Oddly enough, I'm speaking on this very topic Monday night in Lancaster's Theology on Tap series at Annie Bailey's pub. Some quick thoughts, beginning with the second question, why this Bible?
My basic reply is pragmatic. We turn to the Bible because it is our book. When I read David Tracy's The Analogical Imagination, gosh, 15 years ago, I didn't like his concept of the Bible as a "classic." I wanted to be able to say that something inheres in the Bible that makes it special. However, I can't find a meaningful way to articulate that. (More on that below.) So I return to a more pragmatic understanding.
The Bible is our book because we continue to practice the reading and interpretation of it. We continue to invite scripture to shape our imaginations and conversations. But we do not -- and have never -- given the Bible the final or only word. One might add something else, but this claim has some problems: The Bible provides our primary witness to the story of God and our people. That's sort of true, but spelling out the qualifications would take more time than I can give. Anyway, this understanding of the Bible as our book implies some responses to the first question, "to what end" we read it.
- We read it because it connects us with the church through the ages and around the world.
- We read it in search of the transforming power of God, because the church frequently testifies to the power of God at work on our reading of scripture.
- We read it to find inspiration, transformation, challenge, and comfort.
- We read it to shape our imaginations and our questions -- that is, to shape us.
I would argue that this pragmatic understanding is grounded in history. We got the Bible because people went to great pains to copy it. As Jewish and Christian literature multiplied, we find Christian leaders saying, "Here's what we'll read in church (and not the other stuff)." That's essentially what Luther is doing in translating the Bible. He includes James and Hebrews, but he notes his major problems with both. On James, he describes the problem in precisely a pragmatic vein: It's okay to read it, even if Luther could do without it. In other words, we do in fact read the Bible because our ancestors have read it.
I also made a negative claim, that I can't make sense of saying meaning, inspiration, or authority inheres to the Bible. What about that?
- The church, ecumenically considered, does not have a single Bible. For most NT authors, the Bible was Greek versions of Jewish scriptures, not the Old Testament we have today. For the author of Jude, the Bible included the Book of Enoch. For the Ethiopic church, Enoch remains in the canon. What Bible are we talking about, and how do we defend the definition? (Quick footnote: Of course we Protestants read scripture in the context of the whole. I'm simply saying that whole isn't "natural" or inherent.)
- To ascribe inherent value to the Bible implies something about the status of biblical books in relation to other books. I have no desire to change the canon of my church. However, I defy anyone to explain how the epistle of Jude offers more wisdom than, say, 4 Ezra.
- Many, many persons have lived exemplary Christian lives without ever reading the Bible -- or hearing it in any level of detail. Obviously, the Bible is a huge part of the context, but the authority for their Christian lives did not reside in the Bible.
- I avoid attributing properties to the Bible because believing the "right things" about the Bible has never guaranteed healthy interpretation. In fact, I'm not sure there's any evidence that such belief would foster healthy interpretation.
- The main reason I don't believe authority inheres in the Bible is spelled out in my recent entries. The Bible doesn't speak with a unified voice, nor can we assume that taking the Bible as a whole will result in a coherent voice. If we're honest about the Bible, we know that there are dimensions of it (notice, I didn't say "parts") that we privilege and others that we don't. (This is not to say that we have any business skipping by dimensions of scripture -- or parts of it, for that matter. I'm committed to engaging the whole of scripture.) Such decisions are not -- and cannot -- be traced to some inherent pattern we find in the Bible. They are instead the product of communal discernment, usually informal discernment, over a long period of time.
I don't doubt the storyline, but let's think about that critically. What drives someone to open the Bible? There's already a context of a faith community that has somehow implanted the thought that the Bible might contain answers. If they open the drawer to find a Dear Abby anthology, or even the Gita or the Qu'ran, the story would work differently, yes? And what about that Bible? Are we to think they just randomly open to, say, Hosea and the love of God broke through to them? Mark? But wait a minute. Gideon Bibles always come with packaging. There's a guide to how to read the Bible there, complete with recommended verses (and page numbers? I'm not sure). In other words, we don't have the Bible speaking on its own to a lone individual; we have communities of faith and conventions of interpretation surrounding this event. That's how the Bible comes to life.
One final thought. The things I'm saying are not the result of modernist historical criticism, nor of postmodern linguistics. I'm a product of both, of course. However, these concerns go at least as far back as Augustine and Origen. Early Christians knew the Bible was messy; for that matter, neither Augustine nor Origen had a fixed canon that matches ours. That is why they developed principles of interpretation to guide communities in their reading of scripture, including allegorical exegesis and the law of love. Scripture comes to life when we read it in the context of walking the path of faith along with our brothers and sisters.