I was recently asked to review a book for a theological journal. The book absolutely made me nuts. I found it to be pretty much a crime against the environment given the trees that gave their life for its production. I think it was kind of a final straw kind of thing because I’ve had a growing frustration with a certain kind of use of Scripture. I had the same feeling reading this book that I had listening to a paper at the annual SBL meeting a few months ago. And its been frustrating because I’ve had a hard time putting my finger on what makes me nuts. But writing the review shed a little light on my frustration. So, if you decide to read on, you’re entering a rant-zone that basically let’s me get this off of my chest. I’ll ask you not to print this out so that trees won’t pay the price for my therapeutic needs.
There is an overwhelming tendency on the part of some, mostly evangelicals, to read the Bible as a handbook or compendium of wisdom on any number of topics. Let me be clear by what I mean. In the book that I reviewed, the purpose of the book of Acts or Paul’s letters was to provide us with principles or lessons for doing ministry in urban centers in our 21st-century world. That sounds reasonable, right? But its wrongheaded. By dividing Acts up into bits of practical advise, the large theological themes and literary structures, the really good stuff, got buried underfoot. This kind of reading takes our eye off of God and places it instead on Paul as strategist. And I’m pretty sure that’s a mistake. Same kind of thing at SBL. Dude took the big themes of 2 Corinthians and turned them into principles, complete with alliteration, for ministry.
This seems to be a pretty popular way to read the Bible for evangelicals. I had a church member give me a book, written by an evangelical, about the essential oils mentioned in Scripture, as if their scattered appearance throughout Scripture were there to unlock some divine health plan. You know these books. The Bible’s seven principles for a good marriage. Or, the Bible’s principles for financial freedom.
Fact is, very little of the Bible is written for giving models or principles or general advise on things. The only book that comes close to this kind of intent is Proverbs. When we read narratives primarily to reveal principles for financial freedom, we’ve likely missed the force of the narrative.
Beyond this problem, however, there’s only one way the Bible could function as a compendium of principles. It would require that there be a one-to-one fit between the world that produced Scripture and the world we live in. If the world assumed in the Bible was the same as the world in which we live, then maybe, maybe, we could read the Bible as an advice handbook, or as a set of formulas or principles for our use today. But our world is not a one-to-one fit with the world that produced Scripture. Different economies, different cosmologies, different social structures, different political realities, different family structures, different understandings of the natural world. This is the error of fundamentalism. For the Bible to be “true,” there has to be a one-to-one fit between the world described in Scripture and our world. This simply isn’t the case either for “truth” or the fit between these worlds.
So, when we read the Bible for seven principles for a happy marriage, we are likely reading into our formulations family structures dictated by ancient economic realities with attending gender roles, ancient understandings of the biology of procreation, values related to patriarchy, etc.
Let me make a few things clear at this point. In some ways, the values of the ancient world are superior to ours. For example, the communal understanding of identity verses our individualistic notions. Even where this is the case, however, it takes some creativity to bring those values to bear on current circumstances. It’s simply not a one-to-one proposition.
Second, I think the Bible has all kinds of things to say about how we spend our money or how we live within our marriages. I just don’t think this happens by turning the Bible into a list of principles or precedents. How does it happen? By pointing us to God and encouraging us to live in the life offered in the communion of the Triune God. When that happens, we have more wisdom for all of life. And this seems to be a better use of what we actually find in the Bible. There are very few formulas for success, or list of principles for leadership, or treatises on missionary principles and practices.
Well, I feel better.
Right on, Mark. I think the impulse to interpret Scripture in this way arises from the perceived need for “relevance” – which is defined as the need to respond to questions people are asking (about how to have a better marriage of be financially secure or what have you) so that they’ll listen to Scripture. Sort of a bait-and-switch approach, and it assumes it’s up to us to package the Bible in a way that makes it more palatable for human consumption in the 21st century. But there must be better ways to bridge the gap between “then” and “now” – not least because the “seven steps to a better…” (there are always seven steps, right?) completely excises large sections of Scripture. (No one’s asking Hosea’s thoughts on marriage, for some reason…)
Anyway, well said.
Thanks, Patrick. I think the relevance thing is a factor. But I think it has to do more with how conservatives read Scripture in the first place–the fact that they see in every detail a mirror to reality. If that’s the case, every mention of an essential oil is important.
The kind of books you describe fill the bookshelves at bookstores across the country and people are buying stacks of them. While in the MREML at Rochester, one term became increasingly meaningful. “We have abdicated our hermeneutical authority.” I think these books with “seven steps to this, or five ways to that” are simply a reflection of our inattention to scripture. These books illustrate our hermeneutical laziness. Rather than train ourselves to hear scripture, we just want someone else to tell us what it says. That leave us in a vulnerable and dangerous position.
My time in the MREML continues to be such a great blessing. Perhaps the greatest blessing has been a desire to live a life shaped in the presence of the Triune with my ears and heart turned towards His voice. I pray that I am nurturing that same posture in my students.
You make a program director proud!
1) How I would say what you’re saying: Scripture is not (firstly) prescriptive. It is FIRSTLY descriptive. Wisdom? Yes, but…scripture is firstly SHAPING. We don’t intellectualize our way through the world. We are shaped and then we live out our lives in the manner that we have been shaped. Scripture can shape without our having to “get” it.
2) On another note, nor does scripture contain formulas for atonement or salvation.
Agreed on #2. And I think I agree with #1. I think that’s a hard distinction to make hermeneutically. The line between the two is tough to maintain, which is why your qualifier “firstly” is important.
Bouncing off what Patrick said…
I think both the push for “relevance” and the way many Evangelicals read Scripture, which you have done a great job of diagnosing, Mark, may both be symptoms of a deeper cause – namely a sort of turn away from doctrine (properly understood), and toward experience as the foundation of faith.
Phillip Cary’s excellent “Good News for Anxious Christians” touches on a lot of the themes you mention above, as well as several others. As Cary writes late in the book, “When doctrines like the Incarnation and the Trinity are not taught, we start to forget who Christ really is. We start to think of Jesus as if his job was teaching us how to live rather than being the Savior of the world, and we start to use the word ‘God’ generically, as if it had nothing in particular to do with Christ. In this way, Christian experience itself becomes less and less Christian. It comes to be less about the person of Christ, and therefore less personal and more abstract. … Just think about how many Christians you know would answer the question, ‘What is your faith really about?’ by saying something like, ‘It’s about experiencing God working in my life.’ It’s an answer that does not require Christ or mention his name. In a church where that is the expected answer, Christ is in the process of disappearing from view, so that the experience they’re talking about is becoming less and less Christian with every generation.”
My suspicion (and assertion) is that a few generations in, this type of reliance on and subsequent corruption(?) of experience results in a very distorted view of Scripture, which you outline. Likewise, it results in a very consumerist and generic spirituality, which wants to be largely unconnected from “religion.”
I really like this rant and very much agree!
When we begin to worship scripture we become like the Pharisees. We worship the Word of God which is alive and living in us by the power of the Holy Spirit and revealed in the personality of Jesus Christ. It is always the tension between law and grace that causes us to see our need for salvation and gives us the hope of deliverance through what God has already accomplished for us upon the cross. Rant on Brother Mark!
I would’ve thought that The Law (of Moses) was all about grace. Maybe the tension is between (our tendency toward) reductionism and the opposite of reductionism; that is, between reductionism and the actual world we live in.
Thanks, Mark. I just finished reading for about the fourth time the first 144 pages of NT Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God, in which the grand biblical narrative or grand story plays a decisive role. Aside from Wright, Ben Meyer, Richard Hays, and Hauerwas, who else comes to mind as one who helpfully writes about the role the grand narrative should play? We need to keep providing “our” students and “our” people with helpful resources toward this end.
Another example: “The Daniel Diet”, a Bible-sanctioned way to better health (from Daniel 1). As I read Daniel 1 and it’s theme of “God is in control”, it seems that GOD caused the boys to to flourish health-wise by not eating the king’s meat, not just because they became vegetarians. Good words, Mark. Thanks.
The handbook method is much easier. And has made a lot of money for some of your contemporaries. Love your writings.
Heya! I understand this is kind of off-topic but I had to
ask. Does running a well-established website like yours require a lot of work?
I am completely new to writing a blog however I do write in my journal on a daily basis.
I’d like to start a blog so I can easily share my own experience and
feelings online. Please let me know if you have any
kind of recommendations or tips for brand new aspiring blog owners.
Howdy! This blog post couldn’t be written much better!
Looking through this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
He continually kept preaching about this. I
am going to send this post to him. Pretty sure he’ll have a great read.
Thank you for sharing!