Sunday, November 11, 2012

How We Read the Bible - Part 3

So, if you've read posts 1 and 2 in this series, you might feel a bit disoriented at this point. More probably, these posts have revealed a breakdown that was already unfolding in your experience with Scripture.

I grew up with the assumption that the Bible was a book with one clear and consistent message. And in a sense, it is that. The Holy Spirit inspired the writers of Scripture and continues to inspire readers of Scripture to understand the overarching story of God's redemption.

And yet, this flat understanding of Scripture fails to account for the miracle of Scripture.

Think about it: The 66 books of the Bible were written by more than 40 authors, in 3 languages, on 3 different continents, spread across over a millennium. Some of the authors, like Moses and Paul were educated in the finest schools of their day, but others, like Peter, were uneducated men who were more comfortable with fishing nets than pens in their hands.

I would challenge anyone who could bring me another book that speaks with such unity while being written as diversely as this book. It's a miracle. It's a work of God...literally!

But I want to push back against the idea that the Bible is univocal. If it's univocal, it's flat. It has one clear-cut meaning. And that was the assumption I left home with. So when I entered my first preaching class, I was paralyzed and couldn't write my first sermon because I feared that I would interpret the text wrong. 

Let me assure you: I'm not a relativist. There certainly are wrong ways to interpret/apply a text. But there are several right ways to interpret/apply most texts.

You know this to be true. I'm sure all of you can relate a story about coming to a familiar Scripture that you've read 1,000 times, but on the 1,001st time you read it, a message emerges from the text you had never seen before. You wonder how you could have missed it.

Today, I view Scripture as a conversation. I view it as a library (66 books in a larger anthology) rather than a univocal book. I view it as a mosaic pieced together from the writing of a diverse group of authors who gave their own inspired spin on the mess humans have contributed to the world and the beauty that God works out of that mess.

Here's just one example of Scripture's multivocal conversation:

Deuteronomy gives the people of God a straight-forward theology. Deuteronomy 28-30 sets forward a black and white picture of Israel's future. If they do what is right and honor God, he will bless them. If they do what is wrong and dishonor God, he will curse them. That's the basic premise of Deuteronomic Theology.

And when we come to the Book of Job, it's obvious that Job's friends have subscribed to Deuteronomic Theology. Job seems to have been cursed. For seven days, they are silent. It's the best pastoral care they can offer Job. But when they open their mouths, it all goes downhill.

You see, Job believes he has suffered unjustly. He believes he's blameless and in chapter 1, the readers know that Job's right. But Job's friends know Deuteronomy. And they're sure the righteous don't suffer for nothing. So, they beg Job to confess whatever sin he has committed, so that God will stop bringing curses on Job and his house. 

So, what does all of this have to do with how we view Scripture?

I think what's going on in the Book of Job is just one example of many of how different Scriptural authors are in conversation with one another. The author of the Book of Job is pushing back on the author of the Book of Deuteronomy. He's getting a word in for God to let his readers know that suffering doesn't always mean that God is actively punishing you.

Jesus is engaged in the very same dialogue with Deuteronomy in John 9. There's a guy who's been blind since birth and the disciples have read Deuteronomy. So they astutely ask, "Who sinned, this guy or his parents, that he was born blind?" And instead of siding with Deuteronomy and Job's friends, Jesus pushes back and says neither of them sinned.

If you've grown up in Churches of Christ, this can be quite disconcerting. We like things black and white. We've viewed Scripture as more of a constitution than anything else. (I wonder where that idea came from? Possibly the early American frontier as our movement emerged?)

So, if this is so, how would that impact our biblical interpretation?

(I'd love your thoughts. Join the conversation!)


1 comment:

Tim Archer said...


Seems to me that much of the problem comes from treating the Bible as a book instead of a library. It's a collection of books, with different voices, and yes, even different views on some things. Kings wants to explain why God's people went into captivity; Chronicles wants to explain why the temple needs to be rebuilt. They approach the same stories from different viewpoints.

And wisdom literature is full of voices. Some books, like Ecclesiastes, almost seem bipolar, as the same book presents two contrasting viewpoints.

We have to step back from proof text theology and let the Bible be the book that God left us, not the book we wish he'd left us.

Thanks for this series!