A few of my well-worn Bibles
Before I get into the meat of today's post, I'd like to share a story. Several years ago, one of my sisters-in-law was struggling with faith. During a visit to us, she announced to me, "You're not a Christian."
Instantly, I became defensive. "What do you mean?" I demanded. "You have no right to say that. I don't allow anybody to decide whether I'm a Christian. Only God can decide that."
Her answer surprised me and instantly defused my anger. "Ruth, every Christian I know is so judgmental. You aren't."
What a sad commentary on the times in which we live. Let me state for the record that despite my SIL's words, I do struggle to overcome judgmentalism. And I believe my SIL was exaggerating the state of "all Christians" out of her own woundedness. Yet I have seen the judgment flung about by those who proclaim themselves Christians--of every denomination--and I have sometimes been hurt by that rush to judgment.
For instance, I know that some people think that it's not possible to be a sincere Christian and hold the beliefs I'm about to describe. On the opposite end, some people question the depth of those who hold more traditional beliefs. I would like to think there is room for all of us in Christendom. And so I'm going to describe a journey I've been on for the last 30 years.
It was a journey I never expected to take, but one which at this point is irreversible. It was the path that led me from fundamentalism to a more liberal view of the Bible.
For a long time, I had a fundamentalist / Evangelical view of Scripture. I was raised in a Baptist church and then went to Wheaton College, where I took the required Bible and religion classes. I was in a Navigators' Bible study for most of college. (If you aren't familiar with Navs, you can click here.) I didn't change my belief in a literal, inerrant Bible from lack of training. I was well grounded in that doctrine, and at one time, I had memorized many Bible verses supporting it.
However, as time passed, I found that I couldn't continue to read the Bible in the same way. There were too many questions, too many things that made a literal reading impossible for me. I now believe the Bible is inspired by God but shaped by the human beings who wrote it, and therefore it contains some flaws that we have to work through to get at what God wanted to say. I will briefly recount the steps of my journey, more or less in order—not to try to persuade anyone to abandon their views., but just to explain my own.
1. Some things seem to show that the Bible contains passages that belong to an entirely different belief system or to an older mythology. I offer two examples:
When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Gen. 6:1-2In the six-hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. Gen. 7:11
I have heard many complicated explanations of each passage, but I don't find them as convincing as the obvious explanation that this shows that the Bible contains remnants of more ancient documents
2. At Wheaton, I took a class in the Bible as literature, which taught that the Bible is a collection of many literary genres: letters, poems, historical chronicles, etc. To fully understand what passages are telling us, it is important to read them with their genre in mind. If someone sent you a poem, you would read that differently than you would read a prose letter from the same person. For example, I once heard a sermon on Isaiah 65, and the pastor said with all seriousness that verse 20—No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed—meant that in the new heaven and new earth, anyone who didn't accept God by the age of 100 would drop dead. He'd read the verse literally instead of figuratively, and robbed it of both its sense and its beauty.
3. Although I clung for a long time to a belief in a 7-day creation, I have finally let that go. I believe now that the creation story teaches us truths about God and humans, although not the exact facts of our origins. I have no idea how evolution and creation mesh into the truth of what really happened, but that lack of knowledge doesn't disturb me. I can accept mystery when it comes to God.
4. Some passages make sense to me only if they are put in a cultural perspective—by examining who wrote it, what the issues of the time were, and who the intended audience was. One example is the following passage from I Timothy 2: "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor." When I read that passage literally, it tells me that sin has so damaged women that they can never be redeemed enough to take full part in the life of the church. That puts limits on the saving power of God, which I cannot accept. But when I remember that the early church developed out of one patriarchal culture (Judaism) and was fighting to survive in an even more patriarchal culture (Rome), the distrust of women makes sense. It also seems to be something that belongs in the past.
5. There is precedent in the Bible itself for deciding that some passages are not fully in keeping with God's will. In Matthew 19:8, Jesus said, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way." In essence, he was saying, "Well, this part of the Bible is wrong. It's not truly God's will. It was the best we could do because your hearts are so hard."
Although my approach to the Bible has changed, I still view it as the foundation of my faith. To quote the Book of Common Prayer, I believe "Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary for salvation."
For the last four years, I've been attending my pastor's Bible study and learning how to study the Bible seriously even when I don't accept its every word. They have probably been the most challenging studies I ever participated in over the course of my 35 years of doing Bible study. We look for the broad patterns of the Bible. We examine the historical, cultural, and literary context and see what it adds. And if things contradict each other (which they sometimes do), we make the best sense of the contradiction that we can. Most of all, we ask questions and learn to live with the tension of not having it all perfectly clear.
Even though I use a different approach to the Bible, I take it as seriously as I ever did.