The key to understanding the Bible is reading it

“You need to become a first century Jew.”

Oh, how many times I have heard this kind of thing from people discussing the New Testament. And it’s not, of course, entirely incorrect. The Bible was written for all of God’s people in every time and place, but it was not written to all of us. Each book was written to a particular ancient audience very different from us today. So, often enough, we can understand a book of the Bible better if we learn to put ourselves in the original audience’s place, to think and feel like they did.

My problem is with what people who say these kinds of things tend to mean. They don’t just mean we need to learn the perspective of the people the Bible was written to. They often mean we need to learn this perspective by studying a bunch of technical background stuff about history, anthropology, archeology, and everything else. And this is where I start feeling a bit uncomfortable.

Now, let me be clear. I’m not saying these studies are bad or useless. No, they are great and very useful. I think the work done in these fields is invaluable. And they work: the findings of historians and others actually do make tons of things in the Bible clearer. But do we really need them to get the majority of the Bible? Can we never know the real, original meaning of it all without the help of our scholarly magisterium? To put it another way, is the average Martin doomed to get everything wrong without top-notch commentaries to hold his hand? I can’t help but suspect the answer is “no.”

See, the key to understanding any text is to think the way that the author expected the reader to think. That’s the whole point of studying the historical and cultural context of the Bible. We can use what we learn to shift mental gears into the same configuration as that of ancient Israelites. But there’s more than one way to neutralize a Dalek, so to speak, and I think Martin Luther had the right idea.

Sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone,” is the Protestant belief that, ultimately, everything we really need to know about God can be found in the Bible. We don’t need a magisterium, Holy Tradition, or N. T. Wright’s marvelous book The New Testament and the People of God, however helpful they might sometimes be. Cue the ironically-named doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, or the clarity of the Bible. Not everything in the Bible is equally clear, but the good stuff we most need to know can be easily found and proved.

I think this extends further than some people give it credit for, and not as far as others do. I don’t think this means that any Martin can just crack open a Bible and get any particular thing, even the Gospel itself, right at first glance. But on the second, or the third, or even the fourth time… Scholars put a lot of historical work into finding the worldview of the Bible’s first readers, but we can’t forget that the Bible contains its own worldview, at least implicitly. And the Bible is big. There is enough stuff in there to actually build an entire way of thinking, feeling, and doing. This is stuff that we absorb without even realizing it as we read. So if we absorb more as we read more, then our hearts will be filled more and more with the real Bible.

My point, then, is that this rare and mythical process—you know, reading—can actually give us the perspective we need. The more we consume the Bible, the more it becomes a part of us. “You are what you eat,” it is said, and this applies mentally as much as physically. Just like we digest food and use its parts to build our bodies, so we digest books and use their parts to build our minds. So if you read enough Bible, you will, perhaps slowly, begin to understand it more accurately.

Still, consistency, willingness to learn, and comprehensiveness are vital. Many people read the Bible their whole lives without learning to read it well. There are plenty of reasons for this, of course. But, for many of these people, their reading has often been scattered, blocked by presuppositions they couldn’t give up, or neglectful of certain parts. This last one is a biggie. I would say without hesitation that many Christians get a lot of the Bible wrong because they don’t pay enough attention to most of what’s in Genesis 4 to Matthew 1, or don’t read/skim over books like Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes, Chronicles, Lamentations, or the Minor Prophets. Few Christians really get to know the Psalms, except for a few of their favorites, or the ins and outs of Jude. They’re scared of Revelation (except when they’re not and run over it like a toddler on a bulldozer) and Ezekiel. They’ve only read 3 chapters of Job, the first two and the last one. Yet we need all of these parts in order to learn to think like the Bible thinks, and so even get our favorite parts right.

So, in the end, my proposal is simple. If you read the Bible enough—and I mean seriously, not just like daily devotional material—you’ll learn it deeply. It will enter the crevices of your heart. Doing this over a long enough period of time can, when done well, truly make you a competent reader, up there with the scholars. You’ll be that first century Jew, just by a different route.

(P.S. I’m not claiming to have scaled these heights yet. I’ve cheated by reading excellent Bible-readers like N. T. Wright, Peter Leithart, James Jordan, and Alastair Roberts, among others.)

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Biblical terms we usually misunderstand

Does “saving justice” sound right to you? How about “holy love”? What about “gracious judgment” or “avenging mercy”? They should, but I suspect that for many, or most, of us at least some of these don’t really make sense.

Sadly, I’ve gotten the impression that over time our theological technicalities have led us to miss the actual meanings of many biblical terms. But these are important terms, and when we misunderstand them we misread the Bible and end up with confused theology. So without further ado, I want to list a few terms we tend to misunderstand:

Justice
Often, we think of justice as “punishment for wrongdoing,” but this is overly narrow. In Scripture, especially in the Psalms and the prophets, God’s justice is also connected with salvation, love, and faithfulness to the covenant (see Psalm 98, for example). Biblically, God’s justice is better described as His commitment to “rightness,” to putting things right in creation. This includes both salvation for His people and judgment for the wicked, healing for the hurting and destruction for the evildoers. This also connects with God’s righteousness and faithfulness. In Scripture, God’s justice includes a strong note of faithfully exercising His covenant responsibilities.
Mercy
The most common definition I’ve heard of biblical “mercy” is “not getting the bad you deserve.” Again, this isn’t necessarily wrong to say what it says, but Scripture treats mercy as a larger topic. Mercy in the broader sense is simply to alleviate suffering. If someone is suffering and you help them, it is mercy. This can, and in Scripture often does, apply to people who don’t deserve the suffering they are experiencing, like the exploited poor. But it does apply especially to us who are suffering deservedly under our sin, when God freely rescues us anyone.
Grace
In parallel to the definition of “mercy,” people tend to define grace as “getting the good you don’t deserve.” Again, though, this seems slightly off, although closer to the biblical usage. It seems closer to the biblical use to say that grace essentially means “gift.” The point of the gift isn’t specifically that someone doesn’t deserve what they’re getting, but that dessert has nothing to do with it at all. Gifts are regardless of merit or demerit, and are not specifically about what you don’t deserve (or what you do deserve).

I thought of trying to add some other ones, but these are the bigguns I’ve been thinking about lately, so I’ll leave it at that. Try these alternative definitions out for a test drive in your Bible reading.

No, you are not a soul

You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.

C. S. Lewis

Amen, right?

By no means!

The above quote was supposedly said by C. S. Lewis, one of our favorite theological writers of the modern age. The sentiment is echoed all over the place in Christianity. People complain about their bodies and long for the day that they will be free of them in heaven. When people sin, they excuse their sin by saying they didn’t mean to do it, but their passions or instincts got the best of them. People who struggle with body image are always reassured that the body doesn’t matter; only what’s inside counts. The underlying dogma is clear: your body is not really you. It’s just a temporary shell. Your soul is the real you, and you may even be better off without a body.

This is antichrist.

I could go on for a long time on why this is so wrong, but I’ll focus on the problems with Gnosticism and resurrection. So, Gnosticism:

A strict separation of body/soul doesn’t resemble the Bible at all, but is closer to the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. The Gnostics were a heretical cult in the early church. They believed many problematic and even ridiculous doctrines, but a core distinctive was their view of the physical and the spiritual, or the material and the immaterial. Matter and flesh came from an inferior, perhaps evil, creator, whereas spirit and soul came from the true and good God. So they saw the body as at best irrelevant and at worst an evil obstacle to salvation. But the spirit was the true and good self which could reach salvation through enlightenment. Unfortunately, while not guilty of all of the heretical ideas in Gnostic thought, the whole “you are a soul, not a body” thing really does get its shape from this kind of thinking.

The problems with this approach go on and on. For one, this reasoning is what led to the heresy that Jesus was not completely human, or only had the appearance of a body (called Docetism). Yet John calls them deceivers who “do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” or (as the NLT puts it) “deny that Jesus Christ came in a real body” (2 John 1:7). Jesus was God made flesh. This flesh is essential to the Incarnation which saves us.

This view also leads to some of the moral problems of Gnosticism, which continue even today. If your body isn’t really you, only the soul, then perhaps you should practice extreme asceticism, denying yourself every bodily pleasure to instead live hungry, cold, and alone. Then your soul can focus on God. On the other hand, if the body isn’t really you, it might make sense to brush off moral responsibility in your body. What does it matter what you do if it’s just your body? Many Gnostics used this to justify sexual immorality, but even today in evangelical Christianity it can lead us to blame our bodies for our sins and insist that our souls are actually pure. (And in a less direct way, this leads to the unrealistic and extremely dangerous thought, “He seems harsh and jerkish on the outside, but he’s actually a good person once you get to know him.”)

Besides the Gnostic connections, another problem with this soul-centered view is resurrection. Jesus’ bodily resurrection is at the heart of the Gospel, and ours follows from it. The Apostles’ Creed literally says it as, “I believe in the resurrection of the flesh.” Paul made this point powerfully in 1 Corinthians 15. Some people in Corinth, probably influenced by Greek philosophy, were saying that there wouldn’t be a physical resurrection. Paul rebuked them and pointed to Jesus, saying the Gospel was at stake.

In fact, I think the popularity of this deviant view is why so many Christians underemphasize, or even don’t realize at all, the saving importance of Jesus’ resurrection. According to the Bible, Jesus’ resurrection is the source of our regeneration (1 Jn. 1:3), justification (Rom. 4:25), sanctification (Rom. 8:11-13), and glorification (Rom. 8:23). In a certain sense, resurrection is salvation, and we will not be “fully” saved until our bodies are raised for eternal life with Christ in renewed creation. If we miss this, we miss a major element to the Gospel. For the Bible, the body is not an addon, a shell, or an obstacle. It is saved, redeemed, and glorified in Christ.

Now I realize there are some who would object on the basis of the war between the spirit and the flesh. After all, Paul says this: “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Doesn’t this mean that your physical body is corrupt and that your spirit/soul is pure? Not really. For the acts of the flesh are “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Gal. 5:19-21). While many of these are body with the body, they are all rooted in the heart, and some of these only take place within. Thus the flesh as Paul speaks of it against the Spirit is not the human body. What the flesh actually means is debatable (I favor the view that it refers to natural humanity living without relation to God but only to humanity), but it doesn’t mean human body by itself.

To conclude, let’s drop the dualist silliness. You are a body and a soul. Your body without your soul is dead, and your soul without your body is naked. God made us to be both. We cannot ignore the body, but must let our body and soul serve as instruments with which to glorify God. For we will be raised forever, to live bodily with Christ.

Oh, by the way, it is a most likely a myth that C. S. Lewis said the above quote. Thankfully. (Though to be honest, I’m unsure whether he might have agreed.)