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
. 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. Oregon State University
He explained that the Bible is the product of two ancient communities. The Hebrew Bible is the product of ancient
, 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. Israel
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.