The Whole Sweep of Scripture

I’ve run through a few different titles for this post – perhaps “I’ve Found the Solution!” … or even more provocatively “We’ve Been Suckered?” … among others. I’ve settled, however, for a relatively sedate title. The ideas are things I’ve been mulling for a while but given the posts Scot put up Sunday on Teenage Christians and the Bible and Monday on When Pastors Switch Theology perhaps it is time to put it up for some discussion. There is a common theme that runs through much of the discussion of the conflict between science and faith. It is a theme that extends far deeper, and leads to an assumption, within certain circles, that the Christian faith is fragile to investigation, and that the Bible is itself the root of many of these problems. We battle over the Bible, defend a doctrine of scripture at all costs, dissect the text holding it up to a microscope looking for nuggets of truth, or grasp it tightly as a foundation (proof text?) for theology we hold dear.

Two of the comments on Sunday’s post can help set the table:

I was an “unshakeable” teen a few years ago. Then I read the bible too much. It was clearly more complicated than what I had been lead to believe. Now I am “unsettled”. And only 25.

And a response to this comment

#3 reminds me of one of my most memorable moments in teaching the Bible: When a Danish student said, “I don’t read the Bible because I don’t want to lose my faith.” Clearly he had faith. He experienced it in a ‘Gospeling’ community. And it was transformative. Yet he knew within the Text, there were many disturbing stories and conflicting pictures of God–at least how he read it, and he protected his faith by not reading the Bible. This has always stayed with me as I minister and teach here. I don’t think he is alone.

He isn’t alone, nor is the first commenter. We’ve been taught what the Bible “must be”, and know the “right” answer to Nappa’s survey … but haven’t let the Bible be what it is, and we haven’t learned what it says.

The post on pastors and theology takes this to another level. Scot’s post links to an article, a couple years old, in the Baptist Press that brings attention to a study of pastors who find that they no longer believe. The stories there are not uncommon and Richard Dawkins with others began The Clergy Project to provide peer support for those who find themselves in these shoes. According to Greta Christina, in a more recent article at AlterNet, the Clergy Project began with 52 members in March of 2011 and currently (June 2012) has 270. A common theme in many of the stories, but not all, is that the Bible itself led to loss of faith. … Not ignoring the Bible, but reading the Bible.

A quick web search will find several blogs written by clergy members questioning their faith. I won’t bother to link any here. Biblical inerrancy and infallibility permeates the issues on many of these blogs, A quote that often surfaces, attributed to Patrick Quigley (the Atheist Quote of the Day April 5, 2008):

“Before you offer commentary on Biblical stories, you should probably spend some time actually studying your Bible. Of course that can be dangerous to your Christian faith. Reading the Bible has probably produced more atheists than any other activity.”

In Greta Christina’s article one of the original members of The Clergy Project is quoted:

“I was always curious about the Bible,” she told me, “and read it, despite the fact that the church and its priests say, ‘Don’t bother.’ In it I found ridiculous stories that only furthered my confusion.”

This is not an uncommon view. A common tactic of those who aim to draw people into atheism, agnosticism, and away from Christianity is to ridicule the Bible, holding up problem passages and farfetched ideas.

The Bible isn’t the Problem and It Doesn’t Produce Atheists. Many years ago, when I was 25, I would have agreed with the unsettled commenter in the first quote above. The truth is clearly more complicated than I had been led to believe, and the Bible was at the core of the problem. For 20 years, give or take, I avoided much of the Bible with a bracketed off fear that to actually read more carefully was dangerous to faith. At this point though (not yet 55, but getting close) I no longer think this is true. Our attitude and approach to the Bible is a large part of the problem however. The Bible isn’t a magic book, a miraculous fabric woven together by a God “who does not lie”, but neither is it ridiculous stories, fables, and myths. At this point I find the power of the story and the coherence of the message far greater than I ever did in the past.

I think the first step to building a robust understanding of Scripture and the Christian faith is to hold loosely to our particular theological commitments and our doctrine of scripture. The second  step is to follow the advice of N.T. Wright:

We need to know the whole sweep of scripture from Genesis to Revelation. And this can only be known by reading the Bible. The Bible is meant to be experienced the way a great symphony is experienced.

Receive the Implanted Word. More wisdom on this subject is available from Scot in a talk, a sermon, he delivered in the Chapel at GRTS some four years ago. The talk was based on The Blue Parakeet, his Commentary on James, and the need to read the Bible formationally rather than instrumentally. You can find a recording of the talk here, just below the share buttons at the bottom of the post.

10 minutes in, looking at James Ch 1 verse 21:

… but this is the expression I want to focus on, “receive the implanted word which is able and powerful or capable to save your soul.”

… I believe we have to read the Bible daily. It is really a radical idea, daily. And I believe as pastors this is the most important thing you can learn. You have to learn to read the bible non-instrumentally. Not just for sermons, not just for solving problems in the church, not just for theology, but because it is the word of God. You want to read it and listen to it and hear it and read the Bible as story, not just as some kind of puzzle that you have to put together. … We read the Bible, we learn what it says, and we let it form us because it is implanted in us by God’s Spirit to transform us.

I found this to be one of the more powerful talks I’ve heard – and one I listen to again every so often.

Read the Bible Formationally. We don’t read the Bible formationally in the church or as Christians in much of American evangelicalism. We study it and we dissect it and turn it into a number of rules (oh, like the call for women to be silent and submissive). Or we attach it to palatable and entertaining moral lessons for 21st century life, often in the form of  mix and match verses taken out of context.

In either approach we more or less ignore the sweep of the story. Perhaps we think we know it – creation, fall, redemption, consummation. But this is a truncated and insufficient version – it doesn’t even rise to the level of a SparkNotes or Cliff’s Notes version. We don’t know the Old Testament, we don’t know the sweep of the story, we don’t teach the sweep of the story.

The irony of this is palpable. We preach sermons (or listen to sermons) that expound on the sayings of Jesus without ever putting them in the context of the prophets he quotes or the passages to which he alludes.

It is down right impossible to understand most of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John or what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 15 when he said he preached “that Christ died for our sinsaccording to the Scriptures,that he was buried, that he was raisedon the third day according to the Scriptures” when we don’t know the scriptures.

I think this is one of the biggest problems in the church today. We defend a doctrine of scripture, but we don’t know, or teach, what scripture actually says.

Hear the Word. I am going to go one step beyond Wright and McKnight. I don’t think most of scripture is meant to be read as much as it is meant to be heard. The Bible wasn’t written for a literate culture where people would pore over the nuance of every expression and compare and contrast version A with version B. It was compiled, recorded, and used in an oral culture. I think we would benefit from public reading of scripture and private listening to scripture. One of the most transformative sermons I have ever heard was given by a pastor who simply preached the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7. No commentary, no analysis – simply performed the text. The sermon means something to me today that it never meant before when delivered in bits and pieces with analysis over the first 45 years or so of my life.

I am currently listening to the Bible read aloud from Genesis through Revelation and when I get through I’ll do it again in a different translation with a different reader. At this point, midway through the book of Luke, one of the things that has really come home is the impact of the Jesus Creed. In Matthew 22:36-40 we read

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

This wasn’t an innovative mix of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. It wasn’t something Jesus, with divine insight, pulled together as a new law for a new covenant. It is, in fact, a summary of the Law and the Prophets. Read or better yet listen to the Prophets sometime with the Jesus Creed running in the back of your mind. The themes repeat continually.

Don’t Worry About the “Right” Doctrine of Scripture. I don’t think we need to worry that Christian teenagers don’t give Mike Nappa the answer he is looking for on his survey. I think we need to worry because most Christians know little of the grand sweep of Scripture, and this is devastating for the average Christian in the pew, and for our pastors and teachers.

Paul told Timothy:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

If we actually believed this passage, not just as a proof text for a doctrine of scripture, but as a lesson on the importance of knowing the scripture, and acted on it we’d be far better off.

What do you think?

Is the Bible part of the problem? If so what is the solution?

What is the whole sweep of Scripture?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If you wish to comment on this post please see The Whole Sweep of Scripture at Jesus Creed.

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