After a wedding in January ’13, my friend Elliot and I drove from Tuscon, AZ, to Houma, LA in 19 hours. With no need to watch out for party vans, alligators, or drunk cajun drivers, driving through Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas quickly became a long, dead-boring journey home.
This picture above is Norway. Besides ice, mountains, and moose, Norwegian roads aren’t so scary (they’re the safest). After learning stick shift, these roads have become a little fun. What’s more, if you’re going to drive for 5 hours, many roads will keep you focused and awake while you drive.
Speaking generally, the straight roads that run throughout much of America are easy; the spine-bending roads of Norway take more focus. When it comes to reading the Bible, we tend to treat the Bible as if all doctrines and ideas (the ones we accept) are an easy straight line from Point A -> Point B.
We give the “I-can’t-believe-you-don’t-understand-my-position” argument while our readiness to pull out our “Haven’t-you-ever-read-the-Bible?” card looms in the background.
We want our interpretations to be more like Arizona’s roads than the Trollstigen (pronounce it before you drive it). We prefer simple, straight answers over nuance. Why? Because it’s easier. It requires less thinking. We can sleep better at night because we have a firm grasp on all the Bible has to say, even though when when we crack open our Bibles we still don’t understand… what it has to say. We don’t know the story or the framework, and looking at timelines and prophecy charts aren’t helping.
We must remember that reading the Bible is no easy journey. We are thousands of years removed both from the New Testament and even more so the Old Testament. These books were written by people who did not have a western mindset. They spoke differently. They argued differently. They told stories differently. They used wordplay, allusions, irony, and humor (and humor, and humor…). But interpretation takes work. Peter Leithart explains how reading and interpreting the Bible is like catching a joke:
I tell a joke, and you get it. I include a veiled allusion to, say, [“Shrek”] in a casual conversation, and you catch it. Whenever the hearer “gets it,” he establishes a sometimes thrilling bond with the speaker. They exchange a mental wink.
This is how revelation works, too. God speaks and writes, and the more we “get” the inside jokes, the more inside we get. Having the mind of Christ is like sharing a joke that outsiders never understand. The Spirit who gives the mind of Christ is, after all, the Spirit of joy, the Mirth-Master, who makes fisherman preachers sound like early-morning drunks. The Church is not merely an “interpretive” or “hermeneutical” community, it’s a communion in humor.
Proper interpretation of Scripture ought to lead us not to think too much of ourselves, but to know God more. It should lead us to love God and serve each other, even to those with whom we disagree.
- Is hell a literal place?
- Will there be a millennium? Why?
- When will the seven-year tribulation begin?
- How literal is the Bible… and how can I know?
- Flesh, blood, wine, bread, crackers. Why communion?
- Babies, adults… does baptism really matter?
- If a Christian commits suicide, would they go to hell?
- Can I believe in evolution and still be a Christian?
- Why should I evangelize if God is sovereign?
- Why should I pray if God is sovereign?
- Will there be a rapture?
- What’s happening in Revelation, and why is it terrifying?
- Explain this whole Trinity thing to me again.
- Are spiritual gifts still around today?
- Is Genesis 1-11 historical?
- Is Adam real?
- Now that I’m a Christian, I don’t need to read the Law, right?
- How old is the earth?
- Where did cain get his wife?
- Did Jesus die for all people everywhere?
- Do Christians need to observe the Sabbath?
- How much of this really affects me every day? Is it enough to know the gospel; Jesus Christ and him crucified?
This isn’t to chuck anxiety-stones at your life. I have opinions on these questions; some I hold to firmly, and others are high up in the air. This isn’t to say that there are no answers, but that we ought not play so hard-and-fast with the biblical text that we break fellowship with those who interpret a text differently than us.
“But that takes too much work.”
God gives us work not to keep us busy, but that we may work alongside him. God created, and Adam was a “son of God” (Lk 3.38). Adam and Eve pro-created, and Seth was a “son in [Adam’s] own likeness” (Gen 5.3). God showed his authority by naming the light and darkness “Day” and “Night.” Adam named the animals (and Eve too, but they would work in tandem with each other). God laid out the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were to fruitfully multiply and expand the garden as their family grew, teaching their children to glorify God until the earth would be “filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab 2.14; cf. Num 14.21; Ps 72.19).
That clearly hasn’t happened yet, but God has deemed us responsible to work for and with him. Working hard and working well as Christians glorifies God before the world. Working hard to understand the Bible glorifies God as we understand the one who loves his children as he loves Christ (Jn 17.26).
It isn’t enough to know about God. We must know him. Facts may help you win Sunday morning Bible Trivia, but mere facts don’t tell us about God’s character as he works with his people. How do those facts fits within the larger portrait of God’s story? How do we discover the Bible’s storyline, and how can we use it to make sense of both our own individual lives and our corporate life with the rest of the Church?
How does Numbers 8 help me to love Christ more? How do I find God’s character in Nehemiah 4? What does Lamentations tell me about God’s mercy and patience? What, if anything, does Isaiah 36-39 tell me about Isaiah’s message that Yahweh is King? Does it matter whether or not I ever read Obadiah? (At least I read Jonah). How does Revelation teach me how to interpret the world around me? Or to help those who suffer? What does it mean to be in Christ, and how am I different because of it?
Reading, studying, and knowing the Bible isn’t driving down a straight two-lane highway in a Tesla. It’s driving up, down, and around a one-ish lane mountainous road in Norway in standard transmission in an old jalopy. In the snow. With a moose.* Inside the car.
The Bible is difficult, and we should be humble over our interpretation of the many texts we hold in our hands. We should continue in the truths of the Gospel and study to know God through his Word, even if there appears to be no immediate applicational value. Just because we didn’t “get” anything out of what we read, or because what we learned seems to be purely information, it doesn’t mean we’ve wasted our time. All that we read helps to reinforce the broad storyline of Scripture, its deep treasures, and the unfathomable love of our faithful King and Savior.
At no point am I suggesting we must sit around and read theological books all day. While I enjoy reading, I can’t (nor want to) read every biblical book and commentary out on the shelves. We have jobs, hobbies, and off-time. But we must be willing to discuss matters without treating each other as imbeciles. There are core Gospel issues, secondary issues, and the rest. Don’t berate someone just because they don’t see things eye-to-eye with you.
You’ll never know everything in this life, but you can still enjoy the view.
*I’ve seen only one moose in Norway thus far. I saw it last summer while driving home from Oslo.