3W SERIES: Reading the Bible in the 21st Century (Part I)

We begin our 3W series on Reading the Bible in the 21st Century today.  We invite you to learn a little bit about the Bible and how it can be read in a relevant way even in the 21st Century.  We especially want to invite those of you that do not read the Bible regularly or that are not Christians and have always wondered, "What is the deal with this book so many people are hung up on?"  This will be based on the work of two very solid Biblical Scholars that are intimately familiar with the complexities of the text:  N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight.


The Bible is obviously the Holy Scripture of Christianity.  What Christians call the "Old Testament" are the Hebrew Scriptures (the Tanak) of the Jewish Faith.  Christianity includes the "New Testament" which chronicles the life of Jesus and his Early Followers.  

The Bible is not meant to be read as a novel (as one continuous story from one author), nor is it like a textbook.  Instead, the Bible is made up of many different kinds of books.  And within those books are even different kinds of writings:  Poetry, proverbs, history, biography, letters, prophetic books, and apocalyptic books.  It's important to look at each part of the Bible in the right context as opposed to reading it like it is one novel or encyclopedia--in one genre.  

There is an over-arching story that brings all of the writing in the New Testament together, and that is the story of God's creation, man's rebellion, and the redemption, renewal process being ushered in by Jesus Christ whose death and resurrection are the climactic moment in the Christian Scriptures. 


One of the challenge of reading the Bible is that it can be easy to read into it what you want to read into it.  This is a concern for scholars and pastors alike (or it should be).  We do not want to form our opinions and then find Scriptures to support our personal opinions, but we want the text to speak for itself and for God to speak through it.  This can get very subjective, so that's why both Wright and McKnight wrote their books. 

Wright says, "Almost all Christian churches say something in their formularies about how important the Bible is.  Almost all of them have devised ways, some subtle, some less so, of ostentatiously highlighting some parts of the Bible and quietly setting aside other parts." 

Ouch!  Yes, that can be easy to do.  That's why it's important to read the Bible on the Bible's terms.  Wright elaborates: 

Some Christians seem to regard the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, as equally authoritative and valid--even though Jesus himself, according to the gospels themselves, seems to have set aside the food laws and posed severe questions about the observance of the Sabbath; even though Paul is shrill in his insistence that the ancient command to circumcise male children is no longer relevant for followers of Jesus, and even though the the Letter to the Hebrews makes it abundantly clear that the detailed regulations about the Temple and the sacrifical system have been made redundant by the single sacrifice of Christ, the great High Priest.  Other Christians, meanwhile, have taken Paul's saying that "Christ is the end of the Law" as giving them cheerful permission to ignore anything and everything in the Old Testament.  Is there a way through this problem?  The Bible itself declares that all authority belongs to the one true God and that this is now embodied in Jesus himself. The risen Jesus, at the end of Matthew's gospel does not say, "all authority in heaven and on earth is given to the books you are all going to write," but "All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me."  

Christians have always treasured Scripture, but initially, there wasn't one cohesive, nicely packaged Bible as their is today.  Instead, the Scriptures were memorized, transmitted orally and eventually written down.  Extremely intelligent men like Origen, John Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin helped the church look at the ancient texts in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic and helped the church to come up with a trustworthy interpretation of this Scripture.  There were disputes (some Scriptures are not found in the Protestant Bible, but are found in the Roman Catholic Bible and Eastern Orthodox BIble)---but these disputes about the Scripture are pretty minor in the big scheme of thing.  The overall Christian story and the purpose of the books has been pretty much settled for 2 thousand years.  It might not seem that way from turning on the TV, but it's true. 


Initially, the ideas of those smart men were so respected that they helped establish the tradition of how we read the Scripture.  But in time, the Christian Church's were making the Bible too inaccessible to the average person.  Interpretations were getting warped, so there was a need for correction.  With the advent of the printing press and higher literacy rates, people began to read the Bible for themselves instead of hearing it read by priests.

For Protestants this was a great moment.  Everyone had access to their own personal Bible.  Martin Luther was a key reformer in this area and the concept of "Sola Scriptura" was born;  meaning "scripture alone," instead of traditions totally controlling the meaning of the Bible.  Eventually, this would become important to Roman Catholics as well. 

Actually, the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox had good reason for being concerned at the idea of everyone having access to the Scriptures.  It sounds good, but one possible problem is that you can end up with everyone interpreting the Bible however they want.  And that is what has happened. 

For the most part, the many denominations and movements that came out of this period of Scriptural Freedom still held to Orthodox Christian beliefs that the disciples and early fathers would have approved of.  But it did become pretty messy in time and this is why the books of Wright and McKnight are important.  Because some Christians have forgotten that there are rules to reading Scripture.  Meanwhile, on the other side, some Christians and secular scholars have remembered some of the key rules and principles, but then taken that too far.  Thus the Bible Wars are born.  Wright hits upon this:

Simplistic affirmations ("the Bible says") on the one hand, and counter-affirmations ("You read the text naively; we read it in context, and that changes everything") on the other, only get in the way of serious debate."

So how can you really figure out what the Bible is saying?  Is it easy or is it hard? What kind of mistakes are being made?  How do we correct it?

All of this will continue to be explored in Part II of this 3W Series:  "Reading the Bible in the 21st Century."


Introduction to the Series:  "Reading the Bible in the 21st Century" was here.