The Bible and Our Expectations

I remember moving to Belgium. It was hard. For the longest time I denied having any kind of culture shock. I was ok, for I had previously lived in Britain for 3 years, my wife was British, I had travelled to Central America, southern Africa, and a few other places in the world. I was cultured.

But after almost 4 years in Belgium, looking back over our time here, I can only describe what I went through, might still be going through, as culture shock. Belgium is within the western world, so it is not as different from America as say Zambia or India or Fiji. But it is quite different – linguistically, politically, socially and more.

And I can still get frustrated at some of the perspectives within a Belgian context, one particular area being that of customer service, or the lack of it.

But I remember a very good friend, an American pastor friend who had been in Belgium for some 20+ years, challenging me to change my expectations. You see, I had brought a whole load of American expectations into a non-American society. Why would I expect Belgium to function anything like America? It was time I change, not Belgium.

And this is what I think we do with the Bible on so many levels.

As evangelicals, a grouping of Christians who believe in the God-breathed, authoritative and reliable nature of Scripture, we approach Scripture with a lot of expectations, ones that I am not very sure would fall within the ancient paradigm-framework of those who actually wrote Scripture.

We argue that one of the greatest hermeneutical principles for understanding Scripture is that of the grammatical-historical hermeneutic. This means that we will better understand God’s revelation in Scripture if we ground that understanding in the grammar and history of the time, culture and paradigm within which it was written. Genesis or 1 Kings or Matthew or 1 Corinthians was not written in a 21st century, post-Englightenment, modern or post-modern perspective. It was written within an ancient near eastern (Old Testament) or first century Jewish (New Testament) paradigm. And those eras carry their own set of expectations, which are quite different from a 21st century, modern society.

And so, when someone like myself considers that the early chapters of Genesis might not be 100% literal factual history, but rather a storied account, I am not becoming loosey-goosey in my doctrine of Scripture, denying anything about the nature of Scripture. I am rather asking how would the text come forth so long ago in a time and culture so different from mine.

Oh I believe the storied account of the Bible is based within history. But I am convinced it might not always be telling straightforward history. As Kenton Sparks notes about the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Bible, which includes Genesis:

In light of this comparative information [with other ancient near eastern literature], the most natural explanation for the content of the Pentateuch is that it is not a book of history so much as an anthology, in which its author (or authors) attempted to bring together Israel’s ancient traditions, laws, and rituals into a single compendium or library of texts. Viewing the Pentateuch as an anthology helps us understand why it contains two or more versions of so many stories, and also why it contains so many types of genres. Its author (or compiler) was clearly more interested in preserving Israel’s diverse traditions than in providing some kind of coherent book of history. (God’s Word in Human Wordsp219)

Or as a colleague of mine once helpfully defined biblical history:

It is a theological re-telling of history in the form of a narrative with the purpose of speaking into the present.

I believe we will get in all sorts of ‘trouble’ if we demand that the ‘historical’ sections of the Scripture must give us 100% complete and factual history. What will happen is that, if something is presented contrary to such an expectation, whether from biblical scholarship or science, then we end up blindly turning our noses up at such findings. ‘They can’t be true. God’s word is inerrantly true. Scholarship and science are forever changing and err in so many ways.’ we claim.

Again, I’m not interested in denying the truth, reliability, authority or divinely given nature of Scripture (though I’m not a fan of the more conservative perspectives on inerrancy). But I am open to changing my own hermeneutical approaches of understanding Scripture in light of archaeological or scientific findings. Of course, I don’t desire to do such on a whim. Still, I will consider such if reasonable findings are presented. My hermeneutics and expectations are not unshakable. So, at times, God has to come with some shaking (i.e. Heb 12:26-29).

Then does this mean Scripture does not speak authoritatively about history (or science)?

Again, I would answer it this way: Scripture speaks authoritatively, reliably, and truthfully as the inspired revelation of God, but this comes down to considering such questions as these – a) what is the intent of Scripture, b) what are the varying genres of Scripture, c) how does God incarnationally speak into an ancient culture thousands of years ago, d) would Scripture be written from a post-Enlightenment, modern perspective?

Scripture, as given to us, does not always, nor maybe even normatively, give us complete and straightforward history (or science). That was never its intent. Rather it gives us a theological telling of the history into which it speaks. Or to say another way, Scripture’s voice communicates authoritatively into history, but it does so as God speaks and acts in revealing his redemptive plan for humanity. It tells its history-narrative with a theological intent.

Genesis was not ever intended as straight up history. Even if one holds that creation came forth in six 24-hour periods and that Adam and Eve must be literal figures, there is still a theological telling of the narrative in Genesis. Even if one holds that there are no tensions within the 4 Gospels of the New Testament, they are still given as a theological narrative. It’s not simply history.

And this is ok. This does not mean that Scripture becomes unreliable because Genesis 1-3 might not be straightforward factual history, but rather communicating God’s revelation within a storied account of the beginnings of his people and humanity. It doesn’t mean that Scripture is unreliable because the varying Gospel writers had Jesus dying on a different day. Oh, it does if we bring those faulty expectations to what Scripture must do. But if we allow Scripture to be what Scripture actually is, if we allow the Scripture writers to speak from their own ancient paradigm, then we allow Scripture to bring its own expectations to the table. And we still receive it as the God-breathed, authoritative and reliable text that it is as God’s revelation of himself and his redemptive plan for all peoples.

This is the Bible. This is the incarnational Scripture text that God has given us through his people, his ancient people. This is the God-breathed text that is still very much useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. I love it. You should too.

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