4.3 The Bible

For those who believe that they already know what the Bible teaches and consequently do not need to wrestle with its interpretation, their job is a relatively simple one, however uninformed.

—Lee Martin McDonald et al., Early Christianity and its Sacred Literature

4.3.1 Creation and the Fall of Man

It is not an easy thing for a soul, under the influence of error, to be persuaded of the contrary opinion.

—Irenaeus, Fragments

The realization that evolution might possibly have some truth to it was the most disturbing event in my life of faith. It took me quite a while to really understand the scientific issues, and to accept their profound implications both theologically and for my own place in the universe as a conscious, self-aware organism. What I saw right away, however, was that an unguided, natural process of evolution threatened to remove the strongest intellectual prop that had been shoring up my weak faith. It provided a simple, elegant, and tangible answer to the question for which the guided, supernatural process of creation was previously my only answer: “How could all of these amazing forms of life, myself included, have just happened to arise?”

There is a mental roadblock that seems to stand in the way of many thoughtful, educated people accepting that, as Darwin famously put it, “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved” (1859, 428). How could such complexity just happen to arise from a single first fragment of life, not yet even a complete cell? But my electrical engineering work in signal processing allowed me to quickly bypass that roadblock. I understood that filtering out random noise is the key to selecting weak bits of intelligence from noisy communication channels. It didn’t take me long to appreciate how evolution uses its own type of filtering to select those few useful and beneficial mutations that occasionally appear in the midst of the noise of random genetic mutation. Eventually, the complexity and apparent design of cells, organs, organisms, and ecosystems emerges much like the faint tones of Morse code signals became perceptible–with appropriate audio filtering–amidst the static of my ham radio receivers decades ago.

And those mutations are very few indeed. We each carry about 50 mutations in the approximately 3 billion base pairs of our DNA–complete novelties not found in the DNA of either parent (Wells 2006, 16). They are infrequent random accidents in an otherwise amazingly accurate DNA replication process.

Yet the variations resulting from genetic mutations are the raw material of evolution. It is an unguided process that results in the “preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations,” a phenomenon that Darwin called natural selection (1859, 81). The randomness of the mutations is the noise, and natural selection is the filter. Every “slight modification” that the mutations cause, “which in the course of ages chanced to arise, and which in any way favoured the individuals of any of the species, by better adapting them to their altered conditions, would tend to be preserved; and natural selection would thus have free scope for the work of improvement” (p. 81). Natural selection “is just differential reproduction. Some organisms because of their features do better at reproduction than others. That is all there is to it. Nothing more” (Ruse 2010, 164).

Putting a micromanaging creator God out of business is only one of the theological problems posed by evolution. I don’t think anyone is better at summarizing those problems than John F. Haught, though I find his proposed theological solutions utterly unconvincing. In the introduction to his book Making Sense of Evolution, he invites the reader to just ponder, for a moment, “Darwin’s claim that all life on earth has descended from a single common ancestor that lived ages ago, an idea not original with him but one that is fundamental to his science.” He then summarizes most of the major issues raised by that idea, so succinctly that I have taken the liberty of inserting a numeric label before his mention of each one:

What does [Darwin’s] idea of common ancestry mean for (1) our understanding of life, (2) of who we are, and of what our relationship with the rest of nature should be? Or consider Darwin’s idea of “natural selection,” the impersonal winnowing mechanism responsible for the emergence of new species over an unimaginably immense span of time. (3) If all the diverse species arose gradually by way of a blind natural process, in what sense can God still be called the author of life, if at all? And (4) if our own species is a product of natural selection, can Christian theologians still responsibly pass on the news that we are created in the “image” and “likeness” of God (Gen. 1:26)? Since human beings apparently evolved as one species among others, what does this imply for our ideas about the (5) soul, (6) original sin, and (7) salvation? And (8) what does “Christ” mean if Jesus also is a product of evolution? [Haught 2010, xii]

In addition, there is what the SRK preacher and writer Erkki Reinikainen called “a profound contradiction [that] exists between the biblical account of creation and the generally accepted theory of evolution in the natural sciences” (1986, 17). As we will see below, the conflict is real and disturbing, enough so to send me on a research quest that would occupy hundreds of hours and a shelf full of books on the subject.1 My study began with a hope that I might confirm the truth of the biblical creation account, or at least the possibility for it to be true. But it was not to be.

I’ve had some stressful and heated discussions about evolution with people whose opinions are far stronger than their knowledge. I am all too aware of how unlikely it is for my few words of explanation here to change the minds of those who reject it because “they have been solemnly told that the theory of evolution is false (or at least unproven) by people they trust more than they trust scientists” (Dennett 2006, 60). So I will now conclude this brief introduction with the words of Kenneth R. Miller, who is both a Christian (Roman Catholic) and professor of biology. What saddens him about the creationists who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the evidence he spends page after page presenting in Finding Darwin’s God

is the view of the Creator that their intellectual contortions force them to hold. In order to defend God against the challenge they see from evolution, they have had to make Him into a schemer, a trickster, even a charlatan. Their version of God is one who intentionally plants misleading clues beneath our feet and in the heavens themselves. Their version of God is one who has filled the universe with so much bogus evidence that the tools of science can give us nothing more than a phony version of reality. In other words, their God has negated science by rigging the universe with fiction and deception. To embrace that God, we must reject science and worship deception itself. [2007, 80]

Worshiping or even defending deception is something I must decline to do.

Adam and Eve

A specific aspect of creationism is the belief that there were two actual people, Adam and Eve, who were formed either after vegetation (Gen. 1) or before (Gen. 2), wandered around some of it in the Middle East thousands of years ago, listened to some unfortunate (though ultimately accurate) advice from a talking snake, and ate a forbidden piece of fruit. Consequently, they noticed their nakedness and became the originators not just of the “R” movie rating, but the entire human race.

They also became the source of all our problems, at least according to Apostle Paul in Romans 5:12-19:

Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come. But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. . . . For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.) Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.

He makes the same basic point in 1 Corinthians 15:21: “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the very purpose of Pauline Christianity is to solve a supposed problem that is rooted in myth rather than fact. The dilemma this presents is eloquently addressed on the website of the BioLogos foundation, which advocates a form of theistic evolution:

A strictly literal reading of the Adam story does not fit with what we know of the past. Some choose to ignore the data altogether. Others marginalize or interpret the data idiosyncratically to salvage some type of literal/historical reading. But, by and large, everyone–even including this latter group–has to do some creative thinking about how to handle the Adam story. A “just read it literally” mentality is not an available option. “What do I do with the Adam story?” is a real and pressing question for most people of faith.

In my experience, a lot of Christians—I might even guess most—have come to some peace with all of this. They may handle it in different ways, and some may not have arrived at a conclusion, but they at least recognize that something has to be done. They sense that a simple literal reading of the Adam story won’t work without creating a lot of cognitive dissonance, and so they are open to ideas.

But, sooner or later, another issue comes up that is hard to get around and for some simply ends the discussion entirely.


One commentator on that page asked, “[I]f Paul is mistaken about sin’s origin, does that lessen the reality of sin or our need for a Savior?” Another commentator replied, with evident anguish, “Frankly, if Paul couldn’t get the origin of sin right, it would tend to make me wonder why I should trust that he got the ‘solution’ any more right. If I am to base my understanding of God, sin, salvation, heaven and hell on the writing of a guy who lived 2000 years ago I would like to know he’s reliable. How am I to trust Paul now?”

I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that this is a foundational point of Christian theology. That’s what an LLC preacher told me–with concern about my spiritual condition–after reviewing the portions of my June 2010 edition that dealt with evolution. I certainly don’t fault him for saying what is clearly the state of the church’s theology, well summarized by this quote from Uljas’s 2000 book A Treasure Hidden in a Field:

“God created man in His own image. He made man to be an eternal being and responsible for his deeds. The man created by God was righteous, so that in that aspect, too, he was the image of God. These characteristics separate man from the rest of creation. Only man can be righteous or lack righteousness, the remainder of creation does not have this gift. When God looked at His creation, He saw that it was very good (Gen 1:31). Thus, man also was good. But man fell into sin when he was not obedient to, but rather transgressed the will of his Creator. As a result of the Fall, man was separated from God and lost his righteousness. The trusting relationship of the child to the Father disappeared, and in its place, came fear and a need to flee from God. We all bear this poor heritage of the Fall of the first people, which is called inherited sin.” [pp. 27-28]

The theological significance wasn’t lost on Luther, either: “[T]he Son of God had to become a sacrifice to achieve these things for us, to take away sin, to swallow up death, and to restore the lost obedience. These treasures we possess in Christ, but in hope. In this way Adam, Eve, and all who believe until the Last Day live and conquer by that hope” (Lectures on Genesis, Ch. 3, §15). It’s a legitimate concern to note, as does the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, that the “denial of an historical Adam and Eve as the first parents of all humanity and the solitary first human pair severs the link between Adam and Christ which is so crucial to the Gospel,” and to ask, “How are we to understand the Bible’s story, if we can have no confidence that we know how it even begins?” (Mohler 2011).

But theological imperative does not equal truth. It couldn’t do so even when the Church had the rack and the stake at its disposal. The facts just sit there, mute, uncaring about how vehemently people deny their existence. Genetic evidence now makes clear that there have never been fewer than about a thousand members of Homo sapiens throughout the more than 100,000 years of its existence (Coyne 2011), which began in Africa, not Mesopotamia. Actually, that was well understood before scientists started looking into DNA: The “paleontological record thoroughly establishes that one population is always preceded by another, making the idea of a single pair of humans procreating an entire species unthinkable” (Ronald Youngblood, quoted in Loftus 2008, loc. 4838-39). Even the Bible indicates that there was more than just Adam and Eve and their two kids: Cain takes a wife, worries about being killed by passers-by, and goes off to build a city.

The only alternative to accepting the overwhelming evidence of man’s non-Adamic, evolutionary origins is to say that the evidence is false and was planted by God in fossils, vestigial body parts, patterns of speciation, ongoing and directly observed evolutionary changes, and a newly discovered treasure trove of information in our own DNA that matches up remarkably with all the observations that had been made beforehand. There is absolutely nothing contradicting that evidence except some ancient Hebrew writings (which themselves contradict each other) and the mountain of theology that has piled up on top of those writings over the centuries.

The remainder of my sample of quotes I now present in the usual chronological order, beginning with two early ones:

“When man fell into sin, the Heavenly Parent received a deep wound in His heart. As earthly parents, when a child wounds himself with a knife, take away the sharp tool and throw it into the fire, so also God took this sharp knife of sin with which His youngest child pierced himself to death and threw it into hell fire and began to heal those poisonous wounds with the oil of grace when He, Himself, had to suffer the agony and pain of hell because of this unfortunate child” (Laestadius, Mary’s Day sermon [1848]; Fourth Postilla, 189).

Jesus “has given his life, in fact forfeited everything through love for the fallen sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, to open the gates of Paradise, which were closed through disobedience and sin” (O.H. Jussila, Siionin Lähetyslehti, 9/1919, from Greetings of Peace, 8/1949).

As we will see from the rest of the quotes, Conservative Laestadianism has firmly maintained that theological emphasis, and does so with an utterly credulous, unwavering acceptance of Adam and Eve as historical figures. It has been over one hundred and twenty years since Ingersoll asked the largest audience ever assembled at the Tabor Grand Opera House in Denver, “Is there an intelligent man or woman now in the world who believes in the Garden of Eden story? If there is, strike here,” he said, tapping his forehead, “and you will hear an echo. Something is for rent” (Lecture on Orthodoxy, 1884). Yet, despite all of the astounding scientific progress that has been disproving the story ever since, Conservative preachers are churning out references to Adam and Eve seemingly more than ever:

“After God had created the earth and everything in it, He finally created man and a suitable ‘help-mate’ for him. He gave them Paradise as their dwelling place. The life of the first human pair was happy. They passed amidst beautiful trees and ate of their good fruit” (By Faith, 21).

“God knew that man, whom He created in His own image and nature, would fall into sin and come under the dominion of the prince of darkness. God drew up, together with His Son in eternity, a plan of salvation for man” (Lepistö 1985, 119).

“In the Fall into sin, man lost his connection with God. He had gone astray, although he probably didn’t notice it right away. God, however, noticed and went out to seek His children who had strayed. This shows the deepest essence of God, love. He could have turned His back forever on the disobedient ones and left them under the power of death. They, themselves, had chosen their portion. But God did not act in this fashion, but went to seek them” (Uljas 2000, 12).

“As a result of the Fall, man was separated from God and lost his righteousness. The trusting relationship of the child to the Father disappeared, and in its place, came fear and a need to flee from God. We all bear this poor heritage of the Fall of the first people, which is called inherited sin. Man became incapable of doing that which is right before God” (Uljas 2000, 28).

“In an attempt to be acceptable before God, Adam and Eve clothed themselves to cover their nakedness. This work, which arose from the unbelieving mind, was an attempt to be acceptable before the Heavenly Father. The initial disobedience to God in the attempt to hide their sin kindled the Heavenly Father’s wrath. God punished the first human pair by inflicting trials upon them and their offspring. However, God’s anger was directed towards the works of the flesh which are filthy rags before Him. Nevertheless, in His great love and compassion He clothed Adam and Eve with the garment of righteousness” (VOZ, 9/1998).

“The original inherited desire to sin still remains in the flesh of all people, descendents of Adam and Eve. All humans experience the same types of temptations in various degrees and forms. The Devil has gained much experience and practice since the garden of Eden” (VOZ, 10/2000).

“Jesus watched His Father blow the spirit of life into Adam’s nostril on the morning of creation; He created man in His own image” (VOZ, 6/2001).

“In the beginning God created the heavens and earth. He formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into him the breath of life, and man became a living soul. And so it was that God created man in His own image. God put him into the garden of Eden to keep it. Further, he took a rib from the man and made a woman to be a helpmate for him. He created man and woman to be male and female. He blessed them and told them to be fruitful and multiply and to replenish the earth and to subdue it and have dominion over it. Their purpose was to live in the garden and to dress it and keep it. In all this, God saw everything He had made and it was good. However, a fall came into the lives of this first human pair. They were tempted into sin by the serpent in the garden of Eden. They were not able to withstand the enemy of souls’ temptations, but fell with the first onslaught of the serpent. With the fall into sin, the Scriptures reveal that corruption fell upon all mankind” (VOZ, 4/2004).

“The Creator especially blessed mankind, having breathed the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils so that he became a living soul. God provided all life’s necessities for man in the Garden of Eden, and put man there to dress it and keep it. Through deceit by the enemy of souls, however, Adam and Eve fell into sin, and the shadow of fear and death descended on mankind” (VOZ, 12/2008).

God’s work of creation, including man, was good, but God’s good work was “corrupted in the Fall. It corrupted God’s image in man. As a consequence Man’s will and nature are now inclined to evil. . . . Man is not tempted to do evil because of his genetic composition, but because of his sin-corrupted will and nature” (VOZ, 7/2009).

“There in the Garden of Eden after the first human pair fell into sin, God spoke to the serpent: ‘And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed: it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel’ [Gen 3:15]. God in His great love did not leave Adam and Eve and all people to die in their sins, but promised a Savior who would be the sacrificial Lamb of God, who would take away the sins of the world. The Old Testament believers journeyed in faith, believing on this promise” (VOZ, 12/2009).

It is all taken quite literally, with none of the allegorizing and theological hand-waving to which “worldly” theologians are increasingly retreating as they slowly come to accept the realities of science. The discussions are nearly as matter-of-fact and unquestioning about the Eden story as Luther was 500 years ago. “On the sixth day [Adam] was created; Eve likewise was created toward evening or near the end of the sixth day, while Adam was sleeping,” he blandly reports to us in his Lectures on Genesis (Ch. 2, §3). The events in Paradise “are all historical facts. This is something to which I carefully call attention, lest the unwary reader be led astray by the authority of the fathers.” Apparently, those church fathers were doing the same thing as the worldly theologians are now, as they “give up the idea that this is history and look for allegories” (§9). Luther at least acknowledges, “To our reason it appears very ludicrous for one fruit to be so injurious that the entire human race, in an almost infinite series, perished and died an eternal death.” But “the true cause of the evil” was “that Adam sins against God, disregards His order, and obeys Satan” (§9). Regarding Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib, Luther also admits that,

so far as this account is concerned, what, I ask you, could sound more like a fairy tale if you were to follow your reason? Would anyone believe this account about the creation of Eve if it were not so clearly told? This is a reversal of the pattern of the entire creation. Whatever is born alive, is born of the male and the female in such a manner that it is brought forth into the world by the female. Here the woman herself is created from the man by a creation no less wonderful than that of Adam, who was made out of a clod of earth into a living soul. This is extravagant fiction and the silliest kind of nonsense if you set aside the authority of Scripture and follow the judgment of reason. [§21]

Overwhelming scientific evidence that Luther could not have possibly imagined has shown the story to be “extravagant fiction” indeed.

Conflicts with Science

Despite Luther’s warning about the danger of following “the judgment of reason” and all the claims about faith being contrary to reason that we will encounter in 4.5.4, nobody really likes to profess belief in things they feel, deep down, are indefensible. In a technological age, we rely on the benefits and insights of science, including evolutionary biology. I suspect that many Conservatives have at least some nagging awareness of the contradiction between all that science and the Adam and Eve story. It makes for an uncomfortable situation, because “to hold two ideas that contradict each other is to flirt with absurdity and, as Albert Camus observed, we humans are creatures who spend our lives trying to convince ourselves that our existence is not absurd” (Tavris and Aronson 2008, 13-14).

So perhaps it’s not surprising to see some defensiveness accompanying the literalism. My sample of quotes making that sort of response begins with a sermon given by Gust Wisuri in the 1950s:

“The schoolbooks in this day and age teach a theory that man came from an animal. But that is the theory of those people who have never feared God and never have accepted the word of God as the only truth on this Earth.” God “created man after his own image and breathed his spirit into the man, and gave him a companion after none of the other creatures on Earth were suitable companions for man. . . . After God had all the animals that had been created passed in review before Adam, the first created man on this Earth, and Adam had named them according to what came to his mind at that time–a descriptive word–it was found that none of them were suitable companions for man. Therefore, a woman was created, as God says that it was not well for man to live alone.”

Writing in 1961, Lauri Taskila shows why theologians should resist the urge to argue science with the scientists:

“In this present world not all men believe that they have been created and made by God, but that they are descendents of an ape, or have evolved from some lizard. They believe that man has during the time of billions of years developed into what he is now; but the wise ones of the world are seeking for that missing link which is still lost. What is the reason for advanced and educated man to put his ancestry so low, when men generally wish to be of some noble family and are proud of it that they know that they are of one? The reason may be that man would want to be freed from the sense of responsibility, which he has in life as a man created in the image of God, as a crown and lord of all creation. However, the true fact is that man was created from the very beginning as man, for if man had developed from an ape, why does he not even yet develop from apes? Why doesn’t man yet come from apes, so that there would be half finished and almost finished ape-men? What could have stopped the wheel of evolution now?” (p. 38).

Those arguments are silly grade school stuff, and were easily dismissed even when they were written almost fifty years ago. Now we have many transitional fossils and have witnessed real-time cases of evolution in action; that’s why penicillin doesn’t work for most infections anymore.

In a 1973 sermon, Peter Nordstrom did not even attempt to deal with any specifics, sticking with six day creationism and a “childlike faith” acceptance of things:

“We are told from God’s word, that when our Heavenly father created all things, we are told that it took him six days. Not five, not ten, but it took six days. I‘ve often heard, and especially from my confirmation children, they’ve often asked me, well why couldn’t God, if he was almighty, why couldn’t he have created all things in one day? And I said, yes, I‘m sure he could have. But it says that it took him six days. That’s what he tells us from his word. And in childlike faith we‘re going to believe that and accept that. But our mind, our sin-corrupt mind that is of the flesh, wants to tamper with God’s word and wants to change it and wants us to say this and say that which is of us.”

But preachers could not resist trying to make it all seem sensible:

“Once in the ‘beginning’ came that time when God with His word through His Son created the visible heaven, that is, the wide reaches of space and the Earth. In all this God paid close attention to detail. The stars, Earth and Sun stay in precise orbit and in the correct time unto this day. God is a God of order. Before this wonderful system, even modern astronomers consider the denial of God utter foolishness” (Päivämies, 1974).

The quoted writer makes quite a claim about the theistic conclusions of “modern astronomers.” Members of the National Academy of Scientists were surveyed about their religious beliefs in 1998, and of the physicists and astronomers in the survey, just 7.5% expressed a personal belief in God. The overall result among all the scientists surveyed was a 7.0% personal belief. Already in 1933 just 15% of scientists in a comparable survey had expressed belief in God (Nature 1998, 313). That might all have come as a surprise to the writer of the quote, whose comment about the orderliness of the orbits of celestial bodies goes back to the pious “natural theology” of Isaac Newton’s day.

By the late 1970s, the devil of Darwin was being addressed specifically:

† “Our children are being taught Darwin’s theory of evolution as fact! We do not object if our children are taught that a man named Darwin once lived; that he expounded a theory, and only a theory, which claimed that all life evolved spontaneously from nothing. But they should also be told that the so-called scientific community itself has never accepted Darwin’s theory entirely. They should be told the truth!” (VOZ, 1/1977).

The quoted writer calls for truth, but the truth is that the “so-called” scientific community had largely accepted Darwin’s theory by the end of his life in the 1800s; he was buried in Westminster Abbey alongside Newton as a national hero. The myth that there is some undercurrent of scientific objection to evolution is a persistent one, which Alan Almquist and John Cronin addressed twenty years ago. Regarding the “notion that agreement among scientists about the factual support for evolution is wavering,” they write:

Nothing could be farther from the truth. In Endler’s [1986] Natural Selection in the Wild we find a clear demonstration that evolution and natural selection are alive and thriving in the scientific community [Cooke 1986]. In fact, the vast majority of scientists generally favor evolution over other explanations for life. The recent signing by 72 Nobel laureates of a brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional a Louisiana law requiring the so-called balanced treatment of evolution and its primary opponent, creationism, in state schools (see Palca 1986, Norman 1986) is the clearest statement by scientists in support of evolution yet produced. That this was the largest group of Nobel laureates ever to sign a single document (Norman 1986) clearly indicates that if there is still confusion in the public mind concerning the validity of evolution the scientific community does not share it. [Almquist and Cronin 1988, 520]

I was initially sympathetic to objections about evolutionary “theory” (a scientific term for a testable explanation of observed phenomena, like the equally well-established “theories” of gravitation and relativity) and studied many of them in hopes that they would allow me to retain a creationist worldview. But it soon became apparent that, without exception, those objections were motivated by religion rather than science and fact. Here is an example:

In Darwin’s theory of evolution, “it is taught that man evolved from apes. This is contrary to the Word of God. Genesis 2:7 states, ‘And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.’ No other creature was created with a living soul. This clearly makes man different from all other of God’s creations. It is not possible, then, that man evolved as Darwin states. However, if this theory is presented to the young Christian child, it can cause heavy doubts to weigh in the mind and heart [of] the child. This should not be allowed to pass by uncorrected” (VOZ, 6/1977).

In Erkki Reinikainen’s 1986 book Näin on Kirjoitettu, the SRK propounded day-age creationism and condemned theistic evolution. The book acknowledges research in the natural sciences to the extent that it shows “that the origin of the earth, just as the origin of the total universe, dates back billions of years.” The biblical “account of creation states that the formation of the Earth and the origin of all forms of life happened in six days, although all the evidence found in nature shows the timeframe of the origin of creation to be very long.” But the creation account does not have the Sun, along with day and night, being created until the fourth day, so one is entitled “without arbitrarily interpreting the Bible . . . to the conclusion that the days of creation were eras, God’s days, in His creation work” (p. 14).

Reinikainen was one of a long line of creationists retreating from young-earth literalism to the “day-age” idea. Already at the time of Robert G. Ingersoll’s 1884 interview with The Detroit News, “they had been saying “that ‘days’ did not mean days. Of these ‘six days’ they make a kind of telescope, which you can push in or draw out at pleasure. If the geologists find that more time was necessary they will stretch them out. Should it turn out that the world is not quite as old as some think, they will push them up. The ‘six days’ can now be made to suit any period of time,” which didn’t impress Ingersoll in the least.

That was certainly not the case with Luther. Right in the beginning of his Lectures on Genesis, he confidently stated, “We know from Moses that the world was not in existence before 6,000 years ago.” He asserted “that Moses spoke in the literal sense, not allegorically or figuratively, i.e., that the world, with all its creatures, was created within six days, as the words read. If we do not comprehend the reason for this, let us remain pupils and leave the job of teacher to the Holy Spirit.”

But the 6,000 year figure was erroneous, Reinikainen asserts with equal confidence, being based on “written genealogies, which are clearly incomplete” (1986, 16). Instead, “[w]e see, as a natural phenomenon, that people have been children of their time, interpreting these things in the Bible from their own presumptions, without contradiction. At this time we know more about natural science and history, as well as other things” (p. 17). Now, in our newfound enlightenment, we can see that “the listing of ancestors from Adam to Abraham [in Genesis 5 and 11] is not complete, but many generations in between are missing.” Otherwise, “no more than about 100 generations would have lived on the earth up to this time.”

Rather than admit any biblical error, he concludes that it “has clearly been quite common for biblical authors to shorten the genealogies, leaving out those generations which they thought were not important [Mt 1:8 vs. 1 Ch. 6:7-9 cited]” (p. 16). Based on Deut 7:9, Reinikainen proposes an alternate calculation, in which “the Bible verifies that from Adam until the second coming of Christ there are about 1,000 generations.” Thus, able to acknowledge “about 10 times more than the amount verified earlier” of human existence, a “Christian believes that the Bible speaks the truth” (p. 16).

Unfortunately, we are still left wondering how Adam’s descendants, i.e., tool-making, anatomically modern Homo sapiens, could have been leaving their bones and artifacts strewn across the Mideast, Southern Europe and Asia, and Australia by 40,000 B.C., after having already occupied parts of Africa for over 100,000 years. Then there are those inconvenient Homo erectus fossils in Africa and parts of Asia dating back hundreds of thousands of years, which are accompanied by evidence of “human” activities; their own stone tools, fire usage, and even seafaring (130,000 year-old stone tools have been found on the island of Crete). And, going millions of years further back, there are Homo habilis and the Australopithicenes. All of those extinct predecessors look a lot like Homo sapiens but have features that gradually evolve toward our own as time moves forward: receding brow ridges, increasing brain capacity, improving bipedalism, emerging vocalism.

According to Reinikainen, though, none of those earlier hominids could have been ancestors. Despite his willingness to “draw out the telescope” of the biblical six days in view of overwhelming evidence, he reaches his limit when it comes to scientific research showing the evolutionary origins of life. No such accommodation is given there:

† [A] profound contradiction exists between the biblical account of creation and the generally accepted theory of evolution in the natural sciences. An attempt to remove this contradiction has been made in this way that the biblical account of creation is interpreted to mean that God’s creation work occurred through evolution, the conclusion being “the birth” of man. Such an interpretation is an outrage to the word of God, for God created all living things, each according to its own kind. . . . The opposing line of thought to the theory of evolution is certainly not fundamentalism, or the literal interpretation of the Bible, but the interpretation of the Bible according to the spirit and doctrine of the word of God. [p. 17, emphasis added]

The book goes on for several pages with practical objections to evolutionary theory and concludes that a “Christian can examine the achievements of science, securely accepting that which is true, and rejecting that which does not verify the truth,” seeing through faith “that positive scientific results are not contradictory to the proclamations of the Bible” (p. 21).

All of Reinikainen’s practical objections, which include and do not go much beyond the “why aren’t we still evolving” tripe, have been long refuted in the scientific literature. Like Haught, “I confess to a certain impatience with such groundless objections to Darwin’s carefully constructed theory” (2010, xiii). Haught is frank with his fellow theists, saying that

dismissing evolution offhand after two centuries of reliable research by sciences ranging from geology to genetics smacks of ignorance and arrogance unbecoming to people of faith. I am not a scientist, but I am fully aware that knowledgeable people now almost universally accept Darwin’s version of evolution as updated by the discovery of the units of heredity known as genes. Like all scientific ideas, the theory is open to improvement or even falsification if the evidence leads in that direction, but so far it has withstood every test. [pp. xiii-xiv]

Whether it is “an outrage to the word of God” or not, I now accept that I am the product of evolution by (apparently) random mutation and natural selection. Like it or not, we are descendants not of any first human pair but of now-extinct hominids originating in Africa, who themselves have common ancestry with other apes, most closely the chimpanzee.

However, Reinikainen is not wrong in asserting a conflict between the Bible and evolutionary theory. As we’ve seen, the theological imperative to deny evolution is strong for a number of reasons. I completely understand why the SRK still felt compelled to say in September 2006,

“In Laestadian teaching we hold fast to the truth of traditional creation doctrine, that God has created man in his image and we are not descended from other species” (Aimo Hautamäki, SRK Secretary-General).

But the cold, unyielding scientific fact is that “traditional creation doctrine” is not the truth at all, and holding fast to it means going down with a sinking ship. It is a slow but inexorable demise, and those still on deck assuring each other that the Titanic is unsinkable are going to find themselves needing to change their story sooner or later. “About a century and a half ago Charles Darwin surprised the world with his remarkable new theory of evolution. Theology has yet to come to grips with it” (Haught 2000, 1). As discussed in the sub-section below, there are indications that the SRK is finally starting to do so, at long last.

Evolutionary theory has no unexplainable “gaps” or “holes” other than man’s own “sense of hesitancy and even dread” at being merely biological and evolved by Darwinian natural selection, and at the thought that “genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species” (from Ruse 2010, 107).2 Of course, that’s not what Juhani Alaranta wanted to hear in 2006 from his opisto students fresh out of elementary school:

“Each year, we discuss this matter” of faith and reason “with the youth in the religion class of the ‘opisto,’” a folk college run in association with the SRK. “As the students typically come to the folk college after elementary school, many have a fresh memory of the instruction they received in school about man’s development of a theory about the earth’s origin. Its basis is materialistic, so it is against the biblical concept of creation. Often in this evolutionary theory is spoken of the so-called “Big Bang,” with the origin of all life as a result. When one asks young people whether there are any holes in this theory, they reply that such a hole is the lack of a subject or operator, one who acts. This answer is one good example of the impact of the congregation’s Bible class work and of this, that children and youth are brought to services and the hearing of God’s word. ‘So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God’ (Rom 10:17).”

One aspect of the Eden-based theology that I find disturbing is how, as this November 2008 Voice of Zion article states, it “invites us to see man as a sin-fallen and sin-corrupted being.” Calling “the basic goodness of man” a “humanistic illusion” that “has replaced the biblical truth” about our wretchedness, the article takes a subtle jab at evolution without coming out and saying it’s not true:

Modern man’s concept of man also favors the evolutionary explanation of man’s origin. This theory is often interpreted with a view that sees man’s creation taking place autonomously, without the hand of the Creator of heaven and earth. The book of Genesis expresses the simple belief of a Christian that God has created everything by His Word.”

Well, the book of Genesis also “expresses the simple belief” that there was a “firmament” (NASB, expanse) of heaven into which God placed two great lights, the sun and the moon, to give light on the earth during the day and night, respectively. Speaking of this firmament and one of those lights in his exegesis on Gen. 1:6, Luther attributed it to “a work of the Divine Majesty” that “the sun follows its course so exactly and in a most precise manner without deviating a fingerbreadth from the straightest possible line in any part of the heaven. Moreover, it maintains this course in the most tenuous atmosphere without any support by solid masses; but it is borne along like a leaf in the air.” This firmament has waters below it–the seas–but also waters above it. Amazing, huh? But let’s not dare doubt it, warns Luther: “Moses says in plain words that the waters were above and below the firmament. Here I, therefore, take my reason captive and subscribe to the Word even though I do not understand it” (Lectures on Genesis, Ch. 1, §6).

I doubt if it would offend many people today to call the firmament the misconception of ancient cosmology that it so obviously is. But I will go further and criticize an equally inaccurate view of man’s origins and the fear, loathing, and disgust that it forces pious humans to direct into themselves. Psychologist Marlene Winell tells us what we are doing to ourselves with this kind of thinking:

The key is that you are considered fundamentally wrong and inept, beginning with the doctrine of original sin. Everything about you is flawed, and you desperately need to be salvaged by God. The damage to self is more than hurt self-esteem. Your confidence in your own judgment is destroyed. As an empty shell, you are then open and vulnerable to indoctrination because you cannot trust your own thinking. Your thoughts are inadequate, your feelings are irrelevant or misleading, and your basic drives are selfish and destructive. [1993, 74]

The slander is not just against ourselves as creatures, but against the creator. Genesis 1 tells us that God created “man in his own image,” male and female, and saw that everything that he had made, including man, “was very good.” Yet he was helpless to prevent the serpent–one of his creatures–from corrupting man, the supposed crown of creation. The entire human race would become so utterly depraved from a single act of its ancestors as to be worthy only of an eternity of unthinkable torture at the wrathful hands of its creator.3 Ingersoll pitied “any man or woman who, in this nineteenth century, believes in that childish fable.” He dryly observed, “A god that cannot make a soul that is not totally depraved, I respectfully suggest, should retire from the business. And if a god has made us, knowing that we would be totally depraved, why should we go to the same being for repairs?” (Lecture on Orthodoxy).

The last quote of my sample acknowledges that there has been some increase in knowledge about creation. But God gets the credit for revealing it to us:

“God has blessed humankind by slowly revealing the wonders of His full creation. As man discovers what God has created (Gen 1), his knowledge increases” (VOZ, 11/2009).

Really? God is the one who has been telling us about our DNA with its near-identical similarity to that of chimpanzees, evidence of our existence as Homo sapiens over 100,000 years ago in Africa, and “fossil genes” that once coded for things like egg yolk and vitamin C production in our distant ancestors? God has been developing vaccines and antibiotics to deal with the problem of microorganisms evolving resistance? It seems that it is rather the (mostly) atheist scientists who have been doing all that while God’s Conservative Laestadian spokesmen have droned on about Adam and Eve and childlike faith. “The practical track record of naturalistic science is available for all to evaluate, while supernatural science comes up empty handed. Indeed, the enterprise of science is to turn unknowns into knowns, while the business of supernaturalism is to make pronouncements concerning what cannot be known and which therefore requires magic” (Daniels 2010, 141). I think it is a fair question to ask, as Ingersoll did over a hundred years ago in his Lecture on Ghosts, “Is science indebted to the Church for a single fact? Let us know what it is.”

Evolving Doctrine

Though the LLC has never said anything that is the least bit accepting of evolution, the SRK recently has made some intriguing and science-friendly statements. In a 2008 article, the SRK ordained pastor Jorma Kiviranta said the “stamp of fundamentalist creationism fits us very poorly.” He referred to fundamentalists, “especially in the United States,” who

demand that the teaching of Darwinian evolution (the idea of species steadily developing or evolving) be removed as heretical from all schools. By every means possible, they seek strong scientific evidence for creationism, modeled as the “intelligent design” theory of the Universe. Not even once have we needed an explanation for the birth of the universe and evolution. We just simply believe in God, the Father, the Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. [Kiviranta 2008]

That same year, another SRK ordained pastor, Pauli Rentola, gave a presentation that seemed to seek an accommodation with evolution. Though he clung to a few whisps of mystery about transformation from one species to another, and attributed everything to “God’s wise creation work,” he had no criticism of modern science, which

has evolved the theory of evolution quite extensively from just a simple thought. Rentola made it known that species continually change in small ways constantly, which science tries to and has explained. Science also tries to explain some of the bigger changes between species, but explaining how a species transforms itself into another is still difficult. As believers we understand that all of the changes that happen in Nature are a testament to God’s wise creation work, Rentola said. [Junes 2008]

Rentola concluded with the hesitancy that all religious responses to evolution must have if they want to hold out for any sense of the divine in nature: “We do not understand God’s creation work very well. In its light we quieten [ourselves] with that secure thought that, above all, through faith we receive a desire for ‘the eternal.’” One speech given after the presentation “acknowledged that we could study God’s creation of Nature and its evolution” (Junes 2008).

Remarkably, a Päivämies article has just appeared as of this writing that goes so far as to criticize creationism as something foreign to faith. It is something I think LLC members need to hear, though I suspect many of them would find it disturbing:

Extremist thinking has not been a part of the believers’ worldview. The doctrine of rationalism that submits the Bible to reason, as well as religious fundamentalism that requires literal interpretation of scripture, are both alien to living faith. The understanding of science and the origins of the universe and belief in God’s creation has not given rise to party lines that would break the love [between believers, rakkautta rikkovia rintamalinjoja]. Creationism is a foreign [vieras: strange, unfamiliar] attempt to reconcile man’s limited intelligence and God’s great, still ongoing work of creation. [Hintikka 2012]

I’m stunned but happy to see the “literal interpretation of scripture” being called “alien to living faith” in a Conservative Laestadian publication.4 But let’s not forget why this change is happening. “The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside. The moderation we see among nonfundamentalists is not some sign that faith itself has evolved; it is, rather, the product of the many hammer blows of modernity that have exposed certain tenets of faith to doubt” (Harris 2005, 18-19).

4.3.2 Noah and the Ark

Why is Ed worried about Noah’s Ark? None of us believe it, either.

—LLC Preacher [2009]

I am no more capable of dismissing the abundant evidence against Noah’s Flood than I am of believing in Adam and Eve popping into a world littered with hominid fossils and artifacts, or the real presence of Christ’s body in the Communion wafer. The image that will always be associated with the topic of Noah in my mind is of Kangaroos hopping from Australia to Turkey and back again, leaving not a trace on the way. Of course, there is much more to it than that; the impossible quantity of water required, the miraculous survival (or recovery) of delicate marine life, the geological record, the millions of species involved, the logistics of feeding (many carnivores, remember) and sanitation, the incredibly rapid evolution of humans into their varied characteristics from three breeding pairs. It just didn’t happen.

But the story remains told literally and unapologetically in Conservative Laestadianism. Unlike Adam and Eve and the Fall, though, this myth seems to have no real theological consequence beyond God’s “be fruitful and multiply” directive and comparisons of the Ark to God’s One True Church. Perhaps familiarity and an unwillingness to acknowledge errancy or myth in the Bible forces us to let it hang around like an old uncle who tells bad jokes.

Both literalism and symbolism are evident from the very beginning of this sample of quotes:

“Who is able to comprehend the amount and power of the waters of Noah? They covered even the greatest mountains and the highest hills. Their power raised the ark from the deepest bottom, held it up and safely carried it to the new land where the vine-tree is blooming. When the grace of God that is through the redemption work of our Lord Jesus is compared to the waters of Noah, who is able to comprehend its amount and power? The great flock of unbelievers was not able to comprehend where so much water could come from, which could cover the great mountains and the hills. How difficult it was also even to our consciences to open up to receive the gospel and to believe that its grace as the waters of Noah suffice to cover the greatness of our sins. . . . Where have the great mountains of our sins gone, and where the high hills of our proudness and vain glory? What changed the sight of our eyes to see this old ark as so beautiful a dwelling place, although it is tarred inside and out . . . ?” (Heikki Jussila [1915], from Greetings of Peace, 8/1970).

“Noah himself believed the word of God and built the ark of salvation. The moment came finally, when men saw how all that Noah had prophecied, was fulfilled. When Noah stepped into the ark, it began to rain, and all perished. Surely the word of God would have then been acceptable, if it only had been [available] to be heard. But it was not heard, no matter how men prayed and begged for mercy. The waters only rose higher, finally covered all. How horrible it was to perish knowing that the reason for this terrible calamity was that they had not believed the truth God had proclaimed through His servant, the preaching of that gray-headed old man, who so lovingly and patiently had spoken of truth and grace?” (Arvi Hintsala, Greetings of Peace, 11/1949)

Noah was a loving, patient gray-headed old man speaking about truth and grace? Those writers were just making that up. Hebrews 11:7 tells us that Noah prepared the ark “to the saving of his house, by the which he condemned the world.” That doesn’t sound very evangelical to me. All we hear about his supposed preaching career is that he was “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Pet 2:5).

If we want some biblical biography about Noah, he “was at first cast as the inventor of wine, the means by which he brought the human race ‘relief from out of the ground’ for the toil to which God had consigned us after Eden (Genesis 5:29 and 9:20-21). After a hard day’s work, they’d lift a few, saying ‘It’s Noah time!’” (Price 2006b, 103), joined by Noah himself (Gen 8:21). The following quote seems ironic coming from a preacher of what began as a temperance movement and rejects alcohol consumption to this day:

“It is very noteworthy that scientific examination reveals that the source of wine growing was in the regions of Ararat where the ark of Noah once rested” (Saari 1968, 13).

In the years leading up to the 1973 schism, those who ultimately departed were warned and rebuked many times by the Conservatives. It seems clear to me that the writers of the following two quotes had those events fresh in mind in their portrayals of Noah:

“Before the first world was destroyed by the flood, the consciences of men hardened in horrible sins and acts contrary to nature. Not one repentant one could be found in the entire world, although Noah warned, admonished and reproached long. Only Noah with his family in the ark were rescued from destruction” (SRK speaker’s meeting presentation, 1973).

“[E]vil corrupted people and made them fall to serve the filthy lusts of the flesh, even so deep that when God looked down He saw that the sons of God had seen the daughters of men that they were fair and they had taken them to [be] their wives. (James 6:2). This was sin before God that His children so mixed themselves with the world . . . Finally came the moment when people could see that what Noah had prophesied came true. When Noah entered the ark and God closed the door of the ark there was such a flood that all people and everything were drowned. Then they would have accepted the word of the Lord if they had been able to hear. But it was not preached, no matter how much they prayed and cried for grace. The waters just rose and finally covered everything. Oh, how terrible it was to be drowned and know that the reason for this terrible calamity was that one had not believed the truth, which God had let be preached by His servant, the sermon of that grayhaired old man who had looked so mild and suffering and had spoken grace and truth. So unbelief brought the people of that time to eternal calamity. Only Noah and his family were saved from this terrible fate. They were saved in the tarred ark through faith, for they were partakers through faith of the righteousness that is acceptable to God” (VOZ, 10/1974).

Sometime around 1979 I heard about the sons of Noah being the progenitors of three major races of humanity. I was surprised to come across that racist, non-scriptural, and unscientific teaching in print:

“The sons of Noah were Shem, Ham and Japeth. Shem’s skin was white, Ham’s skin was black and Japeth’s skin was yellow” (VOZ, 5/1975).

I was even more surprised that it was taught to one of my children at a confirmation school in 2006.

The following quotations show how the Ark is portrayed as the Kingdom of God in which all of the saved will be found on the last day:

In the first world, the “disobedience and ungodliness of man became so great that God regretted that He had made man. In His love, God, nevertheless, called man unto repentance. Noah preached 120 years concerning the opportunities of salvation. He built an ark in which he and the animals were saved from the destructive flood. Only eight people were saved. All others drowned. After the flood, God made a covenant in which He promised never again to destroy the earth by water. He placed the rainbow into the clouds for a sign of this covenant. The faith of Noah, the preaching of faith and the saving ark signify today’s Kingdom of God. Outside the ark of the Kingdom of God there is no salvation from the destruction of the second world” (By Faith, 25).

“When Noah preached the destruction of his world, people thought him foolish and simple-minded. They did not heed his warnings, considering them irrational. Noah’s words were not accepted as God’s Words. . . . In our time the warnings of God’s children appear similar to Noah’s” (VOZ, 11/2004).

“Today, as during the time of Noah, God’s kingdom is likened to a saving ark. Think how foolish Noah might have felt at times when building the ark in an arid place, and how foolish he would have appeared to the world. The ark was built of wood, pitched on the inside and out, with one door, and one window said to have opened towards heaven. There was little outward beauty to the ark, yet it was seaworthy enough so that it carried God’s children through the difficult times of the flood. One can only imagine the anguish of the people as they sought the highest ground when the waters rose, and then were left to perish as the children of God were safely protected against the flood. God’s kingdom today remains a place for the child of God to be protected against the storms of our day” (VOZ, 7/2008).

There is, of course, only one Ark and the few people in it all know each other. Luther also made a comparison between the Ark and the Christian Church:

[A]s it happened when Noah was preparing the ark, so it takes place now. As he took refuge in the ark which swam upon the waters, so, it is to be observed, must you also be saved in baptism. Just as that water swallowed up all that was then living, of man and beast,—so baptism also swallows up all that is of the flesh and corrupt nature, and makes spiritual men. But we rest in the ark, which means the Lord Christ, or the Christian Church, or the Gospel that Christ preached, or the body of Christ, on which we rest by faith, and are saved as Noah in the ark. You also perceive how the image comprises in brief what belongs to faith and to the cross, to life and death. Where there are only those that follow Christ, there is surely a Christian Church, where all that springs from Adam, and whatever is evil, is removed. [The Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude Preached and Explained, “The First Epistle General of St. Peter,” Ch. 3]

But note the difference in emphasis between his comparison and the sectarian interpretation of the Voice of Zion quotation. Rather than just being “God’s Kingdom,” i.e., Conservative Laestadianism, the Ark is a picture of the Lord Christ, the Christian Church, the Gospel, and the body of Christ, and taking refuge in it amidst the rising waters constituted salvation in baptism.

Despite what we know about telomeres and the impossibility of humans living much beyond 100 years, the unthinking literalism continues to this day:

“Noah was six hundred years old when the flood came and drowned everyone except Noah and his family. God saved Noah and his family for their faith” (Päivämies No. 46, 2009).

Those who reject evolution and hold to this story so literally should explain how the world’s population went from “Noah and his family” drying out their laundry somewhere on a mountain in Turkey a few thousand years ago to 7 billion people on six continents in all their amazing racial and cultural variations:

How did these people get to look so different, with adaptations to their specific locations, if there is no such thing as evolution? According to creationists, “microevolution” (a distinction from “macroevolution” that is cited far more by creationists than scientists) was enough to get the job done in a few thousand years. So why is it so hard for them to imagine the scientific reality that we have a common ancestor with these guys in the next picture that lived about 5-7 million years ago?

Simply put, the story of the Flood is impossible to reconcile with reality. It had three floors of some 34,000 square feet each (Gen 6:15-16), totaling about the square footage of the average Wal-Mart, but held all the beasts, creeping things, and birds, literally millions of species. Thousands of different specimens made the trip from (and back home, after the flood) far-flung locales over hostile terrain, including polar bears and wolves from the arctic, penguins from the antarctic, African fauna such as lions, elephants, and giraffes, Australian kangaroos, Asian Koala bears, tigers, and monkeys, innumerable birds of paradise and prey, anacondas, gazelles, bison, tropical insects, ground-dwelling varmints, etc. The ark also held all the food supplies for everybody for a year, including live food for carnivores, various exotic plants, particular fish species, etc. All the waste was shoveled out somehow with a tiny crew, and ventilation provided through the single window (Gen 6:16), when it was open.

There is absolutely no evidence for such a worldwide deluge, and it is impossible to dismiss all of the practical problems, just a few of which are listed here. Basic geology and the fossil record provide no evidence for, and plenty of evidence against, any global flood. There are in fact no “fountains of the great deep” (7:11), and the amount of rainfall needed is far beyond what would completely saturate the air.

And this is only a brief and incomplete summary of all the problems with the Flood story. Jason Long provides a much better and more thorough description in his book under the heading “101 Reasons Why Noah’s Story Doesn’t Float” (2005, 46-60). The text of his devastating critique is also freely available at biblicalnonsense.com/chapter6.html, a link I think is definitely worth taking the time to visit before reading further here. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

If you are finding all this disturbing enough to just close this text right now and then try to forget or dismiss it, welcome to cognitive dissonance. It “is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent.” It “produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it” (Tavris and Aronson 2008, 13). “The more committed we are to a belief, the harder it is to relinquish, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. Instead of acknowledging an error in judgment and abandoning the opinion, we tend to develop a new attitude or belief that will justify retaining it” (Burton 2008, loc. 149-51).

I’ve heard people attempt to reduce their dissonance about the Noah’s Ark story in some interesting ways. Perhaps all of the animals were miniaturized and teleported to the Ark. Perhaps their DNA was kept in test tubes on the Ark. All cultures have flood stories so that proves a worldwide flood. (Actually, it seems to indicate the likelihood that the Genesis account is just another instance of a common mythic theme.) The most frequent and conversation-stopping response however, is that nothing is too difficult for God. And just like that, God becomes a stage magician, waving his wand and poofing absurdity into reality for the sole purpose of conforming it to the words of an ancient text that can’t even get its stories straight. (Seven pairs of ritually clean animals, or one? Forty days of flooding, or 150?)

As Long concludes about the “utter ridiculousness” of the Noah story:

Sure, one can easily explain the whole fiasco by use of miracles: God made all the water appear and disappear; God prevented all the water from becoming too hot; God put the animals into hibernation; God kept the ark afloat; God repopulated the earth with life; and God erased all evidence of the flood. By invoking the miracle clause, however, Christians are using unverifiable events that any person can insert into any scenario in order to maintain the legitimacy of any religion. [2005, 60]

It seems to me that answers purporting to address any conceivable problem really turn out to be answers to nothing.

4.3.3 The Old Testament

Why does the Old Testament incessantly violate my idea of right and wrong? Why does it regard women in such a poor light? Why are the people of Yahweh supposed to wipe out men, women and children but are allowed to take the virgins for themselves?

–Ken Daniels, Why I Believed


My sample contains just three quotes about the atrocities of the Old Testament. That reflects the lack of attention they receive in church; during the months of 2009 I spent reading the Bible from cover to cover, I was repeatedly shocked at the awful stuff I was encountering for the first time. Just as disturbing to me were the excuses I heard when mentioning it to Conservative friends. One memorable line I remember hearing, after complaining about the conquest narratives of Joshua: “You’re talking about human life. This life means nothing to God!” So much for a pro-life God, then.

Not only were the explanations utterly unconvincing, but the

attempt to explain it away only lowered my respect for the apologists doing the explaining. Why would anyone, particularly mothers who love their daughters and daughters who value their dignity, even want to try to defend passages like these? The very inclination to justify such barbarism revealed to me the unyielding grip of an absolute faith upon its adherents. [Daniels 2010, 46]

Price asks the apologist for these texts how dangerous it would be if Christians nowadays were to actually heed and obey the commands of God that they read in them. “Can we really believe the true and existing God told the ancient shaman and his client warlord to exterminate every single Amalekite baby? Hold on! Wait a minute, my friend, before you begin to defend the gruesome act as an act of God, lest you utter some cold-blooded enormity you otherwise would never entertain” (2006b, 128).

Even without the subject coming up, just knowing how readily my Conservative companions would offer such excuses and defenses made it difficult for me to spend time in conversation with them. One evening as I sat across the coffee table from a preacher, listening to him talk about some everyday matter, I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind: This man defends as God’s Holy Word a book that refers to slaves as mere property and excuses beating them to within an inch of their lives (Exodus 21).

In church, almost nothing is said about the Old Testament, much less these horrible texts. Robert Wright calls that “selective retention”:

You can just conveniently forget certain parts of your scriptural heritage. During the Crusades, when Christians were in the mood to slaughter infidels, they were very cognizant of God’s sanctioning faith-based mass murder in parts of the Bible. During the Cold War, when the United States was part of an international multifaith alliance that included Muslim and Buddhist nations, this motif was played down; whole generations of American Christians were weaned on a misleadingly sunny selection of Bible stories. [2009, 192]

The first of my sampled quotes is from the April 1938 Siionin Lähetyslehti. There O.H. Jussila spiritualizes God’s tormenting of innocent Egyptians for their leader’s stubborness. He also provides an example of a phenomenon I’ve noticed far too much–someone who considers himself saved praising God as being “merciful” for saving his lousy hide while damning everybody else:

“When God announced to His people Israel in Egypt His merciful and saving plans for them and his instructions, He said, ‘And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood I will pass over you’, Exod. 12:13. On the terrible night when Israel slaughtered the Passover lamb, from the Egyptians’ houses were heard cries of anguish and wailing because the angel of death did not spare one home, but spread death from house to house. There was only one means which saved. God had not given this saving means to any but His own people. . . . Do you who read this have this blood for your protection? Or do you live in ‘Egyptian’ that is, in the perilous abodes of this world’s children without protection from the wrath of God. . . ?” (from Greetings of Peace, 3/1955).

There is a key difference between the passover story and Jussila’s call to unsaved readers; none of the grieving Egyptian parents were ever even offered the opportunity to save their firstborn children. It was just one of many cases of the tribal God of the Old Testament inflicting terror and death on innocent members of a population because they didn’t happen to be his chosen people.

Next we come to Lot’s offering his two daughters to the men of Sodom, which

“is quite incomprehensible to the mind, but we should examine it through faith. Then we will see the firm trust that Lot had in the protection of God” (Saari 1968, 52).

Oh, come on. He told the men to do with his daughters whatever they wanted, and what they had on their minds was very clear to all concerned. It was a case of the rules of hospitality taking priority over the value of mere women in the ancient setting of the story. And we never hear about Lot getting drunk and impregnating those same two daughters:

And Lot . . . dwelt in a cave, he and his two daughters. And the firstborn said unto the younger, Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth: Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father. And they made their father drink wine that night: and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose. And it came to pass on the morrow, that the firstborn said unto the younger, Behold, I lay yesternight with my father: let us make him drink wine this night also; and go thou in, and lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father. And they made their father drink wine that night also: and the younger arose, and lay with him; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose. [Gen 19:30-35]

In the final quote of this small sample, we have a reluctant acknowledgment of Joshua’s campaigns of genocide against the Canaanites, which are some of the most horrible atrocities of the Old Testament. Biblical inerrantists insist that they “were not only wholly justified, but good. Although every genocidal regime claims to have the sanction of some deity, inerrantists insist that in ancient Israel’s case, it was true. It had to be true, because it’s in the Bible” (Stark 2011, 101). This article in the June 1990 Voice of Zion offers a few creative justifications:

“The enormous number of casualties may raise questions even in the mind of a believer. Let us consider the terrible sins which the Canaanites wantonly practiced: snake worship, religious prostitution, and even more horrendous, children were sacrificed on altars to appease false gods. Does this horror have a parallel even in today’s society (abortion)? The measure of the sins of the Canaanites was full, invoking the wrath of God upon these people who had rejected Him from their forefathers onward; hence, total darkness and ungodliness. When we consider this suffering through the light of the Holy Spirit, how insignificant this is compared to the eternal torments of hell.”

Invoking hell only compounds the atrocity, though. Joshua abruptly ended the lives and thus any possibility of grace for thousands of hell-bound adult Canaanites. Of course, grace is largely a New Testament concept; the book of Joshua is a narrative of tribal conquest and records no efforts toward or even opportunities for Canaanite conversion.

Ancient Israelite Laestadianism

The Old Testament unfolds over the course of about 1500 years, and the religion it describes underwent significant changes during that time. It begins in the Bronze Age just one step away from polytheism (Wright 2009, 103-106) with God making regular appearances, smiting people left and right, and receiving ritual sacrifice as a major part of his worship. It concludes with books that emphasize wisdom and prophetic vision, which treat sacrifice with disdain and God as being somewhat above it all. At no point in that history did the religion of the ancient Israelites look anything like Christianity, much less the Pauline grace-and-forgiveness version of it practiced by Conservative Laestadians.

But that hasn’t stopped the theologians from coming up with some pretty creative attempts to make it seem otherwise, beginning right in the earliest books of the New Testament. One of many examples is 1 Cor 10:2-4:

[A]ll our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; And did all eat the same spiritual meat; And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.

My sample of Conservative Laestadian quotes typecasting the Israelites as proto-Christians “just like us” begins, appropriately enough, with one from that theological innovator of the 1960s, Heikki Saari:

“When Daniel explained Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, reciting to him his sins, he preached repentance to the king and offered the forgiveness of sins to him. Daniel entreated lovingly and tenderly ‘O King, let my counsel be acceptable to thee, and break off thy sins.’ But that loving gospel fell on deaf ears” (1968, 35).

The story of Nathan rebuking David of his sin and then pronouncing that he was forgiven of it (2 Sam 12) strikes me as the only plausible example in the Bible of the Laestadian-style absolution being employed:

“Nathan was sent by the Lord to speak to David and to reveal his transgressions to him. This is how God has always done. He has spoken to all sinners through His servants. When David comprehended that he had sinned against the Lord, the servant was ready to pronounce forgiveness, and said to David; ‘the Lord also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.’ It is no wonder, after receiving forgiveness, that David was rejoicing in his heart” (VOZ, 10/1976).

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession uses this same example as one of its biblical arguments for repentance being comprised of contrition and faith. It asserts that “the Power of the Keys administers and presents the Gospel through Absolution, which is the true voice of the Gospel” and “can properly be called a Sacrament of repentance” (Article 12a; McCain 2005, 162). After several pages of discussion that conforms remarkably with Conservative Laestadian doctrine on the topic, the Apology mentions Nathan’s encounter with David along with two other Bible stories. (Those are God’s rebuke and promise of grace to Adam, and Jesus’ proclamation “Thy sins are forgiven” to the sinful woman who anointed his feet with her hair in Luke 7:48.) David’s terrified statement, “I have sinned against the LORD” (2 Sam 12:13) was an act of contrition. “Afterward, he hears the Absolution, ‘The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die.’ This voice encourages David, and through faith it sustains, justifies, and enlivens him. A punishment was also added, but the punishment does not merit the forgiveness of sins. Nor are special punishments always added” (p. 165).

Of course, one must recognize that there was not even a remote mention of Jesus during the encounter. Imagine the noise that Christian apologists would have made of such a thing if it were there, seeing how they scour the Old Testament for the vaguest of statements that might be considered messianic prophecies! No, it was the time of the “Old Covenant,” when the forgiveness of sins supposedly was facilitated through animal sacrifices:

“The Old Testament is the evidence and document of the way revealed by God. The children of God in the Old Covenant believed the prophecies and promises concerning the coming Savior of the world,” who “was seen through faith in the sacrificial animals of sacrificial worship.” Salvation was “through faith upon the word of promise regarding Christ” (By Faith, 13-14).

“The Hebrew congregation was of the Jewish people. They observed the Old Testament Tabernacle worship of God. They performed those sacrifices and offerings which God had spoken of through Moses when He established the Levitical priesthood. The priests of the tribe of Levi performed these duties every day, offering sacrifices for sin. This sacrificing directed the people to that one great priest, the Lord Jesus” (Alajoki [1985], 91-92).

So why was nothing written about such sacrifices for David, one of the highest-profile sinners of the Bible? Instead, he simply had his sins pronounced forgiven. If you want to consider the encounter one of confession and absolution, you have to abandon the idea that the animal sacrifices were what did the job before Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice. Think about it.

Naaman the Syrian merely had to wash in the River Jordan:

“Through Elisha, the Spirit of God humbled Naaman to repentance. This repentance is portrayed by the washing in the River Jordan” (VOZ, 7/1998).

No animal sacrifices were involved there, either. Perhaps the answer is that the ‘old believers’ merely had to believe “on the promise” of the coming Savior. We see that along with some references to the animal sacrifices in the remaining quotes of my sample:

“The transition between the Old and the New Testament times was difficult. The time of sacrificial worship and faith in the promised Messiah was ending, and faith in the fulfillment, Jesus Christ the perfect sacrifice, was beginning. God in his infinite wisdom provided a precursor to Jesus, someone to help with the transitional time. This was Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist” (VOZ, 12/1999).

“The Son, Christ, existed for a long time among men only as the Word of the Promise. They, who believed the Promise, awaited its fulfillment. They probably thought that God tarried long. However, He did not tarry, not even to try the faith of the children of God of the Old Covenant. His time had not yet come” (Uljas 2000, 116).

“In the worship service of the first covenant, the high priest offered the blood of animals for himself and the errors of the people. . . . Yet, in those sacrifices, it was revealed through the Holy Ghost, of the day of Christ, the Lamb of God, who would offer himself as a perfect atonement for sins” (VOZ, 12/2004).

“Throughout Old Testament times, God spoke to the people through prophets. God revealed through them very specific details about the coming birth, life, and death of Jesus. These prophecies were fulfilled hundreds of years later. God gave His Words of the prophets and they spoke to the people, exhorting them to put their sins away through believing in the promise of the Savior. Many heard God’s call. The Bible testifies of their lives. They were sinners, but they believed their sins forgiven. They were acceptable to God” (VOZ, 12/2007).

The living water that Jesus gives “is found in the gospel, and Jesus invites all who are thirsty to come to Him and drink. Scriptures [1 Cor 10:4, Isa 55:1 cited] show that the Old Testament travelers also believed upon this water of life and the promise of the coming Messiah” (VOZ, 5/2008).

Accurate or not, viewing the characters in the Old Testament through a Christian lens as “believers in the promise” was something Luther also did, and with ample precedent from the New Testament writers themselves. The following is from a sermon of his for the third Sunday before Lent, from Epistle Sermons: Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost (Lenker 1909):

Adam was saved by the word of promise (Gen 3:15): The seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent’s head; that is, Christ shall come to conquer sin, death and Satan for us. To this promise God added the sign of sacrifice, sacrifice kindled with fire from heaven, as in Abel’s case (Gen 4:4), and in other cases mentioned in the Scriptures. The word of promise was Adam’s Gospel until the time of Noah and of Abraham. In this promise all the saints down to Abraham believed, and were redeemed; as we are redeemed by the word of the Gospel which we believe. The fire from heaven served them as a sign, as baptism does us, which is added to the word of God.

Such signs were repeated again and again at various times, the last sign being given by Christ in his own person–the Gospel with baptism, granted to all nations. For instance, God gave Noah the promise that he should survive the flood, and granted him a sign in the ship, or ark, he built. And by faith in the promise and sign Noah was justified and saved, with his family. Afterward God gave him another promise, and for a sign the rainbow. Again, he gave Abraham a promise, with the sign of circumcision. Circumcision was Abraham’s baptism, just as the ark and the flood were that of Noah. So also our baptism is to us circumcision, ark and flood, according to Peter’s explanation. 1 Pet 3:21. Everywhere we meet the Word and the Sign of God, in which we must believe in order to be saved through faith from sin and death.

Thus the children of Israel had God’s word that they should inherit the promised land. In addition to that word they were given many signs, in particular those Paul here names—the sea, the cloud, the bread from heaven, the water from the rock. These he calls their baptism; just as our baptism might be called our sea and cloud. Faith and the Spirit are the same everywhere, though the signs and the words vary. Signs and words indeed change from time to time, but faith in the one and same God continues. Through various signs and revelations, God at different times bestows the same faith and the same Spirit, effecting through these in all saints remission of sins, redemption from death, and salvation, whether they lived in the beginning or at the end of time, or while time progressed.


All the exposition from Conservatives about “believers in the promise” is enough to make one expect to find the Old Testament filled with stories of people gathered around forgiving each other’s sins in the name of a Messiah whom God would be sending someday to serve as the ultimate sacrifice. It’s not too far from what this next quote describes, which I’m not surprised to see is from a December (Christmas) issue of the Voice of Zion, in 2008:

After the Fall, God “promised a redeemer, a savior who would overthrow the power of the devil and offer complete atonement for sin-fallen man. Thus the ‘Old Covenant’ or promise was born, and those ‘old believers’ from antiquity by God’s grace, were saved by living faith in those promises. As the ages passed and biblical epochs unfolded, God repeated His promise again and again. In the life of Abraham and the other patriarchs God reconfirmed His covenant. . . . The Old Testament prophets were later able to behold, by faith, a distant but approaching moment when the Creator would send the promised savior. God then began to further open the mysteries and reveal through these prophets that great miracles and wonders, and incomprehensible to the human mind, would mark the arrival and life of the coming Redeemer.”

I spent several months of 2009 carefully reading the entire Old Testament. It was surprising and, yes, disappointing, to see how much Christian wishful thinking and recontextualization has been applied to its supposedly messianic character and prophecies. Time after time, I would come across a passage that had been touted as a prophecy of Jesus, and recognize it only because the words of the supposed prophecy were so familiar from hearing them recited in church. But in their proper context–which one can best appreciate by reading each book of the Bible in turn, starting at the beginning–those passages didn’t seem impressive at all. I had to confront the realization that what had been “repeated again and again” were not God’s promises that he would incarnate himself as the savior of mankind from its sins, but assurances of Christianity to itself that it is really the religion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob after all.

Those self-assurances began right in the pages of the New Testament and have continued to this day. After turning from reading the Old Testament to the New, it became sadly evident to me as it did to Charles Francis Potter that the author of Matthew “stood out as a Christian writer, so anxious to prove to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah they had long been looking for, that he lost all sense of proportion and accuracy, twisted quotations to serve his purpose, and revealed himself as an earnest but unscrupulous propagandizer” (1951, 392). A prominent example is Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7 (6.21), out of context and based on an important translation error of which Hebrew speakers could hardly have been ignorant, as support for the virgin birth. According to Stark, the religious community that promoted the Gospel of Matthew was “not interested in the text for its historical meaning,” but only “in using the text to elucidate their own present-day experiences and to reinforce their sense of identity” (2011, 29).

I know this may be difficult for some to read. It was an even more difficult thing to learn from reading the conflicting words themselves. I am not making this stuff up–I didn’t want it to be true any more than I wanted evolution to be true. But it is true, as Potter’s fellow students learned in “a two-term course on messianic prophecy, a thorough study of the Hebrew text of all passages alleged to be prophecies of the coming of Jesus or even reference to him.” The majority of those students went in “believing at least to some extent in messianic prophecy, and several of them fought strenuously to find foundation for that faith.” But he and they “were unanimous at the end in agreeing that the so-called Old Testament predictions of Jesus were better accounted for by the events of the period during which the prophets themselves lived” (Potter 1951, 392).

It is just one more reason why the most difficult and heart-wrenching reading I’ve ever done was of the Old Testament. My notes from that study make up Section 6.

Another Old Testament passage was once widely discussed in Conservative Laestadianism as a prophecy not of Jesus, but of Laestadianism itself. It was a prominent topic of a historical sermon given by Pauli Korteniemi and published in the Greetings of Peace in 1963:

“Look at these white horses which had left on their journey [Zech 6:6]. They knew their destination, where they had to go. For it is said here, that behold, these that go toward the North Country have quieted my spirit in the North Country. How surprising this is. How surprising that this is verified by the geographies, although afterwards this has been tried to be changed a little so that it would not be this clear, according to the geographies and maps. So in the new edition it says ‘in a Northern Country.’ But here it says ‘in the North Country.’ And if this is not acceptable to us that it is thus and that in it is no changing. And so it happened that living Christianity was preserved in the North Country, in Sweden.”

Zechariah has a vision of four horses with different colored horses pulling them in various directions. An angel tells him that they are the “four spirits of heaven, going forth after standing before the Lord of all the earth” (NASB, 6:5). Of a chariot pulled northward by white horses he is told, “See, those who are going to the land of the north have caused my spirit to rest in the land of the north” (NASB, 6:8, literal translation), or as the KJV puts it, “the north country.” Much has been made of this in Laestadianism, due to its roots in the northernmost reaches of Europe.

But the words were not written by anyone who had the slightest idea that a place like Lapland even existed. Rather, they were written in Judah by someone who had returned from exile in Babylon. His journey homeward had taken him along the fertile crescent, through the lands of Assyria and Israel that lay to the north of Judah along the Mediterranean coast. When Zechariah looked northward, what he saw was the route from which many of his country’s enemies had come, and a hostile land from which he himself had returned.

The supposed “North Country” prophecy is not emphasized much anymore in Laestadian Christianity. The change is evident in a 2008 revision to a song verse originally written in 1973: “The Spirit now rests in the earth’s northern land, The words of the prophet how clearly they stand.” Now, “The Spirit sends servants to preach through the lands.” The shift is probably more due to the emergence of Laestadian churches in Africa and South America than any newfound reluctance to impose modern geographical knowledge on ancient writers.

The “Wilderness Journey”

The life of a believer is often compared to a journey, and often more specifically to the Exodus:

When the wandering Israelites “finally came to a spring, the water was too bitter to drink. God instructed Moses to throw a tree, which God showed him, into the water. Moses did this and the water became sweet. When a child of God has murmured, as these Israelites had murmured before finding the spring, the water would at first be bitter and unsuitable. When one is in faith and obedience and submits oneself to follow God’s instructions, then God makes the water sweet. Jesus is ‘the branch,’ and by and through Him we receive the water of life. Once the travelers’ thirst had been relieved, they suffered from hunger. They suffered from hunger although they had plenty of cattle with them. The people murmured. Moses prayed. God sent swarms of quail and manna which fell like dew to feed them. It was not fitting for them to eat of their own cattle; neither can today’s journeyer on the way to Heaven seek nourishment from that which he has brought. One has to be content with that which God provides as food” (VOZ, 5/1990).

“God did not forget His chosen people as they fled from Egypt. He shielded them from being seen by the army through the night, as He caused the wind to create dry land through the sea. The angel of God and the pillar of cloud went behind the people ‘so that the one came not near the other all the night.’ When the way was dry across the sea the Israelites were able to cross with a wall of water on both sides. When the Egyptians tried to follow in the way that was prepared for the Israelites, God did not allow this to happen. He allowed the waters to return upon the Egyptians so that His people could go free” (VOZ, 7/2006).

There are some truly astounding things being described here. More than a million people (and their livestock) marched across soggy sea bottom one morning with walls of water on both sides. Then they spent forty years wandering around one of the world’s most inhospitable deserts, receiving sustenance out of nowhere and leaving not a single trace for diligent archeologists to find (see 6.2). The quoted Conservative writers give a matter-of-fact report on those things like they are yesterday’s news–incredulity is not expected. As Ingersoll dryly noted in his 1885 interview with the Cincinnati Plain Dealer, “Most people are willing to believe that wonderful things happened long ago and will happen again in the far future; with them the present is the only time in which nature behaves herself with becoming sobriety.”

“We find comfort in knowing that God is always with us just as He was with Moses. He is not with us in a visible pillar of cloud or fire, but in the Holy Spirit that resides in His kingdom” (VOZ, 6/2008).

“The journey of God’s children is the same kind of journey in the wilderness as the Israelites’ journey was. The enemy wishes to plant the seed of bondage, permissiveness of sin, and the love of the world into our hearts so that we would be exhausted by the obstacles he places before us and return to the dark Egypt of sin. We should always use the gospel in the midst of temptations. We should use this rod to strike the rock of Christ from which flows pure water that quenches our thirst” (VOZ, 1/2009).

Lot’s wife “was instructed not to look back to her former life in Sodom. She was disobedient, looked back, and was turned into a pillar of salt. Likewise many of the travelers on the Wilderness Journey remembered Egypt’s fleshpots and longed for them. They died in the wilderness before the sojourning flock reached the Promised Land” (VOZ, 6/2009).

Most of that is pure allegory, quite a ways from letting “the words retain their natural force, just as they read,” as Luther advocated. One should “give no other interpretation unless a clear article of faith compels otherwise” (from Althaus 1963, 386), unless of course you are trying to explain away Scriptural praise for the bashing of babies’ heads against rocks (Psalms 137:9), as Luther stooped to doing.

Continuity with the New Testament

The difficulties with the Old Testament have been recognized since the beginning of the New. Marcion, a controversial theologian of the early second century, “believed the God of the Old Testament was a morally atrocious deity, a God of violence and vengeance, far removed from the New Testament’s God of love. Thus Marcion and his followers cut the Old Testament out of their canon and were branded by other Christian factions as ‘heretics.’” (Stark 2011, 33). The church father Tertullian devoted an entire book of his writings to refuting Marcion, and the Old Testament has remained in the Christian Bible ever since. Naturally, it must have a reason for being there:

“The stories of the Old Testament are often symbolic. They have an inseparable connection with the happenings of the New Testament” (By Faith, 23).

“The Old Testament is a good teacher; it has many lessons for us about the importance of faith from the beginning of time” (VOZ, 9/2008).

In an undated presentation entitled “God’s Word is Unchanging and Eternal,” Walt Lampi claims continuity between the Old and New Testaments, and the God of both:

“Since the beginning of time God has not changed His will, nor the Word by which He communicates His will, toward mankind. He revealed to the prophet Malachi: ‘I am the Lord, I change not,’ and James described Him as ‘the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.’ . . . The God of the Old Testament is the same God as He of the New Testament. The Old Testament reveals God’s promise of a Savior to sin-fallen man and the New Testament is the fulfillment of that promise. The Old Testament is more than a historical account of ancient Israel or just an ancient literary work of the kind found in other nations of that time. Rather, the Old Testament is the revelation of God’s salvation plan through the history of His chosen people.”

I invite you to read the Old Testament (or at least my notes on it in Section 6) and see if you can still persuade yourself that “the God of the Old Testament is the same God as He of the New Testament” or the same loving, gracious, omniscient God that Conservatives like to talk about. Even within the Old Testament itself, “the Bible’s depictions of a vivid, dramatically interventionist Yahweh decline in frequency as the biblical narrative unfolds. It is near the beginning of the story that Yahweh is most likely to appear to people or speak to them or do widely witnessed wonders” (Wright 2009, 128).

4.3.4 Inerrancy

All it takes is one miniscule disagreement with the Bible for the whole house of cards to come tumbling down. And eventually, if they allow themselves to be pressed, it will happen to every honest would-be inerrantist. There is no such thing as an inerrantist. Inerrantists just haven’t realized it yet.

—Thom Stark, The Human Faces of God

The modest size of my sample of quotes on biblical inerrancy surprised me, considering how seriously the Bible is taken as “God’s Word.” But I have come across other topics that are so well settled in the minds of Conservatives that they appear not to require much discussion in writings and sermons. (Examples are the rejections of extramarital sex, 4.6.1, and intermarriage with unbelievers, 4.7.4.) The idea of the Bible as the inerrant word of God is likewise very deeply ingrained.

The subject didn’t even seem to come up for most of the movement’s history. My first quote is from 1980, an attribution of the Bible to the Holy Spirit and a claim that it is “one completeness”:

“The common characteristic of all the writers of the Bible is that they had the Holy Spirit. The Bible has been written according to the revelation of the Holy Spirit. . . . Even though the Bible has been written with different gifts and in different languages and even though it contains many books, it is nevertheless one completeness” (By Faith, 11).

In a July 1990 sermon, Quentin Ruonavaara makes the first clear statement of inerrancy of my sample:

“Surely we must say the Scriptures have never erred. We believe in Jesus Christ according to the law and the prophets.”

I once accepted that simple, dogmatic statement. Though there were nagging questions about a few Old Testament stories I’d come across in Sunday school or my cursory Bible readings, “The Bible was, after all, the verbally inspired word of God, so if I had found problems in it, there had to be solutions to them,” as Farrell Till thought (2003, 294). But the longer he studied the Bible critically, the more he realized that he

would never find solutions to the problems I had identified, because there were no solutions. The Bible is not the verbally inspired, inerrant word of God; it was just a collection of contradictory, discrepant books that had been written by superstitious ethnocentrics who thought that the hand of God was directing the destiny of the Hebrew people. [p. 294]

No doubt many readers will find that a shocking statement for me to quote. But my own studies of the Bible, its manuscripts, and the history surrounding its writing and canonization have, unfortunately, left me not far from Till’s conclusion. Uljas even shows some anxiety about the Bible’s “human side”:

“Due to the manner of its birth, the Bible also has a human side. The saints of God, who spoke and wrote the Word of God, were bound to the image of the world and the culture of their time. This is seen also in the writings of the Scriptures. However, the divine and the human aspects are so intertwined in the Scriptures, that there is no reason to ponder what is divine and what is human in them. The Bible is the Word of God in human words. . . . Some people say that the Bible does not need to be interpreted so literally, nor do its teachings hold any longer, for it has originated within the sphere of the old Semitic and Hellenistic cultures. We cannot agree with these statements, if we consider the Bible to be God’s Word” (2000, 22-23).

The second part of that statement contradicts the first. You cannot attempt to excuse the Bible’s undeniable errors and contradictions as the result of humans being “bound to the image of the world and the culture of their time” while denying that those humble origins limit its applicability today. (John 21:4-13 is one striking example of a Bible story that seems to have Hellenistic origins.)

The fact is that the vast majority of biblical scholars–academics who are not bound to some particular dogmatic commitment–have been calling the Bible’s claims of divine revelation into question for over a hundred years. These next quotes acknowledge that, not as a positive development of course:

“An instruction for concord from one of the Lutheran church’s confessional books affirms: ‘The Old and New Testaments’ prophetical and apostolic books are the only rule and guide through which all doctrine and teaching is to be examined and evaluated.’ Nowadays, even in Finland, some church workers call into question the Bible’s revelation of God” (Päivämies No. 17, 2006).

“We live in a time in which the authority, holiness, and inerrancy of the Holy Bible has been placed under doubt and suspicion by those who challenge it as a divine revelation of God’s will toward men. This position is in direct opposition to that held by the believer, that the Holy Scriptures are the highest authority and standard by which matters of soul and doctrines of salvation are judged. . . . By faith we accept the Holy Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, as the divinely inspired and revealed Word of God” (VOZ, 3/2007).

One of those who has expressed “doubt and suspicion” about parts of the Bible is none other than Luther himself. In his 1522 preface to the Epistle to the Hebrews, he wrote that he “could not put it on the same level with the apostolic epistles,” noting that some of its teachings (7.7) seem “to be against all the Gospels and St. Paul’s epistles” (PE 6, 476-77). He criticized the Epistle of James, who “does nothing more than drive to the law and its works; and he mixes the two up in such disorderly fashion that it seems to me he must have been some good, pious man, who took some sayings of the apostles’ disciples and threw them thus on paper; or perhaps they were written down by someone else from his preaching” (Preface to James and Jude [1522]; PE 6, 478). Concerning the authenticity of Jude, he wrote that “no one can deny that it is an extract or copy from Saint Peter’s second epistle, so very like it are all the words” (p. 479). He wished that the book of Esther “had not come to us at all” (Table Talk §24).

In my experience, it is far easier to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible when you haven’t really ever read the whole thing. Undeniable deviations from historical evidence and internal contradictions are numerous and well known, many cases of which are discussed in the Old Testament and New Testament sections below. To claim, as this next writer does, that the Bible is “one book, one doctrine, and one plan of salvation” is to reveal a state of denial or just plain ignorance about the many different threads of thought and authorship even within individual books, and the significant conflicts and the varying ways that are presented for reconciliation with God.

“The Bible itself has been written by over forty authors, who wrote sixty-six books over a period of approximately 1,500 years: yet it is one book, one doctrine, and one plan of salvation. Our faith is according to the one correct doctrine that is found in Scriptures. This same doctrine is heard in the preaching of God’s kingdom” (VOZ, 5/2007)

And, guess what! That “one doctrine” is just what we are preaching! Never mind all that Old Testament stuff, passages that contradict sectarian exclusivity, the lack of examples of Laestadian-style absolution, or the admonitions to take care of the needy even at the expense of one’s own wealth. While in the New Apostolic Church (no relation to Laestadianism), David Stamos encountered the same shock that I did from extracurricular studying. He also had relied on what he was taught in church, but then discovered many

problems connected with the New Testament, not only internal contradictions but also major external ones, contradictions between what my church had always taught me and what was taught in the Bible. And here my church was teaching as it always had, not only that the Bible is God’s true and holy Word, but also that only the New Apostolic Church is truly based on the Bible! [2003, 343]

The claim will sound very familiar to Conservatives, it is just one example of how hundreds–probably thousands–of disagreeing and disagreeable Christian denominations and sects each find their own image reflected in the pages of the Bible. It seems to me, as it did to Robert M. Price and Ernst Käsemann whom he cites, that “the diversity of thought and conviction among the New Testament writers is surely responsible for the analogous diversity among the churches who appeal to the New Testament” (2006b, 199).

Here are just a few of the issues no longer even disputed in biblical scholarship that come to my mind as I contemplate the claim of “one book, one doctrine, and one plan of salvation”:

• Multiple authors of Genesis with different theological agendas, who provide conflicting accounts of both the creation and flood stories;

• Significant evolution of God from a talkative, blundering, temperamental warrior deity to a distant “Father” who limits his human interactions to the occasional dove or earthquake and is approachable only through the loving, caring image of his Son;

• Edicts and actions made under God’s command that reflect the cruel, misogynist, scientifically ignorant, and genocidal nature of the Old Testament writers and that are completely dismissed by the New Testament writers of a (slightly) more enlightened age;

• Conflicting claims about the existence of any place of eternal torment, or indeed any afterlife at all;

• Detailed and exacting demands for sacrifice followed by the claim that God does not desire sacrifice, which is then followed by the claim that the old sacrifices were really about Jesus all along;

• Significant evolution of Jesus from a servant–submitting to John’s baptism of repentance and showing anger, limited powers of healing and prophecy, and uncomprehending anguish about his fate–to the mystical, divine Son of God;

• Non-apostolic authorship of many New Testament epistles.5

The faith that is required to gloss over these and many other issues is not a faith in God or the Son of God, but faith in the book that sits on the pulpit, and in the preacher who reverently thumbs through its gold-leaf pages in search of safe, comfortable passages on which to expound. “[M]any Christians don’t even know what they believe because they never take the time to read the whole Bible” (Long 2005, 3), and indeed they can be discouraged from doing so lest their human reasoning about what is written lead them astray. Among Orthodox Jews, too, there is awareness that exposure to the evidence and arguments of critical biblical scholarship “might generate doubt.” Because “the consequences of doubt can be dangerous and painful, it is better to remain ignorant of the counterevidence and competing theories” (Schimmel 2008, 63).

So what is left is the kind of “biblicist” faith reflected in this next quote:

“Exactly how the historical facts concerning the life and work of our Lord and Savior were collected and how they were transmitted to others and by whom, we don’t know, but we trust to faith in its accuracy and purposefulness” (VOZ, 7/2007).

Another bit of unwelcome information I learned is that we have access to no “historical facts concerning the life and work of Jesus” from anything recorded until several decades after his death at the earliest. Those earliest records are found only in the Gospels, which were written by Christians–clearly not eyewitnesses themselves–who wanted to promote particular, often conflicting, viewpoints of who Jesus was. It would be more decades still before any objective historian would finally mention Jesus, and then mostly just in reference to the movement that had begun in his name (4.4.2). The earliest references to anything about Jesus in the Bible are from Paul: a brief statement of second-hand information to be accepted on faith and three paraphrases of things Paul believed Jesus had said but could not have known first-hand (7.4).

But historical difficulties are far from the minds of these Conservative writers. Even the realities discovered by scientific investigation must yield, somehow:

“In following the paths of science, we may sometimes mistakenly believe that which can not stand in the light of the Bible” (Päivämies No. 44, 2009).

For the fundamentalist, God “has revealed Himself clearly in His Word, and, as God cannot be in error, neither can His Word. Hence any apparent contradictions within the book have some theological explanation that God has not yet revealed.” That includes any “contradiction with external sources of knowledge, for example, science,” which “must by definition be resolved in favour of the holy book, since it, and it alone, is the ultimate criterion of truth” (Herriot 2009, 198).

This next statement summarizes hundreds of years of retreat from a time when questioning the Bible’s teachings about the natural world was heretical and dangerous (4.8.1):

“It is not the purpose of the Bible to answer questions about genetics, medicine, or natural sciences. God has given us His Word for another, nobler purpose. By His Word God shows us how He saves mankind from sin” (VOZ, 7/2009).

The very proposition that mankind needs to be saved from sin is inextricably linked to the Bible’s narrative about Adam and Eve and the Fall (4.3.1, 7.3). So that dodge won’t work.

At times, it seems to me that the Bible itself becomes an object of worship:

“We believe that the Bible is God’s Word. While men have written the Scripture, they have not done so as an expression of their own will, but God has moved them by His Spirit to express His own will. God’s Word is not to be treated or regarded in the same manner as man’s Word but rather granted our highest esteem. . . . We believe that God’s word is Christian faith’s highest authority, and thus Christian faith’s guiding principles and doctrine must be examined and evaluated in the light of God’s Word” (LLC, The Bible, God’s Word).

Tom Harpur says that most Protestant Christians “have mistakenly elevated the Bible into an infallible ‘paper pope.’ Taking a view of the New Testament that would have astonished its authors–whose only Bible was what we call the Old Testament–they have to an alarming degree become Bible worshipers. The Bible has become an idol, assuming the place reserved for God alone” (2003, 100).

The following quote refers to “eyewitness accounts,” which is an appeal to history:

“Jesus Christ suffered and died and after three days He rose from the dead. The prophets of the Old Testament, like Isaiah in the words above, foretold and described Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection hundreds of years before it happened. Jesus’ disciples have left us eyewitness accounts that confirm His fulfillment of those prophecies. Their accounts, recorded in the Bible, are not fabricated tales, as some said then and some say now, but the disciples sincerely declared what they had heard, seen, and also touched” (LLC, Christ, the Ransom for Our Sins).

Actually, there are no eyewitness accounts of Jesus in the Bible. What we find in the Gospels is a great deal of copying from one source, Mark [c. 70 A.D.], which is quite spare in its details and paints a very human picture of Jesus, and another now-missing source “Q” that Matthew and Luke appear to have both used to recount Jesus’ sayings. Added onto that are conflicting details in important stories, mistakes about history, geography, and customs of the time, and differing views about the nature of Jesus himself.

The Gospels do not even provide consistent reports of the most important single story of Christianity, the resurrection. It is a miraculous event that carries a heavy burden of proof. So even if the Gospel accounts were consistent, it would be hard to consider them anything other than “fabricated tales.” Even the Christian authors of the encyclopedic Early Christianity and its Sacred Literature acknowledge that it may be very difficult to find any modern historians who would accept the resurrection of Jesus as an attested historical fact (MacDonald and Porter 2000, 7). They quote one historian’s critique of the common, theologically motivated assessment that the resurrection was probably historical. How could a critical historian say such a thing “when dealing with an event so initially improbable as the resurrection of a dead man, the two-thousand-year-old narratives of which are limited to the community dedicated to propagating the belief and admittedly full of ‘legendary features, contradictions, absurdities, and discrepancies’ . . . ?”

MacDonald and Porter ask, as they must to preserve their faith, “Is there a reality of the past that is beyond the scope of the historian’s inquiry?” The historian cannot, as a historian, “answer reasonably about the origins of Christian faith, but what of Christians? Is it possible to arrive at some other approach that accounts for Christian origins and is, at the same time, historically responsible?” This they term a “historical-theological approach” (p. 15), and take recourse in the role of faith: “If the historian could prove the unique actions of God in history, there would indeed be no need for faith at all.” Yet, it is also true that “even though one cannot prove it historically, to deny the resurrection of Jesus is to deny the very heart of the Christian proclamation” (p. 16).

It is clear that there is a dilemma here. We have professed belief in these astounding events, along with many other things that seem crazy to any objective observer, not because we were convinced by any evidence but because there is no other choice. Such faith is not so much an intellectual assent as it is an act of will, as Karen Armstrong was once told by a Jesuit priest. “Christians could accept their essentially incredible tradition only by making a deliberate choice to believe. You could not prove or disprove these doctrines, but you could consciously decide to take them on trust. They might even turn out to be true” (2007, 118). It’s an honest statement, at least, but certainly not the kind of thing that would persuade those not already convinced to make drastic changes in their lives and adopt this “essentially incredible tradition” of Christianity. And the “act of will” that is required of those who have already made the “deliberate choice to believe” turns faith into what Price calls “a cognitive work, a matter of managing to believe things that you know and can see are not true in the public reality, the reality out there.” It is not something one can do “without cheating, suppressing the truth, denying your better judgment with the excuse of ‘faith’” (Price 2006b, 137).

4.3.5 Hermeneutics

The fundamentalist hears his own voice magnified through the Bible and mistakes it for the word of God.

—Robert M. Price, The Reason-Driven Life

Arch Taylor provides an important conclusion about inerrancy that also leads us into the topic of hermeneutics, the study of how biblical texts are assigned meaning by those who expound upon them. What the “champions of inerrancy” really seem to be defending with their often strained and awkward hermeneutics

is not the authentic Word of God, but a system of belief and practice of their own devising. Then they search the Scriptures to find proof texts that support their particular view. They make the leap directly from the Bible to their current debate, without considering what the Bible really says. Is the translation they are using an accurate one? Is the original text on which the translation is based dependable? What did those words mean in the time and context in which they were first spoken or written? How do those words fit into the total context of the biblical canon, including both Old Testament and New? What is the meaning of those words in the light of the full revelation of God in Jesus Christ? When they pull a prooftext out of context and say: “The Bible says . . .” they may not be teaching what the Bible–the whole canonical Bible–says, but only what they are forcing one small bit of the Bible to say. [Taylor 2003, 167]

Textual Issues

Luke 17:20-21 is a passage that has great significance for Conservative Laestadianism’s claim to be the place where the Kingdom of God is now found:

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the Kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for behold, the Kingdom of God is within (έντός) you.

The word entos (έντός) can be translated as either “within” or “among,” and the choice has been a point of controversy in Christian theology. “The correct location of the Kingdom of God would seem to be an issue central to Christian theology–so central, in fact, that a resolution of the έντός question is imperative, if Christians are truly to be one body of believers” (Marcin 2008, 2).

After doing an initial analysis on the word έντός, Marcin says that “it does seem at this point in our analysis that the Kingdom of God is more within us than among us.” But, he continues, “to give a semantic answer–even a tentative one–is not necessarily to capture the full meaning of a word, especially its meaning in the context of so important a scriptural passage” (p. 6). So he continues his analysis, and then concludes as follows:

Theological preference aside, analyses of the simple meanings of the preposition έντός, its adverbial counterparts, its antonym, and its Septuagint usages in the Old Testament leave little doubt but that the Kingdom of God is “within” us, and provide scant support for the notion that the Kingdom is to be understood as being “among” us. [pp. 8-9]

That is certainly the meaning that Origen took from the passage: “The Savior does not say to everyone, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you.’ For, in sinners, the kingdom of sin exists. Without any ambiguity, either the Kingdom of God reigns in our hearts, or the kingdom of sin” (Homilies on Luke, No. 36; Lienhard 1996, 197). The original Greek was Origen’s mother tongue, so his interpretation is hard to disregard.

So is the fact that both Luther and Laestadius followed that interpretation. As discussed in 5.2, Luther referred to this passage in defense of his position that “there is no locality, place or anything external in the kingdom of God; it is not here or there, but the spirit within us” (PE 3, 395, emphasis added). Similarly, Laestadius explained the mystical experiences of his contemporaries as being a result of the kingdom of heaven being “within man” [Luke 17:21]:

The Savior says: the kingdom of heaven is within you. If now a man’s eyes are open to see this kingdom of heaven, he has in truth begun to enjoy the salvation which this viewing brings with it. And to the extent that the philosopher cannot prove that the kingdom of heaven is in someplace outside of man, it must be within man. (VCW, 47)

Laestadius referred to the “within you” interpretation of Luke 17:21 in an 1850 sermon:

If now the kingdom of God is within us, then we should strive after this, that the kingdom of God would come into our heart, that we would come to feel the power of the kingdom of God in our hearts, which is to be the temple of God and God’s dwelling place. And how else could this come into our hearts, if not in that way, that we strive after it, that we first become Christians and children of God, so the kingdom of God would come to us and we would become a partaker of the greatest power and honor of the kingdom of God. When now the Saviour tells His disciples to seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness, it signifies that they must strive after Christianity, or be diligent to beg, to hasten, to strive, to cry out and to knock upon the door of heaven, and to pray to God that he, through true penitence, repentance, and living faith, could receive his sins forgiven, would become a partaker of God’s grace, and thus would find the kingdom of God in his own heart. [Sermon for 15th Sunday after Trinity]

Later, however, Conservatives found themselves having to defend the doctrine that God’s chosen are found in an identifiable group on Earth. The less preferred “among you” translation was what the 1776 Finnish Bible chose (“Jumalan valtakunta on teidän keskellänne”), and it became one of their tools for doing so. For example, Heikki Jussila argued with an ecumenically minded opponent about the Luke 17:21 passage and claimed that even a seven year-old child in “living Christianity” would understand that the Pharisees Jesus was addressing did not have “the kingdom of God inwardly in” them. Rather, “All the preachers in Christianity have explained the words of Jesus according to the old translation” (Jussila 1948, 127).

Recently I heard an LLC preacher read the KJV text with its more accurate but less doctrinally convenient “within you” translation and then go on to build his sermon around the “among you” alternative as if that is what the book in front of him actually said. If you are going to base your theology on a particular interpretation of a word–one that contrasts with what your two most prominent spiritual predecessors expounded with very different views of things–shouldn’t you at least let your audience know what’s going on?

How can it ever be the case that erroneous biblical scholarship is propounded by God’s Kingdom, the “pillar and ground of truth,” as it is often called? Yet that is what Conservative Laestadian preachers do all too often. One example that I find particularly vexing is the continued sermonizing on the Pericope Adulterae, the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), by preachers who ought to know better. This passage didn’t appear in manuscripts until the 5th century, and is notoriously inauthentic. Yet it remains a favorite text, treated as God’s Holy Word with no distinction from any other part of the supposedly inerrant Bible resting on the pulpit. Another example is this exposition on the Trinity:

“The leading theologians of [Finland] and princes of the church do not believe in the trinity of God as is the Jehovah Witnesses’ fashion. Therefore, they have left out of their Bibles the verse: ‘For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one’ [1 John 5:7]” (VOZ, 6/1979).

There is actually a very good reason why others “have left out of their Bibles” this verse: it is simply not authentic. The Comma Johanneum, as it is called, does not appear in any manuscripts until the 7th century. It’s one of the more notorious of several cases where scribes made additions to the text of the New Testament. I find it especially tiresome to see evil motives assigned to the viewpoints and actions of those in “the world” when they turn out to have a sound factual basis.

Allegory and Symbolism

“To play with allegories in Christian doctrine, is dangerous,” Luther warns in his Table Talk (§765). “The words, now and then, sound well and smoothly, but they are to no purpose. They serve well for such preachers that have not studied much, who know not rightly how to expound the histories and texts, whose leather is too short, and will not stretch.” Despite his urging that “we should accustom ourselves to remain by the clear and pure text,” Luther could not resist making use of allegory himself. Ironically, he provides one immediately after his Table Talk warning in response to a question by Melanchthon about the theological significance of an eagle’s nesting behavior.

It’s been going on for a long time. Philo of Alexandria [20 B.C.-50 A.D.] “employed the allegorical method to explain away the more unsavory aspects of the Hebrew scriptures in order to make them palatable to Hellenistic sensibilities” (Stark 2011, 32-33). Origen’s homilies on Leviticus are awash in quotation marks that he uses to wrap his Old Testament text in the gloss of his New Testament understanding. Here’s an example: “When it says that [the bullock] is burned up ‘with the dung and the intestines’ [Lev 4:11], see if perhaps this body of human nature is not figuratively called dung in comparison to the heavenly body” (Homily 2, §3; from Barkley 1990, 65).

Apostle Paul did his share of allegorizing right in the New Testament. An example is where he treated Abraham’s fathering of a bastard son by a slave woman as part of an allegory about the old and new covenants. Instead of being the powerless sexual pawn of a barren old woman desperate to appease her husband’s patriarchal need for an heir, the slave woman becomes “mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children” (Gal 4:25). And just like that, the profane becomes sacred, the sordid becomes spiritual.

In the hands of a creative expositor, there is seemingly no limit to what can be accomplished by allegory. The sacred text is just brimming with symbolism if you look closely enough. Stark cites Paul’s treatment of Deut 25:4 (“Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn,” right after a bit of instruction about beating the loser of an adjudicated civil dispute “before his face” with no more than forty lashes). That, it turns out, was just what Paul needed to show that those preaching the gospel are entitled to get their living by it. He concludes that the ancient agricultural advice was really written for the sake of his brethren, “that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope” (1 Cor 9:10). Stark calls that an astounding claim: “God does not care about oxen; the historical-grammatical meaning of the text is of no concern to God or to us–that is not its usefulness as scripture. The real reason that passage is in the text is that it was intended for the last days, a message to the Pauline churches” (2011, 31).

There’s been no shortage of creativity among Conservative expositors, either:

In Rev 12, John is “looking into the future at how living Christianity would be born. Indeed, you have heard awakened souls crying in remorse over their sins, as here the woman, or the Lord’s congregation, cried as she travailed in birth. The congregation is a travailing woman through which Jesus brings forth a manchild, or a new man. The old man becomes ill when the new man must be born. The woman’s crown of twelve stars signifies the light of the gospel, the doctrine of the apostles. Man’s wisdom is the moon which is dark of itself, and thus is to be put under the feet, if the gospel is to enter the heart by faith and a new man is to be born. As the woman is clothed with the sun, so the church is clothed with the Sun of Righteousness, Jesus Christ” (Raattamaa, [1897], from Kulla 1993, 68).

The greater meaning in the covenant of the rainbow “was the grace covenant of God which He renewed to His believers. The rainbow in the clouds was a sign of this covenant,” and that “cloud is a picture of the grace cloud which rains drops of grace to moisten the dry hearts of believers” (Saari 1968, 11).

“The burning of the bricks of Babel portrays nothing else than a strange fire or a false doctrine. It burns the clay brittle, hard, and durable. The false doctrine with a false spirit also burns man’s conscience into a hardened condition” (Saari 1968, 22).

“As God took one rib of Adam and of it made Eve, likewise the Church of God is taken of Christ” (VOZ, 5/1974).

Stark notes that it “is much easier to be an ‘inerrantist’ when the intended meaning of the original author can be disregarded.” When you use “allegorical interpretations which have the effect of ascribing some meaning to a text other than the meaning intended by the author” (2011, 32), your “carnal mind” can readily dispense with problems like Jacob’s impersonation and defrauding of his brother Esau:

“It may seem to the carnal mind that Jacob did wrong by taking the blessing. But before God, the blessings of God always belong to the Christians, the people of God. It is that spiritual Church of God here on earth, the Mother Rebecca, who prepares and makes ready the savory meat for her son Jacob. She also does the clothing of her son. The goodly raiment of her firstborn son was with her in the house (in God’s kingdom)” (VOZ, 7/1975).

Here we see some of that allegorical interpretation sanitizing the story in Acts 5:1-11. God kills a married couple for not coming clean about holding back some of their wealth from the church. Can anybody imagine a preacher threatening such an outrage to reluctant dues-payers today? But we learn from this article published in the midst of the “caretaking” hysteria of the 1970s that it was really all about being honest and obedient to the congregation of God:

“Ananias and Sapphira had sold a possession and decided to give part of the price to the apostles to be used for common needs. They did not tell the apostles that they had hidden a portion of it for their own needs,” and were struck dead. The “congregation of God cannot be deceived even if an individual is. Ananias and Saphhira had fallen into the sin of greed of which the Word of God says that it is the root of all evil (1 Tim 6:9-10). The temporal possessions had formed into a true god for them. With the help of these goods, in form of gift giving, they could even care for the needs of undying souls. The Giver of all gifts, the blessing God, was forgotten.” They “began to see the fellowship of the believers in a different light than before. They did not see God’s kingdom as the foundation and pillar of truth anymore. They did not believe that the Spirit of truth guides the congregation and the decisions thereof. Human failings in the congregation became apparent to them and when this happened they did not find it important to be obedient to the voice of the congregation. It was not hard to deceive the congregation anymore even to the point of telling lies” (Siionin Lähetyslehti, 2/1976).

Similarly, Jacob was really thinking about Laestadian heresies when he came up with a scheme for getting some of what was coming to him from his recalcitrant boss:

“[W]hen the flocks of Laban and Jacob were divided, as divisions have often been made, the ‘spotted sheep’ and those which were a little white were left in Jacob’s flock. And such still is the flock of God’s children. Not all the sheep are pure white and spotless” (VOZ, 11/1976).

Even in a crowded field of highly imaginative allegory, this one stands out:

“Spiritually, we understand the heavens [that ‘declare the glory of God,’ Psa 19:1] represent God’s children. “Heavens” here is plural. We could say that the heavens represent the local congregations, all of which are united. That same sun of God’s grace which is mentioned later in this text goes through its circuits.” The person who serves in whatever capacity is “serving in the firmament,” which “shows the handiwork of God” (Quentin Ruonavaara, sermon given 1978).

The following quote casts the deafness and dumbness healed by Jesus in Mark 7:31-37 as the enemy’s work in preventing the sinner of first century Palestine from engaging in the act of confession. Besides being far-fetched, the comparison suffers from the fact that confession was not destined to become part of Christian practice for quite some time yet (5.1.2).

“When we look specifically at these sicknesses of deafness and dumbness” healed by Jesus “in a spiritual sense, we see the effects of the work of the enemy of our souls. He, who has been a liar from the beginning, is always attempting to close the mouth so that a person would not be able to speak of the sins that he has fallen into” (VOZ, 9/1990).

In explaining Isaiah 38:8, when God made a shadow go back ten steps on a stairway, Uljas focuses on a spiritual interpretation. That allows him to avoid dealing with the overwhelming scientific and historical evidence that the actual event never could have occurred:

“Hezekiah, himself, had experienced that time was not in man’s control. It was just as difficult for him to understand, as it is for us, that time and the laws of nature are ruled by God. It is a blessed and marvelous thing that the Sun of Grace moves counterclockwise and wipes away previously committed sins” (2000, 118).

That understated story is possibly the most astounding one of the entire Bible when you know, unlike the ancient author, that the Earth is round and spins on its axis to make the Sun appear to be moving across the sky. See the discussion of the passage in 6.21, and of Joshua 10:13 with a similar miracle, in 6.6.

It is common to hear the Gospels’ healing narratives being linked with the forgiveness of sins, as in the following two quotes:

“Jesus proclaimed the gospel message of the kingdom of God to the sick: ‘Your sins are forgiven unto you.’ It was a common understanding at that time that physical sicknesses were caused by sin or evil spirits. The scribes held that only God can forgive man’s sins. To them, therefore, Jesus’ proclamation of the forgiveness of sins was blasphemy. It is because of unbelief that people are unable to overcome the powers of sin. They are tied to the bed of sin which is sinful life” (VOZ, 10/2002).

“Unbelief was the greatest sickness during the time of Jesus’ life on this earth, and it is still the greatest today. When unforgiven sin weighs on the heart of man, it can cause the same deafness and dumbness that plagued the man in our text [Mk 7:31-37]. Ears do not hear the call of the Father, and the tongue becomes halting and made of clay” (VOZ, 8/2007).

The first quote reveals some ambivalence about literalism. By acknowledging that it “was a common understanding that physical sicknesses were caused by sin or evil spirits,” isn’t the quoted writer also recognizing that we no longer really share that understanding? (See the discussion of Mark 9:17-29 in 7.1.)

Luke 18:9-14 tells us that the publican in his self-abnegation at the temple was “justified,” which is contrary to the Conservative belief that the publican still had to go find someone to proclaim absolution to him:

“It is related [in Luke 18:9-14] that the publican went to his house ‘justified’ rather than the Pharisee, implying that he was justifiable. Jesus does not say that he was saved or that he was made righteous by humbling his heart. With a humbled heart, the publican still needed to ‘seek the kingdom of God,’ as Jesus teaches” (VOZ, 8/2007).

But how can saying someone is “justified” imply that they really aren’t yet? Finding that the plain words of a text conflict with its present-day doctrine doesn’t give the church a warrant to just go and read all those additional caveats into it. At least not if Luther’s sola scriptura is to mean anything.6

“The Holy Spirit is the plainest writer and speaker in heaven and earth,” Luther wrote in his 1521 Answer to Emser of Leipzig, “and therefore His words cannot have more than one, and that the very simplest, sense, which we call the literal, ordinary, natural sense.” Even though “all of God’s works and creatures are living signs and words of God, . . . we are not on that account to say that the Scriptures or the Word of God have more than one meaning.” He cautioned that it “is much surer and safer to abide by the words in their simple sense” (PE 3, 350). In 1524, he famously criticized those expositors who “very frequently miss the sense of their text and twist it like a nose of wax to suit their fancy” (To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany, from PE 4, 116). But, it must be said, he was not immune to Scripture-twisting, as when he glossed over the brutality of Psalm 137:9.

Price criticizes all this as “plumbing the depths of the Bible.” What an irony it is, he notes, that “the fundamentalist champions of the Bible seem to care nothing for the text, but only for those doctrines and devotional ‘promises’ they pry out of it.” (2006b, 348). We see yet another example of such plumbing with a quote concerning the staff that Moses held above his head–a token of individual power and leadership in the ancient world. It is a case where, as Price notes generally, the “Bible does not actually deal the requisite slogans and the desired devotional idiom,” and the quoted writer “rewrite[s] the text so that it does” (p. 348). That gives us “the staff of God’s Word,” i.e., a symbol of conformity to particular interpretations of carefully selected biblical texts:

“Moses knew that God was faithful and that He would deliver them from [the battle against Amelek, Exodus 17:9-13]. In order for them to win, however, he needed to remain watchful and needed to hold the staff above his head. It is the same in the battle that we face in God’s kingdom today. We need to remain watchful in faith and hold the staff of God’s Word higher than anything else” (VOZ, 5/2008).

4.3.6 Value and Limits

Consider, too, the fact that Jehovah’s organization alone, in all the Earth, is directed by God’s holy spirit or active force . . . To it alone God’s Sacred Word, the Bible, is not a sealed book.

The Watchtower, from Diane Wilson, Awakening of a Jehovah’s Witness

The Bible sits somewhat uneasily on a pedestal in Conservative Laestadianism. It is revered as the Word of God, yet the reader cannot really depend on its words for instruction. Instead, God expects obedience to whatever “faith” and “God’s Children” say that it says:

“The Bible does not ask us what we consider to be the most important or what we would regard as foremost in our life. The Word of God shows us that, and God expects all of us to follow the Lord Jesus in the obedience of faith and in the flock of His children” (By Faith, 8).

Herriot identifies five distinctive features of fundamentalist movements, one of which is the belief of fundamentalists “that their holy book, through its interpreters or read directly, has supreme authority over what to believe and how to act. It reveals God’s will for mankind.” One of the other distinctive features, however, is that “fundamentalists’ interpretation of the holy book is selective. They choose specific ideas from it and emphasise them, often changing their traditional meaning when they do so. Such selective adaptation of the holy book provides justification for resistance strategies and tactics” (2009, 2).7

That “selective adaptation” is not done so much in the mind of an individual believer reading the text on his own and wondering what to make of it. Rather, it is the task of the preacher behind the pulpit, who begins with the words of the text and then uses his sermon, under the imprimateur of divine revelation, to lead those words toward doctrinal conclusions that have been firmly fixed in place already. Two quotes of my sample, one quite early and one very recent, illustrate the viewpoint that the Bible is “closed” and “locked” without such divine revelation:

“The Bible is a closed book, if the Lord, himself, in His grace does not open it” (Havas [1933], 37).

“[T]he real author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit who worked through the holy men of God to produce a written declaration of God’s relationship to, and plan for the salvation of man. As a consequence it cannot be understood or interpreted in the way that God intends without the key of the Holy Spirit to unlock the otherwise mysterious and locked book of the Bible” (VOZ, 3/2007).

It is just like the claim made by the Christian Convention Church that the Bible is “a dead history book if one is without the Spirit” (Lewis 2004, 80), that it only comes alive if “it is revealed through a worker because the seed is not living until spoken by a true minister who is carrying out Jesus’ command for the apostles” (p. 4). Like Conservative Laestadians, that group likes to use the scriptural phrase “faith cometh by hearing.” The Christian Conventionists “don’t believe that anyone could be born again simply by reading the Scripture nor through a heart felt prayer to Jesus Christ to receive salvation” (p. 4). Uljas says much the same thing, of course with a very different idea of just who it is one must be hearing:

“The reading of God’s Word is a good thing. However, the Bible teaches that faith comes by hearing and accepting the gospel. Study and knowledge of the written Word of God is necessary for us, because it leads us to seek Christ and His grace kingdom. It also teaches a child of God to grow in the knowledge of God and the Savior, Jesus Christ” (Uljas 2000, 25-26).

Luther showed his confidence in the Bible’s value to the individual Christian reader by translating it into simple, clear German that everyday people could read, men and women alike. (I find it easier to read than a modern German novel, but perhaps that’s due to my focus in learning the language.) He also criticized the idea of Scripture being obscure or ambiguous: “Are we not obscure and ambiguous enough in ourselves, without an increase of it by obscurity, ambiguity, and darkness being sent down unto us from heaven?” (The Bondage of the Will, §36).

The remaining quotes of my sample, presented chronologically as usual, emphasize the value of the holy book without too much concern about divine revelation of it:

“Dear brothers and sisters, how could we despise God’s holy book wherein has been revealed to us such great treasures. From the Bible we have learned that God in His righteousness punishes sinners with everlasting death. When He by His word made Himself known to us, we began to despair and fear. It was grace to us to comprehend our wretched state in the reflection of the law. But what would we have drawn for a cover for our wretchedness if God had not through His word revealed to us our Lord Jesus as a Savior. . . . God’s holy book, the Bible, is an invitation to the wedding of the King’s son where the bridegroom, Jesus, shows and reveals His love towards His bride. . . With heartfelt desire and full confidence we study the Bible at home and at services which testifies God’s good will to men’s salvation, testifies of our bridegroom Jesus and of the reward that awaits us at the end of the journey” (Matti Suo [1895], from Greetings of Peace, 7/1952).

Indeed, this quote directly criticizes the understanding that the Bible is a “dead letter”:

“In the understanding of some, the word of the Bible is a dead letter and it comes alive only when persons who have received the Holy Spirit explain it. For if the word of the Bible were living, they would have received life by reading it. But since they have not received peace or life from it by reading, they have drawn the conclusion that it is a dead letter. And even Paul says, ‘The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life’ (2 Cor 3:6). But if the word of the Bible were a dead letter, how then could there be a power to kill in it, as the words say, ‘The letter killeth‘? It does not say that the letter is dead but that in the letter itself there is that killing power” (Matti Suo, Siionin Lähetyslehti [1919], from Hepokoski 2002b, 13).

These next authors offer the refreshing view that reading of the Bible is important for its own sake. The first quote even notes that scriptural knowledge can help guard against “misleading word phrases and explanations” that one might hear from an erring preacher:

“We should not discontinue reading the Bible even though we do not understand it and it does not remain in our memory. We have often experienced how God through His Holy Spirit reminds and reveals His word when He sees necessary. . . . With what would the Christian, God’s child, war against the onslaughts of Satan, if there did not exist the word of the Lord, that two edged sword, Eph. 6:17. Satan attacks from all sides and in all places. With false spiritualism and freedom of the flesh. There are former separations and new ones will come, Matt. 24:5, Acts 20:30. A preacher, in whom we have confidence and whom we love, can get lost and if we did not have the written word of God in our memory, and did not read it, then with misleading word phrases and explanations, we can be brought easily astray. We take modes and manners that are not in accord with God’s word. For that reason let us keep the Lord’s word dear. Let us read it!” (Eino Rimpiläinen, Greetings of Peace, 3/1955)

“All scripture has been written by the holy influence of God. God has in His great love and grace given gifts to His followers, to put down His word, which is there for our instruction and study. We should be diligent in reading and following the Scriptures, for that is our source of strength in this wicked world. If this cultivation of the word of God, reading and hearing should end, the strength in our soul would also cease. . . . Our doctrine is grounded in the Holy Word of God. All that is necessary for the salvation of our souls is contained in this book” (VOZ, 1/1975).

“Dear brothers and sisters, it is so important for us to know the Scriptures, for the devil is as a roaring lion walking about, seeking whom he may devour (1 Pet 5:8). God’s Word is the voice of God from heaven” (Elmer Alajoki, presentation given 1994).

“Dear young believers, do not forget what a treasure you have in your home when you have the word of God there. Many of you have your own Bibles. Do not let them sit neglected on the bookshelf. When we examine how we spend our time, we find that we have the time to do those things that we really want to do and to read those books and other materials that we enjoy reading. Let’s find time to read and to study the word of God” (Jim Frantti, presentation given 1999).

The reality, however, is that few believers read much of the Bible at all. When I did so and raised questions about what I was finding, it resulted in concerns that I was not “asking God to help me” in my reading, whatever that is supposed to mean. “Fundamentalists do not typically read and interpret the Bible on their own, leading private Christian lives. Rather the church group is considered vital and the minister or Bible group leader essential for correct interpretation of ‘God’s word’” (Winell 1993, 78).

1 Here are some of those books, listed roughly in the order I would recommend them to those interested in pursuing the subject for themselves: Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne; The Selfish Gene and The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins; Finding Darwin’s God by Kenneth Miller; The Language of God by Francis Collins; Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters by Donald Prothero; On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin; Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea by Carl Zimmer; Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade; The Origin of Humankind by Richard Leakey; Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect by Paul Ehrlich; Mapping Human History by Steve Olson; Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean Carroll; The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond; The Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller; Quantum Evolution by Johnjoe McFadden.

2 Though Ruse is an agnostic, he is quite sympathetic to the theistic view, subtitling his 2010 book “Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science.” The point of the quote, I think, is that we do not see any evidence for God making the species, rather than just the natural forces of “genetic chance and environmental necessity.” The result looks exactly the same as it would if there were no God working in the background pulling the strings. But the significant question remains open of how nature got here with its well-ordered laws, stunningly well-proportioned forces, and fortituous raw materials of life. That keeps me thinking (not just “believing”) that there is a God behind it all somehow, despite some good arguments by the atheists.

3 Or at the hands of Satan and his minions. It’s the same thing either way, since almighty God is the one allowing it to happen.

4 Meanwhile, seemingly oblivious to these developments, the January 2012 Voice of Zion devotes several paragraphs to “the first human pair” tending the garden of Eden, living “a life of perfection” before being tempted by “the enemy of souls.”

5 Bart Ehrman recent published an entire book about this issue, Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (2011). Peter probably didn’t write 1 Peter and almost certainly not 2 Peter (pp. 68-77). Paul didn’t write the Epistles to Timothy and Titus (pp. 93-102). Nor is Paul likely to be the writer of 2 Thessalonians (pp. 105-108), Ephesians (pp. 108-112), or Colossians (pp. 112-14).

L. Michael White writes of Ephesians that it “is not typical of Paul’s letters in form, style, or theological language” (2005, 266). It “seems to be based in large measure on Colossians,” and the “weight of the evidence points to” both books being written by someone other than Paul (pp. 264-65). Difficulties with 2 Peter are well known, but White says the authenticity of 1 Peter also “is now doubted by almost all modern scholars” for numerous reasons (p. 272).

6 Regarding a similar issue of justification without absolution, Luther in his Smalcald Articles [1537] says that Cornelius, “living among the Jews, had heard long before about the coming Messiah, through whom he was righteous before God (Acts 10:1-2). In such faith, his prayers and alms were acceptable to God (since Luke calls him devout and God-fearing).” This was due to the Word about Jesus having come to him and him believing it. When Peter finally came to him, Luther says, Cornelius “must now know that he is saved by the present Messiah and must not, with the Jewish people, deny or persecute him” (Article 8; McCain 2005, 281). It’s an imaginative way to reconcile the Bible’s designation of Cornelius as righteous without diminishing the role of Christ as redeemer. But it doesn’t begin to account for Conservative Laestadianism’s additional requirement of a personal proclamation from a believer.

7 The other three distinctive features of fundamentalism (Herriot 2009, 2) are reactivity–“their religion is under mortal threat from the secularism of the modern world, and they are fighting back. They may resist in different ways, but they are all essentially oppositional; they have to have an enemy”; dualism–“they conceive of the world in binary opposites: God and the Devil, good and evil, truth and falsehood, etc.”; and millenialism–“expecting God to fully establish His rule over the world at some future time.” Clearly, Conservative Laestadianism has all of these features as well as the two discussed in the main text: reliance on a holy book and selective interpretation of it.