Here are several thoughts about the Bible’s truth and the ways we interpret the text. My goal is really to help people love and enjoy the book, look forward to delving into it, and use it appropriately so that God’s Spirit works in our lives. A portion of this material was rewritten and incorporated into my short article, “Keeping Peace When Scripture Conflicts,” The Circuit Rider, May-June-July 2011.
To state the obvious, Bible interpretation—like politics, childrearing advice, and sports teams–are topics about which people have strong opinions. (I’ve known some people whose eyes turned hard and cold when they felt that their views on a biblical topic, however deeply or superficially formed or just plain wrong, were challenged.) But a few “sayings” about the Bible are not helpful as they float around in popular culture.
You sometimes hear people say, is “Every word of the Bible is true.” As I browsed a Christian website of a local media personality, I noticed that statement and I frowned, because in this case, biblical authority was used to deny scientific method. (Though I disagree with “scientism,” the philosophy that all truth is scientific truth, I find evolutionary theory and contemporary uniformitarianism exciting to study and learn.) But I’ve heard that statement, “Every word of the Bible is true,” used in other contexts.
Every word of the Bible is part of the sacred book, inspired by the Spirit in its authorship, editing, and canonization–and our ongoing reading and study of the text. Every word of the Bible is true in that differences among texts, anomalies, and historically-limited statements do not at all undercut the Bible’s authority.
When you affirm the truth of the Bible, you must be sensitive to the fact that numerous passages are culturally-specific, unsuitable to be taken out of context, and improperly used as “slogans.” We also can–and will–disagree about how to apply the Bible to certain circumstances, even when we affirm the Bible’s truth. Here are a few overlapping examples.
1. As we study the Bible, we encounter untoward and difficult passages (like the scatological Malachi 2:3 and the crudely sexual Ezekiel 23:20) which seem to have nothing to do with the Bible’s messages of salvation and justice.(1) We also encounter laws that seem absurd or outdated, for instance, these passages that I found at a website recently(2):
* Eating fat is prohibited (Lev. 3:17)
* A woman who grabs a man’s genitals during a fight should have her hand cut off (Deut. 25:11, 12)
* Children born out of wedlock could not enter God’s assembly, even to the tenth generation (Deut. 23:2). Handicapped people (Lev. 21:16-23), men whose testicles were removed (Deut. 23:1), and menstruating women also could not enter the assembly.
* Homosexual men (Lev. 20:13), stubborn children (Deut. 21:18-21), witches (Ex. 22:18), and false prophets (Zech. 13:3) should be killed.
* Playing football on Sunday is punishable by death (conflating Ex. 35:2 and Lev. 11:7-8)
* And yet (as this website continues) slavery (Ex. 21), genocide (Deut. 7), incest (Gen. 20:12) and polygamy (several biblical characters) are allowed.
One could add others: for instance, the biblical obligation to marry your brother in law if your husband has died (Deut. 25:5-10, a complex set of procedures and the basis of the story of Ruth and Boaz), and so on.
In other words, we find passages within the Bible itself that, to a person wondering about the Bible’s authority, seem to shed poor light upon the Bible as a source for God’s will. Rather than making a simple declaration about the uniform truth of the Bible’s words, we affirm that the Bible does give us truth about God but that passages like these must be examined in terms of the original context, circumstance, and so on.
2. The Bible also has many verses that lend themselves to “proof-texting.” When we proof-text, we choose Bible verses, in a hasty or sloppy way that overlooks issues of context, either to prove a point or to proceed straight to an application:
* You have tattoos? You’re violating God’s word: Leviticus 19:28.
* You baptize by sprinking? Then you’re violating God’s word: the Bible says that Jesus was down in a lot of water (Mark 1:9), not sprinkled.
* You see children read stories about witches? God hates witches, though—Ex. 22:18, Lev. 19:31 and 20:6—so God is against these fantasy stories.
* You want a good reason to spank your children? Proverbs 13:24, taken out of context, seems to provide warrant for a few slaps to the kid’s butt.
Many issues can be argued using biblical material, as I discuss below, but a careful, thoughtful and prayerful reading of the Bible is needed, rather than a simple grasping of slogans, condemnations, or permissions.
3. Similarly, we can “claim” biblical promises in a hurtful way. For instance, Matthew 17:20 has been quoted to people who are ill: [Jesus] said to them, “… For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” Yes, it’s a saying of Jesus, but can you imagine being sick and someone uses Jesus’ words to imply that if you had more faith, you wouldn’t be sick? My mother had to deal with some of this kind of insensitivity.
Similarly, Phil. 4:6 can be (cruelly) quoted a person who has a legitimate psychological disorder or the effects of a traumatic experience: Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Offering that scripture might be motivated as encouragement but it comes across as disapproval of the person who is struggling with anxiety. It shows an unwillingness of the Bible quoter to empathize with the person’s pain.
It’s a great thing to ask for and receive miracles and help from the Lord, and it’s a great thing to be led to seek the Lord’s help via scriptural truth. I can attest to these things! But you can also see how the Bible can be used in a painful way, not only toward others but toward ourselves. I read a blog post recently (and unfortunately didn’t keep the reference) about an unemployed person who had relied upon the truth of Jeremiah 29:11 for his future. After many months of continued hardship and unemployment, he still relied in the Lord but (if I recall the piece correctly) he realized that divine help doesn’t come as fast or predictably as we’d often like.
4. The Bible also “teaches” general things that we can no longer accept. We have to affirm our inability to follow the Bible on certain issues.
* One, as I just mentioned, is slavery. The Bible contains many passages concerning slavery (Ex. 20:17, 21:20-21, Lev. 23:44-45, Deut. 5:21, Matt. 18:25, Eph. 6:5-9, 1 Tim. 6:1-3, and others). Such passages recognize slavery as a social given, although Torah laws do give means by which slaves can be freed and by which justice can be ensured for servants and slaves. The Bible did not “cause” American slavery but the Bible’s recognition of the reality of slavery was used to justify the institution and to perpetuate racial divisions in this country that are clear violations of Christ’s redemptive work (Eph. 2:13-16).
Unfortunately, here is an example of a biblical acceptance of an institution that we’ve since recognized as evil.
* Another, also just mentioned, is genocide. The Hebrew word herem, or kherem, refers to the practice of devoting something to the Lord, but notably in Deuteronomy 7, 1-6, God devotes several nations (Canaanite kingdoms) to utter destruction. The subsequent book of Joshua (6:17, 8:26, etc.) uses the word in describing the slaughter and destruction of Jericho and Ai. The purpose of this devotion was to keep the Israelites separate from the influence of the Canaanites (the idea of “holiness” in Deut. 7:1 implies separateness from things that are unholy). But, of course, the notion of “holy war” is unacceptable and terrifying in our modern era. The herem passages result from specific commands of God or Joshua,(3) and are a distinctive part of the Deuteronomistic Historian’s theological interpretation of Israel’s history.(4) Thus, these Bible passages are not intended to be authorizations for similar actions beyond the biblical period–and to us, they’re pretty awful within the biblical period!(5)
* Still another issue related to biblical interpretation is Christian anti-Semitism. Although written primarily by Jews who still considered themselves Jews, the New Testament is filled with negative references to Jews (e.g., Matt. 27:25, 1 Thess. 2:3-16, Rev. 2:9, and the Gospel of John’s consistent use of “the Jews” in a pejorative sense). Does this give us permission to dislike Jews?
Of course not, but the anti-Jewish “atmosphere” of the New Testament has caused untold sorrow for Jews. I’ve known Christians who, while discussing the scriptures, refer disparagingly to “the Jews” in a clear echo of New Testament texts—the same Christians who would never make a generalizing, disparaging comment about an ethnic group in other contexts. Important work has been done in recent years to show how the anti-Jewish material in the New Testament has contributed over the centuries to Christian disdain for Jews, the persecution of Jews, and the anti-Semitism that led historically to the Holocaust.(6)
Here, greater sensitivity to the sins of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism require us to read the Bible in a different way than the literal sense.
5. Scripture can be consulted concerning a variety of important topics, without consensus.
* Homosexuality is a hotly-debated topic within many denominations. I’m relieved at the recent call of several retired United Methodist bishops for a removal of the ban upon the ordination of homosexuals in our own denomination, and I hope someday that ban, and the ban upon same-sex marriages by the denomination (and others), will be lifted http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=2789393&ct=9103189 The arguments concerning homosexuality are well known but I direct people to an excellent article by Walter Wink that discusses those texts and the ways we interpret scripture. http://www.soulforce.org/article/homosexuality-bible-walter-wink
* Women’s ordination seems like a “done deal” (my own denomination has ordained women since 1956), but some denominations do not practice it–and some forbid women to serve in other capacities. You can find biblical passages that imply or teach the subordination of women to men, or at least wives to husbands: Gen. 2:18, 1 Cor. 11:3, 7-9, 14:34b-35, 1 Tim. 2:11-15, 1 Peter 4:10-11. But the New Testament mentions several women disciples and leaders (Acts 9:36, 18:24-26, Romans 16:1, 3, 7, Phil. 4:2, Philemon 2, not to mention Old Testament leaders like Deborah). As is increasingly happening with LGBT persons, denominations recognize the gifts and graces of the Spirit provided to women, in spite of limiting biblical passages.
* Should a Christian own a weapon? David praised God who prepared him for battle (Psalm 144:1), and Jesus’ disciples carried swords (Luke 22:38, 49-50). Armed soldiers came to faith, and no one told them to lay down their arms (Luke 7:1-10, Acts 10:1-33, Romans 13:4). And yet Jesus taught peace, reconciliation, and active help and concern for one’s enemies (Matt. 5:9-12, 38-47), as did Paul (Rom. 12:14-21). Is there one Bible-based answer to this question?
* Use of alcoholic beverages is condemned in scripture (Prov. 20:1, 1 Cor. 6:10, Eph. 5:18-20), and is also a potential stumbling block to other Christians (with 1 Cor. 8:1-13 providing an analogous situation). But the Bible also allows moderate use of alcohol (Prov. 31:6-7, Ps. 104:14-15, 1 Tim. 5:23), and Jesus himself was criticized for drinking and eating with the wrong kinds of people (Luke 7:33-34). Again: is there one Bible-based answer to this issue?
* One could mention many other issues of contemporary importance: environmental issues, criminal justice, the death penalty, medical research, and so on, which can be–and are—addressed with passionate (and sometimes, unfortunately, ugly) disagreements about biblical teachings.
I’m belaboring my initial point concerning the phrase “Every word of the Bible is true.” But I want us to think about why and how the words of the Bible are true. We can affirm the Bible’s truth while also being cognizant of its difficulties and interpretive challenges. We can avoid using bible verses as “clobber passages.” As the conservative Calvinist theologian G.C. Berkouwer notes in his book, The Holy Scriptures (pp. 181-183), we need a “naturalness” in reading and interpreting the Bible; we recognize the book’s roots in ancient cultures while also recognizing it as a God-breathed book for our contemporary time.
Relying upon God’s grace, we all continue to grow as Christians, and we all grow in insight as to the nature of the Bible’s authority, the ways we can use the Bible to encourage and build each other up (Eph. 4:11-16), the disagreements that can occur between people interpreting the same book, and the ways we interpret and follow God’s Word.
Here is another saying that you hear concerning Bible interpretation. Members of a particular small group studied the letters of Paul. They came to Paul’s advice in 1 Timothy, I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. A female classmate spoke critically of Paul’s outlook toward women. Her husband teased her, “You can’t pick and choose, you know!”
Although the man was joking with his spouse, this view isn’t uncommon: If the Bible is God’s Word, then we should not pick passages of scripture we like and discard others.
But we all pick and choose Bible passages! We all make decisions (not necessarily articulating the reasons) about which scriptures to follow literally, which to follow less literally, and which not to follow. We interpret some passages as more culturally-conditioned than others. We cherish Jesus and seek to do his will … but we do not liquidate our possessions, give to the poor, and live as indigents (Luke 18:22). We do not traipse in pairs from town to town, lodging at people’s houses as we spread the Gospel (Luke 10:1-12); we “adapt” the literal command to fit contemporary realities. People pick laws from the Torah to prove their dislike of gays and Harry Potter but ignore most of the other laws. It’s human nature, but we’re more likely to take a stand against “picking and choosing” when we judge the actions and attitudes of others, rather than our own!
We also pick and chose because, honestly, we’re not inclined to follow certain portions of the Bible. How many people do you admire because of their bluntness and candor, in spite of the Proverbs which teach restraint from angry words and the wisdom of quiet thoughtfulness (e.g., Prov. 10:12, 14:29)? Have you ever taken the time to reconcile with someone prior to your worship (Matt. 5:23-24)? Have you lately helped a poor person, or visited someone in jail (Matt. 25:31-46)? Faithfulness to scriptures that we could follow more conscientiously is a struggle for all of us, most certainly including myself! But we are prone to honor Jesus with pious and respectful feelings about his authority, and then we proceed to live neglectful of many of his teachings (or we adapt them for present realities).
Bible study is the key way to clarity about God and God’s will, but as long as we live we’re always seeking deeper knowledge of God, new insights, new understanding of biblical content and fresh connections of the Bible to our circumstances. A positive way of “picking and choosing” is to recognize our limitations, and thus to seek God’s will in scripture with humble heart by finding scriptures that address our current situation. Rather than thinking about the process as “customizing” scripture for selfish purposes, we compare verses and allow them to teach and guide us, according to the Spirit’s guidance.
Here are just a couple examples. This is a verse well known to anyone struggling with a sense of Christian calling.
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26).
But here is also a passage that is equally scripture:
He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? (1 Tim. 3:4-5).
Jesus calls us to put him first in all things. But if a person serves Jesus in, for instance, a role of church leadership, he or she should not thereby become lax in household responsibilities. Here’s another scripture:
Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this” (Mark 7:9-13).
Here Jesus criticizes those who would renege on one’s obligation to parents through the custom of devoting an offering to God.
These passages taught me during a time when I struggled to balance the needs of a young child at home, my marriage, the increasingly dire needs of elderly parents (of whom I’m the only child), my call to serve God, and the unholy pride some pastors feel in working 80+ hours a week at the expense of their families. It would’ve been easy to linger on Luke 14:26 and feel guilty—as if I were a horrible servant by having family needs, a common-enough anxiety in clergy—but by broadening my reading I gained a better perspective.
Here’s another scripture that I love.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (1 John 1:8-10).
But here is a passage from the same book.
Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters (1 John 3:4-10).
All of us do sin. Sometimes we fall into sin in spite of our best intentions, if not in the “big” sins then in our attitudes, weaknesses (gossip and the like), and poor decisions. Some of us fall into the big sins, too. Furthermore, we are a part of social structures where we participate in or tacitly condone sins like injustice, poverty, economic policies that exploit domestic and overseas workers, and so on.
The first passage rings true and is quite reassuring. Does the second passage contradict the first? This is important to sort out as we seek God’s gifts of holiness and sanctification. We must look at other scriptural viewpoints in order to elucidate John. How much power do we allow Jesus to have in our lives? He does save us for Heaven while we were sinners (Rom. 5:8), but should we allow him to cleanse us more thoroughly of sin? Do we really want him to?
Not only that, but while Jesus can and does cleanse us from specific sins, we must ask: Is there also a point where we deceive ourselves as to the depth of our sin? Sin has a way of rearing its ugly head just at the point when we think we’ve conquered it. In addition to moral and psychological sins, we fail to recognize kinds of sin that don’t necessarily set off “alarms” (our gossip, our acquiescence of injustices, our subtly racist habits of thinking and acting, and others).
Recognizing the tenacity of sin, we can go beyond a definition of sin as the violation of law (John’s understanding here in this letter) and compare John’s theology to, for instance, that of Romans 7:7-25; there, sin is not just the violation of the law but also a fault within human will and nature. Christ’s salvation is something that reaches deeply into our circumstances. In this case, another scripture by another author help us understand a point that was less completely discussed in a passage. (Another such scripture is the beloved Ps. 37:4, which might imply God gives us everything we want if we just love God enough!)
“Comparing scripture with scripture” is a venerable way of studying the Bible, but it’s a way that requires sensitivity for word meaning, context, and the author’s intended meaning. We should never neglect understanding each biblical writing in its integrity, in addition to its place within the canon. We also need more rather than less of the Holy Spirit’s help for clarity of guidance and understanding. But “picking and choosing” Scripture can be either a negative kind of “customizing” or a very positive choice as we deepen our faith, understanding, and service.
Our confidence in the Bible rests not only upon the truth of the words but upon the person and grace of Jesus, as I explain next.
As I’ve discussed the sayings “Every word of the Bible is true” and “you can’t pick and choose,” I implied aspects of a third statement one sometimes hears about the Bible: “The Bible shouldn’t be interpreted, only obeyed.” Instead, I argue that following the Lord necessitates interpretation, gives us clarity about the Gospel of Jesus, and, in turn, shows us how to obey.
Back in my younger days, I had a friend who appreciated Mark 7:6-8:
He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Doctrines contrary to my friend’s church were “words of men,” but my friend’s church didn’t teach human doctrines, only the Word of God.
I’m not criticizing the basic idea there—searching for God’s clear Word, and finding guidance within a community—only the fundamentalistic spirit that makes a too-easy identification: I believe the Word of God, you (who differ with me on a point of interpretation) believe the doctrines of men, and therefore my soul is safe, but you seek God in vain….
Yet (this was my brief experience when I was a naïve and insecure young person) if you’re afraid for your salvation because someone told you that you’ve misinterpreted the Bible, then what becomes of the Good News of God’s free grace? Grace you have to earn is not good news!
We don’t always think through the way Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ongoing presence in our lives guides the way we read and interpret the Bible. This point came home to me strongly as I was reading Graeme Goldsworthy’s Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture.(7) Goldsworthy says that, “while there is much in the Bible that is strictly speaking not the gospel, there is nothing in the Bible that can be truly understood apart from the gospel.”(8) While not addressing all aspects of biblical interpretation, I find his argument thought-provoking with regard to preaching, devotional Bible reading, and Christian practice.(9) How has the Good News—the wholly free gift of salvation of sinners through the blood of Christ and the accompanying power of the Holy Spirit—clarified, modified, fulfilled, or even negated the meaning of a particular Bible passage?
For instance, consider the Torah. Jews revere the Torah as God’s direct word, while the prophets are God’s message communicated through the prophets’ words, and the books of the Writings (the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Esther, and others) are divinely inspired but are more definitely of human authorship.(10) If a person’s sole scripture is the Old Testament, then this hermeneutical approach makes sense and is consistent. But the New Testament changes these levels of authority. As I discuss in the next series of posts, the prophets and also the psalms take on greater authority in the New Testament; the “lesser” prophets and writings became keys for interpreting Jesus as messiah and, therefore, for interpreting the Torah. Consequently, Christians interpreted the Torah as a preliminary, yet not abrogated way by which God expresses his will (Matt. 5:17-20, Rom. 3:31, Heb. 3:1-6). Because of Christ, we must think about the ways that the Torah is scripture for Christians. We must interpret the laws in the context of the Bible’s whole witness, so that “You shall not murder” is always true but “You shall not round off the hair on your temples” (Lev. 19:28a) is more time- and culture-bound.
Similarly, consider the prophets. Read through those books and you’ll see the harshness of God’s judgment against the people’s faithlessness and the direness of his warnings. A person could easily neglect the context of the prophets in ancient Israel and use prophetic judgments to address contemporary examples of unrighteousness and social injustice. (For instance, we use the term “prophetic preaching” to mean sermons and writings that confront, challenge and criticize.) The prophets’ themes are timeless: the formal practice of religion is no substitute for true righteousness, and true righteousness always includes justice (e.g. Amos 5:23-24). But when we look at the prophets with a broader view, we also see that the prophets focus not only upon then-current societal situations but also God’s plans for the future. God achieves his will for the people of the divided kingdom of the prophets’ times, but God also, through the prophets, announces his will for the more distant future: the person and work of Christ. To use the prophets primarily to address specific social problems risks neglecting the “canonical shape” that puts the prophets in context with Christ’s salvation.(11)
As Goldsworthy also discusses in his book, we must also consider how the death and resurrection of Christ also informs how we understand the teachings of Jesus himself! The Good News of Jesus’ resurrection frees us from the law (Gal. 3:10, 3:23) but also makes us take the demands of discipleship all the more seriously, because we’re freed from the notion that God saves us when we’ve checked off the “shalts” and avoided all the “shalt nots.” Christ in his roles as teacher, healer, and risen Lord help us do his will—and his Spirit breathes live and vitality to Bible verses that we might otherwise read as slogans, shalt-nots, and “clobber passages.”
As I reflected on this point, I thought of several ways this is true.
* When I was young, I worried that God was keeping track of every time I became angry and called someone a “fool” (or “jerk” or “idiot” or my dad’s favorites, “ignert sumbitch” and “damned ignert fool”): Matt. 5:21-22. Yes, we’re held accountable for “every careless word” (Matt. 12:36), but we’re not saved by anything we do or don’t do (Rom. 3:28). We’re saved from our sins, without reservation, and we have ongoing forgiveness and power for salvation (Heb. 4:14-16). But when we look at this “fool” passage in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see afresh at how Jesus has saved us from all our sins (past, present and future), and so, thus freed from the fear of earning God’s wrath (Rom. 5:9), we can respond with a new sense of joy and love, both for God and for one another (Rom. 8:1-8). As Christ healed his contemporaries, his love and power heals our souls of angry words (although anger is a normal human emotion when appropriately addressed: Eph. 4:26, 31).
Thus, instead of interpreting that “fool” saying as a law, we see it as an even deeper challenge: how are we modeling Christ’s love? How are we growing in love through the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-24, so that dismissive and contemptuous comments cross our minds less frequently? How is the Spirit of Christ changing the content of our hearts?
* Similarly forgiveness. “We’re supposed to forgive each other,” we might say. But we forgive each other in the context of a lively, growing relationship with Christ. When we are freed by Christ’s death and resurrection, forgiveness is not a law or a hard obligation. Forgiveness is a response to Christ’s unearned love. Even more, we don’t have to force ourselves to forgive through our own will power, but we find power to learn to forgive (and even empowered forgiveness isn’t always easy) as we deepen our relationship to Christ.
* And prayer. Another verse that worried me when I was young was “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17, KJV). I couldn’t do that! Nobody can: our brains are not neurologically set to focus continually. But that verse isn’t a law that requires every single thought to be prayerful. That verse is a call to deepen our love and concern for one another as we receive the resurrected Jesus’ love and power. Instead of interpreting the verse primarily as a rule, we focus upon Christ as our Savior and helper when we fail. Through Christ, our minds and hearts acquire the habit and impulse of prayer.
* And speaking of prayer: do we pray the Psalms as Christian prayers? Obviously the psalms are Hebrew and Jewish prayers–of ancient origin and then collected during the Second Temple period–and they’re now part of the Christian canon. But we could very easily neglect to connect the psalms to Christ’s death and resurrection. For instance, if you’re in (what I call) a “Psalm 51 state of mind,” are you praying the prayer as a plea to God for forgiveness and restoration? Do you also and simultaneously keep firmly in mind that we have forgiveness and restoration already through the crucified and risen Lord? Psalm 51, classic though it is, has to be connected to verses like Romans 7:24-25, where the assurance of Christ’s salvation of sinners is affirmed.
* What about using a Bible verse as God’s holy word in condemnation of another person? We should always remember that Jesus himself stood condemned by God’s word; he was considered a sinner (John 9), and he was placed under a curse because of God’s word (Deut. 21:23). In his ministry, Jesus gave grace and a new opportunity to the woman of John 7:53-8:11) when people used God’s word against her.
Certainly the Bible warns us and can be used to warn. But one particular warning, Matthew 7:1-5, is all the more keen when we’re tempted to employ the Bible in a condemnatory way.
* Is our evangelism always supposed to achieve great results? The contemporary decline of membership among mainline denominations has added urgency to evangelistic efforts. Acts 2:41 and 47 imply that, if we’re doing evangelism right, God will bless our efforts with great numbers. This outlook dovetails well with American concepts of success; yet “getting great numbers” was not a concern of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46, and Paul’s ministry among the Athenians was ineffective in practical terms. Yet no one would say that Paul shouldn’t have taken his ministry among the Greek intellectuals. Our command to make disciples (Matt. 28:19) is relevant whether we make a few disciples or many: the real work is done by God’s Spirit promised to us by the risen Lord.
* Here’s a slightly different issue: how about using Bible characters as models? Let me use David as an example, for the Bible calls him a “man after God’s heart” (1 Samuel 13:13-14, Acts 13:22), in spite of his very flawed life. If you’re like me, you want to be a person after God’s heart, too. We ask, “How can God use me? Does God see me as somebody he can use?” Neither is necessarily an easy question to answer. As we develop a good spiritual life that includes regular worship, fellowship, Bible reading, prayer, and a certain amount of spiritual discipline, we try to keep focusing back to God. We try to stay open to God’s guidance and purpose. We take comfort that a flawed person like David could be so well used by God.
But we can’t raise these questions only in the context of David’s stories, as Goldsworthy discusses. First, we need to be careful not to place ourselves on a similar stature as David, to make ourselves equal somehow to him, or to make God’s plans with Israel similar to the patterns of our lives. (Besides, David was an Iron Age warrior and killer of many, many people; to focus upon and identify with only his spiritual humility is to ignore significant things about him.) David and his people were special in God’s salvation history, while we’re beneficiaries of the groundwork God accomplished through them. Second, although we can certainly learn with aspects of Bible characters’ experiences, we need to seek God’s will about these stories in the context of our salvation in Christ. For instance, we all actually have a better chance to become close to God than David because, now, God’s Spirit is poured out to all of us. God’s Spirit gives gifts of power and ministry unimaginable in ancient times, taking God’s will for us to new levels (John 14:12).
So often we take Bible passages and Bible commandments and separate them from the key things: our living Lord, our covenant relationship with God, our relationship (as freely forgiven sinners) to God through Christ, and Christ’s commandment that we love and uphold one another.
During a summer when I worked on these Bible reflections, my family and I visited Europe as my daughter’s choir toured several cities: Heidelberg, Speyer, Erfurt, Eisenach, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna. Emily had wonderful experiences in this choir as she used her musical talents with other teenagers. On one of the tour’s last days, we took our seats for a noon Mass at the St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stefansdom) in Vienna. As we all absorbed the beauty of the sanctuary, I noticed on the lectern a banner, containing the words:
Seid aber Täter des Worts und nicht Hörer allein
My German is rusty so I had to think about the meaning of the phrase….Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only (James 1:22, KJV). The combination of several things—the stunning sanctuary, the music of the choir, and the fact that in translating I had to mentally engage the verse—gave me a sense of peace and assurance.
The whole verse in the NRSV is, But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. What an interesting connection: hearing (or reading) God’s Word, and self-deception! In these posts, I’ve been thinking about God’s Word… But how can we deceive ourselves as we hear the Word?
Several ways. We hear the Word and believe, but because we believe we feel pleased with ourselves, and continue feeling hatred toward particular individuals or particular groups. We hear the Word but never “bridle” the tongue; consequently our religion is “worthless” (James 1:26). We hear but never take the time to actively love and care for the needy (James 1:27). We hear the Word in the sense that we respect and defend the Bible, but we compartmentalize your faith as one aspect of life among many. A very subtle way to deceive ourselves is to hear the Word, to love the Bible and Christ, but to have a very shallow kind of faith: we think merely have to be good, churchgoing persons who volunteer, serve on committees and have a conventional, upstanding morality. These are not bad things in themselves but we must be on guard that these things aren’t substitutes rather than expressions of a deep faith.
Even a life-changing profession of faith, so cherished in evangelistic experience, can be a “hear but not do” kind of thing if we don’t “follow up.” I don’t want to get into debates about whether or not one can lose one’s salvation (although as one whose theology is more Arminian than Calvinist, I’ve some ideas); I do want to say that both Jesus and Paul cautions us to be attentive to and humble in our faith (Matt. 7:1-5, 21-23, Rom. 11:21-22, 25). In Christ we have an accomplished salvation, but Christ in turn also calls us to ongoing discipleship and transformation (with which, wonderfully, Christ helps us).
“Doing the Word” means embracing the Gospel message in its wholeness. You’ve fewer illusions about yourself and your position in life because you understand, cognitively and spiritually, that you are no better than the worst sinner you can think of. Every aspect of your life is in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. You accept the grace of God through Christ as a free, unearned gift, which in turn links you to the power God provides for your living. You understand that God’s love liberates you to show loving-kindness to others; God’s love doesn’t give you license to be a meaner person than before; God’s love changes your perception so you can see other people as those for whom Christ died. (An analogy might be: when the person you love loves you back, you feel free, joyous, and changed.)
As we’re transformed by God’s love, we imperfectly grow in certain characteristics taught so frequently in the Bible:
· Humility: a willingness (hypothetically, at least) to wash the feet of someone who has not “earned” your love but whom you love, nevertheless, as Christ loved his very imperfect disciples.
· Peacefulness: a kind of understanding of God that surpasses a purely cognitive agreement of doctrines about God
· Suffering: a condition we’d prefer to avoid, but which is biblically attested to be potentially a sharing in Christ’s own life.
· Loving-kindness and compassion: a desire to ease the suffering of others (certainly not to inflict it) because—to use a cliché—you feel the other’s pain. (Etymologically, compassion means “to suffer with.”)
· Knowledge of God: you can see God in the needs of the other person
· Love for enemies: you feel no hatred or anger for someone who has mistreated you (or, at least, you regularly turn to God for healing of your hatred).
· Contentment: a tranquility independent of your circumstances
· Joy: not just happiness and mirth (wonderful as those are) but a confidence that you understand the meaning and direction of life.
· Avoidance of certain circumstances: those wherein you might succumb to a temptation to which you’re prone, and you know yourself well enough to know your weaknesses.
And yet … Christian love is not anything specific that you do, in the sense that Christ provides you a checklist or (as I have here) a list of bullet-pointed characteristics. Christian love is a gift of God’s empowering Spirit. [T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things (Gal. 5:22-23). That last statement means that these qualities cannot be defined by the law and—Paul is being wry and ironic—they are not illegal. As one commentator, Richard B. Hays writes that this section of Galatians “is the most impassioned defense anywhere in Scripture of the sufficiency of the Spirit to guide the community of faith.” But Paul’s opponents at Galatia wanted to impose various structures and laws to that community. Obviously laws and structure can be good things, but Paul retorts that the Spirit is a sufficient guide, as Hays writes, “A church guided by Paul’s hopeful word would cultivate a community of flexibility and freedom, living with openness toward the unpredictable liberating movement of God’s Spirit.” Hays notes two examples: Wesley’s preaching outdoors to coal miners, and African American churches that addressed civil rights issues in the 1950s and 1960s.(12) Could our contemporary congregations learn to love, spontaneously, in a deep and powerful way, wholly trusting God to provide all we need?
An emphasis on Bible study—and the self-diagnosis and wisdom that comes from Bible study—is a powerful tool for churches, in addition to (or instead of) the more programmatic means that congregations sometimes adopt. Bible study has its risks. Here again, we can get off-track when we don’t balance hearing and doing: you could become discouraged in your faith because you can never measure up to the Bible’s standards; or you don’t know what to do with your doubts and questions because you think—because the Bible is God’s word—you’re not supposed to have any. But that is why we read the Bible best when, in addition to private reading and devotional time, we’re also part of a congregation of diverse, worshiping people where prayer, preaching, the Eucharist, group study, and service are part of a whole spiritual journey.
I read a lovely story from the author and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
“Once I noticed,” writes a Christian scholar, who visited the city of Warsaw during the First World War, “a great many coaches on a parking-place but no drivers in sight. In my own country I would have known where to look for them. A young Jewish boy showed me the way: in a courtyard, on the second floor, was the shtibl (Hasidic synagogue) of the Jewish drivers…. All the drivers were engaged in fervent study and religious discussion…. It was then that I found out and became convinced that all professions, the bakers, the butchers, the shoemakers, etc., have their own shtibl in the Jewish district; and every free moment which can be taken off from their work is given to the study of Torah. And when they get together in intimate groups, one urges the other: Sog mir a shtickl Torah—Tell me a little Torah.”(13)
I don’t study the Bible that way and I’m unfamiliar with Christians who do. But I love the image and the challenge: How wonderful if we, who don’t want to be fundamentalists but do want to live as faithful Christians, lived our lives in such a way that Bible study was intimate—and an intimate part of our everyday lives, and a natural part of conversation, the way we talk about the irritating people at our places of work, about our favorite books and movies? We might get angry at least other, but we’d deal with it; we wouldn’t be aloof from each other, or “take our toys and go home”; we’d accept our disagreements. We’d grow together, perhaps reexamine our cherished opinions and positions, perhaps growing in convictions in other ways. But we’d grow in the Biblical gifts of wisdom and kindness.
2. “Bible Justice” by Ken Adams, http://www.liberator.net/articles/AdamsKen/BibleJustice.html
3. The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, D-H, volume 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), page 118.
4. See, for instance, Robert B. Coote’s introduction to the book of Joshua in The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), pages 555-580, which discusses several of the themes and emphases of the Deuteronomistic history and of Josiah’s reforms.
5. See “Excursus: Holy War,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), page 314.
6. The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book by Julie Galambush (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005); The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006); and also “Good News” after Auschwitz? Christian Faith within a Post-Holocaust World, edited by Carol Rittner and John K. Roth (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2001). See also Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews by James Carroll (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).
7. Preaching the Whole Bible As Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching by Graeme Goldsworthy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2000).
8. Goldworthy, page 95.
9. In its variety of witnesses, the Bible allows for a variety of readings. For instance, Walter Brueggemann warns: “[T]he task of Old Testament theology, as a Christian enterprise, is to articulate, explicate, mobilize, and make accessible and available the testimony of the Old Testament in all of its polyphonic, elusive, imaginative power and to offer it to the church for its continuing work of construal toward Jesus. That is, Old Testament theology, in my judgment, must prepare the material and full respect the interpretive connections made in the New Testament and the subsequent church; but it must not make those connections, precisely because the connections are not to be found in the testimony of ancient Israel, but in the subsequent work of imaginative construal that lies beyond the text of the Old Testament.” See his Theology of the Old Testament, p 732. Brueggemann differs in his approach from the canonical readings of Brevard Childs, whose class I was very privileged to take in 1979.
10. The Seventy Faces of Torah: The Jewish Way of Reading the Sacred Scriptures by Stephen M. Wylan, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005), pages 22-23.
This is not to say Jews cannot interpret the Torah laws. Jews recognize that not every law is applicable today and therefore they must be discussed and considered. Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), is a publication from the Reform tradition that interprets and discusses the Torah material.
11. Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context by Brevard S. Childs (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986,), pages 128-132.
12. Richard B. Hays, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), page 329.
13. Wylan, The Seventy Faces of Torah, pages 73-74.