Saturday, 30 August 2014

Discovering a love for the bible - for the first time!

I mentioned in my last blog that the work of Brian D McLaren had helped me through difficulties with The Bible. So let’s elaborate on that a bit.

Over the last five years or so the bible has come alive for me. I have discovered a depth, richness and wisdom that were never there before. Over a period of time the bible firstly became a problem, then irrelevant and eventually died. And it almost took my faith with it.

My Christian story is like many others. From my teens I was in a strict brethren assembly for nearly 15 years. This was a great environment for learning about what was in the bible. But it was the last place on earth to question its content. The bible was inerrant in every way. To question whether there was a real Adam and Eve, Noah or 900 year old Methuselah was unthinkable. The answer to any question was ‘the bible says’. The question that followed any statement was – ‘do have a chapter and verse for that bro?’

Even as I moved into the more ‘progressive’ thinking of events like Spring Harvest and New Wine there was still that underlying mind set. The bible had to be factually literal. If it wasn’t then the whole basis of our faith collapsed and the whole basis of our social acceptance disappeared.

The questions that were always there became more problematic the more I studied the bible itself. And there was no shortage of problems –

  1. A literal belief in every statement required an acceptance of facts which in any other context would not be given a second thought. The sun could not possibly have ‘stood still’ in Joshua 10. Where was it planning to go? People do not have conversations with snakes and did Balaam really have a conversation with his ass, so to speak? (Numbers 22). Was Jonah really swallowed by a big fish and stay in its belly for three days? Even St Augustine struggled with that one –
  2. There are very obvious contradictions. We have three gospels which give one account of Jesus and a fourth which is almost entirely different. We have a letter to the Galatians saying - There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Then we have the writer of Timothy saying that a woman is not permitted to teach and have authority over a man.
  3. There is sickening violence. Did God really kill the entire firstborn of Egypt; possibly one of the greatest acts of genocide in history? Did God tell Joshua to kill 12,000 men and women in Ai, to plunder the city and to hang the king of Ai on a tree? Was God really angry with Saul for failing to kill all of the Amalekite men, women, children and infants? And how does that tally with a god of love and mercy?

We could go on. These difficulties were always there but were suppressed because, well the bible was God’s word and He knew best. My real crisis came when I was asked to speak on the massacre at Ai and had to admit that I had nothing to say! In the light of the ‘all or nothing’ mentality the whole building began to collapse. If the baby had to be thrown out with the bath water then so be it.

One advantage of hitting rock bottom is that you then have the freedom to face things head on. There is no longer any other agenda driving you. From this point I began to actually study the bible itself and also how and when it was written. Suddenly there was a bigger picture that made it all so much clearer. I was helped here by Brian McLaren, Karen Armstrong and more recently Marcus Borg (see below).

I firstly explored where the whole idea of inerrancy came from. For many, the answer is obviously found in 2 Timothy 3:16. But let’s break that verse down –

‘all scripture’ – the writer is manifestly not talking about the bible. There was no such thing at that time. We were at least a century away from that. Even the Hebrew cannon was not yet complete. All the writer knew was the law and the prophets. There has be a considerable stretching of logic to extend this to the bible as we know it.

‘is God breathed’ – this expression is all about giving life. We are told in Genesis 2 (the second creation story) that God breathed into Adam ‘the breath of life’. So, according to that story I am God breathed. But I am certainly not inerrant. So, we are told that, ‘all scripture’ has its life and vibrancy from God but that is a long long way from a claim to inerrancy.

‘and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’. I have to confess to ignoring that part of the verse for many years. So scripture is useful. It has a role to play. It is important. But there is nothing say that this means that every single statement has to be literally and factually accurate.

There are two conclusions from looking at this verse. Firstly it is highly questionable, in any event, that something is inerrant just because it claims to be – I did once hear a Spring Harvest speaker say that. Secondly the bible itself does not actually make any such claim.

Rather than undermine my faith this discovery of the patently obvious was liberating. It opened the door to enable me deal with all of the above problems, and more.

It certainly resolved the question of violence. Those books are ancient documents written by humans in a very violent age. Most other writings from that time concern warriors who wished to prove that their god was greater then others. It was part of the literature of the day. The stories do not reveal a violent God but are the written record of verbal accounts that had been around for hundreds of years. That was how stories were told at that time.

If it is no longer essential to hold on to the literal factuality of the bible then the bible can become a living resource to teach us so much about God and ourselves. The one thing I have learned is that there is all the difference in world between saying the bible is true and saying that every detail is factually literal. In fact the truth is not dependent on whether the stories are recording historical facts or not.

For example Brian McLaren deals with Adam and Eve in his latest book –

‘The story of Adam and Eve doesn’t have to be about literal historical figures in the past to tell us something very true about us, our history and our world today. We humans have consistently chosen the wrong tree. Instead of imitating and reflecting god as good image-bearers should do, we start competing with God, edging God out, playing god ourselves.’ *

So it matters not whether this really happened or not. The real truth lies behind the story, not the actual history. The same goes for Jonah. Once we see it as a parable about one man’s journey to enlightenment, it becomes so much more than a cute, if rather unlikely Sunday School story. We are very comfortable with the parables that Jesus told. Nobody needs to believe that there really was a sower. The bible is packed with stories which reveal God to us. And it is the truth within them that is relevant. If we never get out of the need to prove that it is all factual despite our intelligence and experience, then we are in trouble.

This does not mean that the bible is of no value. In fact it is of supreme value, if read correctly. These books are the gateway to us understanding God. Not because they were supernaturally dictated, but because they were written by those who were expressing their experience of God.

So how do we read the bible?

(a) A reasonable starting point is our own intelligence and experience. We draw the truth from the bible as it it is revealed to us following careful and prayerful study. If everything that we know tells us that the massacre of children is wrong then we read those stories from that perspective.

(b) We must explore the times and the context in which particular passages were written. So if, in Romans 1 Paul is writing about the unacceptable behaviour of his day - including homosexual activity by heterosexuals, we have to careful about applying those words to sincere same sex relationships today just by word association.

(c) We must look at the whole story and not use bible verses like fortune cookies. I remember years ago booking a speaker for a youth group. He let us down on the night and left a phone message to say ' -can't make it. Romans 8 - 28',  as if that coded message made everything alright.

(d) Read the bible through the lens of Jesus. He said that he was 'the way, the truth and the life'. This has usually been used to promote the exclusivity of the christian faith. But I am not so so sure. If you look at the the context, he was answering a question about finding God. His answer was that if you want to know what God is like then 'look at me'. So the bible has to be read from the same perspective. Jesus has to be our starting point in finding the truth of the bible.

(e) Read it imaginatively, always look for the truth behind the words.

These are just some ideas but the possibilities are endless.

The books of the bible were written in a particular time and place. We need to read them from where we are. We should not translate an ancient cultural world to today. We need to seek the truth within the books and interpret that truth within our world.

It is this process that has brought the bible back to life for me.  It has been transformed from a dry, unmovable rule book to a rich well of truth and life.

This is neither a liberal nor conservative viewpoint. It is the result an honest struggle over many years.

*Brian D McLaren We Make The Road By Walking – Hodder and Stoughton 2014

Helpful reading –

Karen Armstrong The Bible, the biography – Atlantic Books 2007

Marcus J Borg Reading the Bible Again for the First Time – Barnes and Noble 2001

Brian D McLaren Generous Orthodoxy – Zondervan Book 2006


Anonymous said...

Lots of food for thought Steve!

taxineil said...

Modern thinkers mostly believe 1 Thessalonians is the first book written in the whole of the New Testament-if so,then after St.Paul has said hello to everybody you have the first teaching in the whole of the New Testament at 1 verse 4-'We know that God loves us and that we have been chosen'

Steve Cornforth said...

I just read about the real chronological order for NT. Fascinating. ..

Simon Nicholls said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Simon Nicholls said...

Chapter and verse numbering is a relatively recent addition to the Bible (13th and 16th century respectively). Although good for referencing purposes, they have seriously affected the way we read and understand the Bible - sometimes quite damagingly, as your "do you have a chapter and verse for that?" quote reveals.

Steve Cornforth said...

Or even quoting just the reference and ignoring the content....