In the next several posts, I want to contrast three different options for understanding the Bible – what it is and how it works. To choose only three may over simplify things a bit, but it also helps identify some clear trends animating our current religious scene.
So…with that in mind, let me describe option #1 as “The Bible as Divine Reference Book.” From this point of view Scripture is a very special book; indeed, it is unlike any other book in the world, not simply in terms of what it says (its content), but actually in terms of what it is (its very nature). It is in every way divine, inspired by God quite directly – as in the biblical authors taking a kind of holy dictation. The purpose of the Bible is to reveal true knowledge of God and what God expects of us. Hence, the Bible is most useful for articulating theology and morality – it tells us what God would have us think and do. This kind of view of Scripture is most often associated with a more conservative, literalistic pattern of interpretation where there are no errors in the Bible, not only theologically but also historically and scientifically. So if the Bible says that creation happened in seven days, it happened in seven days. (Or, a slightly “softer” version might argue, “day” can be translated as “age,” and so creation may have taken seven “ages” which still, importantly, correspond to the description in Genesis 1.)
The great strength of this approach is that it offers adherents a profoundly reliable sense of Scripture’s authority, perhaps best caught by the bumper sticker most of us have seen somewhere – “The Bible says it! I believe it! That settles it!” Ambiguity and doubt are all but removed with such a reading of the Bible. The task of the reader is relatively straightforward: figure out the “plain sense” of the Bible and do what it says. Not surprisingly, “application” – or translating the Bible story into a currently applicable and relevant moral for today – is central to the interpretive enterprise.
Whatever its strengths, there are also several shortcomings to such an approach. First, it offers a fairly “flat” reading of the Bible, with little awareness of the cultural differences between the time the Bible was written and our own. Pronouncements about women, children, and others are taken at face value with little regard for changes in attitude and understanding that have occurred over the last two millennia.
Second, it assumes the biblical writers were trying to “do” history and science as we understand history and science to operate today. But what if biblical authors weren’t actually trying to explain “how” creation came about as much as offering a confession of faith about “who” was behind creation and “why” it matters? This isn’t science; it’s theology. And insisting that faithful Christians must read the Bible as scientifically and historically accurate feels understandably confining to many modern readers.
Third, such an approach discourages lively, challenging, and curious questions about the Bible and so mutes the potential for lively, engaged conversation between Christians and their book. Questions – especially hard questions – seem out of place, irreverent, even unfaithful. Scripture, from this point of view, deserves our faith, our reverence, and our obedience, but not, unfortunately, our intellect and our curiosity.
Fourth, focusing mainly on “application” all too easily makes the Bible an “answer book” rather than a living Word that invites sustained conversation about what it means to be a Christian today. While reference books are great, we often don’t read them unless we need a specific answer to a specific question. Which means they often don’t get used all that much – when, for instance, was the last time you pulled a volume of the World Book Encyclopedia offer your shelf?
Curiously, this view of Scripture leads many to revere the Bible more than they actually read it. In my next post I’ll offer a link to a humorous example of what can happen with a “divine reference book” approach to Scripture. For now, feel free to email me with reactions or comments to this post (email@example.com).
And if you want to read further about how to use both heart and head when reading the Bible, you can check out my new book, Making Sense of Scripture, available on amazon.com.