December 4, 2020

Writers’ Roundtable

We are introducing a new—and I hope, regular—feature today: the Writers’ Roundtable. I am so incredibly blessed to work with some of the best writers I know. Mike Bell. Lisa Dye. Adam Palmer. Damaris Zehner. Joe Spann. And, of course, Chaplain Mike. Honestly, these great friends put in many hours reading, researching, praying, and then writing for with no compensation. Did I mention they are all crazy as well?

Writers’ Roundtable will be a feature where Chaplain Mike or I will introduce a topic, ask a few specific questions, then sit back and listen to the discussion. Imagine us, if you will, seated around a kitchen table, beverages at hand, wrestling with ideas as brothers and sisters in this journey of faith. That is just what you will get in this—except our “table” is the internet.

And you have to provide your own beverage.

Our topic today is how followers of Jesus, specifically in the Western culture, should view the Bible.

As always, your comments are welcome as well. Enjoy. (Oh, and use a coaster under your glass, will you?)

Jeff Dunn: Thanks to all of you for being willing to participate in this first Writers’ Roundtable. Joe Spann and I were talking at breakfast recently when I asked him if he thinks Christians, especially in our Western culture, tend to deify the Bible. So that is how I want to kick this conversation off: Do you think we as believers deify Scripture? Joe, why don’t you start us off.

Joe Spann: I do think the West, and really the entire church, has misused the scriptures in some terrible ways. To be more specific, the Church tends to make two mistakes with Scripture: it is either purely intellectual or purely magical, when in fact it is neither.

If it is purely intellectual then the acceptable uses for scripture include philosophy, behavioral principles, historical or sociological study and the like.  I am not disparaging any of these approaches to Scripture.  I am saying that I have seen this approach in absence of the Holy Spirit’s enlightenment go from dryly interesting to absolutely destructive to faith.  The second error is that scripture has some sort of magic in and of itself.  This is what I think Jeff is referring to when he asks about Christians deifying the Bible.  We all know people who pray scripture as if it is a spell of some sort.  As if certain verses work for certain ailments.  We remove our involvement and God’s involvement not realizing that the “magic” of scripture was the meeting of God and man in the first place.

Chaplain Mike: I don’t think I would say that Christians I’ve observed “deify” the Bible. That goes too far. But I agree with Joe in that I have thought many have what I would call a “superstitious” view of the Bible. They treat it like a magic pill or talisman. They think just quoting verses will solve problems. They take words out of context and claim them as promises from God. They suppose that citing the Bible should simply end discussion, rather than prompting us to engage in more thoughtful discussion.

JD: I don’t know, Chaplain. Not long ago I was talking with the pastor of a large Bible church. This man has a doctorate from Dallas Theological. He said that the Bible is on the same level as God himself. That really took me back. So I think there are those out there who do make the Bible itself deity. Lisa?

Lisa Dye: My short answer is “yes.”

Now here is my longer answer.

When I came to Christ at age fourteen, I had attended church only sporadically. My parents were divorced and if my mom took my siblings and me, it was to a Presbyterian church. My dad had Pentecostal leanings, but only because he was a jazz musician and wanted to go where there was good music. My best friend was Catholic and I sometimes went to mass with her. All that to say, I had no preconceived notions about treatment of the Bible, both because serious Christians were unfamiliar to me and the ones I eventually encountered had such varied beliefs.

As a new believer, my longing to know the God who had just saved me prompted an intense passion to read and study my Bible. I carried it everywhere. I marked it up and wore out several copies in different versions in my first few years. My husband’s grandfather thought I had committed a great sin because my Bible appeared abused to him. He even believed it was wrong to place another book or anything else on top of a Bible. In that sense, he deified the physical matter – the leather binding and gold edged papers themselves.

To my way of thinking, my worn and torn Bible symbolized my passion, but in the sense that I became inflexible about my set times to read and study Scripture, I made it an idol. Others make idols of what they find in Scripture to the point that if Jesus showed up on their doorstep and made a statement at odds with something underlined in their Bible, they would argue with him. That happened with a few Pharisees as I recall.

In fact, it happened with some who served Christ lovingly. Peter was busy about the Lord’s work when he had a strange vision, recorded in Acts 10. Heaven opened and unclean animals were presented with the command to kill and eat. Peter replied, “Surely not, Lord!”

Yet a voice spoke to him and said, “Do not call anything impure that God has made pure.”

Further on, we see that the vision preceded a call to go preach the Gospel to Cornelius and his household. God was proving to Peter that Christ’s salvation was not just for Jews, but Gentiles as well.

A few points can be drawn from this passage. First, the latter revelation seems to supersede the former revelation. Had Peter obeyed only the familiar revelation, he would have been disobeying God. Second, the latter revelation came by means of a vision and voice. At that point, the story of Peter’s vision was not Scripture. Had Peter obeyed only what was written, he would also have been in disobedience. Finally, Peter took a bit of convincing. God repeated his command three times. The new revelation needed testing and confirmation, but ultimately Peter obeyed. Even today believers who can’t read, or who have no Bibles are moved by God through visions and his voice.

Adam Palmer: I think it’s dangerous to speak of generic “Christians” or even “Western Christians” as a hive mind, like “the homosexual agenda” or “Hollywood.” Sweeping generalizations ignore the nuance of individualism, which is the very thing that makes the human race so totally awesome.

I’ve been to the Southern Baptist Convention, and those 12,000 people don’t agree on everything. I know some Christians who DO deify the Bible and put it on the level of God, but I would also guess those people don’t realize they’re doing that. But I mostly know Christians who have a Bible, who read it every now and then, who would mentally assent to its authority, and yet, in all honesty, give it no higher place in their lives than they do Zeus or Odin.

Damaris Zehner: Yes, I think some Christians deify the Bible.  Some misread the Bible itself to heighten its importance, calling it the Word of God (which is Jesus), as well as the pillar and the ground of truth (which is the church). Not everyone does this, of course, but I have heard these mistakes more than once. I suspect that there may be people, who, if asked to leave their Bible at the Pearly Gates before going in to see God face to face, would hesitate.

It seems as if the Bible, not Jesus, has become to these people the incarnation of God.  There is actually a hymn to the Holy Bible — book divine, precious treasure, thou art mine.   Mine to (among other things the song lists) chide me when I rove,  . . . mine to punish or reward. A book can chide or reward?  This is at best poetic personification and at worst idolatry.

Perhaps people deify the Bible to  delude themselves that their Bibles are all they need for salvation and sanctification.  They ignore the verses explaining our part in the body of Christ and prefer to be individualists — so much easier and more comfortable than dealing with difficult people.  This is a very American failing.

Mike Bell: A seminary professor once said to me “The problem is that that some people want to take ‘the word of God’, capitalize it, and worship it, where worship is properly due to Jesus Christ, ‘the capitalized Word of God’.”

So my usage is:

“The word of God” = Bible

“The Word of God” = Jesus

I should add that I have found that the “Trinity” of many churches is “The Father, Son, and Bible”, and that the Holy Spirit is relegated to a tertiary status.

AP: When I was in high school and college, I worked at a Christian bookstore, starting at the cash register and eventually working up to the plum role of Music Department Manager. Anyway, one day I was ringing up a customer who bought a nice, leather bound something-or-other-translation Bible. One of those expensive ones that smell like a new car. I gave him the total, and he responded:

“Did you charge me tax on that?”

“Yes, sir,” I replied, hesitantly.

He cocked his head to the side, dropped his jaw, furrowed an eyebrow, and said with extreme incredulity, “But that’s God’s Word!”

I told him he’d have to take it up with the state of Oklahoma, and he paid the tax. I was kind of a brat in high school.

JD: Just high school?

AP: Watch it.

JD: Ok, what role is the Bible to play in the life of a believer today? Some call it the Manufacturer’s Handbook, a guide to how we are to live our lives. Others say it is one big story made up of smaller stories that reveal God in our world. Still others reduce the Bible to a collection of verses that can be arranged however one likes to address a specific topic. How should the Bible be viewed by a believer today?

CM: Of the views you mentioned, the “story” view is closest to what God intended, I believe. The Bible is the “meta-narrative,” the big story that gives context and meaning to our individual lives. It introduces us to God, the nature of the world, the reason the world and its inhabitants are broken like we are, and God’s plan of restoring his blessing to the world through Jesus and the making of a new creation.

In terms of how this should affect the way we approach the Bible, as individuals and communities, the call that comes to us over and over again is to “meditate” on the Scriptures. Meditation is a conversational interaction with God. He speaks to us in the Scriptures and we prayerfully consider his words and speak them back to him in terms of our thoughts, desires, and needs. We are formed by the Bible as we converse with God like this and live in trusting obedience to his message.

JD: I like the idea of the Bible as a conversation. Too often we just read it without really engaging with it, if you know what I mean.

AP: I agree with Michael Spencer and Chaplain Mike here: the Bible is a living conversation. As a kid, I heard that whole “BIBLE = Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” and even at that pupae stage in my spirituality, I thought: “Sigh…” It’s so much deeper, so much richer than that.

The Bible has been available to just about anyone for hundreds of years, and yet we still can’t find agreement on what, exactly, it says. It’s just so darn confounding. And this is one of the many, many things I love about God, that he set it up that way so we could argue and converse and pick and choose and wrestle and sharpen and join each other on the search for Truth—just like this roundtable discussion.

One other thing: Brian MacLaren wrote something in A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey that’s stuck with me since I read it. Indeed, it’s the only thing I remember from that book, and I’ll paraphrase: Stop reading the Bible and start letting the Bible read you.

MB: The Bible is how God has revealed himself to humanity.  Yes God revealed himself through his Son, but we were not there, and so we are left with the records of what he said and what he did.  So if we want to know God, we need to read his word.  Michael Spencer has a wonderful section of this in his book Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality, in which he says that reading the Bible (saturating is the word that comes to mind) is the best way to know and understand the Good News of Jesus Christ.

LD: I take 2 Timothy 3:16, 17 as instruction for how I should view the Bible. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Although written by fallible human authors, I trust they were under the influence of the Holy Spirit and I trust their writings to be useful in, if not explicit for, every circumstance of life. I doubt I’m alone in admitting to a few instances in life when no Scripture seemed to produce an answer or instruction. In such cases, I rely on the mind of Christ (I Corinthians 2:16) and the Holy Spirit at work in me willing and doing his purpose (Philippians 2:13.) This is much scarier as I have to be sure my own mind and my own will do not deceive me.

JS: To me it is story.  And in my view that says so much.  Every person’s life begins in medias res.

JD: What?

JS: Latin for “into the middle of things.” That is where all good stories begin—in the middle. We strive for the rest of our lives to piece together some kind of context so we can begin character development and maybe move the plot forward by an inch or so before we die.  Truly discovering scripture is like finding the entire back-story.  Suddenly you have a tribe, a heritage, a role to play.  The believer should bring whatever tools are at their disposal to the study of Scripture, lay them all out on the workbench before them and then ask the Holy Spirit, “Where should we begin?”

When we go to scripture to “make a case” we will prevent scripture from confronting us.  When we go to eat the book and really digest it, accepting whatever consequences may come, we will see it come alive before us.  In those moments, reading scripture takes on the force and substance of being in the presence of the Christ himself.  Suddenly you find yourself riding the ebb and flow of all of human history, the tide of story, the tide of Yahweh.  As far as Damaris’ comment about it being the word of God, I completely understood what she means.  Christ is the Word of God, as in the entire context all at once.  Christ IS the story become character.  Knowing Christ is the ultimate goal of all words of God, both in canonized scripture and elsewhere.

DZ: The Bible should be read in church and, if possible, at home. Its words should guide our worship, and its wisdom should shape our understanding of all things. The Bible shouldn’t be distorted to serve functions it wasn’t meant to. It’s not a textbook of any subject nor is it sufficient for all human knowledge. Even the most fundamentalist “Bible-only” types still have phone books and recipe books in their houses, I notice.

JD: Good point, Damaris. I have not found a good recipe for peanut butter pie in either the Old or New Testament.

We have only had the Bible available to us (again, in the West) for the last 300 years or so. What about all those poor believers who never had a chance to own a Bible and read it themselves? What about those in impoverished or persecuted lands today who do not have access to a Bible? Is their faith somehow inferior? Can one be a follower of Jesus without reading the Bible?

CM: Actually, it has been about 500 years now, and before that, many of those who were not literate nevertheless had Biblical teachings available to them through family and church in various forms, for example, through oral traditions being passed down, or through art that presented Biblical stories and themes.

Yes, one can follow Jesus without reading the Bible, but the tradition of Jews and Christians alike values literacy and verbal and written communication highly. We are “people of the Book,” in the sense that we believe the Scriptures are among God’s greatest gifts to humankind. Though I would affirm that God can work any way he wants to reach people and help them follow Jesus, he gave us a book, and we ought to esteem that highly.

AP: Jeff, you forgot to ask about the 50% of the world that is illiterate–since they can’t READ the Word, they’re screwed, right? If the authenticity of your faith came down to whether or not you had possession of a Bible, then we’ve been serving the wrong God. Yes, the Bible helps, and one of the great advances of the last few hundred years is making it available on such a massive scale, but the gospel of grace has nothing to do with whether you own a Bible or not. It has everything to do with whether Jesus owns you, if I may use such a crass word construction in order to make a point.

DZ: Of course one can be a follower of Jesus without reading the Bible.  There may be more people in Heaven who haven’t read it than who have.  The Bible is like a letter from someone far away, whom we’re waiting to see. Even if we don’t get the letter, though, we can still get news by word of mouth, and the body of Christ can still pass on the Good News orally.

An entire body of people without the Bible will run into danger without a check or reference as to what is right, but frankly, there are plenty of Biblically literate groups that run into trouble, too.  Let’s remember that the Bible itself calls the church the pillar and the ground of truth. God’s revelation comes to us through his body as well as his book. Each completes the other. It may be that individuals without the church are in greater danger than individuals without the Bible. I wouldn’t want to have to choose between them, though. We should have both.

LD: One can be a follower of Jesus without reading the Bible, but why would any true follower purposefully ignore it if readily available? A medical missionary I knew in Kenya said that the arrival of Bibles prompted pastors to walk for days to try to get a copy. Often their churches shared one tattered Bible or a portion of a Bible. In the West, many homes have half a dozen or more Bibles sitting on shelves collecting dust.

Still, God can work even when the written word is not available.

“…Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved … How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? … Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:13, 14, 17) Faith comes by hearing. This passage doesn’t say that reading is necessary, though some who can read may come to faith that way. The Church took root and flourished on the preaching efforts of the Apostles. While a few scrolls preserved those teachings, no books or e-readers were available to the masses. Verbal presentation of the Gospel is probably still the most effective means of bringing people to Christ.

Those without Scripture depend on the Holy Spirit guiding them into truth. While on sabbatical in the mountains, Watchman Nee stayed at a small primitive inn and led the innkeeper and his wife to Christ. Upon returning later, Nee noticed marked changes in the man’s demeanor and habits and inquired the reason. Although the man had no access to a Bible, he informed Nee that Resident Boss informed him as to what his behavior should be.

JD: Resident Boss. I like that.

JS: I certainly do not think that having as much access to the Bible as we do has necessarily helped our walk.  In some respects, I think we would be healthier if we still had to all travel to the local synagogue to hear it read.  If we had to memorize it to have it at our disposal, I think we would find true reverence for the entire contextual scripture easier to come by.

The celebration of the book itself that we see in Hebrew culture is not rooted in the same kind of voodoo magic status that we tend to give the Bible today.  It is rooted in a deep appreciation that this book is what makes the Hebrews.  The story of God reaching out to man is the entire definition of the Hebrew people.  Jehovah, the one true God, reached out to them.  The scriptures are the account of that and to protect its integrity through the centuries this sort of reverence was an absolute necessity.  As followers of Christ, this is our inheritance and it is a shame to see how lightly we take it.  In fact, I sense a little prick of guilt when I look up a scripture on my iPhone and tap it to see 5 different commentaries on the passage.  Maybe that’s too easy.

MB: My brother was a Bible smuggler for three years.  My grandfather’s life work was to translate the Bible into Chibemba (Bemba) one of Zambia’s primary languages.  So both were in the business of providing Bibles to those who did not have.  Economics talks about the law of supply and demand.  Like Joe said, that which is difficult to obtain will generally be given a higher value than that which is readily available.  Those who do not have Bibles and who desire them place a high value on being able to attain them and hold those that they can obtain in high regard.  Is their faith inferior?  Absolutely not.  In fact those who are willing to undergo persecution for the cause of Christ have a faith far beyond what I can imagine for myself.

JD: Who is capable of rightly interpreting scripture? Only those with specialized education? If so, then it would seem dangerous to allow the “average person in the pew” to read and apply scripture for himself. Does God really mean to allow children to play with such a powerful weapon as the Bible?

MB: I have a specialized education.  I have three years of Hebrew, three years of Greek, and two years of Latin.  Most of which I have forgotten, but that is another story.

LD: I am so envious of your years of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, Mike! I squandered seven years trying to learn French. The one time it was truly helpful was in presenting the Gospel to some French tourists I met in Colorado. Who knows? Maybe God used that.

MB: When it comes to reading and understanding scripture, I would draw the comparison between the old style Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) Televisions, and the newer HD Televisions.  Being able to read the Bible in the original languages is like watching an HD TV.  It is clearer, sharper, and more vivid.  You certainly get an experience that you don’t get when you watch an old style TV.  However, the thing is, when you watch a regular TV, you still get the entire picture.  You might not be able to differentiate between the Kentucky Bluegrass and the Creeping Red Fescue in the outfield, but you can still tell that a baseball game is going on, who is up to bat, what the score is, and how many outs have already occurred in the inning.  Not being able to read the Bible in the original languages is like that old CRT TV, not as good as the Hi-Def, but still able to engross you in its story.  A story that you can fully understand.

By the way, when I last saw the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup, I was still watching in Black and White.  Which back then was pretty vivid and exciting as well.

I would recommend Fee and Stuart’s book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. It was used as a textbook when I was a school 20 years ago, and I hear it is still being used today.  It is a fairly easy read for those who want to learn how to properly read and interpret the various genres of the Bible.

LD: As to who is capable of interpreting Scripture, I think it’s important to identify the outcome we want. If we are looking for historical interpretation, then we can consult historians. If we want to know the nuances of meaning in original language, we can consult linguists. Neither of those types of interpretations require the interpreter to believe scripture is true or inspired by God Himself.

On the other hand, if we are looking for revelation, then the requirements are different.

Those who are believers have the right components – the person of the Holy Spirit indwelling and teaching them aided by the mind of Christ. Do all believers utilize these treasures to discern spiritual truth? No. Putting them to good use requires the learning of disciplines — daily examining the scriptures as the Bereans did in Acts 17, hiding them in one’s heart as the writer of Psalm 119 stated, teaching them diligently to sons and daughters as Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 6, eating them up and making them the heart’s joy and delight as the prophet extolled in Jeremiah 16, being washed with cleansing waters through the word (Ephesians 5) and letting the word of Christ dwell in us richly (Colossians 3).

AP: Mike, I loved your TV analogy for this. Never heard it before, but it makes sense. I would just like to add that, even after years and years and years of scripture interpretation from both the learned and the laity, we still don’t have agreement on everything the Bible says. Heck, we probably don’t have agreement among the smattering of seven Christians involved in this roundtable. But that’s how we get smarter.

DZ: The Orthodox say that a theologian is one who prays.  The goal in reading the Bible is to know God and to be like him.  Simple people who are truly seeking God are better at interpreting the Bible than scholars who care only for learning.  However, I wouldn’t go to the Primitive Baptist extreme of saying that only uneducated people can be holy.  Education is useful in understanding the Bible, and some people should know Hebrew and Greek, while most people should know some literary interpretation and history; but the only thing that protects us from error in reading the Bible is humility.  We can’t read the Bible in a vacuum.  Readers have to be willing to submit to others and not insist on their understanding alone.  The greatest Bible interpreter is both a humble and an educated person; I would always consider that person’s interpretation before my own.  And still we’ll never get it right, because God is ineffable.

CM: The Reformers believed in the “perspicuity” of Scripture: the doctrine that anyone who can hear or read can grasp the Bible’s salvation message. I hold that, but I also recognize that the Bible is a long, complex book written in ancient cultures and often difficult to understand. In reality, the Bible requires a lifetime of study to understand it well. We need teachers and we need those who can help us understand HOW to study the Bible as much as we need those who can teach us WHAT the Bible says.

JS: Those who are in submission to the Holy Spirit are qualified interpreters.  All education is a divine gift that is good for a deeper and more full understanding, but I think we all agree that it must be coupled with the breath of the Holy Spirit.  I go back to my answer  about letting the scripture confront us, and about really eating the words and digesting them.

JD: Last question. The newest book in our Bible was written more than 1900 years ago. All of the Bible was written by men (and women) in an Oriental culture. Is it right to try to fit our culture into the Bible? Is it right to try to fit the Bible into our culture?

LD: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) Human beings do not change in their loves and lusts, their desires or dreads, their hopes or hungers, their searches for significance or their sins. That the Bible reveals the person of Jesus Christ as the only means by which we are reconciled to God and saved, it is essential for every culture and for every time.

“Fitting the Bible into our culture” implies changing scripture to make it culturally acceptable. This is vastly different than finding culturally relevant ways to present Bible truth. Leonard Sweet, writing in So Beautiful: Divine Design for Life and the Church says that God’s original plan for his church—being missional, relational and incarnational— has not changed. But we are in a time when structures of society and structures of church are being shaken. Like the sons of Issachar, mighty men in service to King David, we must understand the times and know what needs to be done.

JS: I think understanding the historical and sociological context of the scriptures has been one of the most eye-opening experiences for me.  When you understand it, you can really pull the story out of it.  I think to say that the scriptures are outdated or not culturally relevant means only that we don’t understand the context in which they were written.  Anytime I have really grasped the context of a given passage, I recognize the story.  I recognize the character of God hiding in the text and it excites me.  I also think that this question is a good time to note that our culture is pretty sick in some ways.  Some of the ways in which the scripture is culturally irrelevant are ways in which we should probably be culturally irrelevant as well.  Our quest for cultural relevance is a dangerous one.  Inevitably, we don’t achieve cultural relevance because there is no authenticity, and we sacrifice truth to boot.

AP: Well, I certainly wouldn’t turn to the Bible for driving lessons or to find out how to update the privacy settings on my Facebook account, if that’s what you mean. But there are timeless things, peaks and valleys of culture, that the Bible will always be able to address. An example: the New Testament was written during a time of extreme Roman sexual permissiveness. As time moved on, the sexual mores of many civilizations became tighter and more restrictive, but we now see Western sexuality more and more flaunted and celebrated. So, did the sexual advice written by Paul to the Corinthians stop meaning something during the years of (mostly) cultural chastity, and has it only just now become something we need to look at? Or was it good advice all along?

MB: I like the system of interpretation of C. Michael Patton at Reclaiming the Mind Ministries and how we apply it to our cultural situation.

In essence we start with the exegetical question: “What did it mean then?”   This involves historical, grammatical, contextual and literary interpretation.  From there we ask the question:  “What is the timeless truth being taught?”  Finally we move to the homiletical, “How does it apply to us?”, and take the timeless truth and apply it to our culture.

CM: The basic principle of understanding any book is to try and grasp the setting in which it was written and the original author’s intention in writing it. Before I can say what the Bible means to me today in my setting, I must try to understand what it meant to its first readers; what the author was trying to say to them. Furthermore, since the “books” of the Bible have been gathered into a canon of Scripture, the “big picture” of the whole book helps me understand its individual parts and how they work together to communicate its overall message. The basic question asked in most Bible studies, “What does this passage mean to you?” is putting the cart before several horses.

DZ: Christianity is a foreign culture.  Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.  People who want the Bible to be comfortable or relevant are looking for affirmation, not a two-edged sword.  Why should we be able to understand the Bible without effort?  Who am I to ask God to come back every generation and rephrase his message in the terms I’m comfortable with?  God never meant the Bible to be read in isolation.  One of the functions of the body is to transmit and interpret scripture, and that includes explaining metaphors and cultural references.  Besides, who is to decide what needs to be adapted to our culture and what doesn’t?  I read about one Filipino man who came to saving faith through reading the Begats – they gave the book legitimacy, he thought.  The missionary who had been translating that section thought about leaving it out at least temporarily, because she didn’t think a list of ancient Hebrew names would be relevant to the people’s culture.  By the way, what parts of the Bible are written by women?

JD: Good question for another roundtable, Damaris! Thank you all–great discussion. We are incredibly wealthy to have each of you a part of the iMonk family. Thank you so, so much.

Editor’s note: While I linked this article a couple times above, I want to encourage you to take time to read one of Michael Spencer’s best essays ever: A Conversation In God’s Kitchen. I know quite a few people who say it totally changed the way they view the Bible.


  1. This is one of the best posts I have read here (and I have followed for a couple of years now). It is great to hear the points and see the back and forth.

    I would also like to affirm the position that several of you took on the treatment of the Bible. It is the inspired word of God… about God. Not God, though. I remember a friend of mine, Kenny, talking about how if you want to know the personality of God you have to look to Jesus. Ever since he said that I look at every story within the Bible differently.

    Please keep this dialogue as a part of this page.

  2. 39You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, 40yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

    I fear that Christendom in North America is in great peril of Bibliolatry. No one knew their scriptures better than the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, yet they missed it entirely; they did not know God and did not accurately demonstrate the heart of God to people.

    Sounds familiar?

    I have to wonder how illiterate 1st century Christians managed to have a relationship with God. I have to wonder how they knew that they were saved without the privilege of having their own personal Bible to read and study. I have to wonder how without the luxury of this translation or that translation they had such faith that they were willing to be executed . I think we’re missing something. Something vital in our approach.

  3. This is one of the best posts about the Bible I’ve ever read. I really love the diversity of thought and conversation going on in the roundtable. I’m really looking forward to more!

  4. I remember reading a quote from Kevin Deyoung a few weeks ago that said “we should approach the Scriptures with the same reverence we would have in approaching Christ”. I nearly choked but then so many others agreed that I had to wonder if my reaction was the correct one. After reading this, I have to believe I’m not the only one who would raise an eyebrow at that quote.

    Great post, btw. Have you considered doing this as a podcast?

    • Brian, we are going to start up podcasts again soon. And, yes, I would love to have the Writers’ Roundtable as a podcast. it’s just that some of the writers are just dead-set against coming over to my house to sit around my kitchen table. Just because it is a measly 100 degrees here in Tulsa today. Can you believe them???

  5. Joe wrote, “We all know people who pray scripture as if it is a spell of some sort. As if certain verses work for certain ailments.”

    Could anyone explain how a Book of Common prayer might fit into the idea of “praying scripture”?

    • Jeff Lee says

      I think there is a difference between praying Scripture as liturgical Christians would. Certainly Scripture provides with a great many ideas, prayers, songs, etc., that can edify us. The Orthodox liturgies and hymns are filled with excerpts from Scripture, yet we don’t view them as “magic spells.” The same is true with the BCP.

      I think that what is being referred to is something like the famed “Prayer of Jabez” and related fads, where you are told to pray a specific formula and great things will happen.

      • Which is why I would prefer that we don’t call that “praying” Scripture. Rather, that is “invoking” scripture, the way one invokes a magic incantation or “spell,”

        I am currently exploring prayer forms involving beads (i.e. the rosary) and that reminded me of my one impressive exposure to the rosary in a Catholic church here in Austria, which is fairly typical of that practice here in Austria: a church full of (mostly older) women, who droned through the “mysteries” in a fashion that certainly did not permit “meditating on the life of Christ” but suggested just that sort of belief: if you make it through the requisite number of Hail Marys you will have somehow earned some spiritual brownie points.

        Not prayer. Not prayer when the Catholics do it. Not prayer when the Evangelicals do it. Even if there are successful books written about it and encouraging it.

        • Interesting. Whenever I think of prayer cases such as “invoking scripture” ;-), I think of Jesus’ admonition, “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7 NIV).

          • I’m not so sure that your interpretation would apply here. If it did, then I would conclude based on what you are saying, that reading a scripture out loud would not be babbling whereas praying a scripture could be equated to babble. Therefore, scripture becomes babble based upon the methodology.

          • I’m thinking along the lines of taking a particular piece of scripture like Pslam 46:10 (Be still and know that I am God) and repeating it in a meditative chant, trusting that the longer it is repeated the more powerful it is to achieve whatever the prayee wants to achieve, such as inner piece or stress relief.

    • I think repetition of scripture is ONE valid meditative technique. I think WP has it correct in his example stating that Catholic or Evangelical doesn’t matter. I don’t even think technique matters so much. If someone is repeating to meditate and allow the scripture to have some affect upon them it is different then if someone believes the words themselves have some magical affect upon the spiritual world or worse yet upon God himself.

      It may sound like a cop-out but it really is a heart issue.

  6. I think only one side of the issue was pressed here: the superstitions of professing Western Christians who use Scripture to spell-cast their problems away (or better yet, to avoid being rebuked by someone they generally don’t like). I think the group did a good job here, but the overemphasis leaves me wondering.

    The other side of the coin is the lack of reverence for Scripture often expressed by protesters of traditional Christianity. Wherein protesters complain of bibliolatry, traditionalists complain of an abandonment of Scripture altogether. In part, I think both groups are right – yet instead of coming together reasonably we either see flame wars or high fences erected. The Bible is a book which claims for itself to be the voice of God. It says that “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” There is no Jesus for us without the Bible – a point that I was glad to see mentioned in the conversation. But it’s also worth noting that Scripture is God breathed – and given that its Creator can speak universes into being, the concept should not be lost on us as we seek out eternal life through the Author of Life himself.


    • Well said. Christians in the first century did not have access to an entire cannon, the gospel was spread word-of-mouth. Now that people are so far removed from those events, God has been kind enough to preserve His history in scripture, a divinely produced cannon, so that successive generations can read and learn about Christ.

      Heaven and earth shall pass away, but His words will never pass away.

    • John8Com writes: ” I think only one side of the issue was pressed here: the superstitions of professing Western Christians who use Scripture to spell-cast their problems away”

      John, I am sorry you got that impression. I don’t believe that is true generally of the writers here. As I said above, the Bible is how God has revealed himself to humanity and that reading the Bible is the best way to know and understand the Good News of Jesus Christ.

  7. Excellent discussion!

    And like Damaris, I, too, want to know what books of the Bible women had a hand in writing. Please don’t keep us waiting TOO long to get that answer, Jeff!

    • Oh great–put all the pressure on me! What do you think we have Chaplain Mike for…

      Thanks, Joanie!

    • Some of Song of Solomon is first person from a woman’s perspective, the rest is inspired by a woman!

    • Cedric Klein says

      I have no problem at all believing that Ruth & Esther both contributed to the books bearing their names, that Mother Mary had a part is relating Luke 1-2 to him, and that the Resurrection account of John 20 was dictated by Mary Magdalene.

    • Joanie,

      I’ve also read that the book of Hebrews was written by a woman, probably Priscilla.

      • Hebrews 11:32 has a masculine participle – diêgoumenon – whereby the author refers to himself.

        Now, granted, Priscilla could have written it and deliberately used a masculine participle to disguise herself. But if she did indeed write this in the 1st century, it would have been before the church became patriarchal and she thus would have had no reason to disguise her sex. Also, AFAIK, there is no existing mss. evidence that this participle was changed from a feminine participle to a masculine one.

        How do those who argue for Priscilla’s authorship deal with 11:32?

        • Eric…11:32 says, ” And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets.” Is that he passage you meant? If so, I don’t understand your question.

          I read this about who wrote Hebrews:

          The author does mention Priscilla as well as a number of people, but seems to be coming down to thinking Paul wrote it. I can see there are lots of other “hits” I got when I used a search engine to ask who wrote Hebrews.

          I bet we are getting too off-topic, though.

          • My question is: How do those who argue for Priscilla’s authorship of Hebrews explain or deal with the fact that in Hebrews 11:32, the author refers to himself using a masculine participle. If the author were a female, one would expect diêgoumenên, not diêgoumenon.

      • Best argument I ever read for Hebrews authorship was a PHD Thesis arguing that the author was Epaphroditus.

  8. DZ:

    Re: 1 Tim 3:15 and “to conduct himself in the house(hold) of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and the support/ground of the truth”… FWIW, in the Greek the (definite) article occurs only before “truth,” so it may be saying or claiming too much to say that the Bible says that “the” church is “the” pillar and “the” support/ground of the truth.

  9. We [consuming-materialistic-spoilt-ignorant-apathetic-self centered Westerners] should view the Bible as the very inspired, solely authoratative and all SUFFICIENT literal word of God……

    And yet understand that it is indeed “beyond the sacred page we seek Thee!”.

    • With you up to the word “literal” Matthew. The Bible contains many genres which are to be read in many different ways. There is metaphor, poetry, wisdom literature, all of which have to be understood as metaphor, poetry, and wisdom literature. Again I would recommend the book by Fee and Stuart recommended in the post above.

      • I took Matthew Johnston to mean that the Bible is the literal word of God – i.e., it is actually God’s word/message to us – and not (or not simply) man’s thoughts and writings about God.

        • Michael Bell –

          Perhaps I should of clarified and stated what EricW said as that is what I meant.

          When using the term literal in this context in the future I’ll be sure to explain.


          ps. I will still get back to you regarding your email 😉 !!

  10. Chaplain Mike uses the term “people of the book.” The Koran calls Jews and Christians this, as a term of respect, and many of us like to think that it’s a good definition for us. But a pastor I read once said he thought the phrase better described Muslims: the book of the Koran is considered Allah’s direct revelation of himself and his nature, or as much of his nature as can be revealed. This pastor said that Christians, in contrast, were the people of the Person.

    • “Christians, in contrast, were the people of the Person.”

      I like that, Damaris.

    • Another Mary says

      Wow, if only that were consistently true! I’m midway into my copy of “Mere Churchianity” and I have camped for a shortwhile on the question our dear friend made about how different would we be if we acted like a person who had spent 3 years with Jesus like His apostles and desciples did. What would that look like?

      I’ve written down the titles of some of the books you guys referred to and will try to get them. So much to learn. Love the discussion. Keep them coming!

    • ahumanoid says

      “people of the Person”

      Well said.

  11. If we get the Incarnation wrong, everything that follows is wrong. The word “Logos” meant something much more in John’s time than just knowledge or information – text on a page. Jesus is NOT a living how-to book to understanding God – a “Hitchhiker’s Guide” to diety. In the context of Philo of Alexandria, just calling Jesus the “Logos of God” intimately equated Jesus with God. The way John uses Philo’s terms, particularly proclaiming that the Logos created all things and became flesh, actually defeated many of the gnostic ideas held by Philo. In contrast, the way we typically attach the english definition of “word” to Jesus is very gnostic. If we treat Jesus as mere knowledge or information, then the accumulation of knowledge becomes the path to God; God becomes information. Then deifying a book becomes a logical conclusion.

  12. Does everybody agree that we should, among other absolute vital things, consider the Bible sufficient?

    Meaning that it is all we need for life and godliness & that we dont need ‘Christian Psychology’ [a vile thing indeed]

    • I would agree that we don’t need “Christian” psychology any more than we need “Christian” plumbers, “Christian” hairdressers, or “Christian” writers. I do, however, believe we need psychologists, plumbers, hairdressers and writers. Whether being a Christian helps you diagnose a mental illness or cut someone’s hair better than a non-Christian is the question. When a family member needed help with a mental issue, the doctor who was the one who helped the most was not a Christian. The plumbers I have used in the past either fix my problems or don’t. I can’t see how their relationship with God, or the lack thereof, affect that. Maybe someone else does, but I don’t.

      My favorite author of my time is CS Lewis. My second favorite author is Douglas Adams who, by his own admission, was once a believer but became an atheist. My favorite novels were written by Susanna Clarke and John LeCarre’. I have no idea if either are believers–but their writing is beyond fantastic.

      Ok. I have broken my own rule and taken us off topic. Maybe I will write an essay on this topic sometime soon, Matthew. Now, back to our regularly scheduled program…

      • to Jeff Dunn

        I will welcome your future post on this; if all mental illness was as simple as addressing some kind of physical/chemical/emotional imbalance, then I’d agree with your premise, but I don’t think it breaks out that smoothly for the ‘doctors of the soul’. Psychologists either define, or just as often assume some basic things

        1)who or what is man
        2)what are his or her chief problems
        3) how do we do effectively give aid and comfort to those problems ?

        you can’t get to #3 without #1 and #2…. if these were roughly equivalent to a mechanic fixing a car, then I totally get you, but….. anyway, write the post and then tuck 🙂 🙂

        • Hmmm…Greg, I think I will hand this one off to the Chaplain. He is much more able to answer this. Stay tuned…

          • sounds great…..if it becomes a food fight, like the T.H. post, I promise to make my pie mostly meringue…. I’m hoping Otters like meringue….

    • psuchê = “soul,” “inner being”; other component of person besides sôma (“body”) (and pneuma “spirit,” if you’re a trichotomist); the whole person (related to Hebrew nephesh, neshama)

      psychology = study/doctrine of the inner being/person of man when it comes to spiritual things, or of the whole person him/herself.

      Other Christian -ologies: theology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, soteriology, Christology, eschatology, etc.

      I.e., there is a place for a Christian psychology in a systematic theology, but perhaps not a wholesale or even partial adoption of secular psychological theories or what is no more than a simple baptizing of them so as to make them “Christian” by using different terms/practices for what is essentially the same thing.

    • Matt: I’d recommend Sam Storm’s response to that at ejoyinggodministries look under miscelaneous topics: Sufficiency of Scriptures and Counseling; Sam is more a teacher/pastor (former Wheaton faculty member) but is widely read and IMO ‘biblical’ (whatever that is.. 🙂 )

  13. Wonderful post: I hope it stays linked.
    I’ve seen plenty of Church Drama around this question:
    Over the years I’ve had opportunities to sign off on various ministry applications, etc., that asked for my view of the bible. Or more to the point, asked me to affirm a certain view of the bible–one that usually included language like ‘inerrant’ or ‘infallable’ and ‘original writings.’ Years ago a seminarian friend (HE was in seminary; I wasn’t) gave me what seemed like good advice: “Just say you’re not sure what those terms mean.” I don’t think I’ve ever actually tried that.
    Once, I wrote several paragraphs explaining that I was really only comfortable referring to Jesus as the Word of God, and that the bible was… Well, you get the drift. I wasn’t called back.
    I’ve even known people (who should have known better) arguing for a certain point to say things like, “I really believe that in the original writings it must have said…” Yikes.

    I’ve finally decided that I’m comfortable believing that that bible as we have it, in all it’s translations and with all its issues whether criticized historically or textually, is just as God intends it. The problems and issues are there to get us thinking and talking. To each other. And when the epistemological brick wall finally gives us a nose-bleed, let’s hope we remember the Person who got us interested in the first place.

    • I think your IMONK friends should get you a super heavy T shirt from CafePress that is really selling well

      God said it
      I interpretted it
      That doesn’t exactly settle it

      there’s more on the shirt….I’m thinking of getting one, if they’re still for sale… found it on Letters to Kamp Krusty….which SADLY is not currently alive 🙁 come back Brant Hansen…PLEEZE

  14. What the heck is peanut butter pie? Does such a treat indeed exist? Why have I never heard of it until now? I feel robbed! I bet it’s delicious. The Bible MUST be incomplete if it left out the recipe for this.

  15. The problem of “too high” a view of Scripture is an old one, and we need to counter-act it with an “appropriate” view of Scripture.

    Part of that appropriate view of Scripture is “All scripture is inspired by God …”, and that would also counteract the other problematic tendency I see in contemporary Evangelicalism: a new kind of “Jesus Only” or “Red Letter” view of Scripture. This is when people feel free to disregard the teachings, for example, of Paul, or Peter, and certainly of the Older Testament, and only consider the very words of Jesus himself, in the four gospels, to be God’s revelation.

  16. Um… Sorry– I wasn’t shouting. I just need to learn how to cancel italics.

  17. I sometimes post on Yahoo Answers, and I must admit that I am appalled by the way in which even passages which are obviously poetic, metaphorical, or simply a parable, get read in a very literalistic way. A recent example was somebody who wanted to know if it was only Ezekiel who could bring dry bones back to life, or whether other people could do it too.

    Needless to say, that gives the resident atheists all the excuse they need to make fun of Christianity, but it also makes me wonder about the abysmal standard of religious education today.

  18. Editor’s note: While I linked this article a couple times above, I want to encourage you to take time to read one of Michael Spencer’s best essays ever: A Conversation In God’s Kitchen. I know quite a few people who say it totally changed the way they view the Bible.

    Well, I clicked on the link and read the essay:

    “A Conversation in God’s Kitchen: How I’ve learned to understand the Bible” by Michael Spencer

    but after reading it I felt it raised as many questions as it tries to answer, or creates as many potential problems as the one(s) it tries to solve, and hence was not for me a satisfying resolution to the question of how we are to understand the Bible.


    • That is the fun of this site, Eric. You don’t get the answers handed to you–you have to wrestle with the questions and squeeze out the answers. I have read your comments for a long time. I know you will do just this. And we look forward to hearing what you hear…

    • EricW and Jeff, from Michael’s Spencer essay about the Bible, I copied this:

      “I don’t know what you mean by inspired. If you mean, how do I know it’s right and true in everything it says, then I don’t believe in that kind of inspiration. But if you mean how do I know that the Bible is God’s true communication to me, it’s simple. The Bible shows me Jesus. The reason I believe the Bible is inspired is that it shows me who Jesus is and what Jesus means. That’s the answer to all the questions that matter to me.”

      He has many other good things to say there. I have to admit that there are SOME parts of the Old Testament that I like, but give me the New Testament any day! And from the New Testament, I particularly find the Gospels the most valuable. The very words of Jesus as he walked on earth as a human being/God are to be found there. No one will EVER convince me that passages in the Old Testament (Leviticus, maybe?) where the priests are dealing with mildew problems are just as important as John 3:16!

  19. I’ve been turning this question over in the back of my mind since my Mom and I exchanged raised eyebrows over a hymn to the Bible that we sang in church a couple months ago.

    I was raised in a Mennonite church with a very high view of scripture, and I hold firmly to the belief that the Bible contains direction from God about how to live our lives. Where I have seen people getting in trouble, however, is in equating their interpretation/application of scripture with the words of scripture itself. In other words, they don’t just view the principle in scripture as a hill worth dying on, they view their interpretation of that principle, and its application in their life as hills worth dying on (or worth severing relationships with other members of the body of Christ over). So are people really idolizing/deifying the Bible, or are they idolizing/deifying their interpretations thereof?

  20. I can only assume that you have sought the counsel of the Holy Spirit on the matters that you are discussing: “I am saying that I have seen this approach in absence of the Holy Spirit’s enlightenment go from dryly interesting to absolutely destructive to faith.”

  21. Jonathan Blake says

    This post/new series is simply brilliant! I can’t help but feel that this is how Christians are supposed to meet- with an eager ear and a humble demeanor along with some great questions and the allowance for a conversation to develop. This is much better than a one man show where all listen and one speaks. I love this internet community!!!

    To be completely honest I was so sad when Michael left us to be with Christ because I feared the amazing oasis he cared for and hosted for us all would disappear in the sands of the post-evangelical wilderness. Thank our God and thank all of you for the new ideas and for how you’ve continued to help us all in the post-evangelical wilderness… 🙂

    • Jonathan Blake says

      Just read Michael’s: A Conversation in God’s Kitchen and all I have to say is wow