How could I, a Baptist pastor, possibly have misgivings about the Bible?
For one thing, the Bible has often been used to abuse. The movie, “The Book of Eli,” sets out a post-apocalyptic future where there is only one copy of the Bible. The main villain of the story knows that if he can get his hands on that one copy of the Bible, he will have incredible power over others. Throughout history many villains and nice people alike have used the Bible to have power over others, sometimes with terrible results.
Second, The Bible is terribly complex, convoluted, and leaves itself open to being misunderstood by everyone, including me. Such misunderstandings have often been divisive, and sometimes deadly.
So what do I love about the Bible despite my misgivings?
I love the genuine nature of the Bible
Let me take you back to my experience of preparing a study on the Book of Philemon when I was a student. Yes, we call Paul’s writings “letters,” or sometimes “epistles,” which sounds more religious, though it isn’t. But in preparing a study on Paul’s letter to Philemon I came to realise that this really is a letter. This did not sound like a letter from God to us, but from one person to another, about another person. The letter concerned a very real situation. In fact it seemed to me to be a very real situation that had nothing to do with me!
The Book of Philemon is not God saying to everyone “here are some rules to live by,” but rather Paul saying to Philemon, and I summarise, “since Jesus is Lord and Saviour, there are implications on how you are going to treat your runaway slave Onesimus, namely with forgiveness and treating him like a brother, not a slave.” What we have is an example of the good news of Jesus being worked out in a real life situation. And that has everything to do with me.
All the letters of the New Testament are like that. They speak to real situations. Through them we learn how to work the Gospel out in our lives. In fact all the writings that make up the Bible are very much tied to real world situations. Being rooted in real events, they are the record of real people responding to a real God in a very real relationship between God and humanity.
Let us consider these verses from Acts:
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.Acts 1:1-3 (NRSV)
Notice what the writer of Acts does not say. He does not say “God told me to tell everyone this.” Rather, “these things happened, and so I’m telling you about it, Theophilus.” We can thank God for some guy named Theophilos, because though the writer wrote for his sake and learning, we get the benefit!
These are very real events the writer wants to share with Theophilus. While there are metaphors, and poetic devices in Scripture, the Book of Acts tends to not be very poetic. These things happened!
All the writings of the Bible are rooted in things that happened in history. These historical events point to the relationship of God with humanity. The New Testament especially, is rooted in who Jesus is and what Jesus did and said, and what happened including his death and resurrection. In Jesus we find the greatest self-disclosure of God. The Bible is not the greatest self-disclosure of God. Jesus is. In the Bible we have very real people responding to very real glimpses of God. Jesus is the greatest glimpse God has ever given of Himself.
We don’t want to just know the Bible, we want to know God, and we do that supremely through Jesus, whom we meet through the Bible.
I love the complexity of the Bible
Because the Bible is the record of a very real relationship between God and humanity, it is complex, and rich, with many genres, written by many different people in many different circumstances. The complex and convoluted nature of the Bible might be something we do not like about the Bible, however, it is actually something to love!
While some people come to the Bible expecting a simple rule book, we find so much more, including things like;
- Frustration when God seem so distant, or not concerned – many of the Psalms.
- The angst of trying to figure out the meaning of life – Ecclesiastes.
- Questions around suffering – Job.
- The beauty of romantic and sexual love – Song of Songs.
- Questioning the fairness of God – Jonah (we should note that the Book of Jonah is not really about Jonah’s obedience, or lack thereof, but the reason for his disobedience; namely, his perception that God’s love of the enemy is unfair).
- The historical event of God being with us, in Jesus – the Gospels.
- The working out of “what does it look like to be a follower of Jesus in our day?” – the letters of the New Testament.
- Encouragement for when we face persecution – Revelation (many interpretations of Revelation miss the point)
With the Bible we don’t have a simple rule book, but wisdom, wrestling, waiting, wanting, and the record of God with us.
While the Bible does not give easy answers, or give answers easily, I love that it leads to great questions.
There are easy answers found in the Bible. Is it okay if I murder someone? No! But it does not always give easy answers. Instead it invites us to wrestle with questions.
Consider, is it okay to kill someone? Killing someone can be different than murder, in self-defence, for example. Christians are divided on the answer to that. Those of the Anabaptist tradition point to the radical love of Jesus in responding to violence with peace and non-retaliation, this being the Kingdom-of-Jesus way. We Baptists tend to focus on the expression of love for those we want to protect from violence, which sometimes may require violence. The point is, there is no easy answer on this, people have read the same Bible and come to different conclusions on it. But wrestling with the question is a great thing to do and deepens us, no matter what answer we may come up with.
I have heard people describe the Bible as an answer book, with the answers to every question you might possibly have about anything and everything. I simply have not found that to be true. But I have always found that it leads to great questions. Great questions lead us to greater depth. Sometimes it is better is better to be deep than correct.
The Bible does provide the answers to the most important questions we could ever ask, like; Who is Jesus? Who is God? What does Jesus have to do with God? And with us? We are reminded of those important questions, and the answers when we participate in the Lord’s Supper. There is a place for deep conviction and for sharing answers. There is a place for for deep humility and living with questions. We do well to figure out which is best where.
While the Bible did not fall from the sky, I love that the Bible is God-breathed.
This is something that cannot be said of other writings:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NIV)
We should not think of the Bible as being God dictated. The fingerprints of human authors are all over it, human authors who faced very human situations, just like we do. While the fingerprints of human authors are all over the Bible, the heart of God is in it. The writings which are collected into the Bible are what God has seen fit so that we can know Him.
If people are looking for a simple book dropped from heaven that explains everything and gives us simple rules to live by, we will be hard pressed getting people to love the Bible, especially if they actually read it.
But if people are looking for authenticity, for genuine writings by real people experiencing real problems, in real situations, in relationship with a real God, as really experienced in the real person of Jesus Christ, then we can be hopeful, for I know I will not be the only one who loves the Bible!