BIBLE: Feeding Love

Major religions usually have a canon of writings that articulate the faith of the community and instruct their believers. Inspired texts are gathered together and honored as Scripture. Such documents enjoy a special status and are regarded as derived from a divine breathing. [Wilfred C. Smith, What is Scripture? A Comparative Approach (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993).] Creating a scriptural canon is the best way to conserve the treasure of revelation in history and transmit its insights to succeeding generations. To have these insights objectified in holy writings prevents them from fading in memory and being misrepresented. [On inspiration, see Paul J. Achtemeier, The Inspiration of Scripture: Problems and Proposals (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980), Bruce Vawter, Biblical Inspiration (London: Hutchinson, 1972), and William J. Abraham, The Divine Inspirationof Holy Scripture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).]

The Christian Revelation

Faith recognizes that scripture gives access to revelation and to the community that embodies it. The sacred books convey the theological model of faith and shape believers in it. But Christians will not feel as nourished by the Gita, or Buddhists by the Qur'an, as they would by their own scriptures. The other scriptures are alien to them and do not convey their own model of faith. Believers more naturally turn to the scriptures that convey and nourish them in their own model. That does not deny the value of reading the scriptures of other communities. There is enough common ground to make the exercise edifying, and knowing what others believe is essential for interreligious dialogue.

The Bible is the foundational document of the Christian church, and the revelation we have received is transmitted through this witness. The category "Word of God" is larger than the Bible, referring as it does to Jesus himself and to the word proclaimed, but God's Word is uniquely mediated through the writings that describe and convey our saving encounter with God.

Statements about the inspiration of Scripture in the Bible are more practical and functional than theoretical. Paul speaks very practically when he says that the Scriptures were given by the Holy Spirit to instruct us for salvation and to equip us for good works (2 Timothy 3:15-17). His emphasis is on the profitability, not the inerrancy of the original text. The apostle does not encourage us to speculate about inspiration but to profit from Scripture. He sees Scripture more as a means of grace than as an encyclopedia of information. And despite the humanity of the witnesses, the Bible is supremely profitable and shapes our lives. [James D. G. Dunn, "The Authority of the Scripture According to Scripture," in The Living Word (London: SCM Press, 1987) pp. 89-136.]

The Bible does not occupy the central place in Christianity that the Qur'an occupies in Islam. For Christians the Bible is subordinated to Jesus Christ, who alone has center stage. The Bible is not (like the Qur'an) alleged to be a perfect book dictated by God, untouched by any human or historical factors. [Hans Küng, Christianity and the World Religions (New York: Doubleday, 1986), pp. 19-36] The Bible is a more ordinary book and plays a more ordinary role. We preach Christ from the Bible, not the Bible as such. While inspired by the Spirit, the Bible is an anointed human testimony to Jesus Christ, a treasure in earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7). The humility that placed the Son of God on a peasant woman's breast, allowed him to be arrested as a common criminal. And the good news of the gospel was proclaimed in a vulgar tongue. The divine humility chose to give God's Word in very ordinary human forms. [Jean Levie, The Bible: Word of God in Words of Men (London: Chapman, 1961), and Clark H. Pinnock, The Scripture Principle (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), pt 2.]

Protestant confessions declare the Bible infallible for faith and life. This is a book that does not fail us . An ordinary ruler is good enough for the work that children do but not infallible for making engineering drawings. The best ruler is crooked when compared with a laser beam. The issue is not whether the Scriptures are inerrant for all purposes. The question is what sort of authority they have and what sort of truth they convey.

What Is the Bible For?

Evangelicals have spent a good deal of time and energy defending the inspiration of the Bible. It is time to give more thought to the Bible's function. In defending the Bible we may have left the impression that it is a book only for skilled apologists and expert interpreters.

The Bible is a book that feeds and equips the believing community. [Stanley J. Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the Twenty-first Century (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), chap. 5.] It is a source of sustenance as well as a deposit of truth. The Spirit-inspired Scripture in the past is to be God's instrument in the present, an ever-fresh revealing of God for those on the pilgrimage of faith. It is so much like a sacrament (an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace) that we wonder why, as the theology of sacraments developed, Scripture was not set among them. Certainly the Bible has been a primary vehicle of grace and blessing to the saints. From it we have derived the content of faith, receive instruction and are nourished. We might consider the Bible a fundamental sacrament underlying the others.

Religious ideas are easily twisted, and ideas about the purpose of Scripture certainly fall into this category. People have the strangest ideas about what the Scriptures are and how they function. Some think the King James Version (1611) is the original Bible. Others use the Bible as a storehouse of proof texts for constructing their doctrine or projections of future events. Moralists use it to create systems of law, and the hardhearted employ it as a weapon against their enemies. [Donald K. McKim, What Christians Believe About the Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985), and David H. Kelsey, The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975).]

We need to remember that the purpose of the Bible is practical. It was not given as a collection of texts for systematic theology. It nurtures a liberating relationship with God in a rich variety of ways - through narratives, prophecies, wisdom and teachings. We believe not in the Bible but in the living God attested by the Bible. We celebrate the power of this book to nourish life in relation to God and others. The Bible is a rich and diverse witness that draws us into the story of redemption and into living out that story ourselves.

Interpreting the Bible

How do we interpret the Scriptures? First, by making use of the tools available to us, we try to discover what the original authors were intending. We uphold the primacy of their intended meaning because we respect these writers as inspired by God and want to know what they had to say. We want to discover how God's truth was actualized in their hearing. [Ben F. Meyer, "The Primacy of the Intended Sense of Texts," in Critical Realism and the New Testament (Allison Park, Penn.: Pickwick, 1989), pp. 17-55]

Second, we read Scripture as witness to the saving activity of God. It tells us how God's purposes are being worked out in history and it puts us in touch with the Christian story. God who created heaven and earth has done mighty things for humanity, and the biblical narrative tells us who we are and gives us an identity in the new community. We can never exhaust Scripture, but we can continue to penetrate the depths of its revelation..

Third, we read the ancient text in our modern context, straining to hear what the Spirit is saying now and open to what God is doing in our day as he makes all things new. The Spirit uses the Bible to move us forward toward the heavenly city.

We must be careful not to allow our prejudices to get in the way of hearing the Word. It is easy to notice only what we want to hear. To counter this (at least in part), we should listen to others in the community when they tell us what they are finding in the Bible. We may receive from them interpretations that have thus far eluded us but that we need in the present. [Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1991), and Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992). Osborne deals more with the horizon of the text and Thiselton more with the horizon of the reader.]

The great books of literature which we regard as classics remain relevant over the centuries and go on illuminating lives. But the Bible is much more than a classic text. Though we seldom read any ordinary book more than once, we can engage with the Bible again and again every day over a lifetime, because it embodies the revelation of God whom we worship. It serves as the main means of our hearing God's voice today. It does not just convey information; it leaves its mark on our lives, and never goes out of date.

Not only does the Bible speak out of the past, but it addresses the future as well. It speaks of a new world that is coming. Thus it ignites hope and creates significance. The Bible should not be thought of as a closed circle, because it is open to the future fulfillment of God's promises. When we read it we do not just look back to original meanings but to God who indwells us and is leading us forward. The text will point us to where we are going as we listen to God's voice. The Bible opens up a new world and bids us come and inhabit it. In that sense it is our revelatory text. [Sandra M. Schneiders, The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).]

Imagine that we were to find the unfinished text of a Shakespearean play with four acts complete, and the final act lost. What would we do? Surely we would ask experienced actors to immerse themselves in the four extant acts and then project where they think the play was heading. This is like the situation we face with the Bible. We have four acts complete and find ourselves having to actualize what they are pointing to. We have to be faithful to what is written, but we have also to be creative and open to where the Spirit is taking us. The context for this ongoing application of the Bible is the fellowship of the community that follows God as he leads us forth into greater freedom.

Meditating on Scripture

Because God's Word is dynamic and open, we need to learn to meditate on Scripture. Take a narrative, a psalm, a promise, a warning - and let it become something personal for you. Let the text be a living word, let it take root. Receive the word into the soil of your heart, and ponder it as you wait on God and listen. You will be made clean by the word that is spoken to you, and you will become rooted, built up and establish in faith (Colossians 2:7). God gives us the Bible not just for information but for transformation, for the reordering of our lives. [Jeanne Guyon, Experiencing the Depths of Jesus (Goleta, Calif.: Christian Books, 1975).]

Those who cannot read or readily grasp the ideas of the Bible have teachers to explain the Scriptures. Philip was sent into the desert to help the Ethiopian to understand the prophet Isaiah (Acts 8:26). Teachers write commentaries and feed the faith of others by mediating Scripture to them. Inevitably, teachers interpret the Bible according to a tradition, such as the Baptist or the Anglican tradition of the writers of this book. This reminds us that we are not dealing only with a reader and a text but also with a community and a tradition.

The parable of the sower explains how some hear the Word of God but do not allow it to germinate in them. Others receive it with great enthusiasm, but not deeply. For a while they believe, but in a time of testing they fall away. In others the anxieties of life and material pleasures hinder the Word from maturing. Jesus concludes by pointing to another possibility: "But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance" (Luke 8:15).

People around the world are nourished by the Word of God as a result of Bible translation into their own language. In hundreds of cultures throughout the world, the Bible has brought churches into being and nourished them in the faith. It is not cultural imperialism to want to see the Bible in every language, because the gospel offers humanity vast possibilities for freedom that ought to be known and available to them. It is a message people have the right to decide about. To withhold the Bible from them would restrict their choice and prevent them being able to consider the truth that has liberated us. Money and fame are not the motivation for Bible translation, but a passion for the truth that sets us free (John 8:31, 36).

Bible and Community

Christianity is characterized by a new kind of fellowship (Greek koinonia), and the Bible is central to maintaining this. It enables people to enter the conversation of the triune God with the people of God. The Bible makes the conversation happen. It gives us the language for conversing with God. We come to it with our hopes and fears, wanting to be nourished and renewed. We bring our questions, we argue, and we find ourselves being changed. We know it to be the inspired Word of God because of its effect on us.

It affects us as individuals as we feed upon it alone in times of quiet. We also hear the Word in the community. Churches can exist among illiterate peoples, and in these circumstances the Bible is read aloud, expressed in liturgy and explained by teaching. But even in literate settings we feed on the Bible indirectly through hymns, prayers, readings and proclamation in our local congregations. The lectionary gives us a balanced diet. of readings, exposing us to biography, proverb, narrative, prayer, instruction and parable. All of these forms function in various ways to speak to us and to engage our lives as worshipers.

The community also receives the biblical metaphors indirectly through hymns and liturgy, preaching and prayers, bodily gestures and dance. Children are nourished from their earliest days on simpler versions of the biblical metaphors and stories in their education classes. Young believers may come to the Bible with muddled components of various faith models learned from their peers.. As the Word speaks, they begin to sort things out and discard what no longer works for them. Questions are addressed to the Bible, which in turn gives them new insight, and the model is refined and tried out in their very difficult real-life situations.

Reflection on Scripture is never finished. We need constant reformation and renewal. It is important to grow as hearers of the Word of God, to get beyond looking to the Bible as a magical book of answers and to see it as the Spirit's witness to the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. We must open ourselves to the whole Bible in all its variety and listen to it not only as individuals but also in community, allowing ourselves to be shaped by what others find. We have to be bold enough to take responsibility for fresh applications in our present setting, and allow ourselves to be transformed in the direction of greater love for God and one another.

The Bible is not always easy to interpret. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Christians used the Bible to justify keeping slaves! And some are still trying to use the Bible to keep women in their place. Others, in reaction, reject the Bible outright because they think it requires a patriarchal God and dominating husbands.

We think the problem can be solved with a little effort at fresh exegesis. If Paul could have asked slaves to submit to their masters without supporting slavery (as all agree he did), could he not have asked wives to submit to their husbands without supporting male dominance over women? [Craig S. Kenner, Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women's Ministry in the Letter of Paul (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1992), p. 35] In this and all other difficult social situations we come to the Bible with our questions and, by struggling with the text, find directions of hope and love to guide us. [Willard M. Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1983).]

Shifting Models

Christians have to test the models they use for understanding various aspects of biblical revelation. Even if we are equally committed to the Bible as the Word of God, we may differ sometimes as to what model to adopt. Denominations use different models to explain their application of Scripture. Because of the text's complexity, it is hard to read the Bible without any model whatsoever. But models can be compared and allowed to interact with one another. One model can be set over against another to see which is most helpful.

We experience a shift of model when someone presents us with metaphors that are different from the ones we are used to. The challenge may come not in an intellectual form but in unsuspected ways. For example, music may convey a new understanding. New songs may herald a change of model. The Methodists produced a whole new set of hymns that carried the freight of the evangelical revival in an affective form. In our day the songs of the charismatic renewal and the work of songwriters like Graham Kendrick signal theological and spiritual change. The exuberance of praise encouraged by such songs is in obvious contrast to restrained traditional worship. The older forms were rich in content but weak in spontaneity. The new music challenges the notion that the church is to consist of one big mouth and a lot of little ears. There are cultural factors at work, but a new model is directing us to the loving heart of God and setting us free.

The Bible provides the raw material both for constructing explanatory models and correcting them when needed. The Bible is infallible; our models and interpretations are not. When others contest our model, we do not conclude that they are heretics. Not everyone will reach exactly the same conclusions as ours. If they choose to live by another model, it does not follow that they are unspiritual. We are all fallible interpreters. We welcome differing opinions, not as relativists but because truth is the goal of our striving and it is not arrived at quickly and easily.

That means we are committed to a particular model by which we live, but we are also open to change. Ours is a pilgrim, not a fortress, theology. Our theology is on a path of discovery. When we make mistakes, we return to the main path and begin again. We may be able to understand a metaphor in a new way, or find a larger model that is more elegant and compelling than our present one. It is always enriching to explore different models for interpreting the Bible and to learn from others whatever we can.

The writers of this book both came to the conclusion that the Bible teaches a model of God's creative love, but we recognize the right of others to develop and pursue other models. We are interested in the models offered by Christians everywhere as possibly valid ways for understanding the Bible we have in common. We have tried to encourage the living and ordering of our lives by a model of creative love theism, but above all we commend the confidence that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all the truth (John 16:12-13).

Chapter 16 .....