Pay attention to how people describe the Bible

Michael Hardin of Preaching Peace has started an interesting series of guest posts at Peter Enns’ blog on the subject of “How Jesus Read His Bible.”

For a sense of where he’s headed, here’s the core of his introduction:

Protestants frequently argue that because Jesus quoted the Jewish Bible, this means that he accepted its authority as a whole. When they do this they import a modern view of the authority of Scripture or canon back into the past.

The fact is that there were many and varied views of the authority of the biblical writings and not all groups in Jesus’ time had the same view of biblical authority. It is also true that the way the New Testament writers and Jesus quote and interpret Scripture follows certain patterns in their culture.

Groups in Jesus’ day had rules or guidelines for interpreting the biblical text. The key question for us and one that is rarely raised is this: Did Jesus have a way of using his Bible that was different from those around him? I suggest that he did.

Hardin begins to explore Jesus’ “way of using his Bible” where the Gospel of Luke begins that subject — with Jesus’ invocation of the Jubilee passage in Isaiah. It doesn’t get any better than Jubilee, so already I’m intrigued to see where Hardin’s series is headed.

What I want to focus on here, though, is Hardin’s distinction between what people say about the Bible and the way they actually treat it:

What one says about Scripture and how one uses it can be two different things … how one uses Scripture is the real indication of what one believes about it. …

Some have a high view of Scripture by which they mean Scripture is the Word of God, inspired and without error, yet the way in which they use it betrays that they really don’t take it very seriously. …

How Scripture is deployed says a lot more than what is believed about it. Believing something to be true about the Bible does not make it true no matter how many have shouted it.

“Actions speak louder than words” isn’t a terribly original point, but it remains an accurate one. To understand what someone really believes — not just about the Bible, but about anything — it’s far better to examine how they behave than what they say. When “what one says about Scripture and how one uses it” diverge, it’s wise to do as Hardin suggests and ignore what is being said while focusing on what is being done.

But I don’t want to completely ignore what is being said. I agree with Hardin, that such statements don’t reveal anything meaningful about such speakers actual regard for the Bible, but I think such statements do reveal a great deal about those speakers actual regard for themselves.

If you want to understand the ongoing “battle for the Bible,” then you need to understand this: The words people use to describe the Bible are often the clearest indication of how those people think of themselves. Listen carefully to the adjectives they use and the attributes they ascribe to the Bible. These are often words that the speaker longs to be associated with.

Consider, for example, the Bible verse that’s always invoked whenever Christians battle for the Bible — 2 Timothy 3:16:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.

When that passage is cited to describe the role and function of scripture, how often is the person citing it also doing so as a way of asserting that same role for themselves: reproof, correction, instruction in righteousness? That seems true, to an extent, even of the author of 2 Timothy himself, who is providing this description of the worthiness of scripture as part of his own “instruction in righteousness.”

Unlike the great majority of those citing this verse today, however, the author of 2 Timothy also provided the verses before and after this one, which also affirm the scriptures as a source of wisdom provided “so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

Like Hardin, the writer of this epistle believed that actions speak louder than words. What is the Bible for? The Bible is there, 2 Timothy says, “so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

Whenever you hear someone invoke 2 Timothy 3:16 while omitting 2 Timothy 3:17, then, you’re learning something important about that person’s understanding of the Bible. And you’re also learning something important about that person’s understanding of themselves — of their own role and purpose.

Because the words people choose to use to describe the Bible are often an expression of how those people would like to describe themselves.

That’s a general observation, of course — a rule of thumb that doesn’t directly apply in the case of every adjective or attribute. When, for example, Peter Enns stresses that the Bible is an ancient book and the product of an ancient culture, I don’t think we should take that to indicate that Enns thinks of himself as ancient. But someone like Enns who stresses the humanity of the biblical writers and the necessity of understanding their cultural context is far likelier to appreciate his own humanity and his own cultural limitations when interpreting the Bible. Someone who instead asserts that the Pentateuch was dictated by God and transcribed by Moses is far likelier to imagine that they, too, have a direct line to the very words of God.

So while it’s true, as Hardin says, that what a person does with the Bible reveals far more of what they believe about the scriptures than whatever they say about them, we should still pay careful attention to the words people choose when describing the Bible. Those words may not tell us what they really think of the Bible, but they may reveal a great deal about how those people think of themselves.


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