So we’re finally coming in to land in this series on the Bible. In this penultimate post I’d like to cover off a few remaining ideas and draw some of the strands together.
Last time I mentioned that we inevitably (and unconsciously) bring our own subjective perspective to our reading of scripture. What each of takes from the Bible may be very different, in large part because of our temperamental, cultural, theological and social differences.
But this problem of multiple perspectives (if it is a problem) is not only external to the Bible. The Bible itself contains multiple perspectives and alternative voices which defy our attempts at neat categorisation. The Bible does not lend itself to systematic theology (hooray).
So one verse presenting the mainstream view will usually be balanced or challenged, qualified or queried by others elsewhere appearing to say something very different. Scripture is composed of too diverse a set of texts for us to be able to make blanket statements about what the whole Bible says on any given subject.
For instance, I looked a while ago at different views on whether God could save everyone but chooses not to (Calvinism), wants to save everyone but can’t (Arminianism), or will indeed save everyone (Universalism). Proponents of each view will be able to find supporting proof-texts in the Bible, but the overall picture is partial and too deeply mixed to unravel satisfactorily. So often we choose the version that fits our innate preferences or existing preconceptions.
I once tried to do a small group Bible study on poverty and riches, and I diligently found almost all the relevant verses in the Bible (there are a lot). There were OT passages which strongly suggested that poverty was a curse and that material riches were a divine blessing or reward. There were others, mainly from the NT, that by contrast implied that riches were a curse and poverty the more blessed state. The end result was that we were all confused rather than edified.
Which isn’t to say that the Bible is of no use in interrogating such issues, but that by itself it’s unlikely to present straightforward, universal answers. In most cases, we need more than just the Bible.
Infallible and authoritative?
But isn’t the Bible the Christian’s ultimate authority in all matters of faith, doctrine, practice and living? If the Bible says it, is it not our duty to believe and obey it – ‘God said it; that settles it’?
I don’t believe that God desires this kind of slavish obedience. I think he generally wants us to engage, to wrestle, to question, to seek, to think for ourselves. There may be rare occasions when urgency requires that we jump to it and do what God commands without discussion. But I don’t think this is God’s normal mode of speaking to us.
Furthermore, for the Bible to function as the final and unquestionable authority its words and instructions would have to be entirely clear, straightforward and unequivocal, and clearly intended to apply to all situations and contexts for all time. As we’ve seen, this just isn’t the case for much of the Bible. There are some core things we can all mostly agree on, parts of the Bible whose meaning is largely clear to everyone, but much (perhaps most) is open to nuances of interpretation.
If we insist on following ‘what the Bible says’, we’ll soon discover that what the Bible says tends to be both bewilderingly complex or oblique, and frustratingly partial (patchy even). We just can’t use the Bible as a divine answer-book for all of life’s situations and problems.
This isn’t to say that the Bible doesn’t have authority; just that its authority is not of the kind that some assume.
The mystery of Scripture
My view of the Bible is rather like a detective mystery – something which deliberately does not give up all its secrets and truths straight away; where the plain, surface reading is not necessarily always the best or fullest one. I’ve written more on this here.
Jesus deliberately used parables – stories whose meanings are hidden, and which may be open to various valid alternative explanations and interpretations. True, he did interpret some specifically, but to view them all as having one single meaning is I think to miss the point. They’re stories we have to work out for ourselves, or which work themselves out in our lives.
In my view there can be no single ‘right’ way to read the Bible. But even if we could interpret the Bible perfectly, that would miss the point. We can have all the right doctrines and theology, and be completely un-Christlike. ‘If I can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge but have not love, I am nothing.’
Interpretation and incarnation
Above all, I believe that the Bible has to be read and interpreted in community and through the primary lenses of love and grace and goodness. It’s a fundamentally relational book, not an academic textbook, a legal rulebook or a DIY manual.
So instead of infallibility and inerrancy, I’d emphasise interpretation and above all incarnation.
The idea of incarnation is central to Christianity; it’s how Christ works, first becoming incarnate as one of us, and now becoming incarnate in and through each one of us. I believe it’s how the Bible works too; the divine word has to become ‘enfleshed’, incarnated in our real everyday lives. Preserving a perfect Scripture is never the point of our faith.
So is the Bible all we need? No, and it was never meant to be. The Bible points us to Jesus, and always back to Jesus, the true living Word of God. That is its primary purpose.
Which is not to deny that the Bible contains a whole lot of wisdom and example that’s useful to us in seeking to follow Christ. As the famous 2 Timothy 3:16 verse has it, ‘all scripture is…useful… for training in righteousness’. There’s plenty of good and helpful stuff in the Bible, if we approach it with care (and yes, probably prayer).
And in approaching and interpreting the Bible, we need also to draw on the resources of our reason and imagination, our experience, and the rich tradition of the historic church, as well of course as the Spirit. We do need more than just the Bible alone.
The die-hard sola scriptura approach must surely hold that all works of literature, art, music, science, philosophy, psychology and anything else – anything that are not simply glosses on or expositions of scripture – are at best unnecessary and futile, and at worst wicked distractions and distortions. I think this is plainly nonsense.
You could perhaps argue that all ‘good’ art, literature, music and science is in a very, very loose sense a gloss on Scripture. But I don’t think we need to make such a case in order to see art and science as valid and fruitful endeavours.
And in fact to use ‘sola scriptura’ as a rallying-cry for Bible-thumping fundamentalism is completely to miss the point of the phrase as originally coined. Then it was intended as a weapon of reform against the power abuses of a church which claimed that you needed their officials to mediate God to you, regulate your life, interpret the Bible for you and forgive your sins – all at considerable financial cost. ‘Sola scriptura’ was a radical call for liberation, a rebellious reclamation of power by the common people. I’d be quite happy to reclaim it again in that sense.