I grew up in a church that thought very highly of the Bible. We had Sword Drills in Sunday School. Some of you know what I am talking about; they were called Sword Drills because Ephesians 6:17 says that the Sword of the Spirit is the Word of God. So the Bible is your sword, and in a sword drill, the teacher or leader would say something like “Present Swords,” and you would hold your Bible out like so. They would then call out a scripture, and the contestants, being the students, would look up the scripture. It was like a race to see who could find a Bible verse first, and you became well acquainted with the order and structure of the Bible in the process.
I remember the Bible I had when I was a boy. It was the Revised Standard Version – we weren’t hung up on the King James, like some churches. It was black leather or probably bonded leather, and it had a zipper. My name was embossed on the front. The Bible had an almost magical quality, and you treated it with great respect. I would not have thought of marking or underlining in the Bible.
Later, as a high school student and into college, I took Bible study more seriously. I had a New English Bible, a new translation that had come out. I would sometimes underline and make notes in the margins. The Bible was maybe less of a holy object and more of a guide book, a tool for study, a way of growing closer to God.
In my college years I started to think more critically and broadly about the nature of the Bible. This was spurred in part by thought about issues such as the role of women in the church and the relationship between science and faith as well by religion courses I took. It also helped that I had friends from other traditions, like Roman Catholics and Seventh-Day Adventists. I took a religion class with a Shia Muslim from Iran – there were a lot of Iranian students at Evansville who had come there during the time of the Shah. Being in a more diverse religious environment can lead you to think more deeply about your own faith.
There was a lot of talk at the time about the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture. The implication was that Christians had always had these beliefs about the Bible, but nobody spoke of the Bible in this way until the late 1800’s, and not many spoke of the Bible in this way until the 1970’s. Inerrancy and infallibility are clever fighting words, because to disagree makes it sound like you are saying the Bible is full or errors and lies.
Inerrancy means that the original manuscripts of the Bible were completely God-inspired and totally free of any error. Some pushed it to what is called the plenary verbal inspiration of scripture – that God dictated each and every word to the Biblical writers – so there was really no human thought or input into the scriptures.
All of this referred to the original manuscripts of the books of the Bible, but none of those are surviving. The earliest New Testament manuscript we have is from the first half of the second century, and it only contains parts of John chapter 18. All of the earliest New Testament manuscripts contain only fragments of books; the oldest complete New Testament we have is from around the year 350. I can remember this big debate over the inerrancy of scripture, but it was essentially a theoretical debate over original manuscripts that didn’t even exist.
Infallibility meant that the Bible is always right, that it cannot be wrong. For many this extends not just to matters of theology and doctrine but to science and history and psychology and geography. Well, the best information I have is that the earth is not flat. And I realized fairly quickly that those who claimed to believe in an inerrant, infallible Bible nevertheless did plenty of interpretation and fancy footwork in order to do an end run on troublesome passages.
There was the televangelist who preached against divorce as a terrible sin, but then changed his mind as he himself went through a divorce. His Biblical interpretation changed. There was the hellfire evangelist who came through college campuses in the early 80’s, Brother Max. Brother Max said that a woman’s place was the home, but come to find out his wife was out working to support the family while he was on campus preaching at the sinful college kids. Brother Max had some kind of convoluted answer for that.
More than this, it seemed to me that in many cases a literal reading of the Bible just couldn’t hold water – it was intellectually dishonest. It seemed to me that all of scripture did not have the same authority, and all of it was not meant literally. There are plenty of sections that we don’t follow – that even those who claim to take everything literally and live by it don’t follow.
Is anyone here wearing a wool/cotton or cotton/polyester blend fabric? Leviticus tells us that blended fabrics are an affront to God. Does anybody like shrimp? Or better yet, does anybody here like a good pork tenderloin sandwich? Well, shame on you: if you eat pork you are violating God’s law. Based on the Bible, a Bacon Festival is an unimaginable sinful event.
Did you ever get in any trouble as a teenager? Do you know any unruly youth? (that phrase is kind of redundant, isn’t it?) If people followed the Bible literally, I’m afraid that very few of us would be around, because the Bible clearly says in Leviticus that unruly youth are to be stoned at the city gates. I have heard people say, in reference to the Bible, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” but in a lot of cases they don’t really believe it and that doesn’t really settle it.
Then there were those stories that seemed just too dramaticized. Was a man named Jonah really swallowed by a great fish and then after three days barfed up out of the fish’s belly? Did God really give Satan permission to kill all 10 of Job’s children, saying you have to spare Job but go ahead and kill everybody else for all I care? Maybe Biblical books like Jonah and Job are not to be read as literal history so much as something like parables, stories that convey deep truths to us.
Increasingly, it seemed to me that you couldn’t just treat each book of the Bible in exactly the same way. They have different purposes, different intents, different styles. And the fact is, the Bible is not one book, but a collection of books, some passed on orally for centuries before being written over a period of hundreds of years.
The gospels have differences among them. Take the story of Simon and Andrew following Jesus. As the Gospel of John tells the story, Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist. So, it seems, was his brother Simon. One day John saw Jesus, and said that Jesus was the true Messiah. John sent Andrew to go and follow Jesus. Andrew brought his brother, and Jesus immediately chose Simon to be his protégé.
The Gospel of Matthew tells a somewhat different story. Jesus came to a fishing village, saw Simon and Andrew at work, and asked them to follow him as “fishers of people.” The Matthew and John accounts don’t fit together.
If you understand the Bible as 100% literal truth, historically accurate by today’s standards of history (which, it might be said, are very different from the understanding of our ancient forbears), then these differences are a problem.
But what I came to understand was that the Bible is not intended as a book of history. Rather, the Bible is a book of meaning. To treat the Bible as a historical factbook actually diminishes it. The Bible is a wonderful book filled with poetry, instruction, letters, parables, hymns, the struggles and victories of the community, and towering stories of faith. To read all of the Bible as a book of historical facts or a science textbook would cause us to miss the point.
Matthew and John each speak to the awesome reality that two generations after Jesus died, Andrew and Simon were still remembered among those who had left everything to follow Jesus.
That is what is amazing here: they left everything to follow. They didn’t simply choose a place to call their “church home,” or a place to get married or to make an occasional charitable contribution. They had left their jobs, their homes, their previous loyalties, all that was familiar -- in Simon’s case, even his name – they had left everything to follow Jesus, not knowing where that would take them.
This was total commitment. This was “all-in,” putting everything on the line for Jesus – who was, remember, still a stranger to them.
And then there is us. We want to hold back. We want to hedge our bets. Sometimes we want just enough religion to inoculate us against the real thing. The story of these first disciples puts to shame our rather feeble ideas of what it means to follow Jesus.
The calling of Andrew and Simon is a wonderful, powerful, inspiring story that challenges us deeply today. But if you simply read this as historical reporting and try to somehow explain the discrepancies between John and Matthew, you are missing the point.
The Bible is a disorderly collection of 66 books, first told orally and then put to paper over a period of 3000 years. It is written in ancient Hebrew and a corrupt form of ancient Greek. It contains a whole gamut of different genres of literature. There is a history of centuries of interpretation that has often been shallow and self-serving. This is a complex book, and understanding the message of scripture is not always easy. Interpreting scripture requires humility.
There are dangers in interpreting the Bible. One danger is Bibliolatry - worshiping the Bible and making it an object of veneration.
Symbols are an important way that we convey meaning. The flag is a symbol of our country. It is more than a piece of fabric. If somebody were to burn a flag, wow, that would get our attention. We would be upset. We would be offended.
In communion, the bread and cup are more than just Wonder Bread and Welchade. A cross is more than just a piece of wood or metal. Symbols matter.
I remember a wedding I was in, while in college. A couple of friends, Sally and Ron, were getting married at Sally’s home church in Cincinnati. When it came time to light the unity candle, Sally dropped the lit taper that she was using to light the unity candle. She dropped it right on the open Bible on the communion table. Immediately I had this image of the Bible going up in flames at your wedding.
The Bible is more than just another book, it is a powerful symbol. Presidents are not sworn in with their hand on the Miriam-Webster dictionary or Moby Dick or The Hunger Games, they are sworn in on the Bible.
The problem with such symbols is that we can confuse the symbol for that to which it points and wind up worshiping the symbol itself. We can make the Bible an object of worship. We can make the Bible into an idol. But we don’t worship the Bible; we worship the God to whom the Bible points.
Fredrick Buechner writes,
If you look at a window, you see flyspecks, dust, the crack where Junior’s Frisbee hit it. If you look through a window, you see the world beyond. Something like this is the difference between those who see the Bible as a Holy Bore and those who see it as the Word of God which speaks out of the depths of an almost unimaginable past into the depths of ourselves.The Bible itself is not the point.
Another danger of interpretation is literalism. I’ve already mentioned some of the places in the Bible where a literal interpretation can lead us astray.
The great preacher and theologian Howard Thurman told about his grandmother, who was born a slave:
My regular chore was to do all of the reading for my grandmother – she could neither read nor write … With a feeling of great temerity I asked her one day why it was that she would not let me read any of the Pauline letters. What she told me I shall never forget. ‘During the days of slavery’, she said, ‘the master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves … Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul. At least three or four times a year he used as a text: “Slaves be obedient to your masters … as unto Christ.” Then he would go on to show how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would never read that part of the Bible.A literal interpretation can sometimes contradict the message of the gospel. Peter Gomes said,
Language is not an end but a means, and the end is communication with meaning and significance. The language of the Bible is meant always to point us to a truth beyond the text, a meaning that transcends the particular and imperfectly understood context of the original writers, and our own prejudices and parochialisms we bring to the text. Literalism is not part of the solution to this problem – literalism is the problem.The Bible offers us guidance, inspiration, challenge, hope, correction. It can bring wisdom and healing. Written far in the past, God still uses scripture to speak to us today. The Bible is the Church’s book. When we gather for worship, words from the Bible are read and spoken and sung. We love the Bible and cherish the Bible. But we do not worship the Bible. We worship the living God, to whom the Bible points. Amen.