All posts in “Bible”

“The Bible is not Sinless” – Karl Barth (Barth in Conversation)

Biblical inerrancy—the belief that Scripture is completely without error—has become a central belief of evangelicalism. I am a member of several Facebook groups, including those in the Calvinist/Reformed perspective, and I have seen time and time again when a theologian or a preacher is dismissed solely because they have a “weak view of scripture”—meaning they do not profess inerrancy. In some cases, denying Biblical inerrancy is grounds for applying that dreadfully overused term, “heretic.” It is also why so many reformed Christians resist picking up a book by my favorite theologian, Karl Barth.

The issue of Karl Barth and inerrancy is a subject I discussed briefly in my book, Karl Barth in Plain EnglishThere my purpose was to show that Barth did not profess inerrancy, that, for Barth, the Bible is “vulnerable to errors,” and ultimately that his reasons for this are worth considering. Barth offers a carefully thought-out alternative to the rigidly dogmatic way so many have professed inerrancy: he at once highly-regards the Bible as normative for all theology, yet he does not have to deem it perfect to do so.

His reasons are clear: the Bible is not the Son of God. It is a human book. As a human book, it is vulnerable to the errors of human, historical limitations. It is not a divine oracle sent down from heaven. However, it bears witness to the Word of God, and it is thus an indirect form of the Word by the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Bible points beyond itself to the Word of God; it does not contain within itself the Word. The Word of God is not bound to a book, yet this human book becomes God’s Word in its witness. We depend on the faithfulness of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, not on the “perfection” of a book.

Continuing a blog-series about the new volume, Barth in ConversationI wanted to share an answer Barth gave to the question of Biblical inerrancy. It provides us with insight into how Barth considered the Bible to be at once authoritative in its witness to God’s Word and yet limited as a human book.

Here is the question Barth was asked:

In this connection how does Dr. Barth harmonize his appeal to Scripture, as the objective Word of God, with his admission that Scripture is, indeed, sullied by errors, theological as well as historical or factual? (CD I/2: 507-12)

Barth responds:

The Bible has proved and will prove itself to be a true and fitting instrument to point man to God and his work and his words, to God who alone is infallible. Since the Bible is a human instrument and document, bound and conditioned by the temporal views of nature, of history, of ideas, of values, it to that extent is not sinless, like Jesus Christ himself, and thus not infallible, like God. No wonder that seen from the perspective of the worldviews and the concepts of other ages; the question may arise whether we have to conclude that the Bible is not solid. I should never say such a thing, but would admit rather the occurence of certain, let us say, tensions, contradictions, and maybe if you prefer, “errors,” in its time-bound human statements. 1

There are two significant moves Barth makes here that will be important for those wanting to consider the issue of inerrancy for themselves. The first is to recognize that the Bible is an instrument; it serves a particular end. That means it is not in itself such an end. The Bible’s role is to point human beings towards the Word of God, and Barth makes an important point when he says that the Bible has proven itself worthy of this purpose. It is a “true and fitting” instrument. Therefore, it is reliable and trustworthy in its particular purpose.

But we should not make it into something it is not. The second move, therefore, is that the Bible is not the second incarnation of the Word. Surprisingly, however, I have heard it argued from inerrantist that in the Bible the Word of God “inscripturated” itself. That is nonsense. The Bible is not God-on-paper in the same way we confess that Jesus was God-in-flesh. The Bible, therefore, cannot be deemed sinless and infallible in the same way that Christ was sinless. Even if we attempt to claim that it is “perfect,” it cannot be in the same way that God is perfect. Might it be “perfect” in the sense that it is a “true and fitting” instrument to witness to God’s Word? Yes! But it is not free from errors because of its historical limitations. It remains a human book, despite being ordained by God for special use.

Barth’s doctrine of Scripture is worth examining more closely if you have concerns about the issue of Biblical inerrancy. You can read his full treatment of the Bible in Church Dogmatics I/2 but can also find helpful material in Evangelical Theology: An IntroductionBarth’s approach is a useful way forward between the form-critics of liberalism and the inerrantists of fundamentalism. Here we affirm with Barth that the Bible is reliable, true, and faithful in its witness to the Word of God, and thus it is normative in the Church and for theology. However, we confess that it is also a time-bound book, a book limited by human history. It is not sinless, therefore, but it is a suitable instrument.

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Notes:

  1. Barth in ConversationKindle Loc. 4382-4391

Divine Interpretation by T.F. Torrance: a Review

Book: Divine Interpretation: Studies in Medieval and Modern Hermeneutics by Thomas F. Torrance (edited by Adam Nigh and Todd Speidell) (AMAZON LINK)

Publisher: Pickwick Publications (an imprint of Wipf&Stock) (PUBLISHERS LINK)

Overview: Released only this month, this collection of essays by Torrance is a valuable addition to his current body of work. While the two essays on Barth stood out as the high points of the book, each essay was a masterful piece of scholarship.


Undoubtably, the great benefit of this book is the republication of two important essays on Karl Barth written by Torrance and published in the now out of print (and therefore very costly) volume, Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical TheologianI’ve wanted to read this book for some time now, but the near $100 price tag has prohibited me from getting my hands on a copy.

The essays “Karl Barth and the Latin Heresy” and “Karl Barth, Theologian of the Word”, were naturally the high point of the book for me. Yesterday I posted an article examining several quotations from the first essay. Reading my article from yesterday will give you a taste of this essay, which you can do so by clicking here.

Continue Reading…

The Bible is Not a Guide Book

Holy_bible_bookThis week I took the time to read Peter Enns fantastic little book, The Bible Tells Me SoIt has been a book on my reading list for some time, but it was recently discounted to $1.99, so I had to snatch it up. (As of my writing this, the book is still on sale. I highly recommend it!)

Today I wanted to discuss one of the main ideas of this book, one that Peter Enns kept returning to time and time again: the bible is not a Christian guide book, it is a story—it is the story of God’s people.

The B.I.B.L.E.

I’ve often heard this cheesy Christian phrase, that the bible is: “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”.

I couldn’t have come up with a more inaccurate definition of the bible even if I tried. There are several issues here. First of all, the bible never says its a guide book. It doesn’t present a step-by-step solution to all your problems. And second, who says we’re leaving earth anytime soon? Won’t the Kingdom of Heaven be established here on this earth? It will be made new, but we can’t be too quick at leaving it behind. 1

And let’s be honest. The bible isn’t really a very good guide book, if it is one at all. It contradicts itself quite often, it tells a lopsided version of history, and sometimes even promotes murder, genocide, or slavery.

This phrase is an attempt to try and force a misbehaving bible to behave.

But what do we do when the bible just doesn’t behave like we want it to? When we’re honest with ourselves, it’s hard to ignore this fact. The bible doesn’t behave like a rule book, or even like a Christian guide book. It simply does not contain all the answers to life. The bible will not tell you who you should marry, if you should take that job or not, what city you should live in, if the carpet on your new home should be grey or beige, what investments you should make in the stock market, or what you should do with your life! As much as we pretend the bible can do all these things, it simply cannot. It is not the end all answer book for Christian living. We are living an illusion if we think it is.

But why do we continue to speak of the bible in this way? As if the bible actually contains our step-by-step guide for our lives?

In some ways, we probably do this out of fear. We don’t want to be uncomfortable in our faith. We want easy answers, simple truths, and incontestable voices of reason. And most of all, we certainly don’t want to trust in the Holy Spirit! Please God anything but that! So instead of trusting the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, to be our guide, we would much rather have a book answer all our burning questions. Because God forbid we learn how to think for ourselves or learn to lean on the wisdom of the Spirit in us!

We have tried to make God the Father, Son, and Holy Bible! But what a horrific disgrace to the God who loves us and has given us the gift of His Spirit. We have tried to replace our brains and the Holy Spirit in us with a non-thinking bible of simple facts and easy guides. But it simply will not behave as we would hoped it would.

Biblical realism

Rather than trying to fit the bible into what we think it should be, we should let the bible be what it actually is. The bible is a story. It is the story of the people of God, and the people of God are never without their flaws. Yes, the bible is inspiring, it is moving, and it is certainly inspired. However, the bible sometimes is really unsettling (like when God commanded the genocide of the Canaanites), or just plan difficult to reconcile with our modern world (like believing that a fruit is the cause of all our problems). But when we let the bible be what it is, we will learn far more from it than we ever imagined.

When you read the Bible on its own terms, you discover that it doesn’t behave itself like a holy rulebook should. It is definitely inspiring and uplifting— it wouldn’t have the shelf life it does otherwise. But just as often it’s a challenging book that leaves you with more questions than answers. 2

So here’s my not so radical thought: What if the Bible is just fine the way it is? What if it doesn’t need to be protected from itself? What if it doesn’t need to be bathed and perfumed before going out in public? 3

We should adopt this biblical realism in our approach to scriptures. We can certainly see that this book is inspired and God breathed, but that doesn’t mean we also can’t say that it has its difficulties. It is a historical book and we can’t pretend it isn’t by treating it otherwise. It tells of a people from a long time ago, and we have to let it be what it is without trying to tame it or force it to meet our expectations.

What if the Bible is just fine?

The bible is a challenging book, and the writers of the bible didn’t have all the answer. They, like you and me, are on a journey. This journey is just as much our story as it is God’s story, but this does not mean it is a perfectly accurate story. Peter Enns has a great little chapter heading called, “God Lets His Children Tell the Story”.  And this is exactly what the bible is about, especially its narrative. God has let his children tell the story of their journey with Him, and I think it’s because God knows that sometimes our journey can be more powerful than even the most accurate of facts (historical or otherwise).

Therefore, the bible has gone through this filter, the filter of God’s people telling the story. Accordingly, their culture, history, and personal experiences all come into view.

Is God always exactly as He appears to be in the Old Testament? Did God actually command genocide and murder? Not necessarily. Sometimes the bible has more to tell us about what the Israelites believed about God than what God is actually like. In Enns’ words:

These ancient writers had an adequate understanding of God for them in their time, but not for all time— and if we take that to heart, we will actually be in a better position to respect these ancient voices and see what they have to say rather than whitewashing the details and making up “explanations” to ease our stress. And for Christians, the gospel has always been the lens through which Israel’s stories are read— which means, for Christians, Jesus, not the Bible, has the final word. 4

The scriptures are like a good period piece. They sometimes say more about the people involved than the accuracy of their beliefs. The Israelites had a good understanding of God for their time period, and it was actually fairly progressive with their insistence upon monotheism. But their understanding of God is not a universal, be-all end-all truth about what God is like.

Only Jesus is the universal, be-all, end-all image of God.

Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Which implies that before Jesus, God was invisible to human beings. So even though the Old Testament claims at times to speak of God, it speaks only in shadows about God. The only concrete knowledge of God is found in Jesus.

The ultimate context of the scriptures is Jesus Christ. Christ is the controlling center of the scriptures. This idea was echoed in another recent article on Thomas F Torrance, where he writes: “Strictly speaking, Christ himself is the scope of the Scriptures, so that it is only through focusing constantly upon him, dwelling in his Word and assimilating his Mind, that the interpreter can discern the real meaning of the Scriptures.”

Jesus Christ alone is the scope of the scriptures, the controlling center of our thought about what God is like. Which means the bible is not this center. The center of the Christian faith is not the bible, it’s Jesus. Jesus alone is the revelation of God, the bible gives witness to this revelation, but in itself it is not this revelation. 5

So what then?

So what is the conclusion we should make from this? If we are to take up a realist relationship with the scriptures, emphasizing the person of Christ as our controlling center of thinking about God, then how do we now relate to the bible itself? In Enns’ own words:

This is the Bible we have, the Bible where God meets us. Not a book kept at a safe distance from the human drama. Not a fragile Bible that has to be handled with care lest it crumble in our hands. Not a book that has to be defended 24/ 7 to make sure our faith doesn’t dissolve. 6

The bible is where God meets us. It is where we read the story of God and of His people. It isn’t always perfect, or accurate, and often it can be difficult and challenging, but it is what we have. It is where God meets us. We don’t have to defend it, or wage war with it, or look to it and it alone as our source of guidance. We should examine the bible carefully, with reverence and appreciation, but also with realism. We cannot continue to place unrealistic expectations upon the bible, supposing it to be something it isn’t.

And when we do this, when we take the bible realistically, the bible will challenge us. It may not always comfort us, and it may very well unsettle us from time to time—but that’s okay. Christianity never came with the promise of simple answers or a step-by-step guide to life. It has promised to change our lives, to radically reshape our worldview, and most importantly, to bring us into relationship with God Himself. But none of these things are normal. So we have to be willing to let the bible bring a little discomfort from time to time, as we are faced with challenging stories about God and mankind. In these pages we hear the echo of our personal story, and on these pages through all the difficulties, we still met Jesus Christ the Son of the Father, our savior, our brother.

Why else would the Holy Spirit be called the Comforter, if we shouldn’t expect to be uncomfortable from time to time? Even, and especially, in the book about God’s interaction with sinful man?

The bible is not a guidebook full of easy answers. The bible recounts the story of God and human beings—fallible, sinful human beings. And as such, the bible is an amazing book. One we can appreciate even more when it’s understood correctly.

(I highly recommend Peter Enns book to you, and I think you should take advantage of this great deal before its gone.)

And on an unrelated note: my favorite book I’ve written, so far, We Belong: Trinitarian Good News, is available now for a discounted price: $4.99 for an eBook or $12.99 for a paperback copy. Get yours here.

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Notes:

  1. More on this from my (free!) book 10 Reasons Why the Rapture Must be Left Behind
  2. Enns, Peter (2014-09-09). The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (p. 4). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
  3. Ibid. p. 9. Bold mine.
  4. Ibid. p. 65.
  5. This is the purpose of my article The Bible is Inadequate (& That’s Why It’s True)
  6. Ibid. p. 232

The Bible is Inadequate (& That’s Why It’s True)

unnamedThe bible is a tremendous gift to mankind. It is true, it is right, and most of all it is a witness to the Word of God. But it is not perfect. And in fact, the whole “true”-ness of the scriptures depends upon its inadequacy.

It is a hotly debated subject to say the least, the nature of the scriptures. But it’s an essential one. So you have to understand something before we begin. I do value the bible highly, and furthermore, I feel I value the bible even more than ever now that I understand it in this way. The bible has a special place in my heart, and has always been an important part of my journey as a believer. But in recent years I’ve begun to question the idea that it is, in and of itself, absolutely perfect. I still believe that it is true, and that it is filled with life and meaning and beauty—but I no longer see every single letter of the bible to be perfect. And so, let me tell you why I believe that’s a good thing.

Scripture as Witness

First, let me quote the man who summed up so well what I’ve been feeling about the bible for some time now: Thomas F. Torrance. I already listed several quotes from Torrance in my last article, but today I will expound on a few of them:

“In a realist theology this will mean that we must distinguish no less sharply between dogmatic formulations of the truth and the truth itself, in the recognition that even when we have done all that it is our duty to do in relating them rightly (i.e., in an “orthodox” way) to the truth, they nevertheless fall far short of what they should be, and are inadequate. Indeed, it must be said that their inadequacy in this way is an essential part of their truth, in pointing away from themselves to the truth they serve, as it is an essential element in their objectivity in being grounded beyond themselves on reality that is independent of them.1

And also this one:

“That is to say, biblical statements are to be treated not as containing or embodying the Truth of God in themselves, but as pointing, under the leading of the Spirit of Truth, to Jesus Christ himself who is the Truth. We have to recognize the fact, therefore, that the Scriptures indicate much more than can be expressed, and that there is much more to their truth than can be reduced to words.” 2

Thomas Torrance is not the always easiest to understand, so let me unpack a little about of what I think he means here.

First of all, he is writing about the nature of scripture in relation to objective truth (Jesus Christ). Jesus Christ is truth. He is the Word of God. In other words, Jesus is God saying what He has to say about Himself. He is the objective center to which the bible points. All that we say about God should be said in the light of Jesus, since no knowledge of God is possible “behind the back” of Christ. The question then is, how do the scriptures relate to Jesus? How does a witness to the truth relate to the truth itself?

The scriptures themselves are not the Word of God. John 1 clearly ascribes the Word of God to Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone. Although, following Barth, it is important to see how the scriptures can become the Word of God, when breathed upon and illuminated by the Spirit of Truth. However, this does not make the bible itself perfect, that is, infallible or inerrant. Instead, the bible is a witness to the truth, and only becomes the truth itself when the truth illuminates it and speaks through it. With Barth 3, Torrance is affirming that the scriptures accurately give witness to the Revelation of God, but that in themselves they do not contain the perfect, infallible truth. That is, they are not perfect in themselves, but they are in what they give witness. They become perfect as God speaks through them.

Jesus is the objective truth of the scriptures. The scriptures speak of Jesus in human words, and human words will always be inadequate. They are inadequate words in relation to their object. Yet it’s exactly this fact that makes them true. As Torrance said above: “…their inadequacy in this way is an essential part of their truth, in pointing away from themselves to the truth they serve, as it is an essential element in their objectivity in being grounded beyond themselves on reality that is independent of them.”

The bible points beyond itself. It is inadequate because its center is not in itself, but outside itself. It is also true for this same reason. Inadequacy is proof that the scriptures are true and give accurate witness to the Word of God. Because the scriptures point beyond themselves to the “truth they serve”. The objective truth is not found in the scriptures, but in the truth the scriptures give witness to. The truth of scriptures is above the scriptures themselves. They must be inadequate, or else they might replace the truth which they point to: the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

What this means

What does this mean for how we read the bible today?

It means, firstly, that we can trust the bible even more. More, not because we trust in the bible itself, but because we trust in the truth to which the bible points. We trust in the Holy Spirit’s leading us into all truth, giving witness to Christ, through the scriptures. Our trust in the bible is not in the bible itself, and therefore it is not in the endless history and criticisms which such trust ultimately involves, but instead it is in the God of the bible, in the Spirit that leads to truth. Our trust is in God, not a book. Though this book is God’s witness to Himself. Truth about God is found not in the bible, but through the bible in the Spirit of Truth witnessing to Christ. And only when we see this can we fully trust the bible.

This also means, secondly, that we can no longer be “literalists” in our reading. As I quoted from Torrance here, fundamentalism tends to elevates the bible above the truth they point to. In other words, the bible gets placed above God! We have become enslaved to a literalist word-fight, with proof-texts abounding, and only a proper understanding of the bible as witness can set us free. The bible is not a set of ready-made truths. The truth of scripture is found outside the scriptures in what they point to.

Thirdly, this means in practice that we no longer look to the bible for the bible’s sake, but through the bible for Christ’s sake. Thomas Torrance writes that, “The Holy Scriptures are the spectacles through which we are brought to know the true God…” And also that, “Christ Himself is the scope of the scriptures.” 4 We read the bible as a pair of glass through which we see the truth of God’s Word to mankind.

Far from devaluing the scriptures, this re-understanding places the bible into a context it belongs: as a witness to the objective truth of God’s Word. Out of this context the scriptures become an unhealthy obsession, fixating on every jot and tittle we find, instead of looking beyond them to the face of Jesus.

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Notes:

  1. Thomas F. Torrance, Reality and Evangelical TheologyJohn Knox Press, 1982, P. 50-1
  2. ibid, P. 119
  3. A great article on Karl Barth’s understanding of the scriptures and error, can be found here (by Postbartian)
  4. ibid, P. 64 and 107, respectively.

Thomas Torrance on Fundamentalism and the Bible

Reality and Evangelical TheologyI purchased an old, ex-library copy of Thomas F. Torrance’s Reality and Evangelical Theology (1981 Payton Lectures) a few months ago, and I am finally getting around to reading it. I wasn’t sure from the title what exactly to expect from the book, but after reading the preface I am pleasantly surprised. From what I have gathered so far, the premise of the book will essentially be to show how liberalism and fundamentalism make the same error, focusing specifically on the fundamentalists error in interpreting scripture. In Torrance’s own words, that “both [fundamentalism and liberalism] balk at the fact that God himself is the one ultimate Judge of the truth or falsity, the adequacy or inadequacy, of all human concepts and statements about him.” 1 And he claims that because of this, fundamentalists error in their reading of the bible.

I’m looking forward to reading more of his arguments on this matter, but here is a great quote from the preface that seems to highlight his primary issue with fundamentalism and their understanding of revelation and the scriptures. Enjoy!

…Fundamentalism operates with a rigid framework of beliefs which have a transcendent origin and which are certainly appropriated through encounter with God in his self-revelation and as such have an objective pole of reference and control, but these beliefs are not applied in a manner consistent with their dynamic origin and nature. Instead of being open to the objective pole of their reference in the continual self-giving of God and therefore continually revisable under its control, they are given a finality and rigidity in themselves as evangelical beliefs, and are clamped down upon Christian experience and interpretation of divine revelation through the Holy Scriptures. Thus they are endowed with a fixity at the back of the fundamentalist mind, where they are evidently secure from critical questioning, not only on the part of skeptical liberals and other freethinkers, but on the part of a divine self-revealing which is identical in its content with the very Being of God himself. At this point the epistemological dualism underlying fundamentalism cuts off the revelation of God in the Bible from God himself and his continuous self-giving through Christ and in the Spirit, so that the bible is treated as a self-contained corpus of divine truths in propositional form endowed with an infallibility of statement which provides the justification felt to be needed for the rigid framework of belief within which fundamentalism barricades itself. 

The practical and the epistemological effect of a fundamentalism of this kind is to give an infallible Bible and a set of rigid evangelical beliefs primacy over God’s self-revelation which is mediated to us through the bible. This effect only reinforced by the regular fundamentalist identification of biblical statements about the truth with the truth itself to which they refer. 2

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Notes:

  1. Reality and Evangelical Theology P. 18, Thomas F Torrance, Westminster Press 1982
  2. ibid. P. 16-7

How Jesus Read the Bible

Jesus BibleI think Jesus would read the bible differently than we do today.

Although I am aware that the bible Jesus read was different from ours. Jesus read what was known as the Torah, and what we call today the Old Testament. But while this is true, we can still learn something from examining how Jesus read the Old Testament scriptures.

There are only a few examples where Jesus shows how He read the bible, but one in particular has always interested me.

In Luke 4:18, Jesus reads on the sabbath day from the scroll of Isaiah:

“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.'” (ESV)

It’s interesting to compare this passage with the one Jesus is quoting. The way Jesus reads the passage  gives us a glimpse into how He understood the bible. He is reading from Isaiah 61:1. Read it and see if you can notice anything different:

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” (ESV)

When you compare the two it’s clear that Jesus intentionally left off that final statement. In Luke’s Gospel this moment signifies the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus proclaims that this is what He is going to do, but He takes special care to leave out that final line in the verse. I think this was done intentionally.

This shows that Jesus came to proclaim the favor of God, not His vengeance. Although in fairness, it is nearly impossible to say with certainty what Jesus actually intended by leaving off this verse. But I find it interesting nonetheless. And if I am going to take a guess here, I think it would be fair to assume that Jesus left off the final portion of Isaiah’s prophecy because God is not interested in vengeance. Instead, Jesus proclaimed the favor of God, the good news that God is for mankind!

How can we learn from this example Jesus gives us?

I believe, preaching hell and sin to scare people into believing is not only a bad idea, it’s something Jesus Himself avoided. Searching the bible for verses to beat up unbelievers seems like working against Jesus. I can’t tolerate it whenever a believer uses the bible to mistreat another human being. The bible shouldn’t be a tool for abuse! Throwing shame and guilt at people has never been a very successful evangelism technique anyways.

Instead, I propose we use the bible to proclaim the wonderful news of God’s favor and grace towards humanity!

This reminds me of a great quote from Harper Lee:

“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of another…”

But I what to know what you think. Leave a comment below!

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10 Ways to Get More Out of Your Bible

10 BibleEvery Christian reads the bible, but not every Christian reads it well. The bible can be a complex book at times. Few take the time or give the bible the attention it deserves. Here then are ten tips to help you navigate what is, in my opinion, the most read, yet least understood book on the planet.

#1 Hold Truth in Tension

The bible is written in a paradox. Not because it is purposefully trying to confuse the reader, but because of the object of it’s witness. The bible itself does not contain truth, it gives witness to The Truth, the Word of God, Jesus Christ. It therefore gives witness to a reality, a person, Who is far beyond our comprehension. The bible therefore speaks in paradox because it keeps at its center the fact that God is not a stagnant being or a book we read. God is living and active, and therefore, God is free and unbound by our concepts.

Therefore, the bible, in giving witness to the eternal God, is a paradoxical book because it seeks to grasp at the diversity in the heart of God. God is free, and in His freedom He is not understood so simply as to be made into a list of attributes or actions. The bible is a book of tension. There are two sides to truth in the scriptures, don’t be quick to drop one side of that tension in favor of the other. Hold truth in tension. 1

#2 Keep Christ Central

The bible, in and of itself, is useless if it does not lead you to Jesus. The person of Christ should be therefore central to all of the scriptures. Whenever you read the bible, read it with Jesus at the forefront of your mind. For example, you cannot read the Old Testament without keeping the proper context. The context is always Jesus. He is the ultimate reality that the bible gives witness to. He is at the center of the bible. Keep Christ central every time you read the bible. Don’t read the bible behind the back of Jesus, trying to discover truth that is somehow “higher” then the person of Christ. Read the bible in a strictly Christocentric way. Jesus is the Word of God, He is what the Father has to say to the human race. The bible is not the Word of God, but it gives witness to the Word. Therefore, read the bible with the presupposition of meeting the Divine Word in human words. 2

#3 Don’t Take it Literally

Reading the bible in English, 2,000 years divorced from culture, language, and history, and thinking that this is an effective way to understand the bible, is just plain ridiculous. Don’t take the bible so literally. There are many factors to consider before you make any judgements about what the bible is trying to say. Don’t forget the fact that when you read the bible in english, you are reading it far removed from the culture or the original audience. The bible isn’t originally written to you. Paul never wrote his letters with the intention of the church reading it for 2,000 years. Many of the books in the bible can’t be taken so literally simply because they are not written for us today. They are still true, and they still have value in teaching us about the culture and society of Israel and the coming of Christ. But to read the bible now, 2,000 years later, and to take it literally is a bad idea.

A sad example of where this can go wrong is in the countless stories of those who have used the bible, taking it literally, to kill, promote slavery, and discriminate against others. The bible in the hands of a literalist is a dangerous book that promotes sexism, slavery, and the murder of Homosexuals. 3 It’s important not to take the bible literally, but to take time to understand the culture, language, and history of the bible before you make any judgements.

#4 Study Historical Context

What happened in 70 Ad? What took place in Israel’s history between 607-586 BC? Studying the history that stands behind the scriptures is crucially important in understanding the bible itself. Without knowing the history behind the bible, it would be like trying to read a letter written from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Adolf Hitler without knowing what took place during World War II. Knowing what is taking place in the history of Israel gives insight into the Prophetic books, the Psalms, and the Old Testament Literature. The same is true for the New Testament writings. Without knowing the widespread persecution, the coming destruction of the temple, and other events in the early church you may easily misunderstand the writings of Paul. Understanding history is important to understanding this historical document we call the bible. The bible is firmly rooted in history, and it would be an error to remove it from that history.

#5 Read Multiple Translations

Reading many different translations has been helpful for me personal. It helps me in two ways. First, to find more enjoyment out of my bible reading. It makes it interesting to read many different translations, comparing the translations in order to dive deeper into the texts. Bible reading gets stagnant and boring if you read only one translation for years. Expanding your translation library can bring new life to your reading. Second, owning multiple translations gives me the ability to see many different perspectives on the text. If it’s either a paraphrase, a literal translation, or a thought for thought translation, there are many schools of thought in how to read the bible. Therefore, each translation offers a unique perspective on the bible. Comparing multiple translations is useful in grasping the bible better. 4

#6 Listen to Theology

C.S. Lewis writes that “if you do not listen to theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones—bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas.” 5 Theology is a form a repentance because Theology means changing your mind and changing the ways you think about God. Therefore, theology is essential in our thinking about God. Everyone has a theology, but few take the time to examine or refresh their theology. It’s important to be continuously learning and growing in God, and one of the best ways to do that is by listening to great theology. Some of my favorite theologians to listen to are C. Baxter Kruger, Karl Barth, and T.F. Torrance. Theology has a way of refreshing your outlook on the bible, and helping you see things that you may have missed before.

#7 Study Church History

For 2,000 years the church has collectively read, studied, and thought through many of the ideas regarding the scriptures and the God of the scriptures. This conversation is one that we today get to join in. It is freeing to know that Christianity is an ongoing conversation about faith. It means that we don’t have to re-invent the wheel, but that faith is a conversation that has been happening for centuries. We can learn from the church fathers, and the many theologians throughout history. To ignore church history would be to ignore our heritage as believers. We are not alone in this journey, we have saints both today and in the past who have walked beside us in this journey in discovering God. 6 Read old books by the men and women throughout our history who have made a notable impact on Christianity. For example, read the early church fathers like Athanasius, Basil, Hilary, and Augustine. Also read the reformers like Calvin and Luther, or the medieval theologians like Anselm or Bernard of Clairvaux.

#8 Keep Books in Their Place

The bible is a collection of books that fit into certain specific categories. It ranges from poetic books, to historical books, to letters, to apocalypse literature; to Gospel accounts. It is important to keep the books of the bible in their proper context. You wouldn’t read a fiction book like a non-fiction book would you? You wouldn’t read Harry Potter as if Hogwarts were actually a real place, and the stories were true? It’s important to do the same with the books of the bible. Keep the specific genres and intended audiences in their proper place. Don’t read Paul like you read David. David wrote poetic Psalms that expressed emotion, prophecies, and prayers. Paul wrote to explain theology, to encourage the church, and to instruct. You can’t read one like the other. Read the bible in its proper context as a collection of books that fit within certain categories. Take the time to study the audience of each book, and the context in which they are written.

Additionally, read books, not verses. The bible is meant to be grasped as a whole, not as single verses divorced from the rest of the bible. Read whole letters of Paul, not just verses or chapters. Take the bible as a whole, not in part.

#9 Embrace Mystery

Im-Reading-The-Bible_o_92193Be okay with saying “I don’t know” in the face of difficult texts. Don’t feel like you have to understand everything that is being said. Oftentimes I read passages in the bible that confuse me, I am okay with saying I don’t understand everything. It is far better to say that you don’t know something then to pretend that you do know something. You will make errors any time you try to force an interpretation instead of allowing for mystery. Embrace mystery in the bible and be okay with the unknown. Don’t try to remove mystery for the sake of understanding. You will often end us with cheap answers, or bad theology.

# 10 Don’t Be Dogmatic, Be Fluid

Don’t be stuck in a system that does not allow for questioning and searching for truth. Don’t give into dogma that denies the movement of progress in theology. Don’t get stuck into a system to claims to be perfect, and rejects anyone who disagrees with it without having a conversation with them. Nothing is above questioning. The truth remains truth in the face of all questioning, and in fact is strengthened when challenged. So if it is really true, your questions will not harm it. Don’t be dogmatic, or feel satisfied with cheap answers to hard questions. Always learn, always grow, always progress deeper into the endless depths of God’s truth.

Conclusions

Reading the bible can be a joy as much as it can be a frustration. It’s both difficult and worthwhile to take the time to explore the bible and read it well. I hope these brief tips can help you find new life in the bible, and new joy in your journey with God.

Any tips you would add? Let me know in a comment below!

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Notes:

  1. Here’s an example.
  2. A favorite quote of mine from Jurgen Moltman: “I read the bible with a presupposition to meet the Divine Word in human words.”
  3. See this article on Biblcalism
  4. Here are a few translations I recommend
  5. Mere Christianity
  6. I’ve written some along these lines here.

Is the Bible Perfect? (It Doesn’t Really Matter)

Bible perfectIn 1978 the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was published in reaction to biblical liberalism. It states that, “scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching…” 1

Biblical inerrancy has caused much debate, and there are many opposing and supporting arguments for and against its validity. Some say that the bible is perfect in every way, while others say it is inspired but fallible. It is in many ways considered “evangelical suicide” to disagree with Biblical Inerrancy.

Here, I have no interest in commenting on whether or not I believe in inerrancy. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters.

Let’s say the bible truly is perfect. So what? It’s not like you could read it perfectly.

If we could read the bible perfectly, then why do so many highly-educated people disagree over what it means? Why do so many PhD level scholars disagree so completely on things that should be obvious in a “perfect” bible?

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether or not the bible is perfect. We cannot read the bible perfectly. If church history has taught us anything, it has certainly taught us this.

Karl Barth made an interesting statement that’s fitting here. In response to the Biblicalism he wrote this:

The Bible was now grounded upon itself apart from the mystery of Christ and the holy Ghost. It became a “paper Pope,” and unlike the living Pope in Rome it was wholly given up into the hands of its interpreters. It was no longer a free and spiritual force, but an instrument of human power. 2

Barth hits the nail on its head here in calling the protestant bible a “paper pope.” It has all to often become “an instrument of human power.” Here Barth says with such brilliance what I have felt for some time now about the way we approach the bible.

Manipulation?

old_testament_lawThe bible may be perfect, and if it is, who’s job is it to interpret it? In other words, who is in charge of telling us what this perfect bible means?

If we see that there is a difference between “my interpretation” and “bible perfection” then I think we’re okay. However, we often fail in seeing this. We say things like “well, the bible is pretty clear!” But is it, really?

Here’s an easy formula for manipulation. “The bible is perfect + my interpretation of the bible is perfect = what I say, God says. Disagree with me, you disagree with God.”

There is a very thin line here with incredibly dangerous ramifications. If “my interpretation” is equal to “God’s truth”, then I can manipulate, molest, and control anyone who will listen to me in the name of “just preaching the bible.”

No one “just teaches the bible.” Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment. We teach “our interpretation” of the bible. To confuse interpretation for truth is to gravely error.

One look at history and you’ll see the danger in this. Christians used the bible to promote racism and slavery in America. Hitler used the bible to justify murder, war, and all the horrors of the holocaust.

Biblical inerrancy may be correct, or it may not be, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. No one is infallible. We all have subjective opinions; we rarely ever think objectively.

So let’s just be honest with ourselves. We are all learning and growing in God. None of us have arrived at “perfect theology.”

Therefore, be willing to listen to other perspectives, and be humble in sharing your own. Have conversations, not debates. Let’s not get dogmatic here! Be willing to learn from others, to explore different ideas, and to challenge what you believe.

Learn. Grow. Explore.

Now I’d love to hear what you think. Leave me a comment below!

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A great quote on the bible can be found here.