I have been engaged this week in a lively, fascinating email exchange with a young male pastor out west over the interpretation of scripture. Think of the “hi, I’m a Mac/hi, I’m a PC” ads. For the sake of the illustration, I obviously am the PC… Anyway, my friend and I have been volleying some ideas about the Bible back and forth for the past few days, and I think the discussion is worth sharing. First, there are a few basic beliefs we agree upon:
- The Bible matters
- People should be reading and seeking to understand the Bible
- Our preaching and teaching should be grounded in the Bible
- The Bible shapes and defines our identity as God’s people
- The Bible is not a factual book of history, but a book of faith
You would think, with these things in common, we’re pretty much on the same page. Nope. Our conversation hinges on a modern/post-modern tension — one that is so delicate that it is easy to slip from dialogue to diatribe. I’m going to share my side, and hope that if I misrepresent his side he will weigh in and correct me. I list my opinions first, his second in italics.
- It is very important to understand the context and cultures of the authors of the various pieces of scripture. Knowing what was intended helps us know whether the teachings from thousands of years ago still hold up today or need interpretation and a new application. What the original authors meant and intended is an essential element of good biblical studies. What the Bible meant is not important, but what the Bible means is everything. Times and cultures are so different that it is ridiculous to try to compare modern day America to ancient Israel or first century Palestine. Most of what we think we know about those times is fiction anyway, so don’t waste time trying to figure out something that is meaningless anyway. Read scripture for what it says today.
- Translation matters. It is worth going back to the original Hebrew and Greek from time to time to understand word meanings, nuance, flavor, etc. Good scholarship requires some rigorous engagement with a variety of texts and translations. The Bible isn’t a collection of documents, but a source of revelation. The version you read isn’t that important. How the Bible speaks to you and guides your thinking is what is most important. What the Bible means is a worthless question; the real question is what does the Bible mean to me?
- The Bible was written in a very different cultural context, to a premodern and in many ways primitive audience. Much of what we know and are learning today has no precedent in the Bible. The Bible, as it exists, wasn’t written for us, and so it requires some serious study and interpretation to speak to us in our day. The Bible, as it exists, is exactly as it exists. It is not an artifact from time, but revelation and wisdom that transcends time. Every person who picks the Bible up is reading the Bible as it is meant to be. The reader defines the meaning of scripture for her or himself.
- Biblical illiteracy is a big problem in our church and throughout our culture. We operate as much by myth, opinion, and misunderstanding as we do good, solid knowledge of what the Bible says and means. We misuse scripture to prove points, oppress whole peoples, make political statements, and justify a host of questionable acts. All faith is based on myth, opinion, and misunderstanding. Faith is never objective, but purely subjective. Each individual person is an individual faith unto her or himself. Our religion is a reflection of our values, not vice versa. What we say and do is always justified by what we believe — both individually and collectively. Not reading or understanding the Bible will not keep people from believing in God or calling themselves Christian. In fact, it is only within the past few generations that people have been educated enough to read the Bible anyway. Our history has been one of Biblical illiteracy by the masses.
- There are very exacting intentions and meanings in the Bible. Concepts of grace, justice, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, etc., are not optional for people calling themselves Christian. There are some specific delineations and definitions that provide clear expectations for Christian believers. We may choose not to accept them, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. The Bible contains multiple pictures of what it might mean to be Christian. Ultimately, we are humans, created by God in God’s likeness, and we are called to follow Jesus Christ. Each person and each church has to work out for themselves what this means and what it looks like. There is no set of standards by which we can say, “this is Christian,” and “this is not.”
- Bible study is an important characteristic and practice for spiritual formation and growth. It provides a guide for discipleship and stewardship, ways to live together as the body of Christ in service to all the world. People will hold a defective and incomplete understanding of the Christian faith should they choose not to read, study, and reflect on scripture. Many roads lead to God, and the intellectual is just one path — and maybe not even a really important path. Most people know enough Bible to get by. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” should be all the Bible anyone would ever need. In fact, if we just mastered these two things and burned the rest, would probably live in a much better world.
This conversation isn’t over yet, and I respect a well-articulated position so foreign to my own. It is always valuable for me to engage in dialogue with someone who comes at the world in a different way. We disagree, but we don’t fight. We challenge, but we don’t attack. We prod, but we don’t bludgeon. It has been fun (and frustrating, but mostly fun…). I wonder how many younger pastors and seminarians share my friends views? I wonder how many share mine? I wonder if there is any way to judge which perspective offers the most promise, and which the greatest peril? Obviously, we would disagree on this as well!