OPINION | Michael F. Bird
1. The Bible did not fall out of the sky, bound in leather, written in English.
The Bible is not a single book, but more of a complex library, written over some 1500 years, in the languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. There were real human processes behind its composition and canonisation which God used to give the Bible to us. First, the composition of many of these texts was a process rather than a single event.
For instance, while Moses is recognised as the originator of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), it is very unlikely that he recorded his own death (Deut 34) and there are several references to what cities were called in the days of the patriarchs and how they are still called similarly “to this very day”, indicating a perspective from a later time (e.g., Gen 26:33; Deut 3:14-15).
Similarly, the ending of the Gospel of John includes an affirmation of the Beloved Disciple’s testimony with the words “we know his testimony is true” (Jn 21:24) indicative of an epilogue added by those who edited the Beloved Disciple’s testimony. That some Old Testament texts were edited or updated by a prophet’s followers is something debated in relation to Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel, but there is no prima facie case against this. To this end I rather like John Webster’s description of inspiration as including the “sanctification” of all human processes involved in the formation of Scripture.
Second, on canonisation, if you didn’t notice, the Bible does not tell us which books should be in the Bible! So who decided that the Gospel of Matthew and Paul’s Letter to the Romans were to be included, while the Shepherd of Hermas and the Apocalypse of Peter were left out? No, it wasn’t Constantine, but neither did a sherry of bishops in the second century go on an Indiana Jones type of adventure with their inspiration-o-meter looking for Christian books to add to their growing collection of authoritative texts.
The basic criteria was books that contained the words of Jesus and the apostolic message about Jesus, and a consensus began to emerge by the late second century based upon the four gospels, Acts, Paul’s thirteen letters plus Hebrews, 1 John, and 1 Peter, with the other books in our NT eventually finding consensus, but over a much longer period. To be sure, the church did not invent the Bible, the church itself is a creation of the Word of God, but the church was tasked with putting the divine word into its canonical location.
2. The Bible is for our time but not about our time.
The Bible is for us, but not about us. This can create problems when we assume that the Bible professes the perspectives of our age or intends to speak directly to our context. If we assume that the Bible supports Marxist economics or laissez-faire capitalism, the right to carry arms or non-nuclear proliferation, gender fluidity or home schooling, then we are either reading stuff into the Bible (which is bad) or maybe trying to reason from the Bible (which is okay), but either way we are not taking stuff directly from the Bible.
The Bible was written for its own world and not directly to ours. That does not mean that it cannot address our own context and concerns, of course it does, but we have to remember that our reading of the Bible is mediated by 2000 years of history, and shaped by our own language, culture, history and identity. Being a 30-year-old, white, middle-class, female, Pentecostal, living in New Zealand will inevitably shape the way you read the Bible and you should not assume the normativity of your own reading experience.
We must acknowledge the socio-cultural distance between the biblical world and our world and that our reading of the Bible is partly a product of our own environment. That will teach us that we cannot just jump from ancient text to modern time without first engaging the chasm that exists between the two. Therefore, a good interpreter will need a basic grasp of the biblical world, pay attention to the history of interpretation, cultivate global conversation partners and be self-critical of what we assume about the Bible.
3. We should focus on taking the Bible seriously, not necessarily literally.
Debates about taking the Bible literally or metaphorically are often missing the point. For instance, Genesis 1 is not a moment-by-moment commentary on how God made the world, nor narrating the story in such a way that the main purpose is to refute Darwinism. Genesis 1 is primarily about worldview, adopting a God-centred view of reality, affirming that however the world was made it owes its existence to God and admiring the artistry of God as seen in the splendour of creation.
This does not mean that Genesis 1 is merely “myth” in the sense of fairy tales, but it sets forth in a literary masterpiece the truth that God is the Creator and there is no Other. This is a competing narrative to other ancient-near-eastern accounts about creation, and in practice it means that you don’t worship the stars, you worship the God who made the stars.
In many places in the Bible the main point is not literal but literary, and reading the Bible in light of its genres and context is the best way to take it seriously.
4. If interpreting the Bible was easy, we wouldn’t need teachers.
Protestants believe in the clarity of Scripture. However, even Protestant confessions like the Westminster Confession and London Baptist Confession state that the clarity of Scripture only applies to the things “necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation.” Everything else is not necessarily “plain in themselves” nor “clear unto all” (WCF 1.7/LBC 1.7).
In other words, the Bible is clear about the gospel, how to get right with God, but after that it can get a bit sticky. So we need teachers, we need metaphorical Phillips to run beside us in our chariot and to explain the Scripture to us. First, we should always be prepared to consult tradition. Now tradition often gets a bad name, but tradition is simply what the church has learned from reading Scripture. I like to say that tradition is a tool for reading Scripture, a tool we be wise to use. We engage in recklessness if we venerate tradition as infallible and yet we are foolish if we ignore what tradition has to teach us.
Second, we need to look to those who inhabit the offices of pastors and teachers, and listen to them in their learning of Scripture, languages, doctrine and history. While you may think that your soul has the competence and liberty to interpret the Bible as the Spirit leads you, as a professional scholar let me tell you something: some souls are more competent than others, and listening to some teachers will give the Holy Spirit more to work with in guiding you into the truth!
5. The purpose of Scripture is knowledge and hope.
God is a revealing god. God makes himself known through creation, through history, in the words of the prophets, through the preaching of the gospel, most definitively in the incarnation of the Jesus the Logos and also by the inspiration of human authors to write books that convey the divine message in the medium of human language.
The purpose of revelation is that we might know God and know him as our Saviour. The purpose of that knowledge is to create faith in the sense of assent and trust towards God, but more properly to give us an assurance that God is for us and with us – in other words, hope. This is what St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Rom 15:4).
Scripture, then, should not be reduced to a list of rules, nor a box full of ancient stories, nor even a map for the future. God speaks to us in Scripture so that we would know the God of creation and redemption, and by knowing God, we would have hope amidst the trials of human life.
6. Scripture is normative not negotiable.
Theological debates within both evangelicalism and conservative Catholicism have focused not so much on whether the Bible is true, but how the Bible is true. The challenge has been how best to articulate Scripture’s truthfulness amidst on-going conversations about science and religion, biblical criticism and pre-modern interpretation, postmodern reading strategies, and the role of the Bible in the public square.
Among conservative groups one’s stance on this subject is often treated as a life and death matter and as a result terms like “inerrancy” or “infallibility” become tribal colours which identify a person in relation to particular perspectives and postures related to the Bible. However, I want to suggest that conservative shibboleths are not or should not be the primary marker for what constitutes an “orthodox” or “high” view of Scripture.
The main point of contention between the orthodox and progressives is not over nomenclature (inerrancy vs. infallibility) or even symbolic theologians (Ratzinger vs. Rahner), but over the more fundamental question as to whether or not Scripture is normative or negotiable.
Is Scripture a word from God to be heeded and obeyed even if it means going against culture (normative) or is Scripture a human word about God to be selectively utilised insofar as it enables us to speak a transcendent word to our native context (negotiable)?
7. Christ is the foundation of our faith and the centre of the Christian Bible.
The Bible is the enduring Word of God. But it is not the foundation of our faith. Rather, Jesus is the foundation of our faith, as St. Paul says: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:11). Because of that foundation, we should build up from it by reading the Bible as a Christ-centred book that finds its highest testimony and interpretive centre in him. In fact, this is precisely how the early church interpreted Israel’s Scriptures. Just look at how they read and preached about Psalms 2, 16, 110 and 118, or even Isaiah 53, or Deuteronomy 32. These texts, in their various ways, are about Jesus.
This is something that Jesus himself taught to the two strangers on the road to Emmaus: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). If you want to understand the Bible you need to understand Jesus. And if you want to understand Jesus you need to understand the Bible.
Michael Bird lectures in theology at Ridley College, Melbourne.