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Truer Than Fact: A Sermon on the Nature of Biblical Truth

Dt. 11:18-21. You shall…lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul’ and you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall write them upon the door posts of your house and upon your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.

2 Timothy 3: 14-17. Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that a Godly person may be complete, equipped for every good work.

Luke 24: 13-27. That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaeus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, "What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?" And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?" And he said to them, "What things?" And they said to him, concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see." And he said to them, "O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer and enter into his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.


Scripture is the primary source of authority in Protestant churches, because it was by means of scripture that our Protestant ancestors declared the Roman Catholic church in need of reform. The Reformation weakened church tradition as a source of authority, and strengthened the Bible. Today, for reasons that I will explore in this sermon, as the Bible becomes a more problematic means for settling our in-house disputes, some Presbyterians are insisting on adherence to our historic confessions of faith (which together comprise the lion’s share of our tradition.) Ironic, isn’t it, that Presbyterians, who protested tradition as the principal source of church authority, are now resorting to it in a pinch.

This pinch, incidentally, started about the beginning of the nineteenth century, when critical scholars began to question the then almost entirely unconscious assumption that the Bible was literally true. Our Presbyterian mentor, John Calvin, was among the best educated and brilliant theologians of his day, but questioning the literal truth of the Bible never entered his mind, because he lived before the burgeoning of the natural and social sciences.

Faithful people whose religion depends largely upon the authority of sacred scripture–and I would include here at least Jews, Christians, and Moslems–have had quite a challenge sticking to "that old time religion" in modern times, because the sciences call into question the literal truth of scriptural notions, for example, that the universe was created in six days, or that the cosmos consists of three flat laminations: the earth below, the heavens above, and the waters under the earth, or that disease is caused by evil spirits . One way to adapt to this modern challenge to the authority of sacred scriptures is to divide our intellect into two compartments: the religious and the secular. When we come to Sunday school or church, we allow the religious side of the mind to prevail. Ordinarily, we do not second-guess the categories of thought that we use there. When we worship, we operate within an ancient religious worldview without questioning how it may be true, or false. And when we go to our secular work, we operate with the other side of our mind. This division of the self can have disastrous effects upon our morals, as well as our mental vitality. I call this adaptation to modernity "epistemological schizophrenia," because if we choose it we must keep the two parts of our mind separate, thereby preventing either one from informing or enriching the other, lest we might grow the wiser.

Fundamentalists also want to keep religious consciousness strictly divided from secular consciousness, but instead of trying to live in both worlds, they attempt, so far as is in their power, to live in the ancient, religious one. Interestingly enough, they seldom recognize that the ancients had a different idea of truth than moderns do. Fundamentalists swallow the modern idea of truth hook, line, and sinker. For them, as for many secular people, truth is defined as whatever is factually correct, rather than, say, what is poetically insightful, or what is existentially most relevant. (These are alternate ways of defining truth, propounded frequently by artists, or philosophers). But fundamentalists will tolerate no such parsing of truth. Although they would much rather live in the past, they think of truth as most modern, secular people think of it, namely, as whatever really happened or happens. That’s why fundamentalists object to calling any Biblical stories myths, because in their way of thinking, myths are stories that are made up. In other words, they didn’t really happen. Fundamentalists bend over backwards (witness their efforts in "creationism") to prove that the stories in their sacred scriptures are factually true, because they disallow any other definition of truth. It is most ironic that these desperate people, who are hanging onto the past for dear life, have bought a modern conception of truth so completely; and one might even say a secular conception of truth, since it was championed by the logical positivists, who tended to be atheists, or agnostics.

Because of the weight which Protestants place on the authority of scripture, we in particular are in grave need of another way of responding to critical biblical scholarship. Neither epistemological schizophrenia nor fundamentalism are acceptable adaptations to the critical challenge, because they maintain a hold on "old time religion" at the cost of ignorance and rigidity. So, what would an acceptable response look like? In what sense could we still affirm that the stories of our sacred scriptures are true if we give up the assumption that they are literally true?

To answer that question, let me share with you some insights from a collection of stories about Vietnam, written by combat veteran, Tim O’Brien, entitled The Things They Carried. The book starts off like a documentary. O’Brien describes the various things infantrymen carried with them into battle: weapons, ammo, flack jackets, c-rations, wire, detonators, ear plugs (for blowing tunnels), flash lights, ponchos, mosquito repellent, iodine tablets, malaria tablets, cigarettes, matches. The list of items goes on and on, and moves toward the personal: photographs of family and girl friends, penny flutes and harmonicas, good luck charms, New Testaments, a girl friend’s panty hose, worn round the head. O’Brien does his best to tell you what it was like to be with those men, what their world was like. He moves from the tangible things they carried to the intangible: fear, rage, revenge, bewilderment, hope. Then, he gives up talking about the things they carried and tells war stories; and because he started with the documentary style, you assume the stories he’s been telling all along are true, that is, factually true. But you’re wrong, because he lets you know that he’s been making some of it up. But, that doesn’t matter, says O’Brien because:

". . .a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth [he means factual truth].

Take the kind of war story that we read about on that monument across the street. Almost all the Black Vietnam vets honored there lost their lives by throwing themselves on grenades to save their buddies close by. O’Brien tells another version of this typical story: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, "Why d’ya do that for"? and the jumper says, "Story of my life, man," and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead. That’s a true story that never happened.

What an odd thing to say: "a true story that never happened." What does O’Brien mean? He means that he made the story up, obviously. It’s the kind of thing that might have happened, somewhere, but as far as he knows, it didn’t. Nevertheless, it’s a truer version of the man-jumps-on-grenade story than those actual occurrences where the jumper did in fact save his buddies. Why? Because the story where they all die tells you more truly what Vietnam was like, even though it’s a made up story. It tells you more truly because that whole war was about useless sacrifice, and the day to day killing and dying didn’t make any sense at all.

So, when an author is trying to place you by imagination in a time and place, and help you to understand what it was really like to be there, he or she may choose to make whole stores up, or at least parts of stories, and those fictional narrations may tell you more truly what it was like to be in that situation than a factual story, where every event is documented. In that sense, made-up stories can justifiably be called true, provided that the author makes every effort to convey through his fiction what it was really like to be there, instead of inventing stuff out of thin air. (There’s quite a difference between historical fiction and fantasy.)

Now why did I bring O’Brien’s comment about made-up stories sometimes being truer than factual ones into a sermon about biblical authority? Because its high time we acknowledge that the truth of the stories recounted in our sacred scriptures is much more like the truth of historical fiction than the truth of documentaries. Randall Helms, in his book entitled Gospel Fictions, says that many of the New Testament stories about Jesus and his disciples are deliberately made up, not from thin air mind you, but from bits and pieces of memory, just, as I might add, O’Brien’s war stories are fictional constructions based upon his real life experience . Just as in O’Brien’s case, so also in the case of the biblical writers, the authors’ intent for these made up stories is certainly not to deceive, nor even to entertain, but rather to enlighten the reader as to what it was like to be there, to know Vietnam, or to know Jesus, in a far, far more effective way than mere documentaries could achieve. Therefore, abandoning the assumption that our scriptures are literally true does not imply that we should regard them with any less respect. Quite to the contrary, though they be fictions, biblical stories may indeed bear even greater authority for us, according to our ability to use them, through our imaginations, to place ourselves in the same situations of faith as the characters in the stories. John Dominic Crossan says, about the story of the disciples walking with Jesus on the road to Emmaeus, that this story never happened, yet it is always happening. What does he mean by that? That the story is made up, but that nevertheless it is a very true-to-life story, because it enables the reader, by his imagination, to place himself in the disciples’ shoes, so that he can travel with Jesus too, and know him for himself. So that today, he can recognize Jesus on his own road.

To acknowledge that there is a lot of fiction in the Bible may destroy some people’s faith altogether, but it need not. To preserve our faith after such an acknowledgement requires that we acknowledge our own responsibility, through imagination, for making the text live, so that it can become truer than fact.

Topics: Bibles and Bible Study. Texts: Deuteronomy, Luke, and Timothy (1&2). Resource Types: Sermons.

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