It could be said that one of the great bastions of American Evangelicalism – or perhaps I should say, American Fundamentalism – is the idea of reading the Bible literally. Whether you’re a Christian or not, you’ve probably heard it all before. The Bible is the Word of God, therefore everything it says must be taken “literally” (scare-quotes are intentional). To be fair, I understand where this emphasis on Biblical literalism comes from. Coming off the heels of the Protestant Reformation – which championed the great truth of Sola Scriptura (contrary to popular opinion, this does not mean Protestants affirm Scripture alone, but what is meant instead is that all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture) – the Western church was soon met with a new opponent: theological liberalism. At the root of this new religion – and it is a new religion – is the assertion that my own intellect has the right to choose what I want to keep from Scripture and what I want to reject.
In its attempt to hold on to historic Christian orthodoxy, American Evangelicalism – and soon, its fundamentalist counterparts – began to champion Biblical literalism. Biblical literalists will say, “We have no right to pick and choose what we want out of the Bible, after all, it is the Word of God. Therefore, we must read the Bible literally and do everything it says.” I understand where this idea comes from. I do. And I want to be as fair and gracious to its proponents as possible.
The problem is, I strongly disagree with it.
Not a week goes by where I don’t see a Facebook post, a news article, or a comment section with people debating the subject matters of Biblical literalism. Some of the most common arguments against Biblical literalism go something like this:
- Jesus says to serve the poor. A lot of Christians don’t serve the poor, but seem to be interested in telling other people what not to do. If they read their own Bibles, maybe they’d get their act together.
- Why do Christians think they can tell other people what is moral and ethical? Their Bible says that you shouldn’t eat shellfish or wear clothing of mixed fibers – they’re all a bunch of hypocrites.
- Why are they so concerned about marriage and sexual ethics? A bunch of people in the Old Testament were polygamists, so why isn’t that an adequate form of marriage? All Christians do is pick and choose what they like from the Bible.**
I’m sure you’ve read something similar to what I’ve summarized above. Yet, its often not the non-Christians who say the most offensive or dismissive comments in these contexts, its the professed Christians. The most common responses I find from Christians in these situations sound something like this, “Repent or you’re going to hell – the Bible says so”, or “God said it. I believe it. That settles it”, or “Well the Bible says ____ so you’re wrong”, or some other aggressive comment about “what the Bible says.” After all, if the Bible says that men “pisseth against the wall”, then you better be a man and go pee on a wall.
The reality is, we should not be surprised that the culture around us argues based on a position of what the Bible literally says. After all, this concept is what much of the American Church has been championing for the last century. In all fairness, we’ve only brought our cultures Biblical illiteracy on ourselves. By emphasizing one idea – Biblical literalism – we’ve neglected to actually tell people how the Bible is meant to be read and understood. Now its not only the culture around us that doesn’t know how to handle the Bible, but the average lay person sitting in our pews.
The Bible is not a text that is meant to be read literally.
I bet that comment made a lot of you uncomfortable, so I’ll say it again.
The Bible is not a text that is meant to be read literally.
The Bible is a much richer, more robust, far deeper, and more profound book than one that can simply be read literally. No, the Bible is a text that is both living and active (Hebrews 4:12) and is begging to be sought after and understood (2 Timothy 3:16-17). So how then are we meant to read it? How can we properly explain to other Christians and the culture around us how the Bible is meant to be read?
I’m glad you asked. For those of you who know me, I hope you wouldn’t think that I’ve gone off the deep end and rejected the authority of Scripture. For those of you that don’t know me well, I present to you: the bait. Now let me show you the switch.
My proposition for communicating the historic, orthodox and Protestant position on the Bible is fourfold: The Bible is God’s written word that must be read literally within its respective genre and proper redemptive context under the guidance of church tradition.
Sure, the Bible is a text that must be read literally, but not merely literally. It must be read within its respective genre. The Bible is full of various genres that reflect the influence of its author and time period in which it was written. Therefore, we must understand the text within the style that it was written. There are many different genres within the Biblical literature: prose, historical narrative, wisdom literature, poems, apocalyptic literature, and epistles just to name a few. The way we read Old Testament poetry must be different than the way we read New Testament narrative. Metaphors must be read differently than straightforward prose. This is why we don’t read a verse like Psalm 88:7 (“…and you overwhelm me with all your waves”) as literal waves, but as a trial that comes from God himself. When we read John 1:43 (“The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee”), we understand what it meant. Jesus went to Galilee.
In a similar way, we must understand the Bible in its redemptive context. Where does the passage in question fall in God’s story of human redemption? After all, if the entirety of the Scriptures are meant to illuminate Christ for us (Luke 24:27, Acts 17:11-12), then the most important task of our Biblical studies is to seek Christ. This gives us the ability understand what it means for the writer of Hebrews to say, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son (Hebrews 1:1-2).” If you need help with this, I wrote a helpful post to get you started here.
As for reading the Bible under the guidance of church tradition, this gets us into muddy water that doesn’t fall under the intention of this post. One of the most basic differences between Roman and Protestant theology is the role of tradition in the life of the church. While Protestants affirm Sola Scriptura (defined above), we do not discount the importance of church tradition. It is a lens by which we can come to better understand God’s Word in the life of his people. We have the benefit of standing on 2000 years of men and women who have gone before us in faith, and we should not ignore what the Holy Spirit has faithfully taught our ancestors.
C.S. Lewis – in one of his snarkier moments – has a great explanation of what happens when we reduce the Bible to mere Biblical literalism: “There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of ‘Heaven’ ridiculous by saying they do not want to ‘spend eternity playing harps’. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them.” In other words, if you treat everything in the Bible simply as being literal, then you are unable to adequately understand it. This is why we must have a much more “grown-up” understanding of our Bibles. My proposal is to abandon the solitary tower of Biblical literalism and instead expand our territory to a much healthier and more faithful understanding. We must read and explain the Bible as God’s written word that must be read literally within its respective genre and proper redemptive context under the guidance of church tradition. When we do, we’ll not only better understand the Bible ourselves, but we’ll have better explanations for the society around us, we’ll be better equipped to approach the big issues of our day (ethics, science), and most importantly we’ll be more faithful to the God who was pleased to reveal his Word to us.
**Note the irony here. Biblical literalism really took shape against a backdrop of theological liberalism, which argued that we have the ability to pick and choose from the Bible. Now that fundamentalists and evangelicals have championed literalism for so long – without any understanding of the historic, orthodox way of reading Scripture – the tables have now been flipped on us. The culture around us reads the Bible literally, and we’re the ones left being accused of cherry picking. Funny how that works, yeah?
Reading our Bibles (specifically, the Old Testament) in the way it is meant to be read is a much misunderstood subject in the church today. Most Christians, when pressed, will confess that they have no idea where to even start in understanding the Bible. This raises the question: how are we meant to read our Bibles? It is a great question that we need to answer, and there is a simple answer with enormous implications for how we read our Bibles. We must read God’s Word through an intentionally Christian, Christ-centered and redemptive lens.
Understanding the Old Testament through a Christ-centered lens isn’t just a random idea that someone cooked up on their own; it is actually quite a Biblical idea that we get from a proper understanding of the New Testament. Let’s take a look at two passages real quick that show us where this idea comes from.
In Luke 24, the resurrected Jesus appears to two disciples who are traveling on the road to Emmaus. Upon conversing with these two disciples for a short time, Jesus then began “with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Jesus himself taught that the entirety of Old Testament Scripture points to him.
Similarly, in the book of Acts Paul and Silas meet a group of Jews living in Berea. After Paul and Silas began teaching in the synagogue about Christ, the Berean Jews began to examine “the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). After intensely studying the Scriptures (which at the time would’ve consisted of the Old Testament Scriptures we have today), the Bible says that the Berean’s therefore believed. This therefore is important – what we can gather from this encounter with the Berean’s is that a serious reading of the Old Testament should lead us to understanding more about God’s redemptive plan through Jesus Christ.
This Christ-centered approach to reading the Old Testament – an approach that the New Testament so clearly teaches us – is often referred to as the Redemptive (or Redemptive-Historical) approach to understanding God’s Word. This is how the Bible itself teaches us to read the Old Testament. I know that this can be a real struggle for most of us. Yet, if we don’t understand the text in this way then it is reasonable for us to conclude that we are not getting everything out of the Scriptures that God himself intended for us to have. For this reason, I want to give you three tips that might help you in your Bible study as you try to understand the Scriptures in a Redemptive way.
1. Stick to the Four C’s
Comprehension: What is the meaning of this text in its original context?
Conviction: What sin problem or human need would the original audience have understood from this passage? What sin problem or need do you share with the original audience?
Consolation: How does this passage address or reveal God’s response to that sin problem or need? How is this sin problem or need ultimately met in Christ?
Compel: What am I being called to think or do in light of this passage? How does the gospel enable me to accomplish this?
2. Learn to Ask the Right Questions
- How does this passage or topic fit into the grand narrative of scripture (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration)? If you’re reading the Old Testament, try to figure out where the people of God are within the history of Israel.
- What is distinctively Christian about how I am reading this passage or engaging this topic?
- Does this passage or topic point forward to the cross, backward to the cross, or forward to Christ’s return? How?
- What does this passage or topic tell me about Jesus?
- How does this passage or topic equip God’s people to live on mission?
3. Equip Yourself with a Few Good Resources
A. The ESV Study Bible: This resource is without equal, especially if you are just beginning to understand the Bible in a Redemptive way. Not only does it contain excellent verse-by-verse notes on the Bible, but it also contains excellent maps and timelines that will help you understand Redemptive history better. It also has some great short articles that cover more ground about the Redemptive approach to reading the Bible.
B. Equip yourself by reading any of these books which are concise, excellent books on this topic:
- The God who is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story by D.A. Carson
- Jesus on Every Page by David Murray
- The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament by Edmund P. Clowney
C. For some more advanced reading, equip yourself with a good Systematic Theology book. The editions by Wayne Grudem or John Frame are both very good. These will help you deal with more advanced subjects and themes as you begin to see them play out in the Scriptures.
As Father’s Day 2015 comes to a close, I am reflecting on how much I’ve enjoyed looking at countless Facebook posts and Instagram pictures of dads from their families. Honestly, I’ve been a bit surprised – in a culture that typically depicts fathers as clueless nitwits, the outpouring of affections for fathers has been a real joy to look at today. It only increases my desire and eagerness to be a father myself some day.
Yet, as I look over all these posts tonight, I am reminded that this is not an easy day for a lot of men. In fact, it can be quite hard. I think our society has bought into a lie that struggles with loneliness or infertility are harder on women than men. I am convinced this is a lie – society has just taught us how to better mask our emotions.
As far as I know, the only thing preventing my wife and I from having children are time and finances, so I can’t share in much of the pain many men are experiencing right now. I don’t know what its like to eagerly wait for long periods of time for a wife. I can’t share in the pain of a miscarriage. I am unable to relate to struggles with infertility. I’ve never experienced the seemingly endless wait for a child in the adoptive process. I’ve never had a portion in any of these things.
Yet, I do know a few things that I can share with you hopeful fathers out there today, and I hope they’re of some encouragement to you. I do not share these as simple platitudes, but as basic truths that I will pray can work into your hearts tonight – and mine.
1. Your heavenly Father loves you.
Oh Christian, he loves you. The highest honor and care any of us could have ever received into be adopted into the family of God, to be called a son or daughter of the King (Romans 8:16-17, Galatians 4:4-7, Ephesians 1:5, 1 John 3:1) . The greatest love of our Father is seen in how he delights in, is excited by, finds joy in, and loves us as one of his own. Never forget the unparalleled, indescribable love that the Father has shown all of us who are in Christ.
2. Your desire to love a child is a reflection of God’s love for his children.
When we were unaware of God’s love, He came after us. We did not love God first, He loved us (1 John 4:10). I don’t know why you don’t have a son or daughter in your arms right now. I can’t know that. But I do know you can be confident that your desire to express love to a child is a natural outflow of God’s immense love for you. This is an incredibly godly thing, and you should not be ashamed of your emotions or desires.
3. Never forget the family God has placed you in.
Jesus said that our family increases in this life by a hundredfold when we come into the family of God (Mark 10:29-31). The reason Paul is able to write to Timothy commending us to treat older men as fathers (1 Timothy 5:1-2) is because that is exactly what they are. If you’re an adult man in the family of God, you’re a spiritual father to younger people in your church. You must not discredit the role you now have in God’s family.
4. Do not neglect the influence you can have on younger people in the faith.
Paul routinely called Timothy his child/son in the faith (Philippians 2:19-22, 1 Timothy 1:2, 2 Timothy 1:2). Paul calls Onesimus his child because of the close relationship they shared in the faith (Philemon 10). As an adult male, you have been given tremendous responsibility and ability to influence younger generations in your church. God has given you the ability to build such a strong relationship with others that it can parallel a father and his child.
To all you hopeful fathers out there – I pray now that in the midst of your brokenness and pain today (which is a perfectly Christian emotion to have) you will have some small encouragement in the faith which is yours in Christ. Remember the great love that our Father has for you.
I was first given Andrew Murray’s Humility: The Journey Toward Holiness while I was serving on a ministry team at a rather large church. It was a gift to each member on our team from our director – a really thoughtful one at that. Yet, this gift came at a time in my life where pride was my greatest quality trait. In fact, while I was thankful to receive a gift from our ministry director, I thought myself above reading this small, short book. After all, I didn’t need to read the same book that everyone else would read – I’m above that. I needed to read more challenging things – you know – more books that were actually worthy of my caliber. So, I set the book on my shelf and neglected it…until now.
In case you were wondering, that paragraph is laced with delicious irony, and you are meant to chuckle at me.
You see, I have a certain problem with desiring to be the “best.” When I was in high school, I was really into music – which meant that I absolutely needed to be the “best” musician that I knew. When I was in college, I was actively involved in martial arts – which meant I needed to be “better” than everyone that I knew. When I became a Christian and realized I love theology and religious thought, I needed to be the “best” and “smartest” Christian I knew – able to outsmart anyone I knew and “beat” people in debates that I started. All because I needed to be the “best.”
Some years ago, Pastor Timothy Keller gave a series of lectures at Gordon-Conwell called “Preaching to the Heart.” In one of these lectures, he tells the story of a football player whom he knew in college. This guy was the all-star football player on campus, and was known for being able to sleep around with any woman that he desired. By college standards, he was the “best” on campus. So it was a great shock to Keller and his friends in college when this individual converted to Christianity. Yet, what they soon came to find out was that the football player – while he now conformed to Christian morality – was still obsessed with being the all-star. He had to be the “best Christian” and the boss of everyone in the college ministry. He simply traded one idol for another.
For a long time, I was exactly like this football player. I traded one idol – the desire to be the best at my various hobbies – for another. Needless to say, this didn’t work out so well when I decided to enter into a path towards vocational ministry. What I thought I would be the “best” at, God had completely different plans for. He knew this would be the time when he would break me and teach me some of the biggest lessons that I’ve needed to learn.
Andrew Murray describes humility conceptually in this way, “When we realize that humility is something infinitely deeper than contrition, and accept it as our participation in the life of Jesus, we will begin to learn that it is our true nobility, and that to prove it in being servants of all is the highest fulfillment of our destiny as men created in the image of God.” He goes on to describe how pride is the most insidious and natural thing to our own human nature – it is the very presence of pride that made the act of redemption necessary.
Humility has never been one of my strongest attributes. When I became a Christian, theology became a means to be better than others and win at intellectual ascent. I had no desire to care for or minister to other people – if I had any concept of such things, it was only in the manner by which I could prove to them that they were wrong. Murray describes my particular form of pride perfectly when he says, “Let us consider how our lack of love, indifference to the needs, and feelings of others, even sharp comments and hasty judgements that are often excused as being honest and straightforward, are thwarting the effect of the influence of the Holy Spirit on others. Manifestations of temper and touchiness and irritation, feelings of bitterness and estrangement, have their root in nothing but pride. Pride creeps in almost everywhere, and the assemblies of saints are no exception.”
You see, the community of saints are no exemption to the insidious nature of pride. In fact, pride is probably our biggest blindspot as the church. How often do we genuinely pray for a real Christ-like humility? How often do we run from the very means by which God intends to humble us? Murray says it this way, “Many Christians fear and flee and seek deliverance from all that would humble them. At times they may pray for humility, but in their heart of hearts they pray even more to be kept from the things that would bring them to that place. They have not reached the level of seeing humility as a manifestation of the beauty of the Lamb of God.” He goes on to diagnose the problem, “Why is it that those who have joyfully given themselves up for Christ find it so hard to give themselves up for fellow Christians? It seems that the church has failed to teach its people the importance of humility – that it is the first of the virtues, the best of all the graces and powers of the Spirit. It has failed to show that a Christlike humility is what is needed and is also in the realm of possibility.”
I am grateful that the Lord has seen fit not to exempt me from his discipline (Hebrews 12). As a good and loving Father does, he has chosen the correct form of discipline to begin rooting out my otherwise unconquerable pride. For the sake of my humility, the Lord has placed several trials and afflictions in my life over the last few years. For the sake of my union with Christ, the Lord has often chosen times of severe mental anguish, anxiety and even depression to teach me some small aspect of what it means to be humble.
Were it not for Christ’s intervention in my life, I would likely be headed down a much different and darker path. Murray describes what could very easily become my future when he writes, “We find professors and ministers, evangelists and Christian workers, missionaries and teachers, in whom the gifts of the Spirit are many and manifest, and who are the channels of blessing to multitudes, but of whom, when tested, or close interpersonal relationships reveal their true characters, it is only too evident that the grace of humility, as an abiding characteristic, is rarely to be seen.”
So how do we begin to pursue genuine Christian humility? Simply put, it is coming to understand that Christ’s humility “became our salvation. His salvation is our humility.” We must understand what it means to truly press in to our union with Christ in both his sufferings and afflictions, his compassion for others, and most of all his desire to exalt the Father in all that he did. Murray writes, “It is only in the possession of God that I lose myself. As it is in the height and breadth and glory of the sunshine that the smallest speck dancing in its beams is seen, even so humility is taking our place in God’s presence to be nothing but a speck dancing in the sunlight of His love.”
Oh Lord, I ask that you would have mercy upon me, a sinner. I pray that you would see it fit to discipline me in the ways I need discipline, humble me even if it comes at the greatest cost to me. For in humility, your Son was spared no cost for my sake. Teach me and guide me in the ways of humility – the path to true holiness. Forgive me for my pride, my lack of empathy, and the ways in which I have forsaken the identity of Christian for my own vain glory. Exalt your name in my life not because of me, but in spite of me.