[I have written at length as to why the dominant approach to the Bible in Christianity is highly problematic and suggested some reasons why we continue to use it. In this post I want to present an alternate way to approach the Bible for followers of Jesus.]
If Christians are not going to treat the Bible as a “Truth mine,” how are we to understand and approach the Bible?
This was, and is still, a difficult question for me to answer and articulate. I left Christianity but I still follow Jesus and it appears the Holy Scriptures (at very least the Hebrew Bible) were very important to Him. Also, I do not want to discard the baby with the bath water. Just because the Bible has been historically abused and misused, does not mean the Bible itself is the problem. So even after I left Christianity I still had to answer the question, “So what about the Bible?”
I have recently come to some convictions about how a follower of Jesus should understand the nature and purpose of the Bible and the way we should approach it. I hold this paradigm very loosely as it is very knew to me (even if it is old news to others) and (as always) welcome any critique or comment that my readers may offer.
I will refer to this paradigm as, “Revelation and Invitation.”
First, how I think followers of Jesus should understand the nature and purpose of the Bible…
The Bible’s Nature: The Bible is a series of case-studies of God’s interactions with people. All of these case-studies add up to what God has chosen to reveal about Himself and this world, while each individual case-study (contained in story, narrative, poetry, and all the other genres in the Bible) may contain some of this revelation, no piece by itself is exhaustive.
While there are many ways to describe the content or nature of this revelation as a whole I am partial to the view suggested by one follower of Jesus. Dr. Chuck Miller suggests that Bible is God’s story, God’s message and God’s way. The Bible reveals God’s story, a record of His ongoing interactions with His creation and humanity. The Bible reveals God’s message, an invitation to join this story of ongoing redemption and love, a story of pardon and process, not of performance and perfection, through Jesus Christ. The Bible reveals God’s ways, as it shows time and how God acts in ways often contrary to how human beings would normally act. God’s way is to use the foolish to shame the wise, God’s way is to constantly surprise us and dash our expectations, God’s way is to love our enemies and bless those who curse us, God’s way is to constantly be doing something new among His people even as He Himself never changes.
What is the purpose of the Bible?: The primary purpose of the Bible is not to give you all the answers to life’s questions, or provide exact rules for holy living, or help you determine who is a good Christian or not. The primary purpose of the Bible is to introduce you to its Author and invite you to join His ongoing story through Jesus Christ.
Second, how I think followers of Jesus should approach the Bible…
I believe we need to approach the Bible as it is, not as we would want it to be, that means that…
The Bible is an invitation to get to know God and join His story: If the Bible’s purpose is to introduce us to its Author and invite us to join His story, these two things should be central to our reading of the Bible. This means we should consider what the Bible reveals about God, if we have experienced that God, and if we believe that God is who He says He is. We are not to read the Bible just to know about God but to know God. If the reading the Bible does not lead or go in hand with an actual relationship with God it is pointless. I do not care how much you know or how much you understand, if you are not accepting the invitation, you’ve missed the point.
Additionally, the Bible reveals God’s story, and how we can join it. The Bible makes some incredible claims about God, this world, humanity, and God’s current and future plans. If these are true, then I think it warrants at least examination by even the most critical skeptic. Additionally, if one believes this story and wants to join it, the Bible explains how one can join it through faith in and relationship with Jesus Christ. The Bible reveals the dual invitation of Jesus: to “come to me” and “come follow me.”
Reading old case-studies to encourage us to live our own case-studies: I have said the Bible is not a Western systematic theology text-book (because it is not) and suggested it is a series of case-studies of God’s interaction with His people (because it is). So what are the implications of this for our approach to the Bible? Case-studies are basically an in-depth examination of one issue through a close examination of one particular case or story. So, for example, when we read the stories of the Patriarchs we can learn a lot about how God interacted with the Patriarchs. These case studies are like chapters of God’s much larger story and contain some, but not all, of what God has to say. These case studies, which reveal what God did back then, should spur us on into our own interactions with God today.
In addition to this, from reading even some of these case-studies it is clear God does not interact with everyone in the same way. How God interacted with the Patriarchs is not exactly how he interacted with Moses, or the kings of Israel, or the prophets or the disciples, etc. So while we certainly can learn a lot about God from the case-studies, we should not turn what we learn into hard-set rules or exact predictions of how God will interact with us today. Can you imagine if Moses rebuked God for the giving of the Law because Abraham did not have the Law? Can you imagine the disciples refusing the baptism of the Holy Spirit because Moses and King David did not have access to that? In same way, let us not be afraid of God doing a new thing today just because we do not see an exact precedent in scripture.
We need to approach the Bible with humility: Followers of Jesus should acknowledge all of the issues regarding the development and nature of the Bible, all of the issues regarding interpretation, and all of the issues regarding the practical implications of what we are doing. Because the Bible has contradictions, we should be careful that what I am touting as “biblical truth” is not contradicted elsewhere in the Bible. If every human being who reads the Bible does so with their own personal bias, we should be careful to understand what our own bias is and how it impacts our reading. We also need to be open to alternative interpretations that may be equally legitimate. If we claim the Bible comes from God and carries divine authority, we should be incredibly careful when making declarations about what the Bible reveals. While there are some things we can know for certain, things that are clear throughout the whole of God’s story, in many areas there are limitations to how much we can know and how clearly we know these things. This should force us into a place of humility and self-examination. We need to be far more humble and far more careful when we proclaim something from the Bible is an eternal and divine truth. We need to be far more willing to examine our own faith and practice.
We need to approach the Bible acknowledging both gray areas and areas of freedom: While there are some black and white issues, there are some gray areas. While there are some things no follower of Jesus should think or do, there are areas of freedom where one follower of Jesus is free to do something another follower of Jesus is not free to do. We should not assume our experience or our expression of faith is the one acceptable experience or expression of faith for everyone. We should not automatically assume how the Holy Spirit convicts us is how the Holy Spirit should or will convict others.
We need to approach the Bible in community: Followers of Jesus should all read and understand the Bible, not just a select few pastors and teachers. When the many go along with the teaching of a few, abuses are bound to flourish. Additionally, the Bible reveals that there are times where we cannot see the error of our own ways and we need fellow brothers and sisters in the faith to reach out to us and teach us our error, including our errors in reading the Bible. Additionally, our brother and sisters might have insights and experiences we need to have or could benefit greatly from. In many cases, dialogue should abound where dogma has often ruled.
We need to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit: Letting go of the absolute certainty, clarity, stability, and moral authority offered by the “Truth mine” approach is certainly a high cost for many Christians. However, this should not be alarming to followers of Jesus. Followers of Jesus are promised the Holy Spirit and it is She, not human wisdom, who will guide us into all truth. She will enable us to hold two contradictory statements in the Bible together and make sense of it. She will enable see if any given particular behaviors are part of a holy life and which ones are not, regardless of if they have any biblical precedent. She will help us see if any particular doctrine is a local expression of following Jesus or an eternal and divine truth for all the followers of Jesus. It is She who will help us distinguish what is a legitimate expression of freedom in Christ and what is someone cloaking their sin in that very freedom.
That is about it. In many ways this approach to scripture is similar to a meta-narrative approach to scripture that is common among Postmodern/Emergent/Emerging Christians and some further reading might be helpful on this point. However, while maybe I am too vain to admit I am just a product of my generation and one of thousands who are gravitating towards a different use of the Bible, I do think it is odd that my primary influences have come from very non-Emerging/Emergent/Postmodern people. I have primarily been influenced by Dr. Chuck Kraft and Dr. Chuck Miller among others. These two followers of Jesus, leaders and writers are senior citizens in the Kingdom that have literally decades of following Jesus and wrestling with these issues. They hardly fit the bill of Postmodern or Emerging/Emergent.
I admit that this paradigm might seem very nebulous and general to some. To fully flesh out how the “Revelation and Invitation” paradigm is different and produces different results than the “Truth mine” approach I promise to do an in-depth examination of one area of Christian faith and practice at a later date.
More specifically, I will explore the question, “Is homosexuality a sin?”
This is an incredibly divisive and multifaceted topic that has very serious consequences for both followers of Jesus and those within the homosexual community. I realize this is an area of deep pain and deep confusion for many people, both those inside and outside of the Christianity. I do not pick it lightly or without reason.
In a very short time here at Fuller we will be re-examining our statement regarding homosexuality. A very high level Fuller professor and employee is retiring and he has an openly homosexual daughter. This person will be writing an article calling for reform on our statement regarding homosexuality and this will be a highly publicized event. The issue is that our current community standards make it very difficult for our homosexual students. They have to hide their homosexuality or face expulsion. This has led to some ridiculous and unjust situations.
Therefore, I have chosen to explore this divisive topic as it is a ripe one to compare the “Revelation and Invitation” approach with the “Truth mine” approach and it will also hopefully contribute to the conversation that is going to be happening here at Fuller.