The message above recently appeared on the sign outside a church in my neighborhood. I’m hard pressed to think of a message that more perfectly encapsulates all that is wrong with modern American conservative Christianity. It’s this perspective–one of extreme biblicism and hyper-individualism–that has led to virtually every misstep taken by the modern Church.
Though it might seem pedantic, it’s important to clarify the problems with this message:
- The Bible wasn’t written by God. It was written and edited by a variety of human authors over hundreds of years. God may very well have inspired these texts (in any number of ways), but he definitely didn’t sit down and put pen to paper.
- The Bible isn’t a letter. The collection of writings that appear in our modern Bibles includes a wide variety genres. A handful of these are actual letters, but the bulk of the Bible falls into other literary forms: historical narratives, wisdom literature, poetry, gospels, etc.
- No parts of the Bible were written directly to you. The writings in the Bible were written to, for, and by specific individuals and communities for specific reasons. These texts all have cultural and historical contexts that are vastly different than our modern circumstances and can’t be simply ignored if we intend to take the Bible seriously.
All of those points should be relatively uncontroversial, but unfortunately many Christians regularly perpetuate beliefs to the contrary, holding up the Bible as an almost magical book that just so happens to absolutely support their particular theological beliefs.
None of this is to say that the Bible shouldn’t still be enormously important to Christians. It is our central text and should inform and guide our faith and practice. In this regard, I agree with that notorious proof-text for inerrancy, 2 Timothy 3:16, which says “all Scripture … is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”That verse (ironically not actually written by Paul to Timothy) doesn’t prove biblical inerrancy, but I think it’s correct insofar as the Bible is useful for teaching. Even those passages that we may find problematic–whether historically or morally so–can still offer valuable insights into the nature of our faith.
But what we should not do is approach the Bible in the way this sign urges us to. Any interpretation of the Bible that treats it as a direct and personal message from God is distorting Christian scripture and, in doing so, is distorting the very faith that we claim to hold. God can speak to us through the Bible, but in order to hear that message, we need to be honest about what the Bible is and what it is not–and “God’s personal letter to you” it most certainly isn’t.
Photo by Dan Wilkinson.