Want to see me turn into a psycho raving wiotch? Say something like this to me: “if the book of Genesis – particularly the creation – isn’t a historical record of what actually happened, then the bible isn’t trust worthy and our faith is meaningless.” Seriously – I made myself stop engaging in online discussions about creation because I am incapable of behaving like a decent human being, much less like a good Christian, when confronted with crap like that. In fact, just recently I broke my rule and ended up telling someone that the “god” he served – who is so weak and pathetic that he can be toppled by some labcoats and DNA – was a worthless piece of filth that wasn’t worthy of being squashed under the feet of the mighty God of the universe that I know. Which while true, may not have been the best demonstration of Christian tolerance and charity that I’ve ever displayed. So now you know why I normally don’t allow myself to partake of such discussions.
But for a lot of people who were taught some version of what is called inerrancy in certain Christian circles, the question does remain – how should we be reading and understanding the bible if not as the factually accurate Word of God, completely free from error or inconsistency? In the last few days, I’ve read a few other people’s explanations for how they deal with the hard parts of scripture or the parts which are in conflict with one another. Mostly the answers seemed to be that if there was a passage which portrayed God in what we’d consider a bad light, they would balance that passage against other passages which contradicted and decide that those took precedence over the negative passage. Or sometimes they would simply view a passage or story as an anachronism – a reflection of the cultural assumptions of the people at the time which was basically put in for their own benefit and not ours. Honestly, the answers I’ve read seem a bit like confirmation of the accusation that people simply pick and choose which parts of scripture to accept as true. So, I thought I’d share my own particular way of dealing with scripture with y’all.
Thankfully, by the time I had been exposed to the idea of inerrancy, I had already read the bible a time or two so I knew enough to take it with a grain of salt. However, I truly hope that it is clear from my writing that I do, in fact, hold the bible in very high regard. It would be hard for me to put into words just how important the bible is to me and the actual love I have for it. Which given the fact that I’m a writer who is seldom at a loss for words is saying a great deal. And I don’t feel free to ignore or dismiss parts of scripture because I don’t like or agree with them. Instead, I actually have a pretty well developed approach for understanding scripture and dealing with the difficult parts which I will try to explain briefly below.
First, I understand that unlike Muslims with the Koran or even Mormons and the Book of Mormon, Christians and Jews have always understood that our scripture was not dictated directly by God. Rather, it has always been considered to be inspired by God and written by men. Which means that it reflects both the input of God and man. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that the scripture is God’s story alone – that anything which is not completely consistent with the reality and truth of God is absent from it. However, the scripture is rather clearly not just the story of God, but also the story of man. One of the best illustrations of this is the Book of Judges. The Book of Judges is filled with some of the bloodiest, most disturbing stories in scripture. But it has this odd feature which I just love. At several spots, it says something to the effect of, “there was no king in Israel in those days so each man did as he thought best.” If we read those stories as heroic tales of God’s people, we’ve missed the point. However, if we read it as an illustration of what people thought was good and heroic at that time, we can understand more clearly just what God was dealing with. These were not people who knew and understood God – these were very fallen, very misguided people who did terrible things because such things seemed best to them. So, as I read scripture, I do remember that sometimes I’m not being shown what is true about God, but about man. Which leads to my second point . . .
The bible is a developing story, not a stagnant reference book. After the fall, God had to find a way to draw a confused, disoriented and immature humanity back to himself. It was a process which took time. The bible tells the story of ways in which God has worked out this process of redemption. There’s this lovely verse in Hosea in which God says, “I found Israel like grapes in the desert.” It wasn’t that Israel or the founders of Israel were perfect – much of the OT is taken up with illustrating just how imperfect they were. Rather, it seems to be that God had found people who he could work with. Wild grapes make poor wine. But the very best wines come from grapes which were cultivated over time from their wild ancestors. If we think that God chose a group of bronze aged people to hold up as exemplars of faith and morality and upon whom he would bestow his timeless law, we have totally missed what’s happening. Rather, what we see in scripture is the story of this process of cultivating a people from wild grapes to those worthy of making new wine with.
The third way that I read scripture is that I start with the idea that God is good, God is loving and God is always working towards redeeming his creation. So when I get to a part of scripture which is hard to understand, I will often stop to ask myself if there is a way of understanding this passage which is consistent with the idea that God is good, loving and always working towards redemption. As an example, there are some passages which seem to portray God as taking pleasure in the destruction of the wicked. This idea of God taking pleasure in destruction of people is offensive to a lot of us. However, God created all of us to bear his image. Those who are wicked are bearing an image which is false – it doesn’t reflect either the reality of God or the reality of who they were created to be. Perhaps scripture is telling us that although it will be painful for those who have to go through destruction to experience it, God will be delighted and take pleasure in seeing this false identity destroyed. The words of scripture themselves may not say such a thing explicitly, but by starting with these assumptions about God, we can often find a way of understanding scripture which is both consistent with the text and with the goodness of God.
The fourth and for now final idea which I try to hold onto when reading scripture is that I don’t actually know what the text is telling me. I really can’t think of anything which destroys our ability to understand and benefit from scripture so much as the assumption that we already know what they are telling us. Hebrew scholar Ellen F. Davis puts it this way:
[It is] the gravest scandal of the North American church in our time – namely the shallow reading of scripture. Such reading results from the assumption that we already know just what the bible says; therefore our reading is a simple rehearsal of what (we think) we know rather than an attempt to probe deeper. ~ From Wonderous Depth: Preaching the Old Testament
It’s like that saying that you can’t fill a cup that’s already full, Too many Christians are taught to approach scripture with a full cup and cram whatever they find there into their pre-existing understandings. It really cannot be overstated what a problem this is. We do not allow scripture to speak to us, to teach us and to show us what truths it hold – much less the limits of what we actually understand. And it’s all because we think we already know it all. We do such violence to the text this way. It is always hard to shake off prior assumptions, but that must be our goal. Otherwise we will never be able to allow the text to speak to and shape us as it ought to.
As I mentioned above, I found the answers from some of those who reject literalism unsatisfying. If you look at my four points above, none of them include, “so I discard that passage” as an option. I do think that all of scripture is there because it’s supposed to be there. In fact, my experience has been that those passages which don’t make sense or conflict with reality are like markers screaming, “dig here!” There are treasures to be found there. Those markers are things which tell us that there’s something we’ve been missing or don’t understand properly. I think it’s a huge mistake to simply discard those parts of scripture.
Now, it may well be that someone is reading this right now and thinking that I haven’t actually dealt with the crux of the problem. Is scripture true and if its not literally true, is it trustworthy? But that’s asking the wrong question. 2 Timothy 3:15-17 says:
The holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
The bible is meant to be a work out. It’s meant to teach and train. It’s meant to correct your assumptions. It’s mean to make you wise. Wisdom is not the same thing as knowing right from wrong or truth from falsehood. The devil knows these things and yet has no wisdom. Wisdom is a way of understanding. It means being able to take a story from 4000 years ago and figure out what it means for you today, when faced with a dirty, drunk, belligerent and obscene man on the street. Knowing history doesn’t equip you to do that. Having wrestled with and been shaped by scripture does. If you wrestle with scripture, it will humble you. If you let go of what you think it says, it will correct you. If you allow it to show you who man is and was, God will make more sense to you.
Now, does all of this mean that I’m claiming that I understand all of scripture? That I have found a way to make every passage fit using my ideas/assumptions? No. Of course not. But that’s part of the deal. I cannot fully understand God. Nor can I fully understand scripture. There will always be more left to uncover, explore and think on for those who come after me. Scripture is not for me to conquer. It’s a privilege for me to wrestle with and be shaped by. And yet, what I do know is always enough. Even for a life as challenging, messy and confusing as my own.