“Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures, we might have hope.”
Do we need the Bible?
That we need to take the Bible seriously is not self-evident in today’s world. People nowadays tend to assume that we will find answers in what is new – the shiny and modern, the scientific, the globalised – not in ancient texts. And it is very easy to be put off by the examples, all around us, of people using or mis-using the Bible to justify bigotry, or greed, or sloth, or just about any one of the Deadly Sins you want to name. It is quite easy to persuade ourselves to write the Bible off – particularly the Old Testament, with all the smiting – particularly the convoluted logic of Paul’s epistles, and the downright weird stuff in Revelation. As someone said to me the other day, “You can interpret the Bible to mean anything at all.” And if it means anything at all, then in practice it means nothing.
If you took that line, you would not be the first. A man named Marcion, in the C2nd, taught that Jesus was a different and superior God to the one in the Old Testament – and took it upon himself to re-write the Gospels, relying very much on Paul’s teaching. In practice, he ended up founding a parallel church and was strongly condemned by the mainstream church, which embraced what they and I believe to be Jesus’ teaching: that He came to complete God’s covenant with the Jews, in fulfilment of the Law, not so as to abolish it. That is what we saw in our Gospel reading (Luke 4:16-24): Jesus himself quoting from the Scriptures, and fulfilling them. So I suggest that if we seek to be faithful to Jesus Himself, then we have no choice but to embrace the whole Bible.
it will also mean wrestling with it – like Jacob and his angel – because there
is no doubt that reading the Bible is a challenge. I want to make a few points about how we go
A good starting point is that we cannot expect to make sense of the Bible if we read it alone and without help. The classic Anglican position is that we discern Christian truth by a combination of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Scripture means the Bible, the canonical texts. Tradition means the accumulated experience of the people of God in their dealings with God, over the last four thousand years. Reason means that we are obliged to think and wrestle with this – we should be suspicious of easy truths that don’t require us to put our brains into gear.
What is essential, however, is that these three are not separate sources of truth, to be set in competition against each other. We learn Christian truth from the interaction of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. In fact, they have always been bound up together, since the very beginning. The Bible is itself a capturing and writing down of Tradition, of the experiences of God’s people through time. Jesus did not choose to write a book. Instead, He founded a society of human beings as the means by which His message was to be handed down through the ages. And that society, very early, wrote down what it had learned and experienced. And through the subsequent centuries, all of the most important theologians of the church were totally committed to grounding their teaching in the Bible. The Church Fathers were, first and last, scholars of the Scriptures. And they were also very clever men and women who brought their reason to bear – interpreting and expounding the Bible in the light of contemporary philosophy, and so as to answer contemporary questions of politics and ethics.
So we should reject ideas of Christian truth that emerge from prioritising one of the three over the others. Mistrust people who say “the Bible teaches such-and-such” without considering what sense the Tradition has made of the Bible on this point, or whether the supposed conclusion is rational and reasonable. Or people who say “such-and-such is not in the Bible, but we believe it anyway because it has emerged from Tradition”. Or people who say, “my experience and reason tell me X is true, even though it is supported by neither Bible nor Tradition.”
So this is my first suggestion: that we should the Bible – the whole Bible – as part of Christian Tradition, we should read it in the light of that Tradition and also with our entire and reasonable minds.
Second, I want to suggest that we read the Bible as Christians. Which is to say, we take the revelation of God in Christ as definitive. Jesus is what God is like, and God does not have a character that is not apparent in Jesus. So when we read accounts of God’s character – particularly in the Old Testament, but also sometimes in the New – which are not consistent with what we learn of God in Jesus, then we must conclude that the author had not yet fully understood.
So let’s talk about all the smiting – the huge amount of violence in the OT, some of which is actually attributed to God. As we read the OT, we seem to meet people who believe God is tribal and partial – that God has a fragile ego and needs to be constantly reassured – that they have done a deal with God, by which they get special treatment in return for obeying arbitrary laws. We meet such attitudes in the people described, and we also meet them in the narrative voice. Well, as it says in the song from Guys and Dolls, it ain’t necessarily so.
To make sense of the Old Testament, we must recognise that it is not a flat landscape. It is a progressively rising road. It begins in the swamps where people know almost nothing of God’s character, and fear the very worst; and ends (in the Prophets) upon a hilltop – with a vision of a God who cares for the poor, whose heart is for the whole world, and who is portrayed as a Suffering Servant rather than a smiter with thunderbolts. Although, even when Israel has climbed that mountain, it still remains in twilight, awaiting the dawn of the light of Christ before the true depth of God’s love can be revealed. But my point is that, early in that journey, Israel’s understanding of God was as much a projection of their own violence and hatred as it was a response to God’s reality. The people who thought that God was instructing them to commit genocide simply did not yet understand God.
These bits of the Bible are still useful to us, despite the fact that they reflect an outdated view of God. They are in fact useful because of that. These people of God who were nevertheless violent and vengeful – and who projected their own hatred onto God – they hold up a mirror to us. Because we Christians constantly do the same thing, even if not with such horrific violence. We tell ourselves that we are more special to God than those other people. We use faith to define insiders and outsiders. We even ask God to bless our wars.
So my second pointer to reading the Bible is to read the whole thing through the lens of Jesus Christ.
My third, is a suggestion that we take the Bible not less seriously, but more. That we take it seriously as what it is: a series of literary works, of quite different kinds, written in ancient languages, in cultures radically different to our own. Understanding them properly requires work.
To understand these as inspired texts means two things: that the Holy Spirit was involved in their creation; and that the Holy Spirit is involved in our reading them now. And therefore, we must always read across both of those time-horizons. A sound approach to Scripture therefore has two steps. First, we must ask what did the text mean when it was written, to the person who wrote it and its first readers. Second, what does the text mean to us – as part of the whole canon of Scripture, and in our own day?
The first question – exegesis of what the text originally meant – involves valuing Biblical study. Understanding the process by which a text was written and edited into its final form can often illuminate what were the preoccupations of the original writers. It also means recognising that what we read in English is in fact just a translation, and not necessarily a wholly reliable one. I would urge everyone to own and read several different translations, which often give different lights on the same passage. In general, I’m afraid, the old JKV is not a particularly good translation – although it does have one great virtue, which is it shows up when a sentence is addressed to a singular “thou” or a plural “you”. People make huge errors of interpretation because they often read sentences addressed to the church as a whole as if they were addressed to individuals – to “me, myself and I”. There are fairly few “you” singulars in the Bible: the whole story is about God calling a people.
Perhaps the most fundamental part of reading the text in its original terms is the recognition of genre. Asking, what kind of book am I reading? It is, for instance, the most rudimentary error to read an ancient origins myth as if it were a science text-book. Many mis-readings arise from an attitude to Scripture that says the book is obliged to answer the questions that we, now, want answers to. And therefore we twist and distort the book until it gives us answers – even though our questions were a million miles from the minds of those who wrote it. To take the Bible seriously means allowing it to steer us to the questions we should be asking, as well as the answers.
In closing, I would suggest three key principles that might inspire how we read the Bible:
- That we should read it often, slowly and prayerfully. It is a mystery, but nonetheless a truth to which millions of Christians can attest, that God uses our study of Scripture to strike the truth into our hearts.
- That we should read about the Bible alongside reading it. Use good, modern commentaries.
- That we should read in the two steps I have described: first, considering what the text meant in its original context, to the original writer and reader; and then, on that basis drawing conclusions about what it might mean for us today.
I commend these principles to you. But, above all, I urge you not to give up. I know that reading the Bible can be hard, but God had good reasons for choosing this way to keep the church within His truth. He could have given us a simple set of formulae, but He chose instead to give us a set of books that require us to work and wrestle. Because this corresponds to the nature of spiritual truth, which is not something that we can grasp, close our fingers upon, to hold and possess. Spiritual truth wraps around us, rather – it possesses us – it is demanding and forces us to work and, yes, to wrestle like Jacob wrestling with his angel. The value – for your Christian formation – is often precisely in the struggle to understand. Keep at it!