We’ve probably all seen a pastor stand up with a bible and declare, “this is God’s instruction manual for life.” Or seen those bumper stickers which say, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” The idea is that we can just flip open the bible and find instructions, directions and formulas for living our lives. Which if your only encounter with scripture comes from sermons by pastors who are carefully choosing what to preach on, might seem reasonable.
However, if you are brave enough to venture into scriptures on your own, you’ll find bizarre stuff like Lot offering up his virgin daughters to an angry, lustful mob. Or a woman driving a stake through the temple of a man sleeping in her tent. Or how about Judah picking up what he thinks is a prostitute on the side of the road only to discover later that it’s his daughter in law! Or even Jesus telling us that we have to hate our family. And don’t even get started on all the laws; rules for handling skin conditions, accidental killing, weaving clothing, divination to discover adultery and more. If you venture into the bible thinking it’s an instruction manual, you’re going to come out one confused person! Lot and Judah were “heroes” of the bible; does that mean we can offer up our daughters to be raped so we can get some sleep or pick up prostitutes on the side of the road? Most of the patriarchs were polygamists. Does this mean polygamy is “biblical” and therefor acceptable? How about slavery? There are a lot of rules for slavery. Can we then conclude as early Americans did that slavery is biblical and allowable?
The simple fact is that the bible is not nearly as clear cut, and it’s heroes not nearly as unblemished as we’re often lead to believe. Yet it isn’t acceptable for the Christian to simply ignore it, take it all with a grain of salt or just pick out what makes sense to us. I think that a better approach is probably to view it as I was taught by a nun in my Catholic high school. There I was taught that the bible is the story of God’s involvement with His creation, particularly the Israelites, of humanity’s growing understanding of God and His ways, and ultimately of His redemptive work and revelation through Jesus. In this approach, there is no assumption that the stories we will find will be like pagan parables meant to offer clear morality lessons. Instead, the stories we encounter are unfailingly realistic in documenting the failings, foibles and boneheaded stupidity of humanity as it interacts with God.
What makes it so confounding for us is that there is much less editorial commentary than one would think. The “and God was pleased/displeased with so-and-so”s are few and far between. So if we’ve been told that the bible is an instruction manual filled with morality tales, we’re going to have a hard time figuring out how to handle the messy reality that is scriptures. Inevitably, we end up trying to figure out what to ignore, what we can wedge into our lives and how to explain what we find in acceptable terms. Which means we’re all going come to differing conclusions, all supposedly backed by the weight of scriptures. Which is a formula for division and further human stupidity.
I think that fundamentally, viewing the bible as some sort of instruction manual is a misuse of scriptures. God chose to intervene in human history at a particular point in time for His own reasons. However, I think it’s completely erroneous to think that that God ever intended to point to a period in time 2000-5000 years ago and say, “this right here is how people should live, what they should wear, how their laws should be written.” When we look to the bible for specific rules about how to live and manage ourselves, we are always going to wind up with conflicting interpretations, some of them leading us in completely the wrong direction.
Ultimately, this is a problem which traces back to what is at the center of most problems in the church: God is concerned with our hearts. There are no short cuts to getting our hearts right; it takes time and devotion and a willingness to submit to God radically over and over. However, we want to control the process, lay out maps for everyone and think that following the controlled, mapped process is the same thing as having a right heart. When we argue over biblical interpretations, we are arguing over these maps. Which is always a sign that we’re missing the point. We don’t need better maps. We need better hearts.
Our hearts aren’t often shaped by reading scriptures and asking, “how can I live this (slavery, killing of enemies, dietary laws, hairstyles, etc) in my life?” I think proper question needs to be, “what does God want me to know or understand through this?” And in my experience, often God has surprising answers. Sometimes it is through the wrestling with scriptures itself that God’s truth and heart are revealed.
Probably the greatest impediment to relying on God and his heart in order to learn and be shaped by scriptures is Christianity’s often dysfunctional relationship with freedom. One of the overarching themes of the NT seems to be freedom. We are given both much more freedom to make our own decisions and much more responsibility to make sure that both our heart and our actions are pure in the NT scheme. But we don’t like freedom as much as we pretend to. I think we’re like the Israelites who demanded that God give them a king to rule over them. (1 Samuel 8) We’ve done the same, only we’ve taken the bible as our ruler. However, the role of scriptures is not to be a ruler – that role belongs to the Living God alone. 1 Timothy 3:16 says “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” I am drawing a fine line here, but I would argue that this is different than saying that scripture is good for “imitating, modeling or direction.” Instead, scripture is an interactive tool for us which also provides a ballast for our freedom in Christ.
If scriptures are good for teaching, the question is, teaching what? I would argue that find out we need to turn to God in prayer and ask, “what do you want to teach me here?” If the bible provides reproof and correction, the question is reproof and correction of what? Of our tendency to follow the direction the world sets and our own tendency to go off course. When we are told that scriptures provides training in righteousness, this means we must first know what counts as righteousness and then view our lives, our choices, and even the lives recorded in scriptures through that lens. We will find that some stories in scriptures do offer models of righteousness, while others show things which fall far short of that goal. Just because it has been recorded in scriptures does not mean it has God’s stamp of approval.
All in all, what I think is important to understand is that the study of scripture is not a one way street where information is poured into us and we just “put it on”. Rather it is something which we interact with. We meditate on it, pray over it, struggle with it. This is exactly how the Jewish people from ancient days onward have understood their duty to scripture – as active rather than simply passively received. It is in interacting with scriptures in this way that we develop discernment, wisdom, intimacy with God, discipline and an openness which is all but cut of if we approach the bible as a manual to simply read and follow.