Please Stop Saying "The Bible Clearly Says..." It Doesn't.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

man writing in book reading bible

Often, I hear Christians argue for their interpretation of scripture with the words “The Bible clearly says…”. What follows is normally an opinion piece on homosexuality or tattoos or how to do church or how old the earth is and what books to ban from the school library.

I have said it too. It is comforting to think of the Bible as some decisive manual full of step-by-step instructions to living a godly life. Isn’t it?

But the Bible is not a manual. It was never meant to be.

The Bible was not written to be an encyclopedia of God’s thoughts, or an ethereal social commentary, or ammunition for a particular political stance. It is an intricately weaved story of God and his people. Of exile and redemption, of grace on top of grace.

Are there common themes and postures in scripture? Absolutely. Are there explicit instructions that take some interpretive work to understand? Hell yes. But is it an owner’s manual full of black and white directives that are easily applicable across all times and cultures and situations? Rarely.

Somehow, we got this idea that the bible is a textbook for life. Our Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.  Except that the Bible isn’t basic.  And most of it isn’t instruction.  Instead, it is a convoluted and sometimes contradictory ancient text that tells the story of God’s redemption for mankind.

In short, the Bible isn’t clear about much.

  • Jesus repeatedly re-frames scripture by saying “you have heard it said, but I say…”, challenging the status quo of how the religious elite traditionally interpreted scripture.
  • There are verses that condemn violence, verses that excuse it, and verses that insist upon it.
  • Proverbs tells us to answer a fool or else we will become like him, and the very next verse tells us not to answer a fool because he will think himself wise. Which is it?
  • The Bible has some 2000 verses regarding poverty and social justice. And although there is a definite theme that we are to care for the oppressed and marginalized, a posture of shared humanity as fellow image bearers of God, there is no clear instructions on what caring for the marginalized looks like in your city or mine. It takes some wisdom and prophetic imagination to apply these verses contextually in our own communities.

The Bible isn’t black and white.

Shakespeare wrote over 400 years ago, in English. And when we first read his stuff in high school, we get a whole semester to try to make sense of the beautiful nonsense in front of us.  But for some reason we expect to pick up the Bible and try to read it like a novel. It doesn’t work like that. It was never meant to work like that.

In the Bible we see divine justice dance clumsily with systematic injustice. It is tangled and messy. At times, its morality is impossibly good, and others appears impossibly bad. In many instances, the scriptures were not written to answer the same questions we are trying to ask of it. Often, it is not as much an answer to our questions at all as much as the beginning of a nourishing walk into wisdom and mystery.  It is a liberating invitation to understand the nature and character of God. And from that understanding, we can grow in likeness to him.

The Bible is sacred, beautiful, and insightful.  It offers real guidance on how to live, if we can read it with some context and humility, and a heavy dose of the holy spirit. It takes other books to even begin to understand it properly. And it tends to create more questions than it does answers.  That is part of its beauty. 

And a tough truth?

The Bible has historically been interpreted by those with power and privilege. It has been used to justify all sorts of oppression and atrocity. This of course doesn’t render it less sacred, but it should make us cautious of proof-texting and cherry-picking. We must be wary whenever God seems to hate the same things we do or when the text seems to strip some body of “others” of their shared humanity.

Friends, the ambiguity of these 66 books can be frightening to those of us who were taught to treat them as the 4th person of the trinity. But a Bible that invites me to a myriad of perspectives and affords me the opportunity to wrestle deeper into faith with a God who won’t be tamed by mortal words is an epic adventure I want to be on.

The Bible is a sophisticated piece of literature, intended to be used for a lifetime of delving deep into the mystery of God.  We are beyond blessed to have, not just one, but often multiple copies in our homes.  It is a gift that we have an opportunity to endlessly unwrap in discovery of the Lover of our Souls.  But it is not our Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.

And, sorry friend, it is not clear about much

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