As I mentioned in my last post on the doctrine of accommodation, I find it very interesting how often non-Christians and strict literalist Christians agree on what the Christian Bible (Old and New Testaments) actually says-- and how often I disagree with both of them.
I have heard atheists often talk about how the Bible is an abysmal failure when it comes to morality and ethics-- particularly when it comes to issues like slavery, tribalism and patriarchy, all of which they say the Bible supports.
I have seen Bible literalists live lives of rigid, spiritually abusive dysfunction-- and heard them claim that the only reason I’m not living like they do is that I’m “lukewarm,” that I only want “Christianity lite” and am unwilling to take the Bible seriously.
And I have had people who were once strict literalist Bible followers but have become atheists, tell me that the basic teachings of the Bible are destructive and harmful. They have told me that the reason they had to leave Christianity is that they followed the teachings of the Bible to their logical conclusions. Christianity, they say, is a toxic religion, and the only way to practice it without toxicity is to ignore the toxic teachings of the Bible.
And yet (once I left behind the strict Christian sect I was once part of) I have found it possible to remain a Christian and to continue to take the Bible seriously-- and I don’t believe it’s by ignoring the parts of it I don’t like. I have found peace and strength in Christ and healing in the pages of the Bible. Perhaps I should be mistrusting my own experience? And yet it is my experience, and no less valid than anyone else’s.
So here’s the question:
Are those of us who follow a gentler version of Christianity really just deceiving ourselves about the real truth of what our religion is about? Are we not following Christ’s instructions wholeheartedly, and thus escaping the destructiveness of our religion by not “doing it properly”? Is the Bible, when it is taken seriously and followed as Christians believe (or should believe) it is meant to be followed, really a toxic book that will lead inexorably to either a life of misery and fear, or to self-preservation through ultimately rejecting the whole faith package?
In answer, I’d like to look first at two underlying assumptions made by non-Christians and by strict “purist” Christians, that are at their roots basically the same foundational idea. This is the basic window through which many people see Christianity and the Bible, without in fact noticing the window at all. We don’t tend to notice the things we look through-- we notice what we’re looking at. Because of this, Christians and non-Christians alike end up with the same idea of what the Bible is about-- and following the Bible in this way is seen as the obvious and only way to practice serious Christianity.
So here are the two related assumptions:
Non-Christian Assumption: If there were a God and the Bible were really God‘s book, God would have made sure the people He spoke to in the Bible understood that slavery, tribalism, patriarchy and so on are wrong. The Bible would, in effect, have taught the original peoples who received the writings, to think the way we do now about morality and social ethics.
Christian Assumption: The Bible tells us about Jesus, of course, and how He died for our sins-- but the main point of the Bible is to be a guidebook on how best to live. Jesus is our perfect example of obedience to God, and the Bible, if we read it carefully, will reveal to us God’s instructions for how to live in every area of life.
But are these correct assumption to make?
I’m not going to tackle the question of whether there is a God or not, here. But from the perspective of belief in God-- is it appropriate to say that the nature of the Biblical revelation is an impartation of morality and social ethics, and that since it doesn’t impart these things as we think it should, it cannot be anything other than a primitive, human book?
Is it appropriate to say that the basic nature of the Bible is to be a divine guidebook of instructions on how to live in each area of our lives?
What if the Bible is, fundamentally, neither of these things?
Theologian N.T. Wright, in his sermon-essay “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” puts it like this:
“[W]e have come to the whole Bible, looking for particular answers to particular questions. And we have thereby made the Bible into something which it basically is not. . . . . People treat it as an unsorted edition of Calvin’s Institutes, the Westminster Confession, the UCCF Basis of Faith, or the so-called ‘Four Spiritual Laws’. But to treat the Bible like that is, in fact, simply to take your place in a very long tradition of Christians who have tried to make the Bible into a set of abstract truths and rules . . . .
“If we are not careful, the appeal to ‘timeless truths’ . . . distorts the Bible itself, making it into the sort of book it manifestly is not. . . . My conclusion, then, is this: that the regular views of scripture and its authority which we find not only outside but also inside evangelicalism fail to do justice to what the Bible actually is—a book, an ancient book, an ancient narrative book. They function by tuning that book into something else, and by implying thereby that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book. This is a low doctrine of inspiration, whatever heights are claimed for it. . . .
“The writings written by these people, thus led by the Spirit, are . . . mostly narrative; and we have already run up against the problem how can a story, a narrative, be authoritative? Somehow, the authority which God has invested in this book is an authority that is wielded and exercised through the people of God telling and retelling their story as the story of the world, telling the covenant story as the true story of creation. Somehow, this authority is also wielded through his people singing psalms. Somehow, it is wielded (it seems) in particular through God’s people telling the story of Jesus.”
[Emphases in original.]
This change in approach to Biblical understanding is about more than just making sure to read the Bible according to historical and literary context; I have talked to ex-Christians who told me that they did do careful research to find the original authorial intent-- but still found themselves in a misery-inducing way of practicing their faith that they eventually had to abandon or be destroyed by.
It’s also more than just avoiding legalism. I have talked to ex-Christians who told me that they understood completely that they were saved by grace, through faith; that they never felt the need to prove their devotion to God by following the Bible in terms of rules; and yet still, as they sought to practice their faith as they believed the Bible taught, they were tossed onto the shoals of an utter exhaustion of self-sacrifice and self-denial. In short, at the end of the day they felt as if they had no “self” left. And this, they are still sure, is what Christianity and following the Bible are all about; and why they ended up leaving.
What this is, is like taking off one pair of glasses and putting on another, or changing the kind of glass in the windows you look out of. Through different windows, everything looks different.
The difference is narrative theology over systematic theology.
In systematic theology, all the things in the Bible are categorized systematically to make up a set of principles and rules for living. There is nothing wrong with categorizing and systematizing the Bible; systematic theology has its uses. It can be very helpful, for instance, to look at every place where the Bible mentions one specific subject, to get an overview of how the Bible as a whole treats that subject. But I believe narrative theology should come first, as it yields a better Christian understanding of the whole of the faith. Narrative theology should govern systematic theology, and not the other way around.
Narrative theology recognizes that taken as a whole, the Bible is primarily a story: the story of God's interactions with humanity, with the story of Christ in the center as the focal point. Looking at it as a story means that you interpret each thing in terms of where it belongs in the plot; and you see a progression in the human understanding of the nature of God from the earlier to the later books.
Viewed as a story-- a collection of ancient books written at different times, but all centering around God’s ongoing actions in the redemption of humanity-- the differences in ethics and moral values, as understood by the various cultures in which the books arose, becomes less troubling. If God was primarily interested in coming in to us in human flesh, in order to restore us to unity with one another and with God-- then God might choose to work within human cultural systems to effect gradual change, and to gradually change human values to come more into line with the ideal of universal human love-- but that would not need to be God’s highest priority. Accommodation in this sense might, in fact, be seen as a better way to effect real ethical change over the long run.
When the viewpoint is that the Bible is primarily a way to find God’s will and obey it, then in any particular passage, the question is, "what is the God-endorsed best way of living, and how am I to follow it?" Or perhaps (in the Old Testament particularly) "Does this rule apply to me; is it ok if I don't follow it?" (And it is possible, even if we believe we’re living in grace, to still approach the Bible primarily in this mindset.)
The other viewpoint focuses on God's plan: "What was God trying to accomplish in this particular part of the Story? How did people understand God then? How did Jesus change that understanding of God, and how can I be part of what God is doing now?"
The first way values obedience for its own sake, and self-sacrificial obedience especially. But to see this other way is to see obedience only as a means to an end. If God wants us to do something, why does God want us to do it? This view says that though Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross was certainly in obedience to the Father, the bigger picture for Jesus was the “new covenant in my blood” which was what he was doing it for. And the point of the New Covenant is that it brings us into the New Creation, in which we are united with Christ and our hearts become a home for the Father; where we are no longer led by the law, but by the Spirit. Self-sacrifice must have a redemptive reason: it doesn’t exist for its own sake. If self-sacrifice for the sake of another is not helping either us or them, then it’s the wrong solution.
The systematic way tends to sum up Christianity in terms of two words: “Yes, Lord.” The narrative way uses a different two words: “Christ rose.” That’s the point of the Story. Christ identified with me in death so that I could identify with him in life. I’m putting my trust in him and am becoming part of the New Creation. It’s not that I don’t obey God-- but I believe God is only interested in our obedience in so far as it leads to the higher goal of bringing humans into harmony with the life and love of God. What God wants-- God’s ultimate goal-- is to love and be loved by us, and that we would love one another.
This change in viewpoint also changes the way we interpret the texts. Instead of seeing each bit of scripture as a command or principle that reveals God’s will for how we should live, we look at each bit of scripture first in terms of where it fits into the whole plot-- and only afterwards do we ascertain how to apply its principles in our own lives. And because Christ’s coming is central, and central to Christ’s teachings are the commandments “love God with all your being/love your neighbor as yourself” -- we look at Christian practice primarily in terms of whether it helps us to better love God, others and ourselves. Practices that are harmful and destructive to ourselves or to others, then, cannot be the intention of the text and should be jettisoned.
Christ’s coming brings the New Creation, and the New Creation changes the way we are to relate to one another. 2 Corinthians 5:16 says we are no longer to look at one another “according to the flesh.” If any interpretation of Scripture results in our focusing on the flesh in the way we view one another-- for example, granting privileges or making restrictions based on race, sex or economic status-- then it doesn’t fit the big picture, or the direction in which God is leading humanity, and we need to examine our interpretation. Contrary to what many Christians will tell us, changing the way we see and follow these sorts of texts is not disrespecting the Bible-- in fact, it is treating the Bible with more respect. If the Bible really is mainly the Story of how God created humanity, prepared the world for the coming of the Christ, then came, died and rose again so that we could walk in new life-- then it is when we see things in terms of that new life that we are really following the Bible.
But to those looking through the old glasses, all they can see is what looks like disobedience and blatant disregard for what they see as God’s revealed will for how we are to live. If the Bible says, “wives be submissive to your husbands,” it has to be because God’s will for marriage has to do with husbands being in charge and wives following their lead. It can’t be because husband-rule was part of the way life was at that time, and that women had no power to fight it and would only damage their own freedom and the message of the New Creation, if they fought it. It can’t be that the passage was telling the husbands, who alone had any power to change things, that it was their responsibility to lay down their power as Christ laid down his, in order to raise up their wives as Christ raised up the church. But through the new glasses, that passage is about a Spirit-led change of direction for first-century marriage so that Christians could begin to realize the New Creation in their family relationships.
For non-Christians and ex-Christians-- I can understand why you think the Bible supports slavery, tribalism and patriarchy. But perhaps you can also understand my perspective as to why I think those were incidental to, and not part and parcel of, the Bible’s message.
And I do think my new glasses fit me rather well.