This is part 2 of a post from earlier this week; it would be helpful if you took the time to read it first. You can find it under the title of, Shut Up! Part 1 (Or, why I love the Bible but people annoy me when they manipulate it and force me to write a two part blog post). In it, I dropped some thoughts in response to recent political mis-use of the Bible and also shared some of my early memories of that special book.
Manipulating the Bible can be intentional but it can also originate from misunderstanding what it is and how it works. Today’s post is a bit longer than usual but I want to cover six points that might bring a bit of light to how we approach Scripture so we will be less likely to stretch the Good Book.
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Bibles always used to have those gold leaf words on the spine and front cover that said, ‘Holy Bible’.
First, let’s be clear that despite the lettering on those old Bibles, it is not ‘holy’. Okay, work with me here: only God is holy; the Bible is not God; therefore the Bible is not holy. If you worship the Bible like you worship God (and many of our traditions do), then that is … ahem, Idolatry of the Bible.
Is it inspired by God? Yes. Does God speak through it? Yes, I believe that strongly and have experienced it miraculously in my own life but it’s inspired in the same way God does everything else on earth – through people. Messy, broken, fallible, human people writing in their own time and place and from their perspective. Sometimes not perfectly or accurately but nevertheless with God’s Spirit fleshing out its words into the heart of the believing reader.
Consider this interesting (and honest) perspective of a Bible scholar looking back at a critical time in his life: ‘Through this experience [son’s cancer] I found that the Bible was not adequate. I needed God in a personal way— not as an object of my study, but as friend, guide, comforter. I needed an existential experience of the Holy One.’ (Daniel Wallace in the book by Scot McKnight Open to the Spirit, God in Us, God with Us, God Transforming Us.)
The Bible isn’t perfect, it’s not our ultimate goal or our resting place. Only God is.
Second, I’ve heard many Christians refer to the Bible as the Word of God. That’s nice but keep in mind that the vast majority of times when we see the word ‘word’ it probably means God’s enfleshed expression of himself, not with printed words but in the person of Jesus. In the New Testament ‘Word’ gets capitalized a lot because it intentionally is about Jesus and in other places it’s left with an ambiguous small ‘w’ so you can interpret it more broadly as either Jesus or the book.
Which brings us to something very important – we should read the entire Bible with the knowledge that it all points to Jesus. In one place Jesus even says, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me.‘
Later Jesus told his followers, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.‘ So as the apostles began to assemble their knowledge of the Scriptures and connect it to what they had experienced and learned with Jesus, that’s when it all came alive in their hearts and minds. The same should be true of us.
Third, there are some words Christians use to describe the Bible that can be tricky. A couple of them are:
Perspicuous: [per-spik-yoo-uh s], adjective, ‘clearly expressed or presented; lucid.’ *
- Yeah, silly word… It means that it expresses itself clearly for any person to understand and use. It says what it means and means what it says.
- True, people find life-changing hope in the stories and morals of Scripture and God speaks through it’s beauty and wisdom. I would always point someone to the Bible for spiritual journey. However, you don’t have to spend much time in the Bible to realize there are complex ideas that are beyond surface reading and need knowledge, study, interpretation, repetition and reflection. People spend their lives and PHDs on tiny areas of biblical expertise only to keep learning.
- By the way, the Bible was written in ancient languages so unlike our own that interpretation is left for language scholars to do their best to interpret as accurately as possible. Many words have broader or narrower definitions than our English Bibles can manage. Some parts of Scripture are targeted differently. Some contain analogy, opinion, parable, prophecy, wisdom, apocalyptic, etc. and need to be read with that in mind while complex poetry and word/letter rhythms appear often but are mostly invisible in our English Bibles (but so rich if you learn about them).
- Yes it’s clear to us and yes it also requires knowledgable study.
Inerrant: [in-er–uh-nt], adjective, ‘free from error; infallible.’ *
- This is the big one that proof-texters love. The reasoning is that, since the Bible is inspired by God then it must be perfect, without contradictions or mistakes. Literally true.
- This is foundational for many evangelicals. Much of the Bible is historically true and accurate of course but it becomes challenging when we bump into young earth creation, talking snakes, a mammal-saving ark, godly-slaughter of innocents, talking donkeys, man swallowing fish, conflicting descriptions of same events, the roles of women, apocalyptic beasts and the like.
- I won’t get into the nuts and bolts right now but flat, surface readings like this ultimately require more interpretive gymnastics than is reasonable to expect. There are portions that are intended to be literal and portions that are not – both require study and openness to style and purpose.
The Bible is an ancient compilation of writings that is timeless because it is about people, their humanness and God. However there is much depth that we miss without understanding the history and culture of the writer and audience. (If you have interest in some helpful books and resources to enhance your reading, please email or comment and I will post a basic list.)
People who love the Bible will tell you that there is constant newness and revelation even in familiar passages. We need to lighten up on our insecurities about the Bible and let it speak with its own voice so we can move from story to inspiration.
There is a rabbinic tradition that each verse of Torah (Scripture) has 70 different faces (Shiv′im panim la- Torah) or in other words, the content of the Bible is open to examination and interpretation and provides many wisdoms.
Fourth, it’s dirty. At least an R rating and trying to make it otherwise reduces it’s strength. There is plenty of blood, sex, politics, corruption, etc. and while it’s nice to spin the stories into cute ‘Precious Moments’, there is dark reality appearing everywhere (did they really need to collect those foreskins from their opponents?). Why, even the lovely Psalms have places where the writer angrily wants his enemies painfully squashed.
In fact, most reassuring to me, we discover that good people can also act badly (Abraham peddling his wife to Pharaoh, David’s infamous affair, Jonah’s racial hatred, Peter’s lust for power, etc.) and bad people can also act goodly (Rahab a prostitute in Jesus’ family line, Jacob and birthright weirdness, Saul who killed Christians, the thief next to Jesus on the cross, etc.).
So let the Bible be dirty; it’s in its DNA. And helps me feel better about myself.
Fifth, it’s beautiful. I mentioned earlier the artistic aspect of much of the writing. Again, we don’t have time or space for it but there are poems and styles and complex word patterns from Genesis to the Psalms to the parables Jesus told. Heroes and villains and struggles and victories. Songs and ceremonies and nature. Joyful rescuing, saving, building, loving.
Or how about the simple beauty and power of some familiar passages? Go ahead and have a look at: Ecclesiastes 3, Psalm 23, Psalm 84, Psalm 139, Matthew 5, 1 Corinthians 13, 1 John 1. Or this taken from Romans 8:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? …
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,
neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Sixth, don’t just read it but experience it. Taste it, feel it, savour it, insert yourself into the stories. Most importantly, come to the Bible with your mind open, wondering how each character was motivated and must have felt. You’re not a stoic third-party reader, you’re a participant. Consider where you might fit, ask God to speak to you through it.
Would you have had that attitude or yielded to that temptation or been afraid in those circumstances? Would you have had faith or gone to jail or sought Jesus for answers or gone your own way?
For instance, Luke 15 has a story about a rebellious son who parties away the inheritance he demanded from his living father. The loyal, older son is left behind and ‘does the right thing’ by resentfully staying on the family farm. Yet the father passionately loves both equally. Which character are you? How would the other characters feel? What can that mean in your circumstances?
Spiritual practices like praying words and sentences of Scripture or the reflection of Lectio Divina are ways of letting it’s depth enter your being.
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I could go on of course but you get what I’m saying. The Bible is a God-approved gift that has a long and deep history of blessing and healing and changing lives. It has been given to us at great cost and has been precious to generations of people.
When I saw high ranking U.S. government officials manipulating the Bible as if it was a knockout punch in their favour, I needed to write my opposition. The Bible is too precious for that, yet so many people seem to think that’s how it works. If you treat it as a tool or weapon, then you won’t experience God through it.
In the book of 2 Timothy we see that all Scripture is theopneustos, a unique word meaning something like, ‘God breathing out’. God gently does his part and it is left to us to do ours. The Bible isn’t about proof-texting, it’s about receiving the breath of God.
We begin to take the Bible more seriously when we learn to take it less seriously. Let God breathe through it. When we stop trying to tame it we discover that its mysteries are fuller and deeper. When we move from using it as a book of information and theological proofs, we learn that it wants to live with us rather than prescribe for us. Instead of holding it at arm’s length, pull it close to your heart, swim in it and let God’s Spirit open it to you.
So attention proof-texters everywhere who are blind to the Bible’s magnificence and use it for your own narrow purposes:
Instead of proof-texting it, let it speak for itself.
Instead of a rule book, let it be a salvation book.
Instead of quoting it, listen to it.
Maybe then you will shut up.