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A Biblical Dilemma

May 1st, 2008 | 6 min read

By Keith E. Buhler

Uhhhh stay away!Spending ten hours a week in discussion with high school students presents some universal truths about human nature. One such universal truth is that human beings do not like to change (even for the better), and so require some strong motivation before they budge. By strong motivation, of course, I mean the pain of not changing outweighs the pain of changing, like a frog whose pot of water has got just two degrees too hot.

This confirms an observation (I believe it was TS Eliot) that human life tends to alternate between "fruitless conversation and thoughtless action." We do, but do not reflect on what we have done, and do not plan what we will do tomorro; we think about things, but generally avoid thinking about matters in which we might have to reform our daily behavior or long-term goals. Thus we remain in our comfortable (but not that comfortable) little bubble-boy zone of intellectual and pragmatic stagnation.
One great way out of this dilemma (another universal truth one discovers in class with high schoolers) is to find yourself in an even more uncomfortable dilemma; this time a formal logical dilemma, of the kind so heuristically effective in Plato's writings.
I would like to pose just such an uncomfortable dilemma to you, gracious Mere-O Reader, which has convicted me recently, in hopes that you can either break it down for me (thus relieving me from the bothersome task of doing something about it) or else be convicted yourself, so that I will have company.

(Presupposition #1 of this logical dilemma is that God has successfully revealed himself and his teachings to men. This immediately makes untenable, for such fine folks as Mr. Anderson the Elder, the rest of the argument. Fair warning.)

Supposing divine revelation of some kind, let us conservatively call the Christian Scriptures (the Septuagent or Westminster canon) sure divine revelation. The words on the page are of God, from God, for God's purposes with men.

A dilemma has two (seemingly innocent) premises and one (nasty) conclusion. The first is usually a pair of "if-then" statements (or conditional syllogisms); the second is an "either/or"; the third is a conclusion that follows deductively. Here goes:
1. If the Bible is divine, then the physical book ought to be treated with great respect, more respect even than that given human beings, who are merely mortal; If it is not divine, then it's teachings ought not to have a specially high place in our lives.

2. Either the Bible is divine or it is not divine.

3. Therefore, either it ought to be treated with more respect than human beings, or else its teachings ought not to have a special place in our lives.

If you do not like the conclusion, you must take one of three approaches. You may argue that one or both of my conditional syllogisms in premise 1. are invalid; You may argue that my premise 2 is not truly disjunctive, (i.e., there is an unstated third option); or you may argue that my inference is invalid.
The inference seems valid, and premise two takes the form (apparently) of a simple "Either A or Not-A," statement, and so seems to be exhaustive. (Correct me if I'm wrong). So the only option is to attack premise one, either by saying that the argument is invalid or perhaps one or more of the terms are invalid.

The first counter-argument that I and my students surfaced was this: Reverencing the book itself (by not throwing it around, always keeping it in a place of honour, on a mantle or shelf, keeping it clean and away from water, dirt, etc.) is pointless.The Bible is divine in its teachings, but the pages on which those words and letters are printed are not divine.
My simple response is: Why not?

This objection sounds like saying, "Jeffrey's soul is criminal, sure, but the physical body in which the soul lives and moves is not criminal. So let's not put his body in jail, that would be pointless." The remaining option is what, to have "spiritual respect" for the teachings of the Bible? Does this mean, as Fred Sanders might ask, "not real respect"?

Do we punish Jeffrey "spiritually" for his spiritual crimes, or do we punish him physically and expect that this physical, visible cause will have a spiritual, invisible effect?

It seems that human beings have a natural understanding of how mind and body, how spirit and flesh interact. (In this way, I think, Christian apologeticists try too hard to convince naturalists to become dualists... Everyone is a dualist empirically, if not in their conscious worldview, being acquainted as they are by everyday life with the connection of the immaterial conscious self with the material unconscious world of body) We know that if you hurl an insult in sound at someone's eardrum, it will hit their soul... We know that if you hold your loved one's hand the affection will find its way (somehow) to the psyche. We also know that our deepest fears and highest joys can find physical expression, through the face, through song, through speech, through body language.

So if God has successfully communicated something deeply spiritual to us by manifesting it in the physical form of a piece of paper, (see presupposition #1) then whether or not the spiritual fact and the physical fact are two different things, we must treat them with as one.

I know Matt is not his body, yet I treat his body as him. I know the computer I am typing on right now is not the soul of Mrs. Dalbey, my landlady, and yet I treat it with the respect I want her to have. Everything I do to this physical chunk of matter transfers somehow to her soul.

Likewise, I would suggest, everything I do to the codex on which is written "Holy Bible, NAS Translation" and on the pages of which are printed the words of Moses, Job, Jesus, and John transfers to the Divine Author. Whether good or bad, the treatment I give to the divine book finds its way to the divine author. If this is the case, then I ought to respect Bibles (as the images of the Word) at least as much as mortal human beings (made in the Image of the Word). If I do not want to respect the physical book itself this much, then I must deny that it is (in any significant sense) divine, and so must not treat the commands I read therein with much respect. I must rather relegate them to the domain of pious fiction, or beautiful human truth.

Is there any way out of this dilemma, or am I rightly convicted?