I was brought up within a church context where the position on the Christian canon was that it was divinely inspired – a position that suggested a literal interpretation as the authors had been overtaken by the spirit of God whilst writing. This meant the bible became the literal word of God. In fairness, this was always a little murky as we didn’t spend too much time thinking about these kind of things.
As such this places my upbringing firmly within the Evangelical Protestant tradition, holding on to Luther’s ‘sola scriptura’. The word was the Word – and as such was the loudest voice that we listened to in all matters of faith and practice.
Sometimes this can leave us with a view of the bible as being a bit of a magic book – with power waiting to be unleashed by the reader – as long as they read it in the right way, of course (defined by a select few, of course). It might even leave us worshiping the word more than the Word…and wanting the bible to be something that it simply doesn’t appear to have been created to be. It might also consign the dynamic movement of God to the pages of history, with nothing new being revealed to his people today.
Over the past few years I’ve come to view the bible as a very different thing entirely.
I believe that the bible is a revelation of God – it is a way in which we can see him, hear from him and learn about him. Primarily, though, I think it’s a collection of books full of people trying to make sense of exactly the same kinds of questions and experiences we have today.
People searching for identity, purpose, meaning. People wrestling with evil, injustice, events over which they have no control. People experiencing incredible things and trying to name them, to make sense of them.
So when we read the bible, we see how ordinary men, women and children have made sense of the God story. We see them making terrible mistakes, we see them getting it really right. We gain some of the most beautiful poetry and prose ever written.
The power of the bible is found in this – for me, a sense of permission being granted to us to figure out who God is and what he’s up to today, so that we might join in. We build that exploration on the foundations laid for us by those who have gone before us – both in through bible and the history of the church.
This all means that to me, whether parts of the bible are literally factually true or not (the creation accounts, Jonah, Job etc.) doesn’t remove the great power of the story. Truth does not just stem from fact. Far from it. Some of the greatest truths we hold are derived from the fiction section of our bookshops.
But how do we decide what is fact or ‘story’? I guess that’s a tricky question to which I’m not entirely sure that I have an answer to yet. My instinct is that we need to have a more relaxed understanding of whether something proven and evidenced is more powerful that something that isn’t – my reflections on doubt earlier in this series try to explain this. That might then negate what that question is inferring.
Incidentally, I do think that most of the bible accounts actually happened. I just think we need to ask what they might be saying in a slightly different light.
Doesn’t that lead us to a pick-and-choose approach to the bible? I don’t think so – it allows the scriptures to be what they were written to be – a record of how people have journeyed with God. That might well mean that there is inconsistency within the bible itself – there’s certainly plenty of inconsistency in today’s church! Our job today is to carry on what the church has been doing since day one – sifting through the evidence we have and trying to make sense of the God story.
Some aspects of the bible we’ve already chosen to leave behind or at least reinterpret because of what Jesus did to change our understanding of and relationship with God. But why have we stopped doing that today, resting on the work of the reformation and evangelical scholarship in the 19th century?
I believe that we’re called to constantly reinterpret the scriptures based on our best idea of what they were written to be in the first place – how the first readers would have read them. Those deep truths are what we’re looking for, that then frame our theological reflection on the challenges we face as Jesus followers today. We build on what the church has discovered over the ages, continuing the work of the bible in recording the history of the journey of the people of God.
I believe that God is constantly revealing more of himself everyday – and that may mean that our understanding of him changes, and of how he expects us to live. I think that means we have to listen faithfully when approaching new and difficult challenges – not presuming that we’ve already got the answers sewn up.
The bible is still hugely important to me. It’s the story of my people. I’m not going to throw it away. But I am going to try and let it live and breathe as I think it might have been intended in the first place. I’m also going to try to let the Spirit reveal more to us of where God might be today.