>In my interview with Jim West published in Biblioblog, I said a few words about atheists that caused Duane Smith’s heart “to skip a beat.”
In response to what I wrote, Duane wrote a post, “Who Can ‘Fully’ Interpret the Bible?” in which he takes issue with what I said about atheists and biblical interpretation. Read his post and learn the full scope of his argument.
Jim West comments on my statement and Duane’s response in a post titled “Duane Smith v. Claude Mariottini” and presents the dialogue as an adversarial argument between atheist Duane and Christian Claude. Jim concludes his post by saying that “in some respects Claude is right. In some respects Duane is right.”
I will begin this post by responding to some of Duane’s arguments. It is possible that I made a mistake by putting all atheists in one group. Duane classifies himself “as a secular student with an interest in the Hebrew Bible.” Thus, his position on the Bible makes him different from the strident atheist whose sole aim is to ridicule the Bible.
Duane is a secular person who believes “that the Bible has had a tremendous influence on Western civilization.” His view is completely different from Bertrand Russell who believed that every bit of human progress in law, morality, and science has been opposed because of the teaching of the Bible. In his lecture “Why I Am Not A Christian,” Russell wrote: “A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.”
Atheists like Bertrand Russell, Robert Ingersoll, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens approach the Bible with such a negative view that for them, the Bible is a book of lies and contradictions and the work of a demon. Strident atheists share Voltaire’s view of the Bible. Voltaire defined the Bible as “what fools have written, what imbeciles command, what rogues teach.”
So, how can strident atheists interpret the Bible when they do not believe in God, deny the possibility of revelation, reject the concept of inspiration, do not believe in divine intervention, faith, prayer, the possibility of miracles, or the concept of divine justice?
I agree with Jim West when he said that atheists “can be extraordinarily good historians and philologians.” Atheists can relate some historical events of the Bible to Assyrian and Babylonian histories, but the Bible is more than just a book of history. It is a religious book written by people of faith who believed that God had entered human history.
Atheists can study the words of the Bible (either in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek) and understand precisely what the words mean and what the words communicate. But the Bible is more than just letters: “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
Duane has two criticisms which he believes disprove my argument. First, he said that “in order to provide as full an interpretation of a text as possible, the interpreter must be part of that text’s living tradition.” By this he means that for a proper interpretation of the text the interpreter must be alive when the text was written.
But this argument is not true. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is very complicated but scientists can understand the theory of relativity today even though many of them were not alive when Einstein developed it. In addition, the Bible is different. “The word of God is living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). Because the word of God is living, then the believer does not need to have been alive when the word was written because the word is alive today, at a time when the believer is alive. The word of God makes itself contemporary with the believer. Thus, the believer becomes part of the text’s living tradition.
Second, Duane said: “Claude would be justifiably upset if I claimed he couldn’t fully understand Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens because he isn’t an atheist.”
But the fact is that I can. The works of Dawkins and Hitchens are only words and anyone can read words and understand precisely what the words mean and what the words communicate. Notwithstanding all the enthusiasm and the bravado in Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ words, they are, after all, only words.
The Bible, on the other hand, is the living word of the living God. And, that word became human and lived here on earth among us (John 1:14). This truth is hard for atheists to accept.
It is God who teaches us to understand his word. This is the reason the Psalmist prayed: “Teach me” (Psalm 119:12). So, the proper understanding of the Bible requires divine instruction. But how can people call on him in whom they have not believed? And that is the dilemma atheists face.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary