Bible Struggle

  • A dialogue about the Bible

    Recently MF from the USA wrote to freelance theology, expressing some personal difficulties with the Bible. Below is the exchange of ideas between MF and Jon the freelance theologian.

    MF wrote:
    Here’s a question that is more about the Bible itself than what’s in it. It’s kind of a complaint about the Bible. You’re an expert and live in it. But what are the rest of us supposed to do? I recently bought a book about how to read the Bible. My problems are pretty typical. I can’t remember what I read from day to day. Sometimes a passage just doesn’t connect for me, even when I can tell it’s important.

    It feels hopeless sometimes. The Bible is IT, Christianitywise. But it’s a million pages long … it’s written often from a very, very different cultural perspective than any I am familiar with … (like, modern people don’t have “Lords” any more, so the image now seems distant and medieval).

    I’m no scholar or linguist. I need my mind to make a living! But this book suggests I find mind-space to understand exegesis, hermeneutics, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic … all these things, while still needing inspiration, clarity, and sometimes comfort.

    Here’s my complaint. Why did God – the great leveller – give us a primary way of knowing him that ordinary people can’t ever be good at?

    You would think the creator of atoms and galaxies could have found a more elegant way for us to know him. Often, I am out in the woods, where I pray and take my rest – and feel God to be walking with me there far more than in my readings. That doesn’t seem right, and it distances me from the ardour of fellow Christians.

    I’m smart, but I’m not academically smart. I’m also old (54), so the idea of mastering this thing in my lifetime is starting to seem impossible. Don’t get me wrong. I love God. I love the poetry. I love the stories. But how can a normal guy get a handle on ALL THIS STUFF?

    In response, Jon the freelance theologian wrote:

    All I can say is don’t get too hung up on this. I know that sounds odd, but Christians can be very good at feeling guilty for not doing things ‘right’ or being holy enough. Ironically, there is no explicit statement in the Bible commanding Christians to have a ‘quiet time’ or spend hours and hours reading the Bible trying to make sense of it.

    The thing is – and it’s important to admit this as intelligent people, despite what some fundamentalists will say – the Bible is often obscure, confusing and can be incredibly boring in places. Not everybody has the time to learn the original languages, study the cultural contexts and then apply them to the frenzy that is 21st century life. It’s better to admit that you don’t have the time to understand a complex document than do what some people do and say that it’s really simple and contains all the answers to life. Waving a Bible around, in the manner of some well-known ‘Bible teachers’, and calling it the Word of God doesn’t make it easier to read and apply. In fact the more you wave it around, the less time you have to study it.

    There’s nothing wrong with opting to read the more straightforward parts of the Bible, like the Gospels and Acts, some of the Psalms and Paul’s letters, particularly the shorter ones (you might get more out of the letters to Timothy than the mammoth theological treatise which is the letter to the Romans). It’s very rare you need to know what obscure passages in Jeremiah mean, or who begat who in Chronicles, or anything much to do with Revelation.

    Also, while the Bible might be “IT”, the Christian perception of God is as an active God, working in the lives of Christians through the Holy Spirit ever since Pentecost. Reading other stuff is allowed – and it doesn’t have to be weighty theological tomes either. If you have the time to read at all, a balanced diet of contemporary teaching and easily understood bits of the Bible should keep you spiritually healthy (and sane).

    However, your main question – why did God chose to reveal himself this way? – is worth a second look and there are a number of points to be made.

    Firstly, as mentioned above, Christians perceive God as active and involved through the Holy Spirit, both in the lives of individuals and in the corporate life of gathered believers (or ‘church’). The Bible as the record of God’s dealing with humanity is a product of the earliest believing communities. Christianity differs significantly from Islam with regard to the Holy Book. In Islam, the Qur’an is the divine revelation and Mohammed is the means by which humans received the revelation. In contrast, in Christianity Jesus Christ is the revelation of God and the Bible is the means by which human beings learn about Jesus.

    Unfortunately, too often in the protestant evangelical world, there has been a subconscious adoption of an Islamic-style reverence for Scripture. The Bible is hugely important for Christians – that goes without saying. It is the only trustworthy record of events Christians have regarding the life of Jesus. It has subsequently been recognised as authoritative and divinely-inspired by nearly two thousand years of continuous Christian witness. But it is not the means that God chose to reveal himself to the world. God’s ultimate chosen method, in Christian theology, is through the Incarnation – the life, ministry, example, sacrificial death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Christ.

    The second point follows on from the statement that the Bible, as found today, is the product of the believing community. During the first couple of centuries of the Christian Church, there were debates over which writings should be referred to as being accurate. Just like today, there were plenty of people who had their own ‘unique’ (i.e. weird) theological ideas. To prevent people from creating their own Christian or semi-Christian sects, the leaders of the early Church compiled a list of books that were deemed accurate and authoritative.

    This formation of what became known as the ‘canon of Scripture’ was a lengthy process. The decisions were made based on a number of factors, the primary ones being how long the books had been in existence and whether they were written by the Apostles or those close to them. It was not a popularity contest, but another key element was how much the various books were used and by how many churches.

    It could be said then, that the Bible has had its authority conferred on it by Christians. This does not necessarily undermine its authority. The ongoing action of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church implies that the formation of a set canon was God-intentioned. The canon was declared ‘closed’ in order to prevent people adding the ‘revelations’ they had received and there have been many such people from the second and third century Montanists through to Joseph Smith who founded the Mormon Church in the nineteenth century. But the doctrine of a ‘closed canon’ does not mean that God cannot speak into any time or place of His choosing. Again, as already mentioned above, good teaching from any age may be more accessible and helpful to an individual than certain sections of the Bible.

    Finally, the people chosen to write the Bible were, by and large, ‘ordinary guys’ too. They did some extraordinary things and lived through some extraordinary times, but they were ordinary human beings, prone to doubt, unbelief, sin and failure. Their stories make up the record of God interacting with humanity and there is something encouraging about that. Sometimes the people who wrote what we read were so ordinary their names are not recorded in the Bible at all. God uses ‘ordinary guys’, even if they cannot get a handle on everything.

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