Archive for February, 2008

A Lesson on How to Read the Bible: Revel in Diversity

February 3, 2008

The Bible is both one book and a collection of books.  It has both one author and many authors.  These two poles of unity and diversity must be held together in our reading of Scripture.  If we ignore one or the other, we lose the unique character of Scripture for what it is: both the divine Word of God and the diverse words of men. 

Conservatives tend to err on the side of unity because of their (correct) prior commitment to the inspiration and inerrancy of all Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16).  Thus, conservatives harmonize passages that stand in tension with one another, whether they be historical tensions or theological tensions.  I believe harmonization is a necessary step in Bible interpretation, but there are bad ways to harmonize that conservatives often fall into.  It is often the conservative’s temptation to leap to harmonization too fast, before the richness of Scripture’s diversity has been taken into account.  Thus, Paul’s theology may be imposed on the Sermon on the Mount, functioning as a grid through which Jesus’ teaching may be filtered.  I believe that, when properly understood, there is no contradiction between Paul and Jesus, but we must allow their diverse teachings to stand, listen to each in his own context, and then draw out the theological unity.

Liberals, on the other hand, focus almost completely on Scripture’s diversity.  They carve up books, assigning this portion to one source, this portion to another, and developing elaborate theories about which redactor added what or omitted what in order to communicate what.  They not only pit Paul against Jesus, but they even pit Jesus against Jesus.  Some of Jesus’ sayings are authentic, but most aren’t, so they say; they are, rather, creations of the early church projected back onto Jesus.  This approach to biblical interpretation is loaded with unfounded presuppositions and will never hear the Word of God for what it actually says.

The Bible must be read as both diverse and unified.  In order to appreciate the Scripture’s diversity, we must give attention to its diverse literary genres.  Kevin Vanhoozer has argued that the diverse genres are not mere literary wrapping paper that we tear through in order to get to the propositions.  They are, rather, the God-given forms in which the propositions are delivered, thus constituting components of revelation themselves.  If we mine Scripture for information but ignore the diverse speech acts (such as warnings, promises, declarations, commands, etc.) and genres (narrative, poetry, apocalyptic, didactic) in which that information is conveyed, then we fail to hear what the authors are actually saying, and thereby we fail to hear what God has spoken.  Literary genres are much more than diverse containers of information.  They are, as Vanhoozer argues, lenses through which we view the world. 

So read the Bible by reveling in its diverse literary genres.  Put on the lenses of the various forms of literature and let them show you how to see the world.  The lens of narrative invites us to see the unfolding of God’s purpose in the story of Israel and Jesus and to place ourselves within that story.  The lens of law demands that we see ourselves under the supreme lordship of God.  The lens of wisdom literature beckons us to view the world as God’s world, ordered by his design (Proverbs), yet often refusing to reveal to us its secrets (Ecclesiastes), thereby calling us to trust the wisdom of God even when we don’t understand (Job).  The lens of apocalyptic thrusts us into cosmic warfare, showing us that all of life is lived on the verge of the end, when God’s sovereign plan for the consummation of history will come to pass in a cataclysmic upheaval, and the forces of darkness will be crushed.  The lens of didactic (epistolary) literature sets us within the context of the new humanity redeemed in Christ, the church, and shows us a new way of being in this overlapping of the ages.  The lens of poetry summons us to view all of life as lived before God, in relationship with him (Psalms), yet falling under his judgment for our failures without putting ourselves outside his ultimate redemptive purpose (the Prophets). 

If we bypass the significance of these literary genres and extract bare information from the Bible, then we have not truly heard what God has spoken.  Let the diversity yield its richness to you as you read.  Put on these various lenses and let them each contribute to a fuller understanding and response to God and his purpose for us.