On the first or second day of class I always tell students there are, broadly, three ways of reading the Bible. First, you can read it in a personal or individualistic way. We might call this devotional reading: just me and God and an open Bible, searching for spiritual insights that I can apply to my life. Second, you can read it in a communal way, taking full account of how one’s community of faith (or that of others) has received these texts, interpreted them, incorporated them into their worship, etc. And finally, there is the academic approach: striving (as much as is possible) to bracket our faith commitments out of the equation so that we can look at the Bible in a more or less objective way.
There are two things I want students to understand as they embark upon an Old Testament or New Testament survey course:
- Ideally, all three of these methods of approaching Scripture should inform each other. If you’re a committed believer, there’s really no way around this. (I will draw a Venn diagram showing the intersection of the three. That’s my personal “target” when reading the Bible.)
- The nature of university study means that the primary focus of the class will be in the academic realm, with occasional forays into the communal (history of interpretation and so forth) and very little of the personal. They haven’t signed up for a semester of Sunday school, and they are going to be exposed to ideas that may be different from what they have heard before.
A while back I received the following email from a student who I’ll call Katherine. She is a very bright and very committed Christian who raised some very good questions about what it means to handle the Bible the way I was teaching her in my OT class. I suspect she was also dealing with what someone else had previously taught her in NT. She wrote,
I meant to ask you this after class today but I couldn’t quite get my head around what I wanted to ask. It started with Job, Esther, and Daniel but it relates to the whole Bible and I think it’s affecting my faith.
1) Job, Esther, and Daniel are all supposed to be fictional characters, right? Is there anything else in the Old Testament that isn’t historically accurate, or are all the Writing just stories and legends? And if so much of the Old Testament was oral tradition before it was written down or the final product came from many different sources and then was edited, how can we believe in any part of it as God-inspired and infallible?
2) Are other prophecy sections in the Bible ex eventu prophecy?
3) If Revelation is like the Apocalyptical literature in Daniel, how are we supposed to know how to read it? Can we really expect to have an end of times with an antichrist and tribulation like so many people interpret it? What do you think about the end of times?
4) How can we know, as Christians, that we should put out faith in any part of the Bible? The Old Testament writings are sometimes historically inaccurate, contradictory of itself, and have many sources and translations; in the New Testament, Matthew tries to force the idea as Jesus as the Jews’ Messiah, Luke and Matthew appear to take many of their ideas from Mark, and John is out on its own for the most part and very mystical in nature; we base most of our ideas of Christian living on the letters of Paul who was one man and never intended for his letter to be “God-breathed” Scripture, and so many of his ideas of morals reflected the patriarchal culture of the times.
I’ve never had a problem with having faith in the scriptures before, but then again, I’ve never had to question my ideas about it. I’m just having a difficult time with the fact that the Bible may not actually be internally consistent, historically accurate, or infallible like I thought it was. If I can’t believe all of it, I don’t know how I can believe any of it? Why should I take this scripture as truth over the Muslim Qur’an or the Hindu Bhagavad Gita? And how are you supposed to know the truth about God when there are so many different branches in Christianity and different interpretations of the Bible?
I appreciate Katharine’s willingness to let me (anonymously) reproduce our correspondence. Here is the first part of my response:
My, you’re a fount of inquisitiveness today! 🙂
First let me say that I know much of what you’re going through because these things were also troublesome to me when I was first exposed to them. My response for a good long time was to circle the wagons on cherished assumptions and silently write off my professors as sub-Christian in their attitudes. I hope you don’t go down that road; it is not as satisfying in the end as it seems at the beginning.
You have raised several important questions about specific parts of the Bible. Let me begin to answer by helping you to see the “big picture” a little better. First of all, I actually spoke about this topic at FBC Forsyth a while back, and you can read my comments on my blog.
For me, the key thing to remember is that we all bring certain expectations of what we think the Bible ought to be like to our reading. Some of those expectations are right and accurate. For example, when I read the Bible, I expect it (when properly interpreted) to teach me how to experience a relationship with God, both now and in the life to come. I also expect it to be in some sense a “foreign” book to me. After all, the most recent parts of it were written nearly 2,000 years ago in a language very unlike English! I expect that the Bible can and will shape the way I pray, the way I relate to others,, etc.
Some of the expectations we bring to the Bible may seem reasonable, but really aren’t. For example, do we think the books of the Bible ought to be written in a literary genre that didn’t even exist when they were written (Herodotus was the “father of history” in western culture, and he lived around 450 BC)? Or do we expect that the biblical writers ought to have imagined how the world works in ways that correspond to what we currently understand based on modern scientific analysis?
A lot of these issues come down to having a deductive rather than an inductive approach to the Bible. Rather than reading it carefully, taking into account everything we can know about the culture in which it was written (= inductive), we can make some assumptions about what we are supposed to find before we even get to the Bible (= deductive). When we understand that the Bible is God’s word to us just the way it is, it’s easier for us to handle whatever phenomena we may discover in the text and receive them as gifts from a loving Father.
You’ve asked several specific questions that I would like to take a little bit of time to ponder before I fire off a half-baked answer. With your permission, I’d like to hold off on responding for now, but I promise I’ll get back to them. Also, if you don’t mind, I’d like to reproduce your email (anonymously, of course!) and my responses on my blog for the sake of future students who may have the same struggles.
Thanks for taking not only CHR 101 but also your faith so very seriously.
Sounds and feels familiar…from both sides. I look forward to reading the next.
What a great student to have in your class. You’ll have an interesting semester teaching her.
I have to admit that, from where I sit, some of her concerns puzzle me. I guess everybody starts where they are. For me, I read the Sermon on the Mount, and the parable of the sheep and the goats, and that the greatest of all commandments is love, and I know this: Jesus is who I’m following. I’ve many of the great books from other religions, and I’ve found some good things, but nothing compares with Jesus. He’s the one I’m following. And he came back from the dead; the others didn’t. So I’m not going to lose a lot of sleep over “are you following the right guy?” kinds of questions.
The “How infallible is your book?” questions kind of puzzle me, too. I remember the first time I found a mistake in a textbook we were using in school. It wasn’t a conspiracy, or a sign that nothing in the book was right. It was just something that got past the author and the editor, while still being a reasonable set of teaching material. I have that same confidence in the gospel authors: we may not know how many blind men were in Jericho, but we know plenty to make me sure I want to follow Jesus.
Take care & God bless
Anne / WF
Oh, please reproduce your other responses too! I am 32 years old, 10 years out of the college classes where I really started to ponder questions like these, and I have yet to find any thoughts/answers that settle my spirit. Maybe that’s the point, but I really do want to believe that God is God and that Jesus existed and did the things I’ve grown up believing he did. While my viewpoint has certainly expanded regarding the dedicated faiths of others that have nothing to do with Christ, I feel drawn to him and long for some assurance deep within. You’d never know I spend my days reading Sunday school lessons and Bible commentaries for a living! Thanks for posting this.