Thursday, April 11, 2013

Would you please bring my stuff?

I've been considering for a long time how I should read my Bible. I wish I had a nice 1-2-3 formula for how to read the Bible, but I don't. The difficulty with answering the question, "How do I read the Bible?" is the question itself. It treats the Bible as one big monolithic book. It's not that at all.

In sermons about the inspiration and reliability of the Bible, I've heard it pointed out that the Bible is a collection of writings by about 40 different authors over a period of 1500 years. I've actually verified those claims and they are more or less accurate and I believe they are evidence of inspiration and reliability. So, my question is this... Why have I not remembered this diversity of authorship and history when it comes to interpretation? Why have I treated the Bible like it's monolithic? Like there is no difference in how we should interpret First Corinthians, Acts, and Leviticus?

The Pentateuch has a purpose and an author (or authors or at least editors) and a historical and cultural context and various literary styles. The same is true about Joshua. Consider how different the collection of Psalms is from the other books. Then there is Isaiah which is beautiful and unique. Ruth stands out as different and was possibly written at a different time than the setting of the story it tells. Daniel is an astounding mix of history and figures and foretelling. Each of the Gospels has an author, an intended audience, and purpose. Acts... Revelation... I shouldn't read any of those books exactly the same way. I could go on thinking about these things for the rest of the books of the Bible. What I conclude is that there is no one-size-fits-all formula to interpret all of them. Each of them is a unique book with an author and a purpose and a historical context and a literary style, etc.

Consider more recent literature originally written in my own native language by a single author and parts of this interpretive principle still hold true. I don't read all of C.S. Lewis's books the same way because I understand that they're different in style and purpose. Why, then, would I try to take a collection of writings by different authors over many centuries and force one single style of interpreting them?

It just doesn't make sense. It recently dawned on me that I was asking the wrong question. The question is not, "How do I read my Bible?" The question is "How do I read THIS writing?" Even with that, the question is still incomplete. Even though each book in the Bible is unique, I still have to also consider that it is a unique part of a whole story. Each book is part of a story that God invites us to join. There are various over-arching themes throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Those must be considered as well or I'll miss the point of what I'm reading. Reading the Bible is not a simple formulaic 1-2-3 process.

That absence of a simple formula doesn't mean the Bible is unintelligible or that its message is only available to the intelligentsia. Not at all! Its themes are quite accessible and I'm daily thankful for our unprecedented access to the inspired scripture. Jesus boiled ALL of  it down to this: Love God and love the people He made (Matt. 22:37-40). Paul, in describing the fruit of the spirit, claims there is no law against those virtues, love, joy, peace, patience, etc. (Gal. 5:22-23). Peter, discussing "Christian graces," tells us to grow in these, faith, knowledge, love, etc. and we'll never stumble (2 Pet. 1:10). It's really not difficult to get the message. God is exactly like Jesus and He loves, serves, and forgives and He invites us to join Him in this work. God sure has made Himself accessible, even in creation itself (Rom. 1:20). God's truth is not limited to the elite.

No, God's truth and love and freedom are not only for the elite. What this absence of a uniform hermeneutic formula means is that the Bible will provide you with more than a lifetime of challenge and discovery. It's simply beautiful! The best advice I know to give anyone about reading the Bible right now is this, and this is just advice, not a formula.

  1. Read it frequently and thoroughly
  2. It is about Jesus from beginning to end. Never forget that while reading any part of it. 
  3. Jesus is exactly what God is like and His nature is especially revealed on the cross. Therefore, read anything inspired by God with an extreme bias of love for the unlovable, forgiveness for the unforgivable, mercy over judgment, and with the knowledge that self-sacrificial love overcomes evil and hatred and bitterness and division and violence. 
  4. Remember that it wasn't written to you all at once by one person.

My coat and books
The realization that I was asking the wrong question dawned upon me as I was reading through 2 Timothy, sent there by a reference to Hymenaeus and Philetus. This verse, 2 Tim. 4:13 jumped out at me during the reading.
The cloak that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments.
Why on earth is this included for us? How is this part of God's story? What can I learn from this? That Paul was forgetful? That it was spring when he left Troas and he didn't need his coat? Or maybe that he was generous and loaned Carpus his coat? Is this why he wanted Timothy to come before winter (verse 21)? What were the books? Were they Scripture? What did Paul read anyway? Did he have notes he had written and wanted to review them again and the Holy Spirit couldn't just make those thoughts reappear in his mind? What is this verse and why is it here? And why did I forget this verse existed? If every word of the Bible is inspired why wasn't I ever tasked to memorize this verse or the dozens of greetings and personal notes in Paul's letters?

Maybe, just maybe, that statement is there to remind us that we've been given the privilege of eavesdropping on a personal letter. Second Timothy was just that. A personal letter from Paul (I believe) to Timothy. And by skimming over this verse and others like it throughout the epistles (Tell Olympas 'nem I said hi... Rom. 16:15, etc.) for years and years, I've missed the truth that I'm not supposed to read 2 Timothy or the other epistles like a novel or a history book or legal document or, worse yet, like a blue print. I'm supposed to read 2 Timothy like it's a personal letter from an older brother to a younger brother in Christ and close friend that he loved dearly and missed greatly and had cried with many times because that's exactly what it is. It is not a church manual. It is not a creed. It is not even a preacher's manual. It is "Timothy, I love and appreciate you. Beware, some mean people are going to do some awful things to you like they have done to me. Keep your faith in the resurrection of Christ with sincere love and a pure conscience. Keep on preaching that, regardless of opposition. Brother, I can't wait to see you again." And when I keep in mind that it is that type of letter, I realize that many situations that applied to Timothy in that time do not apply to me in my time. I stop looking for specific instructions not written to me and that don't make sense to me and I instead drown my heart in the love and appreciation and principles that guided their relationship. That's what really teaches me and causes me to grow closer to God and my brethren. (Please don't misunderstand this to mean that there are no specifics that apply to us. See my last post where I point out that fasting is a specific that I have overlooked. Baptism is quite specific, etc.)

Could that be why those greetings and personal details are included? As a reminder of what we are reading? And if that's not THE reason, shouldn't their presence at least remind us of the truth that we're privileged to read a personal letter?

Rachel Held Evans has some interesting comments on this verse and several others like it. I think she is onto something. Please read that blog entry of hers.

I believe the Bible is inspired, all of it. I believe it is one way that God communicates to us. I believe it is God telling us the story of His people. I do not believe it is "just" a story, but I do believe it tells a story. I believe God invites us to join in His story and become His people. If I accept the Bible for what it is and how He gave it to us instead of trying to make it what I want it to be, it will mold me, transform me, challenge me, and point me to His Son. It will make me more like Him.

No comments:

Post a Comment