I’ve been reading – actually listening to (I picked up the audiobook) – Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian where he outlines, in story form, our culture’s shift from Modernity to Post-Modernity.
He makes some compelling arguments. But I couldn’t help by think to myself as I listened, “Been there. Done that.”
Much of what McLaren describes as “postmodern” is actually good, orthodox, historic Protestantism.
For example, take the bible. McLaren suggests that Christians have been reading the bible like a textbook (which is true for many), a systematic outlay of good, godly, moral behaviour, and as a formula for finding salvation.
But the historic (aka “mainline”) churches have never read the bible that way. As I was taught in seminary: the bible doesn’t give us information about God. It proclaims God’s activity in the world. Scripture doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus, it announces Jesus as saviour. The bible preaches Christ.
I guess I don’t have the same Modernist baggage that many of my evangelical friends have. My brand of Lutheranism has never – for the most part, there are exceptions to every rule – fallen victim to fundamentalism. We’ve never said that the bible is inerrant or infallible. At least not in the way that many evangelicals say it is.
My father-in-law, a New Testament scholar, said that the bible isn’t historically, or factually infallible. But the bible is doctrinally infallible. I still don’t know what that means, especially since there are many differing doctrines within scripture. Which is why we have so many differing denomination, or even factions within churches.
Martin Luther said that the bible is like a “wax nose” that can be twisted in any way a person wants. There’s great wisdom in that. We all have, as, again, Luther puts, it, a “canon within a canon.” Everyone sees some passages as more important than others. Lutheran theology places Paul’s letters, specifically the doctrine of justification, as the key to interpreting scripture.
Mennonites, on the other hand, emphasize the ethical demands of the Sermon on the Mount as the centerpiece of their faith.
For Calvinists, it's Paul’s doctrine of election.
I would contend that NO ONE reads the bible literally. Some passages, yes. But most, they do not. For example, I’ll bet someone a month’s salary that most North American Christians own two coats, despite the CLEAR teaching of scripture.
That’s why it sticks in my craw when some folks condemn others for ignoring biblical teaching, when everyone has passages that they deem more authoritative than others.
I think the bible asks us to open up our imagination to God’s workings in the world. The bible is weird little stories, rugged poetry, moral aphorisms, personal correspondence. It is not for the faint of heart, for it can burn you with its heat.
Do I read the bible literally? No. I take the bible much more seriously than that. I read it not as newspaper accounts, or moral instruction, or even for spiritual enlightenment. I read the bible to find Christ - crucified, risen, and ascended – and in him I find newness of life, today and into eternity.
That’s why I read the bible.