Thursday, February 11, 2021
A bearded, bespectacled theology professor once told his students that they were reading their Bibles much too personally. They were wrong if, when reading about David’s slingshot toppling of Giant Goliath, they extrapolated that God would help them overcome their giant personal problems. That is not the point of the passage, the professor repeatedly insisted. The account about David and Goliath itself makes no such personal promise. We misread the Bible if and when we attempt to pull out unsubstantiated applications and unstated promises from stories like David and Goliath. “So sorry, my naïve college students, but most of those personalized Sunday school lessons you heard while growing up were ~somewhat~ wrong and misleading.” Whether or not such is an exact quote of his, it accurately captures the gist of my professor’s point. He wanted us to know that we may well be misappropriating a lot of presumed promises from the Bible. So an important question begs the asking here: Was he right or wrong?
My professor left me feeling quite confused and conflicted. On one hand, I did understand his admonition: When reading the Bible, people sometimes do errantly lay claim to presumed promises. And sometimes people come away with questionable applications. Yet on the other hand, something about what he said (or how he said it) felt slightly fishy. It seemed somehow off to me. But what was it, exactly? If asked to articulate or explain my misgivings, I knew I had a problem. I had only a vague sense of how I felt uneasy. But that would never fly. Since I could not explain what bothered me, I chose to say nothing.
As an aside, do we not find ourselves in that particular position with some frequency? When we are confronted with thoroughly prepared experts, a sense of uneasy befuddlement besets us at times; does it not? And who are we to second-guess the expertise of recognized experts?
Our gut reaction is not necessarily wrong, though. Sometimes we are not wrong to second-guess the experts. With the hindsight of many years and much study, I can now articulate my misgivings. (Not a quick response, I must admit.) What really disturbed me during that lecture long ago was not my professor’s admonition, but his emphasis. In and of itself, his admonition was correct and corrective. However, he emphasized it to such an extent that he left many of his students (including me) wondering if anything they read in the Bible could be taken and applied personally. My professor should have assured us that significant sections of the Bible can and should be taken personally. But he did no such thing. Consequently, he made the Bible (and the God presented therein) much less approachable to us. Not good.
An axiom can be distilled here: Experts can be entirely correct in the information they convey, but entirely incorrect in the importance they ascribe to that information.
“Yes, what you say is accurate, teacher; but it is not as important as you seem to think it is.”
Now for a walk through the weedy details we go…
It might be helpful to some of my readers if I explain in detail exactly how my bearded, bespectacled professor was both right and wrong. He was entirely correct when he insisted that a lot of the Bible stories we read are not immediately and personally applicable. Not every promise and not every inspirational message in the Bible applies immediately and directly. The words immediately and directly carry a lot of freight in the last sentence, so please take notice of them. If we misapply messages or misappropriate presumed promises we could well find ourselves both disappointed and ridiculed. So we must not presume upon particular promises and immediate messages that were never, ever intended personally for us. That point could be illustrated with a myriad of tragic examples from history, including very recent history. This, then, was my professor’s admonition. And he was entirely right about this.
And yet my professor was wrong about something he left implied. By simple omission of balancing biblical information, he implied that much (if not all) of the Bible is not intended for each one of us. But that is wrong. It is wrong because the God of the Bible is not just the God of the there-and-then, but is also the God of the here-and-now. The Bible was and is intended for you — yes, for you personally. And the Bible was and is intended for me, for me personally. The Bible is also intended for us corporately.
How can I claim that, though? Was the Bible not written long, long ago by individuals who knew nothing about you or me? Yes, that is true enough. The Apostle Paul did not have you or me in mind when he initially composed his epistles. So in one sense, we certainly are reading someone else’s long-dated mail when we read what Paul wrote to the Church at Rome, or the Church at Corinth, or the Church at Philippi, et cetera. Since that is true, we must keep the historical particularity of the Bible in mind when we read.
But what Paul wrote to those long-dead Christians is not just their long-dated mail. It was inspired by the Holy Spirit of God. And therein lies all the difference between Paul’s ancient correspondence and the correspondence of many other ancients. Significantly, Paul and those long-dead Christians were even aware of the fact that what Paul was writing was inspired by the Holy Spirit. If something originates with God, it just might have a transcendent quality — a transcendent quality quite unlike anything that originates with any other source. The books of the Bible have that kind of transcendent quality. They transcend time and place, and speak cross-culturally through the centuries.
Crucially, this is an all-or-nothing proposition and a point of yea-or-nay, up-or-down, in-or-out faith. Either the Bible originates with God, or it does not. If the Bible does not originate with God, it can be dismissed as unimportant and ignored as irrelevant. But if the Bible did indeed originate with God, it necessarily carries an authority unlike any other document. If it is God’s Very Word to humanity, it should be treated with utmost seriousness and respect.
My bearded, bespectacled professor wanted to stress the historical particularity of the Bible. He was not wrong about that. It was written by historically particular persons in historically particular places to historically particular others about historically particular situations. True. True. True. And true enough.
But in addition the Bible was and is inspired by God, and is intended for you and me today, personally and corporately. Therefore, we must recognize both its historical particularity and its temporal transcendence. If we uphold both of those truths, we can begin to approach the Bible as it ought to be approached.
With all that said, I have not yet said enough. I have not told you which passages of Scripture do apply directly to us and what promises are applicable to us. Most simply stated, anything written to the earliest Christian communities (churches) can be directly appropriated by us today, but only after careful contemplation and consideration in the context of Christian community, lest anyone misread and misappropriate what Scripture teaches.