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I have been taught a lot of things about Scripture throughout my long life in the Christian Reformed Church. Scripture is infallible and inerrant. It is uniform and harmonious. It is perspicuous and a useful guide for living.
Sometimes my actual study of Scripture gives quite a different impression. Scripture is often difficult to understand. It contains apparent errors and contradictions. Parts of it are far too obtuse or violent to give any practical guidance for daily life. What, for example, can one learn about how to conduct oneself in life from a reading of Judges or Nahum?
Much has also been made of the claim that only the original autographs of biblical books are infallible and inerrant. This is a very peculiar claim. No such autographs exist, so it does us little good to believe this. In many cases there never was an original autograph anyway. One of the gospels or epistles may have had an original autograph, but there certainly never was an original autograph of Old Testament histories or Psalms or Proverbs. These books are collections acquired and edited over hundreds of years. What can it mean, then, to speak of original autographs of these books?
What if we thought about the Bible in a different way? What if we saw it as wild and untamable, as a challenge and adventure that always eludes our best attempts to understand it? We Reformed people pride ourselves on our creedal definitions of theology, supposing we have all the important teachings of the Bible carefully defined and delineated.
Could it be, however, that saying the Bible is mysterious and unfathomable is in fact a higher view of Scripture than claiming we have it all figured out? It is fairly easy to admit that we do not fully understand the books of Ezekiel or Revelation, but what about the gospels? Can we ever fully grasp the meaning of Jesus’s being forsaken by his own Father or the nature of the self-denial and daily cross-bearing Jesus demands of us?
An emphasis on the diversity of biblical books can also be refreshing. That’s why I prefer to speak of our Scriptures in the plural rather than the singular. The Bible is a collection of very different kinds of writing from very different authors over a period of many hundreds of years. There is history and prophecy, prose and poetry, gospel and apocalyptic, personal letter and narrative. All of this diversity gives our Scriptures a richness and depth we sometimes miss.
Instead of valuing only the most perspicuous of Bible books, it can also be helpful to appreciate the more difficult ones. I have personally struggled long and hard with mental and physical suffering. My life has often seemed futile and meaningless. Therefore the books of Job and Ecclesiastes are profoundly significant for me. It is easier to maintain my faith in God because these books are included in our canon. They show that Christian faith can incorporate difficult questions and challenges to traditional ideas.
Perhaps there are even actual contradictions in different biblical books. But does it matter if the same story has different details in Matthew and in John? Is orthodox theology threatened if James and Paul in fact teach something different about the relationship between faith and works? Or does this difference simply challenge us to think more deeply about our own Christian practice? Different Christians also have vastly different interpretations of Scriptural teaching. Maybe we should not be so quick to judge one as right and the other as wrong. Maybe we should instead try to appreciate the merit of both understandings.
In the end our perception of the nature of the Scriptures and of Christian faith itself are at stake. Certainly there has to be a continuing foundation of basic truth such as represented in the great ecumenical creeds of early Christianity. But we need to keep growing in faith and understanding. Even the creeds of the Reformation era are not the final definitive summary of doctrine. There is always more for us to learn.
The purpose of the Scriptures in my mind is more to be a continual guide and prompt to our faith than a book of answers to all our questions. The Scriptures always point us to Jesus, God’s highest and final revelation. And notice, as you read the gospels, how often Jesus responds to a question by asking his questioner another question. Jesus and the Scriptures that testify to him constantly question us, challenge us, surprise us, and often make us uncomfortable. This is the proper role for the wild and wonderful Scriptures God has given us.
I think of the Bible as a great conversation, the authoratative conversation, the necessary conversation, but a conversation nonetheless, often an argument, a debate (as between Paul and James, or between the different minor prophets), with obvious disagreements, which disagreements have to be held together in dynamic dialectic, the conversation we must inhabit.
Thank you, Daniel. I agree. It’s interesting to comb the gospels and note the places in the Hebrew Scriptures Jesus quotes, and maybe more important, the places he never turns for teaching. I don’t think this means we can set those parts of the Scripture aside, but it might help us understand which parts of the conversation Jesus plants his flag.
The very messiness of the Scriptures is one of the most important reasons I am still a Christian at the tender age of 72. Life is messy. So is the Bible. It fits.
If we can’t totally define/understand God, why do we think we can totally understand His Word. Isaiah 55:8-9 NIV. Or as Eugene Peterson says: God is deliberately ambiguous.
I don’t want to believe in a God who fits in my small box.
I grew up learning the short title of The Reformed Church is really something like “constantly reforming according to the word of God.” Our understanding, while always limited, keeps expanding the longer this “conversation” continues. Christians clamoring to close off our understanding of these diverse scriptures are in for a bumpy ride and a diminished God. One of the other multiple voices in the conversation, science, is also constantly gaining new insights into how God’s creation “works.”
A very good and instructive piece … thank you. So many of the battles over Scripture have been an enormous waste of breath, time, and money. The Bible is not a single book by a single author, but a library of opinion, poetry, drama, dreams, and story. It’s up to us to visit the library often, withdraw a book or two, read and ponder. Some books will be read again and again; others, not so often. That God should bless us with the burden of reading it, and coming to grips with what we believe, ought not to surprise us; that some, who think they “own” the Bible, would tell us what it means should surprise us, and sadden us, as well. God is a god of the disinvestment of power; too many of God’s self-appointed defenders are greedy for it. It is, as you say, a difficult book. And why? Well, the last time I checked, life itself, discipleship itself, are themselves difficult. And so it is …
My father (born in 1901) called the Bible a redemption story. He discouraged the references to one verse at a time. And, using the Bible as a way to prove someone is wrong was a terrible use of the Bible.