The Bible as a Lens

New Testament scholar Marcus Borg tells a wonderful story illustrating two different ways to approach Scripture. For many years Borg taught an introductory-level Bible course at Oregon State University. At the beginning of the class, he always informed the students that the course would be taught from the perspective of the academic discipline of biblical scholarship. Borg would tell them that they didn’t have to change their beliefs, but to do well in the class they would have to be willing to look at the Bible from that viewpoint. 

He explained that the Bible is the product of two ancient communities. The Hebrew Bible is the product of ancient Israel, the Christian Testament is the product of the early Christian movement. As such, the Bible tells us not how God sees things, but how those two ancient communities saw their relationship with God. 

Roughly 20 percent of the students that took the course believed that the Bible was inerrant (literally the Word of God). Borg would, inevitably, spend the first two weeks in lively discussion with the more articulate and courageous of those students. 

One semester, a very bright Muslim engineering student took the course. A senior, he did so because he needed another humanities course for graduation and the class fit his schedule. One day, after witnessing Borg’s interaction with the more conservative students, he said to him, “I think I understand what’s going on. You’re saying the Bible is like a lens through which we see God, and they’re (the inerrantists) saying that it’s important to believe in the lens.” 

That is a good analogy. When I am asked if I believe the Bible my response is: As a Christian I believe (I trust in) in Jesus of Nazareth, the living Christ who is my Lord. I use the Bible as a means to nurture a transformative relationship with God, whom I know through Jesus. The Bible is a lens through which I see God and Jesus. 

I try to approach the Bible in as unbiased a way as possible (we all, however, bring some bias to the text). I try to be open to both the diversity and the unity of faith that the various authors and faith communities express, and receptive to both the contradictions and the coherences found in the Bible’s many different kinds of sacred literature. 

When the Bible becomes the object of faith (bibliolatry?), the Bible can easily become an instrument of oppression and death. In a general sense, the Bible gives us a description of the faith of the writers and communities struggling with what is real and what is unreal, not a set of infallible prescriptions or propositions. 

Every reading of the Bible is an interpretation of the Bible. The reader inevitably brings his or her temperament, personality, culture, biases, and education into the process of understanding the text and discerning its meaning for today. 

The Bible is not just about God, but about how people of faith have perceived and related to God. While it is not literally the Word of God, it can become the Word of God (the Divine Voice speaks through it) to those who read it critically, spiritually, and discerningly.  We should employ the best methods at our disposal to make sense of it. This should include a balance between the best resources of historical-critical scholarship and other methods more spiritually oriented toward nurturing Christian disciples. 

The Bible contains a plurality of voices. Sometimes these voices conflict with one another, sometimes they speak as one, using different language and words. The Bible includes voices of oppression (claiming to speak for God), and voices of protest against oppression (also claiming to speak for God). There are voices that endorse conventional wisdom, and voices that speak a subversive, alternative wisdom. But in, with, around, under, and over these voices is the Divine Voice, seeking to lead us into a transformative relationship with our Creator and Redeemer.


  1. I like the analogy. And I think the perspective of the Bible being a lens is a healthier perspective than some. But I do have a question.

    You seem to be implying that since the Bible itself is merely a lens in which we view God, that other lenses (perhaps other religions?) also exist in which one can view God. God being a more universal concept, and the Bible being just one way. If this is so, then why do you equate Jesus and God in your post, stating that "As a Christian I believe (I trust in) in Jesus of Nazareth, the living Christ who is my Lord. I use the Bible as a means to nurture a transformative relationship with God, whom I know through Jesus. The Bible is a lens through which I see God and Jesus."

    If the Bible is merely the lens, and the Bible is where it tells us that Jesus is God (no where else), then wouldn't the Bible just be a lens to view GOD, and not Jesus as God? And since Jesus and the Bible are integral parts of Christianity, if you think the Bible is just a lens and not the literal word of God, can you still call yourself a Christian? Otherwise it seems you are just a theistic agnostic (I believe in God, but I don't know with any certainty that any one religion is best.) It would seem then that Christianity is merely a tradition for you. A way in which to practice your faith. Which is fine. But it would just be a tradition, not true faith and religion.

    This is coming from an agnostic (more atheistic agnost, then not.) But I'm very familiar with fundamental conservative Christianity, as that is how I was raised.

    I'm not trying to challenge you, or say that your faith is wrong. I merely want to hear your logical response to my question?

  2. You take a path of suppositions that the author did not himself make. He saying we can believe in the Truth the Bible speaks without worshipping the book itself. The Bible is not integral to Christianity. Some sects have made it so, but there were Christians for hundreds of years before the New Testament was put together.

  3. Melissa, if what you're saying is true, please explain.

    "Christian" means follower of Christ. There were Jews-- followers of Jehovah who believe someday a Messiah would come but did not know his identity. But there were not Christians until the time of Christ.

    I would like to know why the author believes in Jesus at all if he doesn't believe the Bible? Or, I mean, doesn't believe ULTIMATELY in the Bible. He may believe parts of it- but even I believe parts of it, but I'm not a Christian.

    Just trying to reconcile the facts here and make sense out of it.

  4. Good questions Mary! I would have to disagree with Melissa's assessment that the bible is not integral to christianity. It may not be the center of their religion but it seems to me you cannot get to the center of their religion (jesus as god) without the bible.
    Thanks for the thought-provoking stuff,


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