I’ve spent the last few weeks tearing down some of the typical evangelical understandings of scripture. I don’t doubt the prospect of what I’ve been suggesting is unsettling for some.
And so this post will be an attempt to pick up the pieces a bit and shed some light on why and how, despite my rejection of more conservative readings, I still hold the Bible in high esteem. Before I get to that, however, a recap:
First I laid out of blanket statements regarding things I’ve come to reject when it comes to the biblical text. Primary among them was the notion that the Bible is inerrant.
There are, admittedly, different ways of nuancing the doctrine of inerrancy, some of which I find far more palatable than others.
What I wanted to emphasize in my demurral, however, was the fact that we cannot simply read the Bible as we would a contemporary text. Because it’s not a contemporary text, but rather a culturally and contextually alien one.
So I’ll leave it to you, the readers, to debate whether the fact that the Bible contains contradictions, at times corrects itself, puts forth faulty science, mixes up its chronology, contains anachronisms, and makes demonstrably false historical claims therefore demands that we see the Bible as errant.
It could certainly be argued, considering the cultural expectations in which the Bible was spoken, written, redacted, and compiled, that much of what we consider error is simply the authors of scripture functioning within the norms of their time and place.
More than anything, I wanted people to look anew at the Bible we actually have, a text which resists being analyzed and consumed according to modern expectations, at least without first being properly contextualized and translated.
And I wanted people to understand that the act of translation goes beyond the mere transliteration of words, but must also include looking through and behind everything that makes up a culture, and by which that culture makes meaning.
But throughout my analysis I have also maintained that I still posses a high view of scripture. I’ve stated that none of my arguments demand that God not also be involved in the development of the text. And I’ve argued repeatedly that God can and does speak in and through the biblical text to our contemporary situation.
So while I would argue that acknowledging the contradictions, corrections, and tensions that are ever present within the text is a move of great value, my aim has never been to undermine the historically Christian affirmation of biblical authority, so far as such authority is properly framed in relation to the authority of God in Christ.
I have already hinted at where my own understanding of revelation and how God speaks in and through the biblical text has landed.
In one previous post I suggested a preliminary definition of scripture by saying the Bible bears witness to divine revelation. I added that there is as much significance in what this definition does not say as there is in what it says.
In another I argued that the inspiration and authority of the Bible doesn’t come from an inerrant text but from the way the Spirit of God interrupts and confronts our expectations within the proclamation of the text and, in the process, directs us back to the person and work of Jesus.
And so here I wanted to elaborate a bit further. It is my position that when we refer to the Word of God, we must be talking first and foremost about Jesus. I’m not a fan of proof texting but texts like John 1 and Colossians 1 are good starting points for such a stance.
Moreover, when we talk about Jesus, we must first and foremost be talking about the event of his life, especially but not exclusively his death (thereby framed and given meaning by his birth, ministry, resurrection and ascension), which serves as the full self-articulation of the being of God.
Confused? All I’m saying here is that Jesus is God’s self-description.
The Bible, then, can become the word of God (notice the small ‘w’) when it bears witness to the in-breaking of the Word of God (big ‘W’) into human history. The definitive and normative manifestation of this was, of course, the event of Jesus the Christ.
But, per the authors of the New Testament, namely Paul, this apocalypse of the Word had been taking place and was witnessed to in and through the life of Israel as well.
Apocalypse you say? Like the end of the world?
Well, in a word, no. You see the word apocalypse is simply the Greek word for revelation. And so the apocalypse of God is the divine self-revelation in history.
Now, and this is a startling oversimplification of a great deal of history, theology, anthropology and literary studies, when people think of the term apocalypse they usually think of cataclysmic, world-altering events.
And that’s because ancient peoples often imagined that the moment of true apocalypse, when the aim and end of history would be revealed and when the divine would bring everything to a head, would be a world ending event.
In fact there is an entire ancient genre of literature based on this conceptual framework (did I mention that this was a gross oversimplification?)
Anyway, what I want to suggest is that everything that the above-articulated way of thinking imagined would happened “at the end”, actually happened in Christ. The event of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was the apocalyptic event that ended the world.
So wait, what does this have to do with the Bible?
Stay with me.
Most people imagine(d) that the end of the world will involve some sort of ontological (adjective: relating to the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being) shift. That means a physical change in our very being. The world will fundamentally change from one thing to another and it will happen in chronological history.
Think typical Christian end of the world and off into eternity scenarios.
And I’m not here to pass judgment on that expectation today. We’ll cover all that down the road when we take a look at heaven, hell, eternity, resurrection, and all that jazz.
Right now I want to argue that, at least for the time being and perhaps most essentially, the apocalypse of Jesus brought about an ontic (as opposed to ontological) change, which means a change with regards to our self-understanding and existential identity within the world.
Still confused? I mean to suggest that the world already did end, at least in some sense (ontically as opposed to ontologically, existentially as opposed to cosmically).
And I mean that in Christ and by the Spirit, on account of the event of his life, death, and resurrection, we are able to see the world anew, in light of the reality altering change that Christ brought about.
In Christ we bear witness to the apocalypse.
One theologian, I believe it was J. Louis Martyn, coined the term “bi-focal vision”, arguing that we, by faith, can now simultaneously see the world as it was, while at the same time see it anew in Christ.
But it’s an ontic shift, perceptible only through the eyes of faith, not an ontological one, empirically (adverb: by means of observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic) visible to the naked eye.
Now, to be sure, people can identify the results of this shift. We Christians might call that the fruit of the Spirit, the evidence of the Spirit’s work in the world.
But the fruit is not the Kingdom. The fruit is not the New Creation. It is the witness to these things, to their presence in and alongside what is old and in opposition to the Kingdom, and what – in Christ – is passing away.
The bi-focal vision is a sort of paradoxical vision.
This brings us back to the Bible. Before Christ and throughout history there were precursors to Christ, moments where the cruciform being of God broke into history, namely, and especially some would argue, in and through the story of Israel.
These events were interpreted by the people, witnessed to, if perhaps imperfectly (but always according to the conceptuality of their time and place), and recorded in what we call the Old Testament.
And as we’ve observed, they didn’t always get things exactly right in their interpretation.
But, as we’ve seen in light of how the Jewish people themselves read scripture, the ongoing power of God’s revelation is in the way that God confronts us in and through the tension inherent in the text itself.
And so as we move to our own time, the post-Easter age, God continues to confront us in and through the recorded witness to his apocalyptic in-breaking in the definitive event of Christ.
The New Testament contains many of the same tensions, contradictions, and self-corrections as the Old, born out as the apostles themselves wrestled with the event of the cross and the new world they now found themselves in by faith.
The Bible then is invaluable as it places us into their world, confronting us with the same tensions and interruptions they felt, and serving as a medium or vehicle for the Spirit to speak to us anew in our day and age.
The Bible’s authority derives from its rupturing power, it’s very resistance to providing a once-for-all-time world view that applies equally to all contexts.
Instead, in the text of scripture, we see an incarnational or missional potency in the Spirit and work of Christ that comes to that which is other, embraces it precisely as other, and transforms it.
But the transformation isn’t into some normative, homogenous group or entity.
Rather the transformative power of God transforms the object of its love and judgement (humanity) precisely as it is. So that in Christ there is no longer male or female, slave or free, gay or straight, or whatever other distinctions we humans choose to divide over.
All are one in Christ, not at the expense of our diversity, but precisely in and through our diversity.
This sort of lens through which the Bible is read and applied allows theologian Jurgen Moltmann to say things like:
“Disciplined exegesis tells us what the text meant for the author and the people he was addressing in his own time; but the theological reflection is supposed to say what it means today, if we place it in the context of our own time…”
“…That is not simply a problem of translation. Hermeneutics is not restricted to the renovation of ancient historical buildings. Theology has to do with the theological concern which the biblical texts are trying to talk about in their own way and in their own time…”
“…So as a theologian, I begin my reading the texts, then ask what they are saying, and turn to their subject and concern, trying to understand it with my own metal categories, which are the categories of my own time. After that I come back to the biblical text and ask whether it brings out adequately the subject or concern as I have understood it with the help of the text itself…”
“…From this a thematic criticism of the texts emerges which is committed to their concern. In this circle joining the text, its subject and myself I then develop my theological viewpoint. A hearer of the texts becomes a friend of the texts, who discusses with them what they are talking about” .
What Moltmann means here is that the authority of the Bible for us is bound up in the act of translation. For as I’ve stated already, the Bible by itself (and that qualification is key) is not the revelation of God but the witness to it (for more on Moltmann’s method, check out this great post by Wyatt Houtz).
Language can never grasp revelation for that would be idolatrous. Instead, revelation must always grasp language – in all its historical particularities – and therefore must always be translated anew for every new time and place.
The Bible is witness to that divine revelation. And as we study it, wrestle with its tensions, and allow the Spirit of God to speak through it anew, we are confronted in much the same way the original witnesses were. We too are called outside of ourselves and beckoned into the new age, the age of apocalypse.
And with that I draw to a close our nearly two-week look at the Bible and revelation. I’m fully aware that I may have raised more questions than I answered.
But I also trust that those questions will make better sense in time as you, the readers, are able to see the implications of my interpretive model play out practically in relation to other issues.
One such issue is the question of LGBTQ affirmation and inclusion in the life of the Church. I’ve hinted at my stance on this a few times already. But I plan on exploring it in much greater detail in the very near future. Stay tuned!
In the mean time and as always, don’t hesitate to join the conversation!
 Bauckham, Richard. 1999. God Will be All in All. Fortress Press. Page 229-230.