Trusting the Bible with eyes wide open
I grew up with total trust in the Bible. I soaked up its stories as a boy. God was at work in the world, and the biblical heroes and heroines got to join in! And I heeded its teachings. My parents modeled this: I remember my father greeting with a “holy kiss” the other ordained men in our district churches and my mother always wearing a “prayer covering.” Both behaviors were done because they read Scripture passages teaching those things.
As I grew older, I realized that this was a naïve, simplistic view of Scripture: Many commands in the Bible are written to specific situations and might not apply to us who live in a different situation. For example, the intent or spirit behind the holy kiss is “show warm affection to fellow believers.” In our culture, that is best achieved by a holy hug or firm handshake.
Second, I realized that the historical accounts in the Bible don’t always match our standards of historiography but seem to be in error. Many examples could be given, but here are two: Exodus 9:6 says “all the livestock of the Egyptians died”; but “all” seems clearly wrong when we compare it with vv20-21 and 11:5. 1 Chron. 22:14 says that David, to prepare to build the temple, amassed 3,400 metric tons of gold. Even commentators who are theologically conservative call that “glorious hyperbole.”
Third, I began to admit that many Bible texts fall short of the ultimate ethic God has in mind. For instance, some passages instruct slave-masters how to treat slaves rather than telling them to liberate their slaves.
After years of working through this, I still have a full attitude of trust in the Bible. After my initial naiveté as a child and then a stage of questioning, I now have a “second naiveté.” I again have total trust in the Bible — but now with my eyes wide open.
Yes, the Bible’s historical accounts contain “glorious hyperbole,” non-chronological narration, imprecise quotation, etc. But we need not label those as errors any more than we need to say a movie like Selma is untrue when it “adjusts” some dialogue or chronology. We expect the film writers to do that to make the film memorable and accessible; we still call it historically accurate. Also the Bible can still be seen as historically accurate when its writers “adjust” facts to give its passages more impact. It misled none of the original readers; it was what they expected.
Yes, there are biblical passages that are sub-par, texts seeming to affirm slavery, women being silent, etc. But those texts are not God giving instructions for all time. They are God instructing the people of that time, God accommodating to what those people could receive and do — something every good parent does.
What if God, to partner with humans without violating their wills, truly had no other possible choice? (The experience of us seeing sub-Gospel instances in the Bible could be analogous to us seeing a friend set out an ashtray in their home and invite a chain-smoking neighbor to use it. Perhaps that ashtray is not our friend encouraging smoking but is part of a commitment to relate to this neighbor who would stay away if he or she couldn’t smoke. This would be confirmed if we later saw our friend nudge and encourage that neighbor away from smoking.)
When we see Scripture as the story of God slowly moving humanity toward an ultimate ethic, then those sub-gospel instances of accommodation are no longer important. Scripture’s trajectory is what is important! Reading the Bible can be a series of discoveries that fill us with joy as we see beautiful glimpses of God giving people nudges toward the ethic of the age to come!
I have high trust in the Bible. With eyes open to its difficulties and complexities (to many of them, at least!), I still say that all its words are inspired by the Spirit of God who only speaks truth.
Harold N. Miller is pastor of Trissels Mennonite Church, Broadway, Va.
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