Many pastors like myself were given “tools” in seminary to help us in the craft of being a pastor. Tools of the trade are good things and, yet, can be used in a bad way. What I discovered about half way through my life as a pastor was that a lot of smart people were using the tools for doing theology and pastoral work to flatten out everything given by God in holy revelation. For a very long time my “original” work always seemed to end up with a dispensational, pre-Trib rapture, cessationist (regarding some “sign” spiritual gifts), complementarian, YEC, critical (versus majority) text slant. Theological politics controlled the text more than I could imagine.
Using our “tools,” we were taught to beat the sacred text into non-mysterious submission, find its one authorial intended meaning, interpret it “relevantly,” and offer some prefabricated “how to’s” so that people could take the text home. Like the directions that come with that new DVR, we wanted people to understand “how life works” through the Bible as God’s instruction manual. Pastors mine the ore of biblical truth, heat it in the hot coals of good commentary readings, hammer it into a five-steps-to-godly-living outline, and cool it in the light of what big name pastor so-and-so said in his or her “cool” sermon series. “…a workman that needeth not be ashamed…”
I shudder now at the pervasive arrogance and lack of reverence in the exegetical “ways” I was taught to use my tools. It was biblicism on steroids.
Eugene H. Peterson offers a parable about the Bible in his book Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity in a chapter titled Gaza Notes. “Once upon a time there was an island.” EHP describes the perfection and harmony of this large island of heterogeneous peoples. “The islanders were a curious and intelligent people.” They perfected language communication and understanding. Everything in experience was named. They had excellent education, prosperous businesses, and well-honed political and social governance. “One day, down on the beach, a green bottle rode the crest of a wave and landed on the island. An islander was there and picked it up. He noticed a piece of paper inside, took it out and read, ‘Help is coming.’ … The island-world was completely and happily self-sufficient. He had never supposed that he needed help. All the same, the three-word message touched some level of awareness in him he had no name for. He was intrigued.” Soon other islanders were finding bottles with notes. One note read, “Help will arrive soon. Don’t give up.” Soon people were looking for bottles. “Help left yesterday,” another note read. Another encouraged, “Take heart, help will certainly come.” This was so absurd because these islanders did not need help and most of the people could not understand what all the excitement was about. They could not comprehend why anyone would stand around on a chilly beach hoping for a cryptic message that wasn’t about anything. Those who had the messages and found more would gather together in little communities to compare and discuss the notes. Curiosity and excitement gripped them. They marveled how words were being used in a new way—not to show what was there, but to declare what was not there. “They weren’t learning anything from the messages. They were being addressed by an unknown someone who was telling them something they didn’t know they needed. The world was larger, far larger apparently, than anything for which their language had ever provided evidence.” EHP concludes,
“It hardly matters that the message is fragmentary.
“It hardly matters that we can’t figure out all the referents.
“It hardly matters that we can’t organize it into something systematically complete.
“What matters is that it links us with a larger world, perhaps a mainland.”
The Bible is from Someone else and from somewhere else. The Bible is intriguingly mysterious and passionately apocalyptic. To reduce the Bible to a bottle of soul pills or to a set of tedious life directions does great violence to the Bible’s breath-taking purpose and fascinating, many-textured beauty.