We are introducing a new class in our church. It will be accompanied by blog posts, discussion, videos online, reading etc. This is the first installment in that class.
What is the Bible?
This is a question that I get all the time. And what I have found is that people are all over the map on how to answer it. I had a wonderful conversation with good friends this last week. They were taught that reading the Bible with a “literal” lens is the only way to understand the Bible. That means that everything the Bible says is literal and must be interpreted as actual and factual. So, when the Bible talks about the four horsemen of the apocalypse, there will be four literal horsemen - red, black, white, and pale. And there is no room for understanding or interpretation or historical influence there. Numbers are literal. 144,000 means 144,000 in heaven. So, you better be awesome! Or else!
THE NEXT DAY, I had a great conversation with another great friend who believes that the majority of the Bible is allegorical. That means that NOTHING or at least very little in the Bible actually happened. But that these “legend like” stories are there for the purpose of teaching us God’s principles, but there is no truth to them in their historical content, only in their principles.
Both of these people love God, serve God, and have a real desire to see the world come to know God through His son, Jesus.
So, which is it? Or is it something else? Or a blend of the two?
The goal of this post is to simply introduce what will be the building block for our moving through the Bible and how we should understand it. At least from my perspective…
Real People, Real Place, Real Time!
This is HUGE in my mind. If we are going to understand the Bible as it what intended to be understood (this is called Authorial Intent or what did the author mean to say), then we are going to have to wrestle first and foremost with the historical context into which the Bible was written. Not the content firstly, but the context. Understanding the context gives us profound insight into the content. Surprisingly, the Bible was not written to a 21st century western audience. Not even close. Understanding the audience of the text itself will help us dramatically in getting to what the Bible is saying and why it took the time to say it.
If conservative scholarship is correct, Moses wrote Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These books (known as the Pentateuch to the western church, but better spoken of as Torah) are the foundation stones upon which all the rest of Scripture is built. Understanding their purpose and goal gives us the capacity to allow it to say what it says and not force it to say what it doesn’t say.
Let me give you an example…
The Creation/Evolution debate has hinged in Genesis 1 for those who take a high view of Scripture. Is the 7 day creation story literal? Is it allegory? Is it something else?
I will deal with that particular issue in more detail later. But what if it is something entirely different? What if the Bible is not a science manual? And what if Moses is trying to make another point altogether? What if he was never trying to say how, exactly, things happened and in what order? What if the historical context allows us to see some other possibilities?
I am not trying to make a case for the foolishness of a literal 7 day creation. There are many people who are doing some incredible research on the validity of a one week creation and its impact on the world as we know it. What I am saying is that maybe “how” it happened specifically is the wrong question entirely. And perhaps sticking the story back into its context opens up the possibility of new and refreshing lessons to be learned. Not that we “lose” the creation debate and how things happened, but that we let the Scripture say what it says and don’t force it to say what it doesn’t say - either direction.
There are 3 keys to understanding the Bible according to authorial intent: Context, Genre, Author.
Context - What is the contextual situation for the writing of the book itself? This changes from book to book within the Bible. But it heavily influences the content.
An example: If we were to write the Bible today in America, there would be somethings that we would have to address. What does God think about healthcare? Where are our moral lines? What do we do with democracy (a topic never discussed in Scripture because it is not a part of the word of the Bible)?
These things would have to be placed in our text, because it is the context that we live in. And maybe we would love everything that God had to say about our context and our choices. And maybe we would be floored by the audacity of what God was asking us to hold to and what He is asking us to let go of. All of us would hope that wasn’t the case but if the 1st century world of Jesus is any indicator, I am confident that even us Bible scholars would be stunned. And sometime we would even walk away from the difficult teaching.
By placing the Bible back into its context, we begin to be able to deduce the principles at stake and their application in new ways. But for this to be an effective approach to studying the Bible, we must know everything that we can about the world of the Bible and what was going on. What were the hot topics of the day? What discussion was already being had around these topics? Who had already weighed in and what was their worldview? What was the political situation? How was the audience being treated by the political leaders? What was the religious situation at the time? What did they know about God? What did they not have revealed yet? These are just a few of the “Context” questions to ask of a passage.
Genre - What type of literature is this? And why is it being used to convey this truth?
An example: The Psalms. These are songs that are part of the Jewish Bible known as the Writings. We call them “Wisdom Literature.” Through out the centuries the Psalms have been a source of comfort for people in a myriad of situations. They have also been a way for people to find words to express incredible gratitude to God for who He is and how He has interacted with us. From the depths of Psalm 51 to the commitment and resolve of Psalm 119, these are great places for strength and comfort.
However, it is important to remind ourselves that they are songs. And, therefore, poetry. This places the Psalms in a specific kind of literature that is heavily influenced by the genre of poetry. So we should assume we would see hyperbole, plays on words, idioms, repetition, and metaphors. These writing styles, interpreted ONLY literally will lead to all kinds of distorted truth. The words of the Psalms - every letter, every breath inspired by God Himself - must be interpreted through the lens of the genre that they are written in. This doesn’t make things more muddy or subjective. Quite the opposite! It clears things up dramatically.
Author - Who is the author? What is his/her personality like? What message is the author trying to convey? Why would this person write about this message?
An example: Matthew is a Jew writing to Jews. You would assume that he would use all kinds of Jewish teaching techniques to communicate. And that is absolutely accurate. You would assume that he would work hard at telling the stories about Jesus’ life that are particularly telling to Jewish people who Jesus was and what His mission was all about. And you would be totally accurate.
Paul, on the other hand, also a Jew but writing to a primarily gentile audience, writes from the worldview and understanding of the Roman world. He pulls from pagan philosophy and addresses the pantheon of gods, which Matthew leaves completely alone.
John, also a Jew, is a pastor to a bunch of people trying to figure out how to live out a life faithful to the mission of the Kingdom of God in a culture where they could literally be executed at any moment. His huge heart for his people is evident in all his writings. And this helps us understand some of his more difficult stuff like the book of Revelation. John is conveying his heart for his people and hope through the eternal nature and power of Jesus. He is not PRIMARILY trying to tell them how things are going to end at the end of time. Reading Revelation with a perspective of John’s huge heart for his people is the first step towards a better understanding of one of the more confusing books in the Bible. Then placing the book back into its genre and context changes the game entirely.
I do not believe that the first readers of the book of Revelation would have gotten out their white boards and tried to fit together terms like Rapture, and Millennial Reign, and Dispensation. I think they wept as they wrestled with the implications of this letter on their lives right where they were. And I also think we should have the same response.
So, some questions to get the discussion rolling: 1. How hard have you worked at understanding the Bible for what it is?
Where can you go to get some more information about how to get started understanding what the Bible is and how it fits together?
What difference would it make in your life to know these major pieces of the Bible: context, genre, and author?
What do you do when you see truth applied in a new way?
AND TO BEGIN A CONVERSATION FOR THE NEXT SESSION:
- Outside of the order of creation or how long it took, what other ideas or principles could Moses have been wanting to express in the creation story of Genesis 1?