We have all read some passages in the Bible that make us uncomfortable. Do you treat the Bible as an all-or-nothing proposition in the way you live your life? If not, why is that? How did you come to that decision? Do you have an informed theology? Rev Prof Andrew Dutney explored questions like these in a presentation he delivered in late October at Henley Fulham Uniting Church. This theological reflection is a shortened version of his talk.
We Bible-reading, Bible-believing Christians are good at keeping the message of the Bible within manageable boundaries. In a famous lecture on “the strange new world of the Bible”, Karl Barth said, “We shall always find in it as much as we seek and no more: high and divine content if it is high and divine content that we seek … nothing whatever, if it is nothing whatever that we seek.”
However, Barth went on to say the Bible also has a disturbing way of breaking out of those boundaries and contradicting the convenient, congenial versions of its message that we’ve satisfied ourselves with. Eventually it will say to us, “You have really found in me your own reflection. But now I bid you … Seek what is here”.
Barth says, “It is certain that the Bible, if we read it carefully, makes straight for the point where one must decide to accept or to reject the sovereignty of God. This is the new world within the Bible.”
As often as not, the Bible does this by saying something that I don’t like.
It could be something that stretches my credulity, like the sun standing still for a full day at Gibeon to extend the battle and ensure Joshua’s victory (Joshua 10:12-14).
It could be something shocking, like Elisha causing a group of children to be mauled by bears because they made fun of his baldness (2 Kings 2:23-25).
It could be something reprehensible, like the Lord requiring Israel to commit genocide (Deuteronomy 7:1-6).
It could be something counter-cultural, like Jesus’ ban on divorce (Mark 10:11-12) or Paul’s instruction that “women should remain silent in the churches” (1 Corinthians 14:34).
Or it could be something very unwelcome, like Jesus’ advice to the rich young man, “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor,” (Matthew 19:21) or his command to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
Just when I think I’ve got the message of the Bible within manageable boundaries it breaks out and demands that I “decide to accept or to reject the sovereignty of God”. And it probably does that by saying something I don’t like.
The Basis of Union is very clear that the Uniting Church must hear, preach and teach the message of the Bible (Paragraphs 4, 5 and 10). We may not preach a message or teach doctrine that is without biblical basis, let alone one that contradicts the message of the Bible.
So when the Bible appears to say something that I don’t like, I’m not free to ignore it. I can do one of four things:
I might show that the Bible is actually saying something else and that I misunderstand it when I read it straightforwardly. For example, I’d miss the magnificent celebration of the sovereignty of God, the interrelatedness of all creatures, and the distinctive human vocation in Genesis 1, if I took it to be all about when and how long it took God to create the universe.
I might show that that part of the Bible is superseded by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and that I would deny the Gospel if I stop at the plain meaning. For example, the Old Testament law as a whole points to but is fulfilled by Jesus Christ (Hebrews 8).
I might show that there is new information or new insights that mean that I have to set aside the plain meaning of the text and interpret its message in the light of the Gospel. For example, Christian readers should challenge all those places where the Bible accepts and legitimates human slavery.
Or I have to accept that part of the Bible and order my life accordingly—especially when it commands me to love (Matthew 22:37-40). To love God. To love my neighbour. To love my enemy. To love one another.
But as a Uniting Church member and minister, I cannot simply ignore the Bible when it says something I don’t like. I must hear and respond to Christ in “the strange new world of the Bible”.
Rev Prof Andrew Dutney
Rev Prof Andrew Dutney is the Principal of Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He is a former President of the National Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia and teaches Systematic Theology within the Adelaide College of Divinity and Flinders University.
This article originally appeared in New Times magazine and is republished with permission. Special thanks to Rev Prof Andrew Dutney and Petronella Lowies.