I realize that, given the way I described Scripture in my last post, I’ve probably created more questions than answers. One of those questions is likely something along the lines of, “If I shouldn’t read the Bible in the ways described by Christian Smith in his book, The Bible Made Impossible, how then should I read the Bible? How can Scripture help to cultivate a robust faith if I can’t get some simple spiritual truths out of each passage I read?”
Rather than offer a step-by-step process or a particular hermeneutic, let me start with sharing what the Bible self-evidently is over and against what it clearly is not.
The Bible is a collection of books written by myriad authors over a long period of time. It’s not a singular book, so we can’t expect the Bible to be perfectly cohesive and inerrant. A common response to this assertion would go something like this: “But wouldn’t the fact that God was the one behind it provide perfect coherence and inerrancy?” The problem with this line of thought is that it assumes that God was trying to communicate with us as opposed to communicating with the pre- and post-exilic nation of Israel. As Peter Enns asserts in his book, The Bible Tells Me So, we, as twenty-first-century, post-enlightenment westerners have extremely different notions of truth, and we value completely different things in our documentation of historic and current events. We can’t assume that, just because we think things should match up nicely, the ancient Israelites wanted that too. They likely didn’t, as evidenced by the lack of coherence found in the accounts of Israel’s history in the books of Samuel-Kings and the books of the Chronicles.
The Bible is Israel’s story, not ours. While there’s certainly plenty of evidence that Israel’s story is universal, it’s still Israel’s story, and the Bible must be viewed in light of Jewish tradition and through Jewish interpretive lenses. King Jesus, while often wrongly viewed and interpreted outside his context, was completely a part of first-century Jewish culture. We often think of Jesus as someone who overturned the Jewish law (and, by extension, mistakenly believe that Judaism was/is a religion of legalism and that Jesus came to introduce a system of grace over and against the previous system of Jewish law), but by his own admission, King Jesus did not “come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”
This is evidenced by his handling of Jewish customs. Both St. Matthew and St. Mark tell a story of King Jesus healing a leper (St. Luke records a similar story that differs in several notable ways, but the detail I’m referring to here remains the same). In both accounts King Jesus tells the leper to present himself to the priest and offer a gift “as Moses commanded.” He remains faithful to Jewish tradition and law.
In other cases, King Jesus blatantly challenges the law with statements like, “the Son of Man is lord over the Sabbath.” And in yet more instances, King Jesus takes the law and makes it even more strict: “You’ve heard it said, ‘Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.”
The sorts of interpretive methods that King Jesus employed were not uncommon for Jewish teachers of his day. Yet they’re completely out of place in today’s world. Simply put, King Jesus was very much a first-century Jew. A noteworthy and rascally one, no doubt, but a first-century Jew nonetheless.
After the stories of Israel’s national heritage as described by the pre- and post-exilic Israelites and climax of that story as told to us by the four Evangelists (St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John), we have yet another section of the Bible to contend with: the letters. I like to think of these as analyses of Israel’s story in light its culmination in King Jesus’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. St. Paul spent much of his time giving his thoughts on the matter. Bear in mind that his primary concern was how the story of King Jesus changed the trajectory of Israel’s story from insular to cosmic. Essentially, in the eyes of St. Paul, what King Jesus did was invite the other nations into Israel’s national story. When read through this lens, St. Paul’s writings take on a whole new meaning. Instead of a discourse on personal salvation (which is how most Evangelicals tend to read St. Paul) which would give off an air of exclusivity (some are saved, others are not), St. Paul’s letters become a treatise on national identity which then becomes invitational (you’re a part of this kingdom, now let’s do kingdom stuff).
So, how then should I read the Bible? Before I go there, let me quickly address one way to not to read the Bible. Don’t read the Bible as a manual for a good Christian life. You’ll probably fall into one of two categories. The first: extremely confused and frustrated about all the various contradictions. (Check out this post for an incredible, nearly exhaustive, tool for finding the various contradictions in Scripture. It’s mind-blowing!) The second: ignorant (whether willfully or otherwise) of these contradictions and adherent to some things in the Bible at the direct expense of others.
Okay, finally, to answer the question: how should I read the Bible?
Think of the Bible as a collection of books that tells a story. Each book (or section of books) has a theme within that story that it’s trying to address. The Christian Old Testament tells the story of Israel’s national origins. The Pentateuch (Jewish Torah) shows us what Israel is supposed to look like. The books of Samuel-Kings tell the story of Israel’s incorporation from the perspective of a nation in exile asking the questions, “What happened to us? I thought God promised to be with us no matter what, and now we’ve been dragged out of our homeland and are stuck in Babylon! What gives? What did we do to deserve this?” The books of the Chronicles tell the same story, but from a different perspective. The Chronicles were written around 200 years after Samuel-Kings and are meant to address the questions, “Where is God? After all these years, are we still his people? Will God ever fix this mess we’ve gotten into?”
Let’s skip ahead a bit to the next major plot point. The four accounts of the Gospel.
Here we have the culmination of Israel’s story. The big finish, if you will. Everything reaches its completion in the story of King Jesus (which is probably why there are four books to tell the tale). I won’t go into why these four books have such glaring discrepancies between them, but suffice it to say that there are four unique intentions, audiences, and goals that the Evangelists each have in crafting their stories of Israel’s Messiah.
Finally, we have the letters. Mostly written by St. Paul, the letters look back on Israel’s story and analyze it given the massive event that had just taken place: the arrival of Israel’s Messiah. This analysis led St. Paul to believe that Israel’s story was a universal one, and he spent much of his time inviting non-Israelites (called Gentiles in the Bible) into Israel’s story and then writing to them about how and why they were now a part of said story.
So what does this mean for my devotions? It means that as you read the Bible, keep these things in mind. Ask yourself some of these questions. What part of the story am I reading? Is it inviting me into the story? Is it describing to me what a messy life of faith might look like?
One final thought: The Bible never shows us the ideal life of faith (probably because there isn’t one). It doesn’t tell us how to live a good “biblical” lifestyle. Instead, I believe it describes to us just how broken and inconsistent a life of faith can be. It shows us how Noah got drunk and fell into depression. It shows us how Abraham lied his way through tough spots. It shows us how David gave into his baser desires and lost control of his family.
And it shows us that despite all of this, God still loved them, and they (however brokenly or imperfectly) returned that love in some way, shape, or form.
That’s how I would read the Bible.