The scriptures in the image above are Thomas Jefferson’s. He didn’t like certain parts of the scriptures that he felt took away from the central messages of Christ’s gospel, so he took scissors to them. I totally get it. If I didn’t have the voice of my primary teacher rattling around in my brain constantly telling me to treat the scriptures with respect and reverence I’m sure there are many times in my life I may have done the same thing.
It seems like the further you go in studying history, context, authorship, and even theology, the more you run into fascinating but often frustrating little bits of new information about the scriptures. Why is it so frustrating? Why do we argue over which books to include as scripture and which to remove from the canon? How can we ever know what to believe?
Most of us have been taught to come to the scriptures as God’s word and to liken them to ourselves. This usually means we are taking the stories found in scripture to be examples of how God wants us to behave, and taking verses from scripture to support our daily human experiences. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but how do we know which biblical characters to emulate, and how do we know which verses help us see our experiences in ways that bring us closer to God? Does it matter who wrote the book? If the story is historical or fictional?
I’ve already started with more questions than answers, and this is exactly the point of scripture. The value of scripture is in its ability to guide us and point us toward Christ as we experience our own humanity. We don’t need to be a biblical scholar to get something from the scriptures, nor do biblical scholars need to only approach scripture as merely an academic exercise. When we let go of our need to have the answers, the scriptures come alive with beautiful stories that express our deepest human emotions and questions, and bring us into relationship with each other, all peoples, from antiquity to the modern era and beyond.
It can be easy to let historical context, authorship, and various theological issues distract us from what is present for us while we’re reading. Being annoyed by books that have a great message but were written by someone we now know to have had less than stellar ethics can keep us stuck. Focusing solely on the historical meanings of scripture can keep us lost in the weeds of always needing to know more instead of resting in the wisdom and revelation that is already there. Getting irritated when a writing seems to twist what could be good news into something dreadful can hold us back from sitting with it long enough to see what God can show us between the lines.
There can be value in deconstructing unhelpful narratives that keep us from moving forward on our paths, but deconstructing can become addicting. When deconstructing becomes an end in itself, we’ve looked beyond the mark. Taking time to slow down can give us the space we need to sit with scripture and discover its immense, and rather overlooked, potential.
If we start with the basic story as written, regardless of the translation, there is value in what that story means to us and what we get from it in the context of our own lives. If we add a little historical context to the origins of the writings, we add a layer of story that can help us develop empathy for others and the context of their lives. If we add an understanding of authorship, we can let go of our authority biases and find ourselves on an equal footing with even the likes of a Moses or Abraham. If we add Christ theology, we can gain a prophetic understanding of our place in the bigger picture and open ourselves to what draws us into our own creative divinity. Scripture has inherent value, regardless of how much we know or don’t know.
As I’ve transformed the way I view scripture, I’ve found that I can read it without feeling frustrated. Scripture can contradict itself, and it can contradict my own experiences with God, and that’s okay, because scripture was never meant to be a one-size-fits-all perfectly communicated prescription of how to live a righteous life. It is a collection of human words that points to the beautiful and mysterious un-languaged Word of God, which shows up in our daily human experiences because God loves us and is always ready to show us new and miraculous things. I can run into contradictions and let them pass by without it provoking confusion or anger, instead feeling a deep connection to humanity, which I know from my own life often shows up as contradiction, and even absurdity. Life is messy, and the scriptures are too. That makes sense.
My love for scripture has grown since I’ve freed it from my own expectations and need for consistency and inerrancy. I can let go of certainties in things I cannot truly ever be certain of, and return my faith to the one thing I can and do know, that God is love and that God can be trusted. I’ve also found that many other works of literature have become scripture for me. Have you ever read something someone wrote and breathed a deep sigh as the words entered your heart and spoke truth to your soul? That’s scripture.
And not just words, but art, nature, sculpture, architecture. Whatever it is, if it speaks to your heart of God’s love then it is scripture for you. It’s time we free the scriptures from the small boxes we put them in, and allow the wisdom and experience of the ages to enlighten us, inform us, and inspire us. We don’t need to rewrite the scriptures or completely reject the parts that don’t work for us or that seem to point away from Christ. We can embrace it as a description of our shared humanity and let it inform our desires for the peaceable kingdom.
The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace. (James 3:17–18)