When I tell people that I’m a seminary professor—or, more precisely, a biblical scholar, I get all sorts of weird looks and remarks. Among those persons from a non-religious background, or else who are virulently anti-religious, I often get questions posed as accusations: “But didn’t the Dead Sea Scrolls disprove all that stuff?” Or, “Haven’t you read about how Constantine invented the Bible in order to use Christianity to control the Roman empire?” To which I reply that, “I most certainly have read the Dead Sea Scrolls, some bits in Hebrew, and I’m very familiar with Constantine’s interference in church matters in the fourth century. And, for what it is worth, none of that has given me the slightest impetus to resign from holy orders and to take up atheism and psychedelic poetry.” And so the conversation, sometimes quite painful or polemical, continues.
Of course, there are other times, too, when professing Christians hear about my academic vocation in biblical studies—and they too can assail me with their favorite questions, theories, and pet peeves. I’ve heard it all:
- What do you think about the KJV?
- Are you for or against evolution?
- Do you take the Bible too literally or not literally enough?
- What do you think the Bible teaches about sex and sexuality?
- Do you believe in hard or soft inerrancy?
- Can we really trust the Bible?
- Can the Bible become an idol?
- Do I submit to Catholic teaching on Scripture, or do I believe in the sole authority of the individual—“soul competency”—to interpret the Bible?
The list goes on and on! I get treated like I’m either a walking Wikipedia of Bible answers, or I’m expected to provide the scholarly stamp of approval validating all of their eccentric and esoteric views of biblical interpretation.
When it comes to the Bible, I’ve learned that people of all faiths and none have real interest in the Bible. People know that when it comes to matters of religion, culture, literature, and history, the Bible is important. People approach the Bible holding deep convictions born of lifelong commitment, tackling sincere questions and doubts, bursting with accusations rooted in pop-atheism, or else mixing confusion and curiosity about things they want to understand in the Bible but can’t.
Among the people I meet both inside the church and in wider society, from students to strangers, I’ve learned that the Bible answers a lot of questions but also raises big questions. Sometimes these are silly, sometimes serious; but they are questions that matter very much to people.
As a priest and professor, I think that big part of what I do is to be like the evangelist Philip who helped the Ethiopian eunuch understand Isaiah 53 (Acts 8:26–40). When people are reading their Bibles and are filled with questions, my job is to run beside their chariot and help them understand what they are reading.
It is because of such reasons, that I actually wrote a book about the Bible called 7 Things I Wish Christians Knew about the Bible so that many of those questions would be answered and so that they’d know how to answer the questions that other people also have about the Bible.
To give a short summary, the seven “things” I covered were the following.
1. The Bible didn’t fall out of the sky
At the risk of stating the blatantly obvious, your Bible did not fall out of the sky written in English and bound in leather, complete with words of Jesus in red, footnotes, and maps in the back. Your Bible, whether in hardcopy or in an app, is a translation made by a committee of (human) scholars who worked with critical editions of Greek and Hebrew texts, editions that were formed (by other human scholars) from collections of manuscripts. These manuscripts were themselves hand-copied and compiled (by human scribes) over many centuries, and they probably go back to an original autograph or a particular standard text that began to circulate among Jews and Christians. There is a whole process of textual transmission and translation that stands behind your Bible, and it is important to know about it.
In the end, the Bible is not a single book; it is more of a complex library that was written over some 1,500 years in the languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. God used real human processes behind the Bible’s composition and canonization to give his word to us.
First, the composition of many of these biblical texts was a process rather than a single event. For instance, while Moses is recognized as the originator of the Pentateuch, it is very unlikely that he recorded his own death (Deut 34), and there are several references to what cities were called in the days of the patriarchs and how they are still called similarly “to this very day,” indicating a perspective from a later time is narrating the story (e.g., Gen 26:33; Deut 3:14–15). Similarly, the ending of the Gospel of John includes an affirmation of the Beloved Disciple’s testimony with the words, “We know his testimony is true” (Jn 21:24), indicative of an epilogue added by those who edited the Beloved Disciple’s testimony. That some Old Testament texts were edited or updated by a prophet’s followers is something debated in relation to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel, but there is no prima facie case against this, nor is it detrimental to the Bible’s overall authority, unity, integrity, and message.
To this end I rather like John Webster’s description of God’s “sanctification” of all human processes involved in the formation of Scripture.
Second, on canonization: if you didn’t notice, the Bible does not tell us which books should be in the Bible! So who decided that the Gospel of Matthew and Paul’s Letter to the Romans were to be included, while the Shepherd of Hermas and the Apocalypse of Peter were left out? No, it wasn’t Constantine, but neither did a bevy of bishops in the second century go on an Indiana Jones adventure with their inspiration-o-meter looking for Christian books to add to their growing collection of authoritative texts. The basic criterion for canonical inclusion was that a book contained the words of Jesus and the apostolic message about Jesus. A consensus began to emerge by the late second century based upon the four Gospels, Acts, Paul’s thirteen letters plus Hebrews, 1 John, and 1 Peter, with the other books in our New Testament eventually finding consensus, but over a much longer period.
To be sure, the church did not invent the Bible; the church itself is a creation of the Word of God. But the church was tasked with putting the divine Word into its canonical location. That is to say, the Holy Spirit uses the church, its people, and debates, to author and authorize the Scriptures for the churches.
2. The Bible is divinely given and humanly composed
The Bible is simultaneously a divine and human book. It is from God, to us, and for us. It is a divine book because it is the Word of God. It is divine revelation varyingly communicated to prophets, sages, psalmists, evangelists, prophets, and seers and put in written form for subsequent readers. Yet the language is human, not angelic or magical: it is written in the languages and idioms of its authors and audiences.
But how do you get God’s Word through human authors onto paper pages?
How do you get divine ideas into and out of a human mind?
The process by which this happens, however it happens, is called “inspiration.” As to what precisely happens in inspiration, well, there are different theories as to what inspiration implies! Some people think that St. Matthew picked up a pen and parchment, sat down at his desk, and then went into a trance and then, later, when he had come to his senses, he had the Gospel according to Matthew written in front of him. Or else, some think that God inspired Paul to write his Epistle to the Romans the same way that a summer rose inspires a poet to write about the scents and scenes of an English summer dawn.
I’d say neither are true. God neither overpowers the human author nor gives them a polite prompting on something that needs to be said.
Scripture is divine and human: we can’t play one off against the author; we can’t deny the human bits and just focus on the divine bits, and vice versa.
In order to account for the divine authority and power in Scripture, as well as its very human elements, we need a theory of inspiration that recognizes the dual authorship of Scripture as a jointly divine and human work.
I prefer to say that inspiration is the Holy Spirit’s leading and guiding of authors at the conceptual level so that what they write—with their own personality, propensities, vocabulary, worldview, and experience—is the precise message that God gave in a particular setting for a particular purpose at a particular time.
3. Scripture is normative, not negotiable
The authority of the Bible is a contentious topic.
Such authority is contentious because some people reject biblical authority. Glib critics like to snarkily snap, “Why should a bronze-age text filled with superstition and silliness control any aspect of our lives today?” Even among those who are Bible-believers, they are beset with the question of how the Bible functions as an authority. In the face of criticism of the Bible, do we bunker down and fortify our faith around something like “inerrancy” or “infallibility”? The problem is that if the Bible is true, how is it true, in what sense is it true, and are there limits to the Bible’s truthfulness? I mean, is the Bible only true in matters of religion and ethics, or does its truthfulness also extend to history, geology, cosmology, and biology?
The challenge for us is how best to articulate Scripture’s truthfulness amidst ongoing conversations about science and religion, biblical criticism and pre-modern interpretation, and postmodern reading strategies and the role of the Bible in the public square.
One thing I’ve always found perplexing about American evangelicals is how centered they are on “inerrancy” as a kind sun to their theological galaxy. Lest I be misunderstood, the Bible matters, as does biblical truth in all its forms. But Americans of a particularly conservative ilk seem rather fixated on one particular way of envisaging how the Bible is true in order to stave off liberal incursions into important tenets of faith. These are concerns that were no doubt important—and in many ways still are; but that debate is now somewhat dated. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the battle for the Bible was over whether the Bible was absolutely true or only modestly true. But, as we continue our way in the twenty-first century, that is no longer the presenting issue. We live in a diverse and mostly post-Christian society (it depends, of course, on whether you live in Dallas or Boston, Minnesota or Melbourne, but just hear me out!). The debate is not over how the Bible is true, but whether the Bible has anything true to say at all! The real test of fidelity to God and God’s revelation is not haggling over precise definitions of “inerrant” or “infallible,” but whether one thinks that God’s Word is authoritative at all. The real test is whether one treats the Bible as normative for the life of faith or whether one regards the Bible as negotiable.
We live in an age of almost infinite choice, and even Christians are tempted to pick and choose bits of the Bible they like as if they were selecting the latest apps for their phone. I’ll take Jesus but Paul irritates me. I like Luke but Leviticus does nothing for me.
The danger for Christians with a faith connected to Scripture and the tradition of Christian interpretation is not being soft on biblical truthfulness, but a complete apathy towards the authority of Scripture. People who believe Scripture only when it affirms what they have already decided to believe.
If I may paraphrase Augustine, if you pick and choose the bits of Scripture you want to believe, it’s not Scripture you believe, it’s yourself.
The best definitions of Scripture’s truthfulness are useless unless we subscribe, with due qualifications and reflections, to the authority of God’s holy and written word in the life of the church.
4. The Bible is for our time, but not about our time
The Bible is for us, but it is not about us.
On the one hand, we believe that the Bible can speak to our world, our churches, our context, our situation, and our lives. There is something inherently enduring and translatable about the Bible, whether you live in first-century Athens or twenty-first century Flagstaff. That God made the heavens and the earth; that God is holy, holy, holy; that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself; all of it remains true wherever and whenever you read it!
But on the other hand, we have to remember that our reading of the Bible is mediated by 2,000 years of history and shaped by our own language, culture, history, and identity. Being a 50-year-old, white, middle-class, female Pentecostal living in Michigan will inevitably shape the way you read the Bible, and you should not assume the normativity of your own reading experience. We must acknowledge the sociocultural distance between the biblical world and our world; and we should also admit that our reading of the Bible is partly a product of our own environment. That will teach us some humility and remind us that we cannot just jump from ancient text to modern time without first engaging the chasm that exists between the two. Therefore, a good interpreter will need a basic grasp of the biblical world—such an interpreter will need to pay attention to the history of interpretation, cultivate global conversation partners, and be self-critical of what we assume about the Bible.
It might seem obvious, but we need to avoid anachronism, or treating the Bible as a mirror of our own culture and values. Only when we understand that the past is like a foreign country, a very different place, can we really wrestle with he Bible in its own context, before seeing how it speaks to ours.
For example, I once heard a preacher compare ancient slavery to teenagers today working at McDonald’s for “slave wages.” Now, I’m not going to comment on what the rate of pay for teenagers working in fast food franchises should be, but that analogy glosses over the intense suffering and shame of ancient slavery on its way to a cheap and clumsy application. Or else, consider this: when ancient authors talk about “hospitality” they don’t mean having your church friends over for dinner. In antiquity, hospitality was not what you did for friends; it was what you did for strangers, people you did not know, or did not know you could trust! Biblical teachings on hospitality are not about time with our dear friends, but what we are doing for those who are lost, homeless, or seeking refuge from harm.
The Bible is for us, but we need to avoid lazy analogies for application, and we need to plot the gap between the ancient world and our own. Doing so will help us get the most out of God’s revelation.
5. We should take the Bible seriously, but not always literally
When it comes to the matter of competent biblical interpretation, debates about taking the Bible literally or metaphorically are just plain missing the point.
For instance, Genesis 1 is not a moment-by-moment commentary on how God made the world, nor is Genesis narrating the story in such a way that the main purpose is to refute Darwinism. Rather, Genesis 1 is primarily about worldview: adopting a God-centered view of reality; affirming that however the world was made, it owes its existence to God; and admiring the artistry of God as seen in splendor of creation. This does not mean that Genesis 1 is merely “myth” in the sense of fairy tales. No, it sets forth in a literary masterpiece the truth that God is the Creator and there is no other. This is a competing narrative to other ancient Near Eastern accounts about creation, and in practice it means that you don’t worship the stars, you worship the God who made the stars.
Or else, take the Book of Revelation, a powerful and complex book that layers metaphor upon metaphor, is soaked with allusions to the Old Testament, combines a mixture of prophecy and political critique, all to imply that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. The Book of Revelation is literally true that Jesus is the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world, who is worthy of our worship, and shall reign over the new creation. But it is a literarily complex mixture of metaphors and motifs that show that Jesus triumphs over the pagan beast (the Roman emperor) and its false prophet (the imperial cults that worshipped the emperor) because all idolatries and the industries of misery that they create will one day be subject to judgment.
In many places in the Bible, the main point is not literal but literary. Reading the Bible in light of its genres and context is the best way to take it seriously.
6. The purpose of Scripture is knowledge, faith, love, and hope
Why read Scripture? Why get involved in debates about biblical minutiae? Why learn Hebrew and Greek? Why pore over its dense pages? Why buy a commentary or study Bible? Why buy Logos? When it comes to the purpose of Scripture in the lives of disciples, I tend to think that four key outcomes are desirable.
- First: knowledge. Knowledge of God, knowing God as our Creator and Redeemer. Through the Bible we know that God is our Father, Christ is our Brother, and the Spirit is our comforter. Knowing this in deeper degree is the goal of our instruction. As Paul himself prayed for the Ephesians: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better” (Eph 1:17 NIV).
- Second, the Bible is the big book of faith, bringing us to faith, nurturing us in the faith, and bringing us to maturity in faith. As Paul told the Romans, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word about Christ” (Rom 10:17 LEB). By faith we grasp the faithfulness of God in his word to us. By faith we believe that Jesus is the Word made flesh and that the Word speaks to us afresh through the Holy Scriptures.
- Third, good biblical instruction will force us to increase in the two-fold loves, love of God, and love of neighbor. According to Augustine, the truest test for interpretation is the interpretation that compels us to love God and to love others with ever increasing affection and devotion.
- Fourth, the purpose of Scripture is hope. Listen again to the apostle Paul writing to the Romans: “For whatever was written beforehand was written for our instruction, in order that through patient endurance and through the encouragement of the scriptures we may have hope” (Rom 15:4 LEB). I find those words most striking! We live in a world where men and women live lives of quiet desperation, despair, anxiety, and fear. And yet Paul says that a major purpose of Scripture is to give us hope. That hope is based on the good news that God is for us, God is with us, and God gives the world hope in the person of his Son and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.
Yes, Scripture is useful for many things, like “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16 LEB); but it is also a source of knowledge, faith, love, and hope.
7. Christ is the center of the Christian Bible
The Bible is the inspired, authoritative, and enduring Word of God. But the Bible is not the foundation of our faith. The Bible is the story of God, a manual for discipleship, the source of our liturgy. It is the inscripturated will of God. But Jesus is the foundation of our faith, as Paul says: “For no one is able to lay another foundation than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:11 LEB). Because of that foundation, we should build up from it by reading the Bible as a Christ-centered book that finds its highest testimony and interpretive center in him. In fact, this is precisely how the early church interpreted Israel’s Scriptures. Just look at how they read and preached about Psalm 2, 16, 110, and 118, or even Isaiah 53, or Deuteronomy 32. These texts, in their various ways, are about Jesus. This is something that Jesus himself taught to the two strangers on the road to Emmaus: “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27 NIV). If you want to understand the Bible, you need to understand Jesus. And if you want to understand Jesus, you need to understand the Bible.
A final word
As a seminary professor, my advice to my fellow Christians boils down to this: keep God’s Word in your heart, read and revere it, wrestle with its wisdom, ask questions, seek counsel, toil hard in the fields of biblical study, and the light of God’s Word will illuminate your path wherever you go!
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