerns.
And yes, we can learn answers to these problems as well. But we should also learn that our preferred answers are not the only possible, valid ways to respond, that there are other ways to affirm the truth of the Bible and the worth of our faith.
So believe. But believe with humility. Believe with openmindedness. Believe knowing there is always more to learn. Believe knowing that we are finite and limited while God is not.
*John Hammond Taylor, S. J., trans, St. Augustine, the Literal Meaning of Genesis, vol. 1, Ancient Christian Writers., vol. 41, (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 41-43.
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