While there are many, many perspectives on the Bible, I think most people hold one of three views:
- The atheist/agnostic literature perspective
- The conservative/traditional static-flat perspective
- The liberal fluid perspective
The first of these is not very interesting from a theological standpoint. If one believes God does not exist or is unknowable, than the Bible has little value as Holy Writ. The second perspective is the typical evangelical/classical protestant view. Above all else it stresses the Bible as God’s Word for human-kind. Part of this perspective demands that the Bible is meant for all people more-or-less equally, which requires whatever truth the Bible had for 3rd century readers to be just as valid as whatever truths it has for us today. Since truth lies outside time, it is not hard to see how this basic assumption leads to a “static” Bible. If the Bible could be re-interpreted by each generation in that generation’s context, one cannot help come across a genuine truth of one era contravening a genuine truth of another. If the Bible is God’s timeless word to humankind, it’s principles cannot change from century to century (though the applications of those principles certainly can). While it is easy to to see why the conservative/traditional view leads to a static Bible, it is less appreciated that it also leads to a “flat” one. For traditionalists, the Bible is a cohesive unit intended as a whole work. It is God writing through different quills, but all a single piece. This means all its parts fit together without any conflicts, sharp points or rough edges. This goes beyond mere internal consistency. For the traditionalist, the whole work aims to answer the same key questions, and its various parts actively agree with one another toward this goal. This “flatness” extends to the audience as well. The reader is to assume everyone on Earth form a single audience for which the entirety of the Bible was intended. This, of course, connects back to the notion of the Bible being God’s word for all humans. Contrast this with the liberal, fluid perspective, which may or may not consider modern readers as a primary intended audience for the Bible and tends to divide its teachings into those that are relevant today and those that are inapplicable, which they generally ignore. Not that liberals are the only ones who marginalize parts of the Bible they find troubling. Their treatment of topics considered unpalatable today (Hell, God’s wrath, and the many politically unsavory aspects of God’s Law) is perhaps slightly better than how a typical conservative/traditionalist handles passages difficult to their theology or politics. Liberals tend to ignore or dismiss passages they don’t like while conservatives neuter them. Press an evangelical on how John 5:29 and Acts 21:24-26 intersects with their theology or how Luke 12:16-21 and Acts 2:45 intersect with their politics and practice, or how
Matthew 25:34-46 Luke 10:25-37 intersect with both, and you are almost certain to be told that those passages don’t really say what they appear to say. Jesus did not really mean that the judgment will be based on an individual’s actions, nor did he really mean we shouldn’t store up money for retirement, and he certainly didn’t suggest we pick up and help random (possibly dangerous!) people on the roadside.
A fourth perspective could be called the “Archipelago” view, which attempts to respect the individual components of the Bible as missives written for various purposes and to various audiences, but each intended for a specific historical audience long, long ago. This does not mean they are unimportant for us, after all they were written by people who have a far better understanding of God and Christ and spiritual cosmology than anyone alive today. However, when interfacing with these texts we must humbly accept that we are silent guests, generally coming in late on a conversation between people who are more acquainted with each other than we are with either one.
One of the most important points of this Archipelago perspective is not just that biblical writers wrote to address different needs and answer different questions, but by and large the questions they intended to address are not the ones considered important by the church today. Hence, one must be careful lest we take from Paul or John the right answer to the wrong question.
Evangelicals typically focus on three questions:
- What is the relationship between Jesus Christ and God?
- How does one go to heaven?
- How did Christ’s death address the problem of our individual guilt before God?
Yet these are not the questions deemed important by the writers of the Bible. The Jews of Jesus day already had a perfectly reasonable answer to the second question, which Jesus modifies only a bit, indicating that HE will judge rather than the Father. According to their understanding of the Judgment, the third question is ill-posed. The various texts of the new testament seek to answer many questions, none of them being the ones posed above:
- What is the relationship between Jesus Christ and mankind?
- How does Jesus’ resurrection address the problem of man’s physical mortality?
- How does Jesus’ death relate to HIS status before God?
- How has the Kingdom of God been opened to the Gentiles?
- If Gentiles can now fully follow the Jewish Messiah, should they also keep the Jewish ordinances?
- What is the content of the new covenant?
- How should followers of Christ live on Earth while expectantly waiting Christ’s return?
- What does it mean to have faith in God?
One of the reasons the thoughts above came into my mind today is that Easter is all about Christ’s resurrection, which is generally under-appreciated (compared to Christ’s death) by modern Christians. A fair reading of Acts should convince anyone that the “good news” spread by the apostles to those they were evangelizing is “Jesus of Nazareth is the risen King of Creation.” Interestingly, the chief relevance of the crucifixion in the evangelism there is as proof of prophecy fulfilled rather than offering made. It was important to show that the OT indicated that the Messiah would be killed not to convince everyone that Jesus paid for their sins but to explain to the Jewish people the unfathomable idea that God’s Champion would overthrow death by dying. Otherwise, how could they believe that Jesus was God’s Christ? The conventional wisdom of the time suggested that Jesus’ death proved that he was not, in fact, the Son of David, because how could the Messiah save Israel from the grave?