my interview with Brian McLaren (part 2)

my interview with Brian McLaren (part 2) September 23, 2014

McLarenToday is the second of three installments of my interview with Brian McLaren. He asked me three questions about my book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It and I in turn asked him three questions. We are posting the exact same post on each other’s blogs simultaneously; we figured the internet has enough room. Brian’s blog is here if you’d rather see what it looks like from his part of cyberspace.

As I’m sure many of you know, Brian’s latest book is We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation52+short chapters that give an overview of the biblical story and a fresh introduction or re-orientation to Christian faith. 

Also, note the excessive wordiness of my answer compared to the crisp, succinct nature of Brian’s answer. Whatever.

Brian’s 2nd question:

I often say that for 500 years Protestants have been trying to prove to Catholics that a religion can exist with an infallible book rather than an infallible pope. But now the question remains – can a religion exist without an infallible book? How do you think Christians will answer the authority question 25 years from now – those, I mean, who are no longer appealing to an infallible pope or book?

I think that’s a good way of presenting part of the Protestant predicament. It’s certainly the case that biblical authority, however conceived in the early Protestant reaction to Roman Catholicism, has taken on a life of its own—a “paper pope,” as it were. I have knowledgeable friends who would call that a bit of a low blow, because the role of the Bible—including in Roman Catholicism—has always been central to faith and life. Still, particularly in America, I can’t help but think that what conservative Protestantism expects the Bible to do for them—an inerrant guide to all matters of faith and life–is not what the Bible is meant to do (which is one of the central themes of The Bible Tells Me So).

I know, Brian, that you’ve written about how the Bible functions uniquely in America as a “constitution”—authorities interpreting the sacred, binding text to define law for the rest of us, and which correlates to the rejection of monarchy by the colonists. I agree with this comparison and I have found it a helpful way of explaining how Protestant expectations of the Bible have a significant cultural dimension.

The Bible, however, is a problem—and I’m sure you agree. All Christians should want to engage knowledgably and humbly the Bible as we walk the path of Christian faith. But the problem that you’re touching on is one of faulty expectations about what the Bible can actually do.

Seeing the Bible as a source of binding information for all matters touching on our faith and accessible by exegesis runs into well known recurring problems—namely Christians rarely agree on a lot of things about how the Bible is to be understood and listened too, which bring us back to the “paper pope” or “constitution” metaphor. The Bible is too diverse to function that way. What sounds like a good idea in the abstract becomes a problem when you actually start going to the Bible to provide answers to all our questions.

In a word, you find that the Bible has to be interpreted. And if the history of Christians and Jewish interpretation of the Bible has shown us anything, it is that interpretation and the interpreter’s context can never be severed. We read Scripture from our own cultural vantage point, much of which is below the level of the surface of the conscious mind.

What happened in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, where Scripture’s plain and authoritative voice was called upon to settle all sorts of issues? Interpretive diversity. Do you baptize infants or adults? Do you sprinkle or immerse? What does it mean when Jesus says, “This is my body?” Is Jesus really “there” in the Eucharist? In what sense is Jesus “present” in the bread and wine?

There’s a reason thousands of Christian denominations and sub-denominations exist, especially in Protestantism: the Bible requires interpretation in order to be the final court of theological appeal. But the Bible itself is notoriously difficult to nail down on many matters. There’s enough flexibility there to allow for multiple legitimate interpretations. Related to this is the concept of “inerrancy.” It’s not a helpful term for guiding our use of the Bible. Functionally, what the Bible is inerrant about and how it is inerrant varies among Christians.

Anyway, despite all this, and now finally getting to your question, I’m not sure “can a religion exist without an infallible book?” is the best question to ask. I suppose religions can in general. Whether Christianity can is another question, and I suppose we’ll never be able to test the hypothesis, because the Bible is never going to leave the life of the church. The Christian faith is too biblically engaged and defined to contemplate a life without the Bible.

Scripture—in all its diversity, complexity, and messiness—presents the Christian story. It always has, it always will. It’s not going anywhere, and we shouldn’t wish it to. So the more pressing question, as I seed it, is: what kind of “Bible” is the church going to engage in faith and life in the coming decades, generations, etc.? A “paper pope” or constitution?” Or something else?

In other words, what expectations of the Bible will we have as we try to follow Jesus here and now. What is the Bible there for? How will that question be answered differently today and tomorrow than how it’s been answered over the last century or so in conservative contexts?

Again, I‘ve tried to make very clear in The Bible Tells Me So that the Bible isn’t the problem. The problems begin when we place our own expectations for the Bible onto the Bible and that the Bible simply can’t bear without a lot of fudging. In that respect, not only can but I think Christianity must learn to exist without an “infallible book” as it has been operating for at least western conservative Christians. The question needs to be asked more deliberately, “infallible for what?” That, I think, is a very important question to keep asking ourselves.

My brief answer to that question is that the Bible models for the faithful and humble our own diverse spiritual journey of faith in God and Christ, moving us toward greater love of God and love of others. “Knowing Scripture” is not the end goal. Knowing God in Christ is. The Bible doesn’t say “Look at me!” but “Look at me so you can look through me, past me, to God.” Rather than being the “center” of our faith, the Bible decenters itself and puts Christ in the center where he belongs.

Pete’s 2nd question:

When I was in graduate school, a question–actually, a two-part question–began to surface for me: “What is the Bible, really, and what do we do with it?” Realizing that I had never asked myself these questions before was a moment of profound self-awareness, but having my preconceptions challenged through a serious academic study of the Bible raised them and they have stuck with me ever since.  So, I know this is totally unfair, but how would you answer a curious person who knows little to no Christianese and really wants to know what you think? What is your elevator pitch answer to those questions? 

So I’d say the Bible is a library – a collection of literary artifacts. The first and larger part of it is from the Jewish people, spanning several centuries of their history. It includes poetry, a bit of philosophy, a fascinating genre called prophecy (which is something like ethical social commentary today), and a whole lot of storytelling.

The second part collects literature from the early years of a movement that arose within Judaism, centered in the life and teaching of Jesus. This collection begins with four gospels – another unique genre, not to be confused with simple biography or historical account. It is followed by a kind of gospel-appendix or sequel called Acts of the Apostles.

Then there are a series of epistles or formal letters that circulated among early centers of this movement. Finally there is an enigmatic text called Revelation or Apocalypse, which is an example of a genre called Jewish Apocalyptic literature.

Together these documents are tremendously important, because they help us reconstruct a vital conversation over many centuries about God and life. In that conversation, millions of people have found meaning and purpose for their lives; in fact, by entering that conversation, they have experienced an encounter and engagement with God.

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  • brianleport

    Great discussion thus far.

  • Kim Fabricius

    I know, Brain, that you’ve written about how the Bible functions …

    Nice slip. With such a name, maybe here we have what we’ve all been waiting for — an infallible interpreter of a fallible book!

    • peteenns

      At least I was’t referring to myself. Typo fixed. Thanks!

  • James

    I think the bible does more than model “our own…spiritual journey of faith in God and Christ.” I think we believe these documents are unique among documents in their ability to lead us to God. As Brian points out, “millions of people” can thus testify.

  • In our discussions about the role of Scripture, I think it’s helpful to remember that Jesus said; “When I leave, I will not leave you alone, but will send my Spirit to teach you…” etc. Jesus said he would give us direct access to his word, living and breathing in our lives. He didn’t say “I will give you my scriptures.” Authority after all, lies in his word as it always has (since the Scriptures were spoken before they were written). Perhaps the problem is not only a pre-occupation with inerrancy, but with an undervaluing of the place and authority of the Holy Spirit?

    • Otto Tellick

      You raise a really good point, but I think there’s a problem with the subjective nature of any (every) individual’s own personal experience of “the Holy Spirit.” If you have this experience, the only evidence of it that is available to me is your verbal description of it. When two people express that they’ve both experienced it, this clearly does not rule out the possibility that they will proceed in different, incompatible directions while attributing their subsequent, conflicting actions to the “same” cause.

      Can scripture be wrong? I’d say yes. Can people be wrong in their interpretation of scripture, and even in their interpretations of their own internal experiences? Yes and yes. Can we at least try to look for some objective, verifiable evidence and secular logic that can help us tell right from wrong? I certainly hope so – this seems to have helped with regard to outlawing slavery and making progress against bigotry.

      • It’s so true Otto, a Holy Spirit experience such as the Apostle Peter experienced in his vision of the unclean animals (Gentiles welcome into the church), is subjective. But then it was confirmed through the HS experience of Cornelius and then amongst those who received the gospel and accompanying signs at Cornelius’ home. The church leaders saw this in their discussions afterwards and they also saw it was consistent with the plan and nature of God they had seen in Scripture and in the life of Jesus. “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28) they concluded when they reached clarity about the outcome.

        The human subjective element is also present when humans interpret scripture both intellectually and when they say “God spoke to me through this verse.” I think the key in it all is to recognise our humanness in approaching revelation of any kind, then to test everything through reason and our church communities. Does that make sense to you?

        • Otto Tellick

          Thanks for these very helpful details, Tania. I think the appeal to community judgment – the example of others “confirming” Paul’s experience seems to qualify for this description – is a step in the right direction. Yes, that does make sense, because it resembles a kind of “peer review” process for building consensus, which is indispensable.

          But there’s another part that is equally indispensable. Since it’s obvious, based on countless observations, that groups of people can share a common misunderstanding, accept a bad set of conclusions and be misled, it’s important to continue to allow for questioning, doubt, skepticism, and alternative views. It’s important to work through the implications of a given belief or conclusion, to discern what real, observable consequences will ensue from it being true vs. false.

          If there are no real, observable consequences, then it shouldn’t be worth arguing about – there simply won’t be any reliable evidence one way or the other. If there are consequences, we should not hesitate to gather and assess evidence, and proceed accordingly, accepting, adjusting or rejecting the given belief or conclusion as appropriate.

          • Absolutely agreed. I just posted about this on my blog recently – the one thing every pastor wishes their congregation knew!! ( i.e Before we can get it right, we must admit we can get it wrong, and questioning is an integral part of that. The other side of it is though, most of what God calls us to do requires faith and unknown consequences (I think of Mary, Joshua, Moses, Noah, Abraham, Paul and the list goes on), so not sure evidence is the right word… “evidence of things unseen?!”

    • Daniel Fisher

      May I humbly point out that you are assuming the correctness, historical accuracy, or dare I say “inerrancy” of those parts of Scripture (John 14) that you referenced, in making your very point? If John 14 is not an accurate and true (in the same sense inerrantists believe) reflection of Jesus’ actual teaching, then one can’t use Jesus’ teaching on this topic to argue anything further.

      Also, just a thought: Jesus certainly seemed to understand that the Holy Spirit’s very method for communicating God’s truth entailed – at least in part – the process of writing Scripture: Mark 12:36, for example, when he says “David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared…” when quoting the OT.

      So for what it’s worth: we who are preoccupied with inerrancy do so because we understand (following Jesus and the apostles) the Scripture to be the very words of the Holy Spirit, and as such, we seek to honor and value the Holy Spirit’s very words to us as they deserve to be valued.

      • Hi Daniel, Yes we consider John 14 to be an accurate, true reflection of Jesus’ actual teaching, that’s why I quote it. 🙂 Writers like Luke took great pains to give an ‘orderly account’ of what was passed down. And yes, scripture is the vehicle by which God’s words and the stories of those who heard them were written down. When I refer to the inerrancy debates, I’m talking about the tendency of some to completely dismiss the human processes involved in the writing of Scriptures. I hope that clarifies it for you.

  • Daniel Fisher

    Peter, I think I am trying to understand what we CAN trust or gain from the Bible if it lacks the “infallibility” as you describe.

    For example, you mention that “the Bible models for the faithful and humble our own diverse spiritual journey of faith in God and Christ, moving us toward greater love of God and love of others.”

    But if it lacks the authority and/or infallibility that I understand you to describe, on what basis should I trust it, or submit my values to it, when it tells me to have faith in God and Christ, to love God, or to love others? Because it is reinforcing a belief/value that I already possess? This is just the opinion of those long dead people of a relatively backwards people, why trust them on these ancient values of love for others any more than their perspective that God will execute vengeance?

    Or put another way, you don’t (seem to) trust its opinions when it comes to the morality of destroying Canaan, so why, precisely, should I or anyone else therefore trust it any more (or less) when it tells me to feed my enemy if he is hungry? Why could or should I not just classify that as an archaic morality, part of the “messiness” of the Bible that I can safely ignore?

    • Steve Knudsen

      You are posing the question as the philosopher Nietzsche might. Nothing wrong with that, but look at the Protestant/Catholic divide from another perspective — the printing press. When it was invented, it was inevitable that more people would be able to read the Bible for themselves. By necessity this means a multiplication of interpretations, although not necessarily that there is more than one “true” interpretation. Now, today, the internet and in particular social media has allowed an explosion of interaction that is threatening the institutionalized church. So, what’s next? We’ll see!

      • You’re discussing something I think is important… Our use of the Internet is akin to the use of “mass” print media for its first few centuries until radio and TV, but on steroids. I personally see the Net as accelerating momentum toward more realistic and mature views of the Bible and its interpretation and use. Indeed, it moves people, esp. those under 40 or so, faster than church institutions are comfortable with…. Still, I don’t see them being much diminished (in size or influence) by the Net and Social Media more broadly.

        But they will see that they must adapt or be largely pushed aside. Such adaptation has already involved doctrinal shifting, before and since the Internet appeared… particularly on things like Xn exclusivism, eternal punishment, and using the Bible to support societal norms that are changing (re. homosexuality and gender roles, e.g.).

    • Andrew Dowling

      “put another way, you don’t (seem to) trust its opinions when it comes
      to the morality of destroying Canaan, so why, precisely, should I or
      anyone else therefore trust it any more (or less) when it tells me to
      feed my enemy if he is hungry?”
      This seems to oddly posit that unless dictated from some authoritative source, one cannot know morality. We know it’s good to feed the hungry for numerous rational reasons not connected to theology . . . for example,if you feed them, they won’t then kill you and simply steal your food (for starters), your aid may be reciprocated when you are in need; acts of generosity ignite the same chemicals in your brain that produce pleasurable sensations etc. It’s a truth and the Bible communicates that truth. But it’s not a truth because the Bible says it.

      • Daniel Fisher

        Thanks for these thoughts – what you’ve said here precisely illuminates my point…. If none of our values need to be “based” or otherwise derived from the Bible, what exactly does it do for us?

        In other words, it seems as if you have a Bible, half of its verses (those we agree with) simply give sanction to those beliefs or values we already have which we hold based on some other authority/ies or principle(s). These verses become a glorified “yes man” of sorts, affirming what we already believe is true. Then we reject the values expounded by the other half of its verses – we reject their underlying values based on those same pre-established values.

        So, exactly, what is special or unique about the Bible in any way? How does it inform us about truth, morality, the nature of sin, the nature of god, etc., in any manner which is categorically different than, say Augustine’s confessions or the Koran?

        In other words… what, specifically, makes the Bible “inspired” in a way that Augustine’s confessions, or the Koran, are not inspired? Both of these books (and countless others) could certainly be said to “model for the faithful and humble our own diverse spiritual journey of faith in God and Christ, moving us toward greater love of God and love of others.” Are they as “inspired” by God as the Bible? If not, why not?

        • I can’t speak for anyone else, but to me it seems that the Bible is inspired in the sense that it unfolds the story of God through human words at the level of ancient near east comprehension. 21st Century Christians who read the Bible as though it were inerrant and clairvoyant tend to be the ones who write books about “Biblical Money Codes” and all manner of kitsch, as if the Bible had perfectly answered every subject and that God intended it to work in that way. Those who treat the Bible with respect and dignity are, in my experience, those who take the time to understand its origins and the multiplicity of voices within its pages. It is not a monolithic text. Alot of evangelicals treat the Bible as New Agers treat Nostradamus. The Bible is not “more” inspired than other spiritual writings like the Quran, but Christians believe it is inspired in a unique way. I don’t see why we would need to create a hierarchical ranking system of “more” to “less” inspired books. It’s the notion of saying that God’s truths are captured perfectly and uniformly in a translation of an ancient text that allows us to stop struggling to understand truth and uncritically follow our own interpretations (which are inevitably biased by our own culture and experiences). Progressive Christians (again, in my experience) are just being straightforward about that process – we read the Bible in humility, but (generally) we don’t pretend that the interpretations we draw from it hold the same sense of absolutist authority. That kind of authority isn’t in our reach and isn’t promised by the Bible. I believe the Bible gives us sufficient truths about God, but not inexhaustible. Why should we expect the Bible to do more than that?

        • Andrew Dowling

          “How does it inform us about truth, morality, the nature of sin, the
          nature of god, etc., in any manner which is categorically different
          than, say Augustine’s confessions or the Koran?”

          Well for myself, I would say the answer has two components:
          i) The Bible and the Christian religion is what I grew up with and what has been ingrained in my life since childhood. So already my focus and knowledge revolve around that area moreso simply by circumstance

          ii) Into adulthood, as I did learn about other religions/worldviews, I made a decision that the way shown by Jesus in the Gospels still shows me the path to God moreso than other writings/traditions (although of course . . thankfully! . .there is some overlap). And that’s we we all do . . make a decision regarding whether we recognize the transcendent beyond ourselves and the nature of that divine transcendence.

          I consider the basic Christian story . God on a cross/the divine fully realized in sacrifice/love of neighbor . . to be more inspired than the Koran simply because I believe it speaks more to the true nature of God than the Koran. But believing in the power and truth within that story doesn’t follow that I regard a selected collection of the associated writings of that tradition as being somehow sanctioned “by God” and carrying some holy authoritative force.

          • Very well put, Andrew. I can mirror that position, as well as the circumstances behind it almost exactly. I think every religion’s “scriptures” have commands and approved actions that even its believers of today now reject or ignore. On what basis?

            Either individual maturation (higher “developmental” levels involving ethics, perspective-taking, etc.), societal maturation, or global maturation…. Even globally I believe we DO see gradual maturation, however with increased resistance to it by many who see such maturation as “ungodly” or otherwise threatening (often to their positions of relative power or privilege… e.g., males in conservative Islam, and somewhat so even in American Xnty).

  • mark

    So, Peter, I guess you’re saying that the Catholic Church got it partly right all those centuries when they discouraged Bible reading? 🙂 After all, if you lack the critical tools to do it right …

    That said, now that we do have the tools to do better we have a pope saying things like:

    “Let us not complicate life by overexplaining the Gospel”


    “These are the two conditions in order to follow Jesus: to listen to the word of God, and to put it into practice. This is the Christian life – nothing more. Simple, simple.”

    How retrograde an approach is that for dealing with a 2000 year old text? OTOH, he seems to think “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” isn’t so simple. Maybe what he really means is that I should just shut up, stop asking questions, and ask him to tell me what the gospel means.

  • tearick

    12 Indeed all who delight in piety and are determined to live a devoted and godly life in Christ Jesus will meet with persecution [will be made to suffer because of their religious stand].

    13 But wicked men and imposters will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and leading astray others and being deceived and led astray themselves.

    14 But as for you, continue to hold to the things that you have learned and of which you are convinced, knowing from whom you learned [them],

    15 And how from your childhood you have had a knowledge of and been acquainted with the sacred Writings, which are able to instruct you and give you the understanding for salvation which comes through faith in Christ Jesus [through the [b]leaning of the entire human personality on God in Christ Jesus in absolute trust and confidence in His power, wisdom, and goodness].

    16 Every Scripture is God-breathed (given by His inspiration) and profitable for instruction, for reproof and conviction of sin, for correction of error and discipline in obedience, [and] for training in righteousness (in holy living, in conformity to God’s will in thought, purpose, and action),

    17 So that the man of God may be complete and proficient, well fitted and thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:12-17 AMP

  • rvs

    Might we not also describe the Bible as a mystical portal of a sort, similar in certain respects to the wormhole in Deep Space 9, for example, or the wardrobe in Narnia 1. These are imperfect analogies, to be sure, but helpful as starting points.

  • So the Bible is not ‘written in stone’ like the 10 commandments, nor is it a unified theological text book but the log book of people living with a God who reveals himself in divers ways to different people in different places, times and cultures. Each of us can choose to be open to ‘what the Spirit is saying to the church’ in our time, place and culture or not. We can choose to open our mind to discuss it or open our heart to respond to it.

    I mean to say by this, that how we talk about our experience is less important than how we respond to what God is saying to us personally. Our intellect will take over and try to put into words what we are hearing and responding to. Fine, but that is not what is primary. The primary is our direct hearing and responding to God as ‘revealed’ by our study and meditating on the text.

    Revelation touches the heart, heals the heart and motivates the holy life we are called to. Head interpretation does not and cannot transform and heal our lives. This is the experience of the encounter with God that Brian speaks of in his final lines. Love, peace, joy and healing come from this engagement and this encounter.

    And, yes, it hinges completely on the flow of God’s Spirit – the promised gift of the Father – into and through our spirit and heart. (And, of course, out to others.)