Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Bible Is Long, Yet Life Is Short

One problem – or at least, problematic challenge – with the Bible is that it packs far too much information into far too little space. This can be quite aggravating for someone trying to digest a book in only a few days.

Take Acts, a book I’ve been working through the past few days. The first four chapters alone are full of amazing stories with important meaning: the selection of a new Apostle, the Holy Spirit descending upon the Apostles, the use of many tongues, Peter’s sermons on the importance of Jesus and the meaning of Christianity, the lifestyle of the first Christian communities, Peter and John healing a man at the Temple, their arrest, Christ’s acceptance of Gentiles, and so forth. These stories raise so many questions:

  • What, if anything, do the lifestyles of the first Christians – “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” – say about modern American consumerism and individualism?
  • Acts 1-4 make it clear that being a Christian is about far, far more than belief and evangelicalism. Do we, the current church, take the challenges of joining the Christian community and of sustaining our brothers and sisters seriously enough?
  • Peter seems to downplay the role of Pontius Pilate and the Romans in Christ’s crucifixion, focusing instead on the crowds, the Jews. Other New Testament passages make it clear that Christ’s relationship with the political powers of the day was instrumental in his death. So, what was the balance between the rejection of the crowds and the power of the government, and what is its importance?
  • What does it mean to be “Spirit-filled?” Is a born again experience, the descending of the Spirit, necessary to a Christian faith? Are Christian faiths that practice “speaking in tongues” grounded in strong theology? Is there a role for faith healing in the modern church?

John 6 is another action-packed passage. In just 71 verses – three pages in my Bible – we get the disciples’ doubt, the feeding of the 5000; Christ’s rejection of a crown; the calming of the storm; a lesson from Christ on the danger of seeing as believing and the importance of faith; Christ’s statements that He is the “bread of life,” that He will “Raise them up on the last day,” and that through Him we find “eternal life” (or, as Brian McLaren argues, “life of the ages”); part of the basis of the Eucharist; a verse that may support the doctrine of pre-destination; the disciples’ lasting commitment to Christ; and Christ’s prediction of Judas’s betrayal. All this IN JUST ONE CHAPTER!

So what is my point? It is this: anyone who claims to understand the Bible is almost assuredly speaking from a position of arrogance. There is far too much here to grasp in one lifetime. This is especially true of young Evangelicals. It takes decades of devoted, full-time historical, literary, and spiritual study to even begin to have a solid grasp on this material.

You might argue, but it has been said that God doesn’t give us anything that we can’t handle! And I would agree – but what does the world “handle” mean in this case? Perhaps we aren’t called to fully understand the Bible. Perhaps our call is to live a life of study, a life of challenge, and a life of constant growth, and to never wrap ourselves in the false arrogance of certainty. It is there in that constant state of immaturity and openness that we find Christ’s infinite love and acceptance.


Anonymous said...

I think life is full of constant growth - that we spend everyday making ourselves closer to what we can understand God wants us to be. Our mission in life is simple in accordance to Christ. My father reads the bible and it's his 5th time through the bible and he knows a lot but he says life and experiences is what makes his interpretation of the bible more clear. I think parts come in handy and read to us more in times of our life when we need them. I think it's an everyday growth.

Anonymous said...

The Bible must be interpreted, with literary criticism, through the filter of our brains. Thus, we all understand it differently. Thus there is not "literal" or "absolute" interpretation. What this then means is the Bible isn't of much good, since there are so many contradictions, each side on an issue can quote what they need to from various parts.

nic said...

You left out a very important key to Biblical understanding: discussion. Study, prayer, and meditation is great. But we are limited in our own understanding. Discussion includes the study and understandings of others to enhance your own. Of course, I believe you are all ready contributing to that discussion via this blog... but still - it's important to mention.

Anonymous said...

I personally don't understand why people require a book, tainted with mis-translations, and opinions in order to live their lives. If you ask me, you should live each day as you see fit. People who view the bible as the "word of god" are deluded in my eyes.

I fail to see why you need to be part of the "flock" of sheep who mindlessly follow this nonsence. Open your eyes, live your lives. Hhave "faith" in your selves, instead of something you cant comprehend.

Nathan Empsall said...

Nic, you're absolutely right, and that's something I've talked and written about before. But, this post was quite narrow in scope and point. Trying to be more concise and all that.

Second anon, "as you see fit" is a very undefined phrase. None of us know everything on our own, and part of life is finding external sources of guidance and wisdom for us to process, to help us figure out just what it is that we see fit and why. For many, the Bible is one of those sources, but you do raise a good point when you mention mis-translations. Nic and Andrew both talked about how hard it is to understand what the Bible means, and the issues you bring up are part of why Andrew says that there is no "literal" or "absolute" interpretation. Reading the Bible is really more about the process than it is a final, perhaps unachievable understanding.

Anonymous said...

There is no reason to look at the Bible as insufficient because it provides you with overflowing riches. That's like a starving man at a buffet table complaining that he can't possibly eat everything.

The Bible is not simple a volume of material that we should take as individuals and try to digest in totality within our lifetimes. We have to seek God's guidance as well as the guidance of those who have come before us and Christian brothers and sisters.

What you should know about the Bible is the consistency of its themes and promises: That God is our mighty and loving creator, who made us with purpose and gives us grace in the face of sin. He wants a relationship with us based in true life and not in the deathly temptations or evils of this world.

The Bible is a history of our relationship with God. Indeed at times the text is hard to understand without engaging both our minds and consulting those around us. The community and communion this builds in our hearts and minds is something to treasure, not to fear.