I remember at various times saying, as I was walking up to preach in my Fundamentalist church, “I have nothing of value to say that is not written in this book” (pointing to the Bible). It’s really kind of a sad statement when you think about it. Even though Jesus quoted Scripture, he never held out Scripture as an idol to be placed above all other things. He said things like, “You have heard it said…But, I say to you…” This happened several times in the Sermon on the Mount. He was actually quoting Hebrew Scripture (the only Scripture they had) and changing it. At other times, He seemed to ignore or disobey what others believed Scripture to prescribe as law. Christians, especially protestants probably started to idolize Scripture after the Reformation and the pronouncement, “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone). I was caught up in this thought process for a long time.
It was my children and some of their friends that taught me to look at things a little differently. I noticed these young people discovering inconsistencies and posing magnificent questions. This usually happened around the end of high school or the beginning of college when we taught them to think for themselves. I enjoyed answering emails from students and other people who were investigating the Bible, but at some point I grew weary of justifying things like genocide and slavery and rules/laws that didn’t make any sense. I wondered to myself at first, “What if I’m wrong?” Then, I questioned further, “What if this book is something more than a rigid book of rules? What if it’s more like a record of the people of God as they progressed through their understanding? What if it…dare I say…contains some errors and inconsistencies that are understandable but not what I was taught to dogmatically suggest?”
Over the years as I allowed more things to become a question instead of a statement, the answers seemed to become clearer. I began to see a more Christlike God that is loving, merciful and full of Grace. I started to understand what He said about not coming to judge the world and I began to see his compassion and love for the whole world. I read several authors like Peter Enns and Brad Jersak that encouraged me to interpret the Bible through the lens of Jesus. Jesus words and actions became the starting pointing for understanding what the Bible says, and sometimes, what it doesn’t say. Through my pastor, Brian Zahnd, I came to understand Christianity as a tree and the Bible as the soil out of which is grows. Both need each other, but they are separate and different. And, by the way, we shouldn’t idolize either one of those things. For Christians, the focus should be exclusively on Jesus Christ.
To take the Bible super literally and claim that it is inerrant, a lot of building blocks have to be in place. That is why when I question this, some people get very nervous. One of those building blocks is when we consider how the Bible came together. Around 325 A. D. councils started meeting to try to formalize the Scriptures to include both the Hebrew Scriptures and some 1st Century writings into one coherent volume (Canon). The interesting thing to me about this is that it coincides with Constantine’s action to unite the church with Empire and his desire to have 50 copies a standard canon in the Church of Constantinople (let the sink in) around 331 A.D. This seems a little obvious. People have a tendency to long for control to alleviate their fears. By the 5th century, a series of councils agreed on the Canon of Scripture, but the lingering question to me is “How do I know that they got it right?”
Consider this example.
In the Old Testament (2 Kings 1), when Moab rebels against Israel, their king is sick and wants to know if he will recover, he sends messengers to ask the god of Ekron to make the call. Apparently, this upsets the angel of the Lord who sends the prophet Elijah to ask him, “Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron.” And by the way, he also adds “you shall surely die” to the prophet’s message. It sounds fairly normal so far, except that God seems to go out of his way a lot just because he didn’t get consulted. It gets worse.
After Elijah delivers the message, the king sends a captain and fifty men to invite Elijah to come visit with these words, “O man of God, the king says, ‘Come down.’” Apparently, that is the wrong thing to say to a prophet because he responds, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” And, according to the account, that is what happened. Over react much? The scene is repeated for the second squad of fifty, but narrowly avoided in the third regiment because the third captain begs for his life. His men are spared, and the angel instructs Elijah to take the time to deliver the message that the king is going to die because he ignored God.
I don’t know about you, but this leaves me with a few questions. Primarily, is this story true? If it is literally accurate? Is it what we are supposed to do? And, more importantly, is it an accurate representation of what God is like?
If only we could find an example in the Bible that would clear this up. My professor also used to say, “Let the clear interpret the unclear.” Consider this account of James and John while traveling with Jesus (Luke 9). When a village of Samaritans refused to provide traveling accommodations to Jesus and his group, James and John wondered, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” This was a great teaching moment for the disciples. In their minds, this is what God does when someone disrespects Him. Jesus brings clarity with a simple statement, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are, for the Son of Man (Jesus) did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” Jesus indicated that God does not do drone strikes on people just because they ignore or offend Him. His purpose was to save lives, and apparently, that included physical ones.
This example not only brings clarity to this passage, but it also helps me understand the purpose of Scripture. When I look through lens of Jesus, I not only see a more graceful, merciful, compassionate God; but, I also understand better the purpose of the Bible. It is “useful,” as it says, but I no longer am inclined to treat it as a rule book or accurate historical record. I think my pastor is right–it is soil that nurtures the tree of Christianity. It is the record of God’s people in all their immaturity and lack of understanding. It was recorded by people that were certainly inspired, but not infallible.
To some extent, my theology classes looked at how the Bible was translated. I don’t really have the inclination to dive into that at this time. But, suffice to say, I still have doubts that every single word of our current Bible made it through multiple translations and copies and such without some errors occurring. Understanding that does not deter my faith, it kind of strengthens it. It makes me believe a little less in the Bible and a little more in the Word of God (Jesus). That seems okay to me right now.
Some of my friends probably think I don’t need the Bible if I don’t take it so literally. All I can say is my understanding of the Bible is progressively changing as my understanding of God changes. I think the healthiest thing is to say that I still have questions and I think it’s okay to keep discovering truth. Sometimes that comes outside the Bible. Sometimes it comes through the words written there. Often, a combination of both.
I don’t love or hate the Bible–I’m simply on a journey to discover what it actually is!
** Please feel free to like, forward or comment on this blog. Part of this is for me to just sort through my beliefs and feelings, but it would mean so much more to have your input. **