The Bible is a unique work in human history. It isn't simply one book, but a collection of sixty-six books written by about forty authors in at least three languages over some 1500 years or so focusing on some of the most important moral and spiritual questions of all time.
One would think such a collection would be utterly incompatible; ideas and precepts would contradict each other on every page. Certainly, skeptics like to make such charges, but some Christians do, too. Take the prohibitions on homosexual relations as an example. In a recent discussion, Brian McLaren holds the passages banning homosexual sex no longer apply. He feels while the admonition was appropriate for those of the first century world, the modern nature of homosexual orientation and unions are something different and therefore the overarching principle of love should take precedence. McLaren pointed to other passages where Jesus seemed to also overturn scriptural commands, such as not working on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1-8).
Andrew Wilson, who engaged McLaren, disagreed. Wilson holds that Jesus' teaching about the Sabbath in the Matthew passage restores the original intent of the command. It doesn't change it. I tend to agree with Wilson, here. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was correcting the deviations that had snuck into the religious teaching of the day. Jesus is saying that the opinions of the Pharisees were misunderstanding the admonitions. He needed the people to learn the correct lesson.
A Proper Approach to the BibleThe thing I liked the most about the discussion is how Wilson clarifies the way each reader should approach the biblical text. Given there is so much content placed in different genres and written across different times and cultures, there can be places where one would ask “how should I understand this?” Wilson offers a method when reading the scriptures, which is to apply humility four different ways:
- Humility toward Community– We
must first ask how other good, stable Christians have understood such passages.
People have a tendency to slant or bend the ideas they receive towards their own
experiences, but by asking others one can mitigate such tendencies and pool
their common understanding into a more expansive view. This doesn't always mean
communities settle on the right understanding, but it is a good first step in
seeking a more reliable comprehension of the thought being conveyed.
- Humility towards
Catholicity-Beyond just the local community, one should also ask how Christians
across all cultural spectrums would see the passage in question. Obviously, in
the antebellum South, slave owners were wont to take Paul's command in Ephesians
6:5-9 as justification for slavery. However, others, such as William Wilberforce
and the abolitionist movement explained how chattel slavery was antithetical to
Christianity. If one were to humbly listen to those voices outside their primary
circle, they could come away with a new and more profound understanding of
difficult biblical passages.
- Humility towards
Orthodoxy-While current points of view are important, there is a basis of
orthodox beliefs against which all biblical interpretations should be measured.
The early church fathers labored incredibly to ensure they understood the
primary aspects of Jesus and the Apostles' teachings. Over the course of decades
and sometimes even centuries, these core beliefs were honed to precision.
Therefore, when one comes across a passages that isn't as clear, it is incumbent
upon him or her to make sure such beliefs do not undermine these essential
positions of the faith.
- Humility towards Scholarship-Lastly, one must realize there's a whole lot about a text he or she may not know. For example, how slavery in the ancient world of Paul had a much wider range of experience than the slavery practiced in the South. Scholars explore the ancient language, the cultural background, the types of uses of words, and the opinions of other scholars to come to their conclusions. A truth-seeker must be able to include their voices when struggling with a difficult section of scripture.
Whenever I speak with skeptics, humility towards the text seems to be the biggest thing they're missing. They want to believe passage X proves their point. Their stance may give them assurance, but it ultimately won't further the truth.