What 40 years as a pastor have taught me: The scriptures should be approached with active listening & humility (part IX)
Many years of pastoring have taught me many things about the Bible that God and God’s people have saved for us through the centuries and millennia. In the past two blog posts, I have noted a few of those lessons; in this one I will share six more thoughts on what I have learned about the scriptures in my many years as a pastor.
1. NO ONE READS THE SCRIPTURES WITH NEUTRALITY OR A MIND THAT IS A BLANK PAGE
I come from a theological background that was deeply influenced by the philosopher John Locke. I am very grateful for the gifts I received in my early background, but one of the weaknesses was the strong belief that one could just read the Bible with an honest open mind and it would say the same thing to every reader. Not so! We all come to our Bible reading with minds that are deeply shaped by our culture, our religious background or lack thereof, our personal experiences, our knowledge or lack of knowledge about the ancient world, and by what we have already been told about the nature of the Biblical materials.
This is not a unique problem for the Bible. This same reality affects how we read the newspaper, how we read non-fiction and fiction, how we read the U. S. Constitution, and how we read the current government studies on CIA torturing techniques. Without denying how frustrating this reality is in many spheres of life, it is important to remember that the fact that we can never be neutral in any pursuit of knowledge, does not mean that we cannot together pursue more understanding, more truth, better and more Godly worldviews and paradigms of reality. It just means that we need to humbly remember that we are human with very finite and highly conditioned perspectives on reality.
I have often been involved in theological discussions with people who have been instructed in how untrustworthy and inconsistent the Bible is and have been amazed at how unexamined their premises about this untrustworthiness are. And, I have often been involved in theological discussions with people who have been instructed to approach the Bible as the “infallible and inerrant Word of God” and have been amazed at how unexamined their premises are. We all certainly tend to see what we expect to see in all of life; so why should it surprise me that this is also true about how we read the Bible.
This reality does inform me concerning how biased we all are in all of our understandings about life and reality. This does not need to lead to despair about the existence of truth and reality, but it should lead us toward understanding that we should view knowledge as a humble process of learning and growing together before God.
Having said that, I find the Biblical materials to be more authentic, more trustworthy, and filled with far more wisdom and insight about how God wants to relate to us humans and how we can relate to God than any other material I have ever read. The Bible is filled with challenges and opportunities for us to open ourselves more fully to a relationship with “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.”
2. EVERY BELIEVER DOES NOT NEED TO BE A BIBLICAL SCHOLAR, BUT EVERY BELIEVER DOES NEED TO BE A GROWING LEARNER
I graduated from seminary and then pursued a doctoral program in philosophy with a barely hidden belief that every “serious Christian” would want to know everything they could about the various areas of scholarship that deeply impact our faith. An important lesson I learned as a pastor was just how arrogant and ignorant that was on my part. Paul’s lists of the “gifts of the spirit” in 1 Corinthians and Romans do not include “Bible scholar” though Romans 12 does include “teaching.” However, it is pretty clear throughout church history that the abilities to be scholarly can be a great gift to the church. Of course, like all gifts, it can also be deeply impacted by arrogance, mistaken paradigms, and personal wounds and biases.
During my almost five decades as a pastor, two things have become quite clear to me. Scholars can, in spite of their many disagreements with one another, be very helpful to our understanding of the Biblical materials. This includes linguists, translators, historians, archeologists, scientists, cultural anthropologists, and theologians. On the other hand, I have met Christians with less than an 8th grade education who understood some parts of the Biblical materials more deeply and more fully than any scholar I have ever read. Why? Because they have had personal experiences with the same God whose interactions with humans of the past are being described in these materials.
So – thank God for people who know Greek, Hebrew, Jewish history, and 3rd world anthropology, and thank God for those people who may not know exactly why, but know from experience that something about what a given scholar is saying just does not ring true to the reality of God’s great history with God’s people. Sometimes that will leave us with irreconcilable differences for a while, but even that is far better than losing the power of either of these great spiritual gifts to the church of God.
3. BIBLICAL AUTHORITY IS DELEGATED FROM GOD AND IS CONDITIONIONAL BEFORE GOD
When Jesus argued with the seminary professors and pastors (“scribes,” “teachers of the law,” and “Pharisees”) of his day, the argument is pretty well summed up in the quotation recorded in Mark 2:27: “Then Jesus said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath;…’”
The Protestant Reformation gave us a great gift in restoring the importance and the availability of the Bible to the church. On the other hand, the tendency to replace “Papal infallibility” with “Biblical infallibility” has been devastating. Jesus often argued against this tendency 2 millennia ago. The Biblical guidelines, like the Temple itself, Jesus argued were gifts from God to help us know God and approach God. They are God-given tools; they are not “God.” God is the authority, and the Bible is one of God’s great gifts of a tool through which we can come to know God better – with the help of God and of God’s people.
To understand the rightful role of the Bible is not to diminish the Bible, it is to free it to be the tool God means for it to be. The author of 2 Timothy 3:14-17 says it this way:
14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God (breathed into by God) 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.
The author claims that along with the community of faith, the Biblical materials when connected with trust in Jesus the Messiah, will prove to be “able to instruct” us in ways that “save/make whole/ heal,” and will be “useful” in the kind of character growth that can “equip for every good word/deed.” A lot of very important gifts from God are described here, but all of them are in the category of “useful;” not in the category of binding on God. In fact, if you return to the Mark 2 passage referred to above, Jesus actually points out that God blessed David when for very good reasons David “broke” the Biblical commandment concerning the “bread of the presence” which was Biblical limited to the priestly family’s use. Jesus certainly was not diminishing the importance of the Bible; he lived and breathed the Biblical materials and let them inform his sense of both identity and mission, but, he understood that they were the Father’s gift and tool, not a prison for either God or for humans.
4. THE BIBLICAL WRITERS AND THE PEOPLE OF FAITH THAT THEY WRITE ABOUT WERE “HUMANS LIKE US”
It took me a number of years as a pastor to begin to become comfortable with the Biblical materials being allowed to restructure what I had been trained in my theological background to think about the Biblical materials. The prophets and apostles who were the source of the Biblical materials that have been handed down to us were not conduits of infallibility, but rather deeply faithful people experiencing God in their time and place in human history. They are an invaluable source and resource for knowing the Living God. They were not superhuman nor were they unconditioned conduits for God. They were people, as we are, limited by but sometimes able to transcend, the science, politics, cultural structures, and sociological realities of their time and place. The Biblical writers were very honest about this truth, but I was taught to “not hear” what they say about themselves. Two examples out of many more possible examples – what if Paul and James meant what they said in the two passages below?
1 Corinthians 13:9-13
9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
16 The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
Paul includes his role as prophetic scripture writer in the “now I know only in part,” and “new we see in a mirror, dimly.” This seems to surprise both the critics who think that Paul was far too arrogant as well as the fundamentalists who think he was a conduit of inerrancy. James includes not only Elijah, but also and himself and his readers – who he had just warned to quit being gossips, murderers, partial to the rich and powerful, and far too engaged in conflicts with one another – in his phrase “a human being like us.”
What new insights and revelations from the Living God might we experience if we would drop both our critical and our inerrant positions and just listen for what God might be wanting to teach us through the writings of people like us who chose to trust God in their decisions and wrote about what they experienced for others to learn from? This does not diminish Isaiah, Paul, or James, it allows us to hear God more fully through them since they were real people like us.
5. I HAVE LEARNED THAT THE BIBLICAL MATERIALS PROVIDE THE BEST PARADGIMS FOR UNDERSTANDING LIFE’S SITUATIONS & LIFE’S CHOICES
Sometimes, life is filled with the awe of creation and the wondrous sense of how valuable we humans are to God and to one another (Genesis and a few Psalms). Sometimes, the next decision in life is the opportunity to radically trust that God’s covenant promises will be kept even when it does not seem possible (Abraham and Sarah). Sometimes life is everything going wrong, yet it leads to seeing that “God was with him” (Joseph). Sometimes life is the brutal enslavement and abuse by the powers that rule our nations and our economies of the world (the military-economic-political power system of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Rome).
Sometimes life is liberation that only a few days ago seemed impossible (the Exodus). Sometimes life is the in-between-world of the Wilderness where only enough is provided to make it through the next day. Sometimes, life is like entering into the Promised Land. Sometimes life is “warfare,” and sometimes life is filled with “peace that passes understanding.” Sometimes life is full of “waiting,” and sometimes it is moving so fast we cannot possibly figure it out and can only follow the nudges of the Holy Spirit one hour at a time. Sometimes, life is praise and sometimes life is lament. Sometimes life is an exile in which we feel so far from God’s promises, and sometimes, life is a returning to re-engage and rebuild our responses to those promises. Sometimes life is filled with obvious blessings, and sometimes there is nothing to do but repent for my tragic failures even in the midst of these blessings (David). Sometimes life is crucifixion and sometimes life is resurrection. Sometimes life is a “Garden of Gethsemane” with prayers that receive a “No, not that way,” and sometimes life is a garden with an “empty tomb” leading to new life filled with an amazing “Yes!”
Sometimes, in the middle of a mundane day at work, Jesus says, “Follow me.” And, someday, the great shofar will sound and the great feast will begin in which the best of every human culture is brought to the feet of Jesus and becomes a part of the kingdom of God, and God will dwell with us as his daughters and sons.
I know that there are many other paradigms for understanding life. What will be most secure? What will make the most money? What will most please my family most or what will benefit my family most? What will be the most highly respected? What will benefit my country most? What will give me the most power, status, or fame?
But, I find that these Biblical paradigms are the ones that allow life to make the most sense to me and help me locate myself in my relationship with God, others, and self. I don’t want to pretend that I do it all that well, but I do see that the way Jesus lived life as a constant “fulfilling” of these paradigms and patterns from the scriptures is the very best way to understand life.
6. FINALLY: I HAVE LEARNED THAT BECAUSE JESUS IS IN THE BOAT, THE BIBLE WILL KEEP ON SAILING
One of the most influential preachers in my life has been the German theologian Helmut Thielicke, who joined the resistance against Hitler as a young seminarian, and later preached to thousands of Germans in need of help, forgiveness, healing, and freedom from despair after the Holocaust and the fall of the Third Reich.
In one of his great sermons, he acknowledged that there will always be questions about the Bible that we cannot yet answer, and he also acknowledged that sometimes they will seem to be huge and frustrating questions. He then used the illustration from the Gospels concerning the time when Jesus and his companions were crossing the Sea of Galilee and were suddenly buffeted by a devastating storm. The boat was creaking, sprouting leaks, and seemingly ready to go down. The disciples were terrified and had already exhausted all of their considerable know how as fishermen very familiar with boats and storms. The reprimand Jesus for “not caring” that their boat is in danger and thus their lives as well. Jesus simply says, “We will be OK,” and he quiets the storm.
Thielicke then says about the Biblical materials, yes, they do sometimes seem to spring leaks, encounters storms that are filled with doubts and questions, and appear to us to be almost ready to take our faith down, but if Jesus, and the God and Father of Jesus, are in the boat (the Bible), it is not going to go down. Long after the storm is past, the boat will still be here.
And, that is what I have learned to be true about the Bible, and the God who through his Son Jesus is willing to be in it, during my almost 50 years as a Pastor.
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.