A Facebook friend asked me the following:
I’m sure this is an extremely broad question but I’m really curious! How do you combine a love for scripture and a respect for it’s authority whilst still acknowledging the non-historical nature of it?
I responded by saying that I thought the question deserved a long reply, and might be of interest to others, and that I would answer it on my blog.
Let me first rephrase the question, since I think there are some things in the wording that I would want to adjust. Talking about the “non-historical nature” of the Bible seems to me to be too sweeping a generalization. There is historical material, non-historical material which is presented as though it were historical, and non-historical material which should never have been mistaken for such by anyone. And so I would prefer to talk of taking a historical-critical approach to the Bible (where appropriate) and being open to the possibility that it includes things that are not historically factual depictions, even though many readers assume otherwise.
I should also comment on the term “authority.” Even for a liberal Christian, there is a sense in which the Bible is an authority. It is just not considered an inerrant divine authority. But there is a wider and more common usage of the term “authority” such as when one talks about Stephen Hawking as an authority in the realm of physics. It doesn’t make him infallible, it makes him knowledgeable, insightful, and important to interact with. And it means that, if you want to disagree with him, you will first need to attain a level of expertise in the area in question comparable to his.
We can think about the Bible the same way. Inasmuch as there is historical information to be had about the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, for instance, you won’t accomplish much if you simply ignore the New Testament authors. They are not writers of history in the modern sense, and they are not always trustworthy, but they are closer to the source than anyone else, and they cannot be ignored.
But, as someone who studies the Bible critically, I know that Paul loved Genesis, but he did not simply accept everything that it said in the most obvious way. He loved that it described Abraham as having been reckoned righteous on the basis of his trust in God. And he found a creative way to circumvent its requirement that one must be circumcised to be considered part of Abraham’s household.
And so none of what I’ve written above about approaching the Bible critically is at odds with loving the Bible.
Indeed, if we look at human relationships, we often see people who have an unrealistic notion of what their significant other is like. We could say that they are in love with the idea of the other person, not the reality.
And so I love the Bible – the real Bible, with all its flaws. It continues to fascinate me and inspire me. And I would argue that that is a more genuine love for the Bible than those who pretend it is something it isn’t, and whose love is for an inerrant Bible that exists only in their imagination, rather than the actual Bible.
Real love isn’t pretending the other is perfect when that is obviously not true. It is learning to delight in the other’s strengths and weaknesses and the way they complement your own. It is discovering that your life is transformed through your interaction with the other, and richer because of the other’s presence.
Love for the Bible is no exception.