The Whole Sweep of Scripture (RJS)

The Whole Sweep of Scripture (RJS) July 10, 2012

I’ve run through a few different titles for this post – perhaps “I’ve Found the Solution!” … or even more provocatively “We’ve Been Suckered?” … among others. I’ve settled, however, for a relatively sedate title. The ideas are things I’ve been mulling for a while but given the posts Scot put up Sunday on Teenage Christians and the Bible and Monday on When Pastors Switch Theology perhaps it is time to put it up for some discussion. There is a common theme that runs through much of the discussion of the conflict between science and faith. It is a theme that extends far deeper, and leads to an assumption, within certain circles, that the Christian faith is fragile to investigation, and that the Bible is itself the root of many of these problems. We battle over the Bible, defend a doctrine of scripture at all costs, dissect the text holding it up to a microscope looking for nuggets of truth, or grasp it tightly as a foundation (proof text?) for theology we hold dear.

Two of the comments on Sunday’s post can help set the table:

I was an “unshakeable” teen a few years ago. Then I read the bible too much. It was clearly more complicated than what I had been lead to believe. Now I am “unsettled”. And only 25.

And a response to this comment

#3 reminds me of one of my most memorable moments in teaching the Bible: When a Danish student said, “I don’t read the Bible because I don’t want to lose my faith.” Clearly he had faith. He experienced it in a ‘Gospeling’ community. And it was transformative. Yet he knew within the Text, there were many disturbing stories and conflicting pictures of God–at least how he read it, and he protected his faith by not reading the Bible. This has always stayed with me as I minister and teach here. I don’t think he is alone.

He isn’t alone, nor is the first commenter. We’ve been taught what the Bible “must be”, and know the “right” answer to Nappa’s survey … but haven’t let the Bible be what it is, and we haven’t learned what it says.

The post on pastors and theology takes this to another level. Scot’s post links to an article, a couple years old, in the Baptist Press that brings attention to a study of pastors who find that they no longer believe. The stories there are not uncommon and Richard Dawkins with others began The Clergy Project to provide peer support for those who find themselves in these shoes. According to Greta Christina, in a more recent article at AlterNet, the Clergy Project began with 52 members in March of 2011 and currently (June 2012) has 270. A common theme in many of the stories, but not all, is that the Bible itself led to loss of faith. … Not ignoring the Bible, but reading the Bible.

A quick web search will find several blogs written by clergy members questioning their faith. I won’t bother to link any here. Biblical inerrancy and infallibility permeates the issues on many of these blogs, A quote that often surfaces, attributed to Patrick Quigley (the Atheist Quote of the Day April 5, 2008):

“Before you offer commentary on Biblical stories, you should probably spend some time actually studying your Bible. Of course that can be dangerous to your Christian faith. Reading the Bible has probably produced more atheists than any other activity.”

In Greta Christina’s article one of the original members of The Clergy Project is quoted:

“I was always curious about the Bible,” she told me, “and read it, despite the fact that the church and its priests say, ‘Don’t bother.’ In it I found ridiculous stories that only furthered my confusion.”

This is not an uncommon view. A common tactic of those who aim to draw people into atheism, agnosticism, and away from Christianity is to ridicule the Bible, holding up problem passages and farfetched ideas.

The Bible isn’t the Problem and It Doesn’t Produce Atheists. Many years ago, when I was 25, I would have agreed with the unsettled commenter in the first quote above. The truth is clearly more complicated than I had been led to believe, and the Bible was at the core of the problem. For 20 years, give or take, I avoided much of the Bible with a bracketed off fear that to actually read more carefully was dangerous to faith. At this point though (not yet 55, but getting close) I no longer think this is true. Our attitude and approach to the Bible is a large part of the problem however. The Bible isn’t a magic book, a miraculous fabric woven together by a God “who does not lie”, but neither is it ridiculous stories, fables, and myths. At this point I find the power of the story and the coherence of the message far greater than I ever did in the past.

I think the first step to building a robust understanding of Scripture and the Christian faith is to hold loosely to our particular theological commitments and our doctrine of scripture. The second  step is to follow the advice of N.T. Wright:

We need to know the whole sweep of scripture from Genesis to Revelation. And this can only be known by reading the Bible. The Bible is meant to be experienced the way a great symphony is experienced.

Receive the Implanted Word. More wisdom on this subject is available from Scot in a talk, a sermon, he delivered in the Chapel at GRTS some four years ago. The talk was based on The Blue Parakeet, his Commentary on James, and the need to read the Bible formationally rather than instrumentally. You can find a recording of the talk here, just below the share buttons at the bottom of the post.

10 minutes in, looking at James Ch 1 verse 21:

… but this is the expression I want to focus on, “receive the implanted word which is able and powerful or capable to save your soul.”

… I believe we have to read the Bible daily. It is really a radical idea, daily. And I believe as pastors this is the most important thing you can learn. You have to learn to read the bible non-instrumentally. Not just for sermons, not just for solving problems in the church, not just for theology, but because it is the word of God. You want to read it and listen to it and hear it and read the Bible as story, not just as some kind of puzzle that you have to put together. … We read the Bible, we learn what it says, and we let it form us because it is implanted in us by God’s Spirit to transform us.

I found this to be one of the more powerful talks I’ve heard – and one I listen to again every so often.

Read the Bible Formationally. We don’t read the Bible formationally in the church or as Christians in much of American evangelicalism. We study it and we dissect it and turn it into a number of rules (oh, like the call for women to be silent and submissive). Or we attach it to palatable and entertaining moral lessons for 21st century life, often in the form of  mix and match verses taken out of context.

In either approach we more or less ignore the sweep of the story. Perhaps we think we know it – creation, fall, redemption, consummation. But this is a truncated and insufficient version – it doesn’t even rise to the level of a SparkNotes or Cliff’s Notes version. We don’t know the Old Testament, we don’t know the sweep of the story, we don’t teach the sweep of the story.

The irony of this is palpable. We preach sermons (or listen to sermons) that expound on the sayings of Jesus without ever putting them in the context of the prophets he quotes or the passages to which he alludes.

It is down right impossible to understand most of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John or what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 15 when he said he preached “that Christ died for our sinsaccording to the Scriptures,that he was buried, that he was raisedon the third day according to the Scriptures” when we don’t know the scriptures.

I think this is one of the biggest problems in the church today. We defend a doctrine of scripture, but we don’t know, or teach, what scripture actually says.

Hear the Word. I am going to go one step beyond Wright and McKnight. I don’t think most of scripture is meant to be read as much as it is meant to be heard. The Bible wasn’t written for a literate culture where people would pore over the nuance of every expression and compare and contrast version A with version B. It was compiled, recorded, and used in an oral culture. I think we would benefit from public reading of scripture and private listening to scripture. One of the most transformative sermons I have ever heard was given by a pastor who simply preached the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7. No commentary, no analysis – simply performed the text. The sermon means something to me today that it never meant before when delivered in bits and pieces with analysis over the first 45 years or so of my life.

I am currently listening to the Bible read aloud from Genesis through Revelation and when I get through I’ll do it again in a different translation with a different reader. At this point, midway through the book of Luke, one of the things that has really come home is the impact of the Jesus Creed. In Matthew 22:36-40 we read

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

This wasn’t an innovative mix of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. It wasn’t something Jesus, with divine insight, pulled together as a new law for a new covenant. It is, in fact, a summary of the Law and the Prophets. Read or better yet listen to the Prophets sometime with the Jesus Creed running in the back of your mind. The themes repeat continually.

Don’t Worry About the “Right” Doctrine of Scripture. I don’t think we need to worry that Christian teenagers don’t give Mike Nappa the answer he is looking for on his survey. I think we need to worry because most Christians know little of the grand sweep of Scripture, and this is devastating for the average Christian in the pew, and for our pastors and teachers.

Paul told Timothy:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

If we actually believed this passage, not just as a proof text for a doctrine of scripture, but as a lesson on the importance of knowing the scripture, and acted on it we’d be far better off.

What do you think?

Is the Bible part of the problem? If so what is the solution?

What is the whole sweep of Scripture?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • Scott Gay

    I particularly enjoy Terrence Fretheim’s biblical story telling and comments, because he evidences that he knows what it says. He hears alternate theologies as presented purposively. And God knows that what Fretheim has called the church catholic is full of it.

  • Tom Howard

    RJS: Ah, you mentioned a “performed” Sermon on the Mount…it has now been nearly 40 years since I had the same experience. I reflect on it often and when I read the Sermon on the Mount, I see, hear, and feel the words of that preacher that day so many years ago. The power of an oral transmittal. An excellent post which I do believe will take some time to fully digest. . .I so agree. Thanks for sharing. . . can’t wait for the comments to flow. I am such a fan of these issues being brought to light. Scot’s recent “discussion post” on Pastor’s shifting Theology was heartbreaking. The discussions and dialog on Creation and . . . . Yes, it is at times painful, but it must be addressed with an openness of mind and heart. Thanks to all participants that allow that. Over the years as just a man in the pew, I have seen many of my friends in ministry start to examine the “wall of their faith”….and in so doing took all the bricks out and through them on the floor, never to rebuild that wall. These discussions allow us / should allow us / to look at one or two bricks at a time and maintain our wall of faith, even with a hole here and there an a little dilapidated .

  • Jerry

    RJS, very important post. Wright describes this reading very well in “how God Became King” and Scot’s King Jesus Gospel does the same. The problem isn’t with the Bible, it is with churches that aren’t immersed in what the Bible really says. And, some of the most vocal in proclaiming themselves biblical are the least so.

  • Jerry

    RJS, very important post. Wright describes this reading very well in “how God Became King” and Scot’s King Jesus Gospel does the same. The problem isn’t with the Bible, it is with churches that aren’t immersed in what the Bible really says. And, some of the most vocal in proclaiming themselves biblical are the least so.

  • Tom

    I’m not sure I buy your argument about the literate/illiterate audience, etc. as it seems there has always been a strong history of “pore over the nuance of every expression and compare and contrast” even during biblical times.

    However, I do think a better explanation for what you are feeling is the tendency of western thinkers (Greek) to tear things down to the smallest parts as opposed to an eastern thinker’s (Hebrew) tendency to see things as a whole. That has an impact on doctrine like that of the Trinity as well as “the whole sweep of Scripture.”

  • RJS – Your posts are always a blessing. You have a way of transcending the issues and arguments even within their discussion that I really appreciate.

    Your insight here is tremendous and rings true for me personally. For years I saw the bible as a book of infinite potential word-studies and a vast web of cross references. I subconsciously thought that the most godly were those who spent the most time studying the smallest number of verses. Piper’s 20 year (or whatever!) series on romans was an inspiration to me.

    I still reference my concordance often, but I’ve finally learned what it means to have “ears to hear” and have been reborn as a follower of Christ and am learning to put to death the ways of my former scholar of Christ. Please don’t misunderstand. I still love to study, but scripture has been opened to me through my new approach in a way that invites and rewards study instead of demanding it.

    I used to dread reading the bible though I was guilted into it by every pastor and teacher. It was harder to to be a christian when I did read it sometimes, as others have said. Every verse that I did not understand HAD to be exhaustively concorded

  • T


    My favorite post from you in recent memory. Hearing the scriptures read straight through is a different experience and has a different impact than the kinds of reading that is much more common and even encouraged. Very good thoughts.

  • phil_style

    I think the artificial construct of slicing the bible up into chapters and verses has done the church a real dis-service. These helpful little reference markers have lost their way, and have become book-ends for reading the text. One picks and and puts down the texts according to progress along the chapter-and-verse ruler.

    It was only a few years back that I realised that you should just carry on straight out of Luke and into the first chunk of Acts together to make for good story. This, in spite of knowing for my whole life almost that the same person probably wrote both books, and that they were “meant” to be read together…

  • Bev Mitchell


    What you have written resonates on every count! A home run. Many of the spiritual greats say the same thing. Thomas Torrance read four chapters a day and eight on Sunday his entire life! Many if us were taught this from the crib. Do I do it as consistently as I should – no way. It’s time I did.

    Your advice to listen, daily, is profound. I read things, preferring this over listening to someone’s recorded voice. Maybe an occupational hazard – maybe just the way I’m wired. But, I promise to join you in listening to the word, regularly. It really is so easy to do these days. There is no excuse to avoid it.

    As an added twist – if you know a second language well enough, listen to the Scripture in that language some of the time. It’s amazing how things so familiar (and often no longer heard) in our own language jump out, renewed and often with a different twist, in another language. 

    It is the big picture that we need to know far better – the big picture as in ‘story’, and the big picture as in ‘idea’.

  • (sorry, mobile publish button is easy to hit and mobile editing is unavailable)

    Anyway, I still had massive issues with parts of the bible and had increasingly little time or attention to read. I found William lane Craig’s podcast and my audio obsession started. Craig opened me up to some new ways of thinking and begain to pry open my Reformed box, but I sensed that I was just trading one rigid box for another with just as many difficult questions.

    Then I gave up the bible for Rock N’ Roll. : )

    Being a bit sheltered from the great musical artists of the last century as a kid I started working my way through rolling stones greatest albums of all time. I give Bob Dylan credit for changing me in a way that the bible never had (at least not in so short a time or obvious a way). Dylan felt the same things I did and expressed them so clearly, yet, so… Incoherently. His language was so filled with vision and discernment, yet with a humility that gave him freedom speak of what he saw without having to preach or pin down specific “meanings”. I found more truth in Dylan than anywhere else at the time, and he wasn’t a christian.

    So, I asked, if “non-Christians” CAN speak truth after all, maybe the christian attitude of “in vs out, right vs wrong, original sin and total depravity are glorious” aren’t “true” in the way I thought they were. Maybe…

    My next step in growing my ears to hear came through the heretical Rob Bell. Only now I was prepared to listen instead of judging. I LISTENED to Love Wins on audiobook (Rob himself reads all his books). I didn’t think I agreed, but NOW I wanted to understand where he was coming from instead I judging him, so I listened to Velvet Elvis, and his “The Gods aren’t Angry” tour audio.

    I was starting to get it. Say what you will about Rob’s exegesis, but his perception, humility, and heart are Golden, and it really only comes across when you hear his voice.

    Since then I’ve listened to Books by N.T. Wright (Simply Jesus), Scot McKnight (Blue Parakeet), Peter Rollins (Insurrection) and many others. Books I never would have read if I thought i would agree with them. I listen to Athiest podcasts, humanist academic discussions, etc., an have learned that with humble “ears to hear” God is everywhere. Truth is everywhere.

    Now I’ve returned to the Bible, listening to the ESV Audio Bible, and it’s like I’m hearing it for the first time. Instead of listening to exegete and figure things out, I’m listening to hear how God worked in the Real lives o real people throughout history and in sharing their experiences through another’s voice, whole books at a time, I’m learning how the whole world fits together in the Love of Christ as we share in it and show it to others.

    Only in shared honest experience of God is the Word of God spoken. Bob Dylan experienced God just as much as the rest of us, but his ears were ready to hear (see Mr. Tambourine Man) and his heart ready to humbly share what he heard and he won me back to Christ.

  • Andy W.

    Thank you RJS for this excellent and very important post. You’ve hit the root of the issue/challenge/problem within evangelicalism. While a student @ Gordon College many years ago, I was always troubled by the disconnect between the depth and nuance of my biblical studies profs (while still pretty conservative) and the cultural ethos of the students. These were like two different worlds and yet all within so-called evangelicalism. This seems to be largely an evangelical/conservative/fundamentalist problem. You do not see this within the liturgical/sacramental forms (RCC, EO and Anglican/Episcopal) and the liturgical calendar is largely designed to address this very issue. If you check out the EO liturgy you’ll find all the nuance and breadth of scripture within the entire Divine Liturgy. Not sure what the answer is here, because the liturgical/sacramental forms have there own issues/challenges and problems as well.

  • Rick

    “…the Bible is itself the root of many of these problems. We battle over the Bible, defend a doctrine of scripture at all costs, dissect the text holding it up to a microscope looking for nuggets of truth, or grasp it tightly as a foundation (proof text?) for theology we hold dear…We don’t read the Bible formationally in the church or as Christians in much of American evangelicalism. We study it and we dissect it and turn it into a number of rules (oh, like the call for women to be silent and submissive). Or we attach it to palatable and entertaining moral lessons for 21st century life, often in the form of mix and match verses taken out of context.”

    But what is the underlying reason WHY we use the Bible that way? I don’t think the Bible is the “root”, rather it is a tool used in connection to that “root”

  • jim

    Thanks for the article. Interestingly, as my one dimensional reading of the magical Bible has been deconstructed over the years, starting in seminary (in the eighties) and accelerating over the last 5 years, I have found my faith energized and my joy and wonder of God increasing. However, this would not play well at all in my conservative/presbyterian denomination. Where do I go?

  • Rodney Reeves

    Brilliant post, RJS. Well said. Aren’t we blessed to have rigorous, NT scholars like Wright and McKnight who serve the Church as well as the academy?

  • Joey Elliott

    I definitely appreciate this post, and love exhortations to read the Bible as one large story. I was resistant to “manuscript” Bible studies in college that took a portion of Scripture alone on a separate sheet of paper, and went through the observation / interpretation / application process. I always wanted to reference other sections to see the bigger story and how interconnected it all is!

    I also value the power of hearing the Word, though I personally like that in addition to, and not instead of, reading. To each his own on this point I think.

    I wonder, what are the implications of studying the Bible in community given this perspective? What would a “Bible study” look like? What would it look like to condense the whole story into accessible studies for life application within a community? Is studying chapters only not appropriate? Would topical studies about real life issues be insufficient?

    Same questions would apply to teaching and preaching in the church.

    I ask these questions because I think there is a way to faithfully and effectively apply this perspective to “Bible study” in community even if the scope of the particular study is not as broad as the whole sweep of Scripture. Just as long as the teacher, and each individual in the study, or congregation, strives to see and understand that even more limited topics or specific stories or truths have to fit into the whole story, because by themselves are insufficient (not to mention less wonderful!). I think Paul is a great example of how to do this well, and when he talks about not shrinking back from declaring the “whole counsel of God”, he is modeling the same type of thing mentioned here that we should emulate.

  • RJS:

    You are a breath if fresh air. What a wonderful post. I have found the same thing regarding the Bible. Simplistic, cherry-picking presentations of the Bible perhaps used to work when laypeople had limited access to good information. Now, those Bible discrepancies are not so easily explained away by an aloof class of clergy who can insist to people, “Just trust us; we can harmonize all of it!” But our faith is not “fragile to investigation.” It is deeper than the disappointments of God’s hiddenness and scripture’s humanness.

  • The bible is not an easy resource due to its ancient varied construction. It requires time investment and the more difficult and exoteric the piece of literature the more time needed to grasp its original context in the overall narrative. If we dig as deep in church settings as they do in some seminaries to gain the best insights then we might begin to encounter some folks who are not prepared emotionally to change paradigms when called upon to do so (some seminary students develop faith crisis as well). How would a Tom Wright teach Bible classes upon some subjects where you know the class members haven’t been adequately prepared to hear his concepts? He likely would do what we all do and dumb it down to the lowest common denominator.

    As an example how do you teach authoritatively about Jonah and its Jewish message against their resistance to sharing God’s message to the Gentiles? Many Christians are fascinated and believe it was a literal “large fish/whale” that swallowed Jonah, but when it’s pointed out that the story follows along typical ANE constructed political pieces then a person may think they have begun the slippery slide into “liberalism”. How about Daniel when they are told that it was written in the second or third century BC using the classic ANE method of picking a historical “pseudonym” predicting history from his perspective when history has already passed by and been established. How much detail can people actually accept is often difficult to determine. But if we don’t give them detail then they might continue to go on thinking Genesis was constructed from a literal historical point of view as well.

    There are many issues intertwined in this discussion today which makes it exceedingly complex.

  • Cal

    Well, I do think “Doctrine of Scripture” is important and what is it? That the whole of Scriptures was about Christ!

    Putting Him at the very foundation and center of understanding Scripture is what makes it a ‘grand narrative’. It sure beats the pharisaical attempt at grinding the Bible through the machinery of a system to “prove” anything other than the Christ.

  • Cal

    Very excellent post by the way.

  • phil_style

    @Norman, great points.

    Are we prepared to not only preach the scripture, but to preach ABOUT the scripture?
    Are we able to confront the absence of archaeological evidence with respect to much of the OT? Are we able to peer through the supposed authorships and dates of various texts in order to place them in time and space accurately?

    Are we prepared to read the apparently “ridiculous” stories about God commanding bears to kill teenagers, talking animals, people being transported through the ocean inside live fish etc… as well as the selection of feel good verses we can dig out of psalms to convince ourselves that we won’t get cancer.. and we will have a happy life…?

  • Cal #18:

    I just wish “Pharisaical” had not become a derogatory term in Christian circles. I am sure your use of the term is innocent. But as one like the Pharisees myself, I am sensitive to the misunderstanding of the term. Odd that Sadducaical is never used in a similar way, given historical realities.

  • Scott W

    One thing that this post highlights is that the Protestant impulse to make Scripture separate from a reading/hearing community with certain norms for interpretation (i.e. Tradition) is unworkable and, actually unbiblical. The NT itself is grounded in an interpretive appropriation of Israel’s scriptural heritage (“…according to scripture”). It surprises me that people “discover” these insights when the roots of faith of the Church instantiated in an ecclesial narrative of recapitulation by St. Irenaeus, to safeguard the metanarrative of Israel’s god in Jesus.

  • Joey Elliott


    Why can’t Jonah be a story highlighting the Jewish resistance to take the God’s message to the Gentiles, that is ALSO literally about a man who was swallowed by a fish? Why is the alternative to taking a story is its literary genre context always dismissing the possibility that it actually happened?

    Isn’t dismissing its literalness for the sake of the message not an equally irresponsible approach to Scripture as dismissing the message for the sake of its literalness?

    I think a lot of times conservative Christians get criticized for the latter, when in reality they are just trying to balance both of these approaches to Scripture, all while doing what RJS is advocating as much as possible.

  • Joey #23:

    I have no axe to grind on the Jonah story, but here are some thoughts off the top of my head. A story is what it is. If one reads Jonah without the preconception that “all narratives in the Bible must be historical” and if one is open to the idea of a parable, we should ask the question: is Jonah more like a parable or more like a historical narrative? Whatever the answer, we should follow it. The thing that should not carry much weight is the preconception that all biblical narratives are historical. I will grant you that using the name and resume of a historical figure (Jonah, son of Amittai) could be one point in the “history” column. But maybe the parable indicators outnumber the history indicators. Or maybe the genre is uncertain.

  • Joey,

    This gets into the research of the patterns of ANE literary construction and gets to my point that when you start doing the extensive homework a lot of these ideas are seen from their literary perspective and not from our “literal” view. The typical inclination is to read stories literal when we are not sure, however to continue to read them as literal when the strong evidence points otherwise needs to be addressed. We can stick our head in the sand and refuse to hear it or we can investigate it from a position of faith along with the literary realism of the the times.

    How exactly does a symbolic reading reduce one’s faith if it was intended in that manner?

  • Joey Elliott


    I am not saying that a symbolic reading of Jonah or other Old Testament texts would necessarily reduce one’s faith, especially if the story was intended in that manner.

    I’m saying that many of those who believe it was historical do not have their heads in the sand. They have seen the evidence, and to Derek Leman’s point, just believe the story to be historical narrative and follow that answer.

    I think we both would agree that the message is what matters, in Jonah, or 2 Kings (with the bears), or even Genesis. I’m just here to defend those who believe many of these stories are historical narrative, part of the grand narrative of Scripture, and do so with my head clearly out of the sand open to any evidence to the contrary at any time.

    For what its worth, I wrote once about the bears in 2 Kings, and I think it might provide a good example of how to make a specific story accessible for community life application, while still holding to the grand narrative of Scripture, and in this case, not dwelling on the evidence for vs. against on historicity.

  • Joey,

    Ok, let’s shift gears. If the strong evidence points toward Daniel being constructed as an ANE apocalyptic piece based upon the common usage of a “pseudonym” and not a real life historical narrative then how do we communicate the message of the “fiery furnace” and the “den of lions” from a Jewish literary construct that presents a dependence upon God. How do we teach these newer discoveries to people who have always taken them as “real life” stories? These are the issues we face in discussing openly in Bible classes information today that is considered taboo. Even biblical students who enter progressive seminaries have difficulty reconciling these issues in their faith walk; just imagine how the typical lay person is going to struggle mightily with more information. My point is not to argue about the literalness of Jonah or Daniel but to provide a glimpse of why the dissemination of deeper studies is going to be problematic in church circles for a long time into the future.

  • Joey Elliott


    These are good questions, and unfortunately I have neither the time nor the aptitude to dig into them very deeply in this context.

    But I wonder, if you acknowledge that the questioning of the historicity of certain stories, such as Daniel, because of ANE evidence, jeopardizes the ability or effectiveness of communicating the core messages in the text, than what is the problem with maintaining the historicity to teach the message? Why is that the equivalent of having our heads in the sand? Do we assume that these newer discoveries are all so convincing that we just have to figure out how to incorporate them or risk being intellectually inept? What of the disciplined pastors, theologians, and academics who have decent arguments that such newer discoveries are not necessarily anything to contradict “real life” interpretations? Are they just to be ignored?

    I think in many cases this is what is happening, and the questioning of the historicity makes the message less coherent. This, in my mind, if true, is a very strong reason to believe that the texts are historical. I’ve just personally never been that convinced by the ANE arguments. And in lieu of digging into all that, if pastors in churches are the same way, is that such a problem? If the “dissemination of deeper studies” makes application from the text more difficult, it seems to me it is more problematic to dwell on these deeper studies, or perhaps accept them, than it does to follow them and eventually render Scripture less accessible, and even if taken to the extreme, less true.

    Does that at least make sense?

  • Joey,

    You have illustrated my concerns well. 😉

    But getting to your deeper issue. No a believer doesn’t have to understand everything accurately but culturally and intellectually there may be reasons to want to be precise in our understanding if not doing so can have negative cultural connotations. I personally would like to understand the scriptures from as accurate a point of view as possible but I don’t think because I spent my first 50 years not understanding a lot of stuff that I was not in a beneficial and rewarding relationship with God. However having to work through new ideas that challenged me in the last 9 years has strengthened me even more. The slippery slope is still out there but I haven’t taken the ride yet. 😉 At least not from my point of view.

  • Cal

    Derek Leman:

    Fair enough. Perhaps I should have said “Elistist” or “Jewish 1st authority” to be more accurate with the attitude of thinking by looking to the Tanakh for eternal life.

    Still, I don’t understand why you would want to associate with the name Pharisee.

  • CGC

    Hi RJS,
    The best post I have read for some time. Keep up the good work. By the way, the focus on a doctrine of scripture without really knowing what scripture actually says, excellent!

  • alastair

    loving this. I have a question though… how does ‘God-breathed’ work with inerrancy/error?

  • I guess that, to me, the most interesting question about a text regarding its historicity is not “Did the events that are written down really happen?” but is rather “why did someone decide they needed to be written down?”

    Regardless of literary genre, the scriptures are a record of a person’s (or a people’s) interaction with God. There is a reason that historical people passé these stories from generation to generation and eventually wrote them down. These stories helped them to share with other in a common story, a common experience of God and they wrote them down because they sensed (or knew?) that something of God was made known in the experiences of the characters (historical or not) that they had heard about. The Truth of the bible then isn’t carried in facts, but in shared experience with others who have sought and found God.

    To approach scripture as a cold hard encyclopedia of God knowledge devoid of human hopes, fears, loneliness, and community is to rob it of all the truth it contains.

    The question of historicity is an interesting topic to study, and science sheds light on areas where we have interpreted with pride rather than with ears to hear, but the truth of scripture is in a spiritual connection between the original authors, their God, and us who experience the same God now.

  • Cal #30:

    Thank you for taking my little complaint in a good spirit. I can see from your response that we have a different understanding of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and also I suspect you may not be acquainted with the history of the Pharisees. You said: “I don’t understand why you would want to associate with the name Pharisee.” Thank you for a perfect setup. I commend for you Acts 23:6, in Paul’s words, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” and Philippians 3:5 “as to the law, a Pharisee.” We’ve gone off topic and if you respond I will read it, but if we need to discuss the Pharisees-and-Judaism-and-Old-Testament-aren’t-bad topic, I’d love to do so by email. I am easily found online.

  • Albion

    Someone’s been reading John Suk!

  • I’d like to make another point concerning items above such as the Jonah and Daniel stories and how atheist and non-believers perceive them. Generally speaking they often see these stories as fabrications and examples of religion conjuring up fanciful imagery in order to deceive the gullible. When they then see Christians hang on to these examples as really having occurred they then point to them as verification of their assumptions.

    However how would an atheist react if we demonstrated to them that Daniel really wasn’t constructed with the intent that they and many Christians have historically claimed. What if we could demonstrate that Daniel fell into the classic apocalyptic genre that was found throughout most ANE nations? Along with that understanding it becomes apparent that this genre is often politically motivated against a corrupt ruling priesthood and/or Nations and used to encourage the Jewish faithful who were under duress and persecution. What if we could illustrate that it was intended to provide hope as most messianic Jewish literature was purposed for by pointing to a coming time when spiritually there would be relief. What if we demonstrated that these messianic stories did come to fruition through Jesus Christ and that Paul and the Apostles demonstrated through their interpretive skills that it was Christ that they were pointing toward all along?

    However If we take our cue from Paul and the apostles we see that Daniel even with its imaginative stories embedded within were still miraculously and ultimately fulfilled. This story culminated and pointed to the greatest prophecy fulfillment, therefore could we then coalesce around the power of its fulfillment and not in the atheist detractors pointing out the fancifulness of its stories that served the Jewish purpose in a veiled manner. Have they and we both often missed the most important aspect of these stories at times by dwelling upon the controversial and least understood and perhaps missed the forest for the trees?

    The medium of biblical fulfillment is going to be a coat of many colors but the end result always plays out with the coming of Messiah. We can stand firm indeed on the power of that kind of literature however it’s medium of illustration was fashioned. Daniel was not important to the Jews because it predicted the demise of the Babylonians, Persians and Greeks which had happened already or was occurring when it was written. No it was important because it joined in the chorus of a coming better day and it’s prophecy reigned true ultimately.

  • Joey Elliott

    Norman (#36),

    I like your 3rd paragraph and think that is an excellent approach. I especially like it because it avoids what I see as the flaw in your second paragraph, namely, looking for ways to make the Bible more appealing to atheists and non-believers. We certainly don’t have to that. It is appealing as it is, and if some reject it, all we can do is love them in truth. But what I see as your main point is good. Let’s take our cue from Paul and the apostles and present Jesus as the Messiah and fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and a reigning King, and let the “history” chips fall where they will. Daniel was important, as you said, “because it joined in the chorus of a coming better day and it’s prophecy reigned true ultimately.”

  • RJS


    I haven’t read John Suk – yet anyway. This post comes primarily from my own journey.

  • Joey,

    Thanks, however I’m not looking to appease the athiest but to take some of their ammo away when it shouldn’t even be there to use. Just doing some thinking outloud today. 🙂

  • Marshall Janzen

    Inspiring post, RJS!

    Re alastair #32: “how does ‘God-breathed’ work with inerrancy/error?”

    I don’t think God-breathed is about that; it neither confirms nor denies inerrancy since that is not the category it is addressing. (For instance, Paul is speaking about something that applies to translated, copied Scripture, not just pure originals, as seen by the earlier verses about the Scripture Timothy learned as a child.)

    I think “God-breathed” is pretty much a parallel phrase to “living and active” in Hebrews. From God breathing into creatures in Eden to make them alive to the Hebrew idiom of boiling water “breathing” or the Greek idiom of flowing water being “living” water, there are connections in the biblical language between breath, wind, movement, life and spirit that get lost or obscured in English. When Paul says that all Scripture is God-breathed, it’s not an assertion that Scripture passes a certain test of accuracy, it’s a claim that Scripture is alive.

  • Patrick

    The bible is one huge narrative. If you do not accept sectors as valid or do not catch a valid point ( whether literal or metaphor) then it becomes like algebra w/o knowing how to add, divide, multiply and subtract.

    It is not easy to discern and it was not meant to be according to the bible itself. Only a handful of ideas are easy. I’d say John 3:16 is easy, even if you do not believe it. That’s about it.

    The thing is a literary, unified work of the highest art. Something you can count on is this, anything Peter, Paul, John or Jesus state has an antecedent in the OT text. Sometimes it is blatantly obvious, sometimes an allusion is less obvious.

    Think about how Jesus repeatedly says, ” I do not speak except what I first hear from My Father”. I wondered, “Why do you keep saying that so much, Lord”?

    Then, go to Deuteronomy 18:15-18 and read that with focus, don’t just fly over it. Jesus is trying hard to let His audience know something that most of them IF they’d pay attention might wake up and believe at some point because those people revered their Hebrew bible.

    Things like that are frequent. Yet, if Deuteronomy is garbage to you, that is meaningless data. For me, that realization was fascinating data.

  • Joey Elliott

    Marshall Janzen,

    That is a helpful description of God-breathed, but I’m not sure it answers the question of how the Bible can be God’s Word but with error. Is the Bible alive the same way we are alive (with sin), or the same way Jesus is alive (without sin)?

  • DRT

    FWIW, I am one who was never taught an inerrant view of scripture, just simply that it is god’s word. I never had the expectation that it would be literal, and expect that it would not be literal since I equate it much more with art than anything else.

    Given my expectations, I have been astounded by how consistent and applicable it is as I study it more and more. My faith has increased, not decreased.

    Expectations are everything and we should not overstate our views so that our children are set up with unrealistic expectations.

  • Yes. Wonderful advice. I so much appreciate Tom Wright’s thought about viewing the whole of scripture through the lens of each passage.

    In my lifetime I’ve missed too much. But one thing I’ve done relatively well which has been helpful is to listen to scripture being read year after year from the NIV (except for a relatively brief span) and now from the TNIV, “Bible Experience.” At least two to three times a year, primarily while I’m getting around in the morning.

    Which- besides the fact that years ago I read and so much appreciated Scot’s two NIV Application commentaries before I discovered his blog, not to mention Tom Wright’s “The Challenge of Jesus”; etc.- is why I think in significant measure Scot’s book, “The King Jesus Gospel” so easily connected with me. Not without effort in taking it in and thinking it through. But being immersed in the whole of scripture serves one well to get the main point of scripture, or much better the breathtaking sweep of the story, its plot, etc.

    For me being in the whole of scripture surely has strengthened my faith, and grounded it. I have the sense when I’m thinking or teaching of doing so from the whole, even though I know I need to read it all the better, listen to it more carefully and prayerfully.

  • Terry

    RJS, before even getting to the comments, let me say how much I appreciate this post. I so appreciate your exhortation here. I think you are absolutely right. Last Sunday morning I didn’t “preach a sermon” myself, but simply read the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7. Even with a cold, and some vocal challenges, it was an altogether significant experience, and the positive response unanimous.

  • DRT

    Nate W., I have said you have the happiest site I have seen, but this guy’s stuff is on par with yours.

    RJS, so sorry for the OT

  • Thanks, RJS … this post reminds me of two things I have said frequently — here and at my own blog:

    1. I find reading with my “cHesed glasses” provides a wonderful whole view of scripture. The story is about covenant making … and covenant keeping … and covenant breaking … and this framing helps keep me in the big picture.

    2. I love The Reader’s Digest Bible because it is a pleasure to read through entire books in a snap. No, it is not a study Bible, but it does give you that sweeping view without being bogged down in the repetitions so often found in Hebrew and the chapter/verse divisions.

  • Thank you for the excellent post RJS. Scripture is living and active and contains all we need. I am not worried about someone who is 25 going through the fog theology, or a someone changing theology. Each individual’s journey through Scripture is a singular expression of God’s Word; and as always true of God’s Word it gives life.

    I loved what you said about being “hearers of the word”. My dad, who has been a pastor for over 40 years, reads the Bible aloud every morning. When I go to visit, it is my favorite way to wake up in his home. I just lay there in bed listening to the word’s of my heavenly Father being uttered with the vocal chords of my earthly father and scripture takes root in unique ways in my heart all over again.

  • Albion

    RJS: My bad. Suk makes the same point about literacy. For the first thousand years of the church, the gospel was conveyed orally and the church building, its paintings, windows, statuary, etc. was a teaching tool. Faith was not intellectual assent to a system of doctrine or set of beliefs but a way of life.

  • John C. Gardner

    My wife and I have just finished How God became King by Wright. It(as all his works) is a wonderful read. This work notes that the creeds generally go from birth to death and resurrection without much comment on the kingdom or how God became King. He suggests in a final chapter that all of us who say the creeds regularly pause to integrate God’s kingdom into our saying of the creeds. I myself need to reflect upon this and to read his final chapter again.

  • RJS


    The creeds go from Creator God to Birth, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.

    They skip most of the gospels (a point Wright emphasizes), but not only this they skip from Genesis 1 to Matthew 1:18. There is no Israel at all in the Creeds. Wright makes this point, but doesn’t emphasize it.

    I don’t think we can understand the mission of God (and thus God) or Christ and what the gospels teach about Jesus as God’s Messiah without Genesis 2-Matthew 1:17. Adding Genesis 3 and reducing the gospel to Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation isn’t much better. It also misses almost the entire story we have, and I think misses the point of our mission today. It leaves us with nothing to do but sit and wait.

    These are the things I am thinking through at this time. Scot’s book and Wrights’ are important contributions.

  • Amos Paul

    Whooooooooah. When did Scot start calling Scripture the ‘Word of God’ and instructing others to eat it as such? This whole post had me smiling and happy about your thoughts, problems, and ideas except for that.

    Isn’t the Bible being the *actual* Word of God rhetoric much of where our problem lies in the first place?!

  • RJS

    Amos Paul,

    See Marshall Janzen’s comment (#40) – I think this is what Scot is getting at in his talk.

  • Marshall Janzen

    Joey (#42), my suggestion (not original to me) was that it’s a misuse of 2 Tim. 3:16 to make it speak to the question of inerrancy/errancy. The Greek translations of Old Testament documents that Timothy heard and perhaps read from childhood contained errors by any reasonable measure. That did not prevent them from being God-breathed Scripture, able to make Timothy wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus, and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness.

  • alastair

    40, 42, 54.

    Marshall and Joey, thank you. glad to hear your thoughts on this. I have often read that verse, and thought: how could there be error, if it was from God? your explanation is helpful Marshall.

  • RJS, thanks for including the video of N. T. Wright in your post. I have found that the more I read the Bible through, the more comfortable I am with the tensions that might exist on the surface and the more at peace I am with God as he has revealed himself through the whole of scripture.

  • Kenell Touryan

    RJS. Thank you for your essay on how to read the Bible. As you mention, peole do not become atheists by reading the Bible alone. At the American Scienctific Affiliation where I am a Fellow, we are discovering another fact: there is almost no evidence that science has led many scientists to atheism. They become atheists inspite of Sience, because of their presuppositions and world view (Namely: ontological naturalism). To get the full picture of the Christain faith one has to use the cumulative evidence apporach.

    As an applied physicist and engineer, with a PhD from Princeton, I have done so in my recent booklet (only 84 pages) entitled A Cord of Multiple Strands. It is published on Amazon. It puts together at least five categories of evidence, each like a string that can be broken singly, but when wound together, they become a rope not easy to break. These evidences are: Evidence from the Physcial World; from Human Nature; from History and Archeology, from the Historical Setting of the Christian Era; the Unique Person of History, and finally evidence from Personal Experience.