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Takes on the scientific worldview that says the Bible is outdated and un-believeable.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

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The un-Gospel

To hear many evangelicals today, the Gospel goes something like this: “For God so hated the world that, in his white-hot fury, he sent his only Son to save a relatively few lucky souls out of it (the lucky mice who find Jesus the cheese in the maze), and then, when the oil runs out in the Middle East, Jesus is coming back with our grandmothers who already went to heaven. Up in heaven, our grandmas have developed quite a violent streak while spending time with Jesus, plus learned the arts of war, and Jesus will be done with all that talk of forgiving your enemies, so He is returning with our grandmothers to kill everyone who hasn’t figured it all out yet, probably starting with the Muslims, but maybe also the Soviets. Once the battlefield is six feet deep in his enemies’ blood, God will burn everything He ever created on this planet to a cinder, including everyone and every place and everything you’ve ever loved. You see, even God himself can’t fix his world without resorting to the same kind of violence used by Rome against his Son, and used by IS in Syria today. And all those people who didn’t hear about Jesus or figure out the truth about which religion was right are going to have their lives sustained over trillions of years while they burn on fire. But those of us in heaven won’t mind, because we will forget anything sad about Earth. The End.”

It’s stunning we’ve had the audacity to actually call this “good news” when in fact it’s bad news for almost every person God ever created, and terrible news for all the living beings in all the world. This isn’t the Gospel, it’s the un-Gospel. And it’s what tons of people in church in America actually think the Bible teaches.

It’s no wonder people in our culture today, both modern and postmodern, hear a story told like that and say “I want nothing to do with something as sick, toxic, and twisted as that. I want to be a better person than I am right now. And do good in the world. I want to believe a beautiful story, not a dark and awful one. I will go check out Buddhism.”

I’m so glad that’s not the gospel, although for many years I thought it was. Most of historic Christianity has not believed this dark, terrible tale. The Bible tells a much better story than this, we just need to take off the 19th-20th century American evangelical glasses and learn to read the Bible for what it says. God, it turns out, has a long range project going on to heal and restore and redeem the world. He is not going to burn it to a cinder, our translation of 2 Peter is terrible, check most commentaries. As is made clear across Scripture, God plans to rescue all creation, the planet Earth itself, as all creation longs for the day of its liberation. See John Wesley’s comments on Romans 8: 19-22. We have every reason to be optimistic about the future, because God is at work in the world, and Jesus has triumphed over sin, death, and hell. Everything: economic systems and governments, societal justice and the environment, individuals and nations, is called to be transformed under the Lordship of Jesus.

That’s the Gospel.

Why Nazarene scholars won’t embrace inerrancy

So I received in the mail one of those little books who people with a burning message on their hearts find the resources for which to mail a copy of their book to every pastor in America, or, in this case, every pastor in a particular denomination. This book was mailed to Nazarenes, and addresses Nazarenes specifically and by name throughout, arguing that the C/N has walked away from an inerrancy view of Scripture and that we are in grave danger. Nazarene theology texts, and even letters and emails to and from Nazarene theologians, from both today and several generations ago, are quoted throughout.

I read the whole thing while grilling some fabulous tilapia (give your tastebuds a shot of shalom and baste with McCormick’s Baja Citrus mix). There were no new arguments here, just the same ones we are familiar with: if you can’t trust the bible in every single assertion, no matter how far from the subject of salvation, you can’t trust it for ANYTHING. (Somehow, I have been able to be deeply in love with Jesus, and follow Him intentionally and in every way I can think of, all these years, without believing in the kind of inerrancy the author does… but that’s not good enough). The author does, however, with his selected texts, cause it to appear that Nazarene theologians once, several generations ago, held a strict inerrancy, but then those same theologians moved away from it within their lifetimes.

And that’s the thing. There’s a reason Nazarene scholars won’t embrace a strict inerrancy (we hold that it is inerrant in all things pertaining to salvation). The reason is that we can’t unlearn things we know about the Bible. We can’t unlearn all the places throughout the Scriptures where it is apparent we are not dealing with the words dripping from God’s own mouth, Qur’an-style. Paul can’t remember who all he baptized. People who bash enemy infants’ heads in on stones are blessed. Paul requests his coat be brought, cause its chilly. Paul says “now the following words aren’t from the Lord, they are my opinion…” The Book of Daniel is a hodge-podge cut and paste of languages and first-person, third person, with several dating issues, highly unlikely to have been written by one person named Daniel. It’s clear the Pentateuch really is comprised from multiple sources. Big deal, what’s the problem? I don’t’ have time to list the examples. The author of the mailed-to-you-free! book does the typical inerrant argument: if Jesus referred to Moses as the author of the Torah, then the documentary hypothesis can’t be true! This is such a strange idea, as if Jesus’ goal were to correct any historical or cultural or scientific misunderstandings  his generation entertained! And ignores basic concepts of how language works. (I call my son’s car ‘Tanner’s’ even though it’s legally mine.)

So anyway, here’s my takeaway. Nazarene scholars won’t embrace the fundamentalist inerrancy view, because of the evidence right in front of them as they look at the Scriptures.  Apparently our early scholars also came to that conclusion as the evidence stacked up in front of them. Interesting, to me, is that hundreds of years ago committed Christians were noticing the same things in the texts – including Adam Clarke, John Wesley, John Calvin and Matthew Henry! Our fundamentalist friends indicate you can’t really embrace the Scriptures and follow Jesus without strict inerrancy, but history shows that plenty of people do.

More from George MacDonald on Jesus over the Bible

Here’s some more from English mystic/poet George MacDonald’s sermon “The Higher Faith.” Here he says “It’s Jesus, not the Bible. Don’t get them mixed up.” I have put in bold some of what really jumped out to me.

  • Sad, indeed, would the whole matter be, if the Bible had told us everything God meant us to believe. But herein is the Bible itself greatly wronged. It nowhere lays claim to be regarded as the Word, the Way, the Truth. The Bible leads us to Jesus, the inexhaustible, the ever unfolding Revelation of God. It is Christ “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” not the Bible, save as leading to him. And why are we told that these treasures are hid in him who is the Revelation of God? Is it that we should despair of finding them and cease to seek them? Are they not hid in him that they may be revealed to us in due time—that is, when we are in need of them? Is not their hiding in him the mediatorial step towards their unfolding in us? Is he not the Truth?—the Truth to men? Is he not the High Priest of his brethren, to answer all the troubled questionings that arise in their dim humanity? For it is his heart which Contains of good, wise, just, the perfect shape.
  • …. “But is not this dangerous doctrine? Will not a man be taught thus to believe the things he likes best, even to pray for that which he likes best? And will he not grow arrogant in his confidence?”
  • If it be true that the Spirit strives with our spirit; if it be true that God teaches men, we may safely leave those dreaded results to him. If the man is of the Lord’s company, he is safer with him than with those who would secure their safety by hanging on the outskirts and daring nothing. If he is not taught of God in that which he hopes for, God will let him know it. He will receive something else than he prays for. If he can pray to God for anything not good, the answer will come in the flames of that consuming fire. These will soon bring him to some of his spiritual senses. But it will be far better for him to be thus sharply tutored, than to go on a snail’s pace in the journey of the spiritual life. And for arrogance, I have seen nothing breed it faster or in more offensive forms than the worship of the letter.

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.