The Bible’s place

Mar 27, 2017 by

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In letters to the editor, I notice that no matter which side of an issue one takes, there seems to be an agreement that the final arbiter is the Bible. We think that if we would simply read the Bible correctly, our differences would fade away.

This conflict among Christians has been going on for at least 500 years. “Scripture alone” was the Protestant battle cry. Obviously, that hasn’t worked. Even the Reformation leaders who agreed that differences could be settled by Scripture could not agree on some basic things. Martin Luther and John Calvin could not agree on the nature of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Thousands of schisms later, is it not time to admit the Bible is not a unifying document?

There is irony in the Reformers proclaiming “Scripture alone.” The established church chose the books of Scripture. It took centuries to do that. Why did they think the church got the 27 books of the New Testament right while eliminating the Apocrypha? Luther was openly critical of some of the books of the New Testament.

The Bible is a testimony to a lack of unity among the people of God. We have the Bible because of disagreement in the church and among the Jewish people. The Apostle Paul wrote, “beware of the dogs” (Phil. 3:2), but didn’t suggest schism. He acknowledged some good might result.

Perhaps the Bible was given to us for a different reason than to arbitrate our differences. Perhaps it was given to us to enhance dialogue. The Jewish people have devoted much time and effort to argument and discussion. To disagree may not be a bad thing. I know it is difficult to claim as brothers or sisters those in our congregations who think the Bible says different things. It is especially difficult if the brother or sister is our pastor. Maybe over time we may see things their way, or they ours. Or together we may arrive at a new understanding. We may even find that we need each other.

Bible readers — scholars and laypeople alike — disagree. So it shall ever be. Yet, “we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph. 2:10). It will be a lot easier to fulfill our purpose if we stop trying to prove each other wrong by insisting our interpretation is the correct one.

Gary Schrag
Overland Park, Kan.

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  • Gary Hill

    Thanks for the conversation. I believe the Bible is given to us to help us hear God’s voice. How mankind interprets the Bible by definition involves subjective opinion. As each person produces their own opinion, differences are inevitable. The important thing, and I believe God’s intention in having these things written and passed on to each generation, is for any and all to hear His voice. I think hearing God is the greatest experience to be found in all of life.

  • Harold Miller

    Gary, you are right that Scripture is difficult to understand, that even persons who think that beliefs should “be settled by Scripture” cannot “agree on some basic things.”

    But should we sideline things that are often misunderstood, and say they are of little value? For instance, language itself is often confusing. Definitely letters to the editor like yours–and internet comments like mine–are often misunderstood, especially by those on different sides of the political aisle or theological aisle. Another example is science. Many times the data is confusing and hard to explain, and so scientists disagree. Each year it seems we find some food guideline overturned! Scientists might agree on most things, but then so did Luther and Calvin.

    We persist in valuing language and science because the times we do press through to agreement bring us so much benefit. That’s the case with Scripture too! That’s why our sisters and brothers through the generations devoted so much energy into preserving, copying, and reading what they called the Book. And why they quoted it so often in their Confessions.

    Yes, it’s easy to misunderstand the Bible. So let’s be careful to only push an interpretation to the degree that 1) we can show that it fits in with a main movement of Scripture, is part of a main biblical theme, and 2) we can show its exegetical probability. But let’s not demote the Bible and shelve it. Just as we don’t do that to language and science.

    • Matthew Froese

      To carry on with the potential misunderstandings of the written word: I didn’t read this letter as a call for the Bible to be shelved, but rather a call to honor the disagreements we have about the Bible as an inherent part of the role and purpose of scripture in our life of faith as a community. Expecting to disagree about the Bible from the start might change how we are able to disagree about it.

      • Harold Miller

        Thanks, Matthew, for pointing out that I shouldn’t have used the word “shelve.” Gary was not calling the Bible to be shelved but for it to no longer be a “final arbiter” and for us to use it like many in the Jewish faith do: as a springboard to “enhance dialogue.”

        You go on to suggest we should approach the Bible “expecting to disagree” about it. In one sense, yes, we are going to be disagreeing, due to our limited understanding as humans and difficulty in listening to each other. But I sense that you have no hope that the church will even move toward a common understanding of what the Bible says. Whereas, for me, I do have a hope that we can move toward discovering a text’s meaning (i.e., the meaning which would have been most plausible and natural for the biblical author in their context). Our life experiences often can help us see something in the text that we have previously been blind to. So we need to talk about our experiences (as you said yesterday in a comment elsewhere on the MWR site). But once we think we see something new in a text, if it’s really there, then we will be able to set forth some historical-grammatical evidence for that reading. (Surely we can at least begin to set that forth, show our reading’s exegetical weight.) And then as we listen to each other and learn from each other in community (with the guidance of the Spirit), our understanding will grow more complete and we will move closer to consensus. We have done this (moved closer to consensus) on many biblical themes. We can on current hot theme also!

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