The presence of ambiguity and multivocality in the Bible, as we have discussed in the previous two essays, forces us to step back from the biblical text to ask some serious questions. Is it possible that we have been reading the Bible through a faulty viewfinder? Have we been expecting the Bible to speak in ways that it simply can’t? Do we need a new set of glasses for Bible reading?
In his book, A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren answers these questions with a resounding, “Yes!” McLaren suggests that we need to move from reading the Bible as “constitution” to reading it as “library.” “In short,” he says, “we read and used the Bible as a legal constitution. It shouldn’t surprise us that people raised in a constitutional era would tend to read the Bible in a constitutional way. Lawyers in the courtroom quote articles, sections, paragraphs, and sub-paragraphs to win their case, and we do the same with the testaments, books, chapters, and verses” (78).
Reading the Bible as constitution has resulted in many, wildly-varying opinions and practices. On the one hand we are to love our enemies; on the other we can dash their children’s brains against the rocks. Polygamy can be argued to be a biblical norm, or celibacy being superior to marriage. Slavery can be argued to be “God’s plan for the ages” and the subjugation of women by men can be justified.
McLaren draws on the Book of Job to make his point. He notes that Job’s friends spend a lot of time piously quoting Bible verses proving that Job must have sinned. Had God not said in Deuteronomy 11:26-28 that obedience to God would lead to blessing and disobedience to curse? Yet in Job 42, God takes Job’s friends to task, declaring that they had not spoken for him. That is to say that much of the text as spouted by Job’s friends is in fact falsehood and that even a basic deuteronomic “doctrine” is declared to be invalid.
When we approach the Bible as “library,” says McLaren, we can more easily step back from the text and see it for what it actually is: “a portable library of poems, prophecies, histories, fables, parables, letters, sage sayings, quarrels, and so on” (79). And further, “…it’s the library of a culture and community – the culture and community of people who trace their history back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (81). Far from being a neatly, codified document of propositional statements that are entirely consistent throughout, it is the “messy” narrative of a people or culture that “…thinks certain questions are so important that it keeps struggling with them over many generations” (81). “This inspired library preserves, presents, and inspires an ongoing vigorous conversation with and about God, a living and vital civil argument into which we are all invited and through which God is revealed” (83).
I think the idea of being “invited into the text” is both profound and powerful. From that vantage point it is easier to see that Instead of being a closed book generating definitive doctrine applicable for all times and places, “…it was intended to stimulate conversation, to keep people thinking and talking and arguing and seeking, across continents and centuries”(92). Could it be that the Bible does not intend to give us easy answers, explanations, definitive statements and cookie cutter solutions for contemporary issues? That instead, as in the case of Job, the Bible intends to leave us with “…a sense of wonder, humility, rebuke, and smallness in the face of the unknown” (93)? Is it not in this kind of stance that we will best hear the voice of the Holy Spirit of whom Jesus said, “…he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13)? Being situated “in” the text reminds me that my life in Christ is tied seamlessly to the life of the many persons who bore witness to him within the written text.
This thought leads me to reflect on Karl Barth’s perspective on the role of Scripture. In The Bible Made Impossible, Christopher Smith laments the fact that evangelicals have too easily written off Barth’s view of revelation. He summarizes Barth’s view as follows: “The highest , truest, most real and authoritative divine revelation to humanity is the Word of God, Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity (John 1:1-18)…The Bible is also God’s Word, his word written. But Jesus Christ is the highest, most final, most real word of God. The Bible is God’s word written, which exists as a witness and testimony to the Word of God, Jesus Christ” (124).
From this vantage point we need not place a burden on the biblical text which it cannot bear. It should not be expected that the library of books making up our Bible, written with the participation of human agency, is the end point of our theological interest. It is the living person of Jesus Christ, representing the Trinity of God, that is the end point of reflection and devotion. The lines of the gospel song I learned as a child keep ringing in my ears: “I serve a risen Savior; he’s in the world today. I know that he is living, whatever men may say…”
Unfortunately, when Karl Barth’s thinking arrived in America in the 1930s and 1940s, evangelicals were preoccupied in their fight against liberalism. Their attention was almost singularly focused on establishing the Bible as the inerrant and infallible word of God that came to us through verbal, plenary inspiration. Barth’s reminder that the endpoint of our devotion is the person of Jesus Christ, not a written book, would have been a healthy corrective then, just as it is for us today.
We would do well to reconsider Barth’s thinking about the Word of God. That would help us to treat the Bible as a Sacred Library of books confessing Jesus Christ as Lord.