we need a new, more responsible and mature approach to the sacred scriptures.
So, whatever the Bible is, it simply is not a constitution. I would like to propose that it is something far more interesting and important: it’s the library of a culture and community — the culture and community of people who trace their history back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Think, for example, of a public library today. People sort through all the possible books that could be included and select some hundreds or thousands to make available to the local public. A medical library selects books of special interest to people who belong to the medical profession; a Shakespeare library selects books of interest to members of the literary guild; a presidential library, to historians of a particular president. The biblical library, similarly, is a carefully selected group of ancient documents of paramount importance for people who want to understand and belong to the community of people who seek God and, in particular, the God of Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, and Jesus.
when one enters a library with the intent of researching a subject — say, butterflies — they are not looking for the one, single, authoritative book on the subject. they are searching to answer questions, to gain knowledge and a deeper understanding of a particular subject.
in our example of butterflies, there are multiple facets of interest. in order to gain a proper knowledge of butterflies, students could potentially start researching scientific books. in those, they would find that the butterfly is a mainly day-flying insect of the lepidoptera order; and that like other holometabolous insects, the butterfly’s life cycle consists of four parts: the egg, larva, pupa, and adult. they could view pictures that would show butterflies have large, often brightly colored wings and perhaps even videos that show they have a conspicuous, fluttering flight.
further study would show that butterflies exhibit polymorphism, mimicry, and aposematism; and that some butterflies, like the Monarch, will migrate over long distances. the students would learn that some butterflies have evolved symbiotic and parasitic relationships with social insects such as ants. they would learn that some species are considered pests because in their larval stages they can damage domestic crops or trees; however, some species are agents of pollination of certain plants, and caterpillars of a few butterflies actually eat harmful insects.
finally, even further research would yield that butterflies are a popular motif in the visual and literary arts. the curious soul could even search the history of arts, finding that butterflies have been used in many cultures, including ancient egyptian hieroglyphs some 3,500 years ago. one who appreciated the arts or history could spend countless hours researching the use of butterflies in various objects of art and jewelry, even movies and cinema. this, of course, would naturally bleed into the symbolism of butterflies, opening up a cross cultural study of the Japanese, Ancient Greeks, Chinese, et cetera.
after hours upon hours of study, consulting with multiple authors of a plethora of books each seeking to increase their reader’s understanding on the subject of butterflies, one might find themselves able to answer an increasing number of questions about them. he or she would, depending on which (and potentially, how many) books they consulted, respond to any number of questions regarding the science and history of butterflies, or their place in the visual and literary arts.
but if the student simply approached the library itself as a constitution and the sole authority on butterflies and found a single book on the subject (or worse yet, a portion of a single book) and placed it as the de facto manifesto for all things ‘butterfly’– or even a series of books composed by many different authors as a legal constitution for ‘butterfly knowledge’ — he or she would find themselves missing out on a great deal of information and understanding regarding
Here’s the problem: the expectations we bring to a constitution and a library couldn’t be more different. For starters, a constitution is neat, and we assume it has internal consistency. But a culture is messy and full of internal tension, and those characteristics would be reflected in a good library. In fact, some have defined a culture as a group of people who argue about the same things over many generations. That may sound like a depressingly contentious definition, but in fact, though, a culture’s arguments signal a deeper unity: a culture thinks certain questions are so important that it keeps struggling with them over many generations.
Revelation occurs not in the words and statements of individuals but in the conversation among individuals and God …it happens in conversations and arguments that take place within and among communities of people who share the same essential questions across generations. Revelation accumulates in the relationships, interactions, and interplay
i, along with mclaren, would suggest that we have for far too long approached the scriptures with a constitutional lens, tainting our vision as to what the bible really is and for what it is to be used. we have depended on specific words and statements as revelatory to our detriment. as stated in my earlier post we have viewed the bible as a black and white, authoritative text on who God is, what he has done, and what he wants from us. we have viewed it as a divine doctor’s prescription for how we are to live, what we are to do in specific situations, our rules for ethics and morality, our booklet for political involvement or affiliation, our guide to understanding the sciences, and so on. and when we do so, we are damned to repeat the same mistakes we’ve historically made — with increasingly
however well intentioned, there are layers upon layers of problems with this approach to the sacred text. for one, the bible was not created to be read as a constitution; instead, it is a collection of writings, stories, poetry, letters, history, questions, visions, dreams, and narratives. this collection of writings stem from the people of God wrestling with the same questions over thousands and thousands of years — who God is and who he calls them to be — as a people, as a nation, as a community of faith, and as individuals within that community. read as a collection of different writings — as a library — that seek(s) to better understand God and how we fit into his story, we find a much different approach to texts that seemingly contradict one another, without the need for theological and mental gymnastics …and have a much healthier view of who God is, what he has done and is doing (and has yet to do) for us, and who we are in him.
Does the Bible alone provide enough clarity to resolve all questions, as a good constitution should? No. We have no reason to believe it was ever meant to do that, as much as we’ve tried to force it to do so. From all sides it becomes clear that the Bible, if it is truly inspired by God, wasn’t meant to end conversation and give the final word on controversies. If this were its purpose, it has failed miserably (this fact must be faced). But if, instead, it was inspired and intended to stimulate conversation, to keep people thinking and talking and arguing and seeking, across continents and centuries, it has succeeded and is succeeding in a truly remarkable way.
seen as a library rather than a constitution, we see a graduated understanding of God’s people in their knowledge of who he is, what he has done and is doing (and has yet to do) for us, and who we are in him.
this graduated understanding of who God is can be seen throughout the narrative of the bible. our next post at the WayWard follower will discuss further what we mean by this, and outline at least some of the dominant steps seen
in the scriptures.