It all started with a conversation, no…an argument, no…a debate, no…a conversation. The conversation was with a friend over a topic that is a deeply contentious issue in our current culture. We disagreed. I have a fairly diverse friend-group so these types of
arguments conversations happen quite often. What made this conversation unique was that our disagreement was not political in nature but biblical. In short, he thought the Bible was clear about this particular thing. I was less than convinced.
Part I The Bible is Clear
The trouble with speaking about Biblical clarity is that the Bible, so often, isn’t clear. There is a difference between “using” scripture and “loving” scripture. When people begin a sentence with “The Bible is clear…” this is often a giveaway that they are about to “use” scripture to defend a certain political position or serve a cultural agenda. This, however, is nothing new. Christians, throughout history, have opposed or supported certain agendas that we are embarrassed of today because they thought, “the Bible was clear.” For example, Christians opposed things like: abolition, integration, women’s suffrage, and a heliocentric model of the universe, all because “the Bible was clear.” However, I must point out that there were also Christians who appealed to scripture to support these things. These issues should serve as a reminder that rhetorical claims to the Bible’s clarity on a subject do not necessarily make it so. Furthermore, even just a quick moment a self-analysis reveals that we all approach the Bible with varying levels of subjectivity. Put differently, the Bible is not self-interpreting. We all, to at least some degree, do the work of interpretation. So when someone says: “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” What they actually mean is: “The Bible says something that I have interpreted in a certain way, and I believe my interpretation, and that settles it.” This doesn’t mean that the Bible is void of objective truth and that we are slipping into relativism. It simply means that we all do the work of interpretation and not all interpretations are equal. So how do we read the Bible right?
Part II Scripture is not the Word of God
Okay, okay… Don’t dismiss me as a heretic just yet. Take a deep breath. The Bible is the word of God but not the Word of God. See what I did there? The Bible is the word of God that bears witness to the Word of God — Jesus Christ. John’s Gospel tells us that the Word became flesh — not ink. The Bible did not create the heavens and the earth — the Word (Christ) did. The Bible is not a member of the Trinity. Christ is. The Bible is not timeless. (There are parts we now consider obsolete; e.g. Levitical codes.) Christ is the eternal perfection of God as a human being. The Bible is penultimate. But Christ is supreme. The Bible is not the object of our worship. Christ is. The difference is not trivial. Biblicism is a rival faith to Christianity. Furthermore, Biblicism is often a clever way of avoiding the witness of Christ to maintain the status quo. The highest view of Scripture is not the one that seeks to make an idol of the Bible (biblicism), but the one that allows the biblical text to exalt Christ as the living Word over all creation. Let Scripture be Scripture. Let Christ be Christ. So repeat after me: 1. Jesus reveals God. 2. Scripture witnesses to Jesus. If we can grasp these two simple truths, we are well on our way to reading the Bible right.
Part III A Christocentric Reading of Scripture
1. Jesus reveals God. The epistemological means of knowing God the Father is God the Son, the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15), the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (Heb. 1:3), and the one who allows us to see the Father through seeing him (John 12:45; 14:9).
2. Scripture witnesses to Jesus. Part of the Spirit’s work is to testify to the Son (John 16:4-15), and thus because the Bible is spirit inspired (2 Tim. 3:16) it is able to make one wise unto salvation in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 3:14-15). Before you accuse me of being a Marcionite, hear me out. I am not, in fact, making the same mistake as Marcion and calling for a rejection of the Hebrew Bible. Rather, I believe that all scripture (including the OT) should be read through a Christocentric hermenuetic (interpretation). This means that Christ is not only the center of the salvific story told through the Gospels and Epistles but that all Hebrew perceptions of God in the OT should be interpreted in light of Christ — the final and full revelation of God. If we’ll read the Bible, faithfully, in this way, we’ll discover the good news that God is like Jesus and that God has always been like Jesus.
Part IV No More Monster God
But what about those portrayals of God that appear to be so unlike Jesus? There is no escaping the fact that the OT contains many troubling stories of violence, genocide, and even one famous story of God asking a patriarch to kill his only son. How do we reconcile this with the full revelation of God (Jesus) who valued mercy over sacrifice, who taught us to love our enemies, and who commanded us to forgive 70×7? I’m so glad you asked. We have, as far as I can tell, 3 options:
1. We can question the morality of God. If you take this option by claiming that God commands genocide but it is somehow not immoral, you will end up violating your own conscience. Genocide is immoral. I know this. You know this. Furthermore, this opens the door for all kinds of evil to be done in the name of God. The human race has a long and tragic history of doing this. For me, this first option is unacceptable.
2. We can question the immutability of God. Perhaps you prefer this option — a mutating God who is in the process of learning and growing. I am not. If God is subject to change, how can we ever learn to trust such a God? What would prevent God from someday in the future turning into a monstrous deity? For this reason, I reject this option.
3. We can question our understanding of Scripture. Let’s just say that something changes between the apparent divine endorsement of genocide and the Sermon on the Mount. What changes is not God, but the degree to which humanity has attained a revelation of the true nature of God. The OT is the inspired telling of Israel coming to know God, but don’t stop there. Keep going until you get to Jesus.
Part V A Lesson in Reading the Bible Right
If you were to return to the OT and take a closer look at these troubling stories about God that Phyllis Tickle refers to as “texts of terror,” in the midst of that horror there is a human being making a move that looks like Jesus. Take Moses for example… In Exodus 32, while Moses is on Mt. Sinai, the people of Israel construct a golden calf. As a result, God tells Moses that He is going to destroy them all. But in that moment, Moses intercedes reminding God of His promise to Israel. Moses knows that God’s character is merciful even when God’s word seems to be saying something else. In Numbers 16-17, Korah and his clan rebel against Moses and Aaron. God, again, tells Moses that He is going to destroy them all. But Moses, again, intercedes, asking God only to punish the ones who have rebelled rather than destroying them all. Shortly after, the ground opens up and swallows those who rebelled. But keep reading, its about to get good… In the very next section verse 41 says, “On the next day, the whole congregation of the Israelites rebelled against Moses and Aaron.” The wrong way to read this story is to say, “Don’t cross God or He’ll open up the earth and swallow you!” Yikes! The point of the story is to illustrate that even God’s judgment doesn’t deal with sin! The rebellion that was in Korah spread to the entire camp AFTER God judged their sin. Then, God goes back to his original plan to destroy EVERYONE with a plague. But Moses, instead of fleeing, runs to the middle of the assembly to make atonement on their behalf. God, seeing Moses’ commitment to his people, stops the plague and moves from death to life. Here, as always, it is not God’s judgment that ultimately deals with sin, but God’s mercy. In this story it is Moses who reveals to us what God is really like! Who is Jesus if he is not Moses running to his people to stop the plague? Who is Jesus if he is not Moses interceding on behalf of his people? In each of these stories God is trying to tell us, “You think you know what God is like, but you’re wrong! There is coming a day when a man will come and intercede, and that man will tell you who I am. That man is Jesus.” Jesus is the true and better Moses who stands in the gap between the people and the Lord, mediating a new covenant. Jesus is the true and better Abel, who though innocently slain, has blood that now cries out not for our condemnation but for our acquittal. Jesus is the true and better Joseph who, at the right hand of the king, forgives those who betrayed him and uses his new power to save them.
Jesus is the true and better David whose victory becomes the people’s victory even though they never lifted a stone to accomplish it themselves.
Jesus is the true and better Jonah who was cast out into the storm so that we could be brought in. Jesus is the true and better Passover Lamb, innocent, helpless, perfect, slain, so that the angel of death will pass over us. When we read the Bible right we see that: Jesus reveals God. Scripture witnesses to Jesus.
If you think I’ve slipped on a banana peel and lost my mind, I still love you. If you currently feel the creeping desire to pick up your lap-top, phone, or tablet and throw it at me, let me remind you of one of my favorite quotes from John Wesley: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.” After all, this is the purpose of Scripture: It witnesses to the love of Christ. In the end, the purpose of Scripture is not to make us of one mind but to take our heart, marred by sin, and to replace it with the heart of Christ. The word of God (the Bible) is a plowshare that opens up hearts for the Word of God (Christ) to reach. If we can just grasp this, then perhaps, we are reading the Bible right.