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.