The Bible as Evolutionary Process
How do we make sense of the Bible today? The Bible is a VERY old book. Isn't it obsolete now in 2019? What could it possibly have to teach us? Some parts of the Bible are close to 3,000 years old. I mean, today if our iPhone is a couple years old its considered outdated.
I think we start to have problems with the Bible if we put unreasonable expectations on it. The Bible is not a scientific textbook. It isn't an infallible guide to life. You can't just take any verse out of the Bible and hold it as absolute truth. It's not going to hold all the answers to all the questions. If you actually read the Bible and see how many contradictions there are, it's simply not possible to follow its teachings consistently, because the text itself is not always consistent. In fact, the Bible itself criticizes the idea that scripture is totally infallible, because we can read certain Bible verses that criticize and challenge other parts of the Bible. In other words, the Bible actually argues with itself. This makes sense because the Bible is not one coherent book. It is a collection of stories, poems, and letters that were written over the course of centuries in different times and places.
Take the story of Job for example. It is really a giant criticism of the notion found in scripture that if you do everything right and live a holy and blameless life then bad things won't happen to you. It challenges the idea that if bad things happen to you, you must have done something wrong. If we look closely at Jesus, we also see that he was very selective in the ways he did and did not use scripture. He criticized the way that the religious authorities of his day were using scripture as absolute law. Jesus didn't view scripture that way. I don't think scripture was the ultimate authority for Jesus, so its ironic that many Christians consider it to be.
The way that I make sense of the Bible is that it is an account of how human beings have tried to understand ultimate reality or God throughout time. It shows how human beings have wrestled with the same timeless questions that we wrestle with today. One of the questions that I ask myself when reading the Bible is, why were these stories passed down for so long? What meaning in them is so powerful that they survived until this day? Usually this helps me find a deeper truth in them.
The Bible shows a struggle, a process that sometimes is radically progressive for its time, and at other times it reverts back to harmful and primitive ways of thinking. There is a back and forth process that we see unfolding gradually.
It's too simplistic to think of the Bible as either perfect and infallible or outdated and primitive and therefore trash. The Bible records our search for truth, a search that we continue to this day. We can learn from the journey's of those who came before.
Isn't this evolutionary process clear? People's view of God changes and evolves over time in scripture.There are parts of the Bible that portray God as angry, vengeful, and jealous. Then we have scriptures that say "God is love."
Pete Enns and others have used the phrase "trajectory view of interpretation." In other words, despite all of the contradictions and conflicting viewpoints in the Bible, what is its overall trajectory? In what direction does it seem to be headed? What are we evolving towards? To me that is a great lens with which to view the Bible. I would say, and I know many would agree, that the trajectory is towards greater love and compassion for all people as children of God. It's a trajectory towards justice, love, peace, harmony and compassion. So we can appreciate the parts of the Bible that lead in that direction. We can feel a sense of solidarity with our ancestors in that way.
As for the parts that don't lead in that direction, one may ask, shouldn't we just get rid of them? Why do we still include them as scripture? I think they are important to keep because we can try to learn from others' mistakes and see where they went wrong. Also, even though the thinking in those parts may be primitive or harmful, they are still part of our story. I think it's important to own not only the things we have gotten right, but also the things we've gotten wrong. If we forget the past completely we are bound to repeat it. Looking at the dark side of our ancestors is part of the learning process for us.
At times it's not always clear in the Bible what's right and what's wrong. Often Biblical concepts and stories, instead of offering clear answers, can be a springboard for deeper conversations. Our ideas about what's right or wrong in the Bible has also changed a lot as we have changed, which brings up another important point. The Bible is a living text because it always exists in relationship to us. No one can read the Bible completely objectively. It doesn't exist in a vacuum. You always bring your own baggage, your own biases and preconceptions when you read it. In this way, the Bible is dynamic. The stories and meanings actually change as we change. So then, the Bible is like a mirror. It reflects back to us who we are.
Moreover, I think its important to note that the events in the Bible in many cases did not literally happen in the way that they are described. We have to remember, though, that even if the stories are not all literally true, that doesn't mean there is not truth in them. We can and do derive great value from all kinds of great literature and film. We learn truths about what it means to be human even if the events are fictional. I think the Bible holds powerful symbolic and mythological truths. There are truths we have lost touch with and that we are still uncovering to this day.
Recently I came across an article about the Exodus narrative that talks about how even though the story does not seem to be literally true, still it likely reflects "an origin myth for the Jewish people that has been constructed, redacted, written and rewritten over centuries to include multiple layers of traditions, experiences and memories from a host of different sources and periods." The article explains that we shouldn't just dismiss the Exodus narrative as mere fiction, but that "It is like an archaeological site. You can dig it layer after layer."
So while the Bible is not history in the sense that we think of history today, still it contains ancient memories coded into the text, stories that have been handed down for longer than our minds can even comprehend.
Although the Bible may seem primitive and outdated, we may be surprised to find out how much it actually still can speak to our lives in the present, as long we relate to it appropriately and don't place unreasonable expectations on it.