How do we work at discerning the message of God amidst all the messages with which we are bombarded? What role does the Bible play in this discernment?
An all-authoritative Bible?
Back in 1971 when I first began going to church as a teenager, I attended a Bible Baptist Church. We saw the Bible as the perfect book, the Word of God that provided clear direction for life. We believed that God speaks to us directly through the Bible.
Most people in that church had beautiful Bibles with supple leather covers. These Bibles looked like no other kind of book. And they were well used. Conversations and prayers were punctuated with Bible verses—in the King James Version. This sense of certainty of our access to clear, authoritative direction straight from God had great appeal for me. The reason I had turned to faith was that I wanted answers; I wanted to know the truth. And it seemed like I had found it.
You simply did not question the authority of the Bible. My job as a Christian was not to think and ask questions; my job was to listen and obey. Listen to God, for sure, but also recognize that the voice of God comes through the authoritative Bible.
So, if I had asked the question back then, “how does God communicate?” I would have had a simple and obvious answer. God communicates through the words of the Bible, each word fully inspired, each word fully authoritative. If I had been honest and at least a little bit self aware, I would also have admitted that sometimes it was hard for me to understand each word of the Bible. I was thankful to have an authoritative preacher to help me hear the Bible better and learn how I should obey it.
Our preacher was a sincere believer following the path that seemed best to him and his congregation. But this is the message I got from him (and others in the church) about why God communicates: God communicates to us, I learned, in order to take us out of the world. The reason God speaks through the Bible is tell us how to have our souls saved and to tell us how Jesus will return and take us away to heaven with him.
I read the Bible as a collection of verses that one way or another all support the same basic idea—get saved and get out of here.
It is interesting how selective the use of proof texts was, though. We had verses that helped us know that drinking alcohol was a terrible sin—a person really couldn’t be a Christian and a drinker. But what about the verse, “a little wine is good for the stomach” or the story of Jesus miraculously providing wine for the wedding at Cana? Well, they didn’t really say what they seemed to say. When Jesus turned the water into wine, he was actually turning it into unfermented grape juice—which is surely also what Paul had in mind as well when he commended wine as a digestive aid.
All along, though, I struggled with Bible study. I believed with all my heart what I was taught about how important the Bible was. It was God’s Word, without error, and the source of the absolutes we need for knowing God’s will. But I simply didn’t find the Bible interesting. I tried and tried to read it. I kept journals and struggled to memorize the important salvation verses. But the Bible just didn’t catch my imagination.
I realize now that for the Christianity I had joined with, the real issue that mattered is the idea of a Holy Book. What was important was our doctrine of the Bible (more so, when it came down to it, than its content). The issue was authority. Christianity, as I first learned of it, was basically a religion of authority, of security, of certainty.
For my church, what mattered was a sense of having the truth. We needed a point of safety in the midst of a crazy and uncertain world. The Bible helps provide a sense of security. Since the God of all has spoken to us directly and completely reliably in this book, we can simply turn to it and know exactly what’s going on. Thus we may have perfect assurance that we are on the winning side.
Re-imagining biblical authority
The key turning point for my theology came when I became a pacifist. My pacifism did not emerge from my reading of the Bible. I initially became a pacifist more due to a kind of mystical awareness, an inner sense of clarity emerging out of an awareness of the human costs of violence during the Vietnam War era.
However, I certainly still believed in the Bible. I had to make sense of my pacifism biblically. It just so happened that within a few months of my pacifist turn, I discovered the writings of John Howard Yoder. During this exciting time of growth, I would definitely have still advocated for an inerrant Bible. My own inner awareness seemed to match the teaching of the Bible—as made clear by Yoder.
I did not think I had to change my view of the Bible to hold to my new views. I still believe that, actually, but I have changed my view of the Bible anyhow.
I found a new clarity in the midst of vicious debates that swept the North American evangelical community over the issue of biblical inerrancy in the 1970s. I first encountered these debates as one fully on the side of an error-free Bible. But then I read a book called The Battle for the Bible by Harold Lindsell that changed my views.
In fact, Lindsell argued vehemently in favor of inerrancy. However, when I finished his book, I had abandoned that view. It was my pacifism that made the difference. I became suspicious of an argument that seemed so hostile, even violent. In my suspicion, I was then opened to see the logical and practical problems with the way I had thought of the Bible.
What mattered about the Bible for my new teachers was its witness to Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor. The Bible witnesses to this call to love by telling a story—a bunch of stories, of course, but stories that fit together (loosely!) in pointing to one great story. This one great story tells of God’s love that created us all with the freedom to resist that love, that remains committed even when we do resist, and continues to persuade us to trust in that love and find healing.
This was an entirely different perspective than the wrathful God, fearful humanity, get saved and get out of here, isolated proof-text, defensive and obligation oriented approach to the Bible I had learned. The Bible became much more interesting to me. It told about the challenges of living life here and now, in history, with real human sorrows and joys, failures and successes, struggles and moments of peace. The Bible became a source of encouragement, but also something to be questioned and argued with. Something truly human in the best sense of that term. A source for genuine conversation.
I also came to understand that God reveals Godself everywhere. The Bible itself is not this revelation. I can’t emphasize this point strongly enough. The Bible itself is not this revelation. The Bible witnesses to God’s self-disclosure in creation, in the history of God’s people, in the human heart, and in human relationships.
I now believe that, for Christians, the Bible matters because of how it helps us interpret God’s self-disclosures that come to us in all of life. We understand the big story of the Bible, and the various little stories, as helping us discern how God communicates, what God communicates, and why God communicates.
How does God communicate?
How does God communicate? Through our senses, through our relationships, through the physical world we live in. But we have to have eyes to see and ears to hear in order to recognize the communication as from God—and to respond to it appropriately. Maybe we could think of God’s self-disclosure as being like radio signals that always bombard us, but need a receiver to be heard.
All these signals need to be sorted through. How do we know what precisely God is communicating? This is where the Bible comes in. We find in the Bible a clear sense of what kind of things God wants to communicate. When we do theology as if Jesus matters, we will recognize that Jesus certainly matters for discerning God’s self-disclosure. The story of Jesus tells us that what matters most to God is love, caring for others, challenging injustice, seeking wholeness.
The Bible is not a substitute for our experience and our discernment and our taking responsibility for learning and acting and listening and thinking. The Bible does not let us off the hook and give us some kind of magical basis to avoid the complexities of life. Not at all. Rather, the Bible is best seen as a stimulus for experiencing and discerning and learning and acting and listening and thinking.
The Bible is meant to help us be more faithfully human, more ourselves, as we become more conformed to the purposes God has for us in life.
Why does God communicate?
Why does God communicate? Because God wants us to grow in love. God wants us to learn truth. God wants us to find the power and hope we need to help transform the world. God wants us to join in God’s work of healing.
For Christians, God is to be seen in all aspects of the created universe—from the immensity of outer space to the mysteries of the atoms. The Psalms teem with allusions to the beauty and majesty of the natural world. They draw from this beauty and majesty a sense of worship and gratitude to Israel’s Creator God. We find just one example in Psalm 65.
Christians confess that life itself comes from God. Consequently, any birth, the renewal of nature each spring, any thing that enhances life discloses God.
Christians also believe that human rationality, the ability to reason and solve problems, express characteristics of the One in whose image human beings have been created.
As well, our ability to love others and live in friendship—as well as the devastation of isolation and loneliness—are also seen to reflect being created in the image of a social, relational God (Gen 1:27).
Another way that God is disclosed in human life is in the reality of facing consequences when we trust in realities other than God. That is, in biblical language, idolatry carries with it intrinsic consequences that reflect the nature of the created universe. These consequences are best seen not as punishment for its own sake so much simply as disharmony caused by traveling “off the track” of the universe.
God is also disclosed in acts of liberation and salvation. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, events such as the calling of Abraham and Sarah, the exodus out of slavery in Egypt, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus have been key examples of God revealed in liberating acts. Since the time of Jesus, God has been revealed when oppressed people gain liberty and when healing communities are formed and sustained. When the way of Jesus is embodied in these ways that are in continuity with the formative acts, they disclose God.
These formative acts, and many other stories of God’s healing involvement were written down along with teachings these communities believed came from God. Such writings, gathered in the Christian “scriptures,” provide the “master stories” that give the Christian community direction for its beliefs and practices.
The Bible, this collection of the master stories, serves as the basis for the community’s discernment concerning other apparent disclosures from God. The content of these other forms of revelation is measured against the content of the Bible. So, while Christians understand God to disclose Godself in many ways, they give a privileged status to the Bible. The authenticity of these communications is tested by how well the alleged disclosure coheres with the disclosure of God in scripture.
Echoing the language of 2 Timothy 3, Christians confess that the Bible is “inspired” by the Holy Spirit—meaning essentially that God participated in the writing, preservation, and interpretation of the books of the Bible. The God who created the universe and who has acted in history in ways that have fostered healing the brokenness of relationships between human beings and God, also guided the writings that were ultimately collected into the book Christians confess to be their scripture.
The Bible and Jesus
The Bible’s meaning for Christians rests most of all on it being our source for information about Jesus. From the Bible we learn of God’s entry into human history in a particular human being whose life and teaching reveal the character of God, the will of God for human beings, and the approach God takes in providing salvation for all who trust in God. The rest of the Bible, Old Testament and New Testament, provides the context we need properly to understand God’s revelation in Jesus.
The identity of the Bible as the meaning-full scripture of the faith community follows from the confession that Christians make concerning its status. The authoritative element of the content of the Bible most of all takes the form of an on-going story that is persuasive, relational, and evocative of faith for those who confess it to be revelation from God. The authority of the Bible, then, is not so much coercive and “outside-of-us” as it is trust-based, the consequence of a freely made choice to accept its normativity.
The core meaning of the Bible takes the form of a story that we are invited (not forced) to join, to identify as our own story. As such a story, the Bible is not seen as a blueprint believers follow out of fear and in a spirit of legalism. Rather, it is a friend and guide whose power stems from its trustworthiness as a basis for healthy living and belief.
The meaning of the Bible is of the kind that the truthfulness of its message is appropriated only as we live with it, following its directives. It is not so much objective, obvious to all eyes, outside-of-us, scientifically verifiable “truth” as it is “personal truth.” The Bible’s truth becomes operative as we assent to it, trust in it, and live in relationship with it.
Challenges in understanding the Bible
One of the major challenges in understanding the Bible correctly is that it comes to us from a great distance. It was written thousands of years ago, in languages very different from our own, and in cultures very different from ours.
Nonetheless, we are able to assume significant common ground between ourselves and the biblical people. We are all human beings with similar questions and more commonalities than differences. The kinds of issues that were alive for the biblical writers remain alive in our world.
We have biblical translators who build upon a remarkable history of careful scholarship. Yes, we must recognize the lack of perfect understanding of the languages of the original writings of the Bible. Nevertheless, we may with a great deal of confidence trust that we are able to approach with a pretty high level of accuracy the intentions of the biblical writers.
However, these various distances do remind us that the truths of the Bible are most reliable in their broad articulation. The most meaningful content of the Bible begins with its general themes of God’s love and the people’s response to that love over time. Many of the more specific statements in the Bible are difficult to apply directly (e.g., the commands for parents to execute rebellious children [Deuteronomy 21:18-21] and the commands for women to be silent in the church [1 Corinthians 14:34-35]) because we cannot be certain of their precise context and their specific intent. However, we may with great confidence apply the more general thematic truths that tell us of God’s character and human struggles.
Another problem for many people in relation to the Bible is the existence of what seem to be many internal inconsistencies and historical inaccuracies.
A key element to dealing with this problem is to recognize the nature of the biblical materials. The Bible is not a history book in the modern, scientific sense. It is a collection of pre-modern stories and exhortations that were written according to the standards of ancient expressions of faith, not the standards of modern historical research. Readers of the Bible should not read it expecting perfection of facts and details.
In the overall scheme of things, the historical accuracy of the Bible is quite remarkable. The biblical stories, as near as we can ascertain, are believable on historical grounds to a surprising degree. Yet, we must also remember that the biblical writers intended to tell stories that would buttress faith and challenge life practices. The writers are preachers, proclaiming the “good news” of God’s saving love. The Bible succeeds in its intent as a confession of faith, not a “proof” based on irrefutable facts.
Another type of problem with the Bible is that it seems to contain numerous ethically problematic emphases. The presence of these emphases must be acknowledged; they are too prominent to be denied. For Christians, though, the Bible is to be read directionally. Jesus provides the center to the Bible. The rest of the Bible outside of the immediate stories related to Jesus are to be read as in some sense pointing toward the core message of Jesus.
For example, let’s consider the sexism of the Bible. Reading the Bible as being centered on the message of Jesus helps us to see the remarkable ways that Jesus overturned the sexism of his day. Jesus’ message clearly points toward the equality of the sexes in God’s eyes. With Jesus’ message in mind, we then look at the Old Testament in a way that especially notices hints that point ahead to Jesus. We should assume, I believe, that Jesus understood himself as being compatible with the basic thrust of the Old Testament on this issue with others.
When read as a whole and in light of Jesus, the Bible ultimately points to the affirmation of the equality of women with men. The Bible provides bases for refuting sexism.
The Bible is a document written by human beings, written in specific times and places, written about human experiences and human perceptions of God. Ultimately, it is only as a human document that the Bible mediates the divine.
As Gabriel Josipovici points out in The Book of God, “We assent to [the Bible], as we do to people, to the degree that we grow to feel we can trust [it]. In [the Bible], it is moments of ordinariness, as when someone realizes he is hungry and takes sustenance from others, which establish the grounds of our trust. It is moments of vulnerability, the moments when the protagonist can no longer find words to make sense of [one’s] life, and is reduced to tears or cries of despair, which make us experience [that person’s] body as our own.” At these moments, we find that the Bible is authentic to life. We find we can trust that, yes, here is something which offers insight and empathy—and spiritual nourishment and encouragement.