Question 2 – How should the Bible be understood?

Brian introduces this question by noting three different quandaries that we now have with the Bible:

  1. Science – We treat it as a science text containing answers about psychiatry, biology, physics, and the environment.
  2. Ethics – We extract decisions on a whole host of ethical problems which the Bible doesn’t address.
  3. Peace – We use the Bible to prop up an “us vs. them” mentality that perpetuates violence.

Our problems with the Bible aren’t new.  Brian spends time discussing how slavery proponents in pre-Civil War days used the Bible to support their position.  Since then, we’ve repented of our support for slavery, but we haven’t repented of our approach to the Bible that allowed us to support slavery in the first place.  That approach (according to Brian) is to treat the Bible as a legal document – specifically, a constitution.

The problem with a legal approach to the Bible is that sometimes the Bible contradicts itself and sometimes it can be made to support any number of different views based on one’s hermeneutic.  And since we like to be right, we find an interpretive method that best meshes with the outcome that we desire.

Brian argues, however, that the writers of the Bible never understood their writing to be a kind of legal document that would be applicable forever in an unchanging manner.  Instead, they saw their work as a record of a community’s struggle to be faithful to God in a specific time and place.

Based on this, Brian suggests that the best way to understand the Bible is not as a divine constitution, nor as mere human literature, but rather as a divinely inspired library.

Response

This is one of the questions that I’ve wrestled with most, so I’m pleased that Brian has considered it.  I even wrote a huge blog entry last year that I was going to post over the course of two or three days, but it became so ungainly that I gave it up.

I reflected in that earlier “non-post” on the way I approach the Bible and described how for most of my life I used a “constitutional reading”, as Brian describes it.  Except that I couldn’t quite read the Bible that way all the time.  For example, at some point I couldn’t understand the creation account as a literal six-day story anymore; and I realized that there was a context that needed to be considered when Paul talked about the place of women within congregations; and so on.  But you might describe my approach as remaining as close to a literal reading as the text and my conscience would allow.

But gradually it occurred to me what was happening when I read the Bible this way.  Every time I encountered a situation where my conscience could no longer agree with my old understanding of scripture and where scripture could be understood in multiple ways, I found a way of reading the text that bent it to my viewpoint.  To be clear, I’m not saying that every new viewpoint was bad – in fact, I was convinced that the opposite was true.  But my approach to the Bible was inconsistent, and this caused a mini crisis of faith for me.

It was at that point that I started exploring the idea that the Bible didn’t have to be read as a textbook (or constitution, if you prefer) – that one could also read the Bible as the unfolding story of how God’s people learned to know God.  The culmination of that story (in other words, our fullest understanding of God and the primary lens through which we read the rest of the Bible) is found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

And I further realized that my Anabaptist faith was not in opposition to this approach.  We affirm the authority of scripture, but we don’t claim that it to be inerrant or infallible.  We believe that it is important to for the community believers to work together with the help of the Holy Spirit in order to understand that which is “God-breathed” (a term that implies that the Bible is living and vibrant, as McLaren notes; not static and unchanging).

In many ways, I feel much more at ease approaching the Bible now.  Inconsistencies or contradictions within the text are no longer challenges or threats to be surmounted.  Rather, they reflect how the community of faith grapples with hard problems.

One thing does still bother me – that there still exists the very real danger that I’ll find a way of reading scripture the way that I want. I alluded to one possible solution above: to read the Bible with the community. Then the new danger is that I can simply find a community that shares my opinions. At some point, though, I think two things are important: faith that the Holy Spirit will work in mysterious ways, and a commitment to working with community to understand what the Bible is saying.

And in the end, I trust that God’s grace will cover my hermeneutical faults.

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