Some people really know their Bibles. One of them is Steve Hayner. Steve is the president of Columbia Theological Seminary, in Atlanta, Georgia, and has taught missiology, pastored churches, and worked at the helm of the student ministries organization, InterVarsity. He also has gotten three degrees in biblical studies, and has written a book on the Bible.
The other day Steve preached a sermon for Kairos Church that, I believe, has much to offer to our recent exploration of “biblical authority” and what it means to read the Bible well. (If you didn’t catch Monday’s post, “Is Rick Warren’s Daniel Plan An Exercise in ‘Selfish’ Bible Reading?,” you can here.) Steve has kindly agreed to share his manuscript with us, and I hope his insights will be as useful for you as they were for me:
Psalm 119:105 – Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
Romans 15:4 – For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.
2 Timothy 3:14-17 – But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
I love the Bible.
- after I began to follow Jesus I got more hungry to learn
- earned three grad degrees to learn to study Bible better
- wrote book introducing whole Bible
The Qur’an calls Christians and Jews “The People of the Book” because we share with Islam a strong view of God’s word as found in the Scriptures. We look to Scripture for firm foundation and truth to live in chaotic/confusing world.
But I’ve got to confess, that while I have always loved the Bible and considered the Bible as a key authority in my life—I have not always had a very biblical view of how the Bible should be used.
Most serious followers of Jesus would say that the Bible is their authority for faith and how they live life.
The most common ways people study the Bible:
- They mine for devotional nuggets to give hope, encouragement, peace, guidance. [verse pluckers]
- They search for specific answers to questions or issues
- They select passages to support what they believe
None of these are bad. But they are inadequate ways of studying the Bible. Here’s why:
- There are plenty of devotional, encouraging nuggets in Scripture. But if this was God’s intent, why is there so much other extra stuff? E.g. Thomas Jefferson had a personal Bible where he cut or tore out everything that he thought was superfluous.
Lots of books written around the devotional highpoints. BUT, this is actually a demeaning view of the Bible, because it suggests that God made a mistake by “inspiring” all the parts that aren’t uplifting or immediately applicable. The Bible says that “ALL Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” – and that we are to pay attention to the “whole counsel of God.”
- If the Bible is intended to be our final source for questions about what to believe and how to behave, why doesn’t the Bible answer clearly and completely the very questions we were asking?
Many people assume that the Bible should and does! But the Bible can’t possibly be as clear and complete about what we think we need to know, because there are so many Christians who disagree about what it says. Churches are hopelessly split about all sorts of details that seem to the church to be important about our beliefs and behaviors. Thousands and thousands of groups are separated from one another by their distinctive beliefs or behaviors—all of which they claim are “biblical.”
- E.g. Baptism
- Style of worship
- How we view war
- How we define marriage
- What we think about capital punishment or abortion
Whole denominations have split over these—and thousands of other issues, and most claim that they know what Bible says.
E.g. I was discussing an issue with a pastor who said, “Well, either the Bible is true or it isn’t.” His assumption was that this settled the issue. If I believed that the Bible was true, I would obviously agree with him. If I didn’t agree with him, it meant either that my view of Scripture was faulty, or that I wasn’t reading my Bible enough.
To compensate, most traditions have come up with a whole series of creedal statements and governing rules and policy guidelines on various issues, precisely because the Bible doesn’t seem to speak adequately enough on these things. Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals—all make pronouncements—write papers—and argue among themselves and with each other.
We often end up with culturally informed views—thinking they are biblical. And people end up making up stuff to fill in the places where Scripture is silent. This is true for social and doctrinal issues.
E.g. Satan as fallen angel. A story which most Christians assume is from Bible, but actually comes from 2 Enoch, some Jewish commentators—and made popular by John Milton in Paradise Lost.
- What we often think that what we need (and what the Bible is) is a book of timeless truth that ought to be simple to understand and simply obeyed.
“The Year of Living Biblically is about my quest to live the ultimate biblical life. To follow every single rule in the Bible – as literally as possible. I obey the famous ones:
- The Ten Commandments
- Love thy neighbor
- Be fruitful and multiply
But also, the hundreds of oft-ignored ones.
- Do not wear clothes of mixed fibers.
- Do not shave your beard
- Stone adulterers
Why? Well, I grew up in a very secular home (I’m officially Jewish but I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant). I’d always assumed religion would just wither away and we’d live in a neo-Enlightenment world. I was, of course, spectacularly wrong. So was I missing something essential to being a human? Or was half the world deluded?
I decided to dive in headfirst. To try to experience the Bible myself and find out what’s good in it, and what’s maybe not so relevant to the 21st century.”
But is this how God intended for the Bible to be used? After all, the whole Bible is culturally conditioned. It is written in languages of another time, about people and cultures which are quite foreign to us. We believe that God is speaking in the Scriptures, but sometimes what God is saying is not very clear, especially when it comes to narrative or poetic material where the “simple meaning of the text” just doesn’t seem very simple. There are many voices in the Scripture, and at times those voices disagree with one another. E.g. Theology of Deuteronomy: If you obey you will be blessed; if you disobey, bad things will happen. Many books of OT were written to illustrate that point (Joshua, Judges, !&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings). But that’s not how life often seems to work, so Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and others were written with a very different perspective.
So how do we learn to study the Bible better—and let it shape our lives?
1. Adjust our view of what we mean by biblical authority.
When we look at what the Bible says about its own authority, what we discover first is that the focus is always on the authority of God.
God has authority in Creation. God has authority as God calls, loves, pursues, frees, speaks, judges, redeems, heals, and in every way works with people in the world. At the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Jesus boldly declares that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” And, then, perhaps surprisingly, Jesus gives authority to the Apostles, by the Holy Spirit. And the church is given authority to work within the world as God’s ambassadors.
The Bible witnesses to God’s work, and attests to how complex and messy this work sometimes is. But the Bible is not some sort of celestial information service or even sure test of doctrinal purity. The Bible always points to God.
And all through the biblical story God exercises God’s authority through human agents who are anointed and equipped by the Holy Spirit. From the very beginning, God brought God’s authority to bear on Israel, not by revealing to them simply a set of timeless truths, but by delegating authority to obedient women and men through whose words God brought judgment and salvation to both Israel and the world. We call that inspiration.
And this is amplified in the person of Jesus, who lived authority, who claimed authority, and then who gave authority to his followers. Jesus told his followers that they would receive power and wisdom when the Holy Spirit came upon them. Jesus’ people are anointed and gifted to continue God’s work authoritatively.
Many of the Reformers in the 16th century talked about the principle of “sola scriptura” or “Scripture alone” as our final source of authority. But others looked around and said, “No, that is not the whole picture.” We also need to understand the roles of the Holy Spirit, of human reason and of tradition in matters of faith and practice. And the closer that the Bible, the work of the Holy Spirit, human reason and tradition line up, the more confident that we can be.
E.g. John 5:39f: part of a story of religious leaders complaining that Jesus wasn’t being “biblical” and following the rules. Jesus said: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
You can study the Bible until you are blue in the face, but you can still miss Jesus, and you may miss what God is trying to do in your life.
When we recognize that ultimately it is God who is authority—and not our understanding of the truth—then it produces a wonderful sense of humility. We recognize that God is God, and we are not! We don’t have all the answers. And so God calls us to look to Jesus, to walk in light of what we know, to thank God every day for the God’s love which we have in Jesus Christ, and to rejoice that because of Christ, it’s OK to not have everything figured out—or to change our minds—or to be just plain wrong—as long as we keep submitting our lives to Christ and to his word.
Adjust our view of authority…and
2. Adjust our view of what the Bible is
The Bible is NOT primarily:
- A rule book
- A textbook
- An answer book
- A systematic theology book
What we see in the Bible is largely a narrative of God’s people who are trying to figure out their lives in relation to God—just like we are. In the process they exercise and also frequently fail to exercise the authority which God has given them. We watch as the Holy Spirit gives them songs to sing, wisdom for their daily lives, ways to approach the problems they face, and messages to proclaim. Sometimes the stories are told so that we can imitate them. Sometimes the songs are given so that we can sing them. Sometimes the teaching is given so that we can be corrected by it. Sometimes what is there serves as a warning that we shouldn’t try that again.
But the point I am trying to make is that what the sovereign God is doing is what God has always been doing—namely to make and remake people and the world through God’s love. God uses the Bible as a Spirit-inspired book to mold our lives—not merely to give us a few answers to difficult questions.
N.T. Wright, a NT scholar and the Anglican Bishop of Durham, invites us to think about God’s work in the world as an unfinished drama. The Bible, he says, is like the first four acts of a great play: 1) Creation; 2) Fall; 3) God’s work with Israel, and 4) then God became flesh in Jesus—are all included. What is provided is a wealth of background, characterization, and an exciting drama. The assumption is that more will follow from these first acts. The first acts will establish the framework of where the plot will go. The characters in the next acts of this great story of God’s work—that’s us—will pour over the first acts—we will enter into the whole story, work through the twists and turns in the plot, and learn that the parts that we now play in God’s drama must flow from what has gone before.
We are God’s people—being shaped by God’s living and written Word. The Bible is inspired by God to shape the Church and help us to live out Spirit-guided lives for the sake of God’s mission in the world.
We don’t consult the Bible merely to ask, “Are we allowed to do this or that?” or “What must we believe to be sound in our doctrine?” Rather God wants the church to lift up our eyes to see what God has called us to be and to do as we follow Jesus into God’s great work in the world. God uses the Bible as a primary means of calling and equipping the church for God’s work of love, reconciliation, compassion and justice.
N.T. Wright says: “All of this is designed as a plea to the church to let the Bible be the Bible, and so to let God be God—and so to enable the people of God to be the people of God, his special people, living under his authority, bringing God’s light to God’s world. The Bible is not an end in itself. It is there so that, by its proper use, the creator may be glorified and the creation may be healed.” [N.T.Wright, “The Laing Lecture,” 1989.]
The God of the Bible is calling us all to be transformed and shaped by the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures, and then to carry on God’s work into the world. So we study the Scriptures.
- We study ALL the Scriptures.
- We acknowledge that some of it doesn’t make sense yet, and that we don’t have it all figured out right away.
- We pray and meditate on the Scriptures.
- We preach and teach the Scriptures.
- Over time, our lives are shaped and reshaped by God’s Spirit through the Scriptures.
- AND we become more like Jesus.
The Bible “is there so that, by its proper use, the creator may be glorified and the creation may be healed.”
- Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How you Read the Bible. Zondervan, 2008.
- Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Brazos Press, 2011.