Lent Week 4: The Bible is Ambiguous and Diverse

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for five to six weeks. This year we are coming around two questions: What is the Bible? And what is the Bible for?

Currently we are coming around the question:  What is the Bible for?  In order to guide our thinking on this question, we are looking at insights from Pete Enns’ latest book “How the Bible Actually Works“.  Enns is a Bible scholar and writer/blogger/podcaster whose passion is to make the Bible relatable to everyday believers.  His unorthodox views on what the Bible is and what we ought to expect from it have generated no small amount of controversy over the years.

Last week we came around Enns’ big idea that the Bible is designed to lead us into wisdom.  It is not intended to be a rulebook or an owner’s manual or a field guide that gives us hard and fast answers, but is instead intended to guide us in developing wisdom for the unscripted journey of faith.  In other words:

Rather than providing us with information to be downloaded, the Bible holds out for us an invitation to join an ancient, well-traveled, and sacred quest to know God, the world we live in, and our place in it. Not abstractly, but intimately and experientially.

We also mentioned that Enns’ discussion of what the Bible is uses three key words seldom heard in any evangelical discussion of the Bible:  ancient, ambiguous, and diverse.  At this point Enns takes up the ambiguous nature of the Bible.  Even sections of the Bible that we are accustomed to thinking of as clear and unambiguous, like the book of Proverbs or the Law…well, it only takes a moment’s thought to realize that laws and instructions have to be interpreted and applied.  That is the task of wisdom.  Example:  When the Ten Commandments say “Honor your father and your mother”…well, how do we do that?  Turns out that the Bible’s clear and unambiguous instructions…aren’t quite so clear and unambiguous after all.

Next Enns turns to the diverse nature of the Bible.  This is a key to understanding the Bible’s teaching:

The Bible’s diversity is the key to uncovering the Bible’s true purpose for us.

…The diversity we see in the Bible reflects the inevitably changing circumstances of the biblical writers across the centuries as they grappled with their sacred yet ancient and ambiguous tradition.

…The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) exhibits this same characteristic of the sacred past being changed, adapted, rethought, and rewritten by people of faith, not because they disrespected the past, but because they respected it so much they had to tie it to their present.

…The Bible isn’t a book that reflects one point of view. It is a collection of books that records a conversation—even a debate—over time.

When I began to see that for myself, a lot of things fell into place about the Bible’s purpose and what it means to read it with the eyes of faith. When we accept the Bible as the moving, changing, adaptive organism it is, we will more readily accept our own sacred responsibility to engage the ancient biblical story with wisdom, to converse with the past rather than mimic it—which is to follow the very pattern laid out in the Bible itself.

The Bible is “timeless”, not because it contains propositional truths that apply to all people across all ages–what we would call “timeless truths”–but because of what Enns calls its “unwavering commitment to adaptation over time”.  In other words, the Bible was not written to us, it was written for us.  By the grace of God, we get to listen in on a conversation among different peoples across different ages as they struggled to come to grips with what God was doing in their midst and their place in His redemptive story.  Our task in reading, studying, and interpreting the Bible is to listen to what the biblical writers were saying in their own respective times and places and let it guide us in coming to grips with what God is doing in our own day and age, and our place in that story.