There have been times in Christianity’s history where we have been called “people of the book”.
This is unfortunate.
Christians are not people of the book; we are “followers of The Way”. We are people of the cross. We are little Christs.
The bible is an inspired book meant to reveal Jesus and without it, we would not have a record of the revelation of God in Jesus. It is crucially important. But discussions about the bible often lead to sentences like “the bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,” which, unfortunately, doesn’t really settle anything.
For people who have not been exposed to the wide organism that is “the church”, it can come as a shock to hear that what the bible says is not widely agreed on. Each denomination tends to interpret the bible through its own lens and that lens is shaped by many factors.
And then, each person within that denomination may read the bible slightly differently as well.
This multitude of potential ways of interpreting the Bible is called “Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism” and it is at the core of virtually any disagreement that takes place within a church as well as within the church as a whole.
For example, the church I attend is in the middle of having a discussion around the role of women in leadership. There are people within the church who have put forward opinions based on “biblical” teaching … but that is where the real issue reveals itself. Both sides can use the bible as a starting point for claiming their view is the “biblical” viewpoint.
The real question the church will ultimately have to ask itself is “how do we read the bible?”
I see two key ways the bible can be read (of course there could be many ways I have not considered, so feel free to expand my limited thoughts):
The first view sees the bible as the inspired word of God that should be taken “literally” and at “face-value”. It is similar to a guidebook or a roadmap that can provide us with everything we need in order to live a Godly life.
People who hold to this view of the bible have a tendency to go to the bible for definitive answers and these answers are not subject to questioning from non-biblical sources and/or alternative views found in scripture. Because things need to be taken at face-value, very little effort needs to be taken to determine context, literary devices such as metaphor, poetry, etc … because the bible needs to be accessible to everyone, not simply those with the time and money to afford a theological education.
The second view sees the bible as the inspired word of God that uses many differing ways of communicating to tell the story of God. It invites people to enter into the story and, while it will not often give definitive answers, will provide basic tools to help guide your choices and actions today – despite the very severely different cultural circumstance than when it was initially written. It does this because the same spirit that inspired its writing is with us as we read it, which allows that same inspiration to apply ancient words to modern contexts not of any importance in the time it was written.
People who hold this view of the bible tend to go to the bible for basic “rules of thumb” about how to handle a situation. They often see the bible as a dialogue with many alternate viewpoints and try to look for broad themes to guide their actions rather than simple rules. This leads to difficulties because without firm answers, they can never be sure their choices are right, just that their hearts are in the right place. They have a tendency to lean heavily on “expert” sources in order to unveil things they never would have discovered for themselves.
As you can tell, these are very different ways to approach the same written words. I’ve begun to see that most theological debates boil down – at their core – to a basic question of how one reads the bible. Each side of the debate cannot agree on the “rules of engagement”; how to treat the biblical texts.
As a result, people often find themselves speaking in a vacuum because the other side is simply not capable of seeing the bible through the same lens and therefore cannot see what the other sees as plainly taught in the bible.
My suggestion is to keep this in mind the next time you find yourself discussing the bible with someone who uses a scripture in a way you can’t understand. You may both be trying to form a biblical perspective … you just have a different view of what the bible is and how it should be used.
Have grace for “the other” and avoid trying to anoint your interpretive lens as the only interpretive lens — and be kind.