Recently, Pope Francis made waves by saying something that many would consider common sense. In reflecting on the difficult relationship between science and religion, Francis is quoted arguing that Christians should not view God as “a magician, with a magic wand.”
There goes Harry Potter’s fleeting chance at the papacy.
As a Protestant with a #PopeCrush, I’m appreciative of Francis’ apparent efforts to pull Roman Catholicism kicking and screaming into the 21st century. I’d like to return the favor with Protestants by suggesting that if God isn’t a magician, and if God doesn’t have a magic wand, then God has no need for a magic book either.
If God doesn’t have a Magic Wand, why do we have a Magic Book?
The way many Christians treat the Bible is a terrible stumbling block for good, sensible people; folks who simply can’t believe that God would ask them to deny so much of what they know and have experienced.
If our goal is to invite people to a mature life of faith, the church needs to adopt a robust understanding of the Bible that isn’t creating unnecessary conflicts with those seeking to harmonize Christian spirituality with a modern understanding of the world.
In that spirit, here are seven spells about Scripture that the church should stop casting.
1. Sola scriptura ad extremum
Our first incantation even sounds like something you might hear at Hogwarts.
The Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura submits that the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and a proper Christian life. On one level, the doctrine is a great way to provide a stable reference point for an evolving faith tradition. But taken too far, this idea can be co-opted to reinforce insular and extreme interpretations of the Bible which don’t benefit from the critique of thousands of years of Christian practice.
2. You must believe in the Bible.
The Bible is not God. Nowhere in the Bible are Christians asked to believe in the Bible. They are asked to believe in God, in Jesus, and in the Gospel but these things shouldn’t be conflated to, or limited by, the Bible. The Bible, in its current form, didn’t even exist at that point and the story of how we arrived at the collection of books we have today is a strange, and not completely reverent, tale for another time. And while there are numerous verses that are taken to speak to the perfection of God’s word (Psalm 19:7) or inspiration of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16), they are taken grossly out of context when used to posit absolute authority for Scripture or to build arguments of biblical inerrancy.
3. The Bible is against __________.
The Bible isn’t against this, that, or any practice. Why? The Bible isn’t a person. Christian people are against this, or that, practice; and typically, only a subset of Christians are. When a person, or a church, states what they believe about something or someone, they are speaking for their community and its interpretation of Scripture.
Referencing the Bible is a good thing. It displays a respect for a rich, shared tradition. But scapegoating the Bible for your exclusion of someone shows a lack of personal, or corporate, integrity. Remember, the Bible is a book, not a person (or God).
4. The Bible is literally true.
Every so often someone comes along and decides to build a life-sized ark, or declares that the Earth will end on a particular date, much to their later chagrin. But these, easy to dismiss, caricatures give cover to masses of folks who tend to read much of the Bible in similar, literalistic, ways.
It is easy for some to say that Creationism isn’t science, and that it isn’t a good way to read the Bible either. But determining what is metaphor, parable, or something approximating our understandings of the word truth, isn’t always clean cut. Thankfully, if we are willing to discipline ourselves against our individualistic inclinations, there is an abundance of good academic and thoughtful devotional resources, to aid in our approach to the Bible.
5. All Scripture is created equal.
I’ve never met someone who spent a lot of time studying the Bible who didn’t also have favorite parts. As people, we are prone to like different types of literature and the Bible contains many. Some books read like history, others offer wisdom, laws, prayers, and even prophecy. And who doesn’t love all those begat lists.
But another difference is simply found in the quality of the writing and/or what it has to say about God. However you might understand the nature of inspiration, some of the writers of Scripture were simply better storytellers than others. And in whatever way you might understand the nature of inspiration, some of our Biblical authors appear to have received a bigger portion.
6. The Bible says this here, chapter, verse…
I get it. The Bible is a long book. It’s hard to to keep all that data in your head so we have to develop a few ‘go to verses’ to help others to know why they are so wrong and we are so right. Such a practice in any single book can lead to tortured, decontextualized results. But when we understand that the Bible is a long collection of distinct books written over centuries, a library if you will, it’s much easier to see how problems might arise.
This practice of taking verses from here and there to build an argument, or support a position you brought to the text, is also known as proof-texting. Christians of all persuasions have been guilty of this one, many, many times.
7. Anyone who challenges the authority of the Bible either hates God or is capitulating to culture.
There are numerous places where Scripture has, should, and will continue to be in conflict with culture. For example, we are prone to misidentify power and wealth with divine blessing (i.e., Ecclesiastes 5:19), even though the careful reading of the Bible would caution us against such conclusions.
For a growing number of people, the serious, and sometimes critical, study of Scripture stems not from a wish to destroy the faith, but instead, from a deep love of a God who always lies beyond our full comprehension. Working to honor the complexity of the Bible makes it less likely that its witness will be written off as a fanciful magic book, or a relic of the past. And it helps the church to avoid assigning to God all of our personal preferences and prejudices.
The Bible is a beautiful collection of writings which hold much wisdom, spiritual insight, and yes, truth. But when we refuse to acknowledge its limitations, and even some of its flaws, we turn this library into a stumbling block. Jesus had something to say about that too.
A couple questions to leave with:
So, do you agree with this list of seven spells that we need to stop casting? What spells would you add or subtract?
What different understandings, or approaches, do you bring to your study of the Bible?
How has your approach to the Bible evolved over the years?
Does your church offer regular classes or studies to help people to read the Bible in healthy ways?
ht: Patrick Scriven, afterchurch.com