I am reprinting this essay by request and in order to get it into the search engine. If I were writing this today, a few things would be changed, but it is still by best contribution in regard to my own belief about the nature of Christian scripture.
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself…They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”…Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures…Luke 24:27, 32, 44-45
Like millions of other Southern Baptists, I can’t remember when I first laid eyes on the Bible. My name was written in the front of Dad’s large print King James Version, and in Mom’s family Bible. I have a time-worn little Gideon New Testament that I must have received in the first or second grade. Somewhere in the family keepsakes is the Bible I remember taking with me to church as a boy, a zippered little KJV with lots of color pictures to look at during the sermon.
At our church, the pastor preached messages from the Bible, with lots of verses, and the Sunday School teachers used it every week in our lessons. We were expected to bring our Bibles to church, to learn Sword drills, to be able to read the King James Version, and to memorize scripture verses. Before we understood anything about the truths of Christianity, we were indoctrinated with the foundation that “The B-I-B-L-E, that’s the book for me. I take my stand on the Word of God, yes, the B-I-B-L-E.”
I remember my first questions about the Bible forming as a youth, sitting in the balcony during church, flipping through the pages and reading whatever I found. What was this strange book with the odd print and self-pronouncing names? I knew from the time I was small that my college-educated half-brother didn’t believe it. We were frequently reminded that lots of people who said they believed it, didn’t really believe it, or else they would be at our church and not theirs. Did that mean people could read the Bible and disagree about what it said?
I was interested in archeology as a boy, and I often wondered why the Bible was different from other ancient writings? It wasn’t long before I realized that some very smart people didn’t think the Bible was the Word of God, but was, instead, just a lot of made-up stories by well intentioned, but gullible people. For a while, I suspected they were right, but by the time of my conversion at age 15, I was ready to believe the Bible unconditionally like the rest of the Christians I knew. I put away my doubts and became a boy preacher.
I was fortunate to have a Christian public school teacher, Mrs. Whitmer, who taught two units of “Bible Literature” in our public high school. We used big, black New American Standard hardbacks (I still want one!) and, for the first time, I heard an intelligent Christian deal with the Bible in a more subtle and indirect way than the shouting fundamentalism of my church. I liked it. I wanted more.
I’m still that young man seeing the first cracks of light from my fundamentalist indoctrination in the Bible. Today, I wrestle with the Bible daily as a Christian, a teacher and a preacher. What does it mean? More than ever, I want to know what the Bible is? How can I trust it as a unique word from God? How does God speak to me in the Bible? In the confusion and contradictions of contemporary Christianity, how can I have any confidence that I know the truth of God by knowing the scriptures? How can I acknowledge the human and historical aspects of the Bible, and still believe it is God’s word for me to preach, live by and die in?
Maybe you have asked these questions as well. I hope so, because I’ve come to some conclusions. For the first time in many years, I have some confidence in my personal approach to the Bible. I don’t claim any uniqueness to what I believe, or that what I am going to write is brilliant or solves every problem. I do believe it is very helpful, and over the years that I have shared this material, there have been many people from every perspective who have found it helpful in their own journey.
Here are the questions I want to deal with. First, what is the Bible? How can I think about the Bible in a way that makes some sense to me, and can be described to other people meaningfully?
Second, what do we mean when we say the Bible is inspired? There are many words used by Christians to describe inspiration, but this competition to use the strongest word doesn’t seem to help many of us. In fact, if you know the Bible well, most of these words create problems and necessitate uncomfortable compromises. I want to suggest a way to look at inspiration that works for me, particularly in putting all the different parts of the Bible together and seeing what inspiration really focuses on.
Third, I want to suggest how we might interpret the Bible in a way that clearly communicates its message. It is here that I may say some things some evangelicals find somewhat distressing, but I don’t think my suggestions will be any more radical than Jesus’ own words about Biblical interpretation (see above); words that are largely ignored by most Christians using the Bible.
Finally, I will suggest some applications that demonstrate the way this view of the Bible works. This will only be the beginning of a journey that can go on for many more pages than I plan to write. But it will be helpful in showing how my method might help.
I am obviously in debt to a number of people for the ideas I am going to share. At least as I am aware of them, I would credit three sources. One is Eugene Petersen, whose Biblical books have always seemed to me to be far beyond the ordinary in their ability to bypass the usual tensions and present the Word of God speaking on its own terms. Second are the various church fathers, who use many of the approaches I generally advocate as being close to the Bible’s own method. Third, Dr. Paul Duke, my seminary pastor who modeled for me a wonderful approach to the Bible totally free of the tedious apologetics and polemics of my roots. I know he learned from many others, but he was the blessing to me. Finally, I am deeply indebted to Fr. Robert Capon’s work, particularly in The Fingerprints of God, and many other places, for teaching me the power of images in understanding theology, and especially Biblical theology.
First, What is the Bible?
When I was a senior in high school, I made it into an Advanced English Class taught by Mrs. Vista Morris. Mrs. Morris taught us to research, to write and to speak. Oddly, we never left her room, because all of our research and work was done in a little room adjacent to her classroom, full of several sets of books called “The Great Books of the Western World.” Britannica publishes this set, and I own the books today.
At the time, I had no idea who these 73 authors were or why they were significant. I recognized a few names- Shakespeare, Aristotle- but most were alien to me. They were, of course, what Harold Bloom calls, “The Western Canon” of intellectual life. These Great Books- which by the way included the Bible- were a “Scripture” of sorts for a true Western education.
There were three books in the set that were different. Two were monstrous index volumes, where the Great books were broken up into explorations of over a hundred topics vital to the Western intellectual tradition. These books allowed you to delve into the Great Books by themes, and to hear what all the authors had to say on God, government, angels, war or close to a hundred other topics. I treasure these two volumes today, and count minor water damage done to one of them while caring for a plant to be among the great criminal acts ever committed.
The other volume was the slim first volume in the set, a collection of short essays on the purpose and use of the Great Books. It was called “The Great Conversation.” The authors suggested we approach these books not as a single narrative, or as an education by installment, but as a great, roaring, unruly conversation across the ages. Greek dramatists debating with English scientists. Russian novelists sparring with German psychologists. Gibbon debating Homer. Augustine versus Tolstoy. It was a conversation that never occurred, but was allowed to occur by bringing all these writings together, and then studying them to hear what each writer had to say.
This idea, of a great conversation taking place over time and culture, and then selected and presented for my benefit, has become my dominant idea of what is the Bible. It has proven increasingly helpful in a number of ways.
The great conversation model has allowed me to jettison any defense of the Bible as single book whose human origins and methodologies present significant difficulties that must be explained. For instance, I view the Bible as a selection of purely human literary creations. I may lay aside my faith, as many critics do, and study the Biblical material purely in their historical and cultural settings. This eliminates the need to force the Bible to be divine in origin, and gives me the freedom to hear each Biblical writer saying what he/she had to say in the way he/she chose to say it.
Or I may read the Bible with my eyes, mind and heart alive to the faith that is at the center of the Biblical conversation. The humanity of the conversation is not an obstacle, but an invitation to understand the Bible even as we understand ourselves and our histories, experiences and cultures.
The rich diversity of the Bible is frequently lost in our fear that seeing a book as exactly what it appears to be will ruin the inspiration and divine authority of the book. Is God so small that the humanity of a text matters to His use of it? Further, the particular “voice” or style the text uses to talk about God may come to us in ways that are strange and uncomfortable to modern ideas of reality and truth. But if we are listening to a conversation and not predetermining what it must be, these factors are almost meaningless.
In the Great Books, the conversation took place in those common categories that were universal, even if greek dramatists and nineteenth century historians actually looked at the world in very different ways. The Great Conversation method says that the editor hears this conversation in his selection of the texts, and the reader experiences it for himself as he reads and listens.
Genesis isn’t twentieth century science. Leviticus is primitive, brutal and middle eastern. The Old Testament histories are not scholarly documentaries, but religious and tribal understandings of God and events. Proverbs comes from a mongrel wisdom tradition throughout the middle east. Song of Solomon is erotic poetry, and not much else. The prophets spoke to their own times, and not to our own. The scholars who help me understand these books as they are, are not enemies of truth, but friends. Call it criticism, paint it as hostile, but I want to know what the texts in front of me are saying!
The Old Testament and New Testament Canon are the selection of those parts of our spiritual literary heritage that make up the Great Conversation about the Judeo-Christian God. The Bible itself is a human book, created and complied by human choices. There may be other writings that contribute to the conversation, but those who know and experience the God of Jesus Christ hear the conversation most plainly in these writings. Canon is that human choice of what to listen to. Inspiration- the next section- is the validation and expounding of that choice.
The conversational model allows for a number of helpful ways of approaching scripture. For instance, it allows a variety of viewpoints on a single subject, such as the problem of evil. Job argues with Proverbs. It encourages us to hear all sides of the conversation as contributing something, and doesn’t say only one voice can be heard as right. Leviticus has something important to say that Psalms may not say. This approach sees the development of understanding as a natural part of the conversation, and isn’t disturbed when a subject appears to evolve and change over time. This model allows some parts of the conversation to be wrong, so that others can be right, and the Bible isn’t diminished as a result.
Most importantly, this model says the Bible presents a conversation that continues until God himself speaks a final Word. In other words, I do not expect this conversation to go on endlessly. It has a point. A conclusion. And in that belief, the great Biblical conversation differs from the Great Books conversation. There is not an endless spiral of philosophical and experiential speculation. There is, as Hebrews 1 says, a final Word: Jesus.
Hebrews 1:1-3 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
Second, How can I say the Bible is Inspired?
Let’s pause and take stock. I’ve said the Bible is a thoroughly human book in which human beings, involved in an experience they identify as God, select a “canon” of literature that contains a conversation about this experience of God. It is important, however, that I put forward some idea of inspiration, since orthodox Christianity requires some way to understand how God speaks in the Bible.
The original Great Books essays stated that the conversation occurs without any set dogma or point of view. The student of the Great Books is free to listen to the conversation and come to any number of conclusions about God, government, reality or human nature.
The Biblical conversation is different. While the reader is free to draw conclusions, the conversation itself is compelling in its conclusions. Because this conversation continues to a point of hearing a unique Word from God, there are limits to what we may legitimately say is being said. The proper understanding of language, culture, history and text is part of this limitation. The Biblical conversation allows great freedom, but there is also agreement that when this conversation is heard honestly, it has a common stream and focus at its center. A stream and focus that reveals a particular God, his ways, his character, his message and ultimately, his Son.
Of course, we should have modest expectations of agreement on this kind of unity in the Bible, and any community of believers that claims to hear a detailed scheme of belief in the Bible is probably listening to some parts of the conversation differently than other communities. Still, even with the diversity of conclusions we will find in listening, the Christian communities that lay hold of this conversation as “their own,” have considerable broad agreement in what the conversation communicates. On the focus of that conversation, there is no contention.
At this point I want to separate myself from any kind of Christianity that sees the Bible as teaching a highly sectarian view of Christianity at the exclusion of other views. I am not shocked that Catholics and Lutherans find the words “This is my body” to mean something different than Baptists do. I am distraught that any of these parties would fail to see that we are all listening to the same texts, and disagreement isn’t because some of us are all that much smarter or better listeners. It’s because we listen to different parts of the conversation, in different ways, and we are allowed to do so.
I love confessionalism. But I despise confessionalism that doesn’t understand and respect what other confessional communities are doing in listening to the conversation. This is why, for instance, I am not personally torn up by the infant baptism debate. Listening to the Biblical conversation, there appear to be two completely plausible conclusions on the subject. I have convictions on which is right, but I have no conviction that the other fellow is so wrong that I can treat him as if he isn’t approaching the same text as I am, with the same amount of worthy respect and reverence.
Scripture is inspired if God has, on some level and in some way, directed its production so that it says what he wants it to say. Human beings may conclude that the Bible is inspired if it demonstrates, in its content and its results, a unity of message that cannot be explained by merely human factors. Despite its humanity, despite its diversity, the Bible speaks to us a message that claims to be from God, and is coherent and clear in its claims. Such a view of the Bible grows as the Bible itself becomes aware of the conversation, and aware of the presence of God in the experience of the writers and their communities. But we should never claim that inspiration is a provable proposition. It is an assertion of faith, and that faith comes because of the presence of Jesus as the final Word of the inspired Conversation.
What I will write next is so important, that I cannot assert loudly enough the importance of understanding what I am claiming. The primary reason I believe the Bible is inspired is its presentation of Jesus. Only the activity of God in bringing a final Word into history and into the conversation can cause this conversation to have divine implications totally beyond the human realm of origin and explanation.
Jesus is all the proof I need. Either he came from God, or we somehow cooked him up on our own. Is that a hard choice?
Jesus is not the product of human speculation. The Cross and the Gospel of the Cross are outrageous. Offensive. Unthinkable. Absurd. Yet the Bible tells us that the comprehensive point of the entire activity of God in history is revealing a crucified and risen Jesus as the Lord of the Universe and the source of salvation to all who believe in him. Imagine if someone read the Great Books and said the key to all truth and reality is a crucified criminal who lived two millennia ago. Such a conclusion would be demented. Foolishness of the highest order.
Yet this is exactly what the Bible says. It offers us Jesus as the meaning of all of history, the meaning of our lives, and importantly for this essay, the final Word, the conclusive Word in the Biblical conversation.
Listen to Jesus in Luke 24, quoted above. He tells the disciples that the scriptures are inspired….because they speak of Him. Without Jesus, the scriptures make no sense. They will have no message other than the question of how this God can possibly have a relationship with people who are unfit to know him and unwilling to embrace him? Without Jesus, God is a mystery. Contradictory. Without Jesus, the Bible is not inspired. It is an unfinished symphony. A tragedy without resolution. A romance whose lovers are never united.
The book of Revelation proclaims that Jesus is the one who is worthy to open the scroll of all human history and give it meaning: Himself. It is no accident that Revelation is a library of Biblical references and historical, mythic symbolism. It is a sampling of the Biblical conversation. Jesus is the crowning Word of ALL conversations. Biblical, spiritual, economic, political, governmental. Scripture is INSPIRED BY the PRESENCE OF CHRIST throughout the conversation.
It’s evident that this approach to inspiration is not particularly interested in terms like inerrancy. I believe the search for a way to compliment the Bible enough to make every word true is one of the most colossal wastes of time ever engaged in by Christian minds. Further, the logical torture that produces approaches to scripture like young earth creationism makes me profoundly sad, because it misses the point, and misleads anyone who hears it into believing that a book whose final Word is “I am the Truth,” is really about whether there ever was a water canopy over the earth or dinosaurs on the ark.
The Bible is about Jesus. The inspiration of the Bible is the presence of Jesus in the conversation. The authority of scripture is the authority of Jesus. The “inerrancy” of scripture is that, rightly understood, it takes us to Jesus. The Law came through Moses, but grace and TRUTH came through Jesus Christ. The TRUTH of the Bible was not there without Jesus. Any discussion of inspiration that is not- eventually- about the relationship of Jesus to that part of the conversation, is useless. The distance of any part of the conversation from Jesus is the distance of that part of the Bible from what Christians mean by “inspiration.”
The very definition of straining at gnats and swallowing camels is debating the inspiration of Judges without seeing how Judges relates to Christ. When Christians feel the field of battle for inspiration is some battle in the Old Testament, they are demonstrating they are lost in the field where the treasure is buried. They are going down roads that lead nowhere if they are discussing questions ultimately unrelated to Christ and Gospel.
Christ is not a character in the Bible. He is not chapter 23-25 in a 30 chapter novel. He is the story. He is the novel. He is the only character we need to know. The entire book is about introducing him to us in pictures and language we can understand.
I want to be clear that I am not invalidating the content of scripture, particularly the Old Testament. It is the Old Testament Jesus says is about himself. Read it, he tells the Jews. It is about him. It is the Old Testament where he apparently appears on every page. But if we start seeing content in that Old Testament removed and separated from Christ, we are looking at texts apart from anything that will save us. They may inform or motivate, but they will not save. And this conversation is about the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.
My entire Christian experience, I’ve been reading attempts to defend the inspiration of the Bible logically, and apologetically. Christians fear the question “How do you know the Bible is inspired by God?” more than almost any question. I do not fear that question anymore, because I have a simple answer.
“I don’t know what you mean by inspired. If you mean, how do I know it’s right and true in everything it says, then I don’t believe in that kind of inspiration. But if you mean how do I know that the Bible is God’s true communication to me, it’s simple. The Bible shows me Jesus. The reason I believe the Bible is inspired is that it shows me who Jesus is and what Jesus means. That’s the answer to all the questions that matter to me.”
Third, How do I Interpret the Bible?
Ever think of the Bible as….a grocery store? I worked at grocery stores for a long time. People come into the store with their grocery lists, and they know what they are looking for. They need some bananas, ice cream, a case of root beer, a head of lettuce. They run up and down the aisles finding what they want, find everything on the list, check out and go home.
That’s how evangelicals increasingly approach the Bible. They have a list of what they need. Parenting principles. Verses for healing. Advice for marriage. Rules for children. Stories to inspire. Challenges to give. Information on Heaven. Predictions of the future. We run into the “Bible” looking for these things, and when we find them, we leave.
This “grocery store” view of the Bible is built on the idea that the Bible is an inspired “library” of true information. A “magic book” as some have called it, where passages contain unquestionable information and authoritative rules. This approach to the Bible is flattering to the human ability to catalog information, and it is used in many churches to build confidence that the use of scripture puts a person on a foundation of absolute certainty.
In this approach, interpretation is important, and good interpretation is common. But the problem is fundamental. Scripture is not a grocery store. It’s not a place to run in and find principles for parenting or prophecies about the future, even though the conversation contains discussions about these things.
No, the Bible is a cooking show. And if we are going to interpret any part of scripture correctly, we need to get out of the store- the encyclopedia of true things in a magic book- and get to the kitchen.
And, amazingly, here we are! If you look on the counter, you will see all the ingredients for a cake. This cake is really going to be magnificent, and we have all the ingredients to mix together and create this wonderful creation. Eggs. Flour. Salt. Sugar. Butter. Vanilla. And many other bowls of ingredients.
All these ingredients, of course, are the contents of the Bible. The eggs are Genesis 1-3. The flour is Leviticus. The salt is Proverbs. The sugar is Psalms. And so on. These are good ingredients. Crucial ingredients. Now…we need to ask an important question: What are we baking?
The cake the Bible is baking is Jesus Christ, the mediator of our salvation, and the Gospel that comes in him.
There are people who like eggs. There are, I suppose people who like to eat flour. There are other things you can make with these ingredients besides the cake. But if you follow the conversation/recipe, this cake will turn out to be Jesus, the Lamb of God, the bread of Life, the salvation of the world. The cake scripture is baking is Jesus. If you recognize that cake for what it is, and eat it believing, you will be saved.
Using this analogy, we must interpret the Bible backwards. Reading it forward is fine and necessary. Interpreting forward is legal, but far from adequate. We must get to the Gospels. We must get to John 1 and Revelation 4 and 5 and Romans 1:1-4. We must get to Jesus, and then we can read Genesis 1 rightly. We can read it without Jesus, and do a lot of good or make a huge mess. But we will be missing the point of every part of scripture if we don’t interpret with Jesus in mind.
II Corinthians 3:4 But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. 15 Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. 16 But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.
Galatians 3:10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
Galatians 3:22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.
One of the first times I brought out my thoughts on this approach to the Bible was at a seminar for local pastors, where I was asked to teach Genesis 1-11. I am sure most of the men in the room were ready for the usual approach to Genesis, with lots of hat-tipping to the creation-evolution controversy and explanations for how these events could “really happen.”
Instead, I said that Jesus was the one for whom and by whom all things were made. I said Jesus was in the beginning with God. I said we are made in God’s image, in a way similar to the way Jesus is the image of the invisible God, and that this is why Jesus is made like us so he can save us. I said Christ came to destroy the works of the devil. I said Jesus loves us when we are cast out of paradise, and he left paradise for us. I said Abel was a picture of Jesus, and his offering a portrait of faith. I said the ark was Christ, and the flood the wrath of God Jesus endured for our sake. And so on, for four hours.
At the end, one man said I was trying to be “provocative”. Let’s hope so, because the grocery store approach to Genesis is boring me and turns preachers of the Gospel into lecturers in creation science.
Why can’t we preach Christ Jesus from Genesis? Why do we talk about the length of days and the location of Eden and whether women should submit, when the whole story exists to send us to Jesus to be clothed in his righteousness? Do we really think God wanted us to have a book of inspired science and trivia? I need a savior, not a set of facts. As Robert Capon says, if the world could be saved by good advice, it would have been saved ten minutes after Moses came back from Mt. Sinai.
When I read Leviticus, I interpret it through Jesus. He is the sacrifice. He is the thief who is punished. He is the adulterer who is stoned to death. Jesus is the priest, the altar, the sacrifice and the temple. The good news is we don’t live in Leviticus any more. We live in a New Covenant where the threats of Sinai have been fulfilled at the Cross, and a new covenant in His blood is now available to anyone, of any nation, who believes in Jesus as Lord.
The first Christians didn’t use the grocery store method. They but it all together and said “Christ!” They found every part of scripture was, in fact, an ingredient in allowing us to see and understand the bread of life.
It is important to remember that Jesus’ existence isn’t determined by the Bible. He doesn’t need it to be God. We need it to know God. We need the language, the pictures, the law, the examples….the whole recipe that gives us Jesus and the Gospel. We need the whole Bible so we can start to understand Christ, his person and work, his Gospel and what faith means. All the complexities of the great conversation are for our understanding of Jesus and the Gospel. When we interpret, we need to avoid literalism and find Christ, who is the truest of all truths. Literalism that lessens the saturation of the scriptures by Christ is as bad as liberal criticism that denies Christ.
So Biblical interpretation is part understanding the conversation, and part of understanding the final Word spoken and speaking. When we can hear the final Word in the words and images of the text of scripture, then we are getting it.
Finally, Let’s Try Some Application
Three examples will serve my purposes. First, the horrendous violence in the Book of Judges. Second, the issue of homosexuality. Last, I’ll consider how my approach affects a serious dividing issue such as apostasy.
Supporters of the traditional view of Biblical inerrancy find themselves in a quandary with an issue like the terrible violence in the Old Testament book of Judges. The quandary comes when the text must bear the burden of God-spokenness. How do we understand the inspiration of a book that reports- even advocates- violence that is clearly at odds with Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.
I believe the Biblical conversation contains some horrible reports of things done in the name of Yahweh that are so far short of what we know about God in Jesus, that we are under no pressure at all to “harmonize” passages or find ways to explain the violence. People who think they know God frequently do violent things and give God credit. This is one of the hazards of not knowing God in the flesh as Jesus, but instead worshiping a God who is, in the end, an expression of our own tribalness and self-interest.
Some interpreters point to the bloody portions of Revelation to say that we should have no problem seeing Jesus as a God of bloody vengeance. This certainly comports with the need some people have to let the presentation of God in the Old Testament dominate the discussion. I believe that Christ will return and it will be an awful day of judgment for those in rebellion against their creator. Scripture uses some majestic images and some violent images to picture that day, as human battlefields are as apocalyptic as we can picture in this world. But these images exist alongside the Gospel picture of God’s offer of the Gospel, his patience, kindness and forbearance. It is God’s way to go beyond what human beings can think or imagine to extend grace to us rebels.
There is a threat of judgment in anyone’s rejection of the King’s Son. (Mark 12:1-12) Especially when that Son has died in the place of those rebels, and offered them forgiveness and adoption into the royal family.
Judges shows us what human beings become when everyone does what is right in their own eyes; it shows our descent into idolatry and tribal religion. Judges shows us that without God’s true king, the Lord Jesus Christ, our world descends into violence and chaos, much as it was before the flood. It was in a violent world that God became one of us, yet he was not violent. While not embracing outright pacifism, and approving the necessary force to protect the innocent, Jesus rejected the violence of the Kingdoms of this world as a way of bringing his Kingdom. His eschatological vengeance is the counterpoint to his continual offer of kindness and clemency to his enemies in the Gospel.
What we see in Judges isn’t to be harmonized with Christ, so that Christ becomes a warrior-judge defeating the “pagans”. It is this kind of sinful violence that will be judged by Christ, when his Kingdom beats all swords into plowshares, and brings God’s peace to the universe.
On the issue of homosexuality, we are in “grocery store” territory in a big way. The usual approach is to run into a few texts and run back out with the requisite verses to prove that homosexuality is wrong. How would my approach differ?
Primarily, my approach would say that when sin is compared to the law of God, we see it differently than when it stands next to the grace of God in Christ. Let’s use the thief on the cross as an example. The thief was guilty of breaking the law, and was being punished as a result. Compared to the law, the soul that sinned was dying. On the other hand, coming to Christ who is dying for sinners, this man is a believer welcomed into the gates of paradise. His sin is forgiven by Jesus, and not even mentioned. This is the same lesson of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. Compared to the law, sin is a large matter. Compared to Christ, it is overwhelmed in grace.
Evangelical outrage about homosexuality is about magnifying parts of the Bible in which sin is compared to the law, or to God’s purpose in creation, or the good health of society. Yet, compared to Jesus Christ, homosexuality is simply another matter for which Christ died and rose again. We have no premise to be outraged by it. Christ knows all about it, and bore it in his body on the tree.
I Corinthians 6:9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Romans 5:8 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
I should say that I am not disagreeing with anything the Bible says about homosexuality, as much as I am saying that like any other sin, we need to place it next to Christ and see the truth of the Gospel. Here is a sin for which Christ died. Does this mean the unrepentant homosexual can be justified? I think God saves sinners who repent imperfectly, but I do not think God saves sinners who knowingly reject Christ and the Gospel. I will leave it to God to sort out the individuals in that situation, but I could not offer any sinner assurance of salvation if their faith did not hear Jesus say “Go and sin no more”.
Evangelicals have made so many sins political and social matters that they have forgotten the church’s treasure is Christ, not social change. “Where sin abounded, grace ought to abound all the more” is a good instruction for the Christian.
Finally, how does my approach to the Bible affect a controversial denominational issue like the possibility of losing salvation? I chose this issue because I have probably spent more time debating this than any other single Biblical concern. I need to apply my view of scripture to this topic!
Unlike homosexuality, where the conversation never creates any ambiguity about the nature of the matter, apostasy is a subject where the Biblical conversation ranges far and wide. One seminary professor told us that 26 of 27 New Testament books mention the possibility of apostasy. Growing up as a Baptist, I spent hours in the grocery store shopping for verses to refute the possibility that salvation could be lost and assuring myself that “once saved, always saved”.
Today, I can see that Christians who love and honor Christ above all may differ on this subject, even though I am personally convinced that the Biblical conversation offers complete assurance to the believer of perseverance and security. But I also realize that the reality of faith is that faith fails. We have multiple examples of failing faith in scripture. But are these examples threats and warnings, or examples of the faithful power of Christ to save to the uttermost those who come to him? It seems to me that the majority of scripture’s examples magnify Christ as Savior and keeper. He is the great shepherd who goes after the lost sheep.
To the extent that I can, I must always interpret the Bible in a way that Christ is most magnified, exalted and glorified in salvation. While the threat of failing faith is real, and the reality of shallow, temporary faith is not to be overlooked, the greatness of Christ to present us faultless without spot or blemish MUST be the last word. The final Word is His greatness, not our weakness.
So while I give my friends my respectful acceptance as Bible students and Christ- honoring disciples, I must make my decision on interpretation from the standpoint of scripture’s testimony that he shall see the travail of his soul, the fruit of his sufferings, in the redemption of many from the uttermost reaches of sin. I must struggle to interpret the Bible so that Christ is exalted, magnified and held up to draw all persons to himself.
In these examples of application, I am hoping to show that we now, as new Covenant Christians, read the Bible with Christ and the Gospel of Christ as our focus of interpretation. I am not discounting the conversation or anything said along the way, but as I reread it throughout life, I am mindful of where it was all going, and I allow Jesus to be the Last Word of God to me in as many ways as I can.
I will conclude this essay with two quotes from John Calvin, who would not agree with all I have written, but who very much understood what my heart yearns for in reading and preaching the Bible.
So then, from this we must gather that to profit much in the holy Scripture we must always resort to our Lord Jesus Christ and cast our eyes upon him, without turning away from him at any time. You will see a number of people who labor very hard indeed at reading the holy Scriptures — they do nothing else but turn over the leaves of it, and yet after ten years they have as much knowledge of it as if they had never read a single line. And why? Because they do not have any particular aim in view, they only wander about. And even in worldly learning you will see a great number who take pains enough, and yet all to no purpose, because they kept neither order nor proportion, nor do anything else but gather material from this quarter and from that, by means of which they are always confused and can never bring anything worthwhile. And although they have gathered together a number of sentences of all sorts, yet nothing of value results from them. Even so it is with them that labor in reading the holy Scriptures and do not know which is the point they ought to rest on, namely, the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. -John Calvin, Sermon on Ephesians 2:19-22 (1559).
We are taught by this passage, that if we wish to obtain the knowledge of Christ, we must seek it from the Scriptures; for they who imagine whatever they choose concerning Christ will ultimately have nothing of him but a shadowy phantom. First, then, we ought to believe that Christ cannot be properly known in any other way than from the Scriptures; and if it be so, it follows that we ought to read the Scriptures with the express design of finding Christ in them. Whoever shall turn aside from this object, though he may weary himself throughout his whole of life in learning, will never attain the knowledge of the truth.- John Calvin, Commentary on John (1563).