I must thank Ian Boyne for inviting me to defend my Christian faith on his programme "Religious Hard Talk" on Radio Jamaica over the past two weeks. This Sunday at 12:15 p.m. the last in the three-part series will be broadcast, and he has asked a Seventh-Day Adventist to debate me on the beliefs and practice of the Roman Catholic Church.
The main source, I believe, of the disagreements between Christians is the framework for interpretation of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, collected under one cover as "The Bible" by the Early Christian (Catholic) Church.
One group of Christians called "Fundamentalists" both Ian Boyne and Seventh Day Adventists fall into this category believe that the Bible is inspired by God in such a way that every word is literally, scientifically and historically true. Catholics and others believe the Bible is directly inspired by God and is 100 per cent true, but that not every word is intended to be historically or scientifically true: every word is theologically true. Theological truth is much more important and useful than bald history or science, so we should prefer to find timeless theological truths.
For Fundamentalists, the very idea that the Bible could contradict itself is unthinkable; if the Bible were incontrovertibly shown to contradict itself, this would be a serious blow to their belief in Christianity, shaking the very foundation of their faith; because Fundamentalists have their primary faith in a book, not in the Lord of History who continues to reveal himself and his truth down to today.
It is because we Catholics believe that today God is alive, we hold to truths handed down (called "Tradition") which build on the truths found in the Bible. For Fundamentalists, if something is not found in the Bible, it cannot be religious truth, since God has already revealed every important truth there. [Adventists, however, are inconsistent, for they accept as truth the doctrines of their foundress, Ellen G. White].
The Bible contradicts itself with respect to history and science in so many places, that a sensible person could not honestly continue with Fundamentalism. Space will only allow one example.
Let us examine the most important event in Christian salvation history - the Resurrection - told by all four Gospel writers. You would think that in recounting the resurrection events the four evangelists would be extra careful to get the story straight; but if we examine Matthew , Mark, Luke and John we will see that the four disagree on every point but three.
First they disagree on the time of day. Matthew: "towards dawn"; Mark: "when the sun had risen"; Luke: "at the first sign of dawn", and John: it was "still dark".
They disagree about who first went to the tomb: Matthew: "Mary Magdalene and the other Mary"; Mark: "Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome"; Luke: "Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Joanna"; John: Mary Magdalene alone.
Matthew: the women saw the stone being rolled away by an angel dressed in dazzling white who then sat upon the stone; Mark, Luke and John: the stone had already been rolled away.
Matthew: the angel delivered his message from on top of the stone; Mark: the women went inside and saw "a young man in a white robe sitting on the right-hand side" who delivered his message; Luke: when the women went inside "two men in brilliant clothes suddenly appeared at their side" and delivered their message; John: as soon as Mary Magdalene saw the stone rolled away, she ran and told Peter and another disciple, who ran to the tomb and went inside, but they saw no one.
Matthew and Luke: the messengers direct the women to go and tell the others; Mark: the young man instructs them to tell no one.
Now how is that for contradictions! If these four appeared at witnesses at a trial, they would be thrown out of court! The only three points they agree on are: it happened on a Sunday; Jesus' body was absent; and Mary Magdalene was there. All points of these four accounts of the resurrection cannot be historically accurate; the contradictions are too profound. This is typical of thousands of contradictions contained within the Bible. Fundamentalists cannot deal with this level of contradiction; their efforts to "harmonise" the four accounts or to "explain away" the contradictions are in vain. Their position cannot stand up to honest scrutiny.
Catholics and some others believe that even though the accounts factually contradict each other, they are all 100 per cent true. After all, history and science do not have a monopoly on truth. When a poet says of a woman: "She is like a rose", much truth could be there; her beauty, her softness, even her thorny disposition, could be conveyed; but a botanist would find the statement ridiculous. There are different types of truth, of which the historical and scientific may turn out to be the least meaningful.
They all agree the resurrection took place on a Sunday because by the time these books were written, Christians were worshipping on Sunday instead of Saturday, and so the importance of Sunday is highlighted. They all agree the resurrection was first revealed to women as a sign of the heightened status of women in Christianity (compared to Jewish society). And most importantly, they all agree that Jesus was risen from the dead, which completes His act of redemption.
Those who want to take the Bible literally will miss the point of the story and latch on to interpretations which take them wide of the truth. Fundamentalism blinds the Christian to much of the truth contained in scripture, and can turn thinking people away from Jesus. A mature Christianity born of deep understanding of the Holy Scriptures will prevent the sort of simple literalism which has caused so many scandalous divisions in the broken body of Christ.
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and an ordained deacon of the Roman Catholic Church, serving in Guy's Hill and Ewarton.