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Answering the Bible critics who love to cite the laws in Leviticus – CT

This weeks article in Christian Today.  I had given this a different title – “Answering the President – Lessons from the West Wing”….But this will do!

Answering the Bible critics who love to cite the laws in Leviticus

(Photo: Unsplash/Aaron Burden)

There is an anti-Christian meme that just keeps resurfacing in discussion and debate. It is a clip about the Bible from the best TV series ever, The West Wing, and is often cited by Bible critics as though it were unanswerable. It’s not.

Let me break down the scene for you in case you haven’t seen it. President Bartlet is giving a small reception in the White House when he notes that there is a woman sitting down eating as she listens to him address the room. He recognises her as a famous Christian talk show host (although the character was actually based on a Jewish talk show host). The character was known to be a proud, self-righteous and judgemental person – sadly a caricature which can all too often be close to the truth.

He attacks her by citing Scripture, chapter and verse, and mocks the Bible’s teaching on sexuality by comparing it with the Levitical teaching on the food laws. It’s a common and classic objection and for years I have been asked if I would prepare something to answer it. So, a few months ago when Ed Shaw was in town, myself and my colleague Steve sat down to discuss this clip.

So how would/should a Christian answer this accusation? There are of course those who can’t and those who don’t feel the need to. It’s relatively easy for them to just ignore the difficult parts of the Bible (especially in the Old Testament) and say that they don’t count because they follow Christ. But that doesn’t help because it is not the attitude of the Christ we claim to follow.

The problem is that the President’s understanding is a pick ‘n’ mix approach. When people come with this simplistic understanding, they are forgetting the basic principle that you have to read the Bible in context. A text without a context is just a pretext for whatever view the speaker wishes to have. Recently Polly Toynbee spoke about how Christianity could be whatever you wish it to be. Not if you take Jesus and the Bible seriously – which of course Toynbee, as a militant atheist who wishes to see Christianity sidelined, does not.

The President’s approach does not take into account the distinctions within the Mosaic law. It is normally divided into civil, ceremonial and moral. The civil was tied to the theocratic nation state of Israel; the ceremonial to the Levitical priesthood and the temple, both of which are gone. We can learn from them – we can discern the principles, but these are not laws that apply today. The moral we can again take the principles of. So, for example, it’s wrong to commit adultery (the moral law) but that sin is not today punished with death by the State.

(Photo: NBC)

The law reveals the character and standards of God but the point is that you need to read the good book ‘good’. We must not read it ‘flat’, as though it were some kind of DIY manual which does not take into account place and time.

And we must read the Bible through the eyes of Christ. He declared all foods clean – so the sniping about Christians not being able to eat shellfish (or bats!) is based upon an ignorance of the whole biblical picture. But what was his teaching on sex and sexuality? He repeated the basic creation standards, taught in the Old Testament, that marriage was between a man and a woman and that that adultery, and indeed all sex outside of marriage was wrong.

I would also note in responding to this meme, that it is somewhat dated and self-contradictory. President Bartlet attacks a woman who is self-righteous, hectoring and judgemental – by being self-righteous, hectoring and judgemental. He is a powerful, wealthy man intimidating a woman with much less power, and mansplaining to her. But apparently that’s allowed if the cause is good.

This clip shows up some of the inherent contradictions within our own culture. And it also shows how people can stand by complicity, or even join in the mob just because we agree with the stance that is being taken.

I also find that people who use this meme do so in the same manner that Bartlett asks his question. They don’t want answers. They are making accusations to which they do not expect an answer because to them the accusation is so self-evidently true that any attempt to respond must be ridiculous. The West Wing was normally excellent at doing nuance and avoiding simplistic tribalism but on this occasion they slipped up.

There are lessons for Christians to learn in this. We ought to discuss and debate differently. We must not respond to meme culture with more meme culture. We should not reply to one distortion by creating another. We cannot join the mocking mob. The Christian way is to listen, question, think, reason, feel, apologise, challenge and above all speak the truth of God in love. May the Lord grant us all loving hearts, renewed minds, courageous wills and gracious lips.

David Robertson is director of Third Space in Sydney and blogs at www.theweeflea.com

Views and opinions published in Christian Today are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.

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  1. “He is a powerful, wealthy man intimidating a woman with much less power, and mansplaining to her.”
    I see it as observing protocol and if it were a man, he would be doing the same. It is the sitting down that is the main issue when the rest of the room is standing and she has chosen not to do so with the consequences being that she stands. There is a biblical principle of this of not taking a superiour position when entering a home otherwise the host might ask you to take a lower position which would be embarrassing for yo but be humble and he may put you in a higher position that the one you chose for yourself.

    That being said, yes of course there is a context to the quotes made which is missed out. For example the wearing of different cloths being linked to Canaanite pagan worship and therefore there being a god put before God in that. Which ironically is also about taking appropriate position which the president does not do in this case, putting himself effectively in the place of God instead of being deferential to God. So in reality, his act is hypocritical in the scene with expecting the talk show host to stand.

  2. “Recently Polly Toynbee spoke about how Christianity could be whatever you wish it to be.”
    An interesting observation. Unfortunately it contains a large element of truth as shown by the large number of Protestant denominations around the world. And within each of these Protestant denominations there are many different theological opinions, as can be seen, for example, by looking at the Church of Scotland. As long as there is no binding authority to settle disputes then everybody has the ‘right’ to decide for themselves what the Bible teaches. Calvin declared, “Councils have authority only in so far as accordant with Scripture.” But who decides what is ‘accordant with Scripture?’ Each person, as Luther said, is their own Pope and Church. And, indeed, there is support for this widespread variation in interpretation in the doctrine of ‘secondary issues’. According to this doctrine, it is permissible for Bible-believing Christians to have a wide variety of opinions on any issue not deemed essential for salvation. But it will be objected by particular people that their view is not an interpretation but simply ‘what the Bible says’. Anybody who has a different interpretation is simply not reading the Bible properly. However, all the proponents of the different interpretations will say exactly the same thing. They will all say that they, and they alone, are stating what the Bible says. Basically it boils down to the question of whether there is a deposit of faith which was handed to the Apostles by Christ himself and then, guided by the Holy Spirit, handed down over the centuries by the successors of the Apostles or each person approaches the Bible individually and, in his own time and age, decides for himself what Jesus Christ taught. If the former is true then Polly Toynbee is completely wrong. If the latter is true then she has a strong case.

    1. I don’t accept that the Bible is so unclear that normal human beings cannot read it – nor that God was unable to convey clearly his Word. Nor that he needs an infallible Pope to tell us what he wants.

      1. David, you said wisely ‘[t]here are lessons for Christians to learn in this. We ought to discuss and debate differently. We must not respond to meme culture with more meme culture. We should not reply to one distortion by creating another. ‘
        But arn’t you giving an example in your response here of what you say we shouldn’t do? Why was Athanasius right and Arius wrong without a ‘rule of faith’?

  3. “you have to read the Bible in context”

    That is the point the president was making. The examples of disapplied legislation occur in the context of the use of the word “abomination” about something not obviously related, but which the book of Leviticus does relate to the legislation the president cited by juxtaposition.

    “The President’s approach does not take into account the distinctions within the Mosaic law. It is normally divided into civil, ceremonial and moral.”

    That’s the whole point. To us, the Mosaic law is divided by the distinctions we make, using our modern minds. In the text, the Mosaic law is not divided into civil, ceremonial and moral. What we might regard as civil, ceremonial and moral laws occur together, juxtaposed, alternated, dotting from one type to another, to another and back, higgledy-piggedly.

    What we need is for somebody who really believes in the verbal inspiration of scripture to explain why Leviticus FAILS to make the distinctions that you and the Westminster Confession deem necessary, but rather awkwardly undermines the distinctions you advocate, by putting all different types of law together.

    Honestly, to quote verses from Leviticus about a man lying with a man as with a woman, without looking at what comes before and after in the same passage, which is how one usually decides how to interpret single verses, is literally to take a text out of context. Failing to interpret a chapter of Leviticus by applying the Westminster Confession, isn’t an example of taking that part of the Torah out of context, as insinuated.

    1. Because you read the bible in the context of the whole bible – which does make those distinctions. The Bible should be interpreted by the Bible – Bartletts meme (lifted from a circular letter which has been doing the rounds since 1950’s) is cheap and ignorant.

  4. The very early Christians were , of course, ethnically Jewish and adhered to the traditional dietary proscriptions found in Leviticus .

    These pioneering proselytizers doubtless found it nigh on impossible to persuade converts to alter their long – established eating habits so that they follow content found in the Torah.

    In modern Malaysia , the mainly Muslim government have made strong efforts to convert the Orang Asli ( literally translated as ‘ Original People’ ) ) from Animism to Islam and have met with scant success due to a stubborn Aboriginal taste for wild pig.

  5. At the most fundamental level , Faith is immune to criticism.

    Some years ago , I attended a Singapore Malay ( Muslim) Eid feast at a then colleague’s home .

    Sadly , a member of the household had died during the Fasting Month , and my host’s daughter , on receiving my condolences , told me that, if a Muslim dies during that holy month , it represents a better chance in the matter of gaining access to Heaven , finishing her short explication with the words ” that is what we believe”.

    I nodded respectfully and in mid – nod a veiled female guest angrily said , ” It is not simply a belief , it is true.”

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