The difference it makes in how we approach the Bible
As a counterpoint to papal authority, Martin Luther appealed to “sola scriptura” or “Scripture alone” as the source of authority for reformation. This appeal worked well. Reformers of many stripes, including Anabaptists, based reform on the authority of Scripture. This approach that enabled the Protestant Reformation in the 16th-century contained the seeds of a problem that persists today, nearly six centuries later.
However, these reformers did not recognize that they were reading and using the Bible differently. Appeals to the Bible did not resolve their differences. We still encounter this problem, whether within the Mennonite family or between Mennonites and other Christians.
The appeal to the Bible as a direct source of authority assumes that it functions like a divine rule book. The assumption is that its words jump over 20 or even 30 centuries to give instructions in timeless fashion directly to us for today. Those who truly believe the Bible, it is claimed, will follow these examples and commandments. This approach works well when we are comfortable with the rules discovered.
But what happens when other examples and commandments are unthinkable or seem completely outmoded today. If we followed the example of the patriarchs and the kings of Israel, men would have multiple wives. God commanded the Israelites to massacre enemies. There are instructions to stone to death a rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), to execute adulterers (Deuteronomy 22:22-24), to stone to death a wife, brother, son or daughter who tempts one to worship other gods (Deuteronomy 13:6-10). We are not to mix types of cloth or plant a second crop in a vineyard (Deuteronomy 23:9, 11), and must never eat pork or shell fish (Deuteronomy 14:3-21). Women may not wear men’s clothing such as pants (Deuteronomy 22:5) or cut their hair and are required to wear a prayer veiling (1 Corinthians 11). Jewelry of any kind is forbidden (1 Peter 3:4). Men must have beards, since trimming the edges is not allowed (Leviticus 19:27). Divorce is forbidden (Mark 10:6-12). And more. Mostly we have rested uneasy with some of these commands and ignored others.
Our uneasiness stems in part from the assumption that we should read the Bible as a book of transcendent rules and belief statements, existing above history and directly applicable today. I suggest that we allow the character of the Bible itself to show us how to read it.
The unity of the Bible is provided by a narrative, the story of God’s people that begins with Abraham and runs through the history of Israel to Jesus and the early church. We read this long-running saga in Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. Close up vignettes appear in Ruth, Esther and parts of Daniel. The books of the prophets present commentary on events all along this history. The Book of Psalms presents the worship music of God’s people, Proverbs reviews some of their wisdom. Leviticus and Deuteronomy contain early law codes. In the New Testament, the story continues in the four Gospels and Acts. The Epistles provide commentary on the story for the early church. Apocalyptic writings in Daniel and Revelation present a view of events happening in the world from the perspective of the heavenly throne room.
This description of the Bible’s books could be greatly expanded, but the important point here is to see that it is the narrative of God’s people that reveals how the various books relate to each other and thus unifies the collection of writings that we call the Bible.
How is it helpful to see the story of God’s people as the unifying factor of the Bible?
First, this understanding makes this history our history. We, the church today, are the continuation of the story of God’s people. The story that began with Abraham and goes through Jesus and the early church is the beginning of our identity as God’s people. This reading displays the entire Bible, not just the New Testament, as our book.
Second, recognizing this story as the unifying element of the Bible should impact the way we understand it. Seeing this story means we should expect to see developments and changes in the story as the people of God grew in their understanding of what it meant to be God’s people. We should expect to see instances where people got things wrong, without thereby seeing that recognition as a rejection of the truth of the Bible.
Stated boldly, we should get used to the idea that not all writings in the Bible speak with the same voice, and we can see that some ideas in it are wrong or misguided and can be abandoned. Thus the most important point of all is to see the direction of changes as the writers grew in their understanding of God. And since the important culmination of the story is in the narrative of Jesus, his story becomes the key to identifying the earlier voices in the story that most truly reflect the will of God.
Third, seeing the unifying factor of the Bible as the story of God’s people enables us to see that everything in the Bible reflects the particular context in which they lived.
Obviously we live in a different context. Our task is not to try to copy and transplant directly the ideas and practices from 2,000 or 3,000 years ago. Rather than assuming the history speaks directly to us, we should read their story to understand the direction in which things were moving and changing. Then, in our context, we will discuss how to be the continuation of that story, how to keep moving the story in the same direction.
The Bible makes changes within this history visible. By the time of the New Testament, for example, there had been a movement away from the polygamy practiced by the patriarchs and the kings of Israel. In another shift, there is a clear move toward less violence, which culminates with Jesus’ rejection of violence. Six times in the Book of Acts the writer describes the brief narrative used by the Apostles to identify Jesus in the months immediately after his death and resurrection (Acts 2:14-39; 3:13-26; 4:10-12; 5:30-32; 10:36-43; 13:17-41). Paul repeats that outline (1 Corinthians 15) but adds a point not made earlier, that the resurrection of Jesus requires belief in a general resurrection of the dead. Some decades later, as the eyewitnesses to Jesus died, the narrative outline visible in Acts was expanded by the four Gospel writers. Meanwhile, the church in Acts expanded the circle of God’s people to include Gentiles, abandoned the requirement of circumcision and allowed eating of foods previously deemed unclean. New Testament interpreters took the story of Jesus into other worldviews and used the images from these diverse frames of reference to say that with his life, death and resurrection Jesus was both above and below it—the Greek Logos (John 1), principalities and powers (Colossians 1), the high priest (Hebrews), a new Adam (Philippians 2), the slain Lamb (Revelation 4 and 5).
These developments and changes all involved decisions about how to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively in new contexts and to address new issues as the early church expanded beyond Jerusalem. Sometimes they extracted new insight from the story. Other times they changed their minds about acceptable conduct.
With changes occurring, it should be obvious that different viewpoints appear, and thus contemporary interpreters are not obligated to, and in fact cannot, harmonize or synthesize all biblical statements on a particular question. It is not possible, for example, to harmonize the blessing of marriage to multiple wives with a clear endorsement of monogamous marriage, or decisions for and against circumcision or slavery.
In practice, we have been applying this understanding of the Bible but without fully acknowledging or owning it. Some changes have taken longer to develop than others. It was well into the 19th century before many Christians condemned slavery in the face of the Bible’s apparent sanction of it. More recently, another example comes from the status of women in the church. Since early in the last century, in many denominations there has been significant movement toward acknowledging the equal status of women and recognizing that women can and should hold any office and perform any function within the church.
Mennonites have experienced these changes. The Mennonite congregation of my youth required head coverings for women, women did not wear pants, even wedding bands were forbidden, and divorce was an unpardonable sin. Ordaining women was not even thinkable. The church defended all these practices with figurative or often actual fingers placed on specific verses of Scripture. With a few exceptions and some bumps along the way, significant changes have occurred for all these issues in the last 50 to 75 years in what is now Mennonite Church USA. These developments have occurred without a sense of having abandoned the Bible as the book of the church. We should accept the fact that other long-held positions may also change as contexts and awareness shifts. For today, I believe the stance of refusing full church membership and participation to people in committed, same-sex relationships is another such long-held prohibition that needs to change.
What I am suggesting is for us to be more forthright about the way we are actually using the Bible. Even as the assumption persists that the Bible functions as a rule book, in practice we are already reading it as a history, whose context we assess as we ask how to continue the story today.
The Bible is the church’s book because it contains the story of the church’s origins. Without it, we would know little about the beginning of the first millennia of the story that began with Abraham. But the Bible is the church’s book for another reason as well.
We are called Christians. The Bible is by far the best source to the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. We read the Bible because it contains the story of the one who defines the primary identity of Christians, Jesus Christ. The words of the Bible are important, but they are not the primary authority. The ultimate authority for Christians is the narrative of Jesus that is witnessed to by the words of the Bible.
With the story of Jesus in view as the key to understanding the Bible, we need to emphasize that this is not a “picking and choosing” of preferred texts or discarding a part of the Bible. We are omitting nothing from the canon. In fact, we need the complete text. The contradictions and disagreements and unsavory elements of the story that led to Jesus point to the authenticity of the ancient text. No editor sanitized it. And only with this full, unexpurgated version in view do we see that there is an unfolding understanding that comes to fruition in the nonviolent story of Jesus.
In the first century, Paul was understanding and bringing Jesus into his context. We who stand in the tradition of Jesus and Paul are engaged in the same task, namely, reading the history in a way to continue today the task of bringing Jesus into our world as we continue the story of God’s people. Performing this task is by no means a replacement of the biblical writings. Rather we are learning from them how changes were made in applying Jesus to their context, which then assists our efforts to bring Jesus into our world. As John Howard Yoder once wrote, we should be continually “reaching back” to the original story of Jesus to restate it anew in our current context.
Reaching back also means reaching out. Since all Christian traditions confess Jesus, reading the Bible with the story of Jesus as the norm of understanding the Bible’s story establishes an ecumenical framework for conversation with all Christians.
J. Denny Weaver is professor emeritus of religion from Bluffton (Ohio) University. He lives in Madison, Wis., and is a member of Madison Mennonite Church.