The following conversation took place via text message with my daughter this afternoon. She’s taking her first Bible Survey class in high school, and she had some good questions for dear old dad. It is reproduced here with her permission (C = my daughter; R = me):
C: Is the bible the word of God? I’m struggling defending that it is to people.
R: Hmmm… good question. The bible is one of the ways God speaks… but it only exists to tell the story of Jesus… there are lots of things the bible describes that are wrong or immoral or just crazy, but it’s part of the long story of how God showed up in Jesus
C: Ok. Because like I was arguing with this kid, and he said that it’s just a book full of stories. Then I said, so Jesus is just a story? Does that make God a story? And he didn’t know how to answer. It just bothers me, because God told his word through his disciples, and his disciples wrote the bible. Therefore it is the word.
R: I’m proud of you for having these conversations, C.
C: It’s in bible survey
R: The bible wasn’t written by Jesus’ disciples… only two of the gospels were (Matthew and John)
C: My teacher thinks it’s funny when I argue
R: I’m sure he does
C: Yeah but technically they were writing what they thought God wanted everyone to hear, which could be the word
R: Well, especially the Old Testament is always a combination of writing about Israel’s own story and how they understood God along the way
C: Yeah, so it’s like half and half?
R: Maybe kind of… The important thing to know is that Christians don’t worship a book, they worship Jesus… the bible is important, but there are parts of it that even Jesus disagrees with
R: It’s kind of like a big library, written by a whole bunch of people over thousands of years, all writing partly what they understood and partly what God was trying to show them
C: True. Ok. That makes sense
R: For example, there are parts where people thought God was telling them to exterminate other people in war… I don’t think Jesus would agree with that… but it’s in the bible
C: So can I get a dog?
Sigh. I mumbled that I was pretty sure that the bible somewhere said that dogs were unclean or something. 😉 No, I didn’t really say that… What kind of awful exegete (or dad) do you think I am?!
Canine quesitons aside, I’m guessing the rest of the above conversation is familiar to many of us. Questions about the bible provide the subtext of virtually every church conflict or controversy out there. It seems to me that behind pretty much every issue that Christians have ever fought about are three basic questions.
- Do we believe the Bible is the word of God?
- What exactly do we mean by “word of God?”
- How do we interpret the word of God?
I listened along at a weekend party as some friends circled the wagons on this one with respect to an ongoing debate in their church. But the Bible says… But the Bible also says… But if you say that this passage is only referring to a specific time and context, how do you know this other passage isn’t? Aren’t we just cherry picking which parts of the Bible we want to follow and which ones we don’t? Aren’t we all doing that anyway? Shouldn’t we just be honest about it? Seems like a slippery slope… On and on it goes. We have this frustrating relationship with the Bible, it seems. We love it (or at least we think we should). But it is endlessly frustrating to consistently apply. Some might say impossible.
I just came back from an ecumenical meeting of local churches where we spend some time planning an upcoming service to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. Good old Martin Luther and his ninety-five theses on the Wittenberg Cathedral door. It seems to me that for all the massive good that the Reformation did and has done, and for all the reasons that it was necessary at the time, the twin doctrines of sola scriptura (scripture alone) and sola fide (faith alone) have not always served Christians well. It has made it too easy to treat Christian faith as a cognitive exercise, where the goal is to harmonize one’s beliefs across a broad and bewildering range of texts from a vast swath of human history that don’t always nicely line up with one another. We tie ourselves in knots trying to defend a flat version of a book (a book that contains some pretty awful or just plain bizarre things, let’s be honest… Anyone stoned their kids for being disobedient lately? Anyone read Ezekiel 23:20 devotionally this week?). As if the point of being a Christian was arriving at the correct posture toward and being able to consistently defend “the bible.”
Jesus famously chided the Pharisees because they searched the Scriptures thinking that eternal life was found in them, yet refused to come to the very One the Scriptures pointed to (John 5:39). They prioritized a book over the very God that animated its composition and illuminated its pages. I think that we do this just as instinctively, particularly as Christians downstream of the Reformation. We hear phrases like “biblical faith” and “bible-believing churches” and “I believe in the Bible.” As if the bible was the point of it all. But the word of God (written) exists only and always to point to the Word of God (in flesh). If there is a part of the bible that doesn’t square with what Jesus taught and modeled, well then so much the worse for the Bible. There was a time when I lost sleep trying to make “slaughter the Canaanites completely” jive with “love your enemies.” I don’t anymore. Trying to make every statement in the bible harmonize according to a flat and thoroughly monolithic approach to texts that would have been utterly foreign to the biblical writers is a fool’s errand, and an utterly unproductive one. Also, I have enough other things to lose sleep over.
Yes, I understand this doesn’t magically solve every problem. Yes, I know that we only encounter the teachings of Jesus through the Bible. Yes, I know that it’s easy to create a Jesus in our own image to stand over the Bible. Yes, I know that saying, “Jesus is the Word of God, not the Bible” leaves things far more open-ended than we certainty-hungry humans would prefer. There are all kinds of loose ends, I know, and it doesn’t necessarily make decision-making easier. But God seems content with this scenario. Perhaps we should, too. At the very least, I think that if we approach any issue with a stubborn insistence to keep our gaze resolutely fixed upon Jesus (rather than on, say, a synthesis of biblical statements) we might just err in less harmful ways.
As Brian Zahnd put it in a recent sermon, “When it comes to the Bible, we’re all cherry-picking. The least we could do is get good at it and stop picking all the rotten ones.”