Rowan Williams on the Bible

JobThe subject of this blog for the last week has been on the Bible and the claim of its inerrancy, so it is the right time to look at Rowan Williams’ chapter on the Bible in his little book, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer. In the chapter’s first paragraph we read, “One of the things that Christian people characteristically do is read the Bible — or rather, in quite a lot of circumstances, they have the Bible read to them” (21). Thus, the Christian life is a “listening life” (21). [In my Blue Parakeet, I have a section on listening as the proper posture of a Christian toward the Bible.]

In the early church, of course, people didn’t own Bibles; they listened to it and learned the Bible. But Williams makes a bigger point: Christians listen to God (as they speak also to God) and therefore to the Bible. It is in fact a “collection of books” (24) and wide-ranging in genre. It’s like a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets, law reports of 1910, an introduction to a philosophical treatise of Kant [he's stretching it here], the letters of Anselm and a fragment of Canterbury Tales.

as soon as you  think you know what the Bible is, you turn the page and it turns into something different (25).

We conclude then that this is what God wants us to hear. As a parable of Jesus draws us in to take the whole in, so too the Bible: we listen to it all and we get the big message. Speaking of this book tying in with our other book for this week, here is Williams:

For example: many of the early Israelites in the Old Testament clearly thought it was God’s will that they should engage in ‘ethnic cleansing’ — that they should slaughter without mercy the inhabitants of the Promised Land into which they had been led.

Which leads to our theologizing: Is this the way of God? Is the way God wants us to war? Is this what God wanted then?

If he did, that would be so hideously at odds with what the biblical story as a whole seems to say about God (28).

So how do we read the Bible?

The point is to look at God, look at yourself, and to ask where you are in the story (28).

So for Williams the Old Testament records how God’s people responded to God and lived before God in their day. So not everything becomes a model for how we ought to live but instead an opportunity to discern how we are to live. We learn that our own story goes back to Adam and to Noah and to Abraham.

Is the Bible accurate in its history? Daniel is not so much about Babylonian history but about how God’s people lived in displacement. History and context matter, but the point of the text is not to teach history … and problems in chronology over Belshazzar ought not to disturb listening to God about living in exile. “If we hang our faith on the absolute historical accuracy of Scripture in every detail, we risk making Scripture a sort of ‘magic’ book that turns up the right answers to all sorts of rather irrelevant questions, … instead of … the lively oracles of God” (32-33). The NT, on the other hand, is stuff written within the lifetime (or close to it) of the events themselves.

At the center of the Bible is Christ. He offers a kind of “christo-telic” reading of the Bible.

So that leads Williams to ask how do we discern a good interpretation? By looking to and at Jesus Christ. It leads to and finds its clarity in Jesus. In his light we read the rest of the Bible.

The Bible is to be read with one another, and not just alone. We listen to how others have heard and are hearing this Word about Jesus in the Bible.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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