October 21, 2017

iMonk Classic: Believing the Bible: A Place To Start or Stop?

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From Feb 5, 2009

Let’s say you’re sitting around talking with a group of friends, some of whom are Christians and some aren’t.

A subject comes up; for example, marriage. People share their stories, their thoughts, their accumulated wisdom.

After a moment, one of the Christians present begins to speak. He speaks longer. His tone is different. He’s quoting verses…and more verses.

There’s a sense of finality and authority to this talk. You can sense a reaction, even before anyone says anything.

Some present are annoyed. Some are angry. Some want to move on to a topic as far away from the Bible as possible.

Then another Christian speaks. This person validates that the quoted verses are crucial and important for Christians to understand. But this person raises questions. She interacts with the scripture AND with the comments of the other participants. From ideas in the verses- like submission, for instance- she asks the group to explore what submission might mean in a non-abusive context?

The room relaxes a bit. This Christian wasn’t authoritative. She wasn’t ending the discussion. She was continuing it. She was curious. She didn’t have all the answers, but still had questions. She wanted to listen to others; to hear their insights and experiences.

Somehow, this second Christian seemed to think Christianly, but to think differently. The scripture was the beginning of her thought process; a place to launch out from, not just a place to stop.

Of course, when the evening is over and everyone is walking out to their car, the first Christian stops the second, reads her more verses and suggests she may not be a Christian.

(I know….that was ugly. I’m sorry.)

The Torah Discussion, Katz

Here’s my thought. It seems that for some people, the Bible is the end of the thinking/exploring process, while for others it is not the end, but a place from which to continue learning, thinking and exploring. For one the Bible is a very short anchor; for the other, a kind of map.

One kind of Christian seems to feel that the Christian life is “lived” by accumulating Bible passages and talking about them frequently and loudly. (Yes, blogs were made for this kind of person.) This is called “honoring” the Word of God and “living the Godly life.” As a long-time observer, this looks less like living the Christian life and more like turning it into a particular kind of activity that bookish, obsessive, aggressive types are very good at.

The other kind of Christian arrives at the Bible, gains bearings, affirms truth, then launches out into the many different worlds that are part of human experience. They aren’t accumulating verses or listing them in long diatribes, but they are living in such a way that the meaning of the Bible’s message is put into practice.

The other day, a young earth creationist challenged me, as they have done many, many times before. The challenge is always the same: why don’t I take the Bible as seriously as they do? (I’m an old earth/old universe guy.)

Now, by “taking the Bible seriously,” they mean get to the answers by getting to the verses, establish the meaning of the verses and stop there. If you go any further, you’ve abandoned the authority of the Bible and are making a dangerous mistake.

But what if the creation passages are a starting place for my own encounter with the world? Can I study science and still say I believe those passages? Can I believe them if the record of God’s creation leads me to believe in an old universe? Does a person have to stop with the Biblical material at its most literal and then only affirm science that affirms those verses?

I don’t think so. I believe that thinking and living Biblically is far more than stopping at passages and saying “this far and no more.” I prefer to say “This is my map of what matters most in creation, and from here I will read the record of creation and rejoice in what God has made.”

I’m not going to worry if a conclusion seems to bring me to more questions or to a need for more study and more light. I won’t make my faith and my experience into an “either/or” where I have to ignore my mind to believe God’s Word. I’m not going to act like I have arrived ahead of everyone else because I believe Genesis 1-3.

I especially won’t believe that God wants me to know the Bible, but not know literature, relationships, beauty, work, sacrifice, science, art and service. I will approach all those things as a Biblically thinking Christian, with a grid of God and the Gospel giving cohesion and hope to all I experience and encounter.

I want to suggest that “Bible study” that amounts to an obsessive concern with what the Bible says and no more is not the way we live the Christian life. If we know God and the Gospel, we should raise our sails in the winds of human experience, creativity and discovery, expecting God’s truth to be there as well.

I experience this frequently. I will teach a poem or story and realize I am in the Biblical world. I will sense in human brokenness the Biblical story. In a thousand ways I see the face and compassion of Jesus. In explorations and discoveries I see the marvel of God’s power and detail in creation.

None of these thing take the Bible away from me. I take the Bible with me into these parts of my life. I take the Bible, its “map” of reality and truth, its message of hope and most of all, its Gospel of redemption, resurrection and a new world begun in Christ.

Is the Bible a stopping place or a starting place for Christian thinking?

Comments

  1. another great post from michael. It can be so frustrating when someone quotes a bible verse and implicitly declares the conversation over. And then if you try to question what has just been quoted at you (in any form whatsoever) you don’t take the bible seriously

    • I call that person shallow and closed minded – especially if you are quoting one line of scripture out of context with no historical eye

      • Yeah. I think it says a lot more about the person, not so much about the authority of scripture.

    • Part of this stems from an odd view of Scripture that it can be chopped up and used in a sort mathematical way to establish spiritual formula instead of coming to terms with the authors.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        i.e. a Grimoire of one-verse verbal-component magic spells. “I Quote and It Is So.”

  2. Of course, when the evening is over and everyone is walking out to their car, the first Christian stops the second, reads her more verses and suggests she may not be a Christian.

    (I know….that was ugly. I’m sorry.)

    No theory in that scenario for many of us I am sure… 🙁

    A few weeks ago I was once again challenged by someone of the Ken Ham school of YEC. Yes, the ol’ slippery slope mantra used to chasten me as a wishy-washy wannabe ‘real’ Christian that would be relegated to steerage class if we were on the Ark… 😉

    [sigh]

    I simply do not engage in any theological discussions with this person. It is futile. Their ‘rightness’ trumps my perspectives on anything in the bible since I do not take the beginning statements in Genesis literally…

    I am far beyond trying to convince someone else that my perspectives are, well, ‘gospel’ no matter how passionately I may feel about them. We are admonished to avoid silly argumentation. And believe me, the silliest arguments I have ever witnessed had to do with doctrine & theology. Lord have mercy… 🙁

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      A few weeks ago I was once again challenged by someone of the Ken Ham school of YEC. Yes, the ol’ slippery slope mantra used to chasten me as a wishy-washy wannabe ‘real’ Christian that would be relegated to steerage class if we were on the Ark…

      [sigh]

      I simply do not engage in any theological discussions with this person. It is futile. Their ‘rightness’ trumps my perspectives on anything in the bible since I do not take the beginning statements in Genesis literally…

      Now imagine if this “someone of the Ken Ham school” had the power of life and death over you and yours, Cleansing the Earth of Heresy and Corruption in God’s Name.

      Utter Righteousness plus Absolute Power is a VERY dangerous combination.

  3. That Other Jean says:

    Bookish? These “Christians” don’t get as far as the book; they just quote out-of-context verses and believe they’ve got the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Way too often, such people haven’t really thought about the meaning of the verses they quote, they’re just parroting whatever their preacher or teacher told them they meant. How can you discuss, much less argue, meaning with someone convinced they are so right that they can’t even consider that the matter might be more complicated than that?

    • David Cornwell says:

      You are exactly right.

      In seminary we were taught the inductive method of bible study. In one class we spent the entire month on the book of John. In another we went to various passages taking this method a step further. Later when taking Greek exegesis, this was taken even to a further step.

      Even this is just one part of bible study and one way of reading or studying. It isn’t as simple as pulling a verse out of context or out of several contexts.

      But there is another side of reading the bible that anyone, even the most simple of us, can glean meaning and inspiration and words of life.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Bookish? These “Christians” don’t get as far as the book; they just quote out-of-context verses and believe they’ve got the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

      “A fanatic is someone with one piece of pie who thinks he has the entire pie.”
      — Pope John Paul II

  4. Just because you believe the Westminster Confession of Faith view of Scripture does not mean you’re a non-intellectual fundamentalist. I may agree with the WCF view of Scripture as a whole but that does not mean I am a KJV-only promoting fundy.

    I think many people here confuse the traditional evangelical view of Scriptural authority and inspiration with the southern rural fundamentalist understanding of the Bible. They are not the same.

    • “I think many people here confuse the traditional evangelical view of Scriptural authority and inspiration with the southern rural fundamentalist understanding of the Bible. They are not the same.”

      Technically, they are not. However, due to a variety of historical and cultural circumstances, those two separate views met, got married, and now you have what it “THE” view of Scripture. Are the original two families out there? Sure. But many folks simply don’t want to look at the ancestry.

      And I’m pretty sure the reason that “people here get the two confused” is because that is simply the state of things in many wings of American Evangelicalism. I mean, lets be honest- in most people’s day-to-day lives, I don’t know if one could honestly answer what the WCF is anymore, let alone what the “traditional evangelical view of Scriptural authority” is.

      Alas, I digress. *Sigh*

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Just because you believe the Westminster Confession of Faith view of Scripture does not mean you’re a non-intellectual fundamentalist.

      Did IMonk cross the line into “Meddling” too close to home?

  5. The Bible is God inspired, but written by humen beings who are failable. Also one should take into consideration the mores and customs of the age when written. When the KJV Bible came out there were not the number of manuscripts and scrolls available today.When someone tells me, “THUS SAYETH THE LORD,” I have to take it with a grain of salt. What is their life experience? Have they led a sheltered existence? Do they really know the evil and good in people’s hearts? There are shades of gray in life without being an anything is allright kindd of person.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Remember that the primary application of the Second Commandment is falsely claiming “THUS SAITH THE LORD” to do evil, not repeat not cussing.

      My writing partner tells me of a Dominionist/Reconstructionist website or organization as far out there (and with similar political power agenda) to the Taliban. It’s name is “GOD HATH SAID”.

  6. One can fall into the trap of worshiping the book rather than the Creator. The book is intended to point us to Jesus, not take Jesus’ place. History has often shown that the current and generally accepted understanding or “interpretation” of Scripture is not always correct, as was the case when Galileo discovered that the earth is not the center of the universe, as the church believed Scripture taught. Their interpretation was not correct. We would be very unwise to suppose that all of our interpretations are correct. On many things we cannot even agree among ourselves as to “the” correct interpretation. We can’t even agree on how to live out Jesus’ commandment to love God with all our heart soul and mind and and our neighbors as ourselves.

    • conanthepunctual says:

      You should see the looks I get when I propose that the Bible might be some people’s idol (in the sense of putting someone or something, anything before God).

  7. Of course, when the evening is over and everyone is walking out to their car, the first Christian stops the second, reads her more verses and suggests she may not be a Christian.

    Literally bent over in laughter reading that line!

    Great post!

  8. All I will say is…I love Michael Spencer.

  9. You can read books all you want about how to play the piano or play tennis or do plumbing—whatever. But until you actually put your hands to work and *do* those things, you can’t really understand them or in any way claim “proficiency” in them. Similarly, though I fully believe in Biblical authority, etc, I think it’s the living-out process that really counts in the end, not the “book knowledge”.

  10. To me, the second Christian is almost as annoying as the first.

    Real life example: Once my university showed themovie “Sid and Nancy” (a messed-up love story featuring members of the Sex Pistols). Afterwards, in the men’s room, an acquaintance asked me–calling from one urinal to another, mind you–what I thought of the movie. I said I thought it was pretty messed-up. To which he responded…something about how the contrast with how our Heavenly Father wants us to live our lives.

    You’d probably like this guy. He was reaching out…exploring…trying to continue the discussion…

    Needless to say, I did not become a Mormon that day.

    Look, I’m not against people talking about their religions. Just try not to tell people more than you think they’re interested in hearing (or in some cases, need to know). It’s like wearing crosses around your neck. Don’t worry that they won’t be able to see a little one–believe me, they’ll see it just fine. A big one just comes across as too gung ho. Same with quoting Bible verses…or finding more subtle ways to smuggle religion into the conversation.

  11. I have my fair share of encounters with those appealing to their biblical authority to justify their boorish behavior. Most of the a**holes of religious persuasion were of the bible-thumper, God-said-it-and-I-am-telling-you type.

    Yeah. All of it a regurgitation of some other writer/author/preacher or tradition type. Not an original thought+idea in the delivery. I do not have any reason to waste time trying to help them consider alternate perspectives…

    Christians make the worst know-it-all-types. But then the way that some are indoctrinated into the cookie-cutter, answer-for-everything approach to biblical reference the real problem. The ‘check-your-mind-at-the-door’ version of any religious zealot the least attractive representative of their beliefs. I have no patience with them. Maybe some other saint feels they have some ‘calling’ to minister to these Christ-O-bots preprogrammed with their pat answers for every question raised. I simply avoid them. Lord have mercy… 🙁

    • You can debate with me Joseph, regarding the true religion. There will be no “God-said-it-and-I-am-telling-you type” stuffs.

  12. Master – “…and what did you do with the gifts and talents I gave you?”
    Servant – “I spread your word high and low, loudly, to anyone who would listen or not”
    Master – “… and the other gifts?”
    Servant – “Your word is the highest gift”
    Master – “I gave many gifts. I gave you my life as an example, a mind to ponder me and those on your path, arms to hold the weak up and legs to run to those needing my love. I gave you people to love and words to speak that love. What of these?”
    Servant – ‘But your word is the gift.”
    Master – “My word did not end with ‘Amen’ at the end of Revelations”

    Sigh…

  13. In my experience, a number of the people I know who seem to view the Bible as a place to stop also exhibit the sense that they have somehow arrived spiritually. This can lead to a sort of spiritual elitism that is pretty dangerous and damaging in that it can be used to justify any number of awful actions and behaviors that drive people away from them, and not infrequently from faith altogether.

    As for me, I’ve had people close to me behave this way and it’s caused me some of the greatest grief of my life.

  14. Boat Builder says:

    Great article and some very honest observations. You have many issues here and the size of a response to all of them would be rather large indeed. The bible isn’t the answer and was never intended to be. The bible leads you to meet God face to face. He is the answer and He is really very intelligent. The right answer to how old is planet earth will not make anyone’s life any better or closer to God. The answer is always only found in a direct relationship with our creator who loves us personally and he, Jesus, would be the best person to go on the trip with for us to discover what it is all about. Finally it will be all about what develops between him and us. Certainly most people don’t appreciate those who give a one verse proof text possibly because the answer isn’t deep enough to properly honor the question on the table. Being honest about it, you who posed this question really weren’t seeking a biblical answer at all since you had already launched out past the bible and had gone on to exploring other things that were promising better or more complete answers. There is much to explore in nature and the universe but the answers found there are not as consistently explicit as may be found in the scriptures. Looking to nature for verification of the truth is one way albeit a long way to find it. I hope you find it in time since life is so short. It will finally be found when He is found to have become one with you. The universe and the bible have the same author, His name is Jesus. There is no contradiction between these sources, only our limited understanding of what we see when we look at either one of them. Oh yes there is also a third interested party to this whole matter and he is sometimes called the deceiver. We also have our own tendencies to deceive ourselves and others deceiving us and the deceiver’s commitment to deceive us. Pray tell with all these challenging and dubious resources, please “enlighten” us Dear Monk how did you personally plan to avoid becoming deceived on your personal quest?

    • Believing Jesus as the son of god is like sacrificing youy neck to the gallows. You will be burned in hell by believing that.

  15. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    After a moment, one of the Christians present begins to speak. He speaks longer. His tone is different. He’s quoting verses…and more verses.

    There’s a sense of finality and authority to this talk. You can sense a reaction, even before anyone says anything.

    i.e. The type of Christian who would actually be happier in Islam, with a Koran instead of a Bible.

  16. Josh in FW says:

    One of my favorite quotes on this topic is this:

    “Scripture is like a river again broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.”

    After a quick Google search I found that Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I from 590-604) is credited with these words.

  17. I reckon Stop believing in the Bible. Start reading the Qoran.