Christians talk about it all the time, though I never quite know what they mean when they do. That is to say, other than the easily tossed-off catch phrase “God’s Word,” I’m not sure what the Bible is to many who claim it as the sacred text that guides their lives. I’m positive we’re not all on the same page, so to speak.
Often, I think Christians want to make the Bible something that it isn’t or don’t want to admit what it actually could be, and it makes for some really disastrous conversations and some extremely dangerous assumptions, especially in interactions with other Christians.
Here are 5 things about the Bible that I wish more believers would consider:
1) The Bible isn’t a magic book, it’s a human library.
It isn’t The Good Book.
As my good friend Pastor Talbot Davis from Good Shepherd Church has always said; the Bible isn’t a book at all, it’s a library.
Its 66 individual books run the diverse gamut of writing styles, (poetry, history, biography, church teachings, letters), and those books have dozens of authors; from shepherds, to prophets, to doctors, to fishermen, to kings. These diverse writers each had very different target audiences, disparate life circumstances, and specific agendas for their work; so we don’t approach each book the same way, for the same reason you wouldn’t read a poem about leaves, the same way you read a Botany textbook. Some are for inspiration and some for information; we receive and see them differently.
And this library didn’t fall from the sky, leather-bound, shrink wrapped, and personally autographed by God. It was collected and collated over hundreds and hundreds of years, often in verbal form for decades before being written down; after which time it was assembled and voted on, translated, and translated, and translated again; hopping from language to language in the process.
What most Christians don’t give much thought to, is the fact that the Bible was a living, breathing collection of sayings (and later writings) composed over time—lots of time. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of years. It was absolutely “inspired by God”, but composed by a group of very human people who existed in a particular place and time in history, sharing their experience of God and the convictions of their faith.
If we can see the Scriptures this way; as many diverse works in one collection, we can free ourselves from always taking the entire text literally; from trying to equate history with allegory with poetry, and reading them in the same way. We can also can see the Bible as a record not just of God, but of God’s people, and we can find ourselves within it.
2) The Bible doesn’t clearly say as much as we’d like it to.
Often (especially when arguing with someone else), Christians like to begin with the phrase, “The Bible clearly says” followed by their Scripture sound bite of choice.
Those people usually haven’t actually read the entire Bible.
The Bible is a massive library, (somewhere around three-quarters of a million words), and if we’re honest, contains a great deal of tension and a whole lot of gray on all types of subjects. For example, we can read the clear Old Testament commandment from God not to murder, and later see Jesus telling his disciples that violence isn’t the path his people are to take, but we also see God telling the Israelites to destroy every living thing in enemy villages, (women and children included), and we read of Moses murdering an Egyptian soldier without recourse from God, and later being chosen by God to lead His people.
That’s why some Christians believe all violence is sinful, while others think shooting someone in self-defense is OK. Some find war justifiable in some cases, while some believe all war is inherently immoral. Some think the death penalty is something God is cool with, while others find it detestable. Some Bible readers see Jesus as an absolute pacifist, while other cite him telling his disciples to grab a sword, as evidence that he sanctions physical violence on occasion.
Same Bible. One subject. Countless perspectives.
So what does the Bible clearly say about violence? Does it make an absolute statement or is there some ambiguity? Seems clearly muddy.
Many times, when Christians say the phrase “The Bible clearly says”, what they really mean is, “The way I interpret this one tiny, isolated verse (which seems to reference this particular topic), allows me to feel justified in having this particular perspective on said topic”.
When you read and study this library in its totality, there are certainly themes and continuities and things that connect exquisitely, but if we’re honest we can also admit there are as many ambiguities regarding violence, money, sex, faith, prayer, and a hundred other topics.
It doesn’t diminish the Scriptures to admit their complexity and their lack of clarity.
3) The Bible was inspired by God, not dictated by God.
Christians will often rightly say, that the Bible was “inspired by God” and I completely agree. However, I think that idea often gets terribly twisted in translation and we take huge liberties with it that simply defy logic and history and the Scriptures themselves.
The Bible is “God’s Word” but I don’t think it’s at all accurate to see the Bible as “written” by God. In fact the Bible never makes the claim of itself. The authors of the books often claim personal authorship, and clearly describe their specific reasons for writing and their circumstances and mental state during the process. They rarely claim that in that time, God had possessed them, taken over their minds and limbs and faculties, and physically manipulated them to record verbatim, the words we read in the Scriptures.
These are the words of men, who were compelled by God to tell, not only what they claim to have heard God say, but things that were happening in and around them; struggles they had, personal reasons for writing, and their specific experience of God. Of course they were inspired by God, but they remained inspired human beings, not God-manipulated puppets who checked their free will at the door and transcribed God’s monologues.
I would argue that every Christian who has ever lived has been inspired by God, filled by His Spirit. I would certainly hope so. I often feel quite sure that God is inspiring me when I write or compose music or give messages; that I am intimately connected with Him. Does that mean that I don’t bring a whole lot of me to the table too? Of course not. That’s been true of every Christ-follower from Mother Teresa, to C.S. Lewis, to the Reverend Billy Graham.
Is it reasonable to assume that the same can’t be said for Moses, David, Matthew, and Paul; that we get as much of them in their writing as we get God’s direct voice? The book of Timothy says that The Scriptures are “God-breathed”, that they originate from God, but it doesn’t claim that they are God-dictated.
How can we find a balanced understanding of words that come from God to us in the Bible, but do so passing through the hearts and hands of other flawed, fragile followers from history?
4) We all pick and choose the Bible we believe, preach, and defend.
One of the greatest criticisms Christians like to level at another Christian whose opinions deviate from their own, is that he or she is “cherry picking” from the Bible; holding tightly to verses that they agree with and championing those, while conveniently jettisoning ones they are uncomfortable with. It’s a common way to belittle another’s Biblical interpretation and minimize their differing perspective, charging them with selective spirituality.
The only problem is, each time this assertion is made the one making the accusation conveniently claims complete objectivity; as if they somehow have a firm, dispassionate understanding of the entirety of Scripture, without bias or prejudice, and that the other is violating that by subjectively commandeering the text.
The good (or bad news, depending on how you view it) is that we all have our own Bible, made somewhat in our image. There are as many specific individual interpretations of Scripture in history as there have been readers of it. Our understanding and belief about the Bible is a product of our upbringing, our denomination or tradition, the amount of study we’ve had, the friends we’ve lived alongside, the pastors and professors we’ve learned under, the area of the world we live in, the experiences we have, as well as our own personality, prejudices, and preferences.
There aren’t two followers of Jesus who have ever been found in total agreement on the 66 books of the Bible since they were recorded, and so we all have a personalized Scripture, despite our desire to claim otherwise. We all cherry pick, even when we think we are not.
Is it really fair to ever accuse someone else of selectively using Scripture, unless we’re prepared to cop to the same crime in the process?
5) God is bigger than The Bible.
This past week I took a walk along the beach, taking in the ocean. For those who’ve ever done so, you understand the vastness; the staggering beauty and power, the relentless force of the tides. You know well, those glorious sounds, the scent of the air, the sand beneath your feet, the unfathomable colors of the sunset, the smallness you feel; the overwhelming scale of creation that you find yourself face-to-face with.
Billions and Billions of words have been written down about the ocean. I could gather up every single one of them; the most beautiful, vivid, accurate descriptions from fisherman and marine biologists and children and poets and vacationers. I could read every last, most eloquent word about the ocean to someone who has never been there, and it would never, ever do it justice.
There’s simply no way to adequately describe the ocean in words. You simply have to experience it.
I wish more Christians would admit that the Bible, at its very best, at it’s most powerful and inspired, is just a collection of words about the ocean.
God is the ocean.
God is the thing and the Bible is made up of words about the thing, and those words point to something (to Someone) for Whom words simply fail. That doesn’t mean the words aren’t filled with good and lovely things that give us some frame of reference, some understanding, some insight, but ultimately God is far too big to be contained in those words. God is awe and wonder and mystery and ineffable.
The Bible is not God, the Bible is a library filled with words about God. We can discover and explore and find comfort there. We can gain wisdom and grow in faith through it. We can seek the character of God and the message of Christ and the path we’re to walk within its pages.
We can even love the Bible (I certainly do), but we should worship the God who inspired the Bible.
I expect many Christians will dismiss these things outright and refuse to engage at all, but my hope and prayer is that many of you claim Christianity will examine your own understanding of the Bible and see if there isn’t something in the above words that merits consideration; not to alter your love or admiration of Scripture, but to allow you to engage in conversations about it that have some nuance, some balance, some grey, and some Grace; especially when dealing with those whose understandings differ from yours.
When you say “The Bible”, what do you mean?