The Bible: It’s Just Not That Into You

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So some friends recently pointed me to the Personal Promise Bible, in which you can personalize the biblical text to include you name in over 7,000 places. 

Some examples provided on the Web site: 

2 Peter 1:4 – “By which He has granted to Joe His precious and exceedingly great promises; that through these Joe may become a partaker of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world by lust.” 

Isaiah 53:4-6 “Surely He has borne Rachel's sickness, and carried her suffering; yet we considered Him plagued, struck by God, and afflicted. But He was pierced for Rachel's transgressions. He was crushed for Rachel's iniquities. The punishment that brought Rachel peace was on Him; and by His wounds Rachel is healed.”

Matthew 5:13-16 “Rachel is the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its flavor, with what will it be salted? It is then good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under the feet of men. Rachel is the light of the world. A city located on a hill can't be hidden. Neither do you light a lamp, and put it under a measuring basket, but on a stand; and it shines to all who are in the house. Even so, Rachel's light must shine before men; that they may see Rachel 's good works, and glorify her Father who is in heaven.” 

Um, no. 

[...Although this could provide great endorsement material for my next book: "Rachel Held Evans is the light of the world." - God]

While this product may be an extreme example, it points to the profound influence of Western individualism on our reading of the biblical text. Passages that were originally written for groups of people, and intended to be read and applied in a community setting (the nation of Israel, the various early churches, the first followers of Jesus), have been manipulated to communicate a personal, individual message…thus leading the reader away from the original corporate intent of the passage to a reaffirmation of the individualistic, me-centered, and consumerist tendencies of American religious culture. 

We see this everywhere: in worship set lists that focus exclusively on individual worship, individual sin, and individual connection to God; in desk calendars that turn Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord…”) into a personal promise; in the disproportionate emphasis in our churches on personal Bible study, personal prayer, and one’s “personal walk with God.” 

How easy it is to forget that, for most of its history, the Bible has been read, processed, and practiced in group settings! The notion of individual interpretation, in fact, is relatively new. 

In The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity--an excellent book that we will most certainly be discussing at length in the near future—Soong Chan Rah writes: 

“The American church, in taking its cues from Western, white culture, has placed at the center of its theology and ecclesiology the primacy of the individual. The cultural captivity of the church has meant that the church is more likely to reflect the individualism of Western philosophy than the value of community found in Scripture. The individualist philosophy that has shaped Western society and consequently shaped the American church reduces Christian faith to a personal, private, and individual faith…”

Rah observes how this captivity has affected our reading of the Bible: 

“If we were to pay attention to the intended audience of the various books of the Bible, we would find that only a handful of books were actually written exclusively to individuals—such as 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon. An overwhelming number of books in the Bible are written to communities: the people of God, the nation of Israel, the church in Colosse and Corinth, the seven churches in Asia Minor, etc. Yet why is that our reading of the text centers so much on the individual reading of Scripture versus a corporate reading as the overwhelming majority of Scriptures demand? In a typical American church, are we taking teaching intended for the community of faith and reducing it to an application exclusively on an individual  level?” 

This is not to say that the Bible cannot speak to us personally—it often does. (Many of the Psalms are quite personal.) But, ultimately, the Bible is meant to be read, interpreted, digested, discussed, and practiced in the context of community.  And the theological implications of an exclusively individualistic faith rather than a corporate faith are astounding.  There is a huge difference, after all, between claiming He has “borne our sickness, and carried our suffering….was pierced for our transgressions” and claiming He has borne “MY sickness, and carried MY suffering…was pierced for MY transgressions.” Such a reading renders the reconciling work of God into little more than a personal improvement project, with the individual at the center, rather than the sustained and relentless work of God to reconcile and redeem the whole world. 

I hate to break it to the creators of the Personal Promise Bible, but the Bible just isn’t that into you. 

It's got a lot more to say about us. 

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[...Not to mention all the confusion that arises when instructions directed toward a very specific group - Israel, for example, or the Corinthian church -  are applied to an individual. How much you want to bet that the Personal Promise Bible renders 1 Timothy 2:12 into "I do not permit Rachel to have authority over a man," but renders 1 Corinthians 11:6 into, "For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off"?]

***

In what other ways do you observe this tendency to individualize the Christian faith and the gospel? 

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I love the Bible

It is said that after Jacob wrestled with God, he walked with a limp.

So it has been with the Bible and me.

I have wrestled with the Bible, and it has left me with a limp.

But I am glad. I am glad because this limp has slowed me down a bit. It has humbled me. It has forced me to stop running so fast and sure down the path of certainty that I forget to listen, to pay attention, to ask questions, to build altars, to wait.

I have wrestled, and I love the Bible more now than I have ever loved it before. I love it more than when I demanded that it answer all of my questions, more than when I forced it to fit my cultural categories, more than when I tried so desperately to make it all resolve, more than when I pretended like it never bothered me.

I have wrestled with the Bible. I have spoken my fears out loud—about the genocidal conquests in Canaan, about the slaves, about the “untouchables,” about the seven days, about the concubines and sister wives, about the instructions on silence and submission and head coverings. I have lived in the tension, and I live in it still.

I have wrestled with the Bible, and, try as I may. I cannot make it in my own image.  I cannot cram it into an adjective, or force it into a blueprint, or fashion it into a weapon to be used against my political and theological enemies. It simply will not be tamed.

But oh, how I have tried to tame it!

Because a blueprint would be easier.

Because a to-do list would be easier.

Because  an inspirational desk calendar would be easier.

Because an affirmation of everything I already believe would be easier.

But the Bible is not a blueprint. It isn’t a list of bullet points to be followed or a to-do list to be obeyed. It can’t be crammed into an adjective or forced into a theology.

No, the Bible is a sacred collection of letters and laws, stories and songs, prophecies and proverbs, philosophy and poems, spanning thousands of years and multiple cultures, written by dozens of authors and inspired by God.  It is teeming with metaphor and imagery, tension and contrast.  It defies our every effort at systemization. It defies our every attempt at mastery.  Indeed, it forces us into community—with God and with one another—precisely because it is difficult to understand, precisely because it was never meant to be read alone.

Differences in interpretation should not lead us to question one another's passion or commitment to Scripture, but rather invite us into conversation with the shared assumption that we are all struggling toward truth, all trying to figure it out. 

Those of us who have wrestled know that no one's interpretation is inerrant.   Those of us who have wrestled know we can be wrong.

I love the Bible more now than ever before because I have finally surrendered to God’s stories.

God’s long, strange, beautiful stories.

We asked questions.

God told stories.

We demanded answers.

God told stories.

We argued theology.

God told stories.

And when those stories weren’t enough, when the words themselves would not suffice, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, laughed among us, wept among us, ate among us, told more stories among us, suffered among us, died among us, and rose among us. The Word entered our story and invited us into His.

The Word became flesh and said, “Watch me. Follow me.  See how I do it. This is what I desire.”

And the Word loved—

Loved the poor,

Loved the rich,

Loved the sick,

Loved the hungry,

Loved the zealots,

Loved the tax-collectors, 

Loved the lepers,

Loved the soldiers,

Loved the foreigners,

Loved the insiders,

Loved the slaves,

Loved the women,

Loved the untouchables,

Loved the religious,

Loved the favored,

Loved the forgotten.

Loved even the enemy.

When words were not enough, the Word took on flesh and became the story.

I love the Bible, but I love it best when I love it for what it is, not what I want it to be…when I live in the tension and walk with the limp—

The limp that slows me down,

The limp that delights my critics, 

The limp I wouldn’t change for the world,

The limp that led me to God.

 

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Were Jesus, Peter, and Paul interpreting the Bible wrong?

Today we conclude our discussion of Peter Enns’ excellent book, Inspiration and Incarnation, as part of our series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be. We’ve already discussed Chapter 2—“The Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature”—in which Enns tackles the difficult question of how to understand the Bible as special and revelatory when Genesis in particular looks so much like other literature from the ancient Near Eastern world, and Chapter 3-—“The Old Testament and Theological Diversity”—which addresses some of the tension, ambiguity, and diversity found within the pages of Scripture. Today we turn to Chapter 4—“The Old Testament and its Interpretation in the New Testament” to discuss a phenomenon that has bothered me for years: the seemingly strange interaction with Old Testament texts by New Testament writers.

I’ll never forget the first time I found myself questioning Matthew’s interpretation of Hosea. I was in high school, doing some sort of Bible study centered around Christ’s fulfillment of prophecy, and I encountered Matthew 2:12-15, where Matthew recounts the family of the young Jesus feeing Egypt. Referencing Hosea, Matthew writes, “and so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” But a simple reading of Hosea 11:1 revealed that the prophet was not writing about the young Jesus or even a future Messiah, but of Israel being “called out of Egypt” and slavery under Pharaoh. (See Hosea 11:1-3.) To say that this text referred to Jesus seemed to go against the grammatical-historical grain; it seemed like a bit of a stretch. But who was I to criticize a biblical writer for his exegesis?

Through the years, I would encounter New Testament passages like these over and over again, passages that seemed to play fast and loose with the original meaning of Old Testament texts. I’m obviously not the first to notice this, as Enns explains: “To observe how the New Testament authors handle the Old Testament is to conclude that their notions of what constitutes a proper handling of the Old Testament do not always square with our own instincts-in fact, quite often, the differences are striking....A convenient label often attached to such an approach is ‘grammatical-historical,’ meaning that the words of the text in front of you must be understood in their original grammatical (i.e., interpreting the text in the original language) and historical contexts. Although this is a healthy approach to reading literature in general, when this method is applied rigidly to apostolic hermeneutics, we sometimes find we have painted ourselves into a theological corner…” (p. 116).

According to Enns, the only way we can begin to understand why New Testament writers handled scripture this way is to understand the hermeneutical conventions of their time, which are rooted in the literary conventions of the Second Temple period, and to appreciate the degree to which the apostolic writers positioned their reading of Scripture in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

“To put it succinctly,” writes Enns, “the New Testament authors were explaining what the Old Testament means in light of Christ’s coming.” And they were doing so using Second Temple interpretive conventions.

Enns goes on to examine various passages from Second Temple literature to show how “biblical interpreters exhibit for us an attitude toward biblical interpretation that operates on very different standards from those of modern interpreters. They were not motivated to reproduce the intention of the original human author. They were much more concerned to dig beneath the surface to reveal things (“mysteries” as the Qumran scroll put it) that the untrained and impatient reader would miss” (p131).

He points to five examples of New Testament authors utilizing Old Testament texts in this way:

  • Matthew 2:15 quoting Hosea 11:1
  • 2 Corinthians 6:2 quoting Isaiah 49:8
  • Galatians 3:16, 29 speaking of Abraham’s seed 
  • Romans 11:26-27 quoting Isaiah 59:20
  • Hebrews 3:7-11 quoting Psalm 95:9-10

He also points to examples in which New Testament writers refer to the extra-biblical accounts from Second Temple Judaism in their writing:

  • Jannes and Jambres in 2 Timothy 3:8 (Their names do not come to us from the Old Testament text but from the second temple interpretative world.) 
  • The dispute over Moses’ body in Jude 9 - (an account not found in the Old Testament text itself but in Second Temple literature). 
  • The account in Acts 7:21-22 referencing Moses’ Egyptian education (found not in the Old Testament, but in Second Temple works like Philo’s Life of Moses)

These examples show that, just as the creation account of Genesis 1 should be read in light of other Ancient Near Eastern creation texts, so the New Testament writers should be read in light of Second Temple texts. Reading them in this way does not diminish their authority or power, but simply helps us understand them better when our own cultural and hermeneutical assumptions may get in the way. It helps explain why the text behaves differently than we expect, (or perhaps want), it to behave.

Enns argues that when New Testament authors spoke of Old Testament passages, they were bringing a specific hermeneutical insight to them. “The term I prefer to use to describe this eschatological hermeneutic is christotelic," he writes. "I prefer this over christological or christocentric since these are susceptible to a point of view I am not advocating here, namely, needing to 'see Christ'; in every, or nearly every, Old Testament passageTelos is the Greek word for “end” or “completion”. To read the Old Testament 'christotelically' is to read it already knowing that Christ is somehow the end to which the Old Testament story is heading." (p154).

He points to Luke 24:44-4 where Jesus said, “This is what I told you while I was with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.’’ The text goes on to report that Jesus “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

According to Enns, Jesus is not appealing to the Old Testament for proof texts, but rather saying that “all Scriptures speak of him in the sense that he is the climax of Israel’s story.”

(If you’ve read any N.T. Wright this is starting to sound eerily familiar.)

“The Old Testament as a whole,” Enns concludes, “is about [Jesus], not a subliminal prophecy or a couple of lines tucked away in a minor prophet. Rather, Christ—who he is and what he did—is where the Old Testament has been leading all along. To see this requires that Christ open our minds as he did the minds of his disciples. In other words, to see how Christ fulfills the Old Testament—the whole story, not just some isolated prophecies—is not simply a matter of reading the Old Testament objectively, but reading it ‘Christianly,’ which is what we see in the New Testament time and again.” (p. 120)

“There can be no question that such a thing can be counterintuitive for more traditional evangelical doctrines of Scripture,” Enns confesses, “since this is eisegesis (reading meaning into Scripture) rather thanexegesis (getting meaning from Scripture).” Still, there are practical applications for followers of Jesus and readers of Scripture today:

“A Christian understanding of the Old Testament should begin with what God revealed to the apostles and what they model for us: the centrality of the death and resurrection of Christ for Old Testament interpretation. We, too, are living at the end of the story; we—as were the apostles—are engaged in the second, christotelic reading by virtue of our eschatological moment, the last days, the inauguration of the eschaton. As we read and interpret, we bring the death and resurrection of Christ to bear on the Old Testment. This is not a call to flatten out the Old Testament, so that every psalm or proverb speaks directly and explicitly of Jesus. It is to ask oneself, ‘What difference does the death and resurrection of Christ make for how I understand this part of the Old Testament?”

I love that last line, and I long to see those who teach, preach, and write about Scripture do more of this.

So, what do you think? Does Enns’ approach help resolve some of the tension you have observed in how New Testament writers interpret Old Testament passages? What does it mean, practically, to preserve and celebrate (as much as we can) the original intent of the authors of the Old Testament while still asking ourselves, ‘what difference does the death and resurrection of Christ make for how I understand this part of the Old Testament’? And can you think of a sermon, book, or conversation in which this was done well?

As a former English Lit major, I find myself wondering if we might think about this as we think of references to poetry in literature, where the meaning of the original poem carries new weight in light of the context of the second piece. What do you think?

And a programming note: We’ll take a little hiatus from our Bible series while I choose and start on another book for our discussion. Any suggestions?

Check out the rest of the series

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God's Little Princess Bible?

Transient

Let's just hope Princess Tamar is not included...

My friend Susan sent me this photo, taken with her cell at a local warehouse club. In my opinion, this is why we need better conversations about the Bible and gender—so our kids will know that, at least in the Kingdom of God, they will never be reduced to stereotypes, but celebrated for all that makes them unique participants in God’s creative work in the world.

What do you think? Do Bibles like these bother you? Or is criticizing them an overreaction?

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“The Bible is diverse because life is”

It’s Monday! Today we continue our discussion of Peter Enns’ book, Inspiration and Incarnation, as part of our series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be. (Have I mentioned how perfect this book fits into that theme? Five times already, you say? Okay, good.)

Anyway, last week, we talked about Chapter 2—“The Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature”—in which Enns tackles the difficult question of how to understand the Bible as special and revelatory when Genesis in particular looks so much like other literature from the ancient Near Eastern world. Today we move on to Chapter 3—“The Old Testament and Theological Diversity”—which addresses some of the tension, ambiguity, and diversity found within the pages of Scripture.  

Growing up in the conservative evangelical culture, words like  “tension,” “ambiguity,” and “diversity” were kept a safe distance from conversations about the Bible, which was, as God’s word, expected to be absolutely internally consistent. But early on, I began to notice conflict.  

Why did Chronicles present such a different account of King David’s reign than that 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, often with specific details in direct conflict with one another? (See 2 Samuel 24:9 vs. 1 Chronicles 21:5, 2 Samuel 24:13 vs. 1 Chronicles 21:12, 2 Kings 8:26 vs. 2 Chronicles 2:22 for just a few examples.) Why does Proverbs 26:4 say, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself,” while the following verse says, “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes”?  Why are there variations in the all-important resurrection accounts?  How do we reconcile the Bible’s common deed-consequence pattern ("if you obey, you will be blessed") with the suffering of Job? Why does wisdom literature seem to present conflicting insights into the value of wealth? 

Invariably, I would be referred to Gleason Archer’s massive Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, a heavy volume that seeks to provide the reader with explanations for every conceivable puzzle found in the Bible—from whether God approved of Rahab’s lie to where Cain got his wife. (Note to well meaning apologists: it’s  not always the best idea to present a skeptic with a five-hundred-page book listing hundreds of apparent contradictions in Scripture when the skeptic didn’t even know that half of them existed before you recommended it.) 

The goal was always to either ignore or explain away these differences, or else the authority of Scripture would be threatened. Over time, I began to feel like I couldn’t read the Bible with my intellectual integrity intact, and my faith suffered as a result.  It is ironic, really. So concerned with protecting the authority of Scripture, I failed to submit to it. I failed to accept it for what it was, not what I thought it should be. 

Since then, I’ve been blessed to encounter Christian scholars like Peter Enns and John Walton, along with Jewish interpretations of Scripture that have shifted my perspective. I love how, when folks in the Jewish community confront Scripture, they don’t freak out over its conflicts and tensions, but rather engaged them—and with enthusiasm! I’ve learned from Christian scholars more about the historical contexts that influenced the way different scriptural texts were written.  And I’ve gone back to my English major roots which have helped me see Scripture as a collection of various genres—from poetry to history to  stories to philosophy to law.  I’m still struggling to make sense of much of Scripture, particularly the violent stories of the Old Testament, but this new perspective has helped me engage difficult texts with more heart and integrity. 

According to Enns, we would do well to learn a few things from the Jewish readers of Scripture whose emphasis in engaging the holy text is “not on solving the problems once and for all but on a community upholding a conversation with Scripture with creative energy.” In contrast, “the history of modern evangelical interpretation exhibits a strong degree of discomfort with the tensions and ambiguities of Scripture,” says Enns. “The assumptions often made are that Scripture should have no tensions and that any such tensions are not real but introduced from the outside, namely, by scholarship hostile to Christianity...It is a great irony that both the critical and evangelical options (as distinct from the Jewish model) take part in the same assumption: God’s word and diversity at the level of factual content and theological messages are incompatible.” 

Enns rejects this assumption, arguing that “a false assumption of how the Bible ought to behave stands behind this critical and evangelical view. As a corrective, one must observe how Scripturedoes behave and draw conclusions from that.” In other words, taking an apologetic and defensive approach accepts the worldview offered by modernity and defends the Bible by a rational standard that, according to Enns, “the Bible itself challenges rather than acknowledges.” 

As evidence, Enns works his way through multiple examples of theological diversity in the Old Testament—from seemingly conflicting advice  found in Proverbs, to the tension between the deed-consequence pattern found in Deuteronomy /Proverbs and the story of Job, to stark differences between the accounts of David’s reign in Chronicles and Samuel-Kings, to differences in wording between the 10 Commandments as recorded in Exodus and the 10 Commandments as recorded in Deuteronomy, to contrasts in laws regarding everything from slaves to the generational consequences of sin to Passover. Enns engages each of these examples with too much depth and insight to summarize here. He does not offer explanations meant to resolve the tensions, but rather acknowledgements meant to understand them—context, genre, authorship, culture, intent—suggesting that “the Bible is diverse because life is. And god does not shy away from it.”  So, for example, Enns explains that an author recounting the reign of King David  to an exilic audience (Samuel-Kings) would have an entirely different purpose, perspective, and agenda than an author recounting the reign of King David to an audience that has returned to the land after being released from Babylon (Chronicles). A book of wisdom literature, he notes, would assume that advice differs from context to context, situation to situation.  I highly recommend reading this section for yourself as it contains great insights without glossing over these important differences.

Enns concludes that the diversity found in Scripture is not fundamentally contrary to the Bible being the word of God, but instead “tell us that there is no superficial unity to the Bible.” So what does it tell us about the nature of Scripture, and by extensions the nature of God?

 According to Enns, it “demonstrates to us how fully God participates in history.” 

“If we take seriously both the historical dimension of Israel’s story and God’s making himself a part of that story,” he writes, “one would expect this complex historical matrix to be reflected in the pages of the Old Testament, which is precisely what we find. The various books of the Old Testament were written in differing historical contexts and for different purposes. This is why...Samuel-Kings and Chronicles can look so different from each other while talking about the same things. And not only are there different historical periods to take into account, but different genres of literature as well.” 

This reinforces Enns’ incarnational analogy, which we discussed earlier in the series

“For God to reveal himself means that he accommodates himself,” concludes Enns. “To be understood, he condescends to the conventions and conditions of those to whom he is revealing himself. The word of God cannot be kept safe from the rough-and-tumble drama of human history. For the Bible to be the word of God implies the exact opposite.”

In this sense, “the diversity of Scripture—and the tensions that this diversity introduces—bears witness to God’s revelation rather than detracts from it.” 

The chapter ends with a reminder of the importance of Jesus, God’s word in human form:

“Can Christians speak of a unity to the Bible? Yes, but it is not a superficial unity based on the surface content of the words of passages taken in isolation. The unity of the Bible is more subtle but at the same time deeper: It is a unity that should ultimately be sought in Christ himself, the living word.” 

Next week we will move on to Chapter 4 in which Enns discusses the Old Testament and its interpretation in the New Testament.

So, what do you think of this analysis? Have you struggled to reconcile every potential conflict in Scripture? How have your views on this evolved?

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