Tim Gough responds to one of the most fiery Unbelievable? debates...
I was confused. Not only by the huge questions I had around some sections of the Bible, but also by the fact that no one ever seemed to acknowledge that there were any questions around the teaching in some sections; for instance, stories of violence, discrimination and brutal ethnic cleansing all initiated at God’s command.
As a young child in Sunday school and then, having become a Christian, years later in my teens, all I could conclude as I pondered this was that I must just be really slow. The answers were, I assumed, so obvious to everyone else that it wasn’t even worth them talking about them.
No satisfying answers
In my early 20s, I went to theological college, where I was sure things would be dealt with thoroughly. But when my lecturers also seemed to ignore them, once again I concluded that the problem must be mine and mine alone. I just wasn’t bright enough.
And that was the pattern. Over the years, as I became a minister, then set up Oasis and became a conference speaker – although I had no satisfying answers to these difficult questions, I always assumed that someone else, somewhere else, far sharper and more senior than me, must have it sorted.
It wasn’t that there were no answers on offer, it was just that, as far as I could see, none of them really stood up to scrutiny. In the end I realised that I couldn’t live with my head in the theological sand on all this any longer. I had to wrestle with the questions for myself; a quest born not of a disrespect of the Bible, but rather the opposite – from the desire to take it, all of it, in its entirety – including all the unpalatable bits – seriously!
Grappling with the Bible
Some would dismiss this search – which, through my reading, I discovered many others were also involved in – as caving into modernism or liberalism. But, surely we have a God-given obligation to use our best understanding to grapple with the Bible and, indeed, all life’s issues? This, it seems to me, is the only intelligent and responsible way to live, and to make any judgements.
At one time, for example, the likes of Copernicus and Galileo were dismissed for believing in the ‘modernist’ and ‘unbiblical’ idea that the earth was not the centre of the solar system, and in a different century, Wilberforce and friends were accused of ‘liberalism’ by many in the Church for their stance against slavery.
Surely we have a God-given obligation to use our best understanding to grapple with the Bible and, indeed, all life’s issues?
‘All Scripture is God-breathed’, explains 2 Timothy 3:16, ‘and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’. For me, this statement focuses some pivotal questions about how should we understand the Bible:
What does the term ‘God-breathed’ mean? Does the Greek word theopneustos – sometimes translated as ‘inspired’ – necessarily imply the idea of dictation; that God controlled the tip of each writer’s pen?
The Bible is a library – it’s what the term ‘Bible’ means – a collection of books written over at least 1,500 years, which for all their extraordinary consensus, also contain some conflicting, and even contradictory views. At the same moment, they bear the hallmarks of some of the limitations and preconceptions of their times and cultures, but also of the profound and transformational experience that their writers’ encounters and dialogue with God produced.
I am convinced that each one of the texts that make up our Bible is the result of a profound encounter of its author, or authors, with God. It seems clear to me that the texts these writers produced are so much more than simply human presentations of, or testimonies about, God. Instead, God is involved in relationship with them – each is divinely guided and ‘inspired’.
Through the lens of their consciousness, culture, worldview, language and personal history, their writing contributes to the development of humanity’s moral and spiritual imagination, which is being constantly stretched and enlarged by its growing understanding of God.
What I don’t believe however, is that the books they produced add up to some kind of infallible ‘divine monologue’, through which God dictated a flawless and unified declaration of his character and will to authors who were no more than copy typists or automatons.
The word of God?
Does 2 Timothy imply that the scriptures are ‘the word of God’? The Bible itself is unambiguous: ‘The word of God’ is a person not a book. On this all of the writers of the New Testament are agreed. It is through Jesus, for the first and only time in history, we get to see and hear God exactly as he is. This is key to understanding the Bible, because it explains how to deal with the differences of opinion it contains.
Jesus made all of this clear himself. Even as he spoke of fulfilling the scriptures – ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets [a popular term for what we now call the Old Testament]; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’ (Matthew 5:17) – he’s famous for his numerous challenges to its actual text and attitudes. Why? Because they were all partial, and pointing to something better. They were pointing to him!
That’s why 2 Timothy 3:16 goes on to explain; ‘all scripture’ – the library we’ve come to believe is sacred – ‘is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training’. It does not say, however, that it is infallible. That honour, as the writer knows, belongs to Christ alone.
It is through Jesus, for the first and only time in history, we get to see and hear God exactly as he is
So, for instance, I do not agree with 1 Timothy 2:12-15, which teaches: ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.’ And, I think it has a different understanding of the Genesis creation story to me when it explains the reason for this tough stance against women leaders is that: ‘Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.’ As for the point that ‘women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety’, I would struggle to teach that!
Why? Because, at heart, my question is simply, this: Does 1 Timothy’s view of the role of women in church life, or in society as a whole, reflect Jesus – ‘the Word made flesh’ (John 1:14)? And, my answer is no. But, do I find its views ‘useful’ in terms of wrestling with how we are called to navigate the issue of culture as we seek to listen to the voice of Christ? My answer to that is – yes!
It is also worth pointing out that, although 2 Timothy’s use of the term ‘all scripture’, is often read to mean applying to the whole of the Christian Bible, this is a classic case of eisegesis (reading into the text a meaning that isn’t there) rather than exegesis (getting out of the text a meaning that is there). Timothy’s comment, penned long before what we now know as the canon of the New Testament had been compiled (or some of it even written), is a reference to the Old Testament; the very bit that so many have most problems with!
Is the Bible wrong?
Am I saying that some of the Bible is wrong? No! I am saying that when we fail to properly understand and engage with the Bible as a library of books that point to Jesus – the only incarnation of the word of God – we are wrong!
I am saying that when we imagine that these writings are not impacted by the personalities, politics, social and moral understandings of their authors, we are wrong.
I am saying that when we treat biblical passages that are poetry, for instance the first Genesis creation account (Gen 1–2.3), as historical narratives, we fail to take them seriously, we rob them of their relevance and, again, we are wrong.
I am saying that, although it is challenging to grapple with what all this means (especially as the life and teaching of Christ is mediated to us through these texts), it is only as we are honest about this task that will we discover the raw material we need to deal with the array of contemporary moral and theological issues facing us today, or the resources which generations beyond us will need as they confront what it means to follow Jesus in the future.
Why do I bring my views to the table? Because, as I understand it, by its very nature, the Bible calls us to continue this open and honest discussion and debate. But, as I do, I am also reminded that even when I disagree with others, it is by my love and respect for them, as Jesus explained, that everyone will know that we are his disciples. This should be what marks us out as the Church.
For more from Steve, visit openchurch.network/chalketalk
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