A friend of mine recently posted a question about biblical interpretation on Facebook:
“There are two different types of Christianity, I feel. One starts with scripture and tries to shoehorn all experience of life into a biblical straightjacket (sometimes even ignoring science), and one starts with life and tries to understand what God might be calling us to, through scripture, but bearing in mind the experience and knowledge we have acquired. Do you agree?”
Here was my reply. I wonder what yours would have been?
I think that the bible should be understood as, amongst other things, a record of God’s people on a journey of growing in God, learning to understand who God is and who they are. As we read their story in the Bible, we can see them learn that to be the people of God means learning to be a different kind of people, a completely unusual and radical people in that time: a people who prioritise God in their hearts and lives, who care for strangers and foreigners, who are good to those who work for them, who care for the most vulnerable people, who protect each other, who respect God’s image in each other.
Throughout, the people of God are learning truths and growing in understanding of ‘who is God?’, ‘how does God deal with God’s people?’, ‘what are we supposed to be like and to do as God’s people?’ and ‘what difference should that make in the world, for the world?’ For them, like us, that is a journey. Seen as a journey of growing understanding, the bible takes on a different importance perhaps. In this context, what does it mean to say, ‘I believe in the bible?’.
Looking at the whole ‘sweep’ of scripture in this light should help us to be balanced in our reading and in our understanding. We will find portions, even much, of the bible resonates as we also make the journey. We can learn from their mistakes, empathise with their weaknesses, find comfort and even companionship in them too asking these age-old questions which still often seem unanswered.
Looking at the ‘whole story’ of God and God’s people should also caution us against taking one or two bible verses and applying them to ourselves or others without looking at the broad picture of the bible. I think, for example, about whether it’s okay to eat prawns, about whether it’s okay to get drunk, whether it’s okay to consult a medium? You, like me, could find those bible verses that specifically refer to these things. Job done! Well no, not exactly; one verse does not the bible make! Instead, what does it mean to be sensible about what we eat and observe food safety? To always be in control of our own behaviour? To demonstrate real trust in God? There is plenty about these things in the bible and we can learn as we see the people of God learning. Instead of looking for a bible verse to ‘tell us the answer’, we find we need to understand the journey, to understand God’s very self, in order to respond to those questions in a Godly way.
In the bible we’re being shown the people of God getting to know who God is, who they are, and what they’re supposed to be doing about that. The witness is that as people understand God more they become more open to others, more loving, less constrictive in things that God is not concerned about, more able to tell the difference between what is important and what is not.
The early church, like us, struggled, discussed, debated, and tried to learn the answer to those questions above in the light of who Jesus is. I think the journey goes on and we are to learn from the bible, treasure it, let God teach us through it, and keep journeying with the God who always calls God’s people forwards.