This is the fourth and final part in a short series on understanding the Bible. This post will give you a very brief overview and flavour of what the series has covered. For more, read the previous posts here, here and here.
In this final part, I simply want to pull out and summarise some of the key points I’ve been trying to make in this little series.
Probably my most important point is that many Christians need to redefine what they mean by “truth” when it comes to reading the Bible. There is a widespread belief that for something in the Bible to be true, it must be literally true. The flip side of this belief is that many Christians perceive any attempt to interpret portions of scripture as being true in some non-literal way as a wholesale abandonment of the truth of scripture. This is, as I think we’ve begun to show in this series, nonsense.
There is truth in the history textbook and in the mechanical manual. Both say something true about the subjects they address. But there is also deep truth in poetry and art, even when they spring purely from the poet’s and the artist’s imagination. These things convey truth because they say something true and real about the world in which we live and how we see it, understand it and feel about it.
Imagine an artist showing you a beautiful and evocative oil painting of a field of poppies that he’s just finished painting. You ask where this field is; the artist answers that it isn’t a painting of a specific, real field: he’s simply painted it from his imagination and from memories of similar fields he’s seen in the past. It would be ridiculous to claim that his painting was somehow untrue or of lesser value because it wasn’t a “literal” painting of a specific field. Yet many people seem to make just such ridiculous claims about biblical truth.
Perhaps it’s time we began to view the Bible less as a divine instruction manual (how many times I’ve heard it described as such from the pulpit!) and more as a great work of art. (Not art as a kind of fiction, you understand: art as a powerful vehicle for describing and imparting truth.)
I don’t think I’ve mentioned the word inerrancy in this series, so I’ll just slip it in here. It’s become a polarising term for many in the evangelical world: if you believe in biblical inerrancy, you uphold the truth of the Bible; if you don’t, you’re sliding into heresy. Suffice to say that I find the term entirely unhelpful. It fails to recognise and account for blatant discrepancies in the Bible, and it elevates a narrow, literal reading above any other interpretation.
Given that literal truth is not the only kind of truth, it’s important to know what kinds of texts are included in the Bible other than literal, factual accounts. Scripture contains many different genres – narrative, poetry, prophecy and apocalyptic to name but four – each of which require a different approach if we are to glean what particular truth they convey. For example, if you read prophetic or apocalyptic texts in the same way that you read narrative, you’ll end up trying to force prophecy and apocalyptic into a very narrow mould into which they will not fit without suffering serious distortion. Unfortunately, churches have, by and large, failed to teach and equip people to approach the Bible with appropriate respect, often encouraging instead a simplistic, dumbed-down reading in which history, context and genre matter little, if at all. If we genuinely want to learn what the Bible has to teach us, rather than simply squeezing it into our pre-existing moulds, this has to change.
Having adjusted our notion of just what truth is and how it is communicated, and having accepted that the Bible contains a rich variety of different genres, each requiring a different interpretative approach, we can come to the text much better equipped to engage it on its own terms. As we do so, we may well discover that setting aside preconceptions – however dearly-held – and attempting to come to scripture with an open mind and an open heart will yield much more fruit than our earlier practice of reading it in a somewhat cavalier fashion, as though it were simply a flat and featureless set of instructions.
And when I say “we” and “our”, I’m really talking about “I” and “my”, for this is a journey I’ve been on for the past few years, and am still very much on today. I’ve discovered that when I try to stop insisting that a given portion of scripture must mean X, Y or Z, I find much greater and more profound meaning – you might say deeper truth – than I ever used to.
Of course, there are those who will say this is all very dangerous, a slippery slope to liberalism and heresy. Only the other day, a Facebook friend with whom I was discussing this very matter suggested that I was simply being “post-modernist” and embracing a view in which nothing really means anything. While my friend’s concern is unfounded, I understand it. But I’ve found that there’s one crucial safeguard which, if we keep it at the forefront of our minds as we read and interpret the Bible, will prevent us from straying very far from the truth: remember that Jesus is the full and final revelation of God, and that all of scripture is subordinate to and fulfilled in him. If your interpretation of a portion of scripture conflicts with the revelation of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ, you’re doing it wrong. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into all truth, and keep seeking. The deepest, most powerful truth often takes the longest time and the most sweat to unearth, but when you finally have it in your hands, it’s like a beautiful precious stone that you never want to let go of.
(If you’ve enjoyed this series and found it useful, you might also want to read my earlier post Using and abusing the Bible.)