Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A few more thoughts on the Bible...

I've written on this topic before, but this week a friend of mine asked me to give a quick explanation of my basic views on the inspiration and interpretation of Scripture.  Clearly, this is not the kind of thing that can be fully explained in a single blog entry (or even a series!), but I want to post these thoughts here and see what kind of feedback I get.  So, here goes:

Like many evangelical Christians, I grew up simply believing that the Bible was the book of Truth (with a capital 'T') given to us by God.  I never really questioned it much, even in college, and post-college, when I prided myself on being a bit more 'avant garde' than the average Christian, primarily because of the music I listened to. (Rather foolish, I know, but aren't we all a bit foolish in our early 20's?)

Anyway, to make a long story short, I pretty much accepted the Bible at face value, without really thinking very deeply about what was going on behind the scenes, so to speak.  Sure, there were lots of debates over interpretation, but these were mostly 'in-house' debates having to do with what specific verses did or didn't say about things like rock music, tattoos, and drinking alcohol.  I have no doubt that many Christians are still living in this paradigm.

It didn't occur to me at the time that there might be a different paradigm to be considered.  I knew better than to listen to those 'liberal' interpretations of the Bible, that's for sure. :-)  The idea that the Bible might not be perfect, well, that was propagated by people who simply didn't accept the miraculous way in which the Scriptures fit together, and even though I didn't really understand how that worked either, I accepted that those believers who took the Bible seriously were simply closer to 'cracking the code' and discovering exactly what it is that God has to tell us.

So, where am I now -- 15 years later?  Well, I simply don't think that way anymore.  I suppose that means some folks might call me a 'liberal' Christian, but oh well.  I understand now that a high view of Scripture is not within the purview of 'conservative' evangelical theologies alone.  And thank God for that! :-)

Anyway, to get to the point, I would say now that my understanding of the Bible basically includes three points:

1) If the true God is the God revealed in Jesus Christ (and that's my fundamental faith claim), then the Bible is somehow intricately woven into that revelation.  So, I have to accept that, at some level, the Bible is trying to share some sense of God's reality with humanity.  That's not something that can ever be proven rationally, even if there are pointers to this truth which may be found in our world.  An entire lifetime could be spent trying to determine which of these 'pointers' are valid or not.

Now, if God is not involved in the actual reading/understanding of the Bible, then it's just another old book (here I agree with Karl Barth).  The only reason the Bible has spiritual value is because the God it reveals to us is helping us to understand what it means as we read it.  The Bible, without God's involvement, is just words on paper.  Of course, Christians do believe that God is involved.  But often they assume this means whenever they (or their favorite pastor/theologian) pick up the book, whatever they get out of it must be from God.  But that's a fallacy; it confuses God's involvement with their reading.  And that brings me to my second point:

2) The Bible was written by human beings, and, as such, is subject to all the limitations of human endeavors.  'Divine dictation' (as it is often called) and its variants are, in my view, bad theology and insulting to God.  Arguing that God 'dictated' the Bible to those who wrote the words would essentially mean that a) God didn't do a very good job of explaining himself, since we're still arguing about what God 'really said' 2,000 years later (even though we have his exact words!), and b) implies that the human authors of the Bible were nothing more than mindless pawns, as God had to effectively do the work (like when a parent does the homework for a child who would fail otherwise).  It demeans the human being, and it also demeans God. (And it doesn't solve the problem to say that it was correct, but we've lost the original Greek copies.)

I see no reason why a 'fully human' Bible is any less valid, or should be any more problematic, than a fully human Christ.  This is not an essay on Christology, but I have no trouble believing that Jesus Christ (being human) made some mistakes -- not as willful sin, but out of ignorance.  Likewise, I have no trouble believing that the Bible contains some mistakes -- not willfully, but out of ignorance.

At this point, some will no doubt ask how we can rely on a Bible that contains errors.  To put the matter bluntly: if we can't trust what the Bible says about X, how can we trust what it says about Y?  Especially if Y is something like the death and resurrection of Jesus?!  To be honest, this argument has bothered me for a while, and I think now I can say what's wrong with it: it's just not the way knowledge works in reality.  We don't apply this kind of logic in our daily lives at all.  If my friend tells me something important, like she has decided her calling in life is to be a missionary doctor, I don't think, "Oh, but, she got the directions wrong to the restaurant we were going to the other day, so I probably shouldn't believe this is true, either."  We would all rightly chastise someone who thought that way.

But, it seems that often the way Christians view the Bible isn't that different from my silly example.  It's God's book, we say, and God wouldn't get anything wrong, so if any part of it is inaccurate, the whole thing is untrustworthy.  But this seems, again, to completely reject any human involvement in the creation of Scripture whatsoever.  And this is simply a mistake, as far as I'm concerned.  I think the more likely explanation is that the Bible is a book full of various attempts -- historical, mythological, poetic, narrative, dream-visions, etc -- to say something about the God it describes.  And, like all human endeavors, it does that with varied degrees of success... and that success depends both on the book and the reader, but also on God.

Obviously, there are certain historical claims in the Bible that must be taken seriously, if we are going to accept the divinity of Christ (to take the most obvious point).  But these claims still have to be made on faith, and whether or not all the historical details are 100% accurate makes very little difference in the long run.  Why?  Because we have no way to assess their validity in any case.  How would we?  We can't go back to see whether or not every detail happened exactly as written.  This leads to my third point:

3) As human beings, both the Bible and our interpretations of it will always be limited and provisional.  Granted, we still have to do something with the ideas and guiding principles that the Bible gives us, but with this big caveat: We are never in a position to claim that we have really 'figured it out' or have the 'true reading' of Scripture.  We "walk by faith, not by sight," as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians.  This means our beliefs are, unfortunately, not the same as facts.  We trust that certain things, like the resurrection of Jesus, are facts, but not because we have established those things definitively.  We can't.  And that's OK.

That's probably the biggest lesson I've learned from re-thinking my view of the Bible.  I don't have to have it all figured out.  It's OK to have faith in what I don't understand.  I don't have to rely upon factual data or empirical analysis.  What I have to do is trust that the God who claims to be revealing Godself in the Bible is real.  The rest will, in large part, remain uncertain.

But, of course, people don't like uncertainty.  I sure don't!  And this is why, I think, so many Christians claim to have 'figured out' what the Bible is really saying.  It's a reaction to the uncomfortable feeling that comes from the threat of losing our desired certainty about God and ourselves.  As a result, many people cling to whatever reading of the Bible seems to protect their own vision of reality.   If we really do think that Jesus Christ is the central reality to which the Bible is pointing, then the lives of Christians should be fashioned around following what he taught us, and trusting in his words.  Everything else, it seems to me, must flow from that.

We will never know, this side of death, whether we are right about these things.  Faith is supposed to be a sign of a hope in something so profound that it transforms our lives, and the world.  In that regard, I can't think of anything that would be more transformative than people really following Christ.  Unfortunately, it's not generally comfortable or practical, so most of us don't do it very consistently.  Instead, many people try to solve the world's problems by using the Bible as a 'catch-all' or pocket-sized-God.  But that just seems to be a mistake.  Not to mention that it easily becomes a form of idolatry.

1 comment:

Roy said...

"If my friend tells me something important, like she has decided her calling in life is to be a missionary doctor, I don't think, 'Oh, but, she got the directions wrong to the restaurant we were going to the other day, so I probably shouldn't believe this is true, either.'"

Good analogy!