When Debating the Bible Isn’t Fair for Anyone

Bible debate fight

I’m no longer in the reformed theology camp. That isn’t a shock to anyone who knows me. I left it after being immersed in reformed theology in seminary.

Nevertheless, I would lose every debate to a reformed theologian.

But then every reformed theologian would lose a debate with me.

Here’s the thing: We’re both playing by different rules, and until we can admit that, we’re going to keep talking past each other.

We most certainly begin with different experiences. There’s no escaping the stories that send us speeding off in different directions. Sometimes we crash into each other, able to only see the present, and fighting tooth and nail against what is before us instead of all that has preceded it.

However, the main difference is that I play by different rules when I read and interpret the Bible compared to five or ten years ago. I could handle ambiguity and mystery, but now I’ve realized that comfort with uncertainty isn’t enough.

I needed to understand the role of creatively listening to the ways God speaks through scripture without necessarily looking for scripture to spell everything out.

That is not a very evangelical sentence. It most certainly doesn’t fit with many of the conservative reformed traditions I know.

I use the metaphors of blueprints and paintings in A Christian Survival Guide to describe these two ways of reading the Bible.  Here’s the full explanation:

“Sometimes I’ve used the Bible as if it was a blueprint that spelled out the precise way to live as a Christian. I expected everyone to believe and practice everything just like me. I’m sure you’ve attended churches where you feel tremendous pressure to conform in all areas. I once met a pastor whose church was considering firing him because he didn’t believe in the rapture. Other churches put pressure on families to conform to their specific biblical guidelines. I’ve had my own narrow theological guidelines that I’ve used to neatly divide my friends into insiders and outsiders.

Is the Bible supposed to do that? Does it give us specific guidelines to follow in any and every situation?

I have since found that the Bible functions more like a work of art.

We all know that paintings, poems, or stories have a range of meaning and can be interpreted in several ways within that range. As new generations view a painting or read a book, they can appreciate what it meant to the original author, what it meant to previous generations, and what it means to them in the present.

A painting can accurately portray an actual event. A poem can communicate a truth. Then again, there is a significant difference between a portrait that aims to capture a precise image of a person and an impressionist painting of a wheat field on a warm summer day where the wind gently courses through the heads of grain. In art and poetry, truths aren’t always dropped on us in plain, bold letters. We have to talk about them with others and think about them, returning to them over time to ponder the meaning further.”

There’s no doubt that sometimes a plain, word for word, literal reading of the Bible leads to a direct, unavoidable conclusion. I think we all try to read the Bible like this sometimes.

A conservative may argue that Jesus is fully divine and human because he stated, “I and the father are one,” adding that he was born of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit.

A liberal/progressive may say, “Christians should not support war because Jesus commanded us to love our enemies.”

Both adopt simple, literal reading of passages. Neither strikes me as a stretch, and both represent New Testament teachings that are worth affirming.

However, there are ways some conservatives explain away Christian opposition to war. There are ways some liberals explain away the divinity of Christ.

You would think that a clear, easily applied blueprint would lead all honest inquirers to the truth. It’s no surprise that followers of Jesus are fragmented and divided over how to read and interpret the Bible, but if we want understand why we are fragmented so much, we need to look at our starting assumptions about the Bible.

We all believe that the Bible is telling us how to do something, but we aren’t agreed on what that something is. If we view the Bible as more of a painting than a blueprint, then we have a place to begin:

The first and really only “how to” the Bible offers is this: “How to meet with God.” Scripture is a series of paintings that show how people have met with God and points us toward ways we can interact with God—through the mediation of the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit. However, we aren’t necessarily supposed to duplicate the details of these paintings precisely.

Just as a Picasso would feel out of place with medieval iconography, so too would a series of realist landscapes raise eyebrows in a museum filled with Jackson Pollock paintings and other modern works that defy a predetermined form.

The interpretive work of the Bible is a creative process where the Holy Spirit meets us in the pages of scripture and guides us closer to the presence and, consequently, will of God.

My more reformed friends begin at a different place, arguing that the Bible is God’s revelation for us that tells us how to live—that’s at least what I was told while immersed in conservative reformed theology. If you want to know how to conduct yourself, structure your church, or set up your family, look no further than the words of scripture for your inspired guide.

We’re both starting with different questions and assumptions about what the Bible is and how it guides us. When we discuss these differences, we could sell each other short if we make the mistake of assuming we’re both starting with the same assumptions and expectations about the Bible.

There are pejorative statements like, “Progressives have a ‘low’ view of scripture.” But then it’s really just a different view of scripture.

As my view of scripture has shifted from a blueprint to a painting, I’ve found that I take the Bible far more seriously now than ever before.  I believe that the Bible is a tool of the Spirit for ushering God’s people into his presence. I believe that the Bible is a guide for living, but it’s not necessarily a word for word blueprint for all people at all times.

There are times when we may interpret the Bible in a more straightforward, blueprint sort of way, but that doesn’t negate the fact that oftentimes we can’t simply drop the stories of another people at another time in history directly into today’s context.

If anything, the Bible shows us a God who is always reaching out to all kinds of people, using actions, symbols, and customs that are familiar to them.

Need a temple with sacrifices?  You got it.

Need to switch things up for the exile? No worries.

Want to obey the Law perfectly? Stop worrying about obeying the Law perfectly and just love people, showing mercy and compassion—even if that requires breaking the Law.

Ready for me to welcome all nations? Let’s drop mandatory circumcision and those rules about animals sacrificed to idols.

The Bible does not reveal a God of blueprints.

If there’s any blueprint for how God acts, it’s that God rips up blueprints, sets a table before us, and says, “Hey, let’s talk.”

Pick up A Christian Survival Guide to read more about how and why we read the Bible (see the chapter “The Bible: A Source of Crisis and Hope”) as well as how we interpret the Bible today (see the chapter “The Bible and Culture: Less Lobster, More Bonnets”).