"But the Bible says it plainly!" "Read Leviticus!" "God said it. I believe it. That settles it!" "Paul says it's not natural." "The Bible says what it means and means what it says!" "God's word is God's word." Have you ever heard these or similar phrases when trying to respond to homophobic Christians with the good news of God's love for all of us? Such answers can make it difficult for us to pass along the healing we have found, and can challenge our own trust in God. What, after all, can we say in response? Won't any answer make us sound as though we don't take the Bible seriously? And do we secretly fear that they might be right?
We need not worry. Challenging Bibliolatry (the idolization of the Bible) is really a way to put the Good Book in its proper place and call it what it is: a source of abiding spiritual wisdom inspired by God but given us by fallible human beings, to be used in our own growing relationship with the Holy. The Bible is not God, nor is it a substitute for God. For all that is valuable in the Bible, it has limits that impact our ability - and anyone else's ability - to understand it fully, and it requires certain strategies if we would mine it for its deepest gifts. In this essay, I discuss some themes and ideas that we can use in our spiritual self-defense work when we respond to street evangelists, childhood ministers, our families and anyone else who might use the Bible as a weapon.
How sure can we be that the Bible has come through its multiple translations intact? The Hebrew Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Jesus spoke in Aramaic (a language about which we have insufficient information, to say the least) and the Christian Testament was written in Greek. The entire Bible was then translated into Latin, then into old English, then into the dozens of contemporary English translations we have available today (e.g., King James Version, New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, etc.). Biblical scholars already think Mary's virginity might be a mistranslation of Hebrew into Greek; how many less important concepts suffered in translation? The word "homosexual" didn't even exist in the English language until 1892 and did not appear in any edition of the Bible until the 1940s. Are we sure about what the authors meant? And how do we reconcile the multiple current translations? Which one is "right" on any given issue? How is it possible to tell?
It is simply untrue to say that liberals interpret the Bible and fundamentalists do not. Everyone interprets the Bible; when we open it up and derive any meaning from the text at all we are engaged in interpretation. One aspect of what it means to be an imperfect human being (the word "sin" derives from an archers term meaning "to miss the mark") is that we are, each of us, socially located; none of us gets to have a "view from nowhere." We all have assumptions and agendas, regardless of our theology, politics and social values. We cannot read any book, the Bible included, without those agendas and assumptions playing a role. This does not make the Bible less useful; if anything, it makes it more useful - if we are willing to name and claim our perspectives and see how they color the story for us. This means, however, acknowledging our prejudices and asking whether we might have brought them to the Bible, rather than simply finding them there. How we interpret the Bible has a great deal to do with how seriously we take the notion that the Bible must be understood in light of the social context of its authors.
Like us, the authors of the Bible were fallible, socially located and had strong assumptions and agendas when they wrote. Therefore, for us to understand what they are trying to say, we need to understand the social context in which they lived and ascertain how similar or different it is from our own. Here, we may need to be open to the idea of continuing revelation, about which I will say more below. For example, the command to the Jews to procreate and not to "waste seed" (Gen. 38: 7-10) made sense for a small tribe trying to stay alive as a minority group in a hostile environment; how much sense does it make today as we risk exhausting our planetary resources through overpopulation? What current Biblical translations call "homosexuality" is based largely on forms of ancient behavior that are not continuous with our experiences of inherent homosexuality and bisexuality lived out in loving mutual relationships today (though the experiences of Jonathan and David described in 1 and 2 Samuel, and of Ruth and Naomi described in Ruth 1 are certainly suggestive).
If the author of Genesis 1 was trying to write a scientific treatise, he or she was mistaken in assuming that night and day could exist independently of the earth's relation to the sun. There is also no archeological evidence for the global flood described in Genesis 6-8. Fortunately, the Bible was never intended to be a biology, archeology or geology textbook; we know this because our notions of science were not part of the worldview of the cultures that wrote the Bible. However, this means that we should not try to find certain information in Scripture, and this arguably includes information about our psychosexual makeup as well as information about our solar system.
It ought to give literalists pause that the two creation stories (Gen. 1:1-2:4, Gen. 2:5ff) contradict each other on a number of points, that there are three separate and irreconcilable versions of the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20, Exod. 34, Deut. 5), and that the gospels present conflicting accounts of the year of Jesus' birth, the description of his baptism and the empty tomb narrative.
It also ought to concern literalists that the Bible has frequently been used at cross purposes, exactly because of these internal inconsistencies. Scripture has been used to justify exploiting and respecting the environment (Gen. 1: 28 vs. Lev. 25: 2-5 and Job 12: 7-10), to oppose and justify war (Exod. 20: 13, Psalm 34: 14, Is. 2: 4, Mt. 5: 9, 26: 52, Lk. 6: 35. James 3: 18 vs. Exod. 15: 3, Num. 31, Deut. 20: 4, Eph. 6: 17), to justify and oppose prayer in public schools (1 Tim. 2: 8 vs. Mt. 6: 5-8), to support and oppose capital punishment (Gen. 9: 6, Exod. 21: 23-5, Lev. 20: 9-10, 24: 19-20 vs. Mt. 5: 38-48, Jn. 8: 3-9), to support and oppose the ordination of women (Lk. 24: 10, Jn. 4: 28-9, Gal. 3: 28, Lk. 24: 10 vs. 1 Cor. 11: 3, 7-9, 1 Tim. 2: 11-12), and to justify and oppose slavery (Exod. 21: 2-6, Lev. 25: 44-6, Col. 4: 1, Eph. 6: 5 vs. Exod. 21: 16, Deut. 23: 15, Mt. 7: 12, Lk. 10: 25-37. Acts 17: 26, Rom. 13: 9, Gal. 3: 28). With such a history, how could anyone who actually read the Bible claim that it was internally consistent and therefore to be taken literally in its entirety? Nor should we expect it to be consistent in the way a single book would be, for it is in fact a library of books, written over hundreds of years by different authors in different communities with different agendas.
The spirit versus the letter
If in fact we strove to take the Bible literally and to derive wisdom from every verse and line, we should be concerned to find it sanctioning genocide (1 Sam. 15: 18), applauding the mauling of boys by bears for teasing a prophet (2 Kings 2: 23-24), recording Jesus' anti-Gentile insult (Mt. 15: 26) and demanding the execution of blasphemers (Lev. 24: 13-16). Fortunately, we know better than to actually take the Bible at its word when it proposes something inhumane. We don't encourage people to cut off their hands or gouge out their eyes in the face of temptation (Mt. 5: 22-29). (But then we also ignore some of the less morally troubling texts; most Christians do not keep the Sabbath - Friday evening to Saturday evening - as commanded in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Exod. 20: 8-11), which means that we are breaking one of the Ten Commandments! Catholics call their priests "Father," despite Jesus' words on the matter (Mt. 23: 9), and antigay Christians appear to be ignoring part of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 7: 1-5) and Sermon on the Plain (Lk. 6: 36)).
Ultimately, the best use we can make of the Bible is, as Jesus and Paul did, to focus on the spirit rather than the letter when the two contradict each other. The Bible, taken as a whole, speaks to us of God's love and Jesus' liberatory powers; some specific texts communicate this heart of Scripture, while other texts focus on entirely different, and sometimes quite horrifying, matters. If we are striving to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves, if we are open to God's awesome power and inclination to forgive, if we celebrate Jesus' welcome and destruction of inhumane boundaries, we are reading the Bible about as well as we possibly could be. We do well to remember that Jesus rejected both legalistic prooftexting and pompous so-called piety about Biblical practice (e.g., Lk. 18: 10-14), and to model ourselves on him in this way.
If God is still alive and well and calling us into right relationship with each other and with Godself, we need to take seriously the idea that the Bible, which was written in a particular place and time, will be superseded at times by the "yet more light" (a Presbyterian phrase) that God elects to offer us. We acknowledge continuing revelation when we consider that slavery, which was morally acceptable to most Biblical authors, is unacceptable to us today, or that 1 Tim. 2: 11-14 forbids women speaking in church, yet many women are capable and inspired pastors today, spreading the message of God's love and forgiveness. We may be grateful also that we do not shy away from dealing with the moral complexities and spiritual implications of phenomena that simply did not exist in Biblical times, such as genetic engineering, global warming, the Internet and multinational capitalism. What the Biblical authors could not conceive of they could not address, but we need to address these matters and we trust that God is with us now to help us address them. Similarly, we know more about homosexuality, bisexuality and transgenderism now than the Biblical authors knew, and we can respond to our new knowledge with a level of understanding and acceptance that was not part of the Biblical authors' worldview.
Ultimately, the answer to the question, "whose Bible is it anyway?" is that the Bible is for all of us, for as many people as choose to read it and derive wisdom, grace and comfort from its stories, exhortations and reassurances. The Bible, like the Kingdom of God, is not the special property of the literalists who condemn us; it's for each of us to wrestle with, as Jacob wrestled with God, so that we may be put out of joint and then blessed (Gen. 32: 24-29). Those who read with the arrogance of certainty that they and they alone have the "right read" on Scripture are crowding out the "yet more light" from God that they and we always need, and that is - praise God - always available.
These, then, are some ideas that we might use in our interaction with people who use the Bible to condemn us. We may well not be able to convince them of our correctness; they may not even be willing to listen to us, but at least we can be prepared to offer our perspectives in humility and trust. If they will not receive our perspective, we may want to remember Jesus' words on the matter, courtesy of the New Revised Standard Edition translation: "If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave..." (Mt. 10: 14). We know where we are, now and always, welcomed, and for that gracious welcome we give our deepest thanks.
John J. McNeill
Gary David Comstock
Peter J. Gomes