How (Not) to Read the Bible

Ever come across a strange passage in the Bible that confused you…maybe even challenged your faith?

Ever come across a social media post or meme or YouTube video that attacks the Bible…even mocks and ridicules it?

Ever struggled to make sense of how the Bible deals with science, violence, slavery, gender, or sexuality?

I have.

The Bible is not always easy to understand.

There are passages that I can’t grasp…verses that I can’t wrap my mind around.

There are passages that I, quite honestly, wish weren’t in the Bible. It would make things easier to explain to others.

Believing in the authority of the Bible doesn’t mean that you always understand what it is saying or that you even agree with it from a human standpoint.

A child can submit to the authority of their parents but not always understand why they say what they say or do what they do.

You simply have to trust their heart when you can’t discern their ways.

By its very nature, the Bible is meant to confront…to unsettle…to pierce to the innermost thoughts, motives, and idols of the heart. It speaks outside of our context…outside of our culture…above our preferences.

If you can read the Bible and never be stretched…never be made uncomfortable…never be pushed in your thinking…then you are obviously not reading it correctly.

Dan Kimball’s book, How (Not) to Read the Bible, addresses some of the challenges that people (believers and non-believers) often have with the Bible. His subtitle says it all: “Making Sense of the Anti-Women, Anti-Science, Pro-Violence, Pro-Slavery and Other Crazy-Sounding Parts of Scripture.”

That about covers it.

Kimball is a pastor and a professor at Western Seminary. I have read several of his past books. He writes a lot to a skeptical audience…to a young audience struggling with the Christian faith. His heart for people…his heart for the gospel of Jesus Christ…and his sheer honesty always seem to come through in his writings.

This book is no exception.

If you know someone wrestling with the Bible…or someone who has watched one too many atheistic YouTube videos…then this may be a good book to give them. Kimball hits all the major questions, issues, and attacks that are levied against the “Good Book.” And he includes just about every meme that has ever been used to mock the Christian faith.

I had no idea that there was that much hatred for the Bible out there.

One thing you can say with confidence: the Bible is still controversial…and still relevent. No matter how much people try to disparage or dismiss it, it still keeps demanding their focus and attention.

Kimball gives four main premises on how to read the Bible:

  1. The Bible is a library, not a book.
  2. The Bible is written for us, but not to us.
  3. Never read a Bible verse (apart from its context).
  4. All of the Bible points to Jesus.

His gist is fairly simple. The Bible has to be understood on its terms not our own. It is filled with different genres, covers the whole history of the redemptive story, has a theme and a purpose, and has to be read in its historical, cultural, grammatical context.

Pulling verses out of context…and assuming that you can just slap your present-day, limited, cultural understanding on them…is foolish and unfair to the sacred Scriptures.

Even if you don’t believe the Bible, you should at least approach it with respect. It is, without argument, the most influential, most read, most translated, most influential book in human history. It is also the best attested ancient document that we have. It was written by over 40 authors, in three different languages, over a span of 1500 years, and yet it tells one story, from beginning to end, with one theme, the person of Jesus Christ.

That in itself is remarkable.

To think that a five-minute YouTube video made by someone in their momma’s basement is enough to discredit the Bible is absurd.

Kimball covers five particular objections to the Bible:

  1. Strange commands and customs, including slavery
  2. The treatment of women
  3. Creation and science, particularly the age of the earth
  4. The exclusive truth claims of the Bible (or why other belief systems are wrong)
  5. The brutality of OT violence

Kimball handles each of these subjects better than I can…and more in-depth than a blog post. But here are a few quotes that summarize his thoughts:

Most of ancient slavery in the time of the OT and NT was different from the slavery we are familiar with in modern times. Back then people were bought as servants, the money going to pay a person’s debt. Poverty forced others into servanthood just to stay alive. This slavery, or servanthood, was not race-based. The NT laid the groundwork for the eventual demise of slavery, as it taught that all humans are of equal worth….

In the beginning, God created a perfect harmony of man and woman–unique but equal. After humans rebelled against God in the garden, patriarchal sin developed with various types of abuse of women, including misogyny and polygamy. This is not what God created; it is what humans put in place. …Jesus and the NT show the forward trajectory of women being seen as of equal worth, value, and importance in God’s sight and serving on mission together with men….

To read the Bible as a science manual and ask science questions about the age of the earth, the length of days, what specific order everything was created in, and if Eve was made of an actual human “rib” are not what the early chapters of Genesis were written to answer. This is reading Genesis incorrectly and asking questions it was not written to answer and missing the purpose for which it was written. …There is much mystery we just don’t know, details that Scriptures don’t give. What we can know is that God created everything….

When you examine the world religious, you find they do not all point to the same God or to paths that end in the same place. Their major tenets of belief are different and contradict each other. …Either one is right and the rest wrong or they are all wrong. The claims of Christianity make the most sense and have the backing of historical Scriptures to prove its claims are true….

Violence is very difficult to understand, as even one death ordered by God is horrific to grasp. Ultimately we have to trust God and what we know of him as abundantly loving, immensely kind, endlessly compassionate, and exceedingly forgiving. So if violence is used, God knows why even though we may not be able to comprehend the reason….

Kimball’s answers may not satisfy everyone…and some of his conclusions may be a little off base…but he does adequately show that the Bible can stand on its own…if you are willing to approach it with humility and teachability rather than arrogance and “chronological snobbery,” as C.S. Lewis once called it.

What is ironic is that often people use the biblical, Judeo-Christian ethic to attack the Bible itself. The concept of human rights, human equality, and human compassion emerged out of the truths of Scripture. They were not endemic to the ancient cultures of the world.

Ancient cultures, apart from Israel, completely lacked any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value. (Tom Holland)

Without the Christian idea of the imago Dei, “universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated” human rights simply wouldn’t exist. In fact, even the guy who said “God is dead,” Friederich Nietzsche, said universal human rights, an idea he considered weak, came from a Christian view of the world. (John Stonestreet)

Intellectual honesty demands recognition of the fact that what passes as ‘secular,’ ‘Western’ principles of basic human rights developed nowhere else than out of key strands of the biblically rooted religions. (Max Stackhouse)

So what we can’t understand about the Bible should be governed by what we do understand…and, in the same vein, what we can’t understand about God’s ways should be governed by what we do understand.

The God who created us…loved us…entered our world and died for us…is a God who can be trusted.

And His Word is written for our good…to teach, rebuke, correct, and train us to live differently than our culture and in line with our created purpose.

The Bible is my authority for faith and practice.

It is my light in this darkened world.

It is my sword in this spiritual battle.

It is my bread for this starving soul.

Because it points me to Jesus, the Word made flesh, my Savior and my Lord.

If you read the Bible and somehow miss your desperate need for Jesus and His great love for you, then you haven’t read the Bible right.

Because the story is all about Him.

That simple children’s song I learned in Sunday School captures it best:

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

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One Response to How (Not) to Read the Bible

  1. kathy g says:

    I am “willing to approach” my Bible – HIS Word – with “humility and teachability” and, with His help, “be trained by it to live differently than our culture and in line with my created purpose”. Thank you, Pastor Steve.

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