Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Reading the Bible, Missing the Word

“I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:36-40)

A few weeks ago, a fairly interesting report surfaced that the front covers of intelligence reports on the war in Iraq during the previous Presidential administration featured Bible verses. On one of the reports, for instance, was a picture of a solider kneeling in prayer in the desert, with a verse from Isaiah 6: "Whom shall I send and who will go for us? Here I am, Lord. Send me." Another cover features a soldier in uniform, along with words from Ephesians 6:13 – “Put on the full armor of God.” A third has Isaiah 26:2 – “Open the gates, that the righteous nation may enter.” The reports, intended to update the President on military operations in Iraq, were perceived by many to represent a misuse of Scripture for political purposes. Those seem to be valid concerns: Isaiah 6 is a call for the prophet to preach against his own nation. Ephesians 6 expressly identifies the struggle of believers as being against the (spiritual) rulers, authorities, and powers of “this dark world” and “not against flesh and blood.” Isaiah 26:2 refers to the day when God will intervene to destroy death and remove his peoples' disgrace by bringing them out of captivity and exile and back into their own, safe city.

Government officials, generally speaking, are better at politics than they are at theology.

Before some of you get upset with me, let me quickly say that politicians on neither side of the aisle are above misusing Scripture for political advantage when it suits them. And, while I have opinions on nationalism, war, and the Church, I'm going to save those for another time. This story, actually, makes me think of how easily and willfully human beings can twist the Bible to support our own opinions, dig our doctrinal trenches, justify our own actions, or question the motives, integrity, or faith of anyone who dares disagree with us. Most churches, whatever their denominational leaning, revere the Bible as their authoritative standard of faith and practice. The trouble, of course, is that we don't always agree on what that means.

And, sometimes, we prefer to read our preferences into the Bible, instead of letting the Bible speak to us and form us.

Surely not? Well, take a walk through history. Look at the records of some Bible-believing churches and denominations on civil rights in the sixties, for instance. When King and others were marching, some of those churches were thundering from their pulpits that Jim Crow was the law of the land and that the Bible said that the law of the land should be obeyed. Most of us today, I trust, would come to a different conclusion.

And shouldn't that lead us to think about what we might be reading into the text today? Our history should, I think, give us a sense of humility about the way we read the Bible. The text is infallible, but history teaches us that apparently our ability to understand the text is not. The text is inspired, but obviously our interpretation of it is somewhat less than.

That doesn't, of course, mean that we should throw out the Bible, or stop trying to read and understand and interpret it rightly. It does, however, mean that we'd best not place all our hopes for salvation, spiritual growth, church unity, or doctrinal correctness in our ability to parse the Greek verb eis or our understanding of predestination in Romans or Ephesians. If God's work depends on human competence in reading, understanding, and applying millennia-old texts, then I think it safe to say that we're in trouble, folks.

It's an easy mistake to make, apparently, especially for religious people. In Jesus' time there were those who were so well-versed in the intricacies of the Scriptures that, well, they couldn't see what God was doing. They missed the theological forest for the grammatical and syntactical trees. “You have never heard his voice or seen his form,” Jesus told them baldly, “For you do not believe the one he sent.” You read that, and it's just terribly sad. People up to their elbows in God's word, but who can't hear his voice or see his form. People so preoccupied with categorizing, parsing, and diagramming the written word that the Word made flesh passes right before their eyes, unrecognized, unheard, unheeded.

“You study the Scriptures diligently, because you think that in them you possess eternal life,” he told them. “These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Jesus is to be our interpretive grid. He is to be the lens through which we read the Bible, and if our reading of any biblical text leads us away from what we see of Jesus' person, character, example, emphases, lifestyle, priorities, or values, then I confidently assert that we'd better go back and read it again. If ever our reading of the Bible leads our paths to diverge from Jesus' then we're reading it wrongly.

We read the Bible, then, to see Jesus. Not to prove a point. Not to win an argument. Not to pick and choose what we like and discard the rest. Not to impress your preacher or find support for a decision you've already made. Not even to find salvation. We find salvation in God's work through Jesus. We read the Bible so that our minds and hearts and spirits might be quickened by that story.

We read it to find Jesus, so that we might come to him, hear God's voice and see his form, and have life.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Patrick you've nailed it! I'm studying apologetics and am learning that we Christians really have a difficult time coming to agreement on a lot of things "scriptural."

    Here are a few issues that we've debated, argued, fought over, and still fighting over even amongst the brotherhood: musical instruments, baptism for salvation or as a demonstration of our faith, women having leadership roles in the church.

    Paul tells us that God is not the author of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33), but man certainly is. You're right, Patrick, we need to get our eyes back on Jesus. After all, He IS the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2).