THE BIBLE TRAP
Isaiah 40:6-8; John 21:24-25
For five out of the six years I’ve been here, and for ten of the eleven years I’ve been in ministry, I’ve taught at least one Disciple Bible Study class. Some years I’ve taught two. This year the latest class will finish this coming Wednesday night after 34 weeks reading through the Bible from the first book of Genesis to the last book of Revelation.
Every class is different and the level of Bible knowledge of the participants coming in varies from those who have never read the first page of the Bible to those who have a seminary education. We learn a lot from each other and from the life experiences that each person brings to their reading. But there is one thing that every single person in every single Disciple class wrestles with from beginning to end, and it’s a topic that comes into almost every one of the 34 lessons. It’s the most fundamental question of all Bible study, and Disciple devotes the first lesson of the series to it.
The basic question is…what, exactly, am I reading? What sort of authority does it have over my life, and should it have any at all? What is this book? I can’t tell you how important that question is. The answer to it makes all the difference in whether we feel we can use the Bible as a weapon or a comfort; whether it is something to be feared, adored, or appreciated; studied or shunned; interpreted, translated, or even spoken aloud.
As you head toward the more conservative end of the spectrum, you find the attitude which used to be my own…that the Bible more or less came straight from the mouth of God, through the pen of human beings but without any of their own contribution. At that end of the spectrum the Bible is literally what God meant to say to all people for all time and because God spoke it all and God is infallible, there can be no errors.
When it is seen as being the exact word of God for all people, it can’t be interpreted in terms of the culture or age in which it was written. It is also can’t be interpreted in terms of literary forms. Even the poetry has to be literally true, even though poetry that is not in the Bible is never seen as being literally true, but full of symbols and analogies filtered through the experience of the writer.
On the liberal end of the spectrum we find the opposite extreme where the Bible becomes a purely human book…every writer simply writing about God from their own historical and cultural perspective without any real divine influence whatsoever. In this view everything in the Bible is purely symbol and analogy and for the liberal extreme it is as unthinkable that a Bible story might be based in historical fact as the thought that parts of the Bible might be myth or folktale sounds to the conservative end.
For the extreme liberal there is hardly any reason to read the Bible except to see the roots of the Judeo-Christian tradition and guess at what relevance such symbols might have. For the extreme conservative, opening the Bible is almost sure to scare the pants off of you because God is asking you to rise to a standard that none of us can possibly reach and the fires of hell await us for eternity if we don’t.
Most of the public talk we hear about the Bible is some version of people on these two extremes condemning each other…leaving the rest of us with the question at the root of almost every Biblical issue…what is this book? How do I read it? Will I go to hell if I disagree with something it says or if I question its teaching? Is it relevant to me at all?
Since I think this is the most important Bible question and it tends only to come up in Bible Studies, I decided to take some time this morning to give you some guidance in reading the Bible. You’re free to disagree, of course, but this is what I think based on my own study and the way that the Bible has come alive for me in my life.
As you may have
guessed, I tend to fall in-between the two extremes. There are some places in the Bible that I
believe are truths told for all time in all places and other things that I
believe were written for a particular historical context. I think the verse that says, “God is love,”
is an example of the former and the prohibition against women having authority
in the church is an example of the latter.
Women in first century
Of course the conservative end of the spectrum can’t accept that sort of interpretation because they don’t believe the Bible can be interpreted. For them, it says what it says, and arguing with that is rather like banging your head against a pile of bricks. I know…I was once one of those piles of bricks.
The first thing to know about the Bible is that it wasn’t written all at once. Some of the stories told come from the very beginnings of human civilization and they were told orally, from family to family, for thousands of years before being written down. Even the most recently written books of the Bible were written 1900 years ago. There are 66 different books of all sorts of literary types, written by all sorts of people…most of whom did not know each other or even live in the same historical period. There is history, poetry, letters, sermons, proverbs, songs, myth, and fable. It is sometimes straightforward, sometimes symbolic.
The Bible was written in two basic languages…ancient Hebrew for the Old Testament and ancient Greek for the New Testament. Both are dead languages, meaning that no one speaks them today. Speakers of modern Hebrew and modern Greek must learn these Biblical languages as foreign languages. The King James Version of the Bible…the English version that was the standard up until the last quarter of the 20th century was written in 1611, and it is believed in some quarters that Shakespeare was the poet who took the translation of the Psalms and gave it the poetic rendering that gives us the beautiful language of “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” and other beautiful verses.
The more I read through the various books that make up the Bible, the more I see that there are common threads, even amongst so many different styles, authors, and time periods. One of those common threads is that God uses and blesses the work of human hands. From the building of the Tabernacle in Exodus to God’s decision to be born as a baby with a human mother, God does not just cast aside human effort.
That says to me that, while it is possible for God simply to dictate something like the Bible to a human author and not use any of that person’s talents, thoughts, or abilities, doing that would be out of character for God. That’s not how God normally operates. God inspires, God blesses, but God seems to generally prefer having us actively involved in God’s work here on earth.
So I eventually changed my mind about how the Bible was written. Once I got concerned that one part of the Bible seemed to contradict another or that the stories of Jesus were told differently depending on which Gospel you read. People who pointed that out to me seemed to be a threat…they seemed to be saying that the Bible wasn’t true. Now I see those things as an example of God’s freedom and of God’s desire to have each of us tell about God according to our own experience.
If it were really critical that we know whether Jesus actually said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” as Matthew reports, or “Blessed are the poor” as Luke tells us, then Jesus could have written it down himself, handed it to Peter, and said, “Here, don’t lose this.” But he doesn’t. God lets Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each tell the story of Jesus’ life from their own perspective. Each one adds their own agenda and ideas into the mix, and God has made sure that all four were preserved and passed down to us. Having four different Gospels is no longer a problem for me, but is instead an invitation. This is our experience of God, say the Gospel writers…each in his own way. What’s your experience?
The trap that I used to be in related to the Bible was the trap of thinking that there was only one way to interpret the Bible…and I had better find out the right way or I was bound for hell. But the more I celebrated Easter…the more I heard the story of Jesus’ resurrection and the more I heard the church say that Jesus was still living…that God was a living God, not a dead one…the weaker that old trap became.
If the Bible revealed God, and God was a living God, then the Bible had to be alive as well. If there were only one interpretation, set in stone for all time, then we don’t need a living God. God can just go on vacation and not worry about having to say or do anything ever again. We’ve got the whole message. We know what God has said, we know what it means, and there’s no need to say anymore.
if God is truly a living God…if the resurrection part of the Gospel story is
true…then the Bible might have a new twist every day. Like with a living organism, the DNA stays
the same, but the cells change, split, grow, and adapt to new circumstances
throughout the life of the organism. If
God is alive, then God’s word is alive, and to seal it off and say it can’t
mean anything more than it meant to the people of the
So I would say to you, don’t fear the Bible. It is quite confusing in places, which is natural. It’s a translation of 66 different documents from a vastly different culture that existed thousands of years ago. But after reading it for 40 years, I can tell you that when you go into it with love and prayer, God will show you that it is a living book. Maybe the usual interpretations are true…but maybe they are not.
The Church used to burn people at the stake for reading the Bible differently…for thinking the earth was round when the Bible clearly said it had four corners. We killed those who dared to translate the Bible into English so that others could read it for themselves without having to learn Greek and Hebrew. We tortured those who dared to see baptism or communion or the reign of God differently than the old interpretations, and sometimes I think we’re headed right back to such atrocity in our own day.
But until they catch me and lash me to the stake, I will continue to say with Isaiah that the grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of the Lord endureth forever. Not endures as carved stone…as a graven image…but endures as the living word of a living God…speaking afresh to every person in every time and place. Protestants literally died for the right to read and interpret the Bible for themselves…knowing that God did not speak only to priests and did not speak only in the past. We must not allow that right, so dearly bought, to be taken away again. The Bible is God’s book. As such it is always free, always alive, always designed to lead people toward love.
How do I know that? From the Bible’s own pages. The Gospel of John says that Jesus was the word made flesh. The Bible means what the life of Jesus means. Both are alive. Both adapt what they say to the audience they are talking to. Both are relatively unimpressed with doctrines and the words on a page and very focused on how people treat each other. Read the Bible with Jesus at your side, and when something seems confusing or off, ask Him about it. If it’s really important, He’ll be sure that you understand.
Don’t fall into the trap of making the Bible a dead idol. The Bible is not God. God inspired its writing, has inspired its old interpretations and…wonder of wonders…continues to inspire its new interpretations. If you want to tell God that He’s not allowed to say any more or that He can’t make the meaning more clear for modern circumstances, then you go right ahead. I’ve been in that trap once and, aside from being incredibly arrogant, it made me frightened and miserable. Now I am quite content to let God teach me what it means…through the words on the page, yes, but also through my mind,my experience and the minds and experiences of others trying to do God’s will.
Love God, love God’s word. But don’t fall into the trap. Amen.
Sermon © 2005, Anne Robertson
Return to AnneRobertson.com