What Does It Mean to Be a Bible Believer?
Kevin DeYoung, pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan recently wrote a piece titled, “40 Questions for Christians Now Waving Rainbow Flags.” He laments that some within his evangelical ranks (friends, family members, church members) are “giving their hearty ‘Amen’” to a practice he thinks is a sin and is bad for the country. He poses these questions to “Bible believing Christians,” whom he also calls followers of Jesus. Many of the questions he asks relates either directly or indirectly to his limited and restricted view of what it means to be Bible believing.
I am certainly a follower of Jesus, but in what sense am I a Bible believer? Whenever the term “believer” appears in the New Testament it refers to those who trust Jesus as Lord and are committed to following him, not people who believe that God’s way and will has been encapsulated and codified in a book, as sacred and helpful as that book may be. That book was not even assembled until several centuries later.
This past Sunday Hershel York, a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and a pastor in Frankfort, Kentucky where I pastor wrote a piece opposite mine in our local paper in response to the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. His was a curious piece in that half the article was simply about defending the Bible. He wrote,
“Other Christians [progressives like me] see the Bible as stained by human frailty and riddled with error, requiring more enlightened thinking to discern the good parts from the bad. These Christians are embarrassed by and denounce parts of the same book that they read in weddings and funerals, sermons and Sunday School classes as a model for faith and life. They see no contradiction in quoting Paul’s lyrical description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 while at the same time denouncing his instruction on gender roles in 1 Corinthians 11.”
York is right that I see no problem endorsing Paul in one place and denouncing him in another. But he is dead wrong in assuming that I am embarrassed by it. For unlike DeYoung and York I do not believe for a minute that the Bible is an answer book. The Bible is a book made up of many books written over a period of several hundred years in a predominantly patriarchal Jewish context. These books do not reveal God’s infallible will, but reflect how the Jewish community and the early Messianic communities understood God’s will in their day and age.
As such the Bible mirrors the human struggle to discern and fulfill God’s will. The Bible does not dictate God’s will, but rather invites us into the same human struggle engaged in by the biblical authors and communities to love God and love our neighbors. Some biblical texts move us three steps forward, other texts take us two steps back. There are wonderful, liberating, enlightened, breakthrough texts and there are other texts that are punitive, petty, and life-diminishing. There are scriptures that confront and challenge the destructive “isms” of our world like nationalism, elitism, sexism, racism, militarism, consumerism, and materialism. Then there are other texts that endorse these very things, which is why people have used the Bible to support polygamy, slavery, patriarchy, the oppression of women, greed, and violence. The biblical writers were as human and fallible as each of us and were influenced by the same biases, weaknesses, and limitations that characterize us all.
A common objection I often here when I talk or write about this is that I pick and choose. My common response is that everyone does. And this brings me to my second point about the Bible. All scripture does not have equal authority or carry equal weight for our personal lives and faith communities.
Every Christian should acknowledge this. Every Christian I know dismisses large sections of the Hebrew Bible. Who takes seriously the biblical law that says a child who disrespects his or her parents should be killed or the law that says that a virgin is the property of her father until married, and then becomes the property of her husband? Some respond by saying that Jesus abolished the law for Christians, which is a point that Paul makes. That doesn’t solve the problem for the biblical inerrantist, however, who must account for the kind of God who would give such laws in the first place.
Biblical inerrantists engage in selective reading of the New Testament just like us progressives. I don’t know very many conservative Christians who take seriously the texts that tell women to be silent in church (1 Cor. 14:33b-36), to wear a veil in church (1 Cor. 11:5-6), and to refrain from wearing jewelry, expensive clothes, and braided hair in church (1 Tim. 2:9). I can’t think of one Christian who in actual practice attributes to all scripture equal authority in their personal lives or churches. We all – conservatives and progressives – selectively read and apply scripture. We can do this randomly and haphazardly denying that we are doing it, or we can do this wisely and intentionally fully aware of our biases and why we give certain scriptures more authority than others.
Lastly and most importantly I believe that all scripture should be read through the lens of the story of Jesus. When I brew my coffee tomorrow morning I will use a filter. The end result will be fresh brewed coffee in my pot and coffee grains to be disposed of. The sacred story of Jesus presented in scripture is my filter for discerning and judging the value of scripture for our lives. I am not advocating, though, that we cut out and dispose of these scriptures that don’t make it through the filter, because they too have something important to teach us. They teach us how we can get God wrong and show us how our biases and beliefs can be as destructive as they are life transforming.
I believe that historical-critical analysis should be applied to the Gospels in the same way it should be applied to all scripture. This reveals that redactions (alterations, changes, embellishments, additions, and deletions) to the stories that constitute the biblical Gospels occurred both in the process of oral transmission (when the stories were passed on by word of mouth) and at the time of final editing and composition. But I also believe that the overall story of Jesus presented in the Gospels is reliable. In other words, while there are literary and theological embellishments because the Gospels are first of all proclamations of the living Christ and not historical reports, they nevertheless each give us a trustworthy portrait of Jesus of Nazareth.
Because I am first and foremost a Christian – a follower of the way of Jesus – and not a “Bible believer” in the sense that all the Bible is infallible truth, the sacred, scriptural story of Jesus takes precedence and priority over everything else.
In addition to reading the rest of scripture through the filter of the Jesus story, I also apply this filter to my own personal experience of and communion with God (mystical experience). I believe God is accessible and available anytime, anyplace – that God dwells within each one of us and is equated with our true selves.
It’s interesting to note how Paul’s personal encounter and experience of the living Christ trumped everything. Paul based his apostolic authority, not on scripture, but his mystical experience of Christ (1 Cor. 15:3-11; Gal. 1:6-17; Philip. 3:4b-11). No belief or action functioned as a precondition to this encounter. He claimed that it was completely by grace and it changed him from a persecutor of Christians to a proponent and missionary of the Jesus movement. This is why some Pauline scholars describe Paul as a Jewish Christ mystic.
In addition, I have no doubt that Jesus’ understanding of God as Abba and as the indwelling Spirit who is as close and accessible as the air we breathe was rooted in his own personal experience of God.
I also filter through the sacred, scriptural story of Jesus my use of reason, common sense, and basic intuition of what is right and good to discern God’s will.
There are several examples in the Gospels of Jesus utilizing rational experience in his understanding of God’s will. For example, when he was accused of casting out demons by the power of Satan he reasoned to his critics that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. He responded to a number of entrapping questions by the religious leaders with reason and common sense.
In addition I read Christian tradition (interpretations, liturgies, litanies, hymns, creeds, confessions) and Christian praxis in various historical and cultural contexts through the sacred story of Jesus.
One example of how Christian tradition can be helpful in interpreting scripture is by knowing that many interpreters in the history of the church regarded the literal meaning of scripture to be the least important meaning. A number of ancient interpreters such as Origen and Augustin believed that the metaphorical, spiritual, or allegorical meaning of a text was more important than its literal meaning. They likened the literal meaning to the physical body and the spiritual or symbolical meaning to the soul that gives the body life.
Interestingly in his column York claims, “We [biblical inerrantists] believe that the proper way to read the Bible is the same way we want our pharmacist to read our doctor’s prescription, discerning the author’s original intent rather than imposing any foreign meaning on the text.” This assumes that the biblical authors intended their writings to be understood literally, an assumption that many biblical scholars question. It also limits the capacity of the Spirit to use a text to speak to us in new, fresh ways. This is what interpreters mean when they speak of the Spirit’s inspiration of texts that invests these sacred texts with a surplus of meaning. The Spirit can breathe new meaning into these ancient, sacred texts. This belief that the literal meaning of the text is the primary meaning of the text is a belief that only came to prominence in the last couple of centuries.
By reading the Christian creeds through the filter of the story of Jesus we can assess the value of these past declarations. For example, it is helpful to know that while the Nicene Creed expresses doctrines that one might believe and nothing about what Christians should actually do, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel is all about what followers of Jesus should do and how they should live, while saying nothing about what Christians should believe.
Then finally, I apply the filter of the Jesus story to my reading, evaluation, and appropriation of other religious texts and practices from other faith traditions.
Such texts are obviously less important to followers of Jesus than the Christian scriptures, but they can be helpful. Truth is truth wherever truth is found. There are perennial truths that transcend particular religious expressions of these truths. For example, the pattern of death and resurrection, of dying and being reborn is found in a number of religious traditions.
So do I believe the Bible? Am I a Bible believer? It all depends on how you use and what you mean when you employ the phrase. The Bible is my primary source for discerning God’s will today, but I am certainly not a bible believer in the narrow and restricted way DeYoung and York employ the phrase. I would never utilize that terminology, because what I am first of all is a Christian. I am a follower of Jesus. I strive to obey his teaching preserved in sacred scripture and listen to the contemporary voice of the living Christ (the Holy Spirit at work within me, the church, and in many other countless ways in our world) who inspires and invests these ancient texts with ever new, fresh, life changing meaning.
(This post was first published as a Perspective piece at Baptist News Global.)