Theology is flexible; time for a stretch

The nature of the Bible is something that keeps many people awake at night thinking about it. Many who are far more intelligent than I am, have spent their lives looking at what the Bible is and how we should approach it. This is a subject that has been debated and discussed throughout history with no complete agreement. Today, there is still no complete agreement but the discussion seems to have become more polarized in terms of that you either believe the Bible or you do not; at least these are the options being put forward by some sections of Christianity. If you believe the Bible is the complete, inerrant word of God then you believe the Bible and are a true Christian. If you do not, you are not a true Christian. But this does an injustice to the nature of the Bible, the nature of humans and indeed, the nature of God.

The Bible is not one book, it is a compilation of 66 books written by different authors between 2000 years ago for parts of the New Testament, and 3500 years ago for parts of the Old Testament. It spans a number of genres from poetry to prophecy to biographies. Whilst God is in all of it, not all of God is in it. God is an infinite being, the Bible is a finite set of books. By those very definitions the Bible cannot contain everything there is about God. Whilst John concludes his gospel about Jesus’s acts, it serves a pointer to this;

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written (John 21:25)

If not even the acts of Jesus can be contained in one book, why would the whole of God be contained in any number of books? We would need an infinite number of books, but God lives in us, his spirit is in us. He continues to inspire and lead us to this day.  God and the Holy Spirit have not stopped working simply because documents and letters were brought together under one book titled The Bible. This inevitably brings up the question of inerrancy as it plays a huge part in the ongoing discussions mentioned at the beginning. Timothy Price, among many others, has done 2 excellent pieces on this, one on his website on why the Bible is not inerrant and another here on why it determines where we place our trust. This brings us onto the nature of relationship.

There is a wonderful exchange between the characters Camerlengo Patrick McKenna and Robert Langdon in the movie Angels and Demons. Just some background, Robert Langdon is trying to find 4 kidnapped Cardinals and the Illuminati are reportedly involved. They’ve left a message showing they have the Cardinals and Langdon needs access to the Vatican archives to help find them. The below takes place just after this in the papal office;

 

Camerlengo Patrick McKenna: Christianity’s most sacred codices are in that archive. Given your recent entanglement with the church, there is a question I’d like to ask you first, here, in the office of His Holiness.

Camerlengo Patrick McKenna: Do you believe in God, sir?

Robert Langdon: Father, I simply believe that religion…

Camerlengo Patrick McKenna: I did not ask if you believe what man says about God. I asked if you believe in God.

Robert Langdon: I’m an academic. My mind tells me I will never understand God.

Camerlengo Patrick McKenna: And your heart?

Robert Langdon: Tells me I’m not meant to. Faith is a gift that I have yet to receive. [1]

 

The Camerlengo puts the emphasis on God, not what we think about God and not how we interpret the Bible. How we think about God and what we learn about him, is part of our relationship with him. Relationships are personal things, all of our relationships with God are unique and personal to us because we are all different. Knowing what the Bible says does not mean we know God, it means we know what the Bible says about him. as Peter Enns put it in an interview; “How we think about God is always multiple steps removed from the real thing”  [2] We cannot know God just from reading the Bible any more than we can know someone from reading their biography. You can know about them but a relationship involves knowing them and you do that through experience. Abraham, Moses, Elijah were all carrying out Gods work and they did not have any Bible or scriptures to go on. Our experience of Christ drives our lives, it plays a part in how we read the Bible. After his conversion, when Paul quoted Old Testament passages he removed the violent parts and completely changed the context. As Derek Flood observed in an article he wrote for Sojourners;

In Romans 15, for example, Paul quotes several scriptural passages to illustrate how Gentiles “may glorify God for his mercy” because of the gospel (verse 9). Highly significant is what Paul omits from these passages:

For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy, as it is written: “I destroyed my foes. They cried for help, but there was no one to save them—to the LORD, but he did not answer … He is the God who avenges me, who puts the Gentiles under me … Therefore I will praise  you among the Gentiles; I will sing hymns to your name.” [quoting Psalm 18:41–49]

Again, it says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people, for he will avenge the blood of his servants; he will take vengeance on his enemies and make atonement for his land and people.” [Deuteronomy 32:43]

Paul has removed the references to violence against Gentiles, and recontextualized these passages to instead declare God’s mercy in Christ for Gentiles  [3]

Paul was no slouch in the scholarship department, he was a trained Pharisee who knew the scriptures inside out. If Paul does this with the Old Testament, what does it say about what we can do with the New Testament? Probably not a direct command but it does open windows into different ways in approaching the Bible.

Mike Pilavachi of Soul Survivor tweeted about the Bible “It is not right human thoughts about God that make up the content of the bible, but rather right divine thoughts about human beings” This is an interesting perspective on the Bible. To me, that would suggest that the Bible is showing how human beings are and in Jesus, we see how we can be. A story which to me, embodies this the most is the “Woman at the well” The Pharisees brought a woman who had committed adultery to Jesus saying “the law of Moses commands we stone her, what do you say?” Jesus did not answer them straight away, he bent down and drew in the sand. It was a few minutes before Jesus answered. What was he waiting for? He knew the scriptures and faced a situation where those scriptures made it clear what the next action was; but he didn’t respond with scripture.  He took another route but was he waiting for something from God on how to respond to this situation before answering? Whatever Jesus was doing, he showed a different way to what would have been done before.

Looking back at all this, I can not help but wonder if all these interpretations are all pleasing to God (well, there are probably some exceptions) and all make sense to him. There are a vast number of views out there that we could all learn from. It’s not easy though as we are all convinced that we are right. As Ian Barbour says; “It is by no means easy to hold beliefs for which you would be willing to die, and yet to remain open to new insights; but it is precisely such a combination of commitment and inquiry that constitutes religious maturity[4].  In my experience, God puts us in positions to serve his purpose then moves us on. This could easily apply to stances and interpretations of the Bible. He allows us to have an interpretation to serve a purpose then moves us onto another one. To quote Peter Enns again; “…..our theologies are provisional; when we forget that fact, we run the risk of equating what we think of God with God himself[5] Disagreement on theology has been present since the first church, the Epistles are about disagreement between Christians [6]. We just need to allow ourselves to be open to new ideas and keep in mind our faith is in Christ, not our theology.

 

References

[1] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0808151/quotes?qt=qt0547914

[2] http/www.beyondtheboxpodcast.com/2012/09/the-nature-of-scripture-and-the-question-of-evolution-with-peter-enns/

[3] http://files.therebelgod.com/Paul-n-OTviolence.pdf

[4] http://www.calvin.edu/~pribeiro/DCM-Lewis-2009/Lewis/creation-1.ppt

[5] Enns, Peter (2012) Evolution of Adam, page 148, 1st Edition, Brazer Press

[6] http://pjsaunders.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/disagreement-amongst-christians-is.html

 

First posted 20th April 2013

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