An Incomplete Bible

Lately I’ve participated in several discussions about the fundamental nature of the Bible. A frequent refrain is the all-encompassing, totally sufficient, utterly complete, perfect nature of the Bible.

I understand the attractiveness of this view. After all, if you’ve committed to Christianity then you really want an unbreakable sense that it’s entirely totally trustworthy – especially if you’ve entrusted it with your eternal destiny. And certainly, a major component of that for many – if not most – Christians is complete trust in the “user’s manual” for Christianity.

I get that. I really do. I lived squarely in that space for several decades.

But I’m beginning to recognize that this position of utter trust in the Bible fills a human need, instead of filling a Biblical self-description. In short, we humans seem to NEED the Bible to be these things, whether or not it really IS these things. We convince ourselves that it is those things precisely because we need it to be. And I am also beginning to see how that human need may be leading to some bad things for the Church and its Christians. I’ll get to those consequences in a moment; first, let’s talk about this need.

If, as most Christians would assert about God, He is truly infinite, and above our ways, and above our comprehension, then it stands to reason that even the Bible itself is limited in what it can possibly tell us about God. It’s not so much that the Bible is hiding anything, but that any document in any human language is necessarily going to be unable to fully convey everything about an infinite deity in a finite text. Even the Bible itself hints at this; John 21:25 (LSB) says “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written one after the other, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (This was an “I suppose” statement by John, not a doctrinal assertion, but I think it makes the point well.)

But on the other hand, 2 Peter 1:2-3 says “Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the full knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the full knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.” This verse is often quoted to assert that the Bible contains everything we need to know about God – but if you read it carefully, it says that God’s “divine power” has done this, not that the text has done this. And it also says that this happens through the “full knowledge of Him who has called us.” It very pointedly does NOT say “through the full knowledge of the Bible.”

This may seem like semantics, but I think they’re important semantics.

Peter goes on to write:

For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these things are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the full knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For in whom these things are not present, that one is blind, being nearsighted, having forgotten the purification from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and choosing sure; for in doing these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you.

(2 Peter 1:4-10, LSB)

The idea here about gaining “full knowledge” doesn’t describe a process of book study. It describes a process of diligently becoming more like Jesus Christ our Lord, in the practices of moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, brotherly kindness, and love. THEY bring that full knowledge.

In a nutshell, it describes increasing knowledge of God by increasing Christlikeness, by practicing instead of studying.

If I assert that a mastery of the written word, the Bible text itself, is sufficient, then I’ll spend my life’s energy seeking to master the text.

If, however, understand that a “full knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” is the goal, and recognize that living out my life by His divine power is the source of that knowledge, then my approach might be rather different.

As a consequence, it would be useful to note that while it may be possible to master the text, it would be fundamentally arrogant, and perhaps even a little silly, to say that we master knowledge of an infinite God based solely on the finite text.

Here’s a simple example: someone who has never encountered a bowling ball or bowling alley cannot possibly learn everything they need to know about bowling from simply reading about the sport, no matter how comprehensive the books are, or how many different authors describe how to bowl and how its rules work. It’s not until this person actually picks up a bowling ball, experiences its heft, learns how to grip the ball, experiences the way the leather-soled shoes slide across the waxed floor, the way the ball responds as it’s thrown, and so many more factors that they can possibly begin to understand bowling. And until they’ve done so for quite some time, developing the proper muscle strength and the brain and nerve pathways to control that strength, that they’ll ever come close to mastering the game. Some real hands-on experience is completely essential. And in fact, I think it’s safe to say that one could actually master the game without ever having access to written works about bowling. With nothing more than a very few fundamental rules (start here, knock those pins down without crossing this line) they could figure everything else out for themselves – even if their technique is completely unique among bowlers.

In much the same way, one cannot hope to understand God without experiencing Him. One cannot actually master living to worship and honor Him without experiencing Him. No amount of Bible study about God will replace the experience.

But, just like someone who has actually gone bowling will forever know the truth about the sport, and regardless of their skill level, will forever understand the complexity of the process and the level of training required to excel at it, so too will someone who has actually encountered the Living God, and discovered the experience to be so much richer and more complex than whatever they may have read in the Bible. And having been changed by that encounter, they’ll never doubt the truth of their own personal experience, or the existence of God. And just like someone who has discovered a love of bowling, no longer satisfied with simply reading about it, similarly for Christians who encounter God personally, no amount of reading ABOUT Him will satisfy them compared to more encounters WITH Him.

And of course, just like reading about bowling techniques will improve a bowler’s game and help them master the skills, reading the Bible will improve our grasp of God’s nature and character infinitely better once we have experienced God ourselves, and have a context into which we can fit our head knowledge.

But that head knowledge isn’t the thing that truly teaches us about God – it just gives us facts, but cannot give us the experience.

So it seems to me that if we need the Bible to be some certain thing so that our faith can be strong, then perhaps we have not yet encountered the living God in such a way that He is sufficient for us regardless of what the Bible is or is not.

Note that Romans 10:17 says “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” It’s often interpreted (especially by those who need the Bible to be all-sufficient) to mean hearing comes by the Bible – but the Greek for “word of Christ” is “rhematos Christou” – the rhema of Christ, the thing spoken, the living voice. It’s not the Bible; it’s the revelation directly from Jesus Christ. There’s no implication that it’s the Bible itself; in no other case is that word “rhematos” translated “Scripture.” It’s always translated “words” or “sayings” or “statement” or some other form of speech. Faith is a result of Christ speaking His living word.

Now, asserting that what we need to learn about God is to experience Him, not read about Him, is certain to trip up some people. How else can we learn about God, so that we may encounter Him, aside from the Bible? It seems we need the word to learn about the Living Word.

But such a requirement would therefore assert that for the first few hundred years of Christianity, humankind had no way to know about God, because the Bible was not compiled in anything approaching its present form. At best, there was a loose collection of commonly-used documents, and few churches had more than a handful of these. And certainly very few individual Christians did – until perhaps the 17th century when the printing press made widespread Bible ownership possible for the first time.

And more than that, those first-generation disciples had nothing but the Jewish Bible, and the memories of their personal experiences with Jesus.

So what was it that built and sustained the faith of these early Christians? It had to be a personal encounter with the Living Word, not an written text.

A commonly-cited verse to this effect is Romans 1:20, which says “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, both His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

To be accurate, this verse is in the context of the knowledge of the WRATH of God against “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth,” not in any positive context.

But nonetheless, there is a clear implication, widely accepted, that God reveals Himself to humans naturally through His creation, not requiring the Bible. And of course, we can add to that encounters with God as manifested in His faithful, Christ-like children.

If we actually do believe Romans 1:20 – which we ought, since it is so often quoted – then perhaps all we need to know is NOT only that which is written in the Bible.

Many evangelicals believe in the concept of “sola scriptura” – the general idea that the Bible is the sole and supreme authority for faith, that it is sufficient for all faith, and that it is clear and easily understandable.

But ironically, those who hold to sola scriptura seem to always say that THEIR particular interpretation of the scriptures is the only valid one. It’s an interesting and quite vexing circular logic. Nothing in the Bible mandates sola scriptura, so it requires extra-Biblical logic to arrive at the conclusion that the Bible is all that is needed. Note the irony in believing that the Bible is all we need – oh, except for adding our own logic about the Bible.

If we reject the idea that the Bible – the written material – is literally all that is needed, then what else is needed?

The first should be pretty clear: we need the Living Word, Jesus the Christ Himself. The written word (the logos) testifies about Jesus. He is the way, the truth, and the life, but we cannot mis-assign those three things to the written Bible. I cannot see how we have all that is needed if we only trust the written word and in any way reject or minimize the Living Word. And I don’t mean that we simply affirm His status as God, or trust Him for our salvation. I mean that we need to intimately know Him, that we can hear His rhematos spoken word to us – not in an audible sense, but so that He is free to speak into our hearts and minds, and thus spark our faith.

The second needed thing is the Holy Spirit. Shortly before His crucifixion, Jesus told His disciples (John 14:26) that the Holy Spirit would teach them all things – which we can safely assume applies to us as well. It’s not just to bring to our remembrance all that He said, all the stories and sayings of Jesus in the Gospels. The Holy Spirit will ALSO teach us all things, in ADDITION to bringing the Bible to our remembrance.

When Martin Luther first separated from the Catholic Church, and translated the Bible into his common tongue, so that all individuals had direct access to the scriptures, instead of depending on a priest for mediation and instruction of the Latin texts, the church argued that chaos would result from letting just any man read and interpret the Bible for himself. How could the church protect the people from believing heresies if they misread the scripture themselves?

This seems to me like a stunning lack of trust in the Holy Spirit to teach us all things, and a lack of trust that the Holy Spirit has the power to to preserve us from leaving God’s good grace if we do stray from canonical and accepted teachings.

The third thing that is needed, perhaps, is a comprehensive and healthy view of the history of the Church and its growing understanding of the scriptures and doctrines. In the last couple years, I’ve discovered that I had inherited a rather shallow and short-sighted view of this topic. The phrase “we’ve always believed” showed up rather often in my spiritual upbringing – but from what I’ve learned, that is a rather incorrect assessment almost every time. If I don’t know what has been taught and believed over the entire history of the Church, I’m automatically throwing away a great deal of wisdom. Many of these things have been wrestled with by men far smarter and better studied than me.

My spiritual mentors over the years seem to have had, perhaps unconsciously, a high degree of arrogance about today’s doctrine and beliefs. There was a real sense of superiority – we’ve progressed far beyond those ancients, they said, and today WE have the real doctrine, the real truth.

Maybe it’s true that God’s revelation is progressing over time – but rather than seeing the things that have gone before as being superseded by increasing revelation, it seems to me that we have to see them as important building blocks in the entire edifice, not as mere stepping stones to the latest and greatest doctrine, but actually part of the whole.

Note another irony: believing that the Bible is all we need – except for also needing our own interpretations based on modern revelation.

So what unsavory things come out of this need for the Bible to be everything to us?

First, Jesus Christ gets sidelined. Despite all the talk about Him, it’s only the unglorified Jesus that gets our attention – or at most, the now-departed glorified Jesus, who turned everything over to Paul and Peter and John to write the really important stuff of how to apply His teachings. Instead of focusing on becoming truly one with the Living Word, and believing that we would become what we are supposed to be by virtue of becoming one with a perfect Christ, we focus on reading and memorizing and studying a book. There’s nothing wrong with doing those things – but they’re insufficient.

Second, there’s a lack of trust in the Holy Spirit. We may think He is good enough to help us not sin, but we perhaps don’t trust Him to reveal new truths, or new interpretations, because everything worth knowing is already written in “the Good Book” and fully understood by whatever group is speaking. And we distrust Him to keep us safe in our thinking. And we distrust that He can speak to others just as well as us.

Third, the focus we do have on the Bible is solely on whatever interpretation is judged to be the Right One by whatever group is involved. This is inherently divisive, because it asserts that my interpretation, my doctrine based on that interpretation, is the only right one, and there’s little if any room for compromise. Jesus didn’t just pray that we would be one with Him; He prayed that we would be one with each other. A laser-like focus on our idea of a perfect and perfectly-complete Bible actually prevents this oneness.

In short, rather than focusing on a vibrant, vital, life-changing relationship with the Living Word and teaching of the Spirit, we go seeking after more mind learning about them.

I’m going to step out on a limb, and say that too many Christians worship the Bible more than they worship the One of whom it testifies.

Please don’t take any of this to mean that the written word is useless. As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be equipped, having been thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Yes, it’s useful. But nothing in the Bible says that it’s everything we need. That’s a human interpretation, based on a human soulish need for comfort and control and consistency.

I don’t think it’s only to the religious leaders of His day that Jesus was saying, from John 5:39-40, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that bear witness about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.

So I’m determined to know, to experience, to enter into relationship with, Jesus Christ with the help of the Holy Spirit. This is my first goal. Knowing the Bible, hiding its words in my heart, facilitates that first goal, but will never BE the first goal.

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