Where I Start to Try and Understand the Bible Wednesday, Nov 29 2006 

Let me begin by saying that I think the Bible is God’s word.

I also think that we have to read the printed page that we actually have as we try and figure out what the Bible says and means. In my last post, I referenced the US constitution and the trouble we have making sense of it just 200 years later. The Bible is even harder to understand due to longer time, different culture, and different language. My starting place in trying to explain the Bible’s meaning comes with understanding there is a writer behind the printed pages I see. Books don’t just grow on shelves. There is an author putting the words together and understanding something about the writer helps me understand the book better.

Like any other book, the Bible didn’t just grow on a shelf. Unlike any other book, the Bible is God’s word. However, the Bible isn’t always clear about who is doing the writing. I’ve met some folks who think that the Bible was either directly written by God or dictated to a person, acting as kind of a secretary, to write down. I suppose some folks probably think that the Bible was totally written by people, with no involvement from God at all. My thinking falls between these two perspectives. I think without the input and action of God there is no Bible. At the same time, I think the ancient writers were more than a Xerox machine for God.

I don’t think God dictated the Bible. I think people were motivated by God to leave a written record of things God wanted later people to learn or know. I think the human writers didn’t have to check their knowledge, personalities and experiences at the door when they wrote. For example, Acts has lots of passages using the phrase “we” or “us” which indicates that the writer was an eyewitness to what happened. In the very same book there are lots of passages where “they” seems to indicate that the writer wasn’t present. It seems to me that the writer was an actual writer and not just God’s secretary.

So when I read any book of the Bible, I try to remind myself of the human writer. From there, I work off of a checklist to try and read the printed word honestly.

1. The writer is writing intentionally. He has a big idea, purpose or message that he is trying to get across to the first readers. The goal for the contemporary reader is to try and “get” that message with the same resonance experienced by the first reader.

2. The author committed the message to the written word. All the conclusions we reach about the book have to make sense in light of what we can see on the printed page.

3. The written word the author used has its own rules, grammar, usage, word choices, sentence structure, idiom and context. The language is really beyond my ability to comment on other than to notice that it’s a big deal.

4. The writer doesn’t write within a vacuum. Each book of the Bible was written at a specific time and place. Every writer is a part of culture, history and a specific community of people. If we want to make good sense of what we’re reading, we probably should really try to understand the history and culture that the writer was a part of.

I’m going to be diligent about posting more thoughts on this soon. Thanks for reading.

Advertisements

Explication of the Bible, confusing middle ground Monday, Nov 6 2006 

Trying to figure out what the Bible says and means presents a thorny problem to any reader. The most recent parts of it were written about 2000 years ago, halfway around the world, in a language nobody speaks anymore. The only comparison I can make in our own culture is the struggle that seems to always be going on about how to interpret the US constitution. Intelligent people have come to opposite conclusions about what the founding fathers meant in a document written a little over 200 years ago in English.

As an outsider looking in on the workings of the Southern Baptist Convention, it seems like some issues are arising from different ways of explicating the Bible. I don’t expect absolute uniformity because that doesn’t seem to fit what I’ve always learned Baptists are about. However, I do get confused because people seem to have developed some pretty comprehensive theories of what the Bible means for us today. I think I’m missing a step between believing the Bible and constructing a comprehensive philosophical system with the Bible as the building blocks. The step I think I’m missing is how professional Christians are explicating the Bible to arrive at their chosen system of belief.

I don’t think I’m alone among laypeople in being perplexed. Most Sundays I go to church and listen intently to the minister’s presentation that seems like algebra. I can see the first number and I see another number on the other side of the = sign, but I’m not sure what the missing part of the equation is. To compound my difficulty, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do in the middle part of the equation to arrive at the minister’s answer. At times I suspect that we are simply following an established explication, i.e. we’ve already decided what the printed words mean and we are serving the equivalent of intellectual leftovers. Perhaps as a layperson, I’m not supposed to get this. If so, why read my Bible? I’d really like to understand the process. I’ve sketched out a few thoughts on a process for dealing with the Bible that makes sense to me that I’ll be posting over the next few days. I’d appreciate any thoughts you might have.