The Bible as an Idol

The Bible:  Maybe the most dangerous idol?
The Bible: Maybe the most dangerous idol?

In Exodus 20, the very first of God’s ten commandments is His declaration that we must “have no other gods”, and right on the heels of that, we’re warned against “graven images”, which is a warning against fabricating gods out from our own creativity as representations of the true God.  God warns against this, of course, because He knows that our attempts to represent God will always, mis-represent Him, as we can do none other than make God in our own image.   If you’d like an example of this ‘re-shaping of God’, you don’t need to go to a new age bookstore, though you can find it there.  Just jump over and check out the Conservative Bible Project, where God’s character and truth is being reshaped according in the image of American political conservatism.  Idols, it turns out, can thrive on the left AND the right.

The project appears to have been born out of a legitimate concern that political correctness has, over the past years, created a push towards rewriting the Bible, by adding gender inclusive language.  Conservatives have responded with their own rewrite, which goes back to the original gender based pronouns, but excludes disputed passages, removes “any and all socialist language”, and “celebrates the free-market parables”.  They also intend to “identify pro-liberal terms used in existing Bible translations, such as “government”, and suggest more accurate substitutes”.  This new version also declares it’s intent to “Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms” whenever possible, in order to combat the liberal biases that come about when a more literal translation is offered.”

I’ll begin by observing that the left messes with the clear meaning of the Bible all the time, so in critiquing this new project, I’m not advocating that some other ideology has the “pure way”.  This project, however, is fraught with flaws that make it perhaps even more dangerous than the errors on the left.  What kind of flaws?

1. Political and Economic Conservatism isn’t “God’s favorite way”.  I say this because when people declare openly their intent to celebrate free-market parables (supposedly, like the talents), and villify the term ‘government’, their obvious intent is to shape the Bible into some sort of capitalist, free-market manifesto, as if Jesus would celebrate the opening of franchises, and the unrestricted growth of big business.

This is nonsense.  The Bible does contain free market parables, perhaps to the dismay of the left.  But the government God invented for Israel defies the modern economic categories we’ve created.  There’s land ownership (capitalist), but there’s mandated care for the poor (socialist).  There’s banking, in that there’s the possibility of loans and interest.  But there’s also an ‘every fifty year’ reversal of fortunes that would have had the effect of preventing the disappearance of the middle class, as well providing for liberation of slaves, a concept which any pure capitalist might well regard as wealth redistribution, or what Libertarians would call “theft”.  Did I mention the health code that “big government God” imposed on Israel?  Provisions were made for dealing with the outbreak of plagues, the disposal of human waste, the disposal of dead bodies, and more.  How families and farms dealt with these things were imposed on them as law.

2. God’s “Good Leaders” defy Conservative Values.  We’re prone, all of us Americans are, to throw people out of leadership after a moral failing.  God, though, obviously isn’t American, because he stuck with Abraham when he slept with maid; stuck with David when he used his power to seduce and sleep with his neighbor’s wife.  Sure, the left ignores God’s calls to sexual purity, and sometimes presses interpretations to the breaking point in order to justify sexual libertarianism when God clearly has ethics and high standards about this stuff.  The Bible is also clear in pointing out the dramatic consequences of our sexual failures, on heart, soul, family, body, even nation.  But it also seems that God is more patient with people’s moral frailty than most people are.  That’s why, even though Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman caught in adultery will be removed from this new Bible, the truth that God is patient with sexual failure will remain.

3. Who is shaping Who? God is supposed to shape us and He uses the Bible to do it. I’ve a firm conviction that when we let it speak plainly as the living Word, it will cut us to core – all of us.  The left, for example, will be offended by the consequences of sexual libertarianism, and reality that we’ll ‘always have the poor with us’.  They won’t like that Jesus sided with the woman spilling the perfume on his feet, because they’ll agree with Judas that the money could be given to poor.  The right will be offended too, by the passages I’ve articulated above, and more.

After we’ve wrestled with the meaning of scripture on an issue, and come to an understanding that challenges our current beliefs or practices we have a couple of options.  We can either:  1) change our ways of thinking and living. That’s called repentance.  2) reframe the text to mean something that fits into our current beliefs and lifestyle without requiring anything of us.  That’s called idolatry.

When all my interpretations of the God’s Word must pass through the grid of my conservatism, or liberalism, or Calvinism, or the worldview of my pastor, I’d better be concerned, because I’ve become an idol worshipper, and I’ve made a god in my image, out of my own interpretation of a book called, “The Holy Bible”.  That might be the most dangerous idol of all.

Your thoughts?

33 thoughts on “The Bible as an Idol

  1. While we’re on the subject of the Bible, isn’t it a bit idolatrous to call anything but Christ Himself the Word of God? Granted, what we know about Christ comes from the Bible but at the end of the day the Bible, regardless of which translation you use, is not where salvation is to be found if you are a Christian.

    1. Right on! I’ve had many conversations with friends who’ve expressed frustration with people who follow the Bible, rather than following God.

    2. Um? No. Scripture is inspired-“God breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)… In its essence the Bible is the word of God. Since scripture (graphē) refers to itself as being the breath (theopneustos) of God then I think its okay that we refer to it as the word of God since thats what it is. By the way, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). Yes it comes by the very words scripture because they are the very words of Jesus.

      1. Furthermore, if scripture is the breath of God how can we follow it and not Him? . If my wife sends me to the super market with a grocery list and I buy everything on that list then I am a follower of my wife. If I fail to follow the list I fail to follow my wife. In the same way to follow scripture is to follow God. No scripture is not God but it is His specific revelation to us. In other words its required reading for the corse.

        I understand why you guys are opposed to the Conservative Bible Project but this is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Scripture stands apart from these men or anyone for that matter. It is self-sufficient. Don’t over react to someone else’s mishandling of scripture by taking a less then biblical view of it yourself.

  2. yes Roy, I totally agree. We encounter Christ through the scriptures, but it’s Christ who is THE WORD, and we need to be open to his challenge, rebuke, and call to transformation, all of which we’ll receive from Christ, through the Bible, if we’ll allow ourselves to receive.

    1. Just to play devil’s advocate- there are people who say that without the “word” of Scripture, we’d know not what we do now about Christ and how to follow him. This view might say that Scripture is the one true, reliable aid to following Christ, without it, we’re like hiking without a GPS.

      I’d love to hear you’re thoughts. I agree with what you, Patrick and Roy say, but I don’t always know how to package my thoughts when faced with this “sola scriptura”.

      Recently in my Christian History class, we learned that in the first 4 centuries Christians did not have a canon of scripture set like we do today, yet their faith was strong and growing. How was this possible? Not simply because they had some letters to pass around, though it did help, but because they relied on the apostolic oral tradition: word of mouth teaching from the original 11 disciples passed to their followers, who taught their followers, the first generations in the church. Christ’s image in the Christian faith and church has been passed down and preserved by tradition established out of what leaders saw the body already celebrating in worship,and informed by the letters (most of them now Scripture).

      That means, accepting more Catholic views of church authority in the faith to complement our Protestant views of scriptural authority.
      When we rely on one over the other, even both without the presence of the Holy Spirit’s challenge, rubuke and call to transformation, we run awry. The early church experienced this alongside their successes. It’s an ongoing battle to not fall into idolatry.

  3. Brother Richard, I know you and I disagree on a lot of issues, but we must agree on this: the Bible is the Word of Yahweh, and any attempts to place His word second to any movement or ideal system or country is idolatry. Shame on those “conservatives” for reshaping His word to fit their own belief system.

    There is no “Left” or “Right” Christian. Christianity and Judaism are both socially conservative AND call on their believers to divvy their produce for the poor, and if people can’t deal with that, then they’re not giving Christ the wheel. This last part about mandatory care for the poor has boundaries that are clearly defined by Levitcal law, though. And I say that if God only requires so much during Israel’s theocracy (and on a flat tax scale, no less!), I say those boundaries are good enough for God’s people. Beyond this we are commanded not to envy others, including wealthier classes.

    As far as sexual impurities in leadership are concerned, there’s a huge difference between having a king and having an elected official. The Jewish king is placed there by God until removed by God, the elected official is placed there by us (by God’s permission). If we vote for someone who proves their immoral character, it is best for us to look for someone else, as our support for that person condones their behavior. Just because you forgive someone for corruption doesn’t mean you keep them in power.

    That being said, the book of Titus is clear that church leaders are to be blameless. If you’d like to take that up with Paul you can, but I just take him at his word.

    All said, glad we agree: the Word of God is supreme. Thanks for writing!

  4. I guess that to go this route we’d have to remove all those passages where Jesus healed people. We wouldn’t want people to think the Bible promotes free health care, would we?
    But in all seriousness, while something like this project frightens and disappoints me, it does make me more aware of the way I attempt to reshape Jesus into who I think he should be. It seems that all of us have a very difficult time reading scripture without our biases clouding what God is truly doing and saying. Praise God for his patience with us.

  5. Is it worth considering, if only for a moment, that those who are behind this movement have perfectly good reasons for seeking to alter the canon of Christian scripture? There were relatively few who raised concern over Eugene Peterson’s interpretation of scripture, and although for him it was a far more personal effort with a much less regimented purpose, I wonder if we can have a similar acceptance of this conservative interpretation, as well. I am by no means advocating their take on scripture, nor am I particularly enamored with any of the values which motivate their efforts; I simply do not understand and that lack of understanding should not inhibit what may be a very personal and tender expression of faith. After all, while there are those who would decry my theology as being far too liberal there are equally those who would lambast me for those aspects of my theology which they deem to be far too rigid. But it is my theology, it is my experience of the Divine, and I hope that I can give the very same honor and respect to those who would conceive of such an undertaking as I would expect from them.

    1. Kevin, I have to respectfully ask if there’s any point in following Jesus at all if we cannot be certain he meant any one thing at any one time. Do you really believe that Jesus never meant anything in particular, and do you think He doesn’t care what we think of what He said?

      If so, then why would he have said anything?

      1. Jeremy,

        Is certainty the metric by which we live our lives, by which we interact with and experience the Divine? There are many things in this world of which I am not certain but enjoy, nonetheless. The presence of God, for example, is beyond my ability to perceive with any certainty; as if standing in the middle of a swiftly moving stream, though, I can feel that presence as it presses against me, encircles me, and finally passes me by. Even the more concrete stuffs of this world are not bound by certainty, for to try and contain the the glory and presence of God in one are is to cause it to come bursting forth in another.

        However, if it is certainty that you desire, I will say this: I am certain that the Kingdom will come, but not by my own hands. I am not privy to how that will happen but I am privileged to participate.

      2. Kevin, what you’re describing isn’t humility: it’s refusal to confront Christ’s teachings as truth. While you may be completely right that God is more than we’ll ever be able to comprehend, the Holy Scriptures were given to us as an inerrant record of the promises and teachings of Jesus Christ, from the conception of the Jews to the coming of the atonement. If you cannot agree that they are inspired, and if you cannot agree that He meant for us to understand Him through them and the Holy Spirit, then what you’re left with is a lot of guesswork and emotional response.

        You said you were sure of your salvation. How? Did you learn about it from the Bible, which you claim you cannot understand?

  6. Richard, I’m curious how this interplays with the popular evangelical doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. While I did have a good laugh at the Conservative Bible’s “methodology” for selecting the term “divine guide”, it also reminded me that it seems impossible for Biblical translation to escape some level of politicization. Surely some of the aspects of Anglo-American Christianity, for example, must have been affected by the time and place in which the KJV was crafted. For many Christians, gender roles, the power of the monarchy, and slavery have all changed radically in the intervening four centuries. Nonetheless, there is a church that has gone too far to declare a book burning: targeted works include “heretical” non-KJV translations. How do we, as modern protestants founded on sola scriptura, keep our faith in the capital-W Word of God, rather than the small-w word?

  7. I appreciate this post.

    I highly recommend Marcus Borg’s book
    “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time”.

    I came away from reading this book with a greater interest in the Bible and a far richer understanding of the Bible as a human response to God.

    Borg writes; “we simply confer divine authority on what matters to us, whether we be conservatives or liberals.”

  8. I am a recovering fundamentalist. About 10 years ago, during a time of prayer, I asked God to take away my “us vs. them” attitude. An attitude deeply ingrained from my Pentecostal-fundamentalist ecclesial tradition. Through many different experiences and people, God has answered my prayer and I consider it to be one of the most wonderful things God has done in my life.
    Along the way somehow my view of the Bible has been tweaked. It probably started when a professor of mine simply stated, “the Bible is not God.” Then my wife and I went to see the movie The Kite Runner. In that movie the Taliban stoned a couple to death for what they thought was sexual sin. It is a very brutal scene. In the Bible it is written that God commands certain people to be stoned. The first thought I had in leaving the theater that night was, “God would never tell people to that.” Then and there I made my mind up that some of the things in the Bible that are ascribed to God are simply ideas men (using the term as ‘males’) have about God and their relation to God.
    Thus, it does not surprise me that some folks would take up a project like the one our friend Richard has described. Richard’s analysis of the project is excellent but there are so many others who worship the bible… what about those churches that actually label themselves “Bible churches?” For them the Blessed Trinity seems to be Father, Son and Holy Bible.
    By the way, it is a good exercise for all of us to try to rid our language of sexist language. If we continually refer to God as “him or he” then in our thinking God actually becomes male. And then, to quote Mary Daly, if God is male, male becomes god which very well could be the foundation of patriarchy and the absurd idea that women must be silent in the church and cannot be priests or pastors or for that matter, elders.
    This is, in my way of thinking, one of the biggest issues facing the evangelical church. If it continues to hold to the man-made “fundamentals,” one of which is biblical inerrancy and verbal-plenary inspiration, then it will see a slow decline into further irrelevance.

    1. Brad,
      Thanks for taking the conversation in this direction. I’m in grad school studying religion right now and a lot of my work this semester will be looking at the f word (feminism) in the context of the Evangelical church. You are so right about the significance of this issue within the church. It is not enough to say men and women are equal, they compliment each other, men are just in charge (a position often held by those who believe their reading of the Bible is inerrant). It is also not enough to simply transpose the general tenants of feminism (or even academic feminist theology) onto the Evangelical culture. These tenants have been, and will continue to be rejected by the very women meant to be liberated by them. There must be a third option to move us forward and that is Christ (really it’s the Trinity but Christ tends to be the central focus in the Evangelical world). Not a Christ constructed and wielded in a battle of us vs. them, or used to place one group (men) over or above another (women), but a Christ alive and central, drawing each of us and all of us into justice, mercy, and reconciliation with each other and with God. This is the Christ of the Bible. This is fundamentally who Christ is and what Christ does.
      This has been on my mind a lot lately and I’ve nearly posted about it a few different times. Thanks for opening the door.

  9. Pastor Dahlstrom, I’ve seen a lot of statements that your churchgoers overwhelmingly seem to believe, and you haven’t seriously confronted any of them (one time your followers even claimed that David and Jonothan were engaged in a homosexual love affair, which I countered before you stopped our conversation without defending what we both know is right).

    Although I saw that this blog did confront one of these following issues well, I don’t think your chuch “got it.” I’m calling on you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to make both your stances and Biblical doctrine clear here, if in fact they correlate. Do you believe the following statements, as made above and overwhelmingly accepted by your congregation?

    -The Bible is to be taken figuratively, not literally (Sherry)
    -The Bible is not the inerrant word of God, but rather a series of statements about God, made by culturally irrelevant men (Iwilliams)
    -Gender roles as described in the Bible are oppressive, and should be discarded along with all other culturally irrelevant doctrines (Brad Davis)
    -Nobody can learn truth from the Bible, as it is impossible to understand (Kevin)

  10. Oh Jeremy…

    I’m not ever sure where to begin, and am afraid that if I do begin, I won’t have the time to finish, but I’ll simply fire off some responses for you in hopes of helping you see where I’m coming from.

    1. the purpose of this blog is rarely to preach and teach – it’s more to provoke conversation within the community of faith on issues which should be discussed among people who agree on fundamental elements which have held the church together through the ages (basically the declarations of the Apostle’s creed). There’s a time and place for preaching… this isn’t it. Especially, you’ll note that on this new blog, I’ve an entire category called “questions” where I’m trying to provoke thought and discussion, not preach.

    2. you’re making a pretty big assumption when you tell me that all my church members are making these statements. Do YOU go to my church? Some who read this blog do, yes, but not all. And again, “calling people out” on a blog isn’t something I would do to a church member. The conversation would happen, in all likelihood, in person. Having said that, you’re pressing me for positions, so here you go:

    The Bible literal… if Psalm 113:2-4 is taken literally, the earth is the center of the solar system, so no, I don’t take the Bible literally all the time, just most of the time.

    The Bible inerrant… it seems like the wrong discussion because the inerrant declaration has to do with “the original manuscripts” none of which we have. I like the word “authoritative” or the phrase “final authority” better because it declares that the final arbiter for our understanding of how the world was made, who God is, what He asks of us, and how we ought to live, stems from God’s word.

    Gender Roles – it is undeniable that, in the Bible, there’s a movement of God away from the strong patriarchy of Levitical law. It’s also clear to me that God has called the husband in a marriage to represent the sacrificial love and headship of Christ, and the woman to represent the trusting response and openness of the church, receiving His life in order that she might bear fruit. This is timeless, because it’s rooted in the Genesis narrative. Can you see why I can’t answer these questions simply? To you it appears that they’re yes or no… that there’s no argument. To me, these things are nuanced, and the yes’s and no’s are found only the right and left, where sound bytes preclude careful thought.

    Nobody can learn truth from the Bible etc. etc. – of course there are things we believe and stand on: the historicity of Jesus, the virgin birth, the death of Christ on the cross, his resurrection… just read the apostles creed. And YES there are things we’ll not ‘get right’ because as the Bible itself says in I Cor. 13, we see through a glass darkly. One of my good friends assured me that 1999 was when Christ was returning. This was after 87, 88, 92,93 had all come and gone with his same assurances vanishing. I’m tired of assurances at the places in the scripture when, what’s needed, is perhaps a bit more humility.

  11. Brother Richard,

    I DID go to your church for quite some time, and ended up leaving after I’d seen the kind of character that was being reinforced contrarily to God’s law, and the number of people who placed postmodernism and liberalism ahead of Biblical authority. That being said, forgive me if my statement came across as slanderous… I know there are plenty of good Christians in your church, and I do believe you to be a brother. My problem here is that so many

    1. Whoops! Looks like somebody’s fingers are flying faster than they should be! Sorry about that.

      Anyway, the reason I “called you out” is because these people believe their stances are very reasonable and Biblical, and I see this a lot with your congregation. It seems people are more inclined toward tolerance of heresies and sins than toward really trying to understand what God really said. I know I’m not perfect, and I know the only reason I can know God is because Christ died for my sins, but it really pains me to see so many people in one church claiming that Christ is more about non-truth than truth. His truth matters to me, and it should to you. I wanted you to let your people know that you stand for something greater than humanism: you stand for the Almighty Yahweh and His knowable righteousness, which He declared to us through the Holy Scriptures. You shouldn’t have a problem with declaring this in public.

      Now on to specific points!

      -Psalm 113:2-4 says the sun rises and sets. How do YOU say the sun rises and sets? The Bible says the earth is the Lord’s footstool too, and I’m pretty sure we can both tell when something isn’t literal. The cross-over from this to an “allegorical” understanding of Biblical doctrine is what I’m concerned with, Richard. You know this! =) Or would you dare to suggest that the Bible is historically and scientifically hobgob?
      -You and I both know that textual criticism in defense of the Bible’s originality is solid. But how can you make a statement of final authority if you can’t determine that it is what’s originally written? These two come hand-in-hand.
      -The gender debate will rage on (too complex and detailed for this page). I maintain that God gave us gender roles to complete one another (Genesis) and He taught us how to properly utilize them through His law. Christ’s appearance teaches us to love within the boundaries of righteousness.
      -While I must humbly admit that I do not know everything and that the Holy Spirit will be conforming my mind to Christ’s throughout my lifetime, the idea that we cannot become closer to truth is absurd, especially with the promise of the Holy Spirit. Your friend is what’s known as a false prophet, and is warned about in the book of Deuteronomy (quite harshly, might I add) for the same reason you described here: they confuse and pervert Yahweh’s word. If you and others had followed God’s authority, you would not have been led astray by him.

      Anyway, I know this must be a frustrating thing for you to see in the morning, so thank you for your patience, and thank you for your reply. I’ll pray that God bring truth to both of us today, and use us to further His kingdom!

  12. Perhaps this conversation could benefit from the consideration what it means that scripture is inspired, and of the dual concepts of “God-spoken” and “God-breathed”.

    We can see several concrete instances within scripture, most notably the first of the creation myths, whereby the Holy Spirit–acting in perfect harmony with the will of the Father–makes the spoken Word of God manifest. The waters of chaos are pushed back, the dark is separated from the light, and the uncreated becomes the created. When God speaks, the Word is made flesh, is rendered the material expression of the Divine.

    The breath of God, however, has a very different character within scriptural narrative. The breath of God brings life, and although that life is bound to finite reality, it shares in the transcendent character of the Divine and simultaneously exhibits a certain unfettered boundlessness. Adam rises up from the dust and walks where he will, chooses what he will: he exercises freedom. He remains oriented towards the ground of his being, even in the midst of the estrangement of sin, but he is free to move and act according to the freedom given him by God.

    So, “God-spoken” and “God-breathed”: what do we make of these two distinct concepts in light of 2 Timothy 3:16? How do we interact with “The Word of God” if that spoken word exhibits all of the character of the God-breathed? Thoughts?

  13. Thanks Jeremy… and this will be last response for the rest of the day:

    1. it pains me to see you falsely generalize our church in a way that implies people are deliberately disobedient to Christ. There are, within our community, people who believe in the same historical Jesus who died for us, and yet disagree on the ethics and outworking of our faith. We call people out who are walking in sin when we know about it… and we help people move from darkness to light.

    2. I stand by my answers, and do so in order to point out that you responses indicate you are looking, as I said earlier, for simple yes and no answers, when the answers need to be more than a single word. Many single word answers play well, draw big crowds, make people feel like they’re on the moral high ground… but rarely are they appropriate when speaking of things beyond the essentials of the apostle creed. You seem (in my opinion) to have reduced the things I wrote back into “yes” or “no”, and then responded to your assessment of my one word answer, rather than what I wrote. This makes dialogue hard…especially on a blog.

    3. On this I can agree – we both love Christ – both love His word – both love the church and long to see God’s life made visible through her. That’s a good starting point for fellowship, and why these kinds of discussions have value. However, calling someone a false prophet, or generalizing condemnation upon a group of people in a blog dialogue seems, not only unhelpful, but unwise, and unbiblical.

    1. Brother Dahlstrom,

      I wanted to apologize for falsely accusing you of tolerating sin. You’re completely right that I don’t know you or the entire church well, and I did generalize based mostly on those from your blog. There’s no need for that in the body of Christ, and I want to let you know that I wish you well, and I’ll be praying for you. I believe your claim that you help others when they’re in sin, and I applaud you for doing the right thing.

      Hope your day goes well, and that both of us grow in Christ 🙂

  14. I appreciate this blog and the willingness of Richard to set up a safe place to discuss and debate God’s teachings. I think that it is valuable for us all to wrestle over the things of God–it’s vital to our faith. It keeps us engaged and Christ uses it to help guide us towards his kingdom.

    God invites us into this journey, no matter where we are, who we are, how conservative or liberal we are… He doesn’t call us into a cookie cutter faith where we all think the same, react the same, feel the same, or even are convicted the same. He does want us to admit our brokeness and expects us to find our wholeness and completeness through Him and His Son Jesus. Not through our stance or a rhetoric. So I think it’s beautiful that the Bethany community invites people to gather in HIS name under the agreement of the apostles creed to sharpen eachother and encourage eachother all from one anothers story. How sad of a gathering it would be if we were all expected to think exaclty alike and see or experience the Lord the same… what benefit would that be for all of God’s children?

    All I know is I desire to encounter God like Jacob–forever walking with a limp as a reminder that God is alive and engaged–how will we experience God like this if we don’t invite him to engage with us?

    Genesis 32:24-32

  15. What the church says about the Bible is going to be very important if we desire to draw folks to Jesus. In the culture, “the battle for the Bible” has been lost. It is seen as a hopelessly outdated irrelevant book at best. At worse it is seen as the book responsible for colonialism, slavery, and oppression of women and gays. When the Bible increases my faith and knowledge about God (the Trinity) and increases my allegiance to the over-arching ethic of neighbor love then it is authoritative to my life. When my experience teaches me that it is ok for a woman to teach a man, then I choose experience over what was written 2,000 years ago.

    It is doubtful there really is any such thing as “sola scriptura”. The moment I read the Bible, it is no longer “sola scriptura”- it is what I am reading plus my experience which includes everything about me- the culture I was raised in, the people who have influenced me, the Spirit within me. I heard a story about a slave in the south who promised God in prayer, “God, I heard it says that slavery is ok in the Bible. I promise that when I learn to read, I won’t read those parts.” Simply put, there are some parts we probably need to stop reading, especially if those parts are keeping people from Jesus or are being used to oppress others. Certainly Jeremy would not suggest we stone people like the Taliban and like our scriptures tell us to do.

    1. Would you also say that there are those passages which should not so much be avoided as given a different reading than they have in the past? Passages which concern the nature of gender roles are given a whole new life and meaning when we read them from any perspective other than that of men in power, and the experience of women greatly enriches our understanding of scripture and the vision of the Kingdom. While I completely agree that Paul’s admonitions to Philemon concerning the relationship between slave and master would be irresponsibly applied were we to take it literally, I do not believe that there is absolutely nothing of value. True, Paul was a man of privilege and had no concept for what the true bonds of slavery felt like, so it would be a stretch to say that there is anything immediately revelatory about these passages; Paul is likely only serving to restate or even reinforce the systems that are already in place. As with much of Paul’s writing, however, he is always saying more than he knows and it seems important to not lose sight of that. There are aspects of Divine truth which have yet to be revealed in scripture, simply because the wealth of human experience is long from being exhausted, and these difficult passages will not become redemptive for us unless we continue to bring our experiences to them.

      1. In the past I considered various passages as “difficult.” And of course ones viewpoint colored interpretation. When teaching on those passages I would attempt to make them work for our cultural context. I would come up with one reason or another as to why the passage doesn’t really mean what it says. Being raised evangelical/fundamentalist; I did not trust my experience and always elevated biblical “truth” over experience. That is, I was taught to always verify experience with “the word.” If my experience contradicted the bible, the bible triumphed.

        Now, rather than view certain passages as difficult, I simply view them as wrong. I am no longer involved with a denomination or hierarchical religious structure and therefore have the freedom and the courage to simply say, “Paul was wrong.” I now pay attention to my experience. I see it as trustworthy and reliable. It is too bad Paul backed away from his original position regarding gender equality….”there is neither male nor female.” His patriarchal mindset that prevented him from allowing for the possibility of women pastors and elders is just wrong. The idea that a man is the head of a woman because “he was created first” just sounds crazy to folks who have written Jesus off. The church can hold on to these written statements/beliefs but will do so to its detriment. Pastors can perhaps get away with such messages when preaching to the club, but it is precisely those passages that keep people from coming to faith in Christ. We need to rethink how firmly we should hold to beliefs that keep people from faith. My faith is not my beliefs. And if I or the church at large holds to beliefs that keep people from coming to Jesus, then we need to reevaluate those beliefs.

        Last week I saw a sermon title that said, “Four Miracles a Christian Must Believe.” My first thought was, “or what.” Surely one could add to the list of four and come up with five or six. Following Jesus cannot be reduced to a creed, a list of doctrinal beliefs or a list of miracles one must believe in. (Although that is precisely what happened after Constantine.) The next step is burning “heretics” and, like Richard’s original statement, making an idol out of the Bible.

        Affirming that Paul “says more than he knows” implies there is some secret or hidden message in his writings and at some later date more truth will be discovered in what he or other biblical writers wrote. It seems to me the biblical authors knew exactly what they were saying. They were writing contextually about an experience they had with a first century Jewish rabbi. The experience was life changing and powerful but no different than yours or mine. When Christians write about such experiences they do not claim, like Muhammed, that God is dictating every word. The Spirit may somehow be guiding them along but there is a serious mixture of culture, upbringing and education involved. It was possible for them to write something that is simply not true for Christians in our time. Perhaps our only canon should be the over-arching ethic of neighbor love and non-oppression.

      2. I can sense your consternation around this issue, and I definitely agree with you. Much of my growth as a follower of Christ came when I began to pay attention to how my body responded to certain situations: if I became tense or felt an uneasy sensation in my gut, it was probably because I was encountering something that was emotionally or spiritually troubling, and those feelings are worth listening to. My emotional reactions right now, and my experience of those reactions, are cuing me in to something that’s not sitting well with your critique of scripture; there is something that I am not understanding or something which is contradicting my own experience. Goodness knows that I–much like you, it seems–do not want to reduce the bible down to a system of rigid creeds and doctrines within which there is no room for the Spirit to move freely. I get caught, though, around this notion of simply declaring that a scripture author was patently wrong about something, for it seems that we would be doing essentially the same things as declaring something absolutely right. And I do believe that Paul is always saying more than he knows (as well as every biblical author) because the experience of the presence of God, which moves through the scripture as well as humanity, cannot be objectified. Even the words of Jesus reveal new truths when read by new minds, and I am glad that you and I seem to be united in the goal of making sure that the religion of Jesus can be an open and safe place for new kinds of reading and new entrances into a life of faith.

  16. I agree with the sentiment that for some in the Christian community, the bible has become an idol. I don’t believe the bible is irrelevant or of no consequence and I think that an understanding of the scriptures is important. As a priest at my church teaches: “the scriptures may contain error, but the scriptures do not teach error.”

    I am sure that the authors of the various books, psalms and epistles were inspired by what they saw, what they experienced and stories they were told. But I think we have to admit that there are some passages (especially in the Hebrew bible) that are extremely difficult to understand when read along side what Jesus taught. For example: in the book of Joshua there are stories of the Israelites going to war against their enemies. It appears that God’s will was that not only were the enemy warriors killed, but also all men, women and children. Contrast that with Jesus’ admonition that whoever hurts a child is going to wish they hadn’t. In Deuteronomy, eunuchs aren’t allowed to worship God with the assembly, but Jesus doesn’t seem to have a problem with eunuchs and the first gentile convert is a eunuch.

    Biblical literalism was not commonplace amongst believers until the late 19th century. Origen and Augustine both thought that a literal interpretation was limiting and that the riches of the texts were exposed when they were considered allegorically.

    I do think that it’s unwise to consider those who disagree with your particular position (whatever that may be) to be heretics. Is dogmaticism also an idol (is it even a word)? None of us can lay claim to having the whole truth or understanding of scripture. Our task is to do the best we can, living our lives for Christ and trying to be as much light and salt as possible.

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