This is the third post in a quick series of posts focused on reading the Bible. The first post asked What is the Bible? Some Introductory Questions, and the second followed up, focusing specifically on Inspiration and Literary Genre in the Bible. If you haven't yet, read them first, and then continue on here with a discussion of what significance (if any) the Bible can or should have for Christians today.
Christians' understanding of the Bible began to change in the 18th century when historians and scholars of language began to analyze the texts in the Bible not for their theological, pastoral, and eschatological content, but as historical documents alone. What they slowly began to find was not only a series of texts that were far from inerrant, in a literal way, but also that the texts were heavily influenced by the political, theological, cultural, and personal biases of their authors. These two realities seriously challenged a Church that had become ossified and arrogant. The Bible had become an object of worship in itself, and the challenges that scholars were raising seemed to threaten Christianity itself. This worship of the Bible, or bibliolatry, is the central feature of contemporary fundamentalist Christianity, and is a serious error; in traditional Christian terminology, it's nothing short of a heresy.
The earliest Biblical critics were all practicing Christians themselves, and were not seeking to tear down the faith at all, but rather to build it up with a more complete understanding of the Scriptures. It took more than two centuries, but today, the Roman Catholic Church and all the mainline Protestant churches accept and encourage historical criticism as central for a proper understanding of Christian history and belief. By admitting that the Bible was written by human beings, and is as susceptible to flaw as any other created thing, real Christian faith is strengthened rather than weakened. Bibliolatry, like any other form of idolatry, is mutually exclusive to the actual worship of, understanding of, and relationship with God. God is not contained by any book or creed. Any attempt to limit God in that way must be rejected as awful theology.
So biblical scholars can trace the arc of thought through the Judean prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. They can explain much of the language through historical context rather than resorting to some sort of inbreaking divine voice. Paul's letters are brought into clearer focus. They quickly show themselves to be pragmatic, advising documents with a lot of theological loose ends. They leave a lot of questions unanswered, and they omit ideas and doctrines that will become essential later. The gospels are revealed to be differing accounts of Jesus' life, whose content is drawn not only from oral accounts decades removed from Jesus' death, but also from the theological and ecclesiastic opinions of their writers.
In short, any serious analysis of the Bible reveals imperfections and contradictions galore. Any attempt to hold it up as an inerrant document becomes utterly preposterous. But I've claimed that this strengthens rather than weakens Christianity. How can this be?
I've already talked about how insisting on literal Biblical inerrancy leads to the grave error of bibliolatry. But it also, as I mentioned in a previous post, actually strips the book of most of its meaning. Are we to read Jesus parables literally? When Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, are we supposed to horde mustard in preparation? How are we to read the Song of Solomon, an intensely erotic poem from the Tanakh (the Old Testament)? How do we make sense of the intricate sacrificial demands laid out in the Torah, the first five books of the Tanakh? A literal reading in any of these examples would yield all sorts of madness, and would prevent us from understanding the deeper truths being expressed, truths sublime enough that they cannot be expressed literally. That's not to say that there aren't verses, chapters, and even entire books that can't be read literally. Jesus and Paul both have plenty of direct, pragmatic advice to offer, as do the writers of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. But it's clear that each book and chapter must be read carefully and interpreted according to the sort of writing that it is.
So this recognition that not every book of the Bible can be read literally enriches Christian study by opening up all sorts of avenues of interpretation that were closed before. The fact that the Bible is far from inerrant doesn't detract from its value. It's a record of peoples' struggles with God and attempts to both understand and serve God. It's a messy book because it records a messy history. There are gems of knowledge there, but they have to be sought out. A facile, superficial reading will leave you empty handed if you come to the Bible looking for anything of value.
Recognition of the limited, created nature of the Bible also allows us to step back and see the struggles of its writers as part of a longer narrative of humanity slowly finding its way forward. As Paul understood things, Jesus' resurrection wasn't the end of history at all, but rather the "first fruits" of the coming justification (1 Cor. 15). Christianity is not a reassurance of smug complacency, but rather a call to join in the tearful, confusing work of bringing the rule of heaven to earth. The Bible shows can show is the way in both its truths as well as its errors, reminding us to be humble and thoughtful, and obedient to nothing--not a book, not a church, not a leader--but God alone.