Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Bible Says

A good friend asked me about how I approached Biblical Interpretation. I was raised in a fundamentalist church environment. The Bible was God's Word. It is inspired, inerrant and supposed to be taken literally. That is, there are 7 days of creation, Noah built an ark and all the animals fit on it after a worldwide flood wiped out humanity, etc. It was a book like no other.

It mainly told about Jesus who was God's Son sent to us to save us from our sins. If we accepted Jesus into our hearts we were assured of going to heaven when we die. If not, there was hell, the place of the devil hotter than any desert and people who go there burn forever.

The Bible was a battleground. Christians were always fighting atheists, scientists, liberal Bible scholars, and secular schools and educators. The seminary I ended up going to was founded in part by Dr. Harold Ockenga who wrote, The Battle for the Bible. If you were a Christian and believed in the Bible as God's inerrant Word you were always under attack. I went to school and Sunday School and youth group and church. I heard about evolution but I filed it under Secular Religion. I didn't do too much reading of the Bible because I had been told what it said and the most important thing was I had accepted Jesus. What else was there to know?

After a long and winding course I began seminary. I attended an Evangelical/Reformed seminary although I had not decided to become a pastor. I wanted to learn more about the Bible, Church History and Theology.  One of the first courses I took was called  Interpreting the Bible. How hard could that be? I already knew how to do it. It knocked my socks off and was the most important class I took in three years there. I found out that we (Christians) did not have 100 % certainty in the original documents of the Bible. There were no original documents extant (it was called) from the time of the Bible. What we had were copies of copies. But, not to worry for text critics were working hard to determine what was in the originals and they were 99% certain that they had. So what we had was very good probability of the original text but not complete certainty. Not to worry #2 - what we were not totally sure of did not affect any of our doctrines. The inerrancy of Scripture applied to the originals not to all the copies. So, one of the pillars of my rationalistic faith was secure. Then, we started hearing about oral tradition and how no one wrote down the Bible at first. Of course not, it was an oral culture and the books and tools to write with were hugely expensive. Then, we heard about how much poetry was in the Bible (metaphors, using imagination - a no, no from where I came from), and how different the four gospels were and where the sources of the gospels came from, and how some Evangelical scholars were even whispering their doubts about Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, and whether Job and Jonah were real people or characters in a story.

At the same time I was having my theological bell wrung by a study of early church history. For a thousand years, I discovered Christian Bible interpreters used an allegorical method to interpret Scripture. They did not take all Scripture literally but showed how it pointed to a deeper spiritual meaning. Most of my colleagues and teachers were uneasy about this method because it meant the text could mean anything any one wanted it to mean. Still, some pretty brilliant teachers like Origen used it faithfully and pointed out that Paul did, too.  My professors taught the historical/critical method for Bible Interpretation. The Bible text cannot say what it could not have meant to the original hearers. Allegory and deeper meanings were out. Yet, many of my professors, devout believers, would say things like, I was reading the Bible and God said, or God showed, or I heard or saw.....a deeper meaning possibly?

As science began to make more inroads into culture and the church, I was reading Genesis 1-2, the Psalms and most of the Prophets as poetry. Taking the Bible literally meant reading it as it was meant to be understood. The Jewish understanding of story was different from mine. Genesis was true and told us what creation means if not how it happened.

Origen (b 184) devoted his life to the study of Scripture and his writings on the Bible were massive. But, his purpose was to say that we need to know the Bible for personal fellowship with God. It is his word to you so read it. This love of Scripture was true of other great Bible Interpreters like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth. Augustine taught that the Psalms show Christ to us. Luther was wildly inventive in some of his Bible interpretations. Calvin was a careful craftsman handing the word of God. They were not trying to prove it was God's Word or explain away supposed contradictions. I saw over the years as I read the works of these early interpreters that there is no one way to interpret the Bible that is the correct one. The important question is not what does God's word say but what does it say to me.

The person who has helped me the most is Karl Barth. Barth is a skilled expositor interacting with many years of church tradition, and loves God's word and teaches it with Christ at the center. He followed Kierkegaard's insistence that there is an infinite, qualitative distance between God and us. God's word is God speaking to us. You don't have to be a scholar to get what God is saying to you. You have to be humble and faithful which is God's gift to you, as well. We need to pay attention to what is there rather than get bothered by a lot of academic questions. For Barth, reading Scripture is a matter of reading it, praying over it, trusting the Spirit's work in granting understanding and then doing what it says. It is a book like no other and it requires a humble, engaged reading that hears the voice of God in the word.

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