Another great read: “What is The Bible?” by Rob Bell

With the longest-ever subtitle! “How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything,” Rob turns his considerable writing talents to recommending the Bible to the world to read. This is a fantastic and engaging intro to the Bible for people who have blown it off, and an invigorating wake-up to people who “know” the Bible but have thought they already have it mastered.

Bell does a lot in this book:

Takes on the scientific worldview that says the Bible is outdated and un-believeable.

Takes on questions about the shocking violence.

Takes on questions about the Bible supporting un-enlightened views about humanity, and does a good job of demonstrating that human rights were advanced in radical egalitarian ways throughout the Bible.

Does a great job explaining that the story of the Bible moves on… that some things later in the story supercede and replace ideas earlier in the story.

Takes on the view that the Bible is boring and unrelated to our lives today, demonstrating handily that the themes of the Bible are exactly the issues we struggle with today!

In short, Rob addresses our modern world and says to them – come read the Bible! You’ll be surprised and glad you did – this is amazing! And, will change the way you think and feel about everything! In the process, Rob talks a lot about the God of the Bible and our ability to have a relationship with Him. And what He wants.

Don’t be put-off that the first chapter about Abraham is a teeny bit “racy,” it’s common editorial work to try to hook uninterested readers. The rest of the book proceeds at an un-controversial, yet fast-moving, humorous, engaging, utterly worthwhile read. Do it.


Honest Conversations about the Bible

I’ve written a few posts about biblical inspiration, and some of the conundrums we face in trying to understand the human and divine interface in the Scriptures, and what that means for interpreting and applying  the Bible. Someone might ask, Why talk about this at all? Just believe!

Quite a few reasons, compelling ones for many people. (In no particular order), first, with widespread exposure to other cultures and the world religions today, many people ask “How is the Christian Bible different than any other religion’s Scriptures? Why would I consider it more authoritative than any other one?”  As hard as this may be for some Christians to comprehend, circular arguments that basically boil down to “because we say so” or “because the Bible claims that God says so” do not convince people. I’ve watched many young people walk away from church because no one would offer them better answers than “just believe what we tell you.”

Secondly, people know that the Bible has been used by Christians to promote some pretty terrible things: slavery, Crusade, racial prejudice, hatred, to name a few. This makes them wonder if the problem is in the Bible or Christianity itself and if there is anything good and life-giving to be found in either. They also know Christians have used the Bible to disagree with science, (for example: Galileo, Copernicus, and the earth revolving around the sun), and latter realized  science was actually right.

Third, people have enough information today about history, archeology, the human input to the Bible, and how the Scriptures were gathered together, they wonder how to reconcile the human aspects of this Book with the claim that it is Divinely inspired. As I’ve mentioned before, when they read Paul saying things like “I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else” or “now this isn’t a word from the Lord, it’s from me…” they wonder how many other places like this reflect the human element in Scripture, and in what sense it is Divinely-inspired. Psalms about bashing infants’ heads on the rocks in revenge cause them to wonder the same thing.

Fourth, people have figured out that certain parts of the Bible are true-er than others, and we are to treat certain parts of the Bible differently than others. For example, look at the book of Job. Throughout the book Job’s friends make theological arguments they insist are true. But at the end of the book God Himself declares that they were wrong and so were their statements. So, throughout the book of Job, we have theological statements about God that God later says are incorrect. We clearly would be mistaken to assume that the speeches of Job’s friends are to be understood as revealing the truth about God. If we are to learn the lesson from the Book of Job, we have to see the larger picture painted by the whole book, and not assume every verse is equally true about God. God Himself says they aren’t. We would mis-understand the clear intention of the book of Job if we treat each verse as equally, literally true.

I want to keep this short, so I will come around to this subject again later. But suffice it to say, 21st century people have many, and sometimes new, questions about the Bible’s true-ness, and working through a doctrine of Inspiration that makes sense of everything we know is important for those who don’t want to “check their brains at the door and just believe” whatever we tell them.

The Hallmark Card Theory of Inspiration

Once a brilliant friend of mine who works for Compassion International told me about a theory of biblical inspiration he had heard about in graduate school. He had never been able to find any information on it, and neither have I, but both of us were intrigued by the potential movement forward that could possibly be in, near, or around this idea. He had heard it called The Hallmark Card Theory of Inspiration.

“It’s like a Hallmark card,” he said. “You pick one up and read it and say ‘that’s a good card! That’s exactly how I feel about my wife.’ And you buy it.” In a similar manner, this theory says, God did not inspire human authors proactively while they were writing, but He looked at what some people who loved him/ were sensitive to His Spirit,  were saying about Him and started picking things. “That’s a good letter, I’ll take that. That’s a great story, it describes exactly what I’m like, I’ll take that too. I’ll take these four gospels about Jesus – they got it right…” etc. etc.  In this view, God is picking the best, the truest things that have been written about Him and pulling it together into what we have today – the Bible.

A theologian friend of ours, Dr. Eric Flett of Eastern University, commented, “Ah, like the adoption theory of the atonement, except for Scripture.” Well, yes.

This reverses the order in which we typically imagine Inspiration occurring in. We tend to think top-down. This is bottom-up. One thing for sure, bottom up is how the books of the Bible were collected. The people of God agreed that this letter, this gospel, these psalms, etc.  are life-giving and spark and nurture our relationship with God when illumined by His Spirit. Even in cases where a portion of Scripture is given (the Mosiac Law Code), the people of God still decided, generation after generation, to keep it.

I suppose that the assumption of the Hallmark idea is that it isn’t that every word of the Scripture is the absolute truth about God, but that the book/letter/collection of psalms/etc. as a whole reveals important things about God, the best available at that time. This Hallmark idea, though it certainly doesn’t solve all our questions about Inspiration, (and in fact raises plenty of its own), brings several things to my mind.

1) Brevard Childs’ thought on canonical exegesis.

2) C S Lewis once commented on what he figured was the relative nature of inspiration, or inspiration by degrees. He said something along the lines that he assumed that the prophet Isaiah felt a much stronger thrust of inspiration from the Spirit than, say, the writer of 1 Chronicles. Upon hearing it, this seems common-sensical to me. Did the court historian of 1 & 2 Chronicles even have any idea he was writing Scripture? I’m going to go with “probably not.” Did Isaiah know he had a message from the Lord? Absolutely.

3) I have also heard something similar described as an “incarnational” model of Scripture, in which God accommodates inspiration to the limitations of the world-view, such as the historical and scientific knowledge, of the writers.

So, if there is anything helpful in the Hallmark Card Theory of Inspiration, where do we go from there?

Next time: Why talk about this at all?

Paul didn’t have a BACKSPACE button

I went down to Hagerstown, MD yesterday to have lunch with a blisteringly smart and gifted colleague who also used to happen to be one of my protégées. We were riffing back and forth on the subject of inspiration and how evangelicalism has a strong feel for the ‘divine’ part in Biblical inspiration, but we don’t have a very robust sense of what it means that the human writers were involved. As a result, many folks end up with an operationally Qur’anic view of Scripture (the words falling directly from God’s lips – the human hardly involved at all except as a typewriter). In contrast to this, my friend says “It’s not like Paul had a backspace button.”

In fact, it appears Paul didn’t have his laptop with him a lot of the time – he can’t even look up (nor remember) who all he baptized. And that faulty memory… is part… of Holy Scripture (1 Corinthians 1: 14-16).

And so here’s Paul, pacing back and forth, ripping off a letter (with his secretary writing as fast as he can to keep up), dealing  with whatever church issue he was responding to, ranting at times, and he makes a side comment to further illustrate the point he’s making. He makes it on the fly, not sitting around wordsmithing at a computer screen. We preachers  do this all the time in sermons. Add a line or two spontaneously that we think helps further illuminate what we are saying from a different angle. But after the sermon, if pushed, we might say “Wait, no – that one comment wasn’t the point of the sermon – I was just adding that – don’t try to make that one example carry too much water – it only works if you look at it this way…”

If this is the case, we have a problem when we get a Qur’anic view of Scripture lodged in our heads, (all divine – virtually no human influence) and as a result start acting like all verses are equal. So you end up with Luther grabbing a sentence or two from Paul (made on the fly?) and concluding that the Mosaic law was a bad thing. Later you have Calvin come along, take a much broader look at what the whole New Testament  –including Paul – has to say on the subject, and conclude that the Law was a good thing.

Paul didn’t have a backspace button. And it looks very much like he was ranting in some of his letters – moving fast, making his point, falling into poor grammar and mile-long sentences. In everyday human life we give people the benefit of the doubt and say “Well, he didn’t mean that the way you are taking it. He was just making his point. Don’t take that with the same level of seriousness as when he is calmly, carefully stating his point…”

Is there a way for us to accommodate the human factor in Scripture as well? Paul’s memory in 1 Corinthians 1 isn’t the only place we come across indications there is more to the human aspect of inspiration than simply being flesh-and-blood keyboards. Luke states unapologetically that he did a bunch of research  in order to get the story straight about Jesus (Luke 1: 1-4). The Psalms express a range of very human emotions, including the desire to kill an enemy nations’  infants by smashing them on rocks (Psalm 137:9). Anyone ever heard of the phrase ‘noncombatants’ ? Whatever we are going to do, it seems we ought to be thinking carefully  how to deal with the very human aspect of what we mean by ‘Divine Inspiration.’ What sort of metric can we use to factor this in?

Is the Bible’s Story What We Say It Is?

The way that the Bible’s story is often pitched in evangelicalism is that the point of life is that everyone has sinned, thus infuriating God and causing Him to send everyone to hell, and you have to ask Jesus to forgive you or you won’t go to heaven. So the point of life is actually afterlife, getting to heaven. Sometimes this story-line is expressed with an even more sinister tone:  a friend of mine the other day summed it up when asked, What’s the point of earth in this version: “just a testing place to see if God will let you into heaven.”

But I noticed some time ago that if you read the Old Testament you would never come away with this story line. Reading the Old Testament, the point of it all doesn’t come across that everyone is sinful and God will take you to heaven if you ask forgiveness. In the OT, the storyline goes more like this: life on earth is being ruined by violence, oppression and injustice. God wants people to live uprightly, the opposite of those things, and to follow Him and His ways for a good life here. Jesus, when asked, summed up the OT with “loving God” and “loving your neighbor.” The point is explicitly summed up in verses like Micah 6: 8

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

This is a story about life on earth and how God wants it lived, and that the problem is the destruction of shalom here on earth. This is not a story about earth as a testing ground to see who makes it to heaven.

Consider the following books and ask yourself if their message is about making it to heaven: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy? Chronicles? Kings? The Psalms? Esther? Jonah?  The Prophets? Hmmmm.

As for after-life, in the Old Testament we get a comment about resurrection in Job, a two verse mention of the Great Judgment in Daniel, and a handful of verses in Psalms about escaping Sheol or dwelling with the Lord all my days.

The Old Testament seems to be about life on earth. But we talk like the New Testament is about life after earth. Why the switch of subjects? Is there really a switch? Or have we simply prioritized some texts, skipped over or misread others, and assumed things about phrases like ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ which are different than what Jesus actually meant? If we assume Jesus came as an answer to the problem presented in the Old Testament, why do the New Testament answers (as we typically discuss them) sound like they are about a different problem?  Some have suggested that we have gotten this point-of-life-is-escaping-hell-and-gaining-heaven from the soaking Christian theology got via passing through Greek philosophy. Perhaps we’ve developed a Christianity focused so much on afterlife that we’ve missed the point of much of the Bible.

To be fair to the fundamentalists…

In this post  I wrote about the fact that Nazarenes are not fundamentalist, despite there being a group of Nazarenes who want us to be, and who want us to adopt a fundamentalist position on Scriptural inerrancy.

But to be fair, I’ve been asking myself something on the Fundamentalists’ behalf.  Some of these folk have made the argument that the Church of the Nazarene has historically been Fundamentalist and inerrantist and that Nazarene scholars in the last 60 years have cherry-picked their history so as to re-cast it to show we aren’t Fundamentalist. Indeed these Nazarenes cite examples of Fundamentalist, inerrantist statements by some Nazarene leaders in the early years.

And so I ask myself; what if a person grew up in a geographical region where most Nazarenes there were historically Fundamentalist? What if their pastors and the leaders they had known were all Fundamentalist? What if what it meant to be Nazarene to them was, in fact, largely fundamentalist? What if the nearest Nazarene educational institution to them did indeed communicate in ways that sounded consistent with a Fundamentalist worldview or perspective on the Bible? Is it the way of Jesus for me to say to them “Go be Baptist”?

I don’t think the Church of the Nazarene would be better off Fundamentalist. I do think current Nazarene scholarship has accurately shown that the official theology of the early Church of the Nazarene – and certainly after the 1950s – was intentionally NOT Fundamentalist or inerrantist, even if there were some few individual scholars or prominent leaders who did lean that way.

While I believe an inerrantist and Fundamentalist approach to the Scriptures and life creates more problems and dysfunctions than is good for human well-being, I don’t know how to solve that issue in all fairness to Nazarenes who find themselves cherishing their Nazarene experience when it was largely Fundamentalist. I understand why they would feel we are trying to steal their church out from under them or change what they have always believed.  And this leaves me wondering how to address their concerns in a way consistent with the nature of Jesus. “Love covers over a multitude of sins.”


Fundamentalists among the Nazarenes

The Church of the Nazarene is not fundamentalist. We have intentionally and specifically avoided a fundamentalist position on the Scriptures. Theologian Thomas Jay Oord recently discussed why Nazarenes once again rejected turning our statement on the inspiration of the Scriptures toward a fundamentalist stance. You can read it here:

However some Nazarenes want us to adopt a fundamentalist view of the Bible and Christian faith. Knowing what I know about the Bible, I can’t embrace a fundamentalist position on inerrancy. However, it’s not their stance on the nature of the Bible that I have the biggest problem with: it’s the attitude that so often accompanies that stance. A book about cross cultural ministry, written by Duane Elmer (from the conservative Trinity Divinity School), in discussing ethnocentrism, describes well the attitudes that are not only ethnocentric, but which I also encounter too often in conversation with fundamentalist brothers and sisters. This attitude is what I think is fundamentalism’s worst mistake. Here is what Elmer wrote:

“Dogmatism refers to the degree of rigidity with which we hold our beliefs, our cultural traditions, our personal preferences. The dogmatic person… tends to see difference as wrong or inferior which must be corrected. … After being around a dogmatic person very long, one can feel put down since there is no room for exploration of ideas or dialogue. Conversations usually become win or lose confrontations. Dogmatic people can easily burn relationships and sometimes are downright obnoxious. They talk as though their way of seeing things is the only way. If you don’t see it their way, you are wrong…. They claim they are (argumentative) in an attempt to find or defend truth.

….there is a subtle tendency for me to believe that all my beliefs are indisputable and all my cultural traditions best. I slide easily into judging you from my cultural, personal or theological perspective.

….Social research says that the most frequent response Americans make to a situation is to evaluate (it) as right or wrong, good or bad. Usually the standard for such judgments is how similar or dissimilar it is to me and my beliefs. … we try to remake those around us in our own image…. People end up looking more like us than like Christ.” (Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility; IVP 2006).

It’s that attitude that “we are right and everyone else is wrong; ours is the ONLY way to see it, and those who disagree don’t love God and aren’t even Christians” that repels me from fundamentalism.