How do we get the Bible right? [Questioning faith #8]

Ted Grimsrud—December 5, 2022

To my previous question, “Why did Christianity move so far away from the message of Jesus?” (11/21/22), an important part of the answer that goes beyond the themes I discussed in that blog post would be to think about the Bible. We could say, I suspect, that a major reason why Christianity moved so far away from Jesus is that Christianity quit getting the Bible right. The message of Jesus mainly comes from the gospels—and in the history of Christianity quite often the gospels have been marginalized, beginning with the great creeds that jump from Jesus’s birth to his death without a word about his message.

Approaching the Bible today

I want to focus here on the present version of this issue—How do we get the Bible right today? I have written before how I struggled with the Bible during the early years after my entering the Christian fold. I think now one of the main reasons is that the Bible was presented to me in an uninteresting way. Once I was introduced to the gospel of peace and was helped to see how the entire Bible ultimately presents us with this peace message then studying the Bible became interesting and meaningful. As my theology has evolved away from the rather conservative “Bible Baptist” theology I started out with, my embrace of the Bible has actually been strengthened. I realize that my positive view of the Bible has a great deal to do with my reading strategy. I am aware of many other different approaches to the Bible today that actually contribute to the problem of separating Christianity from the message of Jesus.

I have become convinced that one of the most important aspects of my reading strategy that makes the Bible interesting for me is to recognize that the Bible has a particular agenda. Now, this is a complicated point partly because we actually know so little for sure about the original writing of the Bible. And we must recognize that the Bible is filled with a large variety of writings from different times and places with different styles and, we could say, different agendas. So, we should be cautious about asserting a single agenda. Nonetheless, cautiously, I do want to make such a suggestion (perhaps not as insistent as an assertion). The Bible’s particular agenda is to encourage healing in the world (what I call in my book introducing the Bible, God’s Healing Strategy). I think that healing agenda motivated the writing of most of the books of the Bible. It motivated the use of these various writings in communities of faith. It motivated the gathering of these writings into a larger collection. And, ultimately, it motivated the sustained use of the collection as the normative scripture for the faith tradition.

Recognizing its healing agenda, then, should guide us in how we read the diverse, complicated, and challenging collection we call the Bible. When we share the same agenda in our lives—seeking to be agents of healing in the world—we will expect the Bible in all its parts to be a crucial resource for our lives. Thus, we will interpret the Bible in healing ways. This need not lead to misinterpreting the Bible, especially the “hard parts” that do not seem to be about healing, because we may be confident that properly interpreted this collection with a healing agenda will serve healing—just as it is. It is not wishful thinking and reading a healing agenda into the Bible; it’s simply recognizing what the Bible is.

Non-healing agendas

What I suggest here, then, is that the various contemporary reading strategies that do not place healing in the center lead to a Christianity that has marginalized the message of Jesus—to the detriment of the Christian tradition and of the world we live in. Let me briefly mention some of these non-healing approaches (I should add that it’s not that people with these reading strategies don’t care about healing so much as that healing is not the central agenda of the reading strategies):

The flat Bible. The key element to the “flat Bible” approach is seeing each part of the Bible as equally significant. Each part is given equal weight and there is no center to the Bible as a whole. So, in effect, “healing” is no more normative than violence, mercy no more normative than punitive judgment. One effect of a flat Bible approach is to read the various parts of the Bible autonomously in isolation from the whole. Thus, the Joshua conquest story and Romans 13:1-7 are either given authority or are seen as irresolvable problems rather than read for how they contribute to the healing agenda.

The devotional Bible. The “devotional Bible” approach sees the Bible in terms of how particular passages speak to the individual. When read this way, the Bible is little different from a contemporary book of devotional writings. The healing it might witness to is centered in the individual heart, and the devotional reader has little interest in the Big Story of social healing.

The authoritarian Bible. The “authoritarian Bible” approach cares more about the doctrine of biblical authority than the actual content of the Bible.

The factual Bible. The “factual Bible” is apparent in numerous commentaries on books of the Bible that focus on making a case for the historical accuracy (or inaccuracy, as the case may be) of the various passages and spends little time on the message.

The cultured despisers’ Bible. “Cultured despisers” of the Bible (borrowing from Schleiermacher’s famous 19th century comment about highly educated religious skeptics) are people who see the Bible as irrelevant to the contemporary world and only as a refuge for the gullible and religiously narrowminded.

The doctrinal Bible. The “doctrinal” approach understands the Bible, in practice at least, as subservient to core doctrinal statements of the Christian tradition. Hence, you see creedal statements that omit Jesus’s life and teaching as defining the content of core Christian convictions—and efforts made to argue that these doctrines reflect the teaching of the Bible.

The critical Bible. The “critical” approach to the Bible subjects the Bible to analysis using the historical-critical method that tends to focus on historical questions, the meaning of particular words, and comparisons with extra-biblical ancient near eastern sources with both a strong skepticism of traditional interpretations and a lack of interest in reading the Bible as a guide for life and thought.

The boundary marker Bible. For many Christians, the Bible is of interest particularly as a tool to create and enforce boundary lines between acceptable beliefs and those outside the circle of the faithful. Ironically, often what one says about what one believes about the Bible (that it is, for example, inerrant or authoritative) becomes the key issue more than what one believes the Bible teaches and how faithfully one follows that teaching.

Focusing on the reader

I mention these reading strategies that I call “non-healing” in order to make the point that our debates about the Bible need to be attentive to present-day readers and not only to the ancient text. When we have different reading strategies from each other, we likely will also have differences about the meaning of the texts that cannot be resolved simply by focusing on the texts.

To me, the most important element of how one reads the Bible is whether or not one puts the Bible’s healing agenda at the center. I suggest that none of the above approaches do that. The key in getting the Bible right is reading it as a resource for healing work. One may do that whether or not one believes it is a special revelation from God or whether or not one is a formal member of a particular religion. “High” and “low” views of biblical inspiration do not directly correspond with the reader having a healing agenda.

The healing agenda is linked with belief that we readers share in the same story as the Bible, what we could call a “this-is-that” mentality where one sees oneself as part of the same story. And if we know that this story is a healing story, we will not be derailed by some anti-healing biblical content, because we will expect that when read in the context of the healing Big Story, the anti-healing content will make sense as a contribution to the Big Story.

The Big Story Bible

I believe that the best way to read the Bible as a resource for healing is to read it as a whole, to take what I call a “Big Story” approach. This approach affirms that the two key elements of the Bible’s content—the story of the exodus and gift of Torah in the Old Testament and the story of Jesus in the New Testament—are both most fundamentally about healing on all levels of life. And these two elements are harmonious with each other.

Along with the affirmation of the centrality of Torah and Jesus, the Big Story approach also affirms that the entire Bible may be read in support of those central healing elements. That is not to assert that all the pieces harmonize. There are tensions, inconsistencies, even contradictions. However, the out-of-harmony parts help illumine the meaning of the core parts.

For example, one major problem in the Old Testament is what one could call the “territorial” dimension—the violent takeover of the promised land in the story of Joshua and the on-going violence that characterized the Hebrew kingdom while it possessed the land. Many of the accounts express strong affirmation of that territoriality and attribute the presence of the people in the land as God’s will. However, the story as a whole teaches that the territoriality was a failed experiment, as it were, and led to conformity with the coercive politics of empire. The message of Jesus affirms the reality that Torah is best embodied when territoriality is rejected and that normative biblical politics is a politics of mercy and compassion, of non-possession and generosity.

Thus, reading the Bible in light of the Big Story involves an unwavering commitment to a politics of healing on all levels of social life—family, local community, faith community, and larger political units. The core plot line (what the great Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann called the Bible’s “primal narrative” in his book, The Bible Makes Sense) tells the story of God as a healer. Other parts of the story present complications in relation to that plot, but they do not overthrow it. Careful reading actually will lead to deeper understandings of how the complications may best be understood as strengthening the witness to God’s healing strategy.

Questioning Faith blog series

10 thoughts on “How do we get the Bible right? [Questioning faith #8]

  1. I see the central story of the Bible as God reconciling all things – human beings, yes, but also all of creation – to God’s self. This does heal all things so it is consistent with you putting healing at the center.

  2. Thanks for your diligence on this subject, Ted. Helpful thoughts, including your good list of perspectives on how others read the Bible. In large portions of “traditionalist” groups, the boundary marker aspect is, confusedly, both behavioral (do’s and don’t’s) and soul-sorting (“saving faith”).

    That relates to my wondering how you relate your Big Story of healing to the concept of “Salvation History”. That framework for the Bible hasn’t quite seemed fitting to me, for reasons I won’t go into now. What insights might you have on how you understand that in relation to your view?

      1. I’m really interested in your reply to my comment, Ted. Unfortunately, it got truncated somehow. It ends in the middle of “salvati(on)” in the 2nd sentence. Can you post the rest?

      2. Sorry. I’ve not thought of “salvation history” in relation to the Big Story idea.

        A quick thought, though. In my mind, salvation in the Bible is more or less the same all the way through—a simple gift from a merciful God. As I remember the “salvation history” view, it leans toward supersessionism, with a kind of progressive revelation dynamic.

        I like the idea of looking at the big picture, though, that “salvation history” seems to espouse.

        Say more about what you think?

  3. I’ve mainly encountered the salvation history concept in passing, not a deeper exposition of it. So my impression is similar to yours, as to implicit supercession and progressive revelation.

    As to salvation in the Bible, I don’t know that its meaning changes much, but in Paul and subsequent theology as Gentile or predominantly Gentile groups gained ascendancy, the more tribal/national sense of it for Jews became a more personalized sense and available to everyone. It was still, in the NT, not a confessional thing it appears, despite a few statements by Paul and some attributed to him in Acts.

    Also, as to “progressive”, I don’t see that in God “revealing” things, but the natural evolution of religious/cultural concepts. From Judaism to Christianity was much more gradual than we tend to think, but was a major such example.

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