The Bible is God’s word. This is a conviction Christians have shared since the beginning. When the Bible speaks, we believe, God speaks. We have been debating what exactly that means for quite some time, but nonetheless seem to agree that this is the case. So we try to conform our lives to what Scripture teaches.
Unfortunately, when we believe that God Himself speaks in 66 (or 73 if you’re Catholic, or 77 if you’re Orthodox) books written thousands of years ago by people with totally different situations, languages, cultures, and worldviews, we find ourselves in constant danger. Danger of what? Well, basically idolatry. When reading what we believe is God’s word, we run the constant risk of making ourselves God.
What do I mean by this? If the Bible is God’s word, and when it speaks He speaks in some way, then we remain committed to begin with to the truthfulness of what we find when we read it. But what happens when we read it wrongly? What happens when we misunderstand or misinterpret something? If we don’t realize it, then we take our misinterpretation as God’s own word, His perfect truth. Suddenly we’ve turned our error into divinely authoritative truth, and become obligated to live by it. Moreover, we think everyone else must live by it, too, since it is God’s own word we believe we have found.
When reading what we believe is God’s word, we run the constant risk of making ourselves God.
What makes this particularly dangerous is how easy it is to put our own thoughts into the Bible. For example, if I thought the only two options for alcohol were drunkenness or total abstinence, then by reading the Bible and finding an opposition to drunkenness I have suddenly made total abstinence into God’s word and command! Yet this thought were mine, not God’s or those of His inspired authors. And if this seems too obvious of a mistake, there are many more that are much more subtle.
The constant danger is making ourselves God by projecting our own ideas into the Bible, which we believe is God’s word, and therefore making our ideas into a universal authority. When we aren’t carefully self-aware, we run the risk of autolatry. If we fail to make a clear distinction between our fallible beliefs and the actual teachings of Scripture, we can collapse the I AM into “I (Caleb) am!”
Take as another example the doctrine of creation. There are many views out there: young earth, old earth, theistic evolution, framework hypothesis, historical creationism, etc. Some people repeatedly fail to distinguish between the way they think and the questions they want answered, and the way God has spoken and the questions He has answered. They read Genesis 1-2 as though there is no possible difference between what the text sounds like in their mind versus what the text was actually intended to say. This gives them what they think is a clear and infallible belief about creation, supposedly from God Himself, and so they condemn everyone who disagrees as going against God. Yet this is wrong. We are all fallible, and we all come to the Bible with loads of preexisting wrong ideas which careful Biblical learning is meant to correct. So we should be slow to shout “They’re contradicting God’s truth!” when someone disagrees with us about something the Bible says. We are not God, after all, so we might have something wrong about His word.
We are all fallible, and we all come to the Bible with loads of preexisting wrong ideas which careful Biblical learning is meant to correct.
But I don’t at all want to say we should be, because of all this, timid and relativistic. We don’t have to sit in a corner and say, “Well, I could be wrong, you could be wrong, and we all read ourselves into the Bible, so we don’t have any sure word from God to say one way or the other.” I may come off that way, I fear, but that’s precisely not what I’m saying. The solution to this is careful study of Scripture through the major questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how? Paying attention to the who (author, reader, and subjects) can give us the proper distance between our mind and the Bible we have. Paying attention to the what (what the text actually says) can keep us from twisting texts to fit into our existing molds. Noticing the when (the historical timing of the writing, and any stories involved) helps us keep in mind the differences between then and now so that we don’t squish out any meaning otherwise lost to modern folk. Thinking of where (geographically, on one hand, but also where in the Bible and within an individual book or argument a text is) reminds us to take wider contexts into consideration, so that we don’t try to force a text about A to answer question B in our minds just because they sound similar. The why (motivations and circumstances for this writing or saying, or even precise wording) gives us a bigger picture of what’s really going on so we don’t haphazardly mix and match unique Biblical concerns and circumstances with actually unrelated issues in our lives. Finally, the how (the structure, form, style, vocabulary, etc.) reminds us to keep an eye on larger themes, motifs, and points that we might erase if we simply think about what we want to think about.
The more Spirit-led readers you interact with, the more you can find what the Spirit has helped others realized but you have missed.
This all might sound hard, and it is. Scripture is much like the ocean: there are shores shallow enough for even babies to enjoy, but there are also depths even the most trained divers fear. While anyone can pick us the basic messages of Scripture (redemption from sin and death by God in Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit, for example) without trying too hard to keep themselves in check, the more you read the more work and skill it takes to understand everything the way you were meant to, instead of the way you naturally would or want to.
For this reason, I advise (and this is advice which I take myself) seeking out the wisdom and learning of other Christians. The more voices you have, the less of a chance your own voice can dominate. The more Spirit-led readers you interact with, the more you can find what the Spirit has helped others realized but you have missed. Sin, self-centeredness, and simple ignorance can all be corrected when we think and read Scripture within and as the Christian community, the church. This even includes, despite how some people scoff, the voices of Christian intellectuals and scholars who shed light you otherwise simply can’t find without serious research. Reading books, commentaries, and blogs, and listening to good preaching, all can help fill in the blanks.
Basically, check yourself. Remember your fallibility, and how easy it is to be wrong no matter how plain you might think certain parts of the Bible are. Never assume that your thoughts are God’s thoughts, or your ways His ways, even when you’re reading His own word. Sin and our finite lives get in the way. Just don’t make yourself God.