I wish it were easy.
I wish we could all just open our Bibles to the table of contents, find the subject we are interested in, read it once, then move on to live accordingly.
Some people seem to think it’s that easy. The Bible is God’s Word. Its sense is plain. If you understand it rightly, you will always understand it the way I do.
It’s not that easy.
On countless matters, Christians (not to mention Jews and Mormons who also hold all or part of the Christian Bible sacred) disagree on what the Bible means, and thus what we are supposed to believe and how we are supposed to behave. To one degree or another, according to one theory or another, all of us consider the Bible to be Spirit-inspired writing and authoritative for faith and life.
How so? That’s the sticky wicket.
Quick review: Human beings wrote the Bible across a span of about 1,500 years. They either lived the events they described and reflected upon them, or they were close to those who did live those events, or they wrote down once and for all the stories that had been kept alive orally before then. The book didn’t drop out of heaven like a special delivery from an Amazon drone — from God’s lips to human ears to scribal pen.[quote align=”right” color=”#000000″]To say that you “take the Bible literally” can only mean that you read the symbolic parts symbolically; otherwise you are not reading them literally, you are just reading them wrongly.[/quote]
The Bible is more like a library than a book. It contains different types of literature: history, poetry, law, narrative, prophecy and proverbial wisdom, to name a few. Just as you can’t read a recipe like you would read a novel, so you can only understand the Bible according to the form of literature you are reading. So to say that you “take the Bible literally” can only mean that you read the symbolic parts symbolically; otherwise you are not reading them literally, you are just reading them wrongly.
In his helpful book “Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today,” United Methodist minister Adam Hamilton suggests that there are three broad categories that passages fit into. First, those that reflect the timeless will of God for human beings; for instance, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Second, those that reflect God’s will in a particular time but not for all time; this may include ritual law of the Old Testament. And third, those that reflect the culture and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will; and here slavery comes to mind. Figuring out what belongs in which category is often difficult and debatable.
Reading the Bible alongside others, keeping your heart and mind open, and seeking to understand it with the aid of God’s Spirit will take us most of the way toward agreement on most matters. We will always wrestle with some things, even as we do today — about the death penalty, the role of women, or gay marriage. If it were easy, it wouldn’t take faith and it would hardly be worth it. Things that are worth it — like love, say — are worth it precisely because they take effort.
When Jesus was asked to summarize the Bible (the Law and the Prophets), he said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
We should start and end there.