Thursday, March 22, 2007
How to Read the Bible
I've recently been called on to do a lot of explaining about my view of the Bible. It started last weekend when the topic of our discussion at Via Christus was "How to Read the Bible" (based on Luke 16:16-17). Then this week I was asked to elaborate on this same issue on two separate blogs. The funny thing is that one of queries came from an atheist friend a Hemant Mehta's Friendly Atheist blog, wondering why, since I'm not a fundamentalist, I don't just chuck the parts of the Bible I don't like; while the other query came from Chris Brook's blog where some conservative evangelical friends were wondering how I can still have a high view of scripture if I don't think it is "concrete and unchanging". I'm getting it from both sides! (Which means I must be doing something right ;-)

Here are some of the responses I gave to my evangelical friends:

Part of the issue here is how we think scripture ought to be read and interpreted. To me, having a high view of scripture means reading it not as a static document of timeless truths and absolute commands, but as a divinely inspired yet complex compilation of diverse genres (e.g. history, poetry, mythic narratives, prophecy, etc.) that tell a dynamic, unfolding story of God's interactions with humanity. Thus to be faithful to scripture's intent we have to read it with an eye to the symbolisms, the metaphors, the genre, the historical/cultural context, and the ways God accommodated his revelation to the limited understandings or peculiar worldview of his original audience - realizing that what God revealed to "them, then" is not necessarily what he would reveal to "us, now" (for example, "you have heard it said... but I say to you..."). The story of the Bible is still ongoing and we are called to continue the drama in a way that is faithful and resonant with all that has gone before, but not merely by repeating verbatim the lines that were already spoken earlier in the play. That, to me, is what it means to be faithful to the Bible - what it means to have a high view of scripture. But of course, that usually sounds like liberal heresy to most conservative evangelicals I know.

Again, to use the play metaphor (which I've borrowed from NT Wright): if the Old Testament is Act I, the New Testament is Act II, and the last 2000 years of church history & theology is Act III, then here we are at the beginning of Act IV and it's our job to continue the story in a way that is faithful to all that has gone before without necessarily just repeating what those who have gone before have done or said. If we just keep repeating what Augustine or Calvin or Luther said over and over again, how does that move the story forward? Isn't the motto of the reformation "ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda"? If we are not continually reforming then aren't we just blindly believing as the Reformers believed but failing to actually do as they did?

I was then asked this clarifying question:
"If we are not repeating the truth and then looking for the current application are we not then just deciding on our own what is truth for today? How do we continue the drama, I guess is my question? "
I replied:
No, not "on our own". We also have the church (i.e. the living and historical community of Jesus), and the discernment and wisdom given by the Holy Spirit, and all the other means of revelation by which God reveals truth to us (e.g. through natural science, through beauty and art, through human relationships, etc.) We've been given all sorts of resources ("everything we need" according to 2 Peter 1:3) to help us as we continue the story - as we discover how to live the way of Jesus in our own unique context.

(BTW, the Wesleyans have a very similar concept when they talk about the quadrilateral of Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience.)

Scripture is part of the equation, but nowhere in scripture does it say that the Bible itself is all that we need. Again, I know this sounds heretical to some ears, but the Bible is not all we need. It is not sufficient. To suggest that it is actually (and ironically) unbiblical.

And in response to:
"All of this seems open to humans own leading and not something that is concrete and unchanging like God's Word."
I answered:
What makes you say that the Bible is "concrete and unchanging"? When has that ever been true? Have we ever had the Bible perfectly figured out? Have we ever had one universally accepted interpretation of scripture? As you go back into Church history, don't you find that new interpretations, new insights (and even new translations) are constantly emerging from scripture?

Not to mention that in my view of the Bible as a dynamic, not static, text, I think the Bible actually points beyond itself. It's commands are instrumental (i.e. designed to lead us further along down the path of spiritual & social transformation - cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17), not absolute. Some authors have described this in terms of "trajectory" or "redemptive trend". In other words, the Bible tells the story of where God is trying to lead humanity, and points the way we should head, but the story leaves off before we reach the conclusion.

For example, the Bible never explicitly condemns slavery, and yet I believe it plants the seeds and points the way on an upward moral trajectory that would eventually undermine and do away with slavery. In the same way, the Bible begins by seeming to endorse war and even genocide, but throughout the course of scripture we see an increasing call to peacemaking and love for the enemy that I believe establishes a redemptive trend away from the use of coercive violence. (Incidentally, I think we see a similar upward trajectory in the status of women in scripture as well.)

(BTW, for more a more detailed look at how this particular "redemptive trend" hermeneutic works I'd recommend the book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals by William Webb.)

At any rate, I think the last thing we could say about scripture is that it is "concrete" or "unchanging". As far as I know only dead, inanimate things are unchanging; but doesn't the Bible describe itself as "living and active" and "God-breathed" (a metaphor which itself implies life and spirit)? In my experience the Bible is constantly yielding fresh insights and fresh possibilities for incarnating its message in new cultures and new contexts.

But then, from an atheist friend who seems to interpret the Bible in much the same way as my conservative friends (but then rejects the Bible because of the disturbing things it seems to advocate when read that way) I received this question:

If there is much in the Bible that you don’t support or believe, if in fact much of it is an embarrassment for you and your fellow liberal Christians, why do you carry those portions around with you? Keeping those parts with you in your Bibles undermines your arguments with fundamentalists. Including those parts in your personal Bibles lends tacit credibility to them. You don’t follow significant parts of your book, yet you still physically cling to them. Why? Sentiment?

Instead of constantly trying to ignore those parts, get rid of them.

My answer to him was similar to what I said to the conservative Christians:

That’s an interesting suggestion Richard. As I’m sure you’re aware, some liberal Christians have already tried exactly that. Thomas Jefferson is famous for having taken a razor blade to all the miracles in the Bible, and more recently the Jesus Seminar folks have come up with a much revised version of the gospels by taking out all the parts they don’t think Jesus actually said.

However, I’m afraid you’ve mistaken my own beliefs if you think that is my approach. I apologize for being unclear. It’s not that I don’t support or believe parts of the Bible. I’m not interested in throwing out parts of it. I think what’s in there is what God intended to be in there. The difference is in how I think it ought to be read and interpreted. The difference is in what kind of book I think the Bible is.

Fundamentalists & most Evangelicals read the Bible as if it is a static document of primarily historical and propositional material that reveals God’s perfect moral will for all time. Thus, according to them, the “embarrassing” or “disturbing” parts have to be read without any accommodation for literary genre, or historical or cultural context, or any possibility of progressive revelation (i.e. the idea that God was revealing his nature and will gradually and over time according to our ability to adapt and understand).

In contrast, I view the Bible as dynamically unfolding story of God interacting with humanity at various points in our historical development. And it seems to me that God therefore has to deal with us differently depending on the culture and circumstances we faced at the time. A lot of what he told the Israelites 3500 years ago doesn’t necessarily apply to us today, because frankly, we’re not nomadic pastoralists trying to find land to settle in anymore (at least, most of us aren’t).

However, that doesn’t mean I want to just throw out those parts of the Bible. If the Bible is a story, then to throw out those parts would be like throwing out the first few acts of Hamlet because they’re not as current as the last act! There’s value in the story - in knowing where we’ve been and where the story is headed. Thus my job, as someone who is trying to live my life within this grand drama I believe God is directing, is to continue the drama as best I can from this point forward, in resonance with what has gone before, but not just slavishly repeating the lines from first act again either. Rather I have to move the story forward, keep it heading in the direction that I believe scripture has pointed us (which is in the direction of increasing love and justice in the world). If I were to just throw out the first part of the story simply because those people weren’t as far along as we are now, I might lose the sense of moral trajectory and have a harder time figuring out where the story as a whole is headed.

Does that make sense? That’s how I look at scripture and why I don’t want to just get rid of the “embarrassing” parts. They’re only embarrassing when you rip them out of their historical and literary context.

I should also mention that when reading scripture I also recognize the differences between literary genres - something that fundamentalists rarely do. I believe the whole Bible, but not all of it as literal historical or scientific truth. Parts of it are poetry. Parts of it are mythic narratives. Parts of it are symbolic apocalyptic literature. And yes, some parts are historical narratives too. To recognize the different genres and interpret each portion of the Bible accordingly isn’t to disbelieve the Bible, it’s to appreciate it for what it is - not for what the fundamentalists want it to be. Thus it doesn’t bother me if Genesis 1 doesn’t match up with scientific theories of origins, since I don’t think the point of Genesis 1 was to give us a scientific or historical account anyway. It’s an entirely different genre with an entirely different literary and theological purpose.

Again, does that make sense? To me that is a more accurate and faithful reading of scripture that is true to what it really is and yet also enables it to coexist alongside other modern ways of viewing the world as well.

I've commented before on the irony that most atheists I know actually seem to agree with the conservative, literalist interpretations of scripture held by most fundamentalists and evangelicals. I suppose (in part) because those interpretations are much easier to disbelieve and debunk. That's why I think this "third way" or contextual approach seems so radically different and strange. It doesn't fall neatly into liberal or conservative categories. Either it's a middle way, or maybe it doesn't even fit on that Left-Right continuum in the first place. Whichever, it's been a fruitful path for me at least.

And fruitful for others. One of the best comments I received after the sermon this past Sunday (in which I presented many of these same ideas about living in and continuing the story of scripture) was from a newcomer who had been raised in a rather rigid and legalistic faith. During the sharing time she spoke up and said that she had been blown away by this perspective and found it just incredibly freeing. She said that for the first time she felt free to follow God's word because she wants to and not just because she has to.

That, to me, is what it's all about.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 4:04 PM | Permalink |


At 3/22/2007 09:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Wow, that is some scary stuff. Hard to even choose what to respond to in all of that. I would love to dialogue on it, but posting a blog would be insufficient.


At 3/22/2007 10:47:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hey KG,

If you're the same KG from Chris' blog then I expect you've already seen most of this before, minus the stuff from the atheist site.

What did you find particularly "scary"?


At 3/23/2007 07:18:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous


This is interesting. I have a book to suggest to you. "People of the Book" is an interesting read about reading the Bible. I'll get the author's name for you. Essentially, he treads the linke between "koranic" reading and purely historical reading. He suggests that people who read the Bible looking for moral answers misunderstand the book entirely (koranic). You cannot open the Bible, drop your finger, and find out how you are supposed to behave. Open Job and drop your finger. See how that goes.

And those who distill it into a simple historical document are missing it's purpose as well.

It's a good read.


At 3/23/2007 07:41:00 AM, Blogger dan

Good stuff, Mike. Thanks for posting it.


At 3/23/2007 08:27:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hey Tripp,

You know it's interesting, but often when I'm discussing this kind of thing with people I point out that how conservative/literalist Christians approach the Bible is actually very similar to the Muslim conception of the Koran. If you want a religion where the "Word of God" is absolute, unchanging, and completely unable to be contextualized or translated between cultures and languages, Islam is the religion you're looking for.

Christianity, in contrast, is an "Incarnational" religion, meaning that the Word becomes flesh and adapts itself to our culture, our context, our limited understandings - and thus can be translated into other contexts and cultures and adapted to new understandings as well.

Thanks for the book recommendation. I'll check it out!



At 3/23/2007 10:36:00 AM, Blogger Julie

Tripp are you refering to the David Jeffrey book? We have that one somewhere in the house, its been awhile since I read it...


At 3/24/2007 12:55:00 AM, Blogger Richard Wade

Mike, I am touched and honored that you describe me as your atheist friend. Please consider the friendship mutual. You have helped me clarify and correct a deteriorating attitude I had toward the Bible.

When as a teen I first began to read it I immediately thought, "This must be metaphorical and symbolic." It seemed so obvious. Seeing it in that way much of it made sense and was very beautiful. Later I began to hear people condemning others who were of different religions, and insisting that scripture must be taken literally. I tried to argue with some of them, saying that taking the Bible literally is like taking Aesop's Fables literally. To assume that these are stories about animals who actually talked to each other and did very un-animal like things would be to completely miss the point and the value of the fables. But I was hopelessly outnumbered and their bigotry was relentless. They were so unfair to people different from them and so loathsome in general that I began to pull away from all of it.

Your observation of the irony that some (not all) atheists read scripture in the same primitive way as fundamentalists is correct, I must admit with a little chagrin. I think that it's mainly because those are the people with whom we seculars bump heads over political, social and scientific issues. We hear the same chapters and verses quoted repeatedly to justify their hateful or backward policies, and they become our main example of Christians and scripture. I suppose if you fight an adversary long enough there's a risk you will begin to resemble him.

I thank you for re-introducing supple and intelligent interpretation of scripture both to me and to your congregation. While for many reasons I will probably always remain a non-believer, I sincerely hope your thoughtful, humane and inclusive version of Christianity continues to flourish.


At 3/24/2007 06:04:00 AM, Blogger JP

Good stuff Mike, much food for thought.


At 3/24/2007 11:30:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Thanks Richard, and welcome JP! :)


At 3/28/2007 10:54:00 AM, Blogger Dsrtrosy

This is a great resource. And I'm going to look for the recommended book as well.

Interesting that in these last few weeks working for my church, the pastor has been doing a series on the millenium--but really preaching a five-week series on interpreting scripture literally. What boggles my mind week after week is that every passage of scripture that he has chosen to interpret "literally" includes symbolic language. He has NOT ONCE interpreted these symbols literally--but instead calls them "figures of speech".

I also find the idea of literalism within the fundamentalist churches to be a frightening untruth. I don't doubt the sincerity of their believe, but I have always questioned the actual literalism of their interpretation.

Examples abound--how women dress and the qualifications for elders to name two that jump to mind--that many many fundamentalist churches ignore. They "interpret" these straightforward passages as "cultural" or impractical. Well, they are indeed cultural. But that interpretation is only truly consistent with a "living and active" reading of scripture, not a literal one. And I have yet to meet anyone in the Rapture camp who really believes a woman will ride a literal scarlet beast with ten heads and seven horns--but there is certainly context around these words that are preached as being absolutely literal.

Ah, I'm just chattering. Releasing all the stuff that's been clattering around in my head for the last several weeks.

Thanks for everything week before last--it was great to get to meet you and Emma and hear about what is going on with your group. Keep our little community in your prayers! April 15 is our first meeting.



At 3/28/2007 02:48:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hey Sarah!

It was good meeting you too. I'm excited to hear about the launch of your new community. Sounds like you're ready to move on from your current church. I hope this new adventure will truly be a greener pasture where you can find renewal, refreshment and healing... and fun too!

We'll be praying for you. :)