Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Harold Camping and Bible-thumping Culture

He predicted that the world will end in 1994, but it didn't. Later he predicted that the world ends over last weekend on 21 May 2011, but we are all still here. Now, he said that the actual date is 21 October 2011.

I wonder if he is delusional or simply stupid?

People quited their job, spent all their savings to publicize Camping's prediction, and Lyn Benedetto slitted her children's throat and wrist before slitting herself because all of them heard Camping. It worths asking why would anyone took him seriously?

The simple reason is that he claimed that his prediction is from the Bible. If Camping said that he got his prediction from a magic ball, probably no one would pay attention.

However, methinks Camping is simply a symptom of a larger problem. A problem that has to do with the Christian community's view of the scripture: There is an unwarranted overconfidence among Christians to believe in their own individual ability to interpret the Bible.

There are too many Christians in churches who think that they can simply read, understand, refer, and apply the Bible in life. The emphasis here is the word 'simply'. Hence this is not to question the clarity of the scripture and the possibility that it can be understood, however there are many qualifications attached to the attempt to understand, not the mention apply, the ancient texts.

Wayne Grudem has listed not one nor two, but seven qualifications to make sense of the idea that the scripture can be understood:

Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but not all at once.

Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but not without effort.

Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but not without ordinary means.

Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but not without the reader’s willingness to obey it.

Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but not without the help of the Holy Spirit.

Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but not without human misunderstanding.

Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but never completely.

If taken all these criteria together, readers need to work on a few Ph.Ds in order to understand the Bible. Another few PhDs to learn how to apply it.

To really understand the scriptures, the least that one needs is a good grasp of Koine Greek, classical Hebrew, Aramaic/Syriac, old Babylonian, middle Egyptian, and modern English (to read contemporary scholarly works). That is only the languages.

Then one needs to be familiar with the ancient world. That means one need to read all the ancient near eastern texts. If one is not sure which texts to start with, one may consult the two excellent guide books by Kenton L. Sparks (for Old Testament) and Craig A. Evans (for New Testament) respectively.

But these two are merely guides and do not contain the actual texts in their entirety. They just contain names of those texts, brief introductory notes and summaries to them. The literatures are so vast that the Babylonian Talmud alone is about twenty volumes.

Let's say one managed to complete all the classical texts and obtained a few Ph.Ds and still alive, there is still the need to understand how these texts relate to the Bible. Which part of which ancient literatures correspond to or shed light on which part of the Bible?

Let's say one somehow managed to list down all the extra-canonical references that are related to the Bible and somehow able to develop an exhaustive annotation of each passages, one is still left with the task of how to make sense of the scriptures for today's world. It is a perennial struggle of how to appropriate a description to be a prescription.

And on top of all that, one needs the necessary guidance by the Holy Spirit.

But of course, one may bypass all that and stick with the last one: claiming that the Holy Spirit is guiding us to understand the scriptures.

If one opts for this, then there is no reason not to assume that we have many subtle 'Harold Campings' filling the pews every week. The difference between Camping and others is not in kind but in degree. (That's why theological colleges or seminaries are so important. They help to stretch the degree of difference.)

There are good reasons to be cautious of those who thump their Bibles and preface their sentences with "The Bible says..." when they speak.

Of course, the more subtle and common form is the practice of quoting verses from the Bible to instruct others or to answer every questions as if these verse are specifically meant for those usages. A culture generally known as "prooftexting." That's what Camping is doing in the photo above.

A vivid memory of doing that until about 5 or 6 years ago is still fresh. It was at Cineleisure. Having said this, I still refer to the Bible nowadays. Yet in a more tentative and cautious manner.


Martin Yee said...

Sze Zeng,

Clap, clap. Well said indeed.
Btw Lutherans have always insisted with Luther that we need to read Scriptures with with a Law and Gospel lens. Well, some think we are nuts, one of my lecturer disagreed with me outright, but then your post now seems to suggest otherwise. Anyway, I know you will still disagree with me on this :)

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Martin,

No la.. not disagreeing with you. I think we need to read with both lens too (with many other lens).

What was your lecturer's suggestion then?

Martin Yee said...

Well, he said justification by faith alone is not the main core of the Christian faith, although significant, it is only one of many major doctrines. So just just Law and Gospel hermeneutics will not do. He believe in identifying the authorial intent, proper background studies, exegesis, get the main and sub ideas etc. Let the text speak for itself. Do not impose our own ideas on it. Of course he also recognise the different contexts, ancient and now, identify what is transferable and what is not, and so on.

Sze Zeng said...

Thank you for sharing. That's a general standard and useful advise. Did you argue back? :)

Martin Yee said...

Well, not really as I was too afraid of being marked down. I cannot afford to offend him at that time :(

Sze Zeng said...

That's serious. I think usually such situation will end with "agree to disagree", and does not usually be offensive to the lecturer. But again, who knows right? :)

Max said...

Here is a link to an audio from a spiritual group which is getting a lot of attention right now. They explain the difference between December 21, 2012 and Camping’s dart board throw prediction. This recording is apparently causing a lot of controversy!