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Biblical Presuppositions

In his book, The Soul of Christianity (2005: xvi), Houston Smith writes that Christians “don’t even bother to ask if life is meaningful. They take for granted that it is.” It occurs to me that the meaningfulness of life is only one of many presuppositions that inform the biblical text. Human civilization was already thousands of years old when the Bible was written, and the Bible’s presuppositions reflect the accumulated wisdom of these millennia of human experience.

Of course, something presumed usually remains unstated since it is thought to be commonly known and agreed upon. The policy that “things that go without saying go even better with saying” is often neglected both in the Bible and today. As a result, modern readers unaware of biblical presuppositions sometimes misunderstand the Bible because they think its silence on a certain matters means that its writers hadn’t considered the question seriously, or that they were indifferent to the issue, or that they were non-prescriptive, thereby leaving posterity the freedom to do as it wished because “the authority of the Bible does not address this subject.”

A signal example of this tendency appeared in an article by Lisa Miller in Newsweek magazine (December 15, 2008: 28) where she writes, “While the Bible and Jesus say many important things about love and family, neither explicitly defines marriage as between one man and one woman.” We might think her implication is that since the Bible does not explicitly define marriage, we moderns have its blessing to define marriage as we wish. But it is perhaps more accurate to say she is implying that religious people who accept the Bible as a rule-book for life have no authoritative grounds on which to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Lisa Miller’s article either willfully or unwittingly misses the point that the Bible presumes adherence to an ancient code by which sexual relationships were carefully delineated (cf. Leviticus 18). The common-sense definition of marriage as between a man and a woman is assumed as self-evident in the Bible, and only sexual aberrations are discussed at any length. Miller tacitly concedes as much when she goes on to say, “The Bible was written for a world so unlike our own, it’s impossible to apply its rules, at face value, to ours” (30), which is to say, “Even if the Bible did define marriage explicitly, it wouldn’t make any difference to me. I’m just messing with you.”

Here are a few other biblical presuppositions that I find interesting and important:

1. Comprehensibility: The Bible assumes people can understand what is written in its pages. It does not see itself as a book of riddles or as hopelessly inconsistent and confusing or as impossible to understand except by the most thoroughly educated. The Bible is addressed to the common man.

2. Mental Health: The Bible presumes its readers are mentally healthy. This is what validates the golden rule, for example. “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12) makes sense only if people in general are not sadomasochistic. It presumes you are mentally healthy, want the best for yourself, and therefore know what would be a good way to treat others.

3. Common Sense: In addition to presuming that marriage is between a man and a woman for the purpose of procreation, pleasure, and intimacy (and sometimes for economic or political reasons), the Bible does not specifically condemn abortion because it assumes that abortion is an absurd notion. In the ancient world, children constituted your family’s workforce and your social security insurance, not to mention your posterity. It was only logical to have as many children as you could feed.

4. Human Decency: The Bible believes (without ever saying it) that people can recognize human decency when they see it. It also assumes that leaders have a God-given obligation to be decent to those whom they lead because leaders on earth, to a certain degree, stand in the place of God and play God with the lives of others.

5. The Possibility of Transformation: The Bible assumes that people can change permanently for the better. Paul, after giving a laundry list of bad guys, tells the Corinthian Christians this: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). The endless exhortations found throughout the Bible presume people can actually change if they so desire.

I find that many of these biblical assumptions constitute the bedrock of what we call Western (and American) Civilization. If you assume the world is incomprehensible, you have no motivation to do science and discover how it works. If you assume people are psychologically unreliable, you cannot form community. If you assume people are inclined to act wickedly, there is no expectation of altruism or mutual aid. If you think people cannot change and that they are fated to remain whatever they are, you have no encouragement for making the world better. Finally, if you do not believe in God, there is no reason to believe life is ultimately meaningful.

Thousands of years of human experience tell us that certain positive presuppositions have fueled human progress—and they basically have been passed down to us in the Bible.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 1, 2010 12:54 PM.

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