Understanding the Hard Texts of the Bible: An essay on books about Reading Scripture Faithfully

As I sometimes do on my BookNotes blog, I share with others a list of books I do for a particular customer. I have had some good conversations with a very bright young student, one who has been criticized for citing the Bible in a college paper. A well-intended professor raised some challenging questions about the reliability of the Scriptures, raising in the student’s mind a question that many of us, surely, ponder, often. It is the question of how to best understand and interpret the Scriptures. What to do, the student asked me, about the texts of violence, the indications that the God of the Bible is harsh and capricious or that a Scriptural view would bolster a conservative state (anti-women, pro-slavery, etc.) One doesn’t need to have as simple-minded view as Richard Dawkins, whose latest book catalogues this caricature, nor be as unbelieving as, say, John Spong, who has yet another book out. Still, the questions are real ones, so I wrote a long, long letter. And, to guide those interested towards some helpful resources, I did a book essay for the inquirer. It is neither complete nor adequate, but there is so much good stuff here that I couldn’t wait to share it with others. Please email us if you have similar questions or concerns. This is dangerous territory for those of us who hold to the historic view of the authority of the Bible. I trust that these resources will strengthen us as we “trust and obey” and make a winsome apologetic not only to young students like the one that emailed me, but like the professor, who may or may not have studied much in this field.
So, here is an edited version of some of what I wrote.

I am so very sorry not to have replied again sooner. We had some of the busiest times of our year, here, traveling, and setting up large displays at out of town conferences. And some illness and other writing deadlines. And, I suppose, I kept hoping that I would be struck with some bolt of genius, some new take on your very important question.

I’ll write a few lines, but I really think this: if you are serious about this topic, you could do no better than to buy a couple of books and make it a priority to read, pray, discuss and practice some of the stuff that faithful Christians and thinkers have given us. My ramblings pale in insignificance in comparison to the very useful resources that we have here in the shop. I’d love to talk further face to face if you want. It would be fun to gather a small handful and do a presentation over coffee, show some books, discuss the questions that you all have. Let me know if we can do anything further, but remember that I’m no expert. And we do have a pretty wide variety of books, so we could select some that seem right for you..

And, a final introductory note: I am still a bit frustrated with what I took to be the tone of your professor’s remarks. The ethics of how teachers can best probe their students without condescension or religious bigotry is a hard one. Knowing your professor, as I do makes me feel a bit better as I know him as a good and caring man. Still, I have heard so many stories of students who are bullied by teachers who themselves may or may not know the serious work that undergirds a certain field (say, Biblical studies, or the philosophy of religion.) Just yesterday I did a blog post about the way in which some mainstream scholars—who ought to know better—caricature the intelligent design movement, misrepresenting it in ways that indicate they’ve not really grappled with the research or convictions. I tried to be generous and critical, a balance I don’t always display”¦. Ahhh, to be kind above all things, even as we stand for truth as we understand it. I hope you’re able to respond well to your teacher’s accusations over the years, standing like so many Biblical heroes, with generosity and commitment and knowledge.

And so few book suggestions and my rambling thoughts:

1. I think that the best way to get at the authority of the Bible and your own understanding of that is to read several good books that take the classic view, argue well for them. The old art-school adage about modern art, that you must “know the rules before you break them” holds much wisdom. The question of how these stories and poems and historical chronicles and parables and letters are the Word of God is a complicated one, but it is at the heart of the Christian faith. (In your church, as they read from the Scriptures, does the reader say something like “Listen to the Word of God” or “This is the Word of God?” Or do they say, as is the fashion some places, not listen to but “Listen for the Word of God” (as if it might be there, it might not be. Yuck!) If we fudge or overly-qualify the historic understanding, unsure of whether God has revealed God’s truth to us, then we surely must be agnostic about most things. How do we know anything about God or God’s plan or the meaning of our lives if the Creator hasn’t shown us? I love the old Francis Schaeffer title, He is there and He Is Not Silent. Revelation—the Divine Word—comes most clearly in the Person of Jesus Christ (the “living Word”) but we only know this because it is explained in the Bible itself, right? Jesus claimed it about Himself, of course, but that is only reliable if you’ve accepted the reliability of the gospel accounts and the New Testament documents. With the silly and trendy stories about the oddball Gnostic gospels and gospels of Judas, etc, these days, it is imperative that Christians think through their trust in the authenticity and reliability of the documents that make up the Bible. My man N.T. Wright, by the way, has a new little book on all of that, starting with the alleged Gospel of Judas and pondering our interest in and the historical credibility of these Gnostic treatments. One of his impressive thoughts is that they never took hold because they are just so darn weird. And boring. They surely don’t present the flesh and blood, holy and human Story of the complex Christ of Matthew Mark Luke & John, or as explored by the New Testament writers. But I digress…

Try The New Testament: Is It Reliable? by Paul Barnett and The Old Testament Documents, Are they Reliable and Relevant? by Walter Kaiser. Both are readable, basic, but very compelling and marshal mountains of evidence and argument for a high trust in these texts. There are considerably more academic volumes out there, some which are critical of the texts, some which are not. Some of those who set out to dismantle our trust in the reliability of the manuscripts (Bart Ehrman has such a popular book, a former evangelical who lost his faith over the inconsistencies in the various manuscripts) know that they have themselves been critiqued as not all that convincing (and sometimes, not all that honest.)

The view that presumes that the critics of traditional faith are right and smart and enlightened, and that those who hold the classic, orthodox views, are well-intended, but not aware of the scholarly issues, is just ill-informed bigotry. I’ve heard professors hold forth on the reliability of the Gnostic manuscripts and the errors of the synoptic gospels when it became evident they really had never read both sides, or the best of both sides. Reading widely is important, but don’t let the secularists or those with anti-evangelical dogma sway you from thinking for yourself. Oddly, these free-thinking critics quite often want you to tow their line, being all enlightened against the reliability of the Bible, but if you research it yourself they deem you fundamentalist, instead of applauding your critical thinking. Odd, how this has become politicized and the hostility to traditional faith a mark of the bold, modern scholar. C.S. Lewis faced this at Oxford (although when he went to Cambridge he was deeply respected.) I have found that most professors aren’t that hostile to a Christian worldview, but across the curriculum, young scholars will have to learn not only how to integrate their faith and their studies, but know how to stand up for their views with winsome and well-informed confidence.

You mentioned R.C. Sproul’s book on the Bible, Knowing Scripture. (He has recently published a more academic one on the reformation doctrine of “sola scriptura” called, obviously, Scripture Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine by the way.) Knowing Scripture is a great introduction, and he is very sharp. In a way, he was one of my mentors in college—we drove to a “rap-session” on these things once a week that he offered in his study center, and I’ve heard him lecture or preach plenty of times. Very important, classic and very logical.

Still, there are others who may be a bit less strict and willing to hold a bit more of the mystery of it all. N.T. Wright is one of the more important Biblical scholars and Christian writers of our day–a five-volume work he is doing on first century understandings of Jesus is simply magisterial, historically, theologically, and Biblically. He has more accessible works, too, that summarize his extraordinary research (like, say, The Challenge of Jesus.) (I can send you an awesome online paper he wrote on C.S. Lewis, whose work was very influential in his early days as a New Testament scholar, although he now re-reads Lewis with a bit of ambivalence.) Anyway, Wright has a recently published little paperback that attempts to get at what we mean by the authority of the Bible, how best to interpret it, and how it functions in the life of discipleship. It is called The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God–Getting Beyond the Bible Wars. He is fully solid, but eager to explore new ways of describing this stuff, and attempts to draw a balanced and vibrant approach around these loaded questions. Political and theological liberals tend to have a “lower” view of the ultimate finality of the Biblical revelation (except when it talks about social justice, say) and political and theological conservatives tend to have a “higher” view of the Scriptures (except, maybe when it speaks of peace and justice, which, until recently, they’ve tended to ignore or minimize.) Wright is a third way between the standard, polarized liberals vs. conservatives and offers a faithful and insightful approach to the significant role of the Bible as God’s Word.

We just got a DVD into the store, a six-session teaching program with the very wise, thoughtful, balanced and altogether helpful evangelical statesman, John Stott. It is called John Stott on the Bible and the Christian Life: Six Sessions on Authority, Interpretation and Use of the Scripture . I wish every small group Bible study or adult Sunday school class would drop whatever they are doing, and buy this little gem from us. So much trouble could be averted if we at least knew this basic kind of stuff.

Rev. Stott also has a fabulous through-the-Bible in a year devotional (Through the Bible Through the Year) that is lovely–hardback, ribbon marker, the whole nice bit. (Baker; $19.99–a great price for this full-color, handsome volume, by the way.) It makes a great gift, and is a treasure to spend time in each day. I think Stott is really to be trusted, solid where it most counts, and, happily, open-minded and gracious, and truly interested in cultural and social reformation; he so “gets” —heck, he taught many of us to “get”– the need to responsibly engage the world and the Word, living out vibrant faith in the real world. Any of his many commentaries are worth having, too.

And, while I am giving a few suggestions on how the Bible is used, I cannot say enough—for serious students, those drawn to the complexities of this, or theological scholars—about a book compiled by an acquaintance of ours, Justin S. Holcomb. He has put together a reader with important essays about how different theologians have viewed this matter over the span of church history. Just for instance, he’s got Rusty Reno on Origen and Michael Horton on the reformation; here you can read John Franke on 19th century views, and Michael Highton on Hans Frei. Each of the four main sections has an introductory piece, and then several representative essays on certain theologians. Christian Theologies of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction is published by New York University Press ($23.95) and is highly regarded. That an evangelical from the Religious Studies department at University of Virginia has given us such a thoughtful overview is noteable. These names may not mean much to you yet, but trust me that this is top-shelf, ecumenical stuff. It is a good resource compilation for any who want to dig that deep”¦

2. Another matter of great concern, besides the basic question of how to understand the role of the Bible and what we mean by it’s reliability and trustworthiness and authority, is the question of how best to read it. Even before the awkward questions of how to deal with the hard passages, the perplexing stuff, the war, and violence against women and judgement and such, we at least have to have certain dispositions and skills to read the overview of the story. Here, evangelicals in the past have been less than helpful as they so quickly wanted to assert the ultimate meaning of the text as God’s Word (properly so, in my view) by digging in to some exact meaning in any given text or verse or phrase (or word!) Anyone who teaches on this, though, knows that context is the basis for any text, and without the Big Picture, the inductive study of any out-of-context or abstracted passage can lead to mere moralism or legalistic and simplistic “applications” of “truths.”

But of course the Bible is a long, sweeping narrative. Liberal literary critics are helpful in reminding us of this, although they too often want to therefore tear it apart, break it down, placing one story over and against another, one writer pitted against another. Where some evangelicals minimize the flow of the big story, some historical critics tend to erode the God-given meaning of a text as it gets lost in the big determination of what writer, what style, what century, is it true, is it this or that. In a lovely little book on the Bible, William Willimon (until recently the chaplain at Duke) has suggested that that would be like evaluating Shakespeare solely on the accuracy with which his plays depict the British monarchy.
Sometimes liberal higher critics can’t see God’s forest from the trees.
So the goal is, I think, to see any given text in it’s situatedness in the grand story of the whole Bible (the meta-narrative, as it has come to be called) and find it’s meaning in its place in the history of redemption. That implies that the one big unfolding story of the Bible hangs together, has some detours and mystifying aspects, but illustrates what scholars have come to call “progressive revelation.” God unfolds history for better or for worse, and tells the tale of His plan of redemption by choosing a nation, which develops into a monarchy, gets into trouble, divides, fights, is sent into exile, has renewed hope, realizes its great need for a rescuer, ends up under the boot heel of the Roman Empire and finally sees a Messiah come to form a counter-cultural community for the common good. Along the way there are mystic visions and poems, kings and historians, social prophets and those who had oracles from God, some that thought they spoke for God (but clearly didn’t) and the whole messy, Divine-Human saga is worked out in a Christo-centric way that points us to the fulfillment of the drama, the second to last climatic act, the coming of Jesus. (Of course the final act is His final return to bring consummation and conclusion and final Victory to the whole story.) Even the early church unfolding and expanding (fulfilling the promises of Genesis that God’s covenant community would be in touch with God in such a way as to be a missionary blessing to the nations) to the whole known world (Paul even wanted to get to Spain, but died in Rome before he pushed into Western Europe) is part of this historically-redemptive way of reading the trajectory of the Bible. The Big Picture/Meta-Narrative context is the first way to understand anything in the story. (By the way, the most doctrinal and intellectually abstract part of the Bible, the New Testament letters, are themselves truly narratively based. (Even Romans, arguably the most sustained intellectual section in all of scripture, is based on the Jewish-Gentile argument due to the exclusion of the Jews out of Rome and the Gentile Christians taking over the Roman congregation, and then the Jews coming back a decade later”¦Paul’s passion to understand theologically the ethnic reconciliation between Jewish and Gentiles followers of Jesus is the background context for the detailed doctrinal teaching in the letters!)

So: a sensitivity to narrative, the inter-locking Big Picture based on the notion of progressive revelation that understands the unfolding trajectory of God’s plan being worked out in real human history is a helpful framework for understanding the context of any given text. Easier said than done, perhaps, and it doesn’t solve the ethical quandaries of how to apply, now, laws or mandates from previous eras of the Biblical narrative, but it at least gives us an approach that both honors the flow of the narrative (instead of abstracting each Bible story or book out of it’s place in the drama) and allows for some realization that the way we obey and stand under the authority of a text may change. (This is obvious, say, in the way in which the trajectory of the good news moves from Israel and a Jewish religion to the gentile nations. The way Older Testament dietary regulations are set aside in the new covenant epoch, and how older institutions of war and slavery are re-framed by the nonviolent Jesus and the inclusive church.)

The best book on this, without being overly didactic about it, that captures this inter-woven flow of the promise and deliverance in the history of redemption is The Drama of Scripture: Finding Your Place in the Biblical Story by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen.

The good guys who put this book together have a website that is really worthy browsing through. There are plenty of good online resources, but theirs is one of the best for this big picture perspective on the historical-redemptive view of progressive revelation.They even have a slide show highlighting their summary of the Biblical story. I especially like that they have compiled a half a dozen or so articles in pdf files that you can copy, good pieces by Goheen, Wright, Newbegin. These are really, really good and can be found at www.biblicaltheology.ca/bluearticles.htm. Another really fascinating little book is personal favorite by art historian and Bible scholar, Calvin Seerveld, who looks at one particular Bible story (the talking donkey in the Balaam story in Numbers) and shows how various critics, preachers or commentaries would view it. The liberal critical one, the fundamentalist moralistic one, the super-dogmatic doctrinal one. Each has some good insights how to get at and open up a passages, but each miss something essential about the basic place of this story in the bigger plot of Old Testament history. SO he does his own fourth interpretation of the text, illustrating the fruit that can come from this kind of narrative approach to Bible study. It is called Reading the Bible to Hear God Speak and is really a sweet little book.

One of the very first books I ever gave to our mutual friend Brian was When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem by Richard Mouw, which is a study of one chapter from Isaiah, a chapter that has huge eschatological overtones. Written by Richard Mouw president of Fuller Theological Seminary and a well respected ecumenical voice. Here, he explores the bigger meaning of a fairly obscure text, by placing it in its bigger role in the overarching narrative of creation-fall-redemption-consummation. That is, God made the world good, it went really bad, God enters into covenant and promise to heal the mess, and promises, finally, to someday make good on that promise. This one story about a ship and what it carried in Isaiah unlocks much when it is seen in it’s place (as a prophecy) within the history of redemption. It avoids a wooden literalism that tries to force some unnatural meaning on a text on one hand, and a deconstructing, unbelieving criticism that doesn’t trust the text on the other and it shows how to appreciate an Isaiah prophecy by looking to creation and forward to new creation. What a great book!

Yet one more book that really unlocks this whole broad approach–with a very high regard for the Bible as God’s Word but an eye to the unfolding narrative approach, is called Far As the Curse Is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption by Michael D. Williams. Whom I’m told is a wild guy who rides a motorcycle and teaches Reformed theology. This is a fabulous book and reading something like this alongside your own Bible reading, or in your project of trying to figure out how to best read the Bible, would be an immense benefit. Like my favorite Drama of Scripture some of it will seem rather typical. This doesn’t change the text or do anything all that unusual, really. But then, a certain phrase or explanation or link of a passage to an idea or another text, and the lights come on. This really is a vitally exciting and enriching and “new” way to get into the big picture of the whole story of the whole people of God. The rediscovery of this approach is one of the great things happening in the world of Biblical scholarship today.

One of the ways to get this big overview of the flow of the Bible story, a way that is interesting and exciting (even if not adequate on its own) is to read the fun second volume in Brian McLaren’s controversial trilogy of novels about a pastor who, grappling with postmodernism and a dry, legalistic evangelical congregation, devises (with the help of an emerging po-mo Episcopal science teacher), what the novel calls “A New Kind of Christian.” The first novel is called just that. Interestingly, the second volume, my favorite of the three, asks (well, the character asks) if one wants to be such a new kind of faithful follower of Christ’s way in the postmodern world, which values narrative and not inert, theological facts, how do we then appropriate and honor the Bible? Well, as the fiction unfolds in this novel, The Story We Find Ourselves In: Further Adventures of a New Kind of Christian the characters just about explode with enthusiasm and intrigue as they are captured by the Word in a way that has integrity, honors the diversity of the kind of stories in the Bible, mostly by discovering the interconnectedness of the unfolding drama. To learn in a very clever way the major “acts” and key moments in the Biblical story, and how contemporary Christians can live into that, and become part of that, is an exciting thing, indeed. To read it as a novel is truly pleasant, and, like the characters in The Story… you, too, can thrill with a new kind of discovery that is pregnant with implications for living the Christian life. It isn’t a commentary or book on hermeneutics, and won’t answer your specific questions about how to understand some of the confusing teachings in the Bible, but it sure will, as we like to say, “put it in perspective.” It would be a great book to read in some summer book club, and talk about together. A novel about how to read the Bible; how cool is that?!

One small sub-set of thinking about this fruitful way of looking at the big picture—the context of the unfolding plan of promise & deliverance, the historical-redemptive approach, a narrative view, whatever you want to call it–is the way in which some authors see much of the Older Testament have signs and symbols (types) of Christ. This is easier to do with passages that are clear messianic prophecies, of course, but there are other inter-textual connections. Some may be a bit forced, but the wiser ones do a provocative job helping us see how certain images in the Hebrew world (blood sacrifices, say, of an unblemished lamb) reach their fulfillment in the sacrifice of Christ. How can we see the entrance into the promised land (where there is battle against evil, an epic kind of journey into shalom, and final security) is somehow an archetype pointing towards our understanding of our entrance into the Kingdom of God, the spiritual warfare against evil, and the final victory of Paradise regained. This, obviously, doesn’t answer the specific questions you asked about, for instance, why the Canannite genocide happened, but it is at least one way of seeing some connection and continuity between older parts of the Story and the later parts. Which is to say, the connection between the Older and Newer Testaments. One book I like about that is called Finding Christ in the Old Testament by Chris Wright (he has an equally nice one called Finding the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. Edmund Clowney wrote a gem of a book with case studies of texts to read in a Christ-centered way, entitled The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament. Later, he wrote one for preachers (or anybody wanting to plumb this further called Preaching Christ Throughout the Old Testament.) We import another one like this from England that we like, too, which is really simple and clear (the title is from the phrase of the disciples when in Acts we are told that Jesus taught them about himself in the law and the prophets.) It is called Their Hearts Burned: Walking With Jesus Along the Emmaus Road: An Excursion Through the Old Testament by Kevin O’Donnell and is a fine little resource on how Christ indeed shows up all over the Bible, and is the heart of the Story.

I believe, by the way, that this could be fun and fruitful ground—if done in trust and an open mind—for interfaith dialogue as Bible-believing Christian enter into conversations with Jewish believers. Jews, of course, would take offense to this reading New Testament convictions back into their Hebrew Scriptures, but it is simply impossible to not do so. Jesus claimed to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, was an educated Rabbi, as was the Pharisee and brilliant church-planter, Paul of Tarsus. The echoes of the Old Testament are seen on nearly every page of the New, and it is of great interest to contemporary scholars to work on that. It could be done, in the wrong hands, to reinforce a sad and sometimes brutal anti-Semitism, and that, too, needs to be discussed. Liberal critics will raise that concern, and we should hear them (as we would if they complain that the Bible seems to oppress women or have a bias against Palestinian land claims.) Still, I think the clear Jewishness of the Christian message is a helpful thing, and a good “plank” in our campaign to read the Bible properly, on it’s own terms, for the sake of God’s glory and a just world.

I know I am saying more than you may ever care to know, and noting too many books, but I have to list another author that means much to many of us as we struggle for a faithful approach to the Word. Graeme Goldsworthy has written bunches of scholarly and semi-scholarly books, and one that I think should be well-known is According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible. It is called “an introductory Biblical theology” so you are told at the outset that it not just reading the Bible for sheer Bible knowledge or for some kind of neutral literary appreciation. Like other faithful Bible interpreters, he is trying to do theology, construct a world and worldview that is rooted in this grand story, this progressive revelation where God’s plan for a King and Kingdom is slowly made reality, and narrated in the Scriptures. It is daunting, just based on the massive diversity and complexity of the Bible’s many portions, to get a grasp on the unity of its message. This story of salvation history, though, is the key that Goldsworthy unpacks. Like the others I’ve mentioned, it not only functions as a very thoughtful Bible overview, but has within it, a method; a hermeneutic, a process and philosophy of interpretation. It should come as no surprise that he has written on this, exactly, too. His brand new one is called Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics: Foundations And Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation which is not just a masterful interpretation of specific texts, but a deeper understanding of how to do that kind of interpretation. It is a serious collection of erudite essays, but, finally, is a guide to how to read the Bible faithfully and fruitfully.

Here is what Kevin VanHoozer, one of the most important philosophers of hermeneutics these days, says of it,

“The focus of Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics is not word studies, but Word study: a sustained reflection on the priority and centrality of the good news concerning Jesus Christ as the distinct way that Scripture interprets Scripture and, indeed, all of reality. Goldsworthy’s attention to the role of biblical theology in biblical interpretation is particularly welcome, providing a refreshing contrast to what often gets produced by the contemporary hermeneutics industry”¦”

I am not sure exactly who is he talking about there, but it makes me want to get on board!

I hope you can see that each of the sorts of books I’ve recommended are the “next step” towards answering, or providing a framework for possibly answering, the questions your professor raised. His scribbled challenge to you in the margins of your paper may have been terse and a bit smug, but, as we’ve discussed before, they are fair and proper. To answer these major skeptical questions about the Bible, especially the rather unsavory parts, will demand this kind of thoughtful foundation and wise approach. With these kind of working assumptions about the Bible, and standing in this kind of intellectual tradition, we can eventually learn, as Goldsworthy and others show us, how to handle the Word properly, how to respond to various parts of the story, and how to relate our high, evangelical regard for the classic doctrine of the reliability and authority of the Scriptures, to these age-old, powerful questions. Sorry to delay an answer, but these questions will be with us for all of our lives, so a long project of studying the Scriptures, rooted in a faithful hermeneutic, will give you the tools you need for a lifetime of helpful apologetics and testimony.

And, one more thing, about this. We do stand in a tradition; these Christo-centric, Kingdom-of-God oriented, historically-redemptive preachers and teachers are mostly Reformed evangelicals and are working hard to develop a particular school of thought. Nobody just looks at the text raw, as if they have the unbiased perfect take on it. That is the nature of interpretation, and the postmodern folks have reminded us that nobody is pure, naïve or neutral. So we might as well admit to the perspectives and presuppositions we bring to our task.

(Aside: I know this is getting a bit tangential, but these hermenutical questions are so important. This suggestion that everyone is biased and that we have this human propensity to interpret is most helpfully explained for those with some philosophical interest, by James K.A. Smith in his splendid The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic. Smith, a post-modern philosophy prof at Calvin College, shows how even ancient theologians like Augustine remind us of this, and that our subjective perspectives aren’t due to our fallen nature, but are built into the human condition in creation. Great stuff!)

One very helpful book that gets at this a bit is a recent collection of essays that try to show how conservative evangelicals and Roman Catholics can agree much on how to handle the texts of Scripture. See, for instance,
Your Word Is Truth: A Project of Evangelicals and Catholics Together edited by Charles Colson & Richard John Neuhaus. These articles reflect on the role of the Bible within either the evangelical camp or the Catholic church, but also have pieces on how tradition influences our readings, how the various schools of thoughts within our tradition are influential. Actually, one of the classic rifts has been about this very thing (“Scripture Alone”) and this is an important contribution to how both communions handle Scripture.

3. Here, finally, are a few quick suggestions about books that may be helpful in answering specific hard questions; how do we handle certain hard-to-stomach texts? I do not want to take the easier way out that the more liberal Christians do—they may just say that these texts are unhelpful and rule them out. This erodes any ultimate authority of the canon, and is not what the church has traditionally held. So what to say?

Maybe as I describe a few books that I’ve used it will help illustrate the kinds of interpretive moves some scholars make to help bring insight to the questions”¦

Slavery, Sabbath, War & Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation by Willard M. Swartley. It admirably demonstrates how to take seriously various kinds of texts, and how to understand them. It shows how to understand the historical context and social location, and to see what other Scriptures then teach even about that. For instance, a careful reading of the episodes of Solomon’s era with the temple, you come to see that he oppressed the poor to make it, and lived in glory and depression. Ecclesiastics came out of that sad era when he trusted wealth and military power. We ought to see that period in the broader flow of Israel’s history, and “read” or value it the way other texts tell us to! So here, Swartley explores how these four topics are explore through-out the Bible, the clear and the not-so-clear, the positive and the negative, and tries to come up with a coherent plan of how to see the trajectory toward God’s ultimate Kingdom ways. It doesn’t answer every odd question, but it does give long case studies that are very instructive. At the very least, it painstakingly demolishes simplistic accusations that the Old Testament endorses all war and authorizes religious violence.

One of the authors that has helped me most over the past two decades as I’ve read and re-read him, and sought him out, and studied his strengths and, perhaps, disconcerting weaknesses, is Walter Brueggemann, perhaps the most widely read Old Testament scholar of the last 100 years. He has an uncanny ability to see through the possible pretenses and biases in a text and yet show how it is God’s Word, part of the canon, chosen by the people of God to be an authoritative text, and, then, what it might be as we literally stake our lives on these befuddling stories and counter-stories. One of the books I have come to really appreciate (although it took be three times through it until I really got it, I think) is called Israel’s Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology. It is a fascinating, close reading of how Israel’s praises were sometimes, well, like our own flag-waving and patriotic songfests, an example of self-justifying civil religion. Some of the Psalms function this way, it seems, and he shows how, yes, even in Bible times, religion can serve as a cover up and justification for “idolatry and ideology.” We know this since a good chunk of the Biblical witness tells us so—just think of the prophets. “Don’t say that we have God on our side” Jeremiah warned. (“Don’t chant, in liturgical fashion “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord…” thinking that makes your injustice tolerable”, is closer to what he said, and we get the point, or at least we should, if we ever sing “God Bless America” and the like.) There was no immunity to ideology just because they were part of the covenant community, and other texts deconstruct the ones that moved Israel in that unrighteous, hardened direction. Israel’s Praise is a satisfying study in it’s own right on the overall vocation of praise—it moved me to tears over eggs at a local diner on morning a year ago—but it is also a good tool to help us do this kind of careful study to see which texts need to be corrected and informed by other texts. This is complicated business, but Brueggemann’s mostly reliable and faithful efforts can be at least a part of the answer to your tough questions about interpreting confusing and violent stories. Another one, nearly a contemporary classic, is The Prophetic Imagination which I have often recommended (with some degree of trepidation) in these pages. Again, with a slow and careful study, this evocative and nearly poetic scholarship has unlocked insights that are helpful—-did you know that lament and tears are a part of the subversive power of the Biblical prophets. Those who cry out “no!” in anguish are part of the story, you know, and learning how best to interpret their passions, concerns, oracles and politics is important. Brueggy’s The Prophetic Imagination and the sequel, about the post-exilic prophets, The Hopeful Imagination are among my all time favorite books.

Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis William Webb This is a pretty complex book, with what some take to be a fairly controversial approach. I am not sure I’d recommend it fully, but a few friends I admire love it. He’s an original thinker, and uses some creative hermeneutical thinking to at least show the plausibility of what these texts could mean, and how to best find meaning emerge for us today. He ends up not unlike the earlier collection, insisting that slavery is now wrong, women are to be fully involved in all roles of church leadership, but that homosexual practices is still considered improper. So the method he uses helps see contemporary ethical issues in light of ancient texts, without either applying them literally and yet also without ruling them as out of date or marginal. Certainly a provocative read if you’re up for it.

The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story Frank Anthony Spina What a fascinating study of how the notion of inclusion often trumps (upon careful study) the themes of exclusion. Grace abounds in surprising ways. Learning to “see” this stuff in the Bible is an art and takes years of disciplined work, but can open up new horizons of how to answer the harder questions.

Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives Phyllis Trible There are some incredibly gruesome stories, often that include violence against women. Trible looks at them fearlessly and picks up in some an interesting rhetorical device, a point of view in the telling of the episode, that actually deconstructs the violence, that offers an insight or moral to the story that makes it plausible to think that God is on the side of the one who suffers, that the horrific incident is not finally what it seems.

Truth Is Stranger Than It Used To Be: Biblical Faith for a Postmodern Culture Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton This book is initially about postmodern thinking and the cultural shift away from the hubris of modern science and technology and power. They maintain, though, that for the Bible to be heard and appreciated as good news for postmoderns (who are suspicious of meta-narratives and any big truth claims) the Story of the Bible has to be explained in a way that attends to the accusations of it being pushy, violent and crusading. Hence, they have to spend a lot of time explaining the “texts of terror” and ask how to proclaim the unfolding Story even as we admit that some chapters of the Story are pretty violent. They ultimately show how certain themes and truths trump other themes and truths as the story unfolds. It is a provocative and revolutionary hermeneutic, rooted in a deep awareness of the harshest criticism of our time. Extraordinary and a must read for both its cultural disconnect and its creative fidelity in attempting to read the Bible faithfully.

Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmaat After the call to a broad vision of progressive revelation and a re-evaluation of the violent texts that they worked on in Truth Is Stranger many folks asked them how they would do a systematic Bible study of a given book of the Bible in light of their postmodern views. This is truly one of the most thoughtful and provocative commentaries I’ve ever read, complete with internal arguments, digressions into contemporary politics, fictional dialogues and contemporary postmodern studies. Basically, though, it is a study of the book of Colossians, showing it’s grand place in the history of redemption, the echoes of Hebrew Scripture, and the ways a proper, creative appropriation of that book could literally change the world. It did once, while under the oppression of the Roman Empire, and could have similar impact under the current worldly regimes. Endorsements from N.T. Wright & Brueggeman indicate that it is a world class work and a must read.

Yahweh Is A Warrior: A Theology of Warfare in Ancient Israel Millar Lind A Mennonite pacifist theologian looks at war in the Old Testament, and makes a compelling argument for how to understand “war by miracle” and the eventual anti-military message at the heart of most of the battles, until, finally, how the military is seen as an idol to be resisted (and swords beaten into plowshares.”) Jesus, of course, finally brings this to ultimate fulfillment with his commitment to nonviolence, the final expression of what was slowly unfolded all along.

God Is A Warrior Tremper Longman An evangelical writer of incredible insight offers a somewhat different take than Lind, but still offers a way to understand the violence of a Holy God as it unfolds in the history of redemption. One very good example of a reasonable, orthodox and yet creative approach to these complicated matters. Tremper is no pacifist, but I deeply appreciate his helpful insight.

Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views of God and Canannite Genocide edited by Stanley Grundrey Here four different evangelical writers talk about their sense of the continuity or discontinuity between the violence in Joshua and the teachings of peacemaking in the New Testament. An excellent view of how different Bible scholars can disagree and offer creative solutions to this particular problem of Biblical interpretation. As in the other books in this series each author not only makes their case but is then critiqued by the other contributors. Very useful, even if it makes your head spin.

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Allow me to offer a few final remarks, suggestions about an author writes in a somewhat different tone. Eugene Peterson is a wise and seasoned pastor, whose love for the original languages of the Scriptures and his nearly desperate desire to have the ordinary folk in his congregation pick up on the life-changing nuanced of the Biblical text, led him to paraphrase the Bible in what became known as The Message. Peterson himself loves literature—he reads and writes about poetry and serious novels alongside essays on Greek and Calvin and Corinthians. I want to tell you just a bit about a few of his many books that I think would be helpful.

Firstly, The Message is worth having in part because it is so fresh, interesting, and different and is rooted in Peterson’s serious attention to the original languages. As book lovers, we are thrilled to hear him talk, as he sometimes does, about participles and dialects and grammar. He loves words, and loves The Word. I think reading him regularly is not only good for the soul, but good for your practiced habits of reading, especially reading the Bible. I can hardly think of anyone else one could make a lifetime of studying. I will never forget the first time I first read A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (on the Psalms of Ascent) or his book of reflections on Jeremiah (Run With the Horses) or my favorite of these sorts, Where Your Treasure Is: Psalms That Summon Us From Self to Community. He is especially beloved by working pastors, for his set of four paperbacks on “vocational holiness” which call ministers to the primal work of teaching the Bible, prayer, and building up their congregations in the habits of faithful spirituality. Many of us who are not pastors read them, as well, and we commend them to anyone who wants to learn about faith, work, formation and integrity.

The Message may be what he is most known for, though. Not only is The Message a fun and fresh paraphrase, the introductions to each book of the Bible that are included are themselves well worth reading, time and again. I have told the publisher that Peterson ought to do a Bible handbook, since the introductions to each section of The Message are so memorable and insightful. As much as I rave, above, about books like The Drama of Scripture Peterson’s overviews are a themselves steeped well in the point of each book, and often highlights something of the redemptive message of each. Interestingly, he had a hand in putting together a devotional resource, a way to read The Message that is entitled The Message Remix: Pause which includes a reading for each day which includes both and Older and Newer Testament passage. That these are not chosen randomly, but theologically, tying together these varied texts, is itself a stroke of genius. It is a good way to get into the Bible in a daily way, and nearly always helps us see the unity of the Scriptures. And that, these days, is very important.

Peterson’s most recent three books are extraordinary. They are so steeped in the Bible’s own worldview, so clarifying and insightful, that they are, I’d say, some of the best Christian spiritual literature written in our lifetime. The three are Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eat This Book, and The Jesus Way. Although all three are excellent (and will be followed by two more over the next two years) the second, Eat This Book, is actually about the need to hear God speak in quiet and gentle ways as we prayerfully, slowly, regularly, imbibe—eat and digest!—the texts that given to us.

I’m not sure that reading Peterson will answer the tough questions you wrote about. I am not sure that his work, alone, explains the hermenutical insights that help us figure out how to handle the harder portions of Scripture, the “texts of terror” or the kinds of things so provocatively addressed in books like Colossians Remixed. But I am confident that without this regular, spiritually mature and attentive natural reading of the Bible itself, our deeper answers and apologetics about the authority of the Bible and creative interpretations will not bear much fruit. So, as the Spirit once said so long ago, tolle legge, tolle legge—take up and read!