In an effort to make faith simple, some have tried to make the Bible simple too. Some make it sound like reading the Bible is as easy as picking up your favorite novel, Christian living book, or the rules of your new board game.
But if you’ve ever struggled over a tricky passage and decided that this book is far more difficult than you've been led to believe, you’re not wrong.
What is the Bible and what are we supposed to do with it?
The Bible is sacred to most Christians. We have very clear ideas of what books are in or out and squint suspiciously at apocryphal books that didn’t make it into our canon. Most Christians also consider the Bible to be the inspired word of God—whatever that means. That sounds glib, but I'm being serious.
When is the last time you sat down to consider what the Bible actually is? What does it mean, that scripture is inspired? 2 Timothy 3:16 is a popular proof text for the inspiration of scripture, but it is good to remember that this letter and this statement were written before the Bible as we know it was formed. Even what we call the complete Old Testament was not canon at this point.
The meaning of "inspired" text is debated among Christians. And answers vary widely.
Did each book of the Bible drop from heaven in perfectly finished form?
Did God dictate word for word and the biblical authors immediately wrote it down for future generations?
Was the Bible written by men of incredible faith who wrestled with faith in their day and age, within their own situation?
Did some biblical author's perceptions and interpretations make it onto the page?
If the author of one book in the Bible uses a word, debates a topic, or quotes a scripture, must it perfectly jive with another author of a different book? Or can they bounce off of each other, debate across history and situations, or use it in a new way?
Was the Bible edited over generations?
Can the Bible be used as a book of science, explaining how the world was made?
Does the Bible claim to be absolutely perfect? If an error or inconsistency is found, can the whole thing be tossed out as a hoax?
Is every verse directly applicable to each of us, like a personal note from God? Is every situation pertinent to our generation and culture and situation thousands of years after this collection of books was written?
Does God expect us to hold the Bible as perfect and as sacred as he is?
These questions are uncomfortable. Deeply uncomfortable. Yet, these are questions to consider, and not just when we turn to the Bible with our 21st-century problems and find they aren’t addressed. What we think the Bible IS directly affects HOW we use it.
I think it is clear that we must celebrate what the Bible IS rather than demanding it be what we want it to be. One of our teachers in my class, and the founder of the Institute for the Art of Biblical Conversation, Gary Collier, looks at the Bible this way:
“The Bible is an act of faith, by people of faith, in search of a conversation with God.” - First published in 2012 in the book Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration by Gary D. Collier
How do we use the Bible today? (And is it the right way?)
We can interpret and word study and consider themes. We can sift the text through history, culture, and the original languages, but at some point, we come face-to-face with the realization that the ancient writers were not dealing with the same issues we are facing today. We are bringing them questions they didn't even attempt to answer. They were focused on their own issues.
Another uncomfortable realization—at least for me—is that sometimes, we, the church, have decided to disagree with the interpretations of the ancient writers. We have questioned statements within the Bible and come to different conclusions than the ancient writers. If that makes your head rear back in protest as it did mine, take a minute to consider.
Unless you are part of an ultra-conservative church, you likely take no issue with how anyone styles their hair. Men can have long hair, and women can braid their hair. No big deal. But this was an issue that the apostle Paul addressed and we blithely ignore for various reasons.
Meanwhile, we see all of Paul's talk about Gentile inclusion and circumcision and say “of course, that is the way it should be”, forgetting that these were the big issues of their day, the debates that divided churches and made Paul’s teachings shocking to many.
Many ancient Jews were insulted to hear Jesus insist that they were using the Torah wrong. How could that be? Circumcision and adherence to the Torah set them apart as God’s chosen people.
What if we are using the Bible wrong too? What if we have (intentionally or not) set up the Bible as being equal with God, and assign it perfection on a level that should only be reserved for God? What if we are wrong to insist the ancient writers answer all our questions, like a divine Google?
Now, don’t panic. I’m not refuting the importance of the Bible. I’m not denying that it is the inspired word of God, that it is a source of truth, help, learning, and inspiration, and it should help lead us to a relationship with our creator.
This is a topic I have been mulling over for more than a year, and it is a continuing journey. I am blessed to be part of a Bible study group where we can discuss and challenge each other with hard questions like these without accusations, judgments, or condemnation. It is a rare thing to be part of a group that respects the text, studies it in-depth, AND allows members to ask the sort of questions that would get you thrown out of other Bible study groups.
Reading the Bible takes faith
Within my study group, I have been challenged in my root understanding of the Bible. I have come to see that I should appreciate the Bible for what it is and how it came together. (Not that we all agree with within my study group, and I don't speak for the group.) I am coming to believe that reading the Bible is an act of faith in itself.
Many scholars have spent their careers proving the infallibility of the Bible in science and archaeological history. For some scholars or their audience, there is an edge of fear behind such a quest. It is as if they must prove the Bible is believable. That the Bible must meet our standards of inerrant inspiration. Do we want to live in such fear? Is God even asking us to prove the Bible is perfect?
In the same vein, many Christians insist they believe that God holds us to the same rules as people thousands of years ago and that when questions arise, it is our modern sensibilities that are wrong. That sounds reasonable on some levels, but our modern issues, such as human rights, are not something God chose to address directly in the Bible. Yet we believe he must care about how we treat each other, based on what we see in the Bible.
So we are left with three basic options:
Act as if we live in a first-century society, ignoring the modern world. (Or go even further back in time if you're debating the application of Old Testament laws.)
Sift out the meaning behind the scriptures, the context, the original languages, and the culture. This is the usual method we employ if we want to permit women to speak in church, uncover their heads, or other 'cultural' issues. This method keeps the scripture as inerrant, and claims we have interpreted it wrong. This method runs the risk of being derided as "scriptural gymnastics".
Or . . . and this is the scary one for me, we choose to say that certain commandments or instructions were right for that time and place, but no longer apply in light of God's love and plan for us to grow in love. That God wants us to utilize our new understanding of science, psychology, etc. within a culture vastly different than the ancient world.
Considering those basic choices, none of which are easy, what else is reading the Bible but an act of faith? Just as it takes faith to believe in God, to believe that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead, and to accept that God loves us and has a plan to redeem a broken world. The Bible is not a simple little book of lessons on morality. There are many passages that leave us scratching our heads even after scholarly explanations.
Joining a long tradition of Biblical interpretation in the modern world
We must be careful not to sweep aside the struggles of generations of faith that came before us. They too dealt with big questions. They wrestled with being the people of God and believing he had a plan to save them, all while enduring great hardship. Men and women of faith labored to understand how God moves within this world and what he expects of humanity, and we reap the fruit of their labors in many ways.
And the popular insistence that we are faithfully holding to a "plain reading" of scripture as if we are reading the ancient texts with the only possible interpretation (some claim it is no interpretation at all), opens us up to hypocrisy.
Unless you are part of certain churches, you likely no longer keep the Sabbath, but go to church on Sunday instead. I would bet that in your church, there are few rules about what anyone wears, and you are allowed to eat whatever you want. Couples are allowed to divorce and remarry. Few have sold all they have and given it to the poor or keeps all possessions in common within the church. You don’t greet each other with a holy kiss. You may use grape juice instead of wine, or crackers that are closer to styrofoam than unleavened bread. You have a receipt for your charitable donations to use at tax time. And that's just a few concessions made over generations.
Yet, to go beyond these approved concessions is to be labeled “progressive” —and that is supposed to be an insult against faithfulness to God and appreciation of scripture. It implies that “conservative” interpretations of the past hundred years are stamped with God’s approval and any new concession is heresy. That the time to wrestle with what texts mean is over. (I want to be clear, that I don’t subscribe to any “camp” of faith, nor do I ask for a label other than that I am trying to be a faithful follower of Christ.)
If scriptures have been wrestled with in the past, then we should be able to CONTINUE that careful, prayerful process with issues of today. And that might mean that things look different now than they did then.
There is no need to panic at this claim, as if to question a biblical practice is to unravel the truth of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. We have taken this journey before and came safely out the other side. That is a great comfort to me.
We can continue the ancient tradition of bringing our concerns to God—concerns that have very real implications for those in our immediate circles: our friends, loved ones, fellow believers, and those we hope to bring to the faith.
Not that it is a task we all want. And it runs the risk of opening painful wounds.
If these rules, doctrines, or viewpoints were held for thousands of years, how can we challenge them now?
Part of my personal struggle with grappling with big issues is wondering why didn’t God just clarify way-back-when and save us the heartache?
Were the ancient people held to different "rules" than we are now, and why? Why did some groups of people have to suffer as the Bible was used to hurt them, subjugate them, imprison them, or cut them out of the church family?
Others fear that we are watering down the Bible, that we are making God seem tame by hiding his wrath, making faith about feelings, or conforming to this world. They fear that we are all running headlong into hell.
Those are real fears, I'm not discrediting them. For lifelong Christians, they can elicit a visceral response. Yet, despite the discomfort, it's good to take those fears out, examine them, and decide if they are worth keeping around. My study group challenges my fears all the time. Sometimes I'm left reeling for days! And sometimes, we decide there are no easy answers.
Maybe God is okay with us not knowing all the answers
I love board games. My family knows me well enough that when we open a new game, they hand me the rules first. I like the rules! I enjoy knowing how to navigate my way to a win in the right way. Sometimes, I wish the Bible was more like board game rules. But it's not.
Is it possible that God is willing to let us wrestle with our understanding? At each stage of our changing society, we face new challenges. New questions. Not that we are on a smooth upward journey of morality, or that someday we will achieve utopia on our own. We simply exchange one "modern issue" for another.
But maybe it is within our grappling with the texts that we learn to lean more on God and less on our own understanding. Maybe it is a reminder that we should not claim to be wise, that we should be careful not to judge, that nothing, not even the Bible, compares to the glory and wisdom of God.
The Bible may not be clear on issues we face today, but speaks a lot about how we are to live with God. As we debate how to live with one another, we can safely acknowledge that there is only one God, and he is worthy of our worship. Jesus came and died for our sins, so that we may have forgiveness and a relationship with God. We can learn to be better humans by following Jesus' example. So while we struggle as we strive for how to love each other on this ball of rock, we are firm on that foundation.
Questioning the text is part of a long history
As we turn to our Bible to deal with real and pressing issues that affect the church and the people we care about, let’s not forget our history.
The Gentiles from 2000 years ago were peeking into the Torah and sticking their heads into synagogues. They saw the way Gentiles were portrayed with dismay. Gentiles were the outsiders. Unclean. Lost. As the gospel spread, the Gentiles looked at the faith community and asked the same questions many outsiders today ask as they peek into the Bible and our churches. Am I invited? Am I accepted? Am I loved? Am I on equal footing with those were here first?
Paul jumped up and down shouting “yes!” to the Gentile Christians in the first century, despite everything he had been taught to believe based on his scriptures and long-standing tradition. His scriptures did not change. But Jesus changed everything he knew about salvation and taught him to see the Gentiles in a new way.
Maybe, we can emulate Paul's actions, as fraught with danger as that path seems. If the very idea makes you quake in your boots, you're not alone. We aren't apostles, after all, and this seems like a mountain we're not prepared to climb.
To question the Bible in light of our modern understanding of science, history, psychology, etc, is to consider our roots. Before we can take a step up our mountain of questions, we must consider what our faith is built on, and is that foundation firm enough to handle our questions? What is the Bible? How does God want us to handle ancient texts at this moment in history?
This is not a journey one can take lightly, but fear is not a good enough reason to stay safely home. Not when lives are at stake. It is also not one we should take alone. If we don't walk with Jesus, we will fail.
And if we don't step out together as a faith community, willing to ask the hard questions, to drag our fears out of the shadows and into the light, we run the risk of becoming "Pharisees" in our thinking, making our teachings more important than the people they are supposed to help. Our faith becomes a series of rote answers and formulas, frozen in time, and threatened by questions. I think it's safe to assume that you don't want that any more than I do.
So if you are struggling with big questions, if you are grappling with the collection of ancient, inspired writings we now call the Bible, you are not alone. You've joined the tradition. Stand firm on the rock of who God is, and what Jesus has done for you. Pray, study, and discuss with trusted brothers and sisters in Christ. God is not scared of our questions. He's ready for them.