“TAKING THE BIBLE SERIOUSLY BUT NOT LITERALLY”
By Dale K. Edmondson
- Psalm 119:9-16; II Timothy 3: 14-17 -
If the writers of the Bible were to drop in on our modern scene, I'm sure they'd be baffled by what they’d see: defenders of the faith zealously denouncing others for not being “Bible believers,” religious denominations arguing over something called “scriptural infallibility,” crusading parents demanding that schools add the first chapter of Genesis to the science curriculum. Our visitors would be astounded to learn that what they had written is now part of holy writ and also that a book which is said to tell about God’s love is being used to divide and alienate people from each other.
I can hear one of our guests, Paul of Tarsus: “I wrote some letters to congregations I helped establish. They had problems in knowing how to live out their new faith in daily and community living. In writing to them, I told about my own wrestling with theological issues, and I shared my convictions about some of the issues they were asking about. I’m sure they found my letters helpful. But Holy Scripture?” And I can hear Matthew (or whoever wrote the gospel that has his name): “New converts were coming into the Faith every day, and we needed a guidebook to use in baptism preparation classes. I took the account of Jesus’ life that Mark had put together and added some collected teachings of Jesus. (Collections of his teachings had been circulating by word of mouth since the people first heard Jesus give them, including some they’d heard him give in his sermon on the mount). I called my book a ‘Gospel’ (that is, ‘Good News’) because that’s what it was–‘Good News’ about God made known in Jesus of Nazareth. But scripture? I never thought of it in that way.”
And I can hear some of the ancient Hebrews, too. Some of them put down on papyrus stories of their origins as a people, having gathered these stories from differing traditions yet setting them down side by side. Some of these folk were story tellers who’d learned the stories and passed them on long before they were written–stories about the origin of life and society, told, not to give an historical accounting, but rather to say “God’s the origin of all things and God intends good for creation, and, because of that, it makes a difference how we live.” I can hear these ancient folk telling about their role in preserving the people’s understanding of God’s action in history. At the same time, I can hear them expressing surprise at learning that they’d been contributing to scripture. I can also hear those who’d collected the psalms showing delight at the discovery that these great works of poetry are still with us–and at the same time saying how surprised they are that these hymns are now counted as part of scripture.
I can hear some of the disciples of the prophets. They're saying, “We paid careful attention to the sermons of these social preachers. We wrote down some of their pronouncements so we could pass them on the others. Their words carried warnings that needed to be heard widely. But are our records of these speeches now included in scripture?" There would be at least one playwright among our visitors. “In our day,” I'd hear him saying, “some people were greatly disturbed by the fact that bad things happened to good people. Popular faith denied that this happened. Someone who took the power of God seriously and yet was unwilling to accept simplistic answers needed to say something of about this! Popular religion didn't fit the facts. So I wrote a play. It was about a man called Job. I wanted get people to think in new ways. I understand now that my play’s a part of scripture–and that some people seem more concerned about whether the events happened to an historical person named Job than they are about the message of my drama.”
I’d try, as best I could, to explain to all these visiting friends how it was that their works became scripture and how for years these works have been cherished and valued and how people have come to find truth through them. I’d point out that, as they died, their works were preserved because people saw in their writings a first-hand witness to God’s mighty acts. I’d point out, as well, that as other helpful works were written about these pivotal faith experiences in the years following, people wanted a norm against which to read and interpret these newer compositions. So, gradually, a little at a time, tested by experience and consensus, a “canon” (or standard collection) of Judaic-Christian writings was made. It was an essentially agreed-upon collection–namely, the Bible, the book of the acts of God.
I’d also want to point out to our friends that through the centuries the Bible was loved and valued–not for itself alone–but as an instrument through which people had been put in touch with God. It was a book in which they could hear the stories of God’s action as told by people of faith. And, as with many good stories, as people heard these stories they could see themselves in them and be made more open to the same reality these earlier people had experienced. I’d tell them that many people came to have the same appreciation for the scripture that the psalmist had when he wrote, “I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you.” I’d tell them that others made some words to Timothy their own--namely, “From early childhood [we] have been familiar with the sacred writings which have power to make [us] wise and lead [us] to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
I’m not quite sure how our visiting friends would react to all of this. Certainly they’d be surprised by it. But I like to believe they’d say something like this: “Although we couldn’t have anticipated it–and don't fully understand it–we're grateful that God’s been able to use in such a powerful way what we’ve written.” But it’s precisely here that they might ask an embarrassing question! How then did things reach the present state of affairs in which some fight others with a religious zeal over they way they understand this book?” And here, I guess, I’d have to take a deep breath and reply, “A funny thing happened on the way to the modem age–or rather, a tragic thing happened. It had to do with our penchant for certainty.” I'd need then to fill them in on a little bit of history. “In the Middle Ages,” I'd tell them, “learning was limited to a few, who, for the most part, were in the leadership of the church. The Bible wasn’t accessible to the people, except through the clergy who protected it from misunderstanding by withholding it from the them. The church, they believed, had been given divine authority to dispense salvation and it therefore spoke with absolute authority. Now, absolute authority can become oppressive, even when it resides in the church. Rather than being an agent of God's salvation, it’d become a barrier to it.
“It was against this abuse,” I'd tell them, “that the Protestant Reformers contended. Over against the authority of the church, they asserted the authority of scripture. A new spirit was let loose in the church! And the scriptures began to play a vital role in believers’ faith. At the same time an explosion of learning was taking place along with the invention and of the printing press and the beginning of a breakdown of church-state totalitarianism. William Tyndale, the translator of the first printed English New Testament, was working at about this time. He once said to an ardent churchman, ‘If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scripture than you do!”
But I'd have to acknowledge to our friends that new freedom is scary! “When the absolutes are gone,” I'd say, “you have to make decisions for yourself. You have to rely on the Spirit and the faith community to help you interpret the scriptures if you’re to do so responsibly. For some, it was not long before the same obsession for certainty, which had led to an absolutistchurch, came to lead to an absolutist book. Certainty-seekers had created a ‘paper pope.’ They assigned to the book the same infallibility they; had contended against in the church.”
Having said this, I’d be inclined to take leave of these friends and turn to my congregation, saying that if we argue for an absolutist Bible, we confuse “seriousness” with “literalness.” In doing this, people whose intent is to take the Bible seriously wind up simply taking it literally–and without knowing the difference. Rather than appreciating the pictorial, symbolic language of the book as the Bible’s way of communicating truth, they turn the Bible into a reference book on science, history, and futurology and a book of codes on personal practices. Tragically, in doing this, they lose the Bible message.
And having thus addressed both the visiting writers from other centuries and our contemporary worshipers, I suppose I could end the sermon here–inviting people to take the Bible seriously, warning them to avoid the pitfalls of literalism. But that would leave them without much guidance about how to read the book most helpfully. And so, before concluding, I’d offer some practical suggestions to the congregation for taking the Bible seriously but not literally.
1. Begin by reading the Bible as a book of beauty. Can many dispute the sheer loveliness of this book? It's helped shape our language and nurture of souls .
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want. . .(Isn't there unsurpassed beauty in these words?)
. . . . . . .
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,
saith your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned. ..
. . . . . . .
And there were in the same country, shepherds abiding in the field keeping watch over their flock by night.
. . . . . . .
Now abideth faith, hope, and love–these three; but the greatest of these is love.
It’s a book of beauty. But it’s more!
2. Take it as a book of heritage. You can find your roots in the Bible. The Hebrews are reminded of their origin as a people in the faithfulness of Abraham, their freedom from slavery in the Exodus under Moses, their preservation in their wanderings in the wilderness, their blessing in the gift of the Promised Land. And Christians are reminded of the church’s roots in the Jerusalem gathering and in the congregations founded by Paul. But there is more: our heritage comes alive and finds expression in our way of living when we re-read and re-participate in our history. The Bible’s story becomes our story, too. And through it all, we find ourselves put in touch with the Spirit of the same God that acted in the past.
3. Read it as an unfolding story. Its message can’t be captured in any one scene; it requires the whole sweep of the story. For example, how should we understand the moral teaching of Moses that perpetrators of evil are to be paid back “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”? (The supporters of capital punishment quote this piece of scripture as a divine requirement for the state to take the life of a person who has taken the life of another. What a vindictive God! And what a weight to assign to a fallible human judge when we take this teaching as a scene in isolation!) Yet what a significant element it is in the growing human understanding of God when taken as a part of the whole story! This word of Moses, which reflected his increasing sensitivity to God as a God of justice, marked a great moral advance over the previous practice of retribution. Previously, the murder of one member of a tribe could lead the offended tribe to set about wiping out the entire tribe of the murderer. Against such unrestrained vengeance, the law of a tooth for a tooth was a significant moral advance. It was not the end of the story, but a significant moral advance. Retaliation was to be limited and controlled, and that because God was a God of morality.
The story, of course, comes to its climax in Jesus. He gives us a deeper and fuller understanding of God: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. . . Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And, from the cross, “God forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
The story of the Bible is, in part, the story of the unfolding knowledge of God. Our VCR has a feature called a “frame freeze.” When I activate it, the movement of the image is stopped at a particular point and held on the screen. It’s a still picture. You can look at it as long as you like and analyze and scrutinize it and note all sorts of details about it. But no matter how you look at it, it can’t convey its full significance apart from the movement of the story into which it fits. No “truth” of the Bible can be lifted from the developing story of God’s revelation without its losing its dynamism and energizing power. We take the Bible seriously only as we’re willing to see it in its full unfolding sweep.
4. Read it with informed awareness of the context in which it was written. Scholarship has aided us greatly within the last century in understanding the assumptions and language and culture of the Biblical writers. A number of popular misunderstandings of scriptural teachings, such as a Biblical condemnation of homosexuality and support of the subjugation of women, simply cannot stand when read within an understanding of the scripture’s full context. Let’s engage in a fantasy: suppose the year is 3003 and people in a quite different civilization have uncovered a copy the San Francisco Chronicle for November 7, 2003. They’ve found the sports section and they have a dictionary for a language called “English,” which was in use in the twenty-first century. But they know nothing about the sports of that time. They begin reading. Imagine what they might conclude. Here’s one headline: “Sharks’ curse in Boston continues.” And another: “Warriors can’t take Jazz lightly.” And this. It’s about a “rose bowl” whose tradition, it says, is “in jeopardy.” And, finally, this heading: “Swift, ugly fall for Raiders: Injuries, attitude put Oakland at bottom of heap.” Unless our 31th Century friends know the context of these words and understand the style of language used in the headlines, how can they understand them? This is the same kind of question interpreters of scripture must wrestle with if the Bible’s words, written in another age and culture, are to speak to us today.
5. Read the Bible as a book of encounter with God. The Bible isn’t an objective treatise but a first-hand testimony to the acts of God as experienced in the life of the writer and the community. Would the events have been recorded in the same way, if a video camera had been present? No camera, I think, could have captured the inner spiritual landscape of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness or recorded the “still small voice” of God speaking to Elijah in the cave after the earthquake, the wind, and the fire. I think no video could have recorded Jesus’ confrontation with the tempter. Indeed, I wonder what the tape would have shown that night in the upper room in Emmaus after Jesus’ crucifixion when the disciple’s eyes were opened and they saw their guest to be the Lord.
The Bible is a record of the revelation of God–a revelation–which is to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. It’s a record which is not dispassionate and detached, but faith-filled, suggestive but not exhaustive, written for the purpose of leading others toward the same encounter as these first people of faith. Perhaps the intention of the scripture writers is summed up best by the one who wrote the Fourth Gospel. He said, concerning the records in his book,“These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Child of God; and that through believing you may have life in his name.”