The long path back to the Bible

September 23, 2015 | Viewpoints | Volume 19 Issue 19
Will Braun | Senior Writer

“I am 86 years old now and I am confused.” The e-mail came from a Canadian Mennonite reader who was referring to references in this magazine to myth and metaphor in the Bible.

The writer, who has read a range of books about the Bible, did not dismiss untraditional approaches to Scripture, but admitted difficulty in truly understanding them. And then he concluded, “I can’t find my way back to the Bible.”

I wander the same wilderness.

It’s a tough place to be. Both because doubt is less comfortable than clarity, and because we risk the disapproval or reproof of those who see ambiguity as the enemy.

The e-mail writer expressed fear about raising questions openly in the church. According to John Neufeld—former pastor and president of Canadian Mennonite Bible College (a founding college of Canadian Mennonite University)—both the questions and fears are relatively common among seniors. Neufeld, himself in his 80s, has spoken to many seniors groups and churches over the years. Often he speaks about a more nuanced approach to the Bible than so-called literal reading.

He says we want the Bible to be perfect, but it just isn’t as neat, tidy and consistent as many of us were led to believe.

How is this message received? With “amazing openness,” he says.  

There are people who are defensive, but he has story after story about elderly people who have deep-seated questions about Scripture and are glad for a space in which to explore them.

“Seniors are struggling with questions and fears and uncertainties,” Neufeld says.

He speaks of the biblical account of Peter’s traditional views being blown open. Peter was raised to observe Jewish restrictions about associating with Gentiles. But God leads him to break those rules and fundamentally revamp his beliefs.

Neufeld has devoted much of his life to understanding Scripture and helping others do the same. “The Bible doesn’t behave the way we would like it to,” he says. For instance, the creation accounts, flood story and other elements of the Old Testament are clearly similar to earlier literature of other peoples in the area, as I learned from a Mennonite Brethren prof at a secular university years ago.

The Bible also behaves poorly as an historical account. Scholar Northrop Frye writes that, if the Bible were intended as a history text book, it would be a badly flawed one, with differing accounts of creation, numerous inconsistencies between the gospel accounts and many details left out.

In terms of literal reading, what would that mean? For instance, I don’t refute the people who conclude the Bible says men shouldn’t have sex with each other. They have a strong literal case to make. The Bible also says we should kill such men. It says women should remain silent in church, or at least should cover their heads when they prophesy or pray. It says we should sell all our possessions, the world was created in six days and Jonah spent three days in the belly of a fish.

I don’t refute the biblical injunction against same-sex relations, but I happen to believe that some people are simply gay. They are among my friends; I’m not going to kill them. I also want to hear what women have to say, whether they are wearing a kerchief or not. I’m too chicken to sell all my possessions. I don’t believe the world was created in six days. And I have no problem with Neufeld’s suggestion that the Jonah story contains a great deal of wisdom and truth even if it didn’t actually happen.

I’m a selective literalist—the only kind there is.

I also appreciate the good third of the Bible that is obviously poetry or literary: “deep calls to deep,” the caring shepherd, the “daybreak from on high” that shines on those in darkness, the hungry filled with good things. Something doesn’t have to be a factual occurrence to contain truth. Think of parables.

And I struggle profoundly with the man-heavy nature of the Bible, the violence (God killing babies to free his people), the difficulty in understanding stories from a very different time and context, and the way the Bible is so often used as a weapon of judgment (by literalists who don’t take “do not judge” literally).

To the 86-year-old who confessed his confusion to me, I say this: First, you appear to be in good company. Invite John Neufeld to your church. Look up the book The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns, as recommended by Neufeld.

My feeling is that the desert of doubt is not necessarily such a bad place. The wilderness holds a special place in Christian tradition.

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I am saddened to read that you consider the Bible to be full or errors and inaccuracies. Why, then, do you refer to it for any guidance or truth? After all, if it is full of errors, then how can you trust anything it says? As I used to exhort my employees, "Don't ever lie to me, for if you lie to me, how can I trust you for anything?"
I was born-again according to John 3, fifty-two years ago. I have spend approximately 40,000 - 50,000 hours studying the Bible and related subjects (e.g. Biblical Greek, Hebrew, archaeology, textual criticism, etc.). As I have humbly sought for Truth from the Scriptures, the Lord has harmonized the Scriptures for me and has demonstrated, more times than I can count, that His Word is TRUE in all things (of any true import). It is infallible, without error, and a trustworthy foundation for all matters of faith and practice. As the hymn (Like A River Glorious) states, "They, who trust Him wholly, find Him wholly true." The Jehovah God of the Bible has proven Himself, in hundreds, if not thousands, of real life situations in my life, to be true and trustworthy, as revealed in Scripture.
James 1:5-8 (NASB) states, "But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways."
I am saddened for you, the elderly man you refer to, and others who doubt Jehovah God, His Son, and His Spirit, as revealed in His Scriptures. If you attempt to be a person of Biblical faith, but doubt Him and His Word, then Scripture says you are "a double-minded man, unstable in all [your] ways."
It really is not even a matter of what you believe. James 2:19 says that even the demons believe - and tremble. Mere mental belief is insufficient for salvation or any real insight into the one, true God and His Christ. I have lived long enough and observed man's intellectual abilities to know that our minds and intellects are faulty (due to the sin which lives in each of us). Intellect and any trust or faith it offers will not save one.
Jesus gives us a true definition of what salvation is in John 17:3, where He teaches, "And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent." Salvation is not found in any intellectual belief or mental assent to any set of facts; it is ONLY found in coming into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and His Heavenly Father.
In my opinion, it begins with one sincerely and humbly searching for the One True God and HIS TRUTH. After all, if there is one, true God (as revealed in Scripture), then ONLY His truth is the only valid truth. It is not subjective, but objective. This God has promised that if one will sincerely seek HIM and His Truth, that He would reveal Himself to that one (Jeremiah 29:11-14; Matthew 7:7, 8; et al.). When one reverences Him and submits himself/herself to Him, He has promised to pour out His abundant grace and truth upon that one (James 4:6 - 10; John 17:17).
What then is true faith?
The Greek words for "faith" and "believe" as found in the New Testament both have the same root word (πιστεύω pisteuō, verb form; πίστις pistis, noun form). These words do NOT mean an intellectual acceptance of something to be true. Rather, as is the pattern in all the Bible, what one believes to be true intellectually, only becomes Biblical faith when one completely commits himself to; only when one puts ones complete trust and confidence in.
To illustrate Biblical faith: If I wish to change a light bulb in my house, I may choose a chair to stand on. Now, in my case (I am 300 lbs.), I have to have "faith" in that chair that it is well enough constructed of good materials and that it will support my weight for the activity I depend upon it for. That is Biblical faith. I may look at a chair and believe it will hold me. (There are some I've looked and would not put my trust in :)) My intellectual believe in the trustworthiness in a chair is of no value whatsoever, until I entrust my entire physical being to that chair by standing upon it.
Likewise, true Biblical faith is not real faith at all until one entrusts himself/herself to the claims of God, His Christ, and His Scripture.
I exhort you to travel the path of seeking genuine truth - God and His Truth - and find real Truth and salvation which He offers.

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