Sientir's View of the Bible


I’ve been having a discussion with my pastor, and it’s prompted me to put into words how I view the Bible.

So let’s start with an important question: How much authority would I say the Bible has?

This is a trick question. The Bible, it turns out, is a book! Inanimate objects, such as books, cannot have authority, and to assign authority to the Bible is to anthropomorphize it: to treat it as a person. There are several serious dangers to this, not the least of which is turning the Bible into an idol. Remember, God is the one who has authority! This issue of authority is important, so I’m going to start with the dangers that can stem from it before delving into my views of the Bible more broadly.

The most significant danger is, as already mentioned, turning the Bible into an idol. The Bible does not save us, Jesus does. The Bible does not speak, the Holy Spirit does. The other major danger is using the Bible to steal God’s authority for humans. This will require some explanation, so please bear with me as I dig into language as a concept, as it’s an important foundation for this idea. First of all, we think in ideas. Language is the process of attaching words—labels of various kinds—to those ideas. This can help us recognize ideas, though in my experience, I’ve been able to have ideas for which no word exists. Alternatively, I can have an idea in my head for which I knew the word, but for whatever reason, I’ve forgotten it (hopefully temporarily). However, words are an imprecise way of communicating ideas (nor are they the only way: pictures and gestures are two other common ways of communicating ideas). This means that there is always a layer of interpretation, and not everyone connects words to precisely the same idea—connotation has a huge impact on meaning. The point here is that when I write some words, I’m attempting to communicate an idea through those words, but it is then up to the reader to interpret the meaning. There are many, many ways that this process results in the reader misunderstanding, to various degrees, what the writer meant. Context is a big one: we know what we mean, but it is terribly and tragically easy to fail to record enough context for someone else to properly interpret what we meant. Consider the inside joke: a phrase whose meaning differs dramatically based on context that is shared between various people. Allusions, metaphors, idioms, and various sayings all factor into this. As an example, my dad sometimes says, “Arnold,” when leaving to run an errand. On the surface, this makes little sense. It is only because I knew he was alluding to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous line as the Terminator that I knew he was using that actor’s name as shorthand for “I’ll be back.

All of this to say that reading the Bible necessarily involves interpretation, as does translating it. This is entirely unavoidable; it is a necessary part of reading any text. Now, for simpler, more straightforward sentiments, this can seem quite easy. (Though there are still many ways that context can trip us up, and even beyond that, our brains can commit all kinds of interpretative errors—one I know I run into is reading “if” statements as if they were bidirectional, “if and only if” in logic parlance, which can easily lead to drawing erroneous conclusions. A good example of this is in Proverbs, where it basically says that if you’re lazy, you’ll become poor; what it doesn’t say is the reverse, that if you are poor, you must be lazy. To think it says this second thing is an error, and a kind of error that is only too easy to commit, especially when it reflects cultural beliefs.) However, more complicated or confusing passages of Scripture are way more prone to interpretive conflicts, where different people will come to different conclusions. Who’s to say which of these differing interpretations is correct? Simply, each person will ultimately decide for themselves by following their own convictions, but many of these convictions will be derived from their own values, which are dictated in part by culture and in part by character or personality. At this point, I seek the interpretation that makes the most sense to me, while wanting to be open to being persuaded that a different interpretation makes more sense. This can be for any number of reasons: a sound logical argument, contextual information, or some other thing that changes my perspective. This might sound wishy-washy to some, but this comes from the fact that I don’t believe myself to be omniscient. I think we would do well to see ourselves as trying to persuade others that our interpretation is better, rather than declaring that our interpretation is the inherently correct one, especially with the more complicated or confusing passages. As Paul says, “In any case, we should live up to whatever truth we have attained.” [Philippians 3:16 HCSB]

Pastors and faith leaders will often make the claim that their interpretation is correct, which in turn leads people to believe that those leaders’ interpretation is correct and that—and this is important—every other interpretation is wrong. This then sets off a chain of beliefs: if the Bible is seen as having authority (attributing God’s authority to the Bible), and the leader is given the authority to interpret the Bible for their congregation, then that leader has effectively taken God’s authority for themselves. Anyone claiming to speak for God does this, whether intentionally or not. Perhaps we try to interpose a layer; for example, perhaps we appeal to Paul’s authority as an Apostle, but then we assert to know what Paul was meaning to communicate through one of his many letters. Regardless, this is still in some way an appeal to God’s authority, for that is where Paul’s authority as an Apostle came from, as he asserted on numerous occasions.

In the end, we are best off, in my opinion, recognizing that our understanding of the Scriptures is our subjective interpretation. We must discern and make the decision about what we believe. It seems to me that to think otherwise is to ignore how language itself works.

So then, how do I view the Scriptures? First of all, I see them as being the most reliable testimony about God, which notably includes their witness about both Jesus Christ and God’s character. This I see as the primary purpose, though not the only purpose. (And it should be stated that the Scriptures are not the only testimony about God—as Paul reminds us in Romans, nature itself testifies about God, as all creations inevitably bear the mark of their creator.) Flowing from this primary purpose is the second: training in godliness. These are the main theological purposes I see, though I do think the Bible has other reasonable uses, such as historical ones. However, for my purposes here, I’ll focus on the theological uses.

Now, about God’s character much can be said, but I want to focus in on what I see as the essential characteristics. At the root is love, and flowing from that are compassion, justice, and mercy. I also want to touch on holiness, which seems important to briefly discuss here. I will speak on love itself in a moment, as there is much to say (English means far too many disparate things by that word), so let’s begin here: God knows each person fully and loves each of us, and I think it is from this knowledge and love that His compassion flows, since a deep care and concern for our wellbeing makes sense given these conditions. Justice likewise flows from His knowledge and love; the just recompense when one of those God loves is harmed. This is balanced by mercy, for God loves the perpetrator as well as the victim, and He would rather see reconciliation than punishment (though God is wise enough to know that this is not always possible—He does not force reconciliation). Finally, it is worth touching on holiness. I know this gets defined as “set apart,” but that means little to me. Currently, I understand “holiness” to be similar in kind to “beauty.” Both of these are subjective tags (or labels, if you prefer) that we apply to things that then modify how we interact with that thing. In the case of holiness, we treat those things we deem holy (people, objects, etc.) with reverence. This makes much more sense to me than other definitions of holiness that I have heard; perhaps it’ll be a useful way to understand the concept of holiness for you, too!

To me, training in godliness is the process by which we develop a character like God’s. At the core, this means developing our ability to love like God does, from which so much of His character flows. This includes things like delighting in diversity (why else would God create so much variety?), which we humans often dislike (our history demonstrates a general push for conformity). The Scriptures are immensely useful for this process of character change, which we call “sanctification.” With regards to this concept, I wish to bring up two passages: Hebrews 5:12-14 describes maturity and Galatians 3:24 describes the role of the Law. You can read the linked passages yourself. The key concept from the Hebrews passage is a definition of maturity: one whose senses have been trained to distinguish between good and evil. The Galatians verse, meanwhile, describes how the Law was a guardian until the time of Christ. An important aspect of my view of the Scriptures combines these concepts: rules and regulations exist to guide us as we develop the maturity to be able to discern between good and evil ourselves.

With that in mind, I view the process of training in godliness as being like a ray. For those who aren’t mathematically inclined, please bear with me! A ray has a point and a direction that goes indefinitely. The way I see things, the origin point is Love (and this is the goal), with the line part of the ray being more and more specific principles, laws, and regulations. The way I see it, items closer to Love supersede items further from Love; that is, if there is some apparent conflict between, say, something that I see as a principle and something I see as a regulation, I will disregard the conflicting part of the regulation in favor of the principle. I recognize that this will make some people uncomfortable, but I also see this as the basis for why Christians aren’t required to obey the Mosaic Law: the Law of Love supersedes the Law of Moses; however, living according to the Law of Love requires discernment, maturity, and, most importantly, the aid of the Holy Spirit.

But what is Love? This origin point is critical! If we place it in the wrong spot, then everything will go awry. Thankfully, Paul wrote extensively about Love in 1 Corinthians 13, and I consider this significant enough that I want to break it down meticulously.

Love is patient: There are a lot of ways being patient with others (and with ourselves) can manifest. Not blowing people off, taking the time to really listen, and not trying to rush healing or growth are all good examples.
Love is kind: Kindness can be surprisingly challenging for us humans. It requires us to let go of antagonism, mockery, pettiness, and even revenge.
Love does not envy: It’s so easy for envy to rob us of love; to look at what another has that we want and to hate them for it. In particular, this can also make it hard to care about their problems—"they have X thing I want so badly, so what are they complaining about?”
Love is not boastful: Love is concerned with others and lifting them up, ergo it does not inflate its own self. Beware the humblebrag! Love will speak honestly about what it has done, though, if the situation calls for it.
Love is not conceited: You could also say love is not arrogant or prideful. Love does not view oneself as better than others. All humans have an intrinsic equality of consciousness, and love recognizes this.
Love does not act improperly: You could also say love is not rude. The way I see this, love is not insulting, nor does it try to make others feel uncomfortable. Rather, it wishes to create a welcoming environment.
Love is not selfish: When I look at this, I think of the verse that tells us to care about the interests of others. It’s not about what’s best for me, but what’s best for we. But, in a properly loving environment, “we” includes “me” as others are concerned about your concerns as you’re concerned about theirs. This creates a net of mutual interest and care that sounds very appealing to me.
Love is not provoked: This is about being provoked to anger or outbursts. Love does not return hostility in kind, but returns kindness instead. In other words, love does not escalate hostilities, but rather seeks to deescalate them.
Love does not keep a record of wrongs: Love doesn’t hold grudges, and it doesn’t bring back up that thing you did wrong five years ago whenever you mess up now. This isn’t the same thing as saying love doesn’t have boundaries!
Love finds no joy in unrighteousness: You could also say that love finds no joy in injustice, or that love does not experience schadenfreude. At first this seems obvious, but what if it’s someone you’ve been a fan of or otherwise supported who committed the injustice? Or what if the injustice favors us? What if the injustice is against our enemies? This can become very heavy to think about.
Love rejoices in the truth: Even with difficult truths, love sees them worthy of celebration. However, we have to be a bit careful here: I think we Christians have weaponized the concept of “truth,” especially “hard truths,” in unloving ways. Let us not forget patience, kindness, and the other qualities of love. Let us carefully examine the depths of a matter so as to ascertain the truth. Some truths are easily discerned, but most are either narrow (subjective truths—e.g. you might like or dislike a movie, and that opinion is true, but it is also personal; such truths are unique to each person), while others may be hidden or murky (we see this often in court—it may be quite difficult to ascertain the truth at times).
Love bears all things: I believe this has to do with complaining. That is, love does not complain; though I’d again caution a few things. One, sometimes we do need to process things by expressing them. Second, sometimes something is wrong and needs to be addressed; in these cases, we should do what we can to remedy the situation (rather than complain about it uselessly), which may involve, for example, building a consensus or sharing with a supervisor. Third, I do not see this as excluding healthy boundaries. Fourth, there are kinds of critique and/or analysis that are quite helpful that I don’t think constitute complaining. Rather, complaining or whining are useless actions that have no ultimate benefit to anyone and generally contribute to a negative environment. (For example, kids asking, “Are we there yet?” does not, in fact, get you to your destination any faster.)
Love believes all things: I understand this as giving the benefit of the doubt; of having the default stance that someone is speaking honestly until proven otherwise. In an era of “dog whistles” and armchair psychologists, we have a lot of people claiming that what someone said really means something else or acting as if they know a person’s motives better than the person themselves does. As such, this aspect of love is in short supply.
Love hopes all things: As I’ve thought about this quality, I take this to mean that love believes the future can and will be better. In other words, it does not despair. This is not wishful thinking or unwarranted optimism, but rather, love labors for this hope and believes that labor to be worthwhile.
Love endures all things: In my mind, this is about enduring hardship for the sake of others; of not abandoning them as they pass through difficulty. It carries a sense of loyalty with it, of bearing one another’s burdens. Are you willing to be someone’s support through difficulty? This conjures to mind parents sacrificing for the sake of their children or friends standing up for each other.

Another way to think about this is to ask yourself what you envision the Kingdom of God to be like as a society. When Jesus says in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come,” that’s in part a call for the church to embody the Kingdom of God to the extent that we are able to do so in pre-Resurrection bodies, here in this fallen world. Some things to keep in mind about the Kingdom of God: we will be able to love each other like God loves us because we will fully know ourselves and each other; language will be different, which I take to mean we won’t misinterpret each other; prejudice, and the discrimination that flows from it, will cease to exist; chaos and the terrors of the dark will be gone; there will be a great deal of diversity, including cultural diversity; no one will be in need; those in power will truly be servants; and sin and death will be gone. The goal, then, should be to do our best to set up our churches as a mirror of what life will be like when God makes all things new. We can’t do that exactly, as we have to account for sin (as an aside, a great deal of effort is spent on managing sin; it turns out to be extremely wasteful), and some accommodations have to be made due to present limitations that will be removed after the Resurrection. Nevertheless, how attractive would our churches be if we did our best to manifest the Kingdom of God in the here and now?

An issue that repeatedly comes up is that we humans seem to have (generally speaking) a love for rules and a desire for absolute clarity on them. As a result, we take commands and build out traditions from them. In my mind, these kinds of traditions are like a line that’s perpendicular to the aforementioned ray, and the more one develops them, the further they travel from Love. While initially this added distance is quite minor, it can easily become vast. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for doing this kind of thing numerous times, and we Christians are in no way immune to this tendency.

Another problem is the use of the Bible to justify cultural values while ignoring godliness. To illustrate my point, the Bible has been used to justify slavery and anti-miscegenation laws. There is much I could say here, but the key point is that we need discernment to identify when something is a godly value vs. a cultural one that we’re using (dare I say abusing?) the Bible to support. The closer we draw to God and godliness, the more we’re able to observe this phenomenon. Keep in mind that all religions experience a blending with the cultures in which they exist (this is called “syncretization”), and Christianity is no exception. We fool ourselves if we think otherwise.

I will conclude by saying this: I do believe that the Scriptures are inspired by God—that they are “breathed out” by Him, and that they are useful for teaching, rebuking, and training in righteousness—that is, helping oneself and others increase in godliness. I believe they contain reliable testimony about God and His character. However, I also believe the authors to have been fallible humans writing to specific audiences and from specific contexts. I believe our translators to be fallible humans, but more than that, that translation itself is unavoidably full of compromises (to be clear, I do think our English translations are overall solid, and going into this further would be its own entire article). I believe that interpretation of Scripture is subjective. Therefore, it is vitally important to walk with the Spirit, to remember that righteousness is not acquired through obedience to any law, and to seek God through faith and in prayer.

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