What’s The Bible, Again?

I made the comment in passing on Rachel Held Evans’ blog yesterday, but it bears repeating here (and even if it didn’t, it’s my blog, right?!):

When we debate issues such as women in the church, the underlying debate is “What is the Bible?”

At the beginning of the year, I posted some thoughts on what are pressing issues for evangelicals: gospel, gender, human origins, and the Bible.

In fact, the “What is the Bible?” question is the one that most fundamentally underlies all of those. But the differences aren’t about those who take the Bible as authoritative versus those who don’t. It’s not about people who are inerrantists versus those who acknowledge errors.

Behind even those kinds of debates lies a plethora of competing ideas about what the Bible is: is it a handbook for life? is it the maker’s instruction manual? is it a theology text–the revelation of the eternal counsel of God?

My blog is called “storied theology,” provocatively sub-titled, “Telling the Story of the Story-Bound God” because all of the theological and exegetical particulars that get worked out here are built on the prior commitment to the Bible as, fundamentally, a lengthy narrative.

Why does this matter?

For one, it matters because in stories people change.

For another, it matters because as stories and their characters develop, different actions become acceptable or not, real changes take place, because the circumstances have changed.

In stories, there are false starts and dead ends–for characters, for groups–but the story can continue.

When reading stories, our imaginations are shaped. We are changed, not by legal requirement or didactic necessity quite so much as visioning a new world and being drawn up into it.

I take recent kerfuffles about women and about Adam (see today’s Kevin DeYoung post and James McGrath’s reply) to be manifestations of conflicting ideas about what the Bible is, and how it functions as sacred scripture.

There is a compelling pull from the conservatizing elements, compelling because it feels more biblical to see certain passages in a given way. Treating the whole Bible as a treasure chest full of compatible theological insights is one way to treat the Bible with respect as God’s word.

Except that this is not the Bible that God has actually given us. We do not have a systematic theology text. We are not given the easy task of taking one verse and assuming it will fit with the rest.

Instead, we have a story. We have God in dynamic relationship with people. We have a Redeemer who actually changes what it means to live as the faithful people of God on earth.

Christ’s is a narrative that transforms the others. His is a story that reinterprets not only the biblical promises and commands and stories that came before, but also the lives that follow after.

Reading stories is easy. Interpreting them well is difficult.

For evangelicals, this difficulty lies at the root of our various partings of ways. First, we need to start thinking about the Bible differently. Then we can start talking about what it’s actually trying to tell us.

14 thoughts on “What’s The Bible, Again?”

  1. First off, I like the blog layout change (it was different whenever I added you to my RSS).

    Second, I completely agree that a lot of these questions come down to asking what the bible is/is not. I was reminded of that after working through Enns’ new book and reviewing it for the blog tour, and now I really want to go back revisit some of these issues in more detail.

    I think its somewhat ironic that the seminary curriculum usually places bibliology up front, but you don’t really have the framework to deeply evaluate it until you’ve worked through some other issues.

    Or at least it was like that for me.


  2. Whatever may be the perceived advantages of your biblical framework, it seems to me that it is weakened by the fact that “story” becomes whatever interpretation is convenient to the person interpreting it,

    Also I would take issue with your argument that people like Kevin Deyoung take the Bible as a “treasure chest full of compatible theological insights.” I’ve not read any serious biblical interpreter who would say that. I would be interested in what you think Paul meant when he said that scripture was God-breathed, that does seem to be a crux of what the Bible is. Inspiration. What is inspiration?

  3. I am hopeful that the idea that the Bible is primarily a narrative-and should be interpreted as such-is gradually starting to trickle down from academia (and pseudo-academic bloggers like me) into the mainstream of evangelicalism. I have seen encouraging signs even this week with Ed Stetzer’s interview with Sally-Lloyd Jones (http://www.edstetzer.com/2012/02/thursday-is-for-thinkers-sally.html). If Lifeway is starting to talk this way, there may be hope.

    You make an important point that is often missed by people trying to hold on to their vision of the Bible as some indexed instructional manual: The people who embrace the narrative character of the Bible are NOT rejecting its authority. Authority does not HAVE to rest only on propositional truths. For some reason, this seems to be a hard concept for some people to grasp. In fact, one of my recent blog posts was an attempt to demonstrate that most people DO intuitively understand that narratives can be authoritative; they just don’t know that they know it.

    And I think you’re totally right, by the way. “What is the Bible?” is going to be THE big issue impacting evangelicalism for quite a while.

    1. In my experience, when making the point you made above (about authority not having to rest only on propositional truths, which I agree with), the comeback is often, “Well, where does authority reside then? With the interpreter?” As if the only other option is to put ourselves in a position of authority over the text – and, by extension, over God himself.

      Personally, I think it’s a false choice. I don’t think it’s about putting myself in a position of authority over God’s Word. It’s a matter of letting the Bible be what it intends to be and not trying to turn it into something else.

      But I think you’re right that this is going to be THE big issue affecting the church, and this is how some will contextualize the debate.

  4. And to say fairly, I would say that I do not believe the entirety of the bible is given as a story.

    I tend to think of the world revelation. The bible is God’s self-revelation to us (in history, poetry, wisdom, love letters, instructive letters, and even gospels). We read different parts differently, but always, ALWAYS, with the expectation that we are seeing the God of the universe reveal himself.

  5. I think Wolterstorff is right when he suggests that scripture ought to be viewed primarily as God’s speech/word- not revelation.

    It seems to me that Scripture is not so much a depository of propositional truth as it is a fellow actor in the drama. The text of scripture is one of us- one of the elect. Through it God accomplishes things. Through speech acts, he formed Israel and ultimately Christ, etc.

    1. propositional truth is not what I intend by revelation. My view of revelation is simply in the word. God is revealing himself.

      This is a wonderfully freeing way to read the bible, as it allows me to look at how God reveals himself in different situations, using different literary methods. It allows me to come to the bible with respect, but not try to make everything fit into theological precepts.

  6. Matthew, I think I see what you are saying, but when Speech is treated only as Revelation (and pick up any Systematic to see that this is the default practice), then it seems to me that we run the risk of misunderstanding what God is saying.

    For example, if I look down from the ladder and tell my son to ‘pass me the paint’, and he truly believes his first natural response is to reflect on ‘what is this revealing about Dad?,’ its gonna piss me off. I want the paint bucket.

    Commands, laments ect are not assertions. They oughtn’t be evaluated in terms of true/false. I think that it’s the way we translate all of God’s speech into assertions of propositional revelation, which gets us into the whole Errancy/Inerrancy debate.

    God not only spoke in scripture, he speaks in scripture. And through that speech, accomplishes many things. Sometimes he even reveals things about himself that would be hidden otherwise, but not always.

  7. Well said. When I have encountered people in a debate on some issue or other, I have often thought that really where we need to start is at the root of the disagreement, which is often not the object of disagreement as much as one’s fundamental beliefs. These would include the Bible, but also one’s theological views. I would compare it to talking to an Atheist. You don’t tell the person, “because the Bible says so”, since that text is not authoritative for them. Your starting point has to be somewhere else. I find it’s much the same way with other Christians. We often need to get to their fundamental belief about God, His nature, etc. in order to understand from where their views originate. THAT should be our real starting point. However, even this does not guarantee that we can change hearts and minds. In fact, we can’t change anyone’s heart or mind–that’s something that only they can do once they weigh all the evidence and then choose to do so (or not).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.