A lot of people – preachers included – treat the Bible as a collection of preaching texts (or even prooftexts). They don’t read each book of the Bible as a coherent whole, let alone the entire Bible as such. For them, it is a collection of meaningful nuggets, each teaching a particular doctrine or telling a particular story that has an application to our lives. This means that while many folks can quote you a great many snippets of Scripture, a far smaller number can tell you what any particular author or book or section in the Bible is trying to get across.
Moreover, when we go to a particular sentence or paragraph to back up a doctrinal point over and over, the repeated use of that text acts as a polarizing filter. Instead of that little piece carrying the full meaning of the entire book or section in which it is set, it now only lives as a prooftext for a particular teaching. The context is lost. And after a while, you can let even the particular words of the Scripture go, and just teach the summary derived from it, in which case you are teaching slogans, not Scripture. Far too many people – including preachers – speak in slogans, which may be based in Scripture but nevertheless are not Scripture. And if we never put things in their fuller contexts, we cheat our hearers of the full counsel of the Bible.
This need to derive meaning from each nugget leads also to a tendency to put stuff into the Bible which isn’t there. We become obsessed with finding meanings other than the obvious ones. We see connections that aren’t there. We misconstrue words. And we announce hidden meanings to our listeners’ oohs and ahs that are hogwash.
Then, of course, there is the oft-repeated call from evangelical pulpits: How many of you brought your Bibles today? Now, having your own Bible – which you actually read – is a very good thing. But we don’t need our Bibles in church if you’re going to project the texts up on the screen. For that matter, unless we all have roughly similar versions of the Bible, you’re going to confuse more people than you enlighten when they try to follow along. This is why many churches have pew Bibles. Now, back when printing was new, the possibility of each person owning a Bible – or at least, each family owning a Bible to read together – was a wonderful, revolutionary thing. But then, there were only one or two versions in English you could buy, so we were all “on the same page,” so to speak, when we read it together. Furthermore, there is little value in owning a Bible if you never actually read it. Bringing a Bible to church is often therefore the employment of a kind of talisman, a totem by which we recognize fellow evangelicals, a tribal marker like a pendant cross or a fish license plate.
So, how should we treat the Bible? Well, as a student of literature, I have always taught the Bible as literature. In all the Bible studies I led my aim was content mastery. As we went through a particular book, I would point out things like the author, and what the author’s point of view was. I would bring in background information to help make sense of the text, like historical connections and customs of the time. When difficult words – or even more important, key words that are more difficult than they appear to be – came along, we would disentangle the meaning. At the same time, I would be asking questions about how this applies to people today, trying to get them to put themselves into the text and then putting the text into their lives. But without the background, trying to wring something edifying out of the words is just chasing rabbits.
People are often surprised to find that the Bible can be read just as an old book. They thought there would be all kinds of mystical truths and prophetic puzzles and whatnot in it. Well, yes, there are some of those things, too. But a lot of the Bible is plain narrative – or even plain doctrine – presented in ordinary language for ordinary people. It ought to be readable. The leader’s job is to assist the readers in about the same way that a teacher would help you read a Shakespeare play or a speech by Abraham Lincoln or a long poem like The Waste Land. Now, it matters that the person so teaching the Bible is a person of faith, who believes in the Christ of the Bible. But so long as the teacher is honest and doesn’t neglect matters of faith and obedience, teaching the Bible is still teaching people to read an old book in order to know what’s in it.
Treating the Bible as an old book has an interesting benefit: it avoids the pitfalls of both Liberal and Evangelical criticism. Liberal biblical criticism was born in 19th Century Germany, in a desire to free the Bible from the dead hand of Protestant pastors, who pronounced, “the Bible says” over every issue. Liberal criticism claims to be only scholarly, but it assumes, a priori, that the supernatural does not exist – or if it does, it never does a miracle. It explains the Bible in order to explain it away. In response, Evangelical criticism evolved the idea of “Biblical inerrancy” in order to defend the Scriptures. But such a critical approach merely assumes, a priori, a set of facts not in evidence. In effect, the Liberals set up a test the Bible was sure to fail, so the Evangelicals set up a test the Bible was guaranteed to pass. Neither can go anywhere else from there; you pays your money and you takes your choice. But if the Bible is approached, first and foremost, as just an old book, then we have to play fair with it. No gimmicks! We apply to the study of the Bible the same critical apparatus we would apply to Beowulf or Caesar’s Commentaries or Herodotus, and nothing else. We make no assumptions, we grind no axes. And then, we find God speaking to us out of the contents of the Bible.
In this way, the Bible partakes of the same character as Jesus. If he had come claiming divine status, he would never have gained a hearing; the argument over his claims would have drowned out his message and his appeal. But in presenting himself merely as a wandering Rabbi, people were struck by the authority of his teaching. “No man ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46) And when we give up arguing over the special status of the Bible and just read it for what’s in it, we find ourselves constantly brought up short or excited by what it says. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)