As regular readers will know, I’m someone who has been formed in the Pentecostal tradition, which tends to lean towards a fairly rigorous, black-and-white, not to say fundamentalist view of scripture.
Within this and many other traditions, there’s an unspoken assumption when it comes to reading and understanding the Bible: namely, that for any given passage of scripture, there is one correct interpretation, and it is our job as readers to find it. Whether the issue be appropriate moral standards, the nature of God or end times events, all we have to do is find a way to dig out the one intended meaning.
In this paradigm, the most spiritually revered are those who can most authoritatively proclaim the “truth” of scripture (with little concern for where that authoritative understanding came from, be it rigorous study, divine download… or pure imagination).
But the more I think about this approach, the more I realise that there’s a glaring, Everest-sized problem with it.
Allow me to sum this problem up as succinctly as I can: the Bible is not sufficiently clear or consistent for anyone to be able to categorically and authoritatively state beyond doubt what it means.
Think about it. No matter what issue or question you pick, there’s enough variety and breadth of opinion in the Bible to support a range of conclusions.
Violence? God will help you destroy your enemies, and/or God commands you to love and forgive your enemies.
The Sabbath? You must keep it religiously, and/or you must follow Jesus’ example in demoting it to a place of secondary importance.
The immoral and unclean? They must be unashamedly excluded, and/or they must be unconditionally forgiven, embraced and included.
Do you get the idea? Because the Bible was written by so many different authors living at different times and with different views and agendas, there just is no uniform position to be found in its pages on the vast majority of issues.
This is true not only of moral or ethical questions, but equally of any particular strand of theology upon which the Bible touches – atonement, theodicy, sin, salvation, you name it. Scripture simply does not set out an unequivocal position on any of these matters.
Now, here comes the important point I want to make: because of this lack of clarity and consistency, the Bible can be moulded to fit a whole plethora of different worldviews that we might bring to it. For example, you can come to the Bible with a fundamentalist worldview, and you’ll be able to squeeze it into that worldview and find a way of making it support that worldview. Or you can come to it with, for example, a theologically very liberal worldview, and again you’ll be able to find ways to make the Bible support that worldview.
(The Nazis even used the Bible to support ethnic cleansing and mass extermination. And before you throw your hands up in horror and cry that it couldn’t happen today, remember that first, a great many Lutheran Christians in Germany stood by and let the Nazis perpetrate their vile deeds in the name of God, and second, the Nazis are, sadly, far from the only ones to have twisted scripture to such ends, both in ancient history and in much more recent times.)
In other words, all other things being equal, we tend to find in the Bible what we look for. To put it another way, absent any other influences, what we find in the Bible tends to be a reflection of the existing biases and prejudices we bring to it.
How then are we to properly understand the Bible? Allow me to draw two conclusions.
First, the Bible is not meant to be an answer book. When we treat it as such, we grossly abuse its intended purpose and value. It’s meant to guide us through a journey into an unfolding understanding of God, our humanity, and how the two relate to each other in the world.
And second, in order to really understand what God is like, the Bible simply is not enough. Armed with the Bible alone, you can come up with all kinds of horrifically distorted understandings of God and associated justifications for abhorrent behaviour.
The Bible, then, is just not enough. We need something more.
“What is that something more?”, I hear you ask. I’d suggest that it’s probably a number of things.
We need the Spirit to enlighten us. We need the church – the community of the faithful – to discern the truth with us, rather than just hearing it from the pulpit or, God forbid, the television. We need diligent, committed study whereby we engage our minds in wrestling with the truth. And we need those who are gifted to undertake such study and share their learning with us.
What we emphatically do not need is individual Christians who, without any deep prayer, study or contemplation, snatch a verse or two out of the Bible and yell, “Eureka! I have it! This is what it means!”. And nor do we need preachers or teachers who encourage such an approach.
[ Image: Rachel Titiriga ]