Sermon Series: Christianity Without Easy Answers
“What Am I Supposed to Do with the Bible?”
Sunday, February 22, 2009
Hebrews 4: 12-16
We say that the Bible contains the Word of God and, because of this, that it is the ultimate authority for what we believe and do as Christians.
We say or imply that when we come to church and listen to a sermon we are not hearing the preacher’s opinions and ideas but we are hearing the truth of God as it is revealed in the Bible. When we send our children to Sunday school, they are not being taught the opinions of Theresa Thames-Lynch or the Sunday school teacher’s ideas, they are being taught the Bible.
A key verse in the Bible for our understanding of the Bible is II Timothy 3: 16: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness …” No matter that at the time this verse was written the only scripture that existed was the Hebrew scriptures, as soon as the New Testament was formulated we applied this same principle to it – the idea that scripture is inspired by God – literally God breathed – and authoritative.
Except for quite some time now, we who are not fundamentalists, have been, well, sort of fudging on this, haven’t we? We have seemed to waffle on the factuality and authority of the Bible.
One area we have waffled on is the relationship between what the Bible says and what science has discovered. Science has discovered things which appear to conflict with some ways the universe is portrayed in the Bible. Science has developed an understanding of the way the world works that makes us think that some of the events described in the Bible are unlikely to have happened the way they are described.
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This, however, may be confusing to our friends who wonder then what parts of the Bible we do consider to be literally true. If the Garden of Eden story is not factual, what about the Exodus? What about the Christmas story? What about the Jesus’ healings? What about the resurrection? How can we know what is factual and what isn’t?
These are hard questions. No wonder our friends are confused. These kinds of questions may even confuse some of us here.
You will hear people say: “The Bible is not a science textbook.” I have probably said it myself, but this is not quite right. The writers of the Bible are pretty careful, it seems to me, to draw upon the best “scientific” thinking of their time. The Genesis creation account draws upon the most advanced thinking about creation of the time – Babylonian “science.” Parts of the Bible may have served to education people about the “scientific” thinking of the time in which it was written. Parts of the Bible may have been a science textbook when they were written.
But we have learned new things about our universe in the last two to three thousand years. So the Bible needs to be read in light of what new we have learned about our universe and the way it works. The Bible is bound by the “scientific” understandings of the time in which it is written.
But there is an even more difficult problem than this, at least for me. This is the problem of what we do with the parts of the Bible that are morally inferior or even morally repugnant. What do we do with the ethnic cleansing that seems to happen in the occupation of the Promised Land? What do we do with the harsh treatment of children in parts of the Bible, the oppression of women, the endorsement of slavery, the homophobia?
Rabbi Michael Lerner addresses this question about the Torah, a part of the Bible both Jews and Christians share. He says that the Torah offers “a liberatory worldview that guides us in our struggles to heal and repair the world.”[ii] But, he adds, “the Torah also contains rituals, ways of thinking, and injunctions, which are insensitive, chauvinistic, or even cruel.”[iii]
Lerner’s answer is that the people of
“To the extent that we are ready to hear God’s voice, we can find it in Torah,” he says. “But to the extent that we are morbidly drawn to our own tendencies toward cruelty and pain, those will be the resonant voices we respond to in Torah.”[iv]
There are those who would agree with Rabbi Lerner about the Old Testament but then want to make different claims for the New Testament. But there are also parts of the New Testament that are insensitive, chauvinistic or even cruel.
Howard Thurman, the African-American teacher and mystic, wrote about reading the Bible two or three times a week to his grandmother who had been a slave. She would not let him read to her from Paul’s epistles. He asked her why.
She said to him: “During the days of slavery the master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves…Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul. At least three or four times a year he used as a text: ‘Slaves be obedient to them that are your master…, as unto Christ.’ Then he would go on to show how it was God’s will that we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read or if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.”[v]
The Apostle Paul initiated the end of slavery by writing: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3: 28) But he himself was not able to see the political and economic implications of the spiritual truth he had discerned, so his endorsement of the institution of slavery helped to justify its practice for the next 19 centuries. The same is true of his support of patriarchy, undemocratic government, oppressive household codes and homophobia. Within the pages of the Bible, Paul never transcended the cultural limitations of his own time even though within his teachings were the seeds of future social, political and religious revolutions. So Paul’s writings can always be read as either revolutionary or reactionary depending on the way we choose to read them.
What do we do with the parts of the New Testament that are insensitive, chauvinistic, or even cruel? There is another answer we will hear. This answer is that we should focus on the teachings of Jesus. Someone told me once that she is a Jesus fundamentalist. She believes everything Jesus taught and takes the rest of the Bible with a grain of salt.
A lot about this answer appeals to me. Jesus certainly seems to be freer of the oppressive assumptions of the times in which he lived than Paul was or anybody else in the Bible.
Yet, still, there are aspects of Jesus’ teachings that unsettle me. In Matthew, Jesus tells the parable of the talents. The parable is about a master giving servants some money to manage for him. Two of the servants make a profit. One doesn’t. The parable ends with the master, who clearly represents God, saying: “Cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (Matt. 25: 28-30) This seems rather harsh.
In Luke it is even worse. The story ends with the enemies of the master being slaughtered in his presence. (Luke 19: 27)
The parable I find the most distressing is the one about the ten bridesmaids. Bridesmaids in Jesus’ time would have been teenage girls. In the story five of the teenage girls didn’t think to bring extra oil for their lamps. They end up with the bridegroom shutting the door on them. They say: "Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, "Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” (Matt. 25: 11-2) They were teenage girls.
Some of Jesus’ parables end harshly, even violently. Personally, I actually think these endings don’t come from Jesus. I think they were added by early church leaders who were trying to control their people their people by using images of eternal punishment. I really don’t think these images came from Jesus.
But you can understand that, when someone like me who is entrusted by the church to teach the Bible says something like this, it is confusing. What in the Bible can we trust? What in the Bible is authoritative? Or can we just pick and choose what we want to follow and what we want to ignore?
So let me summarize what I’ve tried to say so far: The Bible is dated. Every part of the Bible comes from a particular place and a particular time and it reflects the assumptions and thinking of the time and place from which it comes. The Bible is not inerrant. It contains errors and mistakes and some ideas that are insensitive, chauvinistic, and even cruel.
At the same time – at the very same time – we say the Bible contains the Word of God and that it is the ultimate authority for what we believe and do as Christians. In fact, many of us, myself included, love the Bible. We study it. We preach and listen to sermons that seek to explain and apply the Bible. We want its story and stories to shape our character and form our values. We believe that if the Bible shapes our character and forms our values this will give us the capacity to distinguish that within the Bible which is beautiful, good, honorable and true from that which is insensitive, chauvinistic and even cruel.
I want to suggest this morning that we can find two basic truths within the Bible that cause us to claim that it contains the Word of God and that leads us to allow it to be authoritative of what we as Christians say and do. These two truths are the overriding truths in scripture that put all the rest of the Bible into perspective.
First, we see the truth about ourselves in the Bible. We discover who we are in the Bible. Who of us can not find ourselves in the Bible?
· Eve disobeys God and can not stand to be disobedient alone so she talks Adam into eating the fruit as well. Then Adam tries to avoid responsibility by saying Eve made him do it. Who of us cannot see ourselves in the story of Eve and Adam?
· Noah drinks.
· The Israelites pray for freedom and then are resentful and angry when it comes at a price.
· Samson is obsessed with Delilah to the point of insanity.
· Eli spoils his children and lets them run amuck and ruin his life.
· King Saul is so threatened by David’s youth and popularity he tries to kill him and goes mad.
· David plots an elaborate cover-up to hide his sin.
· Elijah hides in a cave.
· Jonah does a good thing for the wrong reason and becomes consumed with bitterness.
· Peter swears to Jesus that he would never deny him but does three times.
· Mary Magdalene won’t let go.
· Paul doesn’t do what he wants to do but does the very thing he hates.
Anyone here not see yourself somewhere in that list? If not, there are more examples like this I could mention.
But this is not the whole story, of course.
· Abraham and Sarah cannot stand the idea of dying in Horeb so they set out to a new place and change history in the process.
· Esther, who has everything, risks everything to save her people.
· Moses leaves behind his peaceful life to lead his people to freedom.
· Jonathan loves David more than his own life.
· Job trusts God even when he loses everything.
· Nehemiah gives up his position of power and prestige to rebuild the city.
· Mary offers God her womb.
· The woman with the issue of blood believes so fiercely that she touches the hem of Jesus’ garment.
· Jesus dying on a cross forgives.
We can see something of ourselves in this list as well.
Coffin once quoted a man who had devoted years of his life to translating
This is the criteria of all great literature, Coffin said. We see ourselves there reflected. I don’t think there is any character in Shakespeare or in the greatest novels whom we cannot find first in the Bible. Great literature becomes like the Bible when we see ourselves reflected in it.
This is one reason why the Bible becomes for us the Word of God: We see ourselves there reflected. We discover ourselves in the Bible. We discover our family in the Bible. We discover our nation in the Bible. The Bible becomes self-revelatory for us. It can become a Word of God for us and to us.
The more we learn from the sciences – the physical sciences and social sciences – the more important the Bible and the kind of story told in the Bible becomes, because the Bible insists on our moral agency. We are never merely victims of our time and place. We are never merely victims of our biology or our psychology. We are never merely victims of our class or ethnicity.
This is why, in the Bible, Rahab the prostitute becomes a heroine and a great-, great-, great- grandmother of Jesus, Noah the alcoholic becomes a savior, and Peter the coward becomes a martyr. We are victims neither of our identity nor our past.
We are responsible to a reality greater than ourselves for the decisions we make in life. We can never be defined. We can be described by our gender, our ethnicity, our sexual orientation, our class, our diagnosis, our vocation, but we can never be defined. We cannot be reduced to the elements that make up our bodies.
There is a truth about who we are in the Bible that science by itself can not tell us. There is a truth about ourselves in the Bible that we can not know by our own devices.
The Bible becomes the Word of God for us when we see ourselves there reflected.
Secondly, we discover in the Bible an invitation to hope. All of life is lived on the spectrum between hope and despair. It is our daily decision, made either consciously or subconsciously, to live someplace on the spectrum between hope and despair. It is sometimes a moment by moment decision although it tends to become habitual. The Bible is an invitation to hope.
Five pivotal things happen in the Bible. (Many more happen but these five are perhaps the most pivotal.) The five things are creation, the exodus, prophesy, resurrection and Pentecost. The universe comes into being, slaves are liberated, corruption is challenged and decried, a community of people experience Jesus Christ risen from the dead, and an inclusive community in which all human divides are overcome is born.
In each case the Bible says that these events are not happenstance. The Bible says they reveal something about the nature of reality. Another way to say this is to say they reveal something about the intentions and the heart of God.
Creation reveals that the universe exists for beauty and community. The universe is not merely accidental but an essential expression of the truth of reality.
The exodus reveals that human beings are created for freedom and justice. The exodus was not merely the efforts of a group of people who desired freedom. The exodus is evidence that the tide of history flows toward freedom and justice. Another way of saying this is to say that God intends for us to be free and to treat each other justly.
The emergence of the prophets and prophecy reveals that injustice, oppression and corruption are intolerable. The human spirit and the human voice have within itself an understanding of right and wrong and can be called to repentance when it does wrong. Another way of saying this is to say that God holds humanity and you and me accountable.
The resurrection reveals that death can not destroy us. Pentecost reveals that all humanity is meant to be one.
Can any of these things be proved? No.
The community that wrote the Bible, and the community whose book the Bible is, are the people who choose to hope these things. We choose to believe that creation, exodus, prophecy, resurrection and inclusive church are signs of the deepest truths of reality and the heart of God.
We tell ourselves these stories again and again by reading and studying the Bible, through music and hymns, through rituals and sacraments, through the way we live together as a congregation, by the mission we do together. We do this as a way of choosing hope rather than despair.
The Bible is not Christians’ only book, but it is our most cherished book. We don’t believe the Bible is the only place where we find God’s revelation. We don’t even believe that every word of the Bible or any particular word reveals God. But in the Bible we dependably see our own selves reflected so that we can come to know ourselves more fully, and in the Bible we see an understanding of reality that can give us hope. This is why we say the Bible contains the Word of God even when there are mistakes and errors and contradictions and misunderstandings within it. This is the source of its authority in our lives…not that we believe quoting this verse or that proves anything, but because it compels us.
The Word of God, wherever it appears, whether in Jesus Christ or the story of Christ told in the Bible or in music or in literature or in Holy Communion or in our dreams – the Word of God, Hebrews says, is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword. We are naked before it. It requires us to face our own selves and it invites us to a life of boldness and hope. It invites us to take hope and to thus live with courage.
I am amused when people try to prove things to me from
the Bible. Gabriel Josipovici is a novelist and a professor of literature at
The Bible doesn’t prove anything. You can’t use it to prove anything. The Bible reveals us to ourselves and the Bible invites us to hope. This is why we live in it. This is why we love it.
[ii] Michael Lerner, Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation (HarperPerennial, 1994), 85
[iii] Lerner, 87.
[iv] Lerner, 87-8.
[v] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Abingdon Press, 1949), 30-31.
[vi] Gabriel Josipovici, The Book of God: A Response to the Bible (Yale University Press, 1990), 27.