Friday, February 29, 2008
An Open Bible Needs An Open Heart
This Sunday I start a new class called: “An Open Bible Needs An Open Heart.” I believe that our attitude and casual familiarity with scripture borders on contempt. I see examples everywhere of the abuse of scripture, some obvious, and some subtle. I have heard scripture rapidly quoted with anger and bitterness by people using the Bible as their own personal machine gun to win an argument, and I have spoken with an atheist about historical inconsistencies they saw in the Bible. Both of these examples have one thing in common – these people were quoting scripture without having a relationship with the author of scripture. In that vein, I have observed two very extreme, very opposite ways of reading scripture, and I believe they are both dangerous:
By this I mean reading scripture for the sole purpose of extracting rules, procedures, and guidelines. This is dangerous because scripture then becomes cold and lifeless. Passages can be ripped from their literary and historical contexts, and we tend to focus on the question, “Does the silence of scripture prohibit or allow something?” - a question that the Bible itself does not answer. (Several months ago I posted why I reject the prohibitive nature of the silence of scripture.) Reading the Bible this way can make us intellectually lazy because if the Bible is reduced to a collection of facts to be learned, then you can only know so much, and once you have all the facts and rules down there’s not much left to do but argue with anyone who disagrees. Plus, you tend to engage in doing something that I think is impossible – “restoring” the 1st century church in the 21st century.
2. Subjective Emotionalism
I often hear people use the phrase, “God laid it on my heart.” But the problem is that God could not possibly have laid on their hearts something as vapid as what they’re suggesting. When reading scripture becomes a private, purely emotional, application-only experience, you also rip passages out of their contexts, and force those passages to say things they were never intended to say. This way of reading scripture perpetuates the trendy myth that the aim of Christianity is to develop a “personal relationship” with Jesus. But when you find an unintended application in scripture you are committing violence against the integrity of the text. For example, I was sitting in on a small group Bible study some time ago, and we were studying one of the prophets – a text where the prophet was condemning Israel. And people were saying, “We Americans need to change. Look at this message. God will destroy our nation if we continue to sin and act immoral.” And I felt foolish pointing out that the prophet was speaking to Israel, not the United States. God has no covenant with the United States.
Both of these ways of reading scripture does not respect the distance between us and the text. Take 1st Corinthians. We are listening in on one side of a 2000-year-old conversation between Paul and a church in another city in another culture in another time. So, here’s one question we’ll discuss in class – do instructions given to the Corinthian church in the 1st century (oh say, concerning women in the assembly) apply to a congregation in 21st century America?