Some churches read the Bible to retrieve everything that was practiced in the First Century. If the early Christians met in homes, we should do the same. If they enjoyed table fellowship each week, so should we. If they washed feet, so should we. Indeed, some see all commands as perpetual.
Those in this camp tend to see scripture as a book of laws or a constitution. They assume therefore that the book has rules for how to assemble and worship and organize, and so they interpret reports of what the early church did as commands.
McKnight argues that it is, of course, impossible to live like First Century Christians in the 21st Century. Rather, he says, we are called to live “twenty-first-century lives as we walk in the light of the revelation God gave us in the first century.” Page 27.
You see, he says, we can “retrieve only what we can salvage for our day and for our culture.” We leave behind those things that too uncomfortable and preserve what seems to fit based on very subjective judgments. “This, of course, means culture dictates what is of value in the Bible. This is a mistake.”
He doesn’t explain this in detail, but let me try. When I was a child, the Bible said women have to wear hats to church. And they did — expensive, fashionable hats. When hats went out of fashion, 1 Corinthians 11 was conveniently re-intepreted.
But if we’d ever read the passage in light of its original meaning, not 20th Century culture, we’d have seen that the command was all about submission — to God and to husbands. And wearing expensive, fashionable hats has nothing at all to do with submission. Or modesty. Or Christianity. Rather, we found a very superficial correspondence between ancient culture and modern culture, found the correspondence comfortable, and congratulated ourselves for wearing the hats we were going to wear anyway.
The role of women is a similar issue. For much of the history of Christianity the surrounding culture freely permitted denying women authority over men or the right to teach men. But in the last 50 years, the commands don’t seem quite so clear. Are the commands we read in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 like the command to wear a head covering? Or are they eternal commands?
The question wasn’t even asked 50 years ago. Women were obviously incapable of such responsibility. Besides, a good Christian woman was too submissive to even want authority — or so we were taught. But now we all know women who are fabulous teachers and Bible students. Our culture has changed, women have shown themselves quite capable, and now the question is upon us.
And we can’t help but observe that the younger the Bible student, the more likely he is to find the “role of women” verses to be based on a First Century culture that is long gone. But we really need a better standard than what seems right based on when or where we grew up!
McKnight suggests that we first must learn to read the Bible “with tradition.” We don’t read the Bible bound by tradition, but neither do we ignore tradition.
Think of it this way. Even the smartest person ever born doesn’t have all the experience and all the education of the entire church — that is, the entire church living and dead. As wonderful as it is to live in an age when anyone can read dozens of translations on the internet and millions of opinions on what each verse means, no one is the final expert on interpreting the Bible.
[The Orthodox have this wonderful way of speaking of the “church” as including not only the living but also those who’ve gone on ahead of us. They have not really died so they are still part of the church. One area in which it is particularly helpful to think this way is when we speak of reading scripture in “community.” This means not only with those still alive but in conversation with the church in heaven through their writings.]
Therefore, any serious student of the Bible should read in light of what others have concluded about the scriptures. We need to be in dialogue, not only with our friends and fellow congregation members, but also with the great scholars of the ages. I may choose to disagree with Martin Luther or John Calvin on grace, but shouldn’t I at least understand their views before disagreeing with them? Or am I so smart that I can learn nothing from either?
Therefore, the wise student takes the trouble to read what others have said and are saying. If you try to interpret Romans unaware of the work of the greatest scholars of the last 2,000 years, you are failing to use all the resources God has given you.
Once you know what the greatest minds in the history of Christianity have concluded, you are free to disagree. But if you do so, do so in conversation with others. Indeed, one of the great benefits of internet forums and blogs is their interactivity. Readers can easily add their thoughts to the discussion, enriching and correcting the teaching.
McKnight makes a critical point. The New Testament writers studied and taught with tradition, even though they disagreed with much of the tradition. They studied the scriptures they had — the Old Testament — as well as uninspired writings of the Jews. In fact, as most Christians have never read 3 Esdras or Sirach, for example, we don’t notice the many New Testament allusions to these and similar uninspired works. The New Testament was written in conversation with other streams of First Century Jewish thought, sometimes agreeing and sometimes not.
The point is that, even with the benefit of inspiration, the writers paid attention to traditional interpretation. They built on what had already been built, correcting as necessary.
Instead, we need to go back to the Bible so we can move forward through the church and speak God’s Word in our days in our ways. We need to go back without getting stuck (the return [retrieval] problem, and we need to move forward without fossilizing our ideas (traditionalism).
In the Churches of Christ, the applications are particularly profound. If we take McKnight’s advice, we’ll study Restoration Movement history and the teachings of our predecessors. We may not agree with all that Stone or Campbell wrote, but we should at least pay them the respect of hearing what they have to say.
Just so, we should listen to our 20th Century forebears, H. Leo Boles, Rubel Shelly, etc. Again, while I may disagree with some that they say, I should be respectful enough to listen before I do. Who knows, we may just learn something we never would have thought of on our own if we read David Lipscomb’s Civil Government or Harding’s writings on prayer.
I attended David Lipscomb College from 1972-75. I lived in Sewell Hall. My future wife lived in Fanning Hall. Despite taking daily Bible courses and attending daily chapels for all those years, I graduated not having a clue as to who Lipscomb, Sewell, or Fanning were or why someone might want to name a building after them. You see, in those days we pretended that we learned nothing from our tradition and so we had no need to study it. We were wrong.
Of course, we should also be reading the works of current evangelical scholars as well as the writings of our Reformation predecessors. And the Patristics. And so many more.
It’s a conceit of the Restoration Movement that anyone can pick up the Bible and, untrained, read it perfectly. Indeed, we claim the truth of all our teachings is plain and obvious — so plain and obvious that those who disagree with us disagree with the very words of God himself!
But it’s not true. If you want to understand Romans or Matthew or Genesis, check out a few commentaries that interact with the scholarship of the ages and learn what the great scholars had to say on the subject. Take the time to find out what’s being said by the great scholars of today. And then, if you want to disagree, by all means do so. Just don’t disagree out of ignorance.
Morsels of law
Some of us see the Bible as morsels of law. We sniff around the book looking for commands to obey (and to impose on others), ignoring the boring poems, history, and prophecy. After all, it’s the obedience that matters.
This is, in fact, how I grew up. I wondered what the point of 95% of the Bible was? Why not publish an abridged version that just included the commands? Better yet, why not re-arrange the verses so the commands would be obvious to all readers. I mean, the sermons I grew up on required us to hop and leap from book to book to assemble various verses together to prove God’s clear and obvious will regarding how to worship or organize or whatever. It was as though God wanted to make it hard (but obvious to anyone who really wanted to obey God).
McKnight argues from his own experience,
I was a teenage legalist and considered myself one of the Obedient Ones. We happily tossed away a few of the Bible’s commands, like loving our enemies, because we were crusaders and zealots for wholehearted obedience to the commands of God. In their place we added more comandments, and the ones that particularly appealed to were “thou shalt not dance,” “thou shalt not go to movies,” “thou shalt not drink,” and “thou shalt not play cards (except Rook or Dutch Blitz).”
McKnight concludes that this approach to the Bible makes us insufferably arrogant, and he confesses having been that way when younger. I was, too.
Of course, there are commands, and they are important. But taken out of the context of God’s story, they lead to Pharisaism and self-satisfaction.
Morsels of blessings and promises
Some of us think the Bible was written to give us a daily emotional lift. We feed ourselves encouraging, positive verses each day, hoping for promises and blessings because of our positive thinking.
Those of us hooked on blessings are happy, smiling people, until life slaps us across the face and something horrible happens. Then we wonder if our faith is truly real. Where is the God who lives on my calendar and in my daily devotional guide?
God really does promise blessings, of course, and the uplifting verses are quite real and true. But they are part of a much larger story that deal with the brokeness of each of us and the brokeness of this world. The Bible also deals with injustice, despair, doubt, and suffering.
Mirrors and inkblots
McKnight writes, “Some people read the Bible as if its passages were Rorschach inkblots.” (page 48). Republicans find trickledown economics. Democrats find gay rights. Legalists find laws. The emotionally needy find emotional comfort.
The Bible’s story takes us through all sorts of human experiences, and we learn many wonderful things. Some are consistent with the Republican Party platform. Some with the Democrats’. Most is utterly foreign to either. But if we read outside the story, we can always find something that justifies what we want to justify.
To allow ourselves to be judged by the Bible, rather than using the Bible to judge others, we have to read the entire story as story. As McKnight says, we need to be swept up into the Bible’s story, rather than sweeping the Bible into ours.
Puzzling Together the Pieces to Map God’s Mind
Many of us, especially the scholars among us, want to find the system hidden underneath the story and develop a systematic exposition of what God really meant. Hence, we find the Bible reduced to a “pattern” or a systematic theology.
McKnight notes that all systems and patterns ignore pieces of the puzzle that don’t fit. This is, of course, why the denominations disagree with each other — they throw out different pieces!
McKnight further argues that the project is too big for humans. After all, if we take the entire Bible and develop an elaborate system that explains it all, we’ve invented something that not a single author of the Bible taught. And, he suggests, the process is hopelessly subjective, as the scholars get to decide what question is being answered — whose puzzle is being assembled? God’s? or the scholar’s?
Finally, McKnight notes that God chose the way he wanted to reveal himself. Who are we to insist that he should have revealed himself through a 5-fingered pattern or a confession or systematic theology?
In short, the danger of re-assembling God word into a human pattern is the danger of mastery. Once we’ve done it, we’re through. We’ve solved the puzzle. Now we no longer need the Bible. Our pattern or confession or system is quite enough — better, really.
Of course, it overstates the case to suggest that we do entirely without a systematic theology. The Story itself is a pattern or a system. The point is that we Christians tend to read the Bible through our systems rather than the other way. We only concern ourselves with those scriptures that deal with the questions our theologians and preachers are interested in, and so we ignore much, if not most, of the Bible. The trick is to never, ever think your pattern or system is anything like the summa theologica of God’s will. The Bible is. What we write is not.
Another mistake we often make is to pick one Biblical character and declare him a maestro — the ultimate expert on God’s will — and read all the rest of the Bible through his eyes.
Many Protestants grow up in a Pauline world. All Bible is read through Paul, even the Gospels. Some churches read everything through the lens of the Revelation. It’s all about the endtimes. And others read it all through Jesus.
Now, Jesus is obviously the master teacher. But we can’t fully understand Jesus outside the context of the Old Testament. You have to read Torah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah (among the rest) to read Jesus. Jesus is central. But Jesus isn’t all the Bible, and some of us get trapped in the Gospels.
The Churches of Christ
Well, McKnight has pegged us pretty well — and lots of others, too. We are guilty of all of the above, aren’t we?
I grew up on Acts. Luke was the master teacher because Luke taught baptism. Paul’s writings were too confusing for us. We couldn’t make heads or tails of Romans. But we knew what Paul meant when he wrote about singing and the Lord’s Supper.
You see, we were all about finding the system or pattern that would make it all simple and easy to obey. Break it all down to five acts or five steps and we could do it exactly right every single time.
We got there by reading our own prejudices into the scriptures. We wanted a constitution, and so we found a constitution. We searched for laws hidden amongst the irrelevancies, and created a puzzle to solve. And in so doing, we read our story into the Bible and created something that was more us than Him.
The solution isn’t easy, because it’s so very hard to give up our identity. You see, we came to identify ourselves not as people of Jesus but as the people who don’t use instruments and who organize and worship according to the pattern. We identify ourselves with the rules that we found, and so, to escape our legalism, we have to surrender our identity at the foot of the cross.
It’s not easy to re-discover who we are meant to be. But for us, that’s where it has to start. We need to learn what part we play in the story.