The Use of the Bible in Pastoral Care (4)

The Use of the Bible in Pastoral Care
Part Four: Why do we have the Bible in the first place?

What is the Bible? And what is it for?

Yesterday’s post highlighted the fact that I have come a long way from some of the common evangelical understandings about how to answer those questions.

The sermon I heard on Sunday reminded me of a post Michael Spencer once wrote after a Pentecostal minister had preached at their school chapel. He called it, “Magic Books, Grocery Lists and Silent Messiahs: How rightly approaching the Bible shapes the entire Christian Life,” and said this:

Listening to the way the Bible is used to present the truth about God, you will discover a lot about the presuppositions of anyone who calls himself a Christian.

…My passion is especially piqued when I hear the Bible used by contemporary preachers. In their confidence that the Bible is God’s inspired Word, many have yielded to ways of using the Bible that are deficient, even destructive of the Bible’s true message, power and glory. I want to suggest how we might approach the Bible in a sensible and rational manner that allows the book to speak its truth most clearly and deeply into our lives.

Some of the “deficient ways” he points out in the article are:

The Bible is a magic book, where God speaks to us in unusual ways.

As Michael says, this approach “speaks to us about our lives and concerns, which are always tantamount in our minds.” It involves “grabbing … a few verses and using them as the basis for a mystical principle for being blessed.”

The Bible is a collection of verses.

“…the vast majority of Bible based Christianity recommends approaching the Bible as an inspired book, but they also teach that our personal encounter with God happens in discovering verses that “speak” to us personally. These may be promises or invitations or statements about truth. Of course, these verses occur in passages, chapters and books, but it is the verses that have the preeminence among evangelical Christians.”

The Bible is a grocery store, where we may find “answers” to the questions on our shopping list.

“The idea that the Bible is a library of verses has been propagated through Bible study tools, but also through methods of preaching. Many popular preachers today NEVER engage a text unless it is a story with a lesson that speaks to a “felt need.”. They engage a topic that has been focus-grouped to gain the interest of the audience. …Then verses are marshalled to present an outline of principles. The Bible is the source of the verses, so it is routinely asked, “What does the Bible say about assessing potential spouses?” Since the collection of verses comes from the Bible, the conclusion seems sound. The “Bible” in this case is a humanly arranged collection of verses, out of context, with a variable degree of likelihood in relating to the truth.”

A Better Way

Michael gave an answer to these deficient ways of understanding what the Bible is and what it is for: “In understanding the Bible,” he wrote, “it is far more important that we understand, as best we can, the message and meaning of entire books, and the story told by those books, rather than just having a personal experience with individual verses.”

I agree. However, in fact, there is more to say than even this.

We should recognize not only the story the Bible tells, but also why it tells that story.

Why do we have the Bible in the first place? For what purposes was this book written? The standard evangelical answer starts with God: It is God’s Word, and God inspired it so that we might know the way of salvation and how to live as his people.”

If that is your initial answer, please realize that it is not an entry-level kind of response. Rather, it represents a well-developed theological conclusion. It tells us nothing about how the Bible came to be written and put together, who was involved, when it occurred, and why the particular books that make up the Bible were chosen and arranged as they are. In short, by starting (and ending) with God, you have effectively cut out the entire human story behind the Bible.

I happen to think that is a great mistake which leads to most forms of the magical thinking that Michael wrote about. It represents a kind of biblical docetism that suggests the humanity of scripture is only an appearance, a non-essential shell, whereas the actual substance of the book is divine.

However, I am fully with Pete Enns, who in his book, Inspiration and Incarnation, thinks the simultaneous humanity and divinity of Christ provides an analogy for how we should view the Bible. The scriptures as we have them are fully divine and fully human. In Kent Sparks’s words, what we have is “God’s Word in human words.” Furthermore, we have God’s Word coming to us through a fully human process of oral transmission, composition, editing, arranging, and bringing an accepted group of books (canon) together into their final form as scripture.

And, this was all done for human reasons, as well. As I wrote yesterday,

But the Hebrew Bible is the story of a small nation of obscure losers who wrestled with God (Israel) through a long and tumultuous history that did not end well. It ended so badly, in fact, and created such a theological crisis, that Israel’s religious leaders put together a massive book of stories, laws, poems, and prophecies to try and strengthen the fallen nation and give her future hope.

The Bible, then, is an entire book of pastoral care. Those in the exilic and post-exilic community who put the Hebrew scriptures together did so for pastoral reasons. In producing the Bible they not only gave us the book itself but also a model of how to care for God’s exiled people.

I don’t have to look for “magic verses” anymore, I don’t need to search a “grocery list” of topics for information, I don’t need God to speak to me in unusual ways, revealing “mystical principles” of blessing. Instead, I have an entire book designed as a whole to bring comfort and hope to the hurting. I can read it in that light and find help in any number of places, knowing that is why it was written in the first place.

So, for instance, when I pray the Psalms now at the bedside of one who is sick or dying, I can simply go to The Daily Office (here’s an example) and pray through the Psalms for the day. I know that Israel’s pastoral leaders put them in the Bible to bring comfort to exiles, to people in distress, to people who felt lost and needing direction and hope, to people who wondered where God was in their pain and darkness. It doesn’t matter if every detail of the Psalm doesn’t fit the specific circumstance, I’m not looking for “answers” or “principles” to teach or apply. I’m linking my bed bound friend and myself to the story and cries of the exiles, as well as the words their priests, scribes, and wisdom teachers wanted them to hear to sustain them in their distress.

When I preach at a funeral where a family is now bereft of both parents, and the adult children are now the leading generation in the family, I recall the story of Abraham’s death and how the family buried him next to Sarah. And I give them the word, “After the death of Abraham God blessed his son Isaac” (Gen. 25:11). This is not a magic verse or a “biblical principle” God revealed to me. In sharing this text with a bereaved family, I believe I am giving them a word of hope for the future. For I know this story was written as it was to sustain a generation of Israelites who had lost their fathers and mothers, who were concerned about losing their heritage of God’s promises, who had no idea what days to come might bring.

What is important is the story the Bible tells, and why it tells that story. It tells us that, like Jacob, God will be our Shepherd all the days of our life (Gen. 48:15), and that we can tend to one another by finding our place in this story.

20 thoughts on “The Use of the Bible in Pastoral Care (4)

  1. Osti, your experience is classic Holy Spirit. For me the confirmation came in the form of Isaiah 53 at the right time and right place in my life, right down to the second.

    As for mystical confirmations happening in threes, read Julian of Norwich.


  2. You might say that is an apt description of us. Divine part is tucked in there in the mustard seed or the pearl that must be sought out. The human part is ever so easy to find. Only by diligent searching do we find the crazy, beautiful, amazing stuff and that’s the way the deck is dealt. Only by the diligence of the search are we prepared to receive what it is we are searching for.


  3. So all that needs to happen is for someone to paint an image of a photograph and that would make it OK? It could be venerated, but if it’s not on wood it can’t be. How strange, although making particular people “saints” and venerating pieces of wood with an image painted on them is certainly medieval, so it’s not surprising photographs don’t cut it. Bowing down before a piece of wood, kissing it looks more like worship to me. No human being is worthy of such devotion. And what about that scripture that says “there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus”. I’m not sure that you can call out Protestants for their faults, given icon “veneration”.


  4. “Did Christ and the apostles use the Bible that way, or were they part of this ongoing crisis?”

    Well, they certainly didn’t primarily see it as Westerners do. From the viewpoint of “literal history” their exegesis of the Torah was quite… liberal.


  5. Mule, my focus today was primarily on the Hebrew Bible. The NT is, as I wrote yesterday, the good news that Jesus brought us out of exile and is now forming a people to represent and plant seeds of new creation until his return.

    So yes, all those “spiritual” things are there, but they are rooted in the soil of Israel’s story.


  6. It seems to me that both evangelicals and post evangelicals are chasing the next wave. It often seems reductionistic. Deconstruction seems to be the order of the day.

    I sometimes wonder if it is really the same spirit as modernism that swept the church early last century.


  7. I was a biology teacher. I think that many Christians see the Scriptures as a spiritual Physicians Desk Reference for drug effects and interactions. Maybe a spiritual Bergey’s Guide for microorganisms. Taxonomic guides for everything. “Key it out” as we used to do in lab.The odd thing is that I was also an American Literature minor and lean toward stories told to us that reveal God’s character. I think that the whole story of Moby Dick is about a man’s refusal to accept chastisement, re Father Mapple’s sermon about Job in Chapter 10.


  8. I find moments like that to be encouragingly surreal. If someone wrote an incident like that in a book we’d say, “Oh, that’s so contrived,” but they happen all the time. I could fill a book with the number of times I’ve had little “confirmations” like that.


  9. Did Christ and the apostles use the Bible that way, or were they part of this ongoing crisis?

    Do crises ever end?

    I’m going over to the much-maligned magic, “shamanistic” side here. You can be putzing around with the Bible all your life when suddenly something just comes alive and the whole world slips out from underneath you and dissolves into fog. You take what you’ve learned to the rest of the community and collectively we hammer it out to see how it fits into the rest of the mosaic.

    Maybe I have a problem with your saying that the Bible is primarily a pastoral document, as if it was written exclusively, or primarily, to comfort and encourage people going through challenging times. The Bible was given to us to divinize us. Maybe that’s what you meant all along.


  10. I’m not sure it is wholly “relying on the Academy” to ask the simple question, “Why was this Book compiled, and when, and for whom?” Those seem like perfectly natural questions to me that I would ask of any book. It’s like asking why the movie and TV series M*A*S*H came out in the 1970s and told the stories they did. It certainly wasn’t a “history” of the Korean War. Seems to me there was another little Asian conflict it was designed to address.

    One doesn’t have to buy into a lot of “historical-critical” thinking to recognize that the Hebrew Bible we have is also a product of the exile designed to address a theological crisis either. And in my view, unless we at least get that much, we’re trying to figure out what M*A*S*H is teaching us about Korea.


  11. Pete Enns, or the scholars he depends on, seems to have made mountains of assumptions about the historical milieu in which the Bible was written/edited. I always get kind of twitchy when people put all their epistemological eggs into the “latest research” basket or appeal to the Academy for authority. However, Protestantism has been joined at the hip to the Academy since its inception, so if you want to have anything to do with Protestants, you eventually have to deal with the Academy and its inherent asymptotic Heracleitianism.

    The Orthodox Church refers to the Bible as a “verbal icon” of the Kingdom of God. I think this is an interesting concept. After all, icons aren’t ‘literal’. We have saints who achieved holiness after the invention of photography, and we have photographs of them, but the Church does not venerate photographs of saints. Photographs, like the lithographs that preceded them and which they emulate, are too ‘literal’. Icons represent the spiritual and artistic meditation of the Church on the saint.


  12. My earliest experience with the Bible as a believer was soaking in these sweeping stories of peoples, generations, and individuals, how they related to God, and the beauty and hope that shadowed the suffering (just and unjust) of their lives.

    Thinking of Scripture as a pastoral letter to the beat up and broken is super helpful, but I also wonder if viewing the Bible in terms of function is a byproduct of our assuming a utilitarian worldview…I have trouble seeing beyond the paradigm of utility, but I sense there is something wonderful out there.

    Here’s a story…maybe in favour of ‘Magic book/verse’?…This last year has been one of successive losses, and last winter I was sitting on a cinder block in a far country wondering if I had a future. The last few verses of the 27th Psalm flashed through my head, about ‘seeing the goodness of God in the land of the living’ and ‘taking courage…heart being strong’, either way, not a Psalm I’d ever intentionally committed to memory. I dismissed it since I had no actual desire to be comforted, and instead pulled out a book that I’d recently found in a second-hand bookstore; the personal writings of Dag Hammerskold. Of course he quotes those very verses on the page I happen to open up to!…Those also happen to be the verses used in the Sunday liturgy later that week (because mystical confirmations happen in threes, I guess).

    I’ve since limped along being strong and taking heart, and thanking God for the messy, chaotic process that produced His Word.


  13. “However, I am fully with Pete Enns, who in his book, Inspiration and Incarnation, thinks the simultaneous humanity and divinity of Christ provides an analogy for how we should view the Bible. The scriptures as we have them are fully divine and fully human.” This is just a briliant insight. It has really helped me maintain my view of scripture as inspiried without having to resort to literalism.


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