Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Reading the Bible - A Primer

Reading the Bible at a simple level is quite easy. The "milk" of Scripture, as Paul would say--the story that God created everything, chose the Jews as His priests, sent Jesus as His Messiah, and offers us eternal life in return for faith and loyalty--is written simply enough for a child to read and understand.

However, as I have pointed out often before, those who mature as Christians and wish to start exploring the mysteries of our faith need a bit more discipline in how they read. God did not write the Bible as a "FAQ" guide, so there is much which is not explicitly stated in the text.

So if you are wishing to read at a surface level, you will find the basics you need as a Christian. You will find that you are supposed to live a life of honor and goodness, and that God will help you do it. You will also find that this life is not what gets you eternal life, only faith in Christ delivers that to you.

But if you wish to go deeper and begin exploring God's revelation to you (and, I would argue, you should desire this as you mature as a believer), we need to understand a few key principles.

Today there are three things I would recommend for those starting to really study the Bible in detail:

1. Remember Belote's IFF Principle

A few weeks ago I wrote about my IFF principle of reading the Bible. When reading a passage you should ask, "Is the Bible true IF AND ONLY IF my interpretation is correct?" If the answer is "Yes," then this is an essential interpretation and you must believe it as a Christian. If the answer is "No," then you need to be willing to give grace to other believers who interpret it differently.

Take Genesis 1, for example. Is the Bible true IF AND ONLY IF the Earth is 6,000 years old? No, there are many plausible Jewish and Christian explanations for an older Earth. So we can give grace to each other on this topic. However, is the Bible true IF AND ONLY IF the Jewish God (YHWH) is the only God and only Creator? Yes, because otherwise Scripture is explicitly opposed. So this is why we oppose a concept of randomized evolution--any body style changes in all fossil history had to be under God's control.

Remembering the IFF principle will help you focus on the core message of the Scripture, rather than getting pulled aside into unimportant theological debates.

2. Consider the Culture and Context

I have written several times before about Biblical culture. You need not know anything about culture for a surface and "key points" understanding of the Bible, but if you want to delve deep and understand how to interpret difficult passages, culture and context are important.

We often make the mistake of thinking the Bible were written yesterday in Washington, D.C. Or we make the mistake of thinking that everything happened in "Bible times" or that all the books were written with knowledge of all the other books.

The reality is that the Bible--though all inspired by the Spirit--was written by dozens of different men across thousands of years of history and in many different cultures. The culture of Corinth in the mid-first century AD is radically different from the culture of Judea in the Gospels a few decades before, and both are radically different from the culture of Joseph's Egypt, which is radically different from the culture of Abraham's Ur, and so on.

If you wish to understand the Bible in true depth, you're going to need some primers on Biblical culture. My recommendations for a good staring place are: Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era, and The Archaeological Study Bible.

(Or you can just read my articles here, because I love all this kind of stuff and write about it in short form a lot.)

3. Reading for Truth rather than Fact

If you've seen the Indiana Jones series, you'll remember the scene where Dr. Jones tells his class that archaeology is the search for Fact, not Truth. If they want truth, he says, they should go to the philosophy class down the hall.

We are a fact-obsessed society. We believe journalism is so important that it gets mention in our first amendment, along with freedom of speech and religion. Journalists telling factual, objective truth is so critical to us that we blast those who blatantly show their biases (like Fox News). We expect every detail to be accurate, precise, well-documented and sourced, objectively written. We expect our Scriptures to be history textbooks and science textbooks and written with the cold objectivity of a master journalist.

We expect, in short, our Bible to be a book of "Facts About God."

The problem is that what God gave us was a book of "Truth About God."

The Bible's goal is to reveal to us the great theological truth that God created the universe, that man fell into exile and rebellion, that God chose a nation of slaves and turned them into a Holy Priesthood, that God Himself took human form to pay for our sins and grant us eternal life, and that God will one day remake a New Heaven and Earth for us to live with Him in.

The Bible promises us the truths of the universe, the answer to the great mysteries of life. And instead, people disbelieve in it because they want to read a textbook or newspaper account.

People were no doubt shocked when I told them in my Pentateuch series that Genesis genealogies weren't complete and exhaustive. Of course they weren't. No one in history cared about doing that...until modern Western culture. What matters to Moses when writing Genesis is that we can have confidence that Adam led to Abraham which led to Israel--and therefore they are inheriters of God's promises since Creation. What made absolutely NO difference to them was creating an ancestry.com account with every single detail.

Some people are scandalized to find that Matthew's history of Jesus' genealogy might not be exhaustive (even though the evidence is clear that it is not). They cannot fathom that Matthew would rearrange his facts in order to prove the TRUTH--that all of Jewish history could be divided into three periods, and Jesus was here to end the final age. That Matthew used a standard literary tendency at the time is not okay with them.

Some Christians spend huge portions of their lives trying to tie together Revelation prophesies to predict the second coming of Christ--completely missing the fact that prophesy is not written to give us facts we can use for prediction, but rather to give us the truth so we know, "When these terrible things happen, it is part of God's plan."

Christians hate that Matthew organized His account of Jesus' life by topic rather than by chronology, and that other Gospel writers moved things around into different orders to make theological points. This is no fault of the Biblical authors--it is a myopic view of our culture. We expect our biographies to begin at birth and go to death and have very little commentary in between--just give us the facts, we'll draw our own conclusions. But this is not at all how most writers throughout history wrote, and certainly not how the Spirit inspired the Bible.

Never forget that the Bible exists not to give us facts to decide between, but to communicate Truth in an inescapable way. If Matthew thinks this is best served by putting all of Jesus' teaching about the Law together in one sermon, so be it. As long as Jesus said the things, what difference does it make if they were spread over a few months rather than in one afternoon? Matthew rearranges it for our convenience, and so we can better understand the scope of the teaching. If Luke decides to be mostly chronological because he is writing to a Greek reader, so be it. If Mark decides to focus on Jesus' suffering and ignore other events, so be it. If John--writing years later--decides to repeat almost nothing and instead fill in gaps missing from the other accounts, so be it.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Biblical authors communicating God's truth in a non Western-journalistic mindset. They were under no compulsion to simply begin at the beginning and create a chronological, objective, just-the-facts-ma'am account of God and history. Indeed, they seem to have had the opposite compulsion by the Spirit: to create a topical, highly subjective, Divine-Truth-based account of God and His interaction with man.

Keep these three things in mind and you will enjoy a very fruitful experience in reading Scripture.

1 comment:

  1. Well stated, we too often try to read the bible with rose, white, & blue tinted glasses and do so without being able to avoid the gravitic forces of our own human, self-centered, natures. Those are two VERY powerful sources of distortion!