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The great divide

In the 11th century, organized Christianity split into East and West, mostly for political and cultural reasons that were a bit silly. In the 16th century, Protestantism split off, though Luther's intention was not to split organizationally from the Catholic Church - merely to reform it from within. Since then Protetestantism has split into countless denominations. Two big splits followed by many smaller fractures.

From the latter 1800s to the 1920s another major split took place over time, mostly within Protestantism, across various denominations: the liberal / conservative split. One one side, the liberals or modernists, and on the other side, evangelicals and fundamentalists. I question whether this kind of split was wise or was totally necessary, and I think both sides were to blame.

To some degree this was in response to modern science - geology in the 1820s showing us that the earth was very old, and later evolutionary biology, showing us that species arose from simpler forms. Later, cosmology showed that the universe was very old. These findings did not invalidate the biblical account of creation; they merely invalidated an erroneous, modern Western interpretation thereof. But fundamentalists overreacted, and this overreaction to modern science is one cause of the split.

In this time period, findings from history, archeology, and literary and linguistic studies of the Old Testament called into quesiton many cherished beliefs about the OT, its history, its interpretation, and how to use it. Traditional views of biblical inerrancy and inspiration were particularly challenged, and found untenable by scholars and clergy who were well aware of OT textual and historical problems. Liberals challenged traditional views of the Bible, and conservatives reacted defensively

In this respect, both sides are to blame. Conservatives became defensive, or at best developed apologetics methods that were merely defensive. Some formulated and published a set of 'fundamentals' of the faith in response, which became the basis of fundamentalism, and the larger domain of evangelicalism splitting off from mainstream Protestantism. They did not want to deal honestly with these problems or engage with them directly. Their response has been to deny their existence, to pretend they don't exist, and not dialogue with their liberal counterparts.

Liberals, on the other hand, reacted to these findings of modern biblical scholarship with skepticism. Rejecting biblical inspiration more or less, they came to reject other orthodox teachings, and take a more syncretistic approach, mixing in more human-centered elements, secular philosophical ideas, or other non-Christian ideas, in a seemingly arbirtary manner that was motivated not by positive engagement with these problems, but by a reactive rejection of traditional religious views that couldn't be reconciled with modern scholarship.

Sadly, the conservatives withdrew from active engagement with the world, social problems, and social justice, leaving these to liberals who were happy to base their reformulated religion on a social gospel or good works, while rejecting the biblical gospel. Conservatives erred greatly here, forgetting that Jesus and the OT command us to be active in these areas, which are part of the gospel. Conservatives focused on personal salvation and morality, while ignoring the holistic gospel.

Neither skepticism nor pietistic withdrawal and defensiveness were healthy responses, and we suffer today from the intellectual and spiritual laziness of both sides. Neither has served us well, nor rightly handled scripture.

What we should do is to avoid either reactive extreme, and instead discuss and work out the following. If parts of the OT have historical problems, what were the redactors' intentions in putting them in the Bible? What do these stories and texts teach us about God? What do they teach us about how Bronze Age people sought God and experienced God, and God revealed himself to these people? How do we interpret these books as both timeless literature and as divinely inspired literature - especially how the redactors juxtaposed different *and* complementary texts, and what these teach us about God? In light of modern scholarship, what are the theological and spiritual teachings of these stories, these books, and the whole OT? How can we reformulate an understanding of verbal inspiration that makes sense of the redaction and history of the OT, and the history of God's people, given what we now know?

Religious skepticism has not been a healthy response; neither have religious rationalism, pietism, fundamentalistm, or defensiveness. If we can handle non-literal parables in the gospels, and symbolic visions in Revelation, why not non-literal histories in the OT? It's not a problem to handle Genesis 1 in light of evolution, so what's to stop us from wrestling with the rest of the OT and understanding what God wants to say to us thru redacted, ancient books? A non-literal interpretation of Genesis 1 leads me to a more profound understanding and awe of God, so why should we be afraid of what modern scholarship has to say about the rest of the OT? We can judiciously incorporate some of these insights into our theology, I think, without destroying the fabric of a biblical faith or a personal, mystical relationship with God.

All this will take at least a book to expound. If anyone wants to pay for me to go to seminary, then I'll be glad to research this, try to work things out, and write it up.


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