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Reading the Bible: Feast or Snack?

We all have our favorite Bible verses.

“'For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Jeremiah 29:11

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” John 10:10

“I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:13

Yet, chopping up the Bible creates the question of which texts get to be featured and framed. If we do not go deeper, beyond our favorite, and struggle with less favored ones, we weaken the potential integrity of the Bible for both believers and unbelievers.

What about these verses?

“We are an aroma that brings death.” 2 Corinthians 2:16

“I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all.” Isaiah 49:4

“The Lord will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart.” Deuteronomy 28:65

“Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” Numbers 31:17-18

A sliced scripture can allow us to select verses to use as both balm and as bombs. Is it possible that by proof texting, we are damaging the influence of the Bible?
Fragmentation removes the reader from the flow. The Bible was written for us, not to us. So, what do we do with it?

“A Biblical Feast,” the Adventist Forum’s event in Portland this September, will create a space for celebrating scripture. Five hundred years ago, the Reformation raised the pillar of sola scriptura. Does sola scriptura deserve its vaunted position? How has this concept helped and hurt our understanding of God? How has it helped and hurt our interpretation of the Bible? Is a plain reading (in English) best, or is the wiser strategy to use something like the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (reason, scripture, tradition, personal experience)? What about narrative theology?

The Adventist Forum Conference will include ideas such as these:
How the New Testament Makes Use of the Old Testament
A Jesus Hermeneutic
Use of Paul’s Letters
The Influence of Culture in Discerning the Plain Reading of Scripture
Liberation Theology
Pastoral Implications
The Bible as Art
And more…

What is the Bible? The Word of God? Inspired truth? Divine Revelation? Perfect? Bloody? Damaging? All of the above? Despite all the time talking about, emphasizing, and even reading the Bible, most have not faced their understanding of what the Bible is. Churches trumpet allegiance to biblical authority without dissecting what that means. This is remarkable considering the vital importance Christians claim for the Bible. Consider the following exercise:

Which of the following is the Bible most like?
A) Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations
B) The Reader’s Digest Guide to Home Repairs
C) The Collected Papers of the American Antislavery Society

Although none of the three choices exactly represents what the Bible is, I believe most would say the correct answer is C even though we use the Bible like A and expect it to function like B.

Consider the fractured result of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s multi-year Bible study on women’s ordination. Currently, our denomination is in the throes of another commissioned study, this one on the topic of Biblical hermeneutics—or what method will the denomination use to interpret the Bible.

Seventh-day Adventists are not alone in grappling with this problem. Christians of all stripes have fallen into using bits and pieces of scripture to prove pet doctrines and are prone to lose the trajectory of scripture. Our church claims to understand the sweep of history, as highlighted with our multi-volume Conflict of the Ages book set, but we also partake in the proof-text-truth-proving competitions that ignore God’s covenantal way of transforming lives. This snacking is possible because of the human intervention of segmenting scripture into chapter and verse. Chapter formation started in 1200 but took a while to become uniform. Verses emerged post Reformation in 1525-1557. Thus, Post-Reformation-Era-Bible-Dueling about who has the truth has been a feature of Protestantism.

Historian Mark Noll points to the flaw of claiming to be a “Bible-only” movement that is based on a divinely inspired scripture dependent on human-versification:

That ordinary human beings not inspired by the Holy Spirit had cut up the Bible into verses and that other ordinary human beings not inspired by the Holy Spirit were rearranging those verses to extract large-scale truths from the Scriptures meant that both the fundamentalist Bible reading and the most important fundamentalist theological books partook fully in thoroughly natural and thoroughly human activity, even as they attempted to understand divine truth.” p. 133

Brad Gregory, another historian, sees the fragmentation and conflict in Western Civilization as an unintended consequence of the Reformation with its emphasis on scripture without specific strategies to use to interpret scriptural intent:

“The unintended problem created by the Reformation was therefore not simply a perpetuation of the inherited and still-present challenge of how to make human life more genuinely Christian, but also the new and compounding problem of how to know what true Christianity was.” p. 369

Historical Critical methods of evaluating context and culture of Bible writers are helpful. But used exclusively, these approaches do not allow the full value of scripture to shine forth. The Bible can be interpreted from varied altitudes—up close and from 30,000 feet. It is a sweeping account of God’s interaction with ancient people, showing His faithfulness and flexibility in meeting people in varied situations. Any reading of scripture that restricts itself to the particulars—however legitimate on the historical level—betrays the overall significance of the text.

In a Post-truth era, Western Culture grapples with the complexity of unpeeling layers of reality to get to a real truth. Daily, we are asked to discern “fake news” from news that reports what actually is happening with some context. Some say that Christianity can be helpful to broader society since we have centuries of experience in hermeneutical struggles to discern Biblical truth. Christian scholars are accustomed to tension in Biblical interpretation and understand the concept of peeling layers of truth to get to the golden kernel. Biblical truth can be likened to rubber bands stretched to form a bouncy ball. Each part can be removed and examined; yet, each part adds to the strength and bounce of the ball.

In addition to missing the main Biblical truths, we have de-dramatized scripture by arranging Bible fragments in particular ways to prove points. Featuring nuggets about various topics, Bible studies have often emphasized concordance use to enable a sort of snacking on morsels. This is far removed from the way scripture was originally used, which was as a narrative that was read in a group setting and served as a transformative mechanism for the audience. Nehemiah called for scholars to read scripture to the people. Jesus heard Torah reading in the temple. Church leaders read Paul’s letters to believers. John’s Revelation is a chiastic book that loses the beautiful symmetry when we dissect it mercilessly and lose the midpoint pinnacle of truth.

When we look up things in the Bible like a handbook, we miss the story and how we might fit in that story. We miss the “and thens” and the “therefores” that give context and movement in the sweep of revelation of God’s dealings with the ancient people. We must read both testaments and look for continuity. We must read with Christ as center; otherwise, it makes no sense. The flow of the story opens our imaginations into where we might fit and what we might do today as creatures in God’s image. We are God’s artwork, and this can include allowing for individual improvisation as we all seek to reflect His image.

The Bible’s story welcomes us to be true human beingscreatures, yes, but creatures who image the divine and who have received from God the gift of this earth. We learn early on in the Bible that the world is ours to run, to shape, to manage, to rule. And we learn later on in the story that we are to do so as servant-leaders in the pattern of our self-sacrificing King Jesus. This is where the power for transformation in the Bible really lies. The Scriptures change us by giving us a new understanding of what all our ‘and thens’ are supposed to be about. The Scriptures change us because the story they tell is infused with the power of Jesus and the Spirit, who bring renewal. This is what we should mean when we say that the Word of God has power. It’s not that each little scrap is a kind of magic rune or potent piece of juju. The power is in the drama as it witnesses to Christ and invites us to enter into His journey of new life.” Paauw, p. 107

God’s people are diverse, from every tribe and nation, and gathered from all socioeconomic groups. Reading in groups removes a person from the traps of My Private Bible, which can be an Imprisoned Bible and a Restricted Bible. Sola scriptura does not mean sola me and my own understanding of the plain words.

In our zeal to get a Bible that is ‘Me first and Mine second’ we’re willing to deny the obvious character of the Scriptures as a collection of sacred writings to other people in particular times, places and situations and pretend instead that it was meant all along to be God’s special words just for me. Plainly, this is not a high view of Scripture being put into practice, in spite of the claims of the practitioners. The Bible is what it is, and it was not inspired to be a field to be mined for my precious gem collection.” Paauw, p. 168

The Bible is history, but it is also art as it provides space for a human enterprise. Bible Feasting can reorganize our perspective toward reconciliation, not condemnation—toward advocacy, not accusation. Deep Bible study will pull us from a culture of consumerism, individualism, racism, narcissism, and militarism. Bible Feasting gives opportunity for second birth and a new way forward to experience the world.

Deep study, not quick quotes and formulas, will open us to the possibility for transformation.  With a prayerful humility, we can receive God’s promises and see our God more clearly.

Come to Portland for a Biblical Feast.

 

The Adventist Forum Conference is September 1–3, 2017 in Portland, Oregon. Look for more details—including registration information—coming soon.

 

Carmen Lau is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum. She lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama.

Image Credit: SpectrumMagazine.org

 

Notes & References:
Noll, Mark (1994) The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Grand Rapids, Eerdman’s Publishing.
Gregory, Brad, (2012) The Unintended Reformation, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
Paauw, Glenn R., (2016) Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well, Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press.

 

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