At some point, being a Jesus person means you gotta read the Bible.

NovBibleGravesI’ve been thinking a great deal lately (this topic seems to come up over and over and over again) about how different groups of North American Christians read the Bible. To be fair, some don’t read the Bible. At all. My friend Randy Harris frequently says, at times,  “I feel it is as if I’m talking about a book only one of us has read.” This not meant to be a slam. It’s simply an observation that some (many?) are influenced more by The Wall Street Journal,FOX/CNN, or The Bachelor than sacred scripture. Listening to someone else (teacher, preacher, writer) talk about/describe/engage the Bible is great but it is not the same thing as an individual digging into scripture, in community, wrestling with meaning, context, application, and so on. Still, of those who read the Bible or used to read the Bible and keep playing certain verses and interpretations of said verses on a loop . . . these groups need  moments when it’s okay to be critical of “how” we read. Or how we don’t read. Or how we used to read. I don’t mean critical as in “negative” I mean critical as in “it is time to take a closer look and examine.”

It seems that–in the circles I run in at least–there are at least four ways the Bible is being read in the local church. While I despise labels, I don’t know another way to do this. I will simply provide a) a description and b) key players/voices. If I had more space, I’d talk about strengths/weaknesses/key Biblical passages.  All four ways have a wide variety of voices, texture, layers, and nuance. Some people/themes/writings cross over, covering more than one category. No label is meant to be pejorative or negative, simply descriptive, and truth-telling. I’m trying to take a more surgical take on not whether we read the Bible, but how we read the Bible once we pick it up and store it in our mind for years to come.

If you don’t think this conversation is important, spend five minutes with this study that the Baylor School of Religion, and recognize the divergent views of God that dominate so much of life in these United States. Our view of God and our reading of the Bible are intricately connected. As President Lincoln noted, we read from the same Bibles and pray to the same God and, yet, come to very different conclusions. Think about these as a continuum, not so much “hard and fast” boxes. I sincerely believe that each view has strengths and weaknesses. As leaders, we ignore either at our own peril. Plus, this provocative teacher is up to 60 something aspects of reading the Bible. I kept my list to 4. You’re welcome.

VIEW #1: FUNDAMENTALIST or BASIC (The Bible is read as a rule-book for living a godly life before a watching judge.)

God is a judge with holy (sometimes angry) and wrathful disposition towards sinful humanity. Jesus saved humanity. Though he loves us, God’s anger burns towards humanity because of continual evil and wicked ways.

The Holy Bible was given via dictation theory or celestial possession. The Holy Spirit literally dictated every single detail. The autographs (original sections of the Bible) and copies are perfect, infallible and inerrant. Every word in Scripture is historically, theologically accurate. The Bible is accessible for any person to understand in a rational and logical approach. It’s not enough to say the Bible in “inspired and authoritative” . . . one must also believe the Bible is infallible, inerrant, and perfect. The Bible is God’s direct instruction manual to all people for all time for how to live before God. Some of the key players/voices: John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Southern Baptist Convention, Albert Mohler, authors of the Left Behind Series (Jenkins and LaHaye).

VIEW #2: EVANGELICAL (The Bible is read as a collection of timeless principles for morality and conversion in a dark and corrupt world.)

God is a judge and father with a major dilemma that only Jesus can resolve.

The Bible is the Word of God for the people of God. It contains the timeless truths of God’s heart that need to be communicated and shared with all people. While the copies of the Biblical manuscripts might possess some tension/uncertainty, the autographs (originals) are perfect, infallible, and inerrant. The primary role of the Bible is to save people from their sin and hell, providing the road map for any person to spend eternity with God. God’s primary way of communicating to humanity is through the sacred scriptures. It’s the most important tool we have for understanding God. Some in this camp will greatly stress the power of the Spirit to use the timeless truths of the Bible to provide a practical guide for everyday decisions. Some key voices/leaders: Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Andy Stanley, Tim Keller, Max Lucado, Billy Graham, Beth Moore, Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes.

VIEW #3: THIRD WAY (The Bible is read an unfolding drama inviting all people to participate in the work of God in the world.)

God is the creative father who seeks to pull all women and men out of darkness into living the Kingdom of God now in preparation for the fullness of the new heavens and the new earth.

Because the church came before the New Testament, this group is inclined to call the Bible the word of God and reserve the phrase the “Word of God” for only Jesus (word does not = Word). Rather, the Bible reveals the Word. The Bible is the word of God in that it is trust-worthy, powerful, and effective in leading people to a living encounter with the power and mystery of Jesus in the world. It is the sacred drama of God, in which we are mere B actors, and Jesus is the main character. While God is revealed in a myriad of ways (creation, art, music, friendship), scripture is unique in that it derives its authority from the witness of catholic orthodox stream of disciples and the local church. The power of the Spirit is at work taking ink on a page, and bringing us closer to the Jesus who holds all creation together. The Bible is the mirror that shows us who God is and who we are. It is not to be worshiped or made an idol as it did not create us, sustain us, die for us, etc. It’s simply the tool God uses in conjunction with all of the other revelations to bring us closer to God’s intent for the world: faithful discipleship, resistance to the powers of this present age (communal). Christ’ presence in the world is both powerful and mysterious and the Bible is a key tool God uses in that endeavor of discovery. This group resists using infallible and inerrant because a) they are not words that show up in Scripture and b) are tied to stale debates between faith and science. This group takes seriously the role of the Bible as it relates to inspiration and authority but refuses to divorce these two words from the main purpose of the Bible, further revelation of the person of Jesus. Key voices/leaders: Martin Luther King, Jr. Karl Barth, Scot McKnight, N.T. Wright, Lauren Winner, Sarah Coakley, Bonhoeffer, James Smith, Walter Brueggemann, Barbara Brown Taylor, Chuck Campbell, Walter Wink Richard Hays, Ian Cron, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Oh, yeah. Bono.

VIEW #4: HUMANIST (The Bible is an inspiring document with varying levels of relevancy for coping with life in the modern world.)

(Here, I’m not using humanist in a decidedly negative fashion) God is whoever you think God to be or were taught God to be. If God exists at all. The “God” pursuit is almost exclusively subjective. In this view, the Bible, like the Qur’an, Torah, the writings of Baha’ll’a, and Bhagavad Gita, is simply one more sacred collection of spiritual moral writings meant to speak to life’s deep experiences of pain. While mostly the product of human engineering and imagination, the Bible is important because of its link to history, meaning, purpose, and identity. Not meant to be literal or pure history, the Bible functions as an important narrative for understanding the values and linguistic emphases of many modern westerners. Full of inspiration, the Bible’s authority should be regarded with great suspicion. It can be however, a guide-book for remarkable standards of ethics.

The widest group, the HUMANIST camp, ranges from Liberal Christians to passionate Atheists. “It [the Bible] is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies,” Mark Twain.

Key players/voices: Richard Rohr, Bart Erhman, Christopher Hitchens, the New Atheists, A.J. Levine, Post-Christian Americans and Europeans, Richard Rohr, Marcus Borg, Mark Twain, and Richard Dawkins. This is the most diverse list of all four categories. I probably needed five categories but ran out of time (pastors have deadlines too).

Had to share this beauty in conclusion. Because, in a sense, everyone does this. Everyone who reads the Bible. Or used to read the Bible.

This article originally appeared on Scot McKnight’s blog under the same title.

One Response

  1. Why do you have to guess how you’re supposed to read the bible? Shouldn’t an omniscient god, who would have known that people would constantly debate this issue, have explained any of this in the bible? What about Jesus? He supposedly came to this earth and didn’t bother writing a single line in the bible? Why? So people could be confused about which books and verses are god-breathed and what weight they should place on the words of the multiple authors and which stories should be taken literally or figuratively?

    We don’t even know who many of the authors are. How could anyone possibly claim that those books are god-breathed when you don’t even know who the authors are?

    You want to know why so many Christians don’t bother reading the bible? Because it’s a confusing, contradictory, obscene mess. Reading the bible actually causes people to give up their religion because once they discover all of the awful and ridiculous things therein they can’t help but lose faith.

    Here’s just one example: Deuteronomy chapter 28. I’m going to quote the entire chapter and leave it at the end of my comments. God tells the Israelites that if they “do all His commandments” then he will bless them and he lists all of these blessings in verses 1-14. Then in verses 15-68 God lists all of the curses that will befall them if they do not “do all His commandments and His statutes”. Notice that there’s no room for error here. If they don’t follow all of his commandments and statutes then all of these terrible things are going to happen to them perpetrated by God himself (“The Lord will send upon you curses, confusion, and rebuke…”).

    One of the things he will cause to happen to his own people is that they will be starved so badly that mothers and fathers will eat their own children and even the most refined among the population will be so hungry that they won’t even share it with anyone else, not even one person. I mean, that’s pretty bad, when you’re eating your own children and you won’t even bother sharing some of it, right?

    All of this and many more sadistically cruel things will be perpetrated by God on his own children, the Israelites, if they don’t follow every single commandment and statute. I wonder if anyone has ever read this scripture in front of the church congregation?


    Deuteronomy 28
    1 “Now it shall be, if you diligently [a]obey the Lord your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. 2 All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you if you [b]obey the Lord your God:

    3 “Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the [c]country.

    4 “Blessed shall be the [d]offspring of your [e]body and the [f]produce of your ground and the [g]offspring of your beasts, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock.

    5 “Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.

    6 “Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.

    7 “The Lord shall cause your enemies who rise up against you to be [h]defeated before you; they will come out against you one way and will flee before you seven ways. 8 The Lord will command the blessing upon you in your barns and in all that you put your hand to, and He will bless you in the land which the Lord your God gives you. 9 The Lord will establish you as a holy people to Himself, as He swore to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in His ways. 10 So all the peoples of the earth will see that [i]you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will be afraid of you. 11 The Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the [j]offspring of your [k]body and in the [l]offspring of your beast and in the [m]produce of your ground, in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give you. 12 The Lord will open for you His good storehouse, the heavens, to give rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hand; and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. 13 The Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you only will be above, and you will not be underneath, if you listen to the commandments of the Lord your God, which I charge you today, to [n]observe them carefully, 14 and do not turn aside from any of the words which I command you today, to the right or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them.

    Consequences of Disobedience
    15 “But it shall come about, if you do not [o]obey the Lord your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you:

    16 “Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the [p]country.

    17 “Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.

    18 “Cursed shall be the [q]offspring of your [r]body and the [s]produce of your ground, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock.

    19 “Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.

    20 “The Lord will send upon you curses, confusion, and rebuke, in all [t]you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and until you perish quickly, on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken Me. 21 The Lord will make the pestilence cling to you until He has consumed you from the land where you are entering to possess it. 22 The Lord will smite you with consumption and with fever and with inflammation and with fiery heat and with [u]the sword and with blight and with mildew, and they will pursue you until you perish. 23 [v]The heaven which is over your head shall be bronze, and the earth which is under you, iron. 24 The Lord will make the rain of your land powder and dust; from heaven it shall come down on you until you are destroyed.

    25 “The Lord shall cause you to be [w]defeated before your enemies; you will go out one way against them, but you will flee seven ways before them, and you will be an example of terror to all the kingdoms of the earth. 26 Your carcasses will be food to all birds of the sky and to the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away.

    27 “The Lord will smite you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors and with the scab and with the itch, from which you cannot be healed. 28 The Lord will smite you with madness and with blindness and with bewilderment of heart; 29 and you will [x]grope at noon, as the blind man gropes in darkness, and you will not prosper in your ways; but you shall only be oppressed and robbed continually, with none to save you. 30 You shall betroth a wife, but another man will violate her; you shall build a house, but you will not live in it; you shall plant a vineyard, but you will not [y]use its fruit. 31 Your ox shall be slaughtered before your eyes, but you will not eat of it; your donkey shall be torn away from you, and will not be restored to you; your sheep shall be given to your enemies, and you will have none to save you. 32 Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, while your eyes look on and yearn for them continually; but there will be nothing [z]you can do. 33 A people whom you do not know shall eat up the produce of your ground and all your labors, and you will never be anything but oppressed and crushed continually. 34 You shall be driven mad by the sight of [aa]what you see. 35 The Lord will strike you on the knees and legs with sore boils, from which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head. 36 The Lord will bring you and your king, whom you set over you, to a nation which neither you nor your fathers have known, and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone. 37 You shall become a horror, a proverb, and a taunt among all the people where the Lord drives you.

    38 “You shall bring out much seed to the field but you will gather in little, for the locust will consume it. 39 You shall plant and cultivate vineyards, but you will neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes, for the worm will devour them. 40 You shall have olive trees throughout your territory but you will not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives will drop off. 41 You shall [ab]have sons and daughters but they will not be yours, for they will go into captivity. 42 The cricket shall possess all your trees and the produce of your ground. 43 The alien who is among you shall rise above you higher and higher, but you will go down lower and lower. 44 He shall lend to you, but you will not lend to him; he shall be the head, and you will be the tail.

    45 “So all these curses shall come on you and pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed, because you would not [ac]obey the Lord your God by keeping His commandments and His statutes which He commanded you. 46 They shall become a sign and a wonder on you and your [ad]descendants forever.

    47 “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and a glad heart, for the abundance of all things; 48 therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger, in thirst, in nakedness, and in the lack of all things; and He will put an iron yoke on your neck until He has destroyed you.

    49 “The Lord will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as the eagle swoops down, a nation whose language you shall not understand, 50 a nation of fierce countenance who will have no respect for the old, nor show favor to the young. 51 Moreover, it shall eat the [ae]offspring of your herd and the produce of your ground until you are destroyed, who also leaves you no grain, new wine, or oil, nor the increase of your herd or the young of your flock until they have caused you to perish. 52 It shall besiege you in all your [af]towns until your high and fortified walls in which you trusted come down throughout your land, and it shall besiege you in all your [ag]towns throughout your land which the Lord your God has given you. 53 Then you shall eat the [ah]offspring of your own body, the flesh of your sons and of your daughters whom the Lord your God has given you, during the siege and the distress by which your enemy will [ai]oppress you. 54 The man who is [aj]refined and very delicate among you [ak]shall be hostile toward his brother and toward the wife [al]he cherishes and toward the rest of his children who remain, 55 so that he will not give even one of them any of the flesh of his children which he will eat, since he has nothing else left, during the siege and the distress by which your enemy will [am]oppress you in all your [an]towns. 56 The [ao]refined and delicate woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground for delicateness and [ap]refinement, [aq]shall be hostile toward the husband [ar]she cherishes and toward her son and daughter, 57 and toward her afterbirth which issues from between her [as]legs and toward her children whom she bears; for she will eat them secretly for lack of anything else, during the siege and the distress by which your enemy will [at]oppress you in your [au]towns.

    58 “If you are not careful to observe all the words of this law which are written in this book, to [av]fear this honored and awesome name, [aw]the Lord your God, 59 then the Lord will bring extraordinary plagues on you and [ax]your descendants, even [ay]severe and lasting plagues, and miserable and chronic sicknesses. 60 He will bring back on you all the diseases of Egypt of which you were afraid, and they will cling to you. 61 Also every sickness and every plague which, not written in the book of this law, the Lord will bring on you until you are destroyed. 62 Then you shall be left few in number, whereas you were as numerous as the stars of heaven, because you did not [az]obey the Lord your God. 63 It shall come about that as the Lord delighted over you to prosper you, and multiply you, so the Lord will delight over you to make you perish and destroy you; and you will be torn from the land where you are entering to possess it. 64 Moreover, the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, which you or your fathers have not known. 65 Among those nations you shall find no rest, and there will be no resting place for the sole of your foot; but there the Lord will give you a trembling heart, failing of eyes, and despair of soul. 66 So your life shall [ba]hang in doubt before you; and you will be in dread night and day, and shall have no assurance of your life. 67 In the morning you shall say, ‘Would that it were evening!’ And at evening you shall say, ‘Would that it were morning!’ because of the dread of your heart which you dread, and for the sight of your eyes which you will see. 68 The Lord will bring you back to Egypt in ships, by the way about which I spoke to you, ‘You will never see it again!’ And there you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.”

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