So, just how DOES one justify picking and choosing what parts of the bible to accept?

First off, let me say up front that I am NOT addressing this to fundamentalists who somehow manage to claim with a straight face that the bible is inerrant and wholly non-contradictory.

Instead, this is addressed to the moderate Christians who make up a large percentage of this message board, those who acknowledge that there are inconsistencies and/or errors in the Bible, and that only certain parts of the Bible should be followed.

Leaving for another thread the question of why God would allow a book as important as the Bible to contain errors and inconsistencies, I’m curious as to how people justify to themselves picking and choosing which parts to follow? In other words, once you have acknowledged that it can’t all be true (or, to put it another way, that some of it must be wrong), what is your yardstick for deciding that this part is true, while that part isn’t? And does it bother you that you might be wrong?

From personal experience and discussions with other people, I can think of the following possible rationalizations for choosing only certain parts of the bible to follow:
[ul][li]Somebody accepts whatever portions of the Bible the religion in which they were raised teaches them to accept (I suspect this is the number one reason, personally).[/li]
[li]Somebody has preconceived notions of what it means to be a “good” person, and accepts as valid only those parts of the Bible that support these notions.[/li]
[li]Somebody rejects the Old Testament entirely as a work of metaphorical fiction, but believes that the New Testament is divinely inspired.[/li]
[li]Somebody rejects both the Old and New Testaments as predominantly works of metaphorical fiction, yet somehow still believes in (a) the divinity of Christ and (b) that the words of Christ are accurately contained in the Bible (i.e., that the words of Christ are the only “true” parts of the Bible).[/li]
[li]Somebody has received what they believe to be personal revelation/inspiration telling them which parts of the Bible should be followed, and which parts can safely be ignored.[/li][/ul]
Have I missed any possibilities? And when people pick and choose from the Bible for whatever reason, do you ever worry if you’ve picked the wrong parts?



Another variation – I don’t practice this, but I know people who do – is the “divinatory” style of picking and choosing.

They claim that they are taking the Bible as a seamless whole…and then use one Bible verse as justification for ignoring another.

Now, at some level, this is perfectly well understood: it’s why Christians are allowed to eat shellfish and wear linsey-woolsey. But at another level, it gets really incestuous, and leads some varieties of Christian to throw out everything that Jesus said (!) because he spoke (or spake) during a different dispensation than ours.

But my only real point here is that one can, if one tries hard enough, use the Bible itself to justify picking and choosing from among the many things the Bible itself says.

(Then there are those who literally use the Bible as a divining tool: they open it at random, pick a verse, and use that as a guide for the problem of the day, rather like casting a horoscope.)


I work from the premise that The Bible is not the infallible word of God but rather a record of very fallible humans’ attempts to understand and preserve the word of God, oftentimes by recording stories that existed as oral tradition for centuries before being committed to paper (or stone or tablet or papyrus or whatever).

As such, I think that The Bible reflects a growing and changing understanding of God, of God’s expectations for humanity, and of how we should be have to be in accordance with those expectations. Obviously, The Bible was not composed all at one time, and isn’t assemled chronologically, either. Moreover, what we accept as canon isn’t open to further additions (The Bible is not a living document, in other words). The theology and ideology recorded there has stayed the same, while modern theology continues to reshape religious thought. So, just as people’s thinking evolved to knowing that animal sacrifice wasn’t called for, our own modern thinking can evolve to no longer accept other practices or thoughts that just don’t fit a current understanding of God.

On a personal level, yeah, I use some rationalization. What it comes down to is that I could never worship a God that I don’t respect. Therefore, I could never worship a God who thinks women ought to be subservient to men, never allowed to teach, never braid their hair or wear jewelry or certain fabrics. Nor could I worship a God that called for animal sacrifice. Or a God who condemns all non-believers (no matter what their individual circumstance) to Hell. Or a God who holds grudges. So I believe in the passages of The Bible that are in line with what I expect God to be: loving, rational, fair, respectful enough of His own creation not to desire death to glorify him or for one gender to be beneath another.

Does it bother me that I might be wrong? Sure. But I also think that if God is omniscient (a trait all books of The Bible seems to be in agreement on), God knows that I am doing my best to understand, and acting according to my highest thinking.

Actually, there are a few passages which clearly show God to not be omniscient. For instance:

God doesn’t know the current situation in Sodom and Gomorrah, and thus he has to go down and see for himself. Doesn’t sound very omniscient to me.

I guess a question I’d have for you here is, why do you expect God to be like that? Where did you get your ideas that God is like that from?

It won’t take the hamsters long to turn you up a plethora of threads addressing “contradictions in the Bible,” should you choose to run the search. So I believe we can take it as a given that such contradictions do apparently exist. (Na Sultainne or another conservative can play the resolve-them game with you if you want; for the most part, that’s not my cup of tea, though I occasionally enjoy the challenge of trying to rationalize how two seemingly-contradictory passages can be made to fit together.)

By the Bible’s own witness, all but a handful of verses were written by men (and perhaps a woman or two) recording what they understood God to have said and done – and sometimes not even addressing His words and deeds, but their own social structure, as in the genealogies and much of Proverbs.

In a work composed by men over a thousand years of time, contradictions and differing viewpoints are to be expected. Nonetheless, it’s a cardinal article of belief that the Bible is in some way inspired – in exactly what way, will result in bitter debates among Christians, but that the term “inspired” means something more than “pretty prose” seems to be common ground.

Therefore, just as Fred Phelps, Mel White, and Robert Schuller, claiming to speak about the same God, have quite differing views of His character and opinions, so too will Nahum, Isaiah, and John differ in detail as to who and what He is.

Is there a way out of this quagmire? For liberal Christians, the answer is “Yes.” First, Jesus is seen as the Incarnate Son of God. While Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are engaged in portraying Him differently according to their different perceptions, a consensus portrait emerges of a Man whom one can come to know as an individual, just as different biographies of Roosevelt, Churchill, or Kennedy will depict them with variances, but the underlying person can be recognized past the biographers’ particular emphases.

In the Gospels, Jesus is depicted as teaching a particular style of behavior with emphasis on the doing of good, trust in God’s goodness, emphasis on a high personal moral standard for the individual coupled with a command not to judge others’ sanctity, and a few other items. (The “Kingdom of God/Heaven” passages come to mind – the point there being to let God rule within oneself and let the chips fall where they may.)

An analogy to Constitutional law may be useful. Just as a law duly passed is valid if and only if it falls within the powers allowed to the legislature passing it within the applicable Constitution(s), and only if it does not improperly restrict the rights which said Constitution(s) guarantee, so too the commands and teachings of Scripture are valid only as they fit the three commands which Jesus specified as encompassing all the Law and Prophets: the Two Great Commandments and the Golden Rule. Therefore we have him, not rejecting the keeping of the Sabbath, but defining a way of keeping it which rejects the legalistic fences about not traveling or doing work, but focuses on the doing of good for God and man.

In reading Scripture with this view, one always keeps in mind the cultural context in which the story was written, and the tendency of man to pass the buck. For an Israelite leader to justify genocide by alleging that God commanded it would be easy, and give a divine cachet to his policies (GWB recognizes this!); this does not necessarily mean that He did any such thing.

So my rule is, does this passage under consideration accord with the known teachings of Jesus, or does it seem to lie athwart what He condemned? I do not ask, “can my actions be justified by a reference to some Bible verse?” but rather “are my actions conformable to the ideals which Jesus pronounced as goals to which humans should strive?”

This may well constitute cherry-picking – but if so, it’s making sure that the cherries that I pick are all those and only those that match USDA standards, so to speak! ;j

Of course, the bible is relevant to human life only to the extent that believers think it is relevant and keep trying to torture the rest of us with their oppressive meddling and laws supposedly derived from biblical principles.

For example, take marriage, please. All the tiresome Focus on the Family types and talk-show hosts condemn fun sex, fornication, adultery, and rights of singles and homosexuals as if marriage, as practiced in Amerika, at least, were in the slightest way “biblical.” You may read the bible, as I have, in English, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Spanish and German and still not find in it a prescription for Marriage Amerikan Style.

It sure wasn’t Adam and Eve, who didn’t bother. It wasn’t their kids or Lot, who practiced incest. It wasn’t old Abe, Isaac, Jacob, etc, who grabbed whatever many women pleased them. Then there was Job, whose marriage is recognized as supremely Amerikan only by the blaming and nagging of his wife. It wasn’t David, who had fun cheating with Bathsheeba, or Solomon, who extolled his lover’s “two breasts, like two fawns of a gazelle.”

Moving right along to the New Travesty, it sure wasn’t John the Baptist, Jesus or Paul. Was it Mary Magdalene or the Woman at the Well? We do find out that biblical marriage somehow involves providing plenty of wine for your guests, but not much else.

The only place in the bible where I find a woman “falling in love” with a man (and a woman, Naomi, too) and freely going off to share her life with him is the story of Ruth and Boaz. There is no record of their even having married!

I’d like you biblical exegetes to find the basis for Amerikan marriage nonsense in the bible!


If I may, I repeat every word you just said. :wink:

Why can’t it be a completely true story, told thru a filter determined by the environment of the writers at the time?

Considering the philosophic importance of Christianity, the Bible has great significance and a long tradition of association with intense scrutiny by highly educated people. Understanding it, and examining it for consistency and uniformity of intent is a bewildering exercise, requiring great scholarship, or intense passion, or both.

For me, and for some other Christians, the philosophy is a small and almost insignificant part of what being a servant of Christ is about. Historicity, logical validity, Apostolic Succession, or the “correct” interpretation of the bible’s metaphors are mental exercises that are, quite frankly, beyond the abilities of many of our Beloved Savior’s blessed children. We are confident, nay, joyful in our assurance that he will not fail us, because we lack the wit to unravel the conundrums propounded by generations of wise men.

Instead we see the bible as a record of many people who have come to know and love God. We hear the stories of sinners brought to face their maker. We hear the glorious tale of God Himself, become a Man, that we might better know Him. And we hear the words of Jesus, who is the living God, and He assures us that we should “Love God, and our neighbor as our selves.” He tells us that all we have here on the Earth is fragile, vain, and of no final importance. He gives us hope, and bids us to have faith in that hope, and that Love is the greatest of all things.

And now to explain, or at least report, the part that doesn’t fit into arguments about theology, or explanations about legalisms, or philosophic principles. Jesus is our beloved savior. He is real, and alive, and He actively loves us, sinners that we are. He loves us now, at this very moment, still drenched with the filth of our sins this day, still unconfessed, still unrepentant. We are not the instrument of our own salvation. Our philosophy, our greatest works, our most heartfelt repentances are just so much mortal dross. It is He that is greater than our sins. And we come to know Him in our hearts, not in our minds.

Read the bible. But first, look into your heart. Be honest with yourself, and yourself alone. Is this a place where God would wish to dwell? Then make of your heart a dwelling place, fit for the Lord of the Universe. Now read. When you feel the love of God you will know that you have found truth. It does not make sense; it is not rational. There is no proof, and it will not make you great, or rich, or smart, or strong. But you will know love. After that, understanding it will seem . . . trivial.

Why should I “be good” if I am saved despite my sins? Being good is good, because it is good. Evil is . . . well, evil. There need be no other reason. How do I know which is which? I don’t think it really is all that hard to tell. Does what I do reflect the love I have for all my brothers? Does it try to emulate the Love of God, Himself? Then I am doing good. Otherwise, I am pretty much just being another horses ass of a mortal sinner. Not a pretty picture, I admit. Maybe you are doing better.


I was with you until this last part. As far as I am aware, the only record of “the known teachings of Jesus” is the Bible itself, a book which, by your own admission, is comprised primarily of verses that “were written by men (and perhaps a woman or two) recording what they understood God to have said and done.” How do you know the verses that purport to record the words of Jesus are accurate and not just what the transcribers thought they heard him say? What if, say, the writings of Paul are correctly recorded verbatim (e.g., because he wrote them as letters that were preserved), while everything that Jesus himself said is distorted (e.g., because it wasn’t written down until many years after his death)?

In other words, if Paul said something that contradicts with what Jesus allegedly said, how do you justify picking Jesus’ “words” over Paul’s?


Good question. Paul, like everybody else, “filtered” whatever inspiration he had through his own mental (pre)conceptions. His teachings are therefore those of a Christian leader, but not necessarily those of God Himself.

In Jesus, on the other hand, we have God the Son Incarnate as a human being. Granted that He did not write anything that has survived, and that the four Evangelists wrote with their own agendas, as I noted, one can “read past” the particular idees fixés of each by reference to the others. In particular, Luke is careful to note that he employed the best First Century historiography in composing his Gospel. If you discount the idea that Matthew was trying to portray Jesus as the Jewish Messiah (grist for an interesting thread, with Izzy and cmk exploring why Judaism has disagreed with his conclusions), that Luke was looking at a “humanistic Jesus,” that Mark was portraying “the Son of God” who was insistent on keeping His Messiahship a secret, and that John’s Jesus is transcendent and tends to discourse rather than teach in parables and pithy sayings as the Synoptic portraits suggest, then you can arrive at a view of a man on whose character and teachings they agree.

It is this concurrence beyond the differences in the Gospels that I see as the touchstone by which everything else can be judged. Does that answer your question, or should I try to rephrase my perspective?

Well, I’m not sure what the “best First Century historiography” means when talking about the Gospel of Luke, to be honest. And I guess it’s handy to simply “discount” ideas that might offer an alternate view of the Gospels. I don’t suppose it would matter if somebody suggested the possibility that any agreement in the Gospels with regard to what Jesus supposedly said is actually the result of, say, confabulation among the authors at a later date, or perhaps the result of later transcribers tweaking the words to fit what they felt Jesus should have said?

Seriously, though – is your acceptance of Jesus’s words as being accurate really based on a logical analysis of the text, or is it primarily because you feel comfortable with his alleged words and therefore give them precedence over the words of Paul and other biblical personages?


There are Churches that, for around 2000 years, have taken the reasonable attitude that Scripture is necessary but not both necessary and sufficient. There is much “supplementary” material that resolves a great deal of conflict. Even the Jews have Midrash.

Polycarp, following up on this a bit more, do you agree that Jesus’ teachings never condemned slavery? If so, how can you apply this to your rule?

The Jesus Seminar use the 20% figure as the number of saying that they think can actually be attributed to Jesus as actually being said, or very close to something he said, and that figure wouldn‘t have even been that high if they hadn‘t included the non-canonical book of Thomas in their research. So, when you read your Bible, is it like Jefferson’s? What is left of it, assuming you think JS is close to being right on the figure they use for Jesus sayings?


John Zahn: Maybe God made sure that the words of his son were captured accurately, even if he didn’t care about the rest of what’s contained in the Bible. I’m just saying, is all…


There’s really a couple issues going on here.

One is about factual (historical, scientific, etc.) accuracy. The other is about the authority of biblical precepts.

While they aren’t totally distinct issues, ISTM they’re separate enough that it confuses the issue to discuss them in the same breath.

With respect to the practice of Christianity, the factual accuracy of the Bible really doesn’t matter that much, IMHO. The Bible is basically a collection of documents (stories, histories, letters, poetry, etc.) about the relationship between God and people. Apart from the absurdity of certain folks trying to have the Biblical creation story taught as science in the public schools, it’s of little importance to me whether Genesis is fact or myth. Either way, the messages of the stories in that book are still the same. But there are factual contradictions in the Bible. That doesn’t bother me, but it would lead one to expect similar problems with respect to Biblical precept; the need to pick and choose is real. The only question is on what basis.

And there, like Polycarp, I start with the two great commandments: to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love our neighbor as we would love ourselves. As I see it, honoring precepts that fly in the face of doing these things is wrong.

To me, isn’t a question of historical accuracy: did Jesus really say this, or did Paul really say that. I believe they pretty much said the things that they are supposed to have said. But if, after years of thought, prayer, and looking for a good way out, I still find ‘love your neighbor’ and ‘homosexual relations are immoral’ to be irrevocably at loggerheads, I’m going to go with ‘love your neighbor’.

Well, if the Council of Nicaea could pick and choose what’s Scripture and what’s not, why shouldn’t I?

More seriously: the Fundamentalist concept of the Bible as complete and literal truth is a relatively recent concept in theology (The Fundamentals was published in 1909), and not a part of most “liberal” Protestant traditions. To wishy-washy types such as myself, the Bible is a compendium of religious writings, describing, broadly, its writers’ experience and understanding of the workings of God in the world, and set forth with a view to aiding others to experience and understand God.

It is neither the be-all and end-all of Christian faith, nor an unappealable authority on all subjects. It is one way to gain an understanding of God. Others include the study of His other works (such as the world He made), and the cultivation of a personal relationship with Him through prayer and discipleship. If there are contradictions in these sources of knowledge, well, we are given the capacities, by God, of reason and of faith - we can use our reason to resolve these conflicts, or have faith that God understands all and will explain all when we come to Him.

For example, the Bible has various things to say on the origins of the world, which are contradicted by science, the study of God’s creation. Not being a Biblical literalist, I use my reason to resolve these as follows; the creation story of the Bible may be theologically accurate (God made the world, according to a plan), but there’s no reason to suppose the writers of Genesis got the practical details of that creation right … so, I reject the literal truth of the Bible at that point, in favour of my understanding of the workings of the world. Another Christian might, instead, choose to have faith that this apparent contradiction will be resolved in due time, perhaps by the discovery of new scientific evidence that would prove the correctness of the Biblical account.

That’s one example; there are, of course, many others. When I read the Bible, it’s with a conscious attitude of questioning, asking myself how a particular passage is to be interpreted, in the light of what I know, and what I feel God wants me to do in my life. This process of interpretation is crucial to my life as a Christian - it’s what makes me a free-willed servant of God, instead of a rules-following automaton.

Free-willed critical interpretation has its pitfalls, to be sure; this is one reason why Christians form communities of faith, to try to stop each other falling into error. But it also makes various supposed dilemmas quite easy to resolve. Christ says nothing, explicitly, against slavery (that we know of), that’s true … but, given the Golden Rule, and the Second Great Commandment, we may legitimately infer that it’s unChristian to keep one’s neighbour in servitude. Similarly, Christ says nothing explicitly about homosexuality … but he says “love your neighbour” and “judge not”, which seems to me to provide enough information to form a Christian response on that particular issue.

I think I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: if God had wanted me to think, He would have given me a brain.

It seems to me that the real criteria people use for accepting or rejecting pieces of the Bible is their personal morality. Polycarp provides an excellent example. He rejects the possibility that God actually issued commands to destroy all inhabitants of a city. Now, he might do this because of historical evidence, but he seems to do this because it would not be right for God to do so. Not to put words into his mouth, but perhaps Polycarp only believes in a God at least as moral as he is, and because Polycarp is way too moral to even consider such a horrific action, he rejects the possibility of God doing so. I think we can interpret much of his theology in this vein.

By contrast, Fred Phelps, who is considerably less moral than Poly (that’s the understatement of the year) seems to have no trouble accepting a murdering lord.

Man has become more moral than the god of the unfiltered Bible, and thus needs to reinterpret the Bible to pull god up to and above man’s level.

But how recent of a development is it for a believer to consider Creation; Noah, the Ark and Flood; Jonah and the whale; and virtually every miraculous story told in the OT and NT as just myth? Did the early church fathers view it this way? And how did Jesus, Paul, and Peter view these stories? When I’ve referenced these stories in the NT, it seems very obvious to me it wasn’t a myth to them. Once a believer starts going down the mythological slide, when do they start to apply the brakes?

That’s a wide berth you giveth there, if you want to start describing it as maybe still being theologically accurate after getting the practical details all screwed up. Considering all of the different creation stories that are known, what would keep them from saying the same thing? If those creation accounts are also theologically accurate, does it really tell us anything?

And if your neighbor happened to be Saddam Hussein?