I have been spending quite a bit of time lately thinking about the Bible and my experiences with it over the last decade or so. Around 2003 I decided to take up a serious study of theology and in particular those around the words of Jesus. I naively thought I could get some clear directions for my spiritual life if I just understood why the Bible seems to mean so many different things to so many people. What I have discovered over this period of time awakened me. I did not get the concrete answers I was looking for but I did glean some surprising discoveries.
It seems that as I have gotten older I am losing my sense of embarrassment about saying what I believe. I have grown to the point, and I do mean grown, where I feel I can now openly discuss the personal insight I have come to understand. I simply no longer really care if it upsets some. Maybe, in the long run, I am hoping that it does just that and as a result, a few will see that truly following Jesus has nothing to do with their self-proclaimed “faith” in the Bible but instead it is about faith in him and doing what he told us to do.
Let’s face it the Bible is not a book that you can casually, or even seriously, pick up and glean some ready-made answers to life’s problems. Especially in times of personal conflicts. In fact, much of it (meaning the Old Testament) is quite boring and not understandable in today’s context. Yes, if I search hard enough I can find a verse, usually taken out of context, that might console me a particular situation but for every one of those found there is another which disturbs me. Psalms is a ready example of that. There are places where God’s love clearly shows through and then there are other places where is he supposedly commands genocide such as the 137th Psalm.
All of these conflicting stories and thoughts make some degree of sense when I see the Bible as more of a history book written by man rather than words dropped from heaven. Christianity like much of the world’s history is messy and the Bible if you look at its contents objectively reflects that fact. That understanding is critical to finding its proper place in Christ’s church.
What I Believe
In a nutshell, following Jesus has nothing to do with idolizing the Bible itself. The purpose of the Bible it to point us to Jesus. It is to tell his story, nothing else. When that task is done it becomes very secondary to our walk with Christ. Below I will talk a little more about reading the Bible and what should be gleaned from that process.
I have not come to these beliefs on a whim. They are the result of many years of thoughtful prayer and study. I am also not trying to prove anyone wrong. Everyone should come to God in their own way. So let’s get on with the final four areas of my view of the Bible.
Some words of the Bible have infinitely more significance to our lives than others— The words through Jesus’ lips are the most important. Every other word is secondary at best. This is a major sticking point for some. It has to do with a concept that I have coined “the slippery slope”. I will get more into that a little later in this report. To say that there are no words in the Bible that are any more important than others seem nonsense to me.
The Bible might contain words inspired by God — But is not THE Word of God… Many call the Bible the word of God but I personally along with other Christians agree with John’s opening in his gospel. Jesus is the word of God, not a book assembled by man even if much of its writings might have been inspired by God. To give a book that status is making an idol of it. To put every word and circumstance mentioned in the biblical text in the literal grouping just doesn’t make sense to me. When Paul insisted that women were not to be over men in any circumstance he was speaking first century words. When he told people to be happy as slaves owned by others he was speaking first century words. These words were not intended for eternity. Yes, some of the Bible was written under the inspiration of God but it is at the same time a very human document.
The Bible contains stories passed down from one generation to another, allegories, parables and myths. To insist that all the words in the Bible are absolutely without error and are absolutely literally true as so many evangelicals do is beyond my understanding. I am convinced that even many of the writers of the books were not willing to put that status on all their own words. The Apostle Paul made it a point in one of his letters collected in the Bible that he was speaking of his own accord. I wish he had done that more frequently. Since I have not put much study on the Old Testament I will not be discussing those books here. But even the New Testament of which much was written up to forty years after the fact certainly contained things that were remembered but not necessarily factual. In many places, Jesus himself identified his stories as parables. I believe that the use of parables and allegories was a very common occurrence in many of the biblical writings whether the authors said they were or not.
Not all the inspired words from God are included in the Bible. I have done some studies of some of the text that was considered but finally excluded from the official bible when it was formulated by King Constantine’s council. The books of Thomas and Barnabas, in particular, I am convinced were also written a degree of inspiration from God. There are probably several others in that category. We Christians should consider all the writings of the time to see where we can deepen our understanding of God. I also believe that God continues to give inspired words through some of us Christians even today. All of us must constantly be listening for those inspirations in our daily lives. But it seems that “listening” is a difficult thing for many of us to do today. Moses in the Old Testament did not believe he was worthy to relay words from God but God used him as a mouthpiece all the same. So I believe that God’s continues to give simple men personal revelations from time to time.
Now that I have told you what I believe about the Bible I will go over a short list of things that are somewhat widely accepted by some twenty-first century Christian denominations but of which I basically disagree. Most of these topic titles are from texts of discussions I have had with Christians. I put them in a special category here because they were so deeply felt by others.
All the words in the Bible are the words of Jesus (ie. every word and punctuation mark comes from God). This title came from a person fairly high in the LCMS Lutheran organization. He used this statement to refute my belief that some of the Bible writing were not meant to be taken literally. To me instead of enhancing the rest of the Bible, I think he was really degrading the actual words of Jesus.
Nothing is required of Man to be called a disciple of Jesus– Those who oppose this concept call this statement “Cheap Grace”. Anyone who has read much at RJsCorner knows that this is one of the very sore points for me. To the ones who believe this I often come back with the statement that if that is true then we should eliminate the New Testament entirely and simple jump from Jesus’ birth directly to his death and resurrection. If Jesus did not expect anything from us “poor miserable sinners” then why did he continue to teach his apostles and us through them lessons about living on this earth? To take any responsibility for our existing on the earth away from us is almost to say that God creating the universe was unnecessary. At the very least it is to say that Jesus wasted his breath during his three-year ministry as nothing he said makes any difference. Those are fighting words to me 🙂
One verse negates other verses.. For people who say they are literalists when it comes to the Bible to then latch onto one verse and seemingly forget others is a mystery to me? Most of the logic for “nothing is required” comes from one sentence in the letter of Paul to the congregation of Ephesus. That verse Ephesians 2:8 is as follows: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is a gift of God – not by works so that no one can boast”. These words from Paul, who never sat at Jesus’ feet nor seemed to understand much of his teachings, when taken alone seem to be a powerful reinforcement of the belief that nothing is required of us. But if they are put in the context of many many of Jesus’ messages they take on a different meaning. And then there is James, the brother of Jesus, who makes it very clear that from his brother he was taught that faith without works is a dead faith. When I look at all the words of Jesus I cannot negate them simply because of this uttered sentence in one of Paul’s many letters trying to hold together a troubled congregation.
My interpretation of the Bible is the only correct one…. In my opinion, this is one of the most damaging aspects of biblical beliefs. Some are absolutely convinced that they alone know the true heart of God and anyone who disagrees with them is simply wrong!! An example of this is those who believe in the 24-hour version of Genesis go on to disrespect those who believe in the day-age version. To some extent, I am personally a victim of this practice but that is another story. When we continuously divide ourselves over personal interpretations we do a great disservice to God!
Now, let’s talk about where I see some others may have gone astray in regards to their beliefs surrounding the Bible.
- Some have replaced the Holy Spirit with the book called the Bible... They put so much power in the Bible and so little in the Holy Spirit. Compared to the others in Trinity studies there is very little in-depth theological study of the Holy Spirit. The main exception to that might be the Society of Friends otherwise known as Quakers. They treat the Holy Spirit as a very equal member of God’s team. Jesus had very clear words about just what the Holy Spirit was going to do for us after he left this earth. Many Christian denominations today seem to downplay our relationship with the Holy Spirit.
- The Bible is about God; it is not a replacement for God...The Bible is a valuable document in trying to understand the nature of God but it was never meant to replace God. This idea goes back to a recent post with the question of why Jesus did not write a book? Jesus did not write a book because if he did then we lowly human beings would end up having a relationship with the book instead of with God. God intends each of us to have a personal relationship with him. I believe that sometimes the Bible actually gets in the way of that relationship.
- Every word in the Bible is Jesus’ words… This is just simply something that I can’t conceive. With my study of just how the Bible was assembled in the late fourth century by a council directed by King Constantine, it is very clear that there is a very human element in the creation of this book. To say that every word written by the Apostle Paul came directly from Jesus is to deny some of the very words of the Bible itself. Paul states in some of his epistles that some words were simply his opinion and were not necessarily inspired by God. I personally take some of the words of Paul to simply be that of a crankety old bachelor putting out his personal opinion. There is certainly nothing wrong with that since his letters were written to human beings with particular problems that Paul addressed. Yes, they are important to the history of the church but they are not from God’s lips.
- Everything in the Bible is literally and absolutely true… This belief causes some to deny other aspects of God’s revelations. We can learn nothing in this world unless God allows us to learn it. And this includes scientific things like carbon dating and geological strata and yes, even global warming. Much of scientific discovery today adds weight behind one interpretation of the Bible in opposition to another interpretation. There is nothing wrong with that.
- The “Slippery Slope” is one of the most misguided beliefs… This belief goes like this. If you can’t believe absolutely every word in the Bible then you must throw it all out as unbelievable. In other words, if you can doubt anything then you will eventually fall down a slippery slope where everything is doubted. I have gone round after round with some on this topic with some fellow Christians. But, as the saying goes “you can’t reason someone out of a position that they never reasoned themselves into”.
If it is not obvious by now I want you to understand that I put my Christianity on Jesus Christ, not on a book about him.
About the Literalists:
- Panic – In some cases, I see almost total panic in people when I say not all the words in the bible are literally true. This belief is so ingrained in the foundations of their faith they cannot imagine it could not be true.
- Irrational – Some say if you doubt any words in the Bible are not literally true then you must doubt all of them and therefore the Bible would be worthless! Nonsense! Living with that sort of belief makes life itself totally unlivable. There is nothing in this life that man has touched that is 100% accurate. This is like saying that I must throw out everything I know about George Washington, and I have read a lot about him because someone wrongly wrote that he chopped down a cherry tree.
- Acceptance? – Eventually, the literal and absolutely true belief will be totally disproved even to the current day doubters. What will happen to those who tied their Christianity on that belief? Will they lose their faith? I just pray that when that day comes they will realize that Jesus should have been their total focus all along not a book about him. What would happen to me if the Bible proved to be totally inerrant as they claim? I would be very surprised but it would not cause me to take my eyes off Jesus as the absolute center of my faith.
About the Bible:
- At Jesus’ Feet – To be able to read stories from those who actually sat at Jesus’ feet is just so valuable in our walk with Christ. It helps us to understand why he came to earth and became one of us! He did that to teach us how to live and how to love the God of the New Testament.
- A Brother’s Narrative – There is one person who wrote part of the biblical text that most likely spent almost his entire life with Jesus and that was his brother (or maybe cousin depending on which theologian you might follow). It saddens me that James did not provide us more info about Jesus’ earlier years. But, then again maybe he did and it was not uncovered during the search or canonic documents. If not, I guess he chose to concentrate on just what he thought was the most important of his brother’s messages. To hear James say that faith and works are one and the same and that faith without works is a dead faith is good enough for me.
- About the Founders – To be able to read all the stories in the book of Acts about the first few years of Christianity is very enlightening. It certainly helps us to understand how Christianity got started and how some of its beliefs were formed primarily by the Apostle Paul. But, all of those things that occurred during these early years were not necessarily meant to apply to future Christians. Some are just for lessons learned and taught at the time of the writing and should be understood as such.
- Early Conflicts – To see how Paul dealt with some many of the problems in the early church is interesting. But again we cannot assume that all the solutions he proposed apply to all circumstances today. One size does not fit all.
Just give them Jesus:
- Keep your eyes totally focused on the lessons of Jesus. Everything else is simply a distraction.
- To tell others about Jesus and how he lived his life. That is the purpose of the Bible.
- Tell others about Jesus and how he taught us to live. That is the purpose of the Bible.
- Tell others about Jesus and what he commanded us to do. That is the purpose of the Bible.
- Use the Bible stories as lessons in these matters and don’t become fixated on the words themselves. When you do that you may end up treating words as idols and that is definitely not what Jesus intended.
This in-depth study was about looking at the Bible as a human document that was written and assembled by humans with different life experiences, viewpoints, and passions. Much of their thoughts and words were believed to come from divine inspiration. Many believed they were writing what God wanted them to write but may not have been so. When I study the Bible I try to understand the reasons why some of the writers might have penned what they did. Of course, I am also a human who has my own life experiences and passions, part of which surely shaped by what I have previously studied. What I have said in this study is my own understanding. But, what I have studied also very likely comes through in some cases so if I failed to give some credit I apologize. It is not intentional.
When we view the Bible as a document written by humans who were to one degree or another inspired by God it takes on a unique shape and understanding. Those who insist that the Bible was, more or less, dropped down from heaven by God himself deprive themselves of this valuable insight. Understanding the background and circumstances of the writers helps us to gain a better feel for the meanings and reasons behind their words. Every word in the Bible was not intended to be taken literally for all the ages. Much of what was written must be looked at with first-century eyes and then sometimes applied to twenty-first-century circumstances.
I will finish this series how I began it by saying again that I am not a trained theologian; I am just a simple guy who has studied the Bible and other related documents and come to some personal understanding about them. One thing I avoid in my posts, and I think I did a pretty good job here, is “theologian speak”. There seems to be a complex multisyllabic word to tag almost all studies of the bible. Although I am familiar with some of them I try to avoid them whenever possible. Those words seem to try and make the Bible some mysterious document of which it shouldn’t be.
I hope this study had at least a small amount of value for you. I want you to come away from it with the understanding that not all Christians see the Bible the same way…