Today we continue blogging through Pete Enns’s new book on the Bible.
As I’ve said in our recent posts on The Bible and the Believer, one of my tasks this year will be to work on answering two questions that Pete raises regularly in his writings and podcasts:
- What is the Bible?
- What is the Bible for?
Last time we discussed Enns’s point that the Bible is designed to lead us to wisdom. It is not designed to give us “answers” or to be a “rulebook” or “instruction manual’ for life. As Pete summarizes:
Rather than providing us with information to be downloaded, the Bible holds out for us an invitation to join an ancient, well-traveled, and sacred quest to know God, the world we live in, and our place in it. Not abstractly, but intimately and experientially. (p. 10)
In subsequent sections Pete Enns talks about the ambiguous nature of much of the Bible’s teaching, even in parts that we might think of as “clear instructions” — such as the book of Proverbs or the Law. Just a moment’s closer thought reminds us that even legal statutes must be interpreted and applied, and that this is the task of wisdom. When the Ten Commandments say, “Honor your father and mother,” or “Keep the sabbath,” the inevitable question is “How do we do that?” Turns out these “clear instructions” aren’t so clear and simple after all.
Then Pete takes up the idea that the Bible is a diverse book. He suggests that this is a key to understanding how to approach the Bible’s teaching and instructions.
…The diversity we see in the Bible reflects the inevitably changing circumstances of the biblical writers across the centuries as they grappled with their sacred yet ancient and ambiguous tradition.
…The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) exhibits this same characteristic of the sacred past being changed, adapted, rethought, and rewritten by people of faith, not because they disrespected the past, but because they respected it so much they had to tie it to their present.
…The Bible isn’t a book that reflects one point of view. It is a collection of books that records a conversation—even a debate—over time.
When I began to see that for myself, a lot of things fell into place about the Bible’s purpose and what it means to read it with the eyes of faith. When we accept the Bible as the moving, changing, adaptive organism it is, we will more readily accept our own sacred responsibility to engage the ancient biblical story with wisdom, to converse with the past rather than mimic it—which is to follow the very pattern laid out in the Bible itself.
• pp. 76-78
This is the understanding of scripture that Michael Spencer wrote about in his classic essay, “A Conversation in God’s Kitchen.” He likens the Bible to the “Great Books,” which brought together significant writings from the history of the Western world in a set that allowed for a “conversation” to occur between the diverse voices across history yet also present an overall metanarrative we call “Western Civilization.”
The authors suggested we approach these books not as a single narrative, or as an education by installment, but as a great, roaring, unruly conversation across the ages. Greek dramatists debating with English scientists. Russian novelists sparring with German psychologists. Gibbon debating Homer. Augustine versus Tolstoy. It was a conversation that never occurred, but was allowed to occur by bringing all these writings together, and then studying them to hear what each writer had to say.
This idea, of a great conversation taking place over time and culture, and then selected and presented for my benefit, has become my dominant idea of what is the Bible. It has proven increasingly helpful in a number of ways.
The great conversation model has allowed me to jettison any defense of the Bible as single book whose human origins and methodologies present significant difficulties that must be explained. For instance, I view the Bible as a selection of purely human literary creations. I may lay aside my faith, as many critics do, and study the Biblical material purely in their historical and cultural settings. This eliminates the need to force the Bible to be divine in origin, and gives me the freedom to hear each Biblical writer saying what he/she had to say in the way he/she chose to say it.
Or I may read the Bible with my eyes, mind and heart alive to the faith that is at the center of the Biblical conversation. The humanity of the conversation is not an obstacle, but an invitation to understand the Bible even as we understand ourselves and our histories, experiences and cultures.
The rich diversity of the Bible is frequently lost in our fear that seeing a book as exactly what it appears to be will ruin the inspiration and divine authority of the book. Is God so small that the humanity of a text matters to His use of it? Further, the particular “voice” or style the text uses to talk about God may come to us in ways that are strange and uncomfortable to modern ideas of reality and truth. But if we are listening to a conversation and not predetermining what it must be, these factors are almost meaningless.
The Bible is “timeless,” not because it is characterized by propositions and teachings that transcend the various times, places, and circumstances in which its different parts were written (“timeless truths”), but precisely because of what Pete Enns calls “its unwavering commitment to adaptation over time” (p. 80). The Bible was not written to us, but it was written for us and for people in all generations and cultures. In order for the Bible to speak to us, we must take words written for others in vastly different circumstances and seek God’s wisdom to know how to walk with God faithfully in our own day.
The Bible shows us that obedience to God is not about cutting and pasting the Bible over our lives, but seeking the path of wisdom—holding the sacred book in one hand and ourselves, our communities of faith, and our world in the other in order to discern how the God of old is present here and now. We respect the Bible best when we take that process seriously enough to own it for ourselves… (p. 82)