THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 29
Spiritualizing the Bible
The Bible is so important to Christians, yet it is surprising that I have hardly ever, if ever, heard about the method we all use to read and interpret the bible. We talk endlessly about the truth of the Bible but never about how we come to understand that truth. We never speak about the process we go through in trying to understand the words of the Bible and how we make sense of them.
For instance, there is furious argument at present between those who claim that they regard the Bible properly – as the inspired Word of God, and those whom they regard as having a deficient view of the Bible – of not believing in it truly as the Word of God. The conservative evangelicals are claiming that some Bishops ‘don’t believe in the Bible’. This seems a very serious charge as the Bible is obviously the most important book in the world to a Christian of any hue or colour.
So let us examine what goes on when we, as Christians, read the Bible. What actually happens when we read and try to understand verses in the Bible?
One tendency we all have must be noted straight away. This is the tendency to spiritualize the gospels – indeed all parts of the Bible - all the time. We read into the verses of the bible something that we apprehend spiritually. Sometimes such an understanding comes from deep within us, sometimes from without. We read the bible with our ‘spiritualizing capability’ at full alert, ready to see meaning in some story of someone doing or saying something thousands of years ago. And we try to hear what God may be saying to us personally.
For example, we read about Joshua and the Israelites surrounding Jericho (Joshua 6:15-20), marching round until the walls fell flat, and we spiritualize it into some parallel situation in our own lives. From what we read we take heart and decide to press on with our project or action until victory is assured.
Or we read about Ananias and his wife in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 5) keeping back some of the proceeds from the sale of their field and then being shown to be liars - and we may feel convicted in our hearts that we too have not acted with entire transparency in some transaction or other. We then decide that we must adhere to the path of honesty more carefully in future.
Every part of the Bible can be, indeed, is used or ‘spiritualized’ in this way by most of us. Sometimes we may want to use verses or passages to support views that we hold. For example, we might believe that honesty is the best policy and use the story just quoted from Acts as support for our contention.
As we spiritualize the Bible day by day, month by month, year after year, the Bible becomes very precious to us. It becomes a repository and a reminder of all the times when we have heard God speak to us through its pages. It becomes a vital part of our spiritual weaponry. We begin to look to the Bible for help, comfort, challenge, illumination and in many other ways. It becomes very precious to us.
It is important to recognize that it is for this precise reason – that it becomes precious to us - that the bible is so easily ‘twisted’ to mirror our desires. That is what happens repeatedly. People come to the bible to find support for what they already think or believe. They take a verse here and a verse there, and they interpret them in a way that favours their preconceived ideas. Though they may not realize it, they are not so much looking for truth as searching for confirmation of what they already think and believe.
It is to counter this very tendency, which might be termed the human desire to be ‘right’, that conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists fasten on to what they see as a correct interpretation of the Bible and make it mandatory in their belief system. You must believe, they might say, that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Christ, because ‘that is what the words mean’. Or rather seem to mean; that is, mean to them. And so they build up a set of mandatory beliefs. They may be major (‘Christ was physically resurrected’) or less important (‘adult baptism is the only true baptism’). This is not to say that they are right or wrong in what they believe. It is just that they want to get their beliefs fixed and firm, and to do that they choose the verses they think are relevant and fix their interpretation of those verses.
It is important to note that the mindset of some people requires this element of certainty. They cannot abide uncertainty – especially in religious matters. They need to know where they stand. They have a tendency to see things in terms of black or white. Grey is not a favourite colour – they would describe grey as ‘wishy-washy’. They need a clear mandate. Otherwise, they say, how could anyone know where they stand?
There is nothing wrong in them being like this. But there are other Christians who are not like that; who prefer not to try to deduce fixed and inflexible doctrines from a verse here or there. Theirs is a different approach to the Bible – indeed, to life itself.
When you look at the endless list of heresies through the ages, you can appreciate the value of black and white. Right or wrong. In or out. Saved or damned. A clear-cut position protects against heresy and is an attractive proposition – even though it may send some Christians to the stake for burning!
Furthermore, we have to agree that there are some fundamental beliefs which, as far as we can tell, are non-negotiable. Your list might differ from mine. But we all have a set of core beliefs from which we do not want to waver.
Most of those who call themselves Christian would agree on these core beliefs. I am not at this point going to set down what I think these fundamental truths are, but it is useful to label all further beliefs, other than these fundamental beliefs, as ‘peripheral beliefs’. The problems come when we have to decide what is core and what is peripheral.
We guard those parts of the Bible we regard as essential to our own fundamental ‘core’ beliefs, but we hold more lightly to what we think are peripheral beliefs. Were there shepherds in the fields (making it mid summer, not Christmas!)? Well, I don’t know. For me that is peripheral. Did Christ rise from the dead? Well, for me that is a fundamental truth. Yes he did!
Some fundamentalists want to try to maintain that every word of the Bible is literally true. They want to remove any argument by asserting that it all means ‘just what it says’. A kind of WYSIWYG – what you see is what you get! Most Christians today do not go along with this view. Modern scholarship has shown us (most of us) that such a view is untenable.
To protect our fundamental beliefs we guard the relevant verses in the Bible which, we feel, support our views. We ‘believe’ these verses – sometimes believe as literally true – and so we see ourselves as true orthodox Christians. By protecting these verses we feel that we are minimizing heresy. Such verses become, for us, mandatory texts, along with the interpretation we put on them. We say, ‘Well this is obviously true’. And we say this, often unaware of how we have selected what we want to rely on.
Of course it operates in reverse too. Critics of Christianity pick out some of the many contradictions or inconsistencies in the Bible and ask how anyone can be a Christian when their Bible is so flawed. Another example of selective use of verses, and their interpretation!
Let me recapitulate. We have said that we use the Bible as one basis for our belief system (others bases for our belief system are reason and tradition). Because you can use the Bible to justify almost any belief system you choose, within reason, twisting the verses to suit your purpose, some people seek ‘certainty’ by clinging to particular verses and the interpretation they put on those verses. They then say that belief in both their selected verses and on the interpretation they have attached to them is necessary for a person to be a ‘real’ Christian – by which they mean, a Christian like them.
Hence we have the proliferation of churches across the world. Many of which have their own particular set of beliefs/verses/interpretations which they insist on in their members. Baptists concentrate on verses about baptism. Pentecostals get ‘filled by the Spirit’. Methodists talk about gaining ‘assurance’, and Anglicans – well, I am not so sure about Anglicans!
So where does this leave us? Is the Bible hopelessly flawed as a source book for Christian belief when any group of Christians can insist on their own selection of verses, along with their own interpretation of those verses? Is there no way of finding out what we may rely on with confidence?
Well, I believe that the Bible is not ‘flawed’ in any serious sense. Quite the reverse. I believe that the Bible is the Word of God written – from Genesis to Revelation – but it needs the Spirit of God to reveal its truth to us. We misuse it if we try to find security in the literal truth of the words.
If we had only our own intellect to teach us we would go hopelessly wrong. Even with the Holy Spirit to guide us, the insecurity of many Christians pushes them to look for certainty in their own particular interpretation of particular verses.
So how can Christians have a right attitude towards the Bible? I suggest a three-stage process:
As a committed Christian, formulate for yourself what are the basic beliefs on which you rely. Start with ‘I believe there is a God’. Then move on to the person of Jesus Christ. Whom do you think and believe he was? This way you arrive eventually at a short statement of the essential core of your beliefs about Christianity. Then declare that, for now, all else will be regarded as peripheral – always accepting that the Holy Spirit goes on revealing truth to us as long as we are dwellers in time and space. What today you discard, may tomorrow become important to your fundamental beliefs.
The second stage is to refuse to tie your beliefs to a particular verse and its interpretation. Unless the Bible as a whole supports your fundamental beliefs there is something wrong. So make no single verse mandatory – because by doing so you will be fixing your interpretation on that one verse. Other Christians may not be able to hold that particular verse and your interpretation of it together in the way that you can. And it might just be that your interpretation is not the final truth about that verse.
The third stage is to approach every other Christian with an exploratory attitude. By that I mean that you will never try to beat someone over the head with one of your chosen verses. You will never think along the lines that they must accept your interpretation of that particular verse. Instead, lay down your verse(s) alongside their verse(s) and listen together for whatever you can distinguish of the truth. You may even have to go away without either of you catching the vision in the verse(s) of the other person. But you will part in friendship and fellowship and not in resentment and anger. When it comes to peripheral verses – about matters that you do not regard as totally essential for a Christian – you can afford to allow a wide tolerance of disagreement.
Of course other people will take the opposite route – laying down the law, demanding that all conform to their interpretation. For an example of that, look at the position taken by those presuming to object to the views of the Archbishop-elect. They see themselves as sure of the correctness of their selected verses, and their interpretation of those verses. Don’t be put off by such an attitude. You can still have fellowship with such people – until they start to call you a heretic, or sinful, or perverted, or possessed. Then, for your own integrity, you may have to reluctantly step outside.