What 40 years as a pastor have taught me: The scriptures are a gift, but not a wooden box (part VIII)
I love the Bible. I love reading the Bible, and I love reading the writings of those who speak intelligently and passionately about the Bible. I love it so much and have spent so much time in it that I’ve found I’m more familiar with its overall big picture contents than the majority of pastors I know (and often even more than scholars I read).
It is also true that my understanding of how God expresses God’s Self through the Biblical writings has been in process all of my adult life. In this, and in the next post or two on my blog, I want to share some of what have become my key guidelines for hearing God speak through the Bible.
#1 The Scriptures have always presented a self-understanding of themselves as a record of a PROCESS in human history between God and humans.
Contrary to the desire of many Christians who wish to make the Judeo-Christian scriptures into a “once for all” non-contextual absolute like many other religions claim about their scriptures, the Biblical writers have always understood God’s Self-revelation to be an ongoing process. This is very obvious if we let the Biblical writers speak for themselves, but it seems very threatening to a lot of Christians.
A few of many examples: Genesis tells us that for a long time God interacted with humans without giving any Torah and without choosing “a people.” Then the Biblical writers tell us that God made a covenant with a couple and with their as yet unborn child. Then the covenant with this extended family becomes a covenant that is quite different since it is with a nation that has political structures and needs. Then the covenant is refined and has a special part that is exclusively for King David’s dynasty. Then the New Testament writers claim that God does something so new with this covenant through Jesus that it can even be called “a new covenant.” Then through Jesus the early church realizes that this covenant is to be extended in a manner that few had ever previously considered as a possibility – it was to be with people from all tribes, ethnicities, and nations. And this step in the process is accompanied with changes in understanding how to keep the commandments concerning Sabbath, Slavery, Polygamy, etc. Jesus has no problem in fully honoring the Old Testament as the record of experiences of God’s Self-revelation to humans, and yet he is constantly saying, but now God is going to do something quite different in some pretty important ways.
So, I have learned that it is both foolish to ignore this fabulous history of human experiences with God, and it is also foolish to attempt to quote one verse or section of scripture as though it can be applied to today’s world without paying any attention to the fact that God is in process with us humans.
#2 Not a single scripture was written TO us, but every part of the scriptures has been kept FOR us. This is an important truth too easily forgotten both by the most observant and the most critical.
I do believe that the scriptures are “God-breathed” as the writer of 2 Timothy 3:16-27 says:
16 All scripture is inspired and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
And, as Paul said as he wrote 1 Corinthians 10:11:
11 These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.
However, trusting that God has inspired various people to write and save these records about the experiences of humans with our God does not mean that we can read these scriptures as though they were written TO us. But, that very assumption infects many interpretations and applications of these scriptures. And, interpreting and applying the scriptures as though they were written TO us leads to some very tragic consequences since it tends to ignore that they were written TO people in very different circumstances, in very different cultures, with very different scientific paradigms, participating in very different political paradigms, and even living in very different family structures. To think they were written TO us leads to the foolishness I used to participate in of attempting to make the Biblical writers understanding of science somehow able to trump all that has been learned since they wrote. It also leads to the foolishness of attempting to make the book of Revelation a book about modern Russia, China, and the USA, with books appearing that claimed that Revelation tells us that Sadam Hussein or Henry Kissinger is the Anti-Christ.
But, perhaps the worst of the foolishness, a one that I used to participate in quite a bit, is that reading the Bible as though it was written TO us rather than kept FOR us leads us to think that ancient the patriarchal and monarchical structures of the ancient world were somehow sacred structures – as though they are God’s ideals. And, it also leads to seeing as contradictory many passages that in their original contexts tell us dynamically complementary things about God’s encounters with human beings.
Here are a few examples of what occurs when we think that God speaking and acting in an ancient structure means that God approved of that structure. On the other hand, we get the critical and arrogant attitude of some Christians — who consider themselves “above” needing the Old Testament, who castigate Ezra and Nehemiah’s narrow interpretation of the Torah compared to that of Ruth or Esther without any acknowledgement of the precariousness of their venture of faith, who slander Paul as a legalist with no recognition or honoring of the fact that in his context he was seen as a radical liberal, who ignore the brilliant critique of Empire politics in the book of Revelation, and who critique Jesus as too Jewish or not Jewish enough while ignoring his own stated mission as God’s emissary first to Israel. On the other hand, we have another group of Christians who attempt to recreate the ancient world structures today. Chauvinism, Patriarchy, Monarchy, Slavery, and Polygamy thus become “sacred” obligations and structures.
But, God choosing to speak and act in these structures did not mean that God approved of these structures. It meant that God is willing to meet humans in the real world where we are. If we understand that the Scriptures were not written TO us, but graciously kept for us – often at great cost to Jewish and Christian believers – we can learn a great deal about the willingness of God to compromise and accommodate God’s Self to working in far less than ideal realities. God chooses to speak into and act in cultures, structures, and personal lives in order to bless and love us humans in spite of how bent and broken many of us are. And, the scriptures that have been saved FOR us are a record of that wondrous grace.
And, after all, I need to hope that God works in structures and people that are not God’s ideals, or I could not expect God to work in my church or in my life. In the scriptures, I learn about how faithful people risked and sacrificed in order to trust God in cultural circumstances very different than, and sometimes still very much like, those we live in. Some of them knew so much less about God than we have been shown through the ensuing millennia; yet they risked all to be faithful. As the writer of Hebrews 11 says, “the world did not deserve” these heroes and heroines of faithfulness. Slowly, I have learned that the goal of encountering God in the scriptures is not to either disdain their primitive settings nor to attempt to recreate them as sacred settings, but rather to let God breathe the life of God into them as I attempt to let that same God speak and act in the world in which we live.
More next time. Meanwhile, I challenge you to remember that you can love the God of the scriptures and seek to hear God speak through those scriptures without attempting to turn them into something they were never intended to be – not by God and not by their writers.
As always, if you have any thoughts, comments, or questions about this post, or if there is another topic you would like me to explore in a future post, please leave a comment. I always enjoy your questions and thoughts.