How I Read the Bible

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Let’s talk about how a progressive pastor—or, at least, this progressive pastor—reads the Bible.

Script/Transcript

Please note that this is a script rather than a transcript and may not match the video exactly. Also, please note that the script was written to help make the video, and may contain errors—typos, awkward wording, and so on—that were corrected as it was being read.

So, here’s something that kind of amazes me:

I’m pretty sure that if you took a four-horsemen-of-the-apocalypse-internet-debating-new-atheist type and a born-and-bred-and-born-again-dyed-in-the-wool-church-every-wednesday-and-twice-on-Sundays-bible-believing-christian type and asked them about this book called The Bible, they would more-or-less agree about what is says. I mean, they would disagree about what it is and what it means and whether it has contradictions and whether it is true and all of that stuff. but they would more-or-less agree about what the content is and how people should read it.

And both of them would disagree with me. And both of them would disagree with other progressive Christians.

And I know that because I’ve had both the four-horsemen-of-the-apocalypse-internet-debating-new-atheist type and the born-and-bred-and-born-again-dyed-in-the-wool-church-every-wednesday-and-twice-on-Sundays-bible-believing-christian type disagree with me… loudly.

So let’s talk about how a progressive pastor—or, at least, this progressive pastor—reads the Bible.

Part I: The Bible is a Collection

It’s common for people—even people who know better—to treat the Bible as a single coherent book with one story and one point of view going from beginning to end. It’s not. The Bible is a collection of different books written by different people in different times and different contexts, addressing different issues and trying to respond to different questions and concerns.

But let me take that even further. The Bible isn’t even a single coherent collection! There is a huge number of ancient texts that Christians have accepted as authoritative over time. And different groups accept different collections of those books as scripture: as biblical.

Coming out of the pre-Christian era, Samaritanism counts five books in its canon; Rabbinic Judaism counts twenty-four; and both of those religions continue today. Among Christians, who universality accept the same books that Judaism does, Protestant Christianity counts sixty-six books in its canon; Roman Catholic Christianity counts seventy-three; Eastern Orthodox Christianities—and yes, there’s some variety here—count around seventy-six depending on the particular branch; and Orthodox Tewahedo Christianity counts eighty-one-ish depending on how you count.

Now, I am a Protestant, so I recognize sixty-six books in my Bible. But I also recognize that those other books that are included in other canons—and even books that are included in no canons—contain information about traditional Christian beliefs and practices. In fact, the books that are part of my Bible sometimes refer to those other books as authorities!

But the basic point is the same: the Bible—whatever we mean by the Bible—is a collection of different books written by different people in different times and different contexts, addressing different issues and trying to respond to different questions and concerns. And because of that, I do not expect it to be a perfectly consistent or coherent whole. I expect to find different voices, different ideas, and different opinions in its pages.

Part II: The Bible is a Product of the Religion

It’s also common for people—maybe especially for Protestants like myself—to think that our religion is a product of the Bible: that people wrote the scriptures, that we follow the scriptures, and that that’s the end of the story.

But the Bible itself tells us that’s wrong.

There’s this moment in the eleventh chapter of Acts when the church in Jerusalem hear about a wave of conversions in Antioch. The church in Jerusalem sends Barnabas to Antioch to check it out, which he does. Barnabas then goes and gets Saul (or Paul), and they return to Antioch to meet with the church there and teach many people. And then it says—right there in Acts, right there in the Bible—“it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.” (Acts 11:19-26)

Here why this is important: the Bible itself tells us that there were disciples, and there were people called Christians, and there were converts to Christianity who had never met Jesus face-to-face well before a single word of the New Testament had ever been written. Moreover, there were undoubtedly gentile Christians among those converts who had never encountered the Jewish scriptures.

People believed the story. People believed the experience. No on believed the Bible; because the Bible—at least, the Bible in any sense that we understand it today—did not exist.

Now, I want to be careful here. Scripture is important to Christianity, and I’ll get to that in a moment. But the point here is simply that the Bible is not the basis of our religion; Christianity does not flow neatly out of the Bible. Instead, the Bible is a product of our religion; people who were already Christians wrote the Bible.

(At least, they wrote the New Testament. And people who were already Jewish—and that has its own diversities—wrote the Old Testament. But the point still stands: the scriptures are a product of the religion, and should be read that way.)

Part III: The Bible is a Witness

It’s also also common for people to think that the Bible is the word of God. But again, the Bible itself tells us that’s wrong.

The first chapter of the gospel according to John tells us about the Word-with-a-capital-W: that the Word was in the beginning with God and that the Word was God; and that the Word became flesh and lived among us in the person of Jesus Christ. (John 1:1-2, 14)

And here’s why this is important: Scripture might contain the words of God, and it certainly contains words about God, and I suspect it sometimes contains words that people wish God had spoken. But we encounter the Word of God in the person of—in the life and death and resurrection of, in the teachings and preachings and healings of, in the grace of—Jesus the Christ.

The Bible is a witness to the Word who became flesh. The Bible is a witness to Jesus.

And here’s the complicated bit. The Bible tells us about Jesus, but it is not the lens through which we interpret Jesus. Instead, Jesus—who we meet in scripture, and in prayer, and in worship, and in fellowship, and in acts of service, and in all sorts of other ways—is the lens through which we interpret scripture.

And here’s why that’s the complicated bit. As much as we might take the Bible to be authoritative, if we read scripture through the lens of Jesus, we might find ourselves having the radically reinterpret scripture, or even read against scripture, when it doesn’t sound like the Jesus who we know.

Part IV: The Bible is a Conversation

So if the Bible is (1) not a coherent whole, (2) not the basis for our faith, and (3) not the very Word of God…

How do I read the Bible?

First, I read the Bible critically. I take the social and historical context that each book—or, for some books, each part of each book—were written in seriously. I take the work of scholars who spend huge amounts of time studying these books—and, again, sometimes just portions of books—seriously. And I admit that we don’t always know exactly what is going on. Sometimes things are ambiguous. Sometimes things are uncertain. And it’s okay to sit with that.

Second, I read the Bible as one part of my religion. Yes, all scriptures are inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, and for equipping us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). But the person who wrote that didn’t have the same idea of scripture that I do, and other things are also useful for all the same stuff, and the Bible is one tool among many that we have for encountering God.

Third, and maybe even most importantly, I read the Bible as a conversation. Sometimes, the scriptures are talking about and to each other; sometimes the scriptures are even arguing with each other. The gospel according the John takes a very different approach to Jesus than the synoptic gospels do. The author of Ruth is clearly arguing with Ezra and Nehemiah. The proverbs of Proverbs and the meditations of Job are not in agreement. Different epistles take approaches to the faith-works debate that are at least in tension with one another.

The Bible is a conversation and an argument all wrapped up together. And it is a conversation and an argument that I, too, can be a part of. I can say that I agree with this, and disagree with that, and am undecided about these things, and am trying to harmonize those other things. And that’s okay. Because my faith is not in dead trees, but in the living God.

And I guess my invitation to you—whether you are a four-horsemen-of-the-apocalypse-internet-debating-new-atheist type or a born-and-bred-and-born-again-dyed-in-the-wool-church-every-wednesday-and-twice-on-Sundays-bible-believing-christian type—is to not try to make the Bible into something that the Bible itself argues that it is not. Instead, join the conversation, listen to others, and let your voice be heard.

And let’s argue out how we can cease to do evil and learn to do good.