Reflection March 3, 2019
"Understanding the Bible without Rancor" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
We, Christians, fight tooth and nail over how to understand the Bible. No other topic creates more chaos, consternation, and conflict. Admittedly this topic has been a source of internecine combat since the church began. Nothing generates more heat and less light than this struggle. It is, I believe, one of the most important reasons our young have abandoned the church. This “battle” over the Bible fuels most, if not all, of our so-called “culture wars.”
Now, please understand, I certainly do not possess the wisdom required to solve this quicksand-like dilemma. Yet, as a long-serving, somewhat long-suffering, pastor, I’ve stumbled upon some ideas that might help move us forward at our beloved Morgan Park American Baptist Church.
To help us do this, I’d like to quote one of my favorite authors: me! In this week’s Advance, I’ll include a few pieces from my two long-time-ago books.
Scripture was not intended to be a history book as we know the term. It presents history, but from a subjective viewpoint (as does all history!). When the Israelites won a victory, they naturally assumed their God was stronger than the god or gods of the vanquished. If they lost the battle, they believed God could have won, but God must be punishing them for some reason. It was a simple worldview.
I do not believe that Scripture is literally true in all aspects. It’s not always accurate. There are a great number of people, however, who believe the Bible word for word. Such people are often spoken of as “fundamentalists.”
Certainly our Jewish ancestors in faith did not approach the Scriptures in a literal, fundamentalist, way. This is well-attested. We, Christians, would do well to immerse ourselves in Jewish understandings of what we call the Old Testament. They have much to teach us.
As Rabbi William Silverman writes in God Help Me!: “The fundamentalist approach is a sincere effort to justify the Divine authority of Holy Scripture as irrefutable and unalterable. In essence, it is religious blasphemy and a scathing indictment of a God of love.”
The on-going battle between creationists and evolutionists, for instance, appears patently absurd, especially to our young. Fundamentalist Christian believers have often created the impression that science is an enemy of faith. Certainly science is not our master. Science has inherent flaws that are often overlooked. But our faith should never ask people to shut their eyes to what science uncovers. Our faith must be rooted in what is real.
We know, from science, that our earth is really, really, really old. It’s about 4.5 billion years old. It’s definitely not some 7,000 years old as many misinformed Christians assert. While the 17th Century Church of Ireland Bishop James Ussher famously put the date of creation as “on or around October 23, 4004 B.C.” we know the Bible doesn’t really say this.
Our Christian church holds that the Bible was “inspired” by God. Yet while all Christians believe in this divine “inspiration,” we’ve been given little help in understanding what it means. It doesn’t mean that God somehow “dictated” the words of the Bible into the ears of the Bible’s authors.
As I’ve said more than once at our Wednesday Bible Studies, we can run into trouble when we speak of the Bible as “The Word of God.” Such a notation gives us the idea of it being dictated by God (or God‘s angels). While our Muslim sisters and brothers believe that the Quran was dictated directly by God through the angel Gabriel (Jibreel) to Muhammad, we, Christians, do not subscribe to such an understanding of our Scripture.
The Jerome Biblical Commentary, which I’ve cherished my entire ministerial life, speaks of Scripture as something “which has been breathed by God - in other words, the very breath of God.” Perhaps it would be helpful for us to visualize inspiration as God “breathing” on the authors of the Bible, helping them like sailboats to voyage further than they otherwise could.
Some of the biblical writers were able to “catch” a great deal of divine breath in their sails, traveling great distances. Others, however, had sails which couldn’t “catch” as much divine breath so they didn’t travel as far. This is how “inspiration” worked.
I believe the Bible consists of a large number of concentric circles. The inner circle comprises the four Gospels. I believe the Gospels serve as the good and godly soil in which our faith is planted and takes root.
Moving away from the central core, we find the other books of the New Testament. They are important to our faith, but they do not possess the sanctity of the Gospels. If, for instance, there arises a dispute between something our brother Paul wrote and something taught by Jesus in the Gospels, I must side with Jesus. Now this may not happen often, but it can happen. As the far extreme of the New Testament circles lies the Revelation of John.
Moving further away from the center, we find the circles of the Old Testament. We move through the prophets, the wisdom literature, the historical books and the Torah. This doesn’t imply that these biblical accounts aren’t spiritually important.
What I’m clumsily saying here is that not all of the Bible carries the same weight, the same gravitas. An obscure story in Genesis does not have the same faith-importance as something found in the Gospels. Every word of the Bible is not equally compelling nor equally critical to our Christian faith.
We, Christians, do not disparage the rest of the Bible. But we cling to what Jesus did and what Jesus taught us as unfolded in the Gospels. Christianity is a Gospel-Faith!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643