Scripture as Conversation

Some people claim that the Bible is internally consistent, and that you cannot find any contradictions within it. The truth though, is that the Bible is shot through with inconsistensies and contradictions. The prophetic tradition sits in tension with the deuteronomic and priestly traditions. Then there’s Ecclesiastes vs. Proverbs; Paul’s epistles vs James’ epistle. Not to mention that the God of the New Testament can seem so different from the God of the Old Testament, to the extent that there is now a joke that God converted and became a Christian somewhere in between.

To deal with these tensions, Christian scholars have suggested any number of interpretive techniques. For example, some say ‘first mention’ is primary. Others say that last mention trumps first mention. Some say the Old Testament is valid unless the New Testament overturns it. Others say no, it’s a new Testament so it doesn’t depend on the old, but replaces it. Some say the Bible permits whatever it doesn’t forbid, and others say it forbids whatever it doesn’t permit. Some say we should ‘interpret Scripture with Scripture’, but they never quite make it clear which Scripture trumps the other. Some say the more general trumps the more specific, and others say the specific eclipses the general. Some say we should interpret a text the way our denominational founders, current leaders, radio/TV preachers or leading college professors ask us to. Others say no, you’ve got to go back to the sixteenth century reformers and their interpretations. Yet others say no, we need to go back further, to Saint Thomas or Saint Augustine. Still others say no, we go back to the Bible itself – it’s sola Scriptura (if there can ever be such a thing) to the rescue – and never let human traditions and opinions get in the way of your own private interpretation. If anything is clear in the aftermath of the Reformation, it has to be this: we human beings can interpret the Bible to say and mean an awful lot of different things. We can very easily confuse ‘the Bible says’ with ‘I say the Bible says’, which we can then equate with ‘God says’. Ever since the leaders of the Reformation claimed sola scriptura – we’ve had an avalanche of evidence that reasonably bright, sincere and well-meaning people can find just about anything in the Bible, not to mention the less bright, sincere or well-meaning. ~ Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity

This is unacceptable, of course, if the Bible is to be used as a constitution, or meant to be read as if it were a rule book. And that’s a clue that perhaps the Bible is no such thing. The Bible is more like a story, or even a library of ideas. This does not mean, of course, that the Bible can no longer be authoritative in the lives of Christians. A library can be authoritative even if it contains books with conflicting views on a particular issue. In fact, wouldn’t it be a better library, when one has access to different points of view? Isn’t it great to have Malaysiakini and the Malaysian Insider, in and amongst the government regulated mainstream media? I like Brian McLaren’s contrasting between a constitution and a cultural library in reference to how the Bible should be viewed:

An authoritative library preserves key arguments; an authoritative constitution preserves enforceable agreements.

We judge internal tension and debate as flaws or failures in the components of a constitution, but we see them as a sign of vitality and vigour in the literature of a culture.

Perhaps, Scripture was never meant to provide definitive answers to all our questions to end all controversies (as many would like to claim). Either that, or it has failed miserably. As we have seen over the years, people have often found different answers to the same question, using the Bible to support their own preferred view. We can use the Bible to justify almost anything we want to (be it polygamy, slavery, racism, torture, wars etc). Perhaps, the Scriptures (and the many voices in tension within it) invite us to join in the conversation – one that has gone on for centuries; one that involves the people of God from the past, present and future.

Could it be that God’s Word intends not to give us easy answers and short cuts to confidence and authority, but rather, to render us, again and again, into a posture of wonder, humility, rebuke, and smallness in the face of the unknown? ~ Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity


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