It is easy enough to highlight the deficiencies of those who take the entire Bible literally and personally, and who ignore even the simplest of safeguards to understanding its various parts in their context. Some may have read my last post and been concerned that I was being unfair; others would have given a knowing nod of “this was my experience too”. In any case, to portray what may be an extreme without at the same time acknowledging the many scholars, evangelical and otherwise, who have contributed to robust biblical study would be to maintain a common caricature. That’s not my aim. Over the years I have benefitted greatly from the thoughtful, scholarly and empathetic exposition of many biblical experts from all corners of church life.
My point is this: increasingly I was confronted with the fact that the way I had learned to read the Bible and apply it to my life was not matching up with reality nor, I believe, honouring the text for what it is. I kept trying to read scripture as if all of it were intended to be primarily prescriptive for my life rather than descriptive of the lives of the authors and audiences found within its pages. In some cases the difference is obvious: when the writer of 2 Timothy says, “When you come, be sure to bring the coat I left with Carpus at Troas,” we know he is not speaking to us today (though I’m sure there is some crazy out there somewhere who will find a personal message in this verse…). However, when the same author says, “But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness,” it has the ring of a message that is potentially useful for all of us, even if it is 2000 years old. How do we know the difference?
Here’s a thought: Jesus summarized the entire body of scripture which was available in his day with one simple formula: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.” Aside from these two “greatest” commandments I do not believe there are any necessarily prescriptive rules in the Bible for those who follow Christ. All those other commandments, injunctions, instructions and examples may well be instructive and worthy of consideration, but what they really are is this: examples of how those people back then tried to give expression to the two great commandments in their own time, in their own culture and context. They may be useful to us here and now, they may not.
If Jesus had intended to establish a new code of law to be obeyed by every follower of his, surely he would have written it down. We would have a book called “The Law of Jesus”, or equivalent. He would not have left his essential message to memory, oral tradition, translation from one language to another, and then the passage of several decades before having had any of his words committed to pen and paper. The idea that holy scripture is the purist form of revelation is a concept at home in other religions, not Christianity. For us, the life of Jesus of Nazareth is where we find the clearest revelation of who God is and what God intends for us.
Now this idea is both tremendously liberating and tremendously scary. We have been given a huge canvas on which to paint our lives, with only the barest (but essential) motivational directives. As St. Augustine put it, ““Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.” Do whatever you please? Surely that is asking for trouble! Perhaps; but only insofar as our lives are not yet conformed to the pattern of Christ, who set the example for us. Like Christ, we aim to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2).
Next time, a few thoughts on balancing scripture with reason and tradition. How very Anglican.