How we read the Bible says a lot about our view of the Bible. By that, I don’t mean:
- how often you read the Bible (though this is important)
- what version of the Bible you read (though some translations are better than others)
- when you read the Bible (morning, noon, or night)
- what scriptures you read (though we all have our favorites)
- or even: how much Bible you read when you open its pages (a few verses, a few chapters, or a few pages)
All of these are important matters when it comes to reading the Bible — matters I hope you’ll give some thought to. But my bigger question is this: What is your view of inspiration?
That sounds like a big question, like something you should have to go to class to be able to answer. But it’s not, for your view of inspiration is simply another way of saying this: What is your understanding of the Bible? What assumptions do you have when you come to the Bible? What do you expect to happen when you open its pages?
In other words, whether we have thought it through or not, we all have a “working view” of inspiration; we all have something in mind that we expect from scripture when we read it. For example, some possibilities come to mind when I think about the ways a person might approach the Bible:
- The Rule Book approach: With this, a person opens the Bible, expecting to find straightforward commands of God. The goal is simply to read what it says and then go do what it says. The key question here: What rules am I supposed to follow?
- The Hallmark approach: This is where someone looks for, and finds inspirational passages in the Bible. These verses then become the focus and goal of reading the Bible. The key question here: What in the Bible speaks to ME?
- The Interstate approach: What’s the best thing about our highway system? It is smooth, fast, and avoids stops, bumps, and anything that would zig or zag. Sometimes, I think, we take the interstate approach to reading the Bible. To me, this means that we avoid the difficult passages, and smooth over the bumpy stuff. So, we read David & Goliath to our kids, and leave out the decapitation part at the end. We read Jonah and the Whale, but leave out the messiness of chapter 4 (where Jonah says, in essence, God, I would rather die than see those Ninevites receive your grace). We read Acts 21.9 and 1 Timothy 2.12, and don’t wrestle hard enough with the difference between those two texts. The key question here: What’s the simple message here that avoids difficult questions?
- The “Grocery Bag” approach: This idea comes from the writer Eugene Peterson, and it’s based on the bags we use to bring home our groceries. Their job, simply put, is to get the eggs and milk from the store to my fridge; after that, the bags are disposable, recyclable, or, sometimes, reusable. But their use is only temporary. Some read the Bible this way, Peterson says. Someone we love is dying; we pull out comforting texts like Psalm 23 or Revelation 21. Someone is getting married; we read 1 Corinthians 13. Someone we care about is sick; we pull out a passage on prayer and healing. The key question here: What does the Bible have to say to what I am facing right now?
These are just four ways to read the Bible; there are, no doubt, many others. And it’s important to note that all four of these approaches have value: the Bible does give some clear-cut commands; it does have inspirational passages; it does offer a consistent, basic message; it does offer texts for specific times of need. But the Bible isn’t only these things. It is much, much more.
Which leads me to my view of inspiration, a view that I think takes us to the heart of what the Bible is all about. I believe that the Bible’s inspiration is grounded in the God who is behind the Bible. The Bible’s power is in the manifestation of that same God, revealed to us in Jesus and confirmed by the Spirit. So, when I come to the Bible, I come expectantly — believing that in its pages I will find the truth about God, myself, and my world. In reading the Bible, I expect to find words that are inspired to show me the truth. For me, this means that I read scripture:
- narratively, for it is the story of God forming a people. This is a story that begins in the Old Testament with God revealing Himself in numerous ways, but most consistently and clearly through and to the Jewish people.
- decisively; for that same God reveals Himself perfectly through Jesus, as the New Testament makes clear.
- as community-forming; for the purpose of God’s revelation in the Bible is to form a people. Today, this means that God’s Spirit is making a church – the called-out and called-together people of God, who are shaped by God’s Spirit to be the presence of Jesus in this world.
- finally, then, I read the Bible missionally; for the Bible is clear throughout its pages that our God is on a mission. What begins in creation, continues with Abraham and with God’s people, and then comes to all people through Jesus and the mission of the Church. Stories like Jonah’s are a testimony that God isn’t content only to reach people we are comfortable with, even when it makes us, The Comforted, uncomfortable. And so, all through the pages of the Bible, God seems to be ever stretching His people and His world to see things through a “on-a-mission” lens.
So, this is my “working” view of inspiration: that God has a Story to tell, a Story once-for-all revealed in Jesus. This Story now includes you and me, and is a Story that reaches out to every tongue, tribe, people, and nation.
And so, ultimately, the Bible isn’t simply a Story we read, it’s a Story we get to live out. And that, I believe, is ultimately what the Bible is – a Story that we not only read, but one that we also become.