This is a guest post provided by Eric.
Despite significant and perhaps irreconcilable differences in the way we understand the Bible, evangelicals and Mormons generally share an appreciation not only for its teachings, but also for its historicity. We see our faiths grounded not in what is merely a collection of goodness-promoting stories, but in a God who directly intervened in history in a series of miraculous events culminating in an actual, physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this way, we share an outlook that is not shared by all who consider themselves Christians.
For most of us who wear the LDS or evangelical label, this historicity is a key aspect of our faiths. We agree with Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians that if is isn’t true that God raised Jesus from the dead then our faith is useless. But our belief in what the Bible teaches as history goes beyond that: Generally, if the Bible teaches that something is historical — whether it’s the raising of Lazarus or the feeding of the thousands — we tend to believe it actually happened. That isn’t the case with the Bible’s skeptics, nor is it the case among many leaders in mainline Protestant denominations such as the United Church of Christ (I’m not picking on my UCC friends here, just mentioning a denomination that has become particularly liberal in its interpretive outlook).
Certainly, accepting the Bible as literal truth isn’t the only way of understanding it. In fact, some parts of the Bible are clearly intended to be allegory: You’ll find almost no evangelical pastor nor LDS bishop advising the parishioner who got caught shoplifting to chop off his or her hands. Most likely, that pastor or bishop would suggest that the parishioner find a way to remove the source of temptation, and also to apply that principle not just to thievery but also in dealing with other temptations as well where that principle may help.
But what about other aspects of the Biblical narrative? A century ago, you would have found few Bible-believing Christians, whether Protestant or LDS, who believed that the Earth was many millions of years old. But today, that is no longer the case. Many of us, whether evangelical or LDS, have come up with ways of reconciling, at least to some degree, what the Bible teachers and what science teaches. Perhaps the six days weren’t meant to be understood literally (possibly, in LDS lingo, they’re six “creative periods”), that the creation accounts of Genesis were meant to be allegorical or figurative in some way. And, at least according to what I’ve observed, many evangelicals and Mormons don’t spend a lot of time defending as literal history some of the more seemingly outlandish events of the Old Testament, such as Joshua’s making the sun stand still.
But all this raises some ultimate questions: How much of the Bible is real history? How much is figurative or allegorical? Did Jesus perform amazing miracles? Does it matter? Are Adam and Eve to be understood as actual, historical characters, or are they an allegory designed to teach us about the state of humanity? Was Jonah really swallowed by a big fish? Or is that merely a fun, humorous story designed to teach us lessons about sharing the gospel?
More importantly, does it matter if these events weren’t real in a historical sense? And if we say it’s unimportant whether the story of Jonah is true in a historical sense, what about the ultimate miracle, the Resurrection of Christ? Do these mean anything as historical events, or are they merely allegories designed to teach us eternal truths?
This essay was prompted by a recent Mormon Expressions interview with a Mormon bishop who has become skeptical of much of the Church’s historical narrative. It’s a fascinating interview, and it raises questions not just for Mormons, but for all Christians who believe in a God who intervened in history.
Of course, the broader question is a bigger one for Mormons than it is for evangelicals — for Mormonism’s legacy is based not only on the Bible but also on a series of events where we believe God intervened in the 19th century and since then. But I don’t really care to dwell on specifically LDS beliefs here; there are plenty of places in this blog and elsewhere on the web where those issues are discussed (as they should be). I’d like us to look at those extraordinary events that are part of our common heritage. Specifically, here are some questions for discussion:
- How do we determine which parts of the Bible should be accepted as literal truth and which as figurative or allegorical in nature?
- How important is it to believe in a literal Resurrection?
- If you were the person in charge, would you accept into church membership someone who openly denied a literal Resurrection? If so, would you allow such a person to teach Sunday school? Preach a Sunday sermon?
- The same questions can be asked of Biblical teachings that would seem to be foundational to some degree: Were there a literal Adam and Eve? Is Satan for real? Will there be a Second Coming?
- Or how about the lesser fantastic events of the Bible? Did Jesus turn water into wine? Did he heal the sick? Is Job a historical character? Were there a David and Goliath? A worldwide flood? Does it matter? And how do you decide whether it matters?
- Finally, if some or all of the events above are allegorical in nature, how does that affect your faith?