October 7, 2007
Believing the Bible (Part B)
Nehemiah 7:73b-8:3; Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:16-17
During my 2nd or 3rd year at Messiah, I taught an Introduction to The Bible class. One student in that class was particularly vocal about his views of the Bible. “The Bible is infallible and inerrant,” he insisted, “totally without error in everything it affirms.” And he constantly expressed his displeasure with me every time I said something with which he did not agreehe’d frown, shake his head or even sigh. The day that the first lesson came due, however, confirmed in my mind what was up to that point just a suspicion: this student was all talk. When everyone else in the class submitted four or five pages of developed work, this guy handed in a paragraph or two of scribble. He spoke in glowing terms about Bible, but he paid so little attention to it.
The second of our core values clearly seeks to avoid such a gap between theory and practice. We do value the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, as I mentioned last week. We do believe, as N.T. Wright phrases it, that “the authority of God and the good news of Jesus Christ come to us through the Bible.” But talk, as my former student so clearly illustrates, is cheap. So our core value goes on: “…(we) study it together and build our lives on its truth.”
As a first response to this authoritative book, we, like the people of Judah gathering here in Nehemiah 7 and 8 to read the Scriptures, study the Bible together. We believe, in the words of James Sanders, that the community of faith always has been and always will be the proper community for reading, interpreting and applying the Bible. This is not to say, of course, that we should avoid reading the Bible in private. Prayerful study and reflection in solitude play an invaluable role in the life of Jesus’ followers and enable us to come to the congregational table with something to contribute. Eating alone is necessary, but not enough.
And we study the Bible together for good reasons. For one thing, we believe that everyone in the community has something to contribute to the conversation. The Bible, contrary to what some traditions might think, is not the private possession of bishops, scholars, teachers and pastors, although we are thankful to have such people serving faithfully among us. We do not want in any way to minimize their gifts or training.
We do insist, however, that God’s Spirit does not only enlighten the learned. He might just as well give insight to the bag-lady on 42nd Street, trash collector in Upper Allen Township, pharmacist in New Cumberland, elementary school teacher in Carlisle, farmer in Franklintown, or 4th grader in Dover when then they sit down and read the Bible with an open heart and mind. A scholar may bring insight from the Hebrew and Greek, and the bag-lady from her rusty shopping cart. A retired pastor might bring helpful ideas drawn from years and years of experience, while a child offers fresh thoughts unmarred by the sophisticated realism that often goes with adulthood. We study the Bible together because each of us is a vessel in which God works and through which God speaks.
I taught an upper level course on the book of Job in Nairobi several years ago, and I grew thoroughly frustrated with the class in just a week or two. One day, I closed my Bible, sat on the desk, and said, “You sound just like my students back in the states. You ask the same questions and give the same standardized answers as they do, as though you have been listening to missionaries from the west all of your lives. What do you think?” I asked. At that point, an older student named Moses raised his hand, waited politely for me to call on him, and said, “Dr. Brensinger, I’ve never been led to believe that what I think about the Bible is important.” Well it is. And what you think is, too. We study the Bible together, listening to each other and to those who have wrestled with the text over the centuries. We learn from each other, sharpen each other, correct each other and hear from God through each other.
We study the Bible together, furthermore, because we believe that God and the Bible are simply too big and too wonderful for any one person to begin to describe. If we read alone, we inevitably end up with hopelessly limited perspectives of God and his work in the world, perspectives shaped by our own personalities, experiences and biases. The wider community with its multiple eyes and ears is far better suited to see the “bigness” of God than is any one individual.
The truth of this point has struck me on any number of occasions. An African student, for example, helped me realize that the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50 has at least as much to do with forgiveness and the caring for one’s extended family as it does with fleeing from temptation. As an American in a sexually charged culture, I had been so impressed by Joseph’s running from Potiphar’s wife that I failed to see what else was going on in the passage. A farmer in Kentucky helped me understand why God required an unblemished animal in sacrificesit is the animal used for breeding and is therefore the most valuable. A colleague whose sister died when he was younger enabled me, during my own sister’s illness, to see that, while God often chooses not to cure our bodies, he always heals our souls. I could begin praying for the sick again, as James 5:15 instructs us to do. Some Palestinian Christians and Jewish friends first showed me that there were other ways to read biblical texts concerning the role of Israel in today’s world than the one popularized in the states by Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye and John Hagee. If God sent the people of Israel into exile a few thousand years ago for mistreating the poor and marginalized living in their territories, he could very well do it again. And on and on. We study the Bible together because we need each other to begin understanding the breadth and depth of all that it contains.
But we don’t stop here. We don’t study the Bible just to do it. We study so that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can build our lives upon all that we learn. Our texts in Romans 15 and 2 Timothy 3 provide skeletal descriptions of the many benefits of studying the Bible, but three seem to stand out. In the Bible, we receive correction, instruction and encouragement. “All Scripture is inspired,” Paul informs Timothy, “and is useful for, among other things, reproof and correction.” In the Bible, we find texts that have the courage to let us know the truth about ourselves and when we are wrong. Texts that point out our weaknesses, sinful attitudes and faithless tendencies. Like the prophet Nathan staring David in the face and saying, “You are the heartless man,” so God through the Bible points his corrective finger in our uppity noses from time to time.
In the Bible, we likewise find words of instruction, words that guide both our thinking and our doing. The Bible, I must emphasize, is not a code book or crystal ball that specifically answers all of our questions and addresses each of our concerns. That is not the way the Bible works. It is not a math book, as Brian McClaren rightly points out, that lists all of life’s problems and then provides a clear answer key in the back. Instead, the Bible lays out various principles and establishes the playing field upon which we are then to work out our faith. We don’t read the Bible to memorize the answers, but to increasingly think like Christ. Here are just a few examples. The Bible certainly affirms that God created the world, but it doesn’t tell us when or how he did it. Believing that God created the world, then, is the essential starting point, but it does not prevent us from weighing carefully and interacting seriously with scientific research on such topics as the age of the earth or the relationships between various species. The Bible lays the groundworkGod created the heavens and the earthbut there is plenty of room within that framework for serious engagement.
Or consider various lifestyle or ethical issues. The Bible may not say anything about gamblingsomeone once said to me that gambling cannot be wrong because the word does not appear anywhere in the Biblebut it offers a wide enough assortment of principles concerning money, stewardship and get-rich-quick strategies to lead us to raise serious questions about gambling. The matter of casinos in Pennsylvania is one of the few issues that virtually every Christian tradition spoke out against. Or think about the question of homosexuality. In virtually every discussion on homosexuality that I have ever come across, whether from those supportive of homosexual activities between committed people or those against, the arguments focus on a few isolated biblical texts in Leviticus and Romans in which homosexuality is actually mentioned. In truth, the Bible says very little about homosexuality. It does, however, say a great deal about sexuality, compassion, love and marriage. Let me be clear, then. I am opposed to homosexual practices, not because of a few biblical passages that some people think condemn it, but because of my overall understanding of what the Bible says about marriage and sexuality. At the same time, I am convicted that the church has been less than hospitable to homosexuals, not because of contemporary political pressures, but because of what I believe the Bible says about love and compassion. So far as I can tell, God loves all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, and we are called to do the same.
To these can be added any number of other issues. The Bible never mentions stem cell research, drug addictions, atomic energy, global warming or anti-depressant medications. The Bible never specifically discusses computer software, video games, stocks and bonds, or college majors. But in the conversations that we encounter here and the characters whose lives are on display here, we learn a lot about what God thinks about the human body, environment, money, time and the overall purpose of our lives. The Bible does not give us an answer key, but the guidelines with which to explore the questions. In offering us instruction, the Bible does not tell us what to do in each and every situation. Instead, it pushes us to think like Christ so that we can be faithful to him in every day and age.
The Bible offers correction and instruction. But to this Paul adds in Romans 15: 4 this final note. When we build our lives upon the teachings of Scripture, we become people of hope. The Bible, Paul concludes, gives to us a profound sense of encouragement. We need that, and so does the world. For, when we strip away the happy veneer and look honestly at the world around us, things can be pretty discouraging some times. Cancer. War. Temptation. Stubborn people. Poverty. And one of the things that I have come to love so much about the Bible is its steadfast refusal to deny all of the evil that exists, not only within the world, but within the people of God themselves. What other religious book would dare tell stories of its leading characters committing adultery, murdering each other, or even flat-out denying their Lord? What other sacred text would describe the frustration and even despair of God, who at times reminds us of a parent abandoned by his children? What other writings show the Son of God hanging in sheer agony on a cross? It was a Muslim friend who casually reminded me that, whereas Jesus died on a cross, Mohammad died with his head on the breast of his favorite woman.
But the pain and suffering in the world are not the end of the story. Over and over again, the Bible assures us that all of this is temporary. God has yielded control over various aspects of the present world for only a moment. All tears will be wiped away, all sickness destroyed, all enemies defeated, all temptations done away with. And in the meantime, this same God has promised never to leave us, even when the world seems to fall apart before our very eyes. And how do I know this? It is in the book. It is all here. Why live our lives as though we do not know the end of the story? The story has been told of David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary who explored much of Africa. One day, Livingstone was invited to dinner in the home of a local African family. As he sat in the living room before mealtime, a young boy wandered in, carrying a huge “coffee-table” Bible. Joyfully Livingstone remarked, “Today, son, you are carrying the Bible. But before long, the bible will carry you.” God wins, and we are people of hope.
The Bible. We value it as the authoritative Word of God. But we don’t want to just talk about it. Talk alone is a dirty old garment, and we want to put on new clothes. So we study it together and build our lives upon its truths.