How Literally Should We Take the Bible?
The difference between prescription and description.
This month, the always interesting, often controversial Rob Bell publishes a new book about the Bible. He’s asking questions about what the Bible is, how to read it and even its use for people today. Regardless of your perspective on how Bell approaches it, you have to admit he brings up important questions. Of the most important is this one: When we read about people and events in the Bible, how are we supposed to know if the Bible is prescribing things for Christians to do or merely describing what people did.
In a day and age when there are so many contentious political and social issues being discussed through a Christian lens, it becomes increasingly more important to understand how to bring the Bible properly into the equation. It can be tempting to keyword search the Bible for verses that seem to confirm or contradict, copy and pasting them into discussions in a sort of drive-by shooting style argumentation.
This was brought to mind recently in a discussion about premarital sex when the question of defining a “marriage” was raised. There is an image some people have on hand for just such discussions which attempts to muddy the waters over what the Bible defines as marriage. Quoting seven Bible passages and referencing numerous historical figures, the image attempts to suggest that the Biblical definition of marriage is not clear, while simultaneously creating a false assumption over what the Bible believes marriage is.
The problem—other than the fact that the image is childishly argumentative—is that it attempts to use descriptive passages as apparent biblical prescriptions for marriage. Just because Abraham had concubines does not mean God is advocating having any number of concubines through His Word. Its inclusion in the Bible has to do with the importance of Abraham as the man chosen to be the father of God’s people, not the righteousness of every decision he ever made.
To further illustrate the differences, look at 2 Samuel 6, in which we read a narrative retelling of newly crowned King David moving the ark of God to Jerusalem. David decides to place the ark upon a cart pulled by oxen, but the oxen end up stumbling and Uzzah, the son of Abinadab, “reached out to the ark of God and took hold of it” in an attempt to steady it and keep it from falling on the ground.
What happens next seems surprising: “Then the Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah, and God struck him dead on the spot for his irreverence, and he died there next to the ark of God” (2 Samuel 6:6-7).
Surely this is an instance where God overreacted, correct? Uzzah was just trying to prevent the ark from falling on the ground.
Describing a historical event is not the same as God prescribing a way to live, or representative of the narrative author accurately describing God’s character. This 2 Samuel passage does not describe a vengeful, angry or petulant God—though on the surface, reading this many thousands of years later it might read as unusual.
However, to the original readers and those in attendance of the event, there was a lot more understood—prime amongst them being the fact that King David had been disobedient and was himself literally responsible for Uzzah’s death. God had provided very clear instructions for how to move the ark (Numbers 4:5-15). David had placed the entire procession in danger because of his disobedience to follow the instructions God had given for how to move the ark.
We all live our lives with a less-than-perfect understanding of the Bible—for not only is it thousands of years old, but the very essence of its message is antithetical to our very souls. It is important, therefore, to learn to study the Bible; not just learn about the Bible, or study the Bible, but learn to study the Bible. In their book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart explain that Christians often have the tendency “to ‘flatten’ everything because they assume that everything God has said in his Word is thereby a direct word to them.”
We can expand this to add that Christians have a tendency to flatten everything because they assume everything in God’s Word can be used to confirm their beliefs or define current-day arguments. It is true that the Bible “is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16) as much today as it was when Paul wrote those words to Timothy.
But that doesn’t mean that every current social ill has a direct corollary-verse we can copy and paste into an argument.
As readers of the Bible, we have to be careful to understand what a verse was originally intended to say—what the author meant for the reader to hear. Verses rarely exist on their own separated from all that is around them. They are like links in a chain, you can’t simply remove one and hope that it will have the same efficacy. This is not to diminish the value of things like memory verses or verses which mean something special for us, but rather we are to learn the context, the intended purpose and the truth so that we can use the Bible accurately.
The Bible is very clear about the ramifications of disobedience. And the Bible is very clear about the importance and need to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:29-31)
Spend time in the Word, study the Word and learn how to study the Word so that you can hear what God is saying to you through His Word.