Dear Mr. Lough:
Monday’s note was extremely helpful. It explained a lot to me about the direction and content of your thought and writing these days. What Would Jesus Do? It’s simple, succinct, elegant, and yet comprehensive in its own way. But it also raises a follow-up question, if I may. How do we know for sure what Jesus would do?
I mean, he lived two thousand years ago in a culture far different from ours. Yes, we have the Gospels that tell us most of what we know about the life and teaching of Jesus. But if all we need to do is read what the Gospels tell us about what Jesus said and did, why is there so much disagreement, even among Christians, about what it means to follow the example of Jesus today.
I guess what I am asking has to do with the place of the Bible in contemporary Christianity. I agree with you that Christians should be guided by the example of Jesus. I’m just not clear about how the Bible figures into that experience, especially when the Bible says something that seems inconsistent with the spirit and character of Jesus. Can you help me?
I knew it would be important and necessary, someplace in this series, to address the issue of where the Bible fits in my new way of seeing reality. I just didn’t know when that would be. Your question settles the timing question; today is the day.
For more than fifty years as a conservative evangelical Christian, I lived and studied and carried out my ministry encased in a cocoon of assumptions about the Bible. I learned to regard terms such as verbal and plenary inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility as essential to Christian orthodoxy. And I learned to read the Bible as though it were an instruction manual for how to live the Christian life in the midst of a hostile culture.
In his book called A Generous Orthodoxy, author Brian McLaren, who grew up in a conservative Christian environment similar to mine, effectively summarizes that mindset.
I grew up being taught that the Bible was an answer book, supplying exactly the kind of information modern, Western, moderately educated people want from a phone book, encyclopedia, or legal constitution. We want to know exactly when the earth was created… and how… along with when it will end.
We wanted a simple, clear, efficient, and convenient plan for getting to heaven after death. Between now and then, we wanted clear assurance that God didn’t like the people we didn’t like, and for the same reasons we didn’t like them. Finally, we wanted a rule book that made it objectively clear, with no subjective ambiguity, what behaviors were right and wrong for all time, in all places, and among all cultures, especially if those rules confirmed our views and not those of people we considered “liberal.”
Although I was taught that the Bible fulfilled these modern-Western-moderately-educated desires, I no longer see the Bible this way. But that doesn’t mean I have a lower regard for the Bible. Although I value it differently than I used to,… I still value the Bible more than I can adequately explain.
And, Kathryn, I couldn’t have said it better myself. (That’s why I quoted McLaren.) 🙂
Evangelical Christians generally begin their doctrinal statements with a description of what they believe about the Bible, since they are going to base everything else they believe on that text. I get that. That’s where I used to be. That’s why it is so important for evangelicals to use words like inerrancy (and the other terms I referred to above) in describing the Bible.
I can’t do that anymore, for several reasons. One, it dawned on me one day that there was a church before there was a New Testament. Two, if faithfulness to God required adherence to an inerrant text, how was it possible for Christians to be faithful disciples throughout the first umpteen centuries of church history when most people were illiterate and before the printing press made widespread circulation of the Bible possible?
Three, what good does it do, practically speaking, to claim inerrancy (a term not found in the Bible, by the way) for the original manuscripts, none of which exist today, when even those who make that claim can’t agree about what the “inerrant” text really means?
It seems obvious that misunderstanding and misinterpretation accompany written communication, even among people who share a common culture and language. Is it any wonder we have trouble coming to consensus on the interpretation of a text written thousands of years ago in a culture foreign to us and in a language we don’t speak?
Now you may respond to that question by reminding me that we have the Holy Spirit to guide us in the interpretation process. But what does that mean in view of the multitude and variety of interpretations of virtually every biblical text, many of which are blatantly contradictory?
Is the Holy Spirit enlightening some interpreters and not others? If so, who is being guided by the Holy Spirit, and who is not? And who wants to be the first to suggest that their group is not being guided by the Holy Spirit in their interpretation of the biblical text?
Four, what if our assumptions about the nature of the Bible are wrong? What if the Bible is really a collection of writings, pulled together across many centuries, written in a variety of cultural settings by a host of different people, all of whom were trying to convey what they were thinking and experiencing as they sought to know something about God that would have meaning for their day-to-day lives?
Five, it seems to me that to regard the Bible as the inerrant, infallible Word of God and the only source of objective, absolute truth is itself a subjective conclusion. That is to say, apart from some statements in the Bible ostensibly claiming inerrancy for itself, there is no other source—particularly none that is both objective and external to the text of scripture—on which such a conclusion can be based.
So here’s what we have. If we believe the Bible claims authority and inerrancy for itself, then we assume the truth of that claim because it is found in a document that we believe to be authoritative and inerrant. In philosophy, we call that kind of argument “reasoning in a circle” or “begging the question.” That means that people making an argument assume, as support for their position, the conclusion which their argument has not yet proved.
I realize I am skating on thin ice with heated blades here, but if you read this letter carefully you will notice that I have made no assertions about the text of scripture, one way or another. I have only raised the same questions that are being raised by more and more thoughtful Christians all the time, not to mention thoughtful non-Christians who approach the Bible without any evangelical presuppositions.
I am not denying anything about the Bible. I’m simply pointing out that when anybody claims the Bible is an objective source of infallible assertions of inerrant truth, that is, in and of itself, a subjective conclusion. This is simply a plea for intellectual honesty as the foundation for discussion.
I used to start my theology with the Bible, primarily the New Testament, and then I would assess people and their behavior in light of my interpretation of the scripture. Over time, however, I found that this approach made it possible—and maybe necessary—to pass judgment, build walls, and exclude people. People who behaved contrary to my interpretation and people who interpreted the text differently from me.
Now I begin with people and read the biblical text in light of those relationships. I find this approach encourages less judgment, more acceptance, and a greater potential for unity amid diversity. Since there was a church before there was a New Testament, I think I’m on pretty solid ground.
More important, Jesus always read the scripture through the lens of real people whom he knew and with whom he had some degree of relationship. He did not bring a static interpretation of the law to his relationships and then try to make people fit into it. I think this is why people listened to him teach and testified that he spoke as one who had authority.
In the past few years, I’ve tried to emulate Jesus’ model. I find that if I read the text through the lens of the people I know, I draw different conclusions than if I begin with the text and try to make it fit every situation in the same way. Or, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, the one with an experience is never at the mercy of the one with only an argument.
I have come to believe that the problem with a faith based on propositional doctrine is that it enables the possibility that one may affirm the “right” creedal formulation yet be insensitive and uncaring in relationships. I am moving toward a model of faith that prioritizes relationship—first with God, then with others—above doctrinal precision.
Again, Kathryn, I thank you for your thoughtful questions. I am certain we’ll come back to this theme as this exchange continues. I look forward to hearing from you soon.