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Only Inerrantists Read the Bible?

Only Inerrantists Read the Bible?

I responded to this post over at Jesus Creed because the graphic seems to suggest that only those who accept inerrancy take the Bible seriously. That is simply false. I’d actually suggest, as I do in my book, that those who accept that inerrancy describes the Bible poorly are taking the Bible more seriously. They avoid making the Bible in their own image.

The comments are interesting because of the number of people with the same objection. I was seventh, I think, to object on the same grounds in the comments.

Note: The material I object to is presented and linked to at Jesus Creed. Scot McKnight doesn’t make these claims. Here’s a link to the Barna post on the study.


Battle over Inspiration or Interpretation

Battle over Inspiration or Interpretation

There’s an interesting article by Mark Galli on the Christianity Today web site, titled A New Bible Battle. Galli refers to the “old” battle, and Lindsell’s book. That battle was over inerrancy. But this new battle has to do with reading the Bible in what Galli calls “sub-biblical” ways, for example, as a self-help manual.

In my book When People Speak for God, I emphasized the importance of including interpretation when we talk about the reliability of the Bible. My point there is that describing how reliable a measuring instrument is would be pointless if nobody could read the reliable results. Thus when people get such varied results from reading the Bible, what is the point of speaking, in isolation, of the Bible’s reliability?

Of course those who speak in this way normally do include the additional caveat, “interpreted correctly.” But too often that caveat is simply dropped in, and the methods of interpretation don’t, in fact, handle what the text actually contains. Figuring out what is a “sub-biblical” method of reading the Bible will take a robust idea of inspiration from the earliest oral tradition to the latest printed text.

But getting us away from “self-help” readings is a good step or two in the right direction.

Two Bible Reading Plans Compared

Two Bible Reading Plans Compared

How’s that for a boring headline?

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was trying a new reading plan by Robert Murray McCheyne. I don’t usually like Bible years, and I still have some problems with this one, but I still plan to use it through the year. I’ve made this my evening Bible reading.

I didn’t use to have an evening reading plan, but the nature of my work tends to make for interrupted mornings. I’m a publisher, which usually provides for a flexible schedule, but I’m still supplementing that income with computer support work, and that often brings calls fairly early in the morning. So to steady things out, I started to divide my reading time and do part of it at bed time.

In the morning I read a daily lectionary. Right now I’m following the daily readings from CRI Voice. Daily lectionary readings have the advantage of being relatively short, and sometimes topically related. Since I also read the weekly lectionary passages several times during the week, I find that the two reading plans combine well.

This morning, the scriptures from the daily lectionary were Psalms 61, 62, and 68 (I combine morning and evening readings), Isaiah 52:1-12, Galatians 4:12-20, and Mark 8:1-10. Each passage is short and they are topically coherent.

On the other hand, my McCheyne reading plan had me reading Genesis 32, Mark 3, Esther 8, and Romans 3. It’s sort of like reading the Bible through four times at once without bothering to coordinate any of it. I felt like finishing the story when I read Genesis and Esther. The actual plan is to read the Old Testament once and the New Testament and Psalms twice during the course of one year.

Overall, I have the same problem with the daily lectionary, except for the fact that it doesn’t even pretend that I’m reading the whole of a particular topic.

I must confess that I’ve been happier with reading the Bible through, but I think the discipline of following these plans that don’t seem to suit me as well is worthwhile in itself. The daily lectionary is growing on me. Determination is keeping me involved in the McCheyne plan.

Approaches to Bible Reading

Approaches to Bible Reading

I want to list some attitudes to Bible reading and some approaches with a brief discussion. I may choose to post some more on this. I think there is too much of an either-or approach to how one goes about reading the Bible. Different times may call for different methods and attitudes.

  • Fast Reading (Overview)
    When I returned to active church membership some years after I left seminary, I chose this approach first. I had kept up some reading so as not to use my language skills, but that was always short passages with focus on grammar and vocabulary. I chose to read the entire Bible (NIV at the time) as I would a novel. It was the book I kept by the bed. I completed the reading in 11 days. I find great value in this approach to help orient oneself in the canonical text, though it would be excessively confusing for someone not already acquainted with the text, I think.
  • Detailed reading (outlining, exegesis)
    This involves slower reading and spending time over specific texts. Most of my reading ends up here. I’ll read longer passages quickly, but some specific text will drag me in and then I’ll spend time dissecting the passage from all points of view.
  • Passage Overview, Multiple Readings
    One of my own approaches to studying shorter passages is to read the passage multiple times. This differs from the fast reading in that I choose a reasonable length passage along with a more temperate pace. Sometimes I read the passage in other languages (not original, usually modern, Spanish, German, French) to slow my reading. The longest passage I’ve done this was was the book of Ezekiel. Normally I choose something more like the Sermon on the Mount.
  • Original Languages
    Obviously this method is for those who know the languages. Here I vary my reading speed and approach much as I do in English. At the slowest level, I’ll go through the scripture indexes in the Greek or Hebrew grammars I have on my shelf and read the sections that cite the verse I’m reading. I might also prepare a personal translation. At the faster level I try to read several chapters in succession, and mark words or constructions I want to go back and look at in more detail.
  • Devotional Reading
    This is simply reading my Bible prayerfully, listening for what God has for me. This is one of the more difficult options for me; I slide into a more technical reading very easily.
  • Historical Reading
    Reading biblical books either as history or from a historical point of view. I find that Samuel-Kings and Chronicles reads very differently when seen devotionally rather than historically.
  • Literary Reading
    This is a fairly broad category. Think of Samuel-Kings. One might read this to study the history of Israel (historically), one might read it looking for theological points, one might read it devotionally (What is God saying to me here?), or one might look at it as literature, looking for characters, plot, and so forth. What type of literature? That’s part of the fun!
  • Critical reading
    Reading the text looking for sources, redactional issues, genre, canonical connections, and so forth. I don’t specialize in one or another of the tools of biblical criticism. I think they all have their place, and they also all have places where they don’t work so well. In my view Form Criticism is probably the most abused by being applied where it just doesn’t apply.
  • Liturgical reading
    Reading as worship or as preparation for worship. In my experience, this is largely lectionary reading. I like to read the lectionary passages for the week several times, and I also have occasionally, but not consistently, read from one or another daily lectionary. I would see this as an attitude to reading as well–reading the Bible as part of the church’s heritage and as part of the church’s worship.
  • Bible Year, or Reading the Bible Through
    Other than my 11 day thing under the first point, of course! Right now I’m trying a year’s reading from a booklet by Robert Murray McCheyne, More Precious Than Gold: READ THE BIBLE IN ONE OR TWO YEARS (Didasko Files),which tends to line up a chapter each from four different places in the Bible. I haven’t warmed to it very much thus far, but I’m going to try it for a while before I decided it doesn’t work for me.

That’s the list for today. I’ve probably left out plenty, and have certainly left out details. I may blog some more about Bible reading. In the meantime I recommend two things: 1) Find and use a Bible reading method that is comfortable for you and 2) Make sure you use some methods other than the one you found in #1.

Horrors! A Plague of Bible Reading!

Horrors! A Plague of Bible Reading!

. . . or so I might be led to believe by reading Christians Spend Too Much Time Studying the Bible (HT: I don’t know enough about the pastor who wrote this, so I can’t say whether it provides an appropriate balance for his congregation. Perhaps he is plagued with church members whose noses are always in their Bibles causing them to neglect families, jobs, and service to their community.

But I must say that I haven’t encountered many of the type of Christians to whom he seems to be speaking. Some liberals have a stereotype that sees evangelicals totally involved in doctrinal and Biblical studies, leaving no time for social action or for actually living the gospel. It’s balanced, I think, by those evangelicals who imagine liberals joyfully shedding orthodox doctrines for no better reason than that they don’t like the feel of orthodoxy. Yet I have actually met very few examples of these stereotypes. The overwhelming majority of evangelicals I know are very active living the gospel as they understand it, and most liberals reject doctrines for what seems to them, at least, good reasons.

This post seems to imagine most Christians as being sort of like the Pharisees, studying doctrines and traditions in great detail, and presumably also tithing their “mint and dill and cumin” so to speak, while “neglecting the weightier matters of the law.” (That’s from Matthew 23:23 for you Biblically illiterate folks!) Perhaps someone could show me a survey or some other type of evidence as to where this is largely the case today. I certainly do believe many Christians neglect their duty to love others, but I fail to see where it happens because they are too busy studying the Bible.

Perhaps I just haven’t been around enough, but I’d love to find the church that requires an admonition to study their Bibles less. Perhaps I could preach there and I could allude to Bible stories I imagine are well known, and not have to provide a summary.

Brian Jones, the post author, makes some good points:

1. There truly were no leather bound New Testaments dropping from the sky immediately after the resurrection.
2. Christianity truly has prospered in times of limited literacy.
3. Very few early Christians could have afforded the cost of a complete Bible in times when they had to be transcribed.
4. It is quite possible to be a good Christian with limited Bible knowledge.

But I believe that he has failed to truly think through any one of these possibly valid points. Let’s look at them briefly, one at a time.

1. There truly were no leather bound New Testaments dropping from the sky immediately after the resurrection.

Does anybody but me see at least one culturally conditioned error here? No, I don’t mean “leather bound.” I’m talking about the idea that one would have to have the Bible collected into one place before one could get busy studying it line by line and verse by verse. We have a prejudice toward collections and large volumes, but smaller manuscripts were common in Biblical times. It didn’t mean people studied less. It meant they studied differently.

Further, he seems concerned only with the New Testament. While the New Testament canon was not settled for some years, there was considerable stability in the major portions of the Hebrew scriptures at that point, certainly the Torah and the Prophets. That made a considerable amount of Bible available for studying along the way.

2. Christianity truly has prospered in times of limited literacy.

I’m reminded of the testimony I heard from a Cambodian pastor. He told how they lived in a refugee camp along the Thai border, and they had only one Bible for thousands of Christians. One leader kept the Bible and they would all have times to go and study with him. Otherwise they worked from memory.

We have very little tolerance today for long Bible readings, but in a time of limited literacy, public reading was a much more common practice. (By “public” I do not mean to imply large audiences, merely that a literate person would read to a group.)

The importance that these people placed on the Bible is reflected in how quickly they translated portions of it into new languages as the gospel progressed. Again, they didn’t study less, the studied differently.

3. Very few early Christians could have afforded the cost of a complete Bible in times when they had to be transcribed.

Quite true. We should be very thankful that the Bible was preserved through times of such hardship and that it is so accessible today. It is a great blessing. It’s quite possible that one of the reasons we actually study it less is that it is so much more easily available. We would value our Bibles more if someone was trying to burn them all.

4. It is quite possible to be a good Christian with limited Bible knowledge.

Just so. It’s also quite possible to become a “good” Christian in the last moments of your life as you are being executed–witness the thief on the cross–but I wouldn’t recommend it if you have any alternative. Just because you can do something doesn’t make it the best thing to do.

All this doesn’t support the conclusion:

Most Christians today assume that to be a Christian means to have a personal relationship with the Bible instead of the risen Jesus.

In this case at least I have met examples of the breed. They quite worship their Bibles, and fail almost completely to find the God of whom the Bible speaks. But they are not as common as the quoted paragraph implies.

What we need is balance. The Christian life consists of many spiritual disciplines. Studying the Bible is just one of these. Bible study can also be a purely intellectual discipline. It can be practiced for the wrong reasons. But in my experience it is rarely those people who are actually dedicating large amounts of time and effort to Bible study who are actually missing out on the rest of the gospel.

Most commonly it is those people who talk most about the Bible and study it least who also seem to practice bibliolatry–they worship their Bibles. Not really, you know. What they actually worship is themselves, and the ego stroking they get from those who believe they are studying their Bibles. They don’t have to actually study.

A plague of Bible reading? Bring it on!

Bible Reading Poll

Bible Reading Poll

I think it’s about time to change polls, so here are the results of the last one:

What is your most common reason for reading the Bible (i.e. the one that causes you to spend the most time reading)?

Selection Percentage Votes
Devotional 23% 8
Guidance for a specific personal situation 6% 2
Ethical guidance 3% 1
Learning correct doctrine 14% 5
Hearing God speak 40% 14
Historical or technical interest 9% 3
I don’t read the Bible 0% 0
Other (please comment) 6% 2
35 votes total

There were three comments left:

From Gideon on March 17, 2008 at 1:34 am.
to find out how to do good. Not that I am
good, but I want to know what is
“biblically good”.

Joh 5:29 NETB … the ones who have done what is good to the resurrection resulting in life, and the ones who have done what is evil to the resurrection resulting in condemnation.

From Mark Thompson on March 4, 2008 at 2:14 am.
I ticked hearing God speak, but to be more correct I would add ‘as man understood at that time and place’

From Philo on February 19, 2008 at 11:09 am.
“What is your most common reason for reading the Bible (i.e. the one that causes you to spend the most time reading)?”

For its poetry.

I was interested in how many chose “hearing God speak” and I wonder how many of those would agree with the second comment made by Mark Thompson.