(1) Rooted, as I am, within the Christian tradition, I believe that it is best to understand the Bible as a partial but privileged witness to the history of God’s life-giving engagement with creation in general, and humanity in particular.
(1.1) I use the the term partial here because the Bible is not an exhaustive account of all the ways in which God’s life-giving engagement occurs. Indeed, the Bible itself frequently suggests that there are many other unknown ways in which God is engaging the world. For example, in the Old Testament, we meet mysterious characters like Melchizedek, or we hear of God’s plans and involvement with nations and peoples outside of Israel. Thus, the Bible only accounts for one particular trajectory within God’s life-giving interactions with us.
(1.2) However, within the Christian tradition, this is a privileged trajectory — hence my use of that term here. For Christians, the history of God’s life-giving engagement with creation culminates in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, the Bible is a Christocentric text, bearing witness to God in Jesus Christ. This is not to say that every single text within the Bible must be taken as referring to Jesus; rather, it is to assert that the general trajectory of the Bible, prior to Jesus’ coming, points forward to him, and that the general trajectory of the Bible, after Jesus’ coming, refers back to him.
(1.3) Thus, as a partial and privileged witness the Bible is understood as a text that reveals something beyond itself — God’s life-giving engagement with creation in general, and humanity in particular. Therefore, Christians treat the Bible as a sacred text, not because the text itself is sacred (or infallible, for that matter), but because the text points beyond itself to the revelation of the God of Life. As Karl Barth has said, the Bible is not the Word of God, but a witness to the Word of God — Jesus Christ.
(1.4) I should also explicate what I mean by speaking of the history of God’s life-giving engagement with the world. Essentially, I am asserting that God understood as the God of Life, is the central thread running through the entire biblical narrative and all its disparate parts. Thus, God is first presented as the Creator of all other forms of life — plants, animals, and humans who are formed from the dust of the earth — the Sustainer of all life — causing the sun to rise and the rain to fall — and the Renewer of life — ultimately even restoring life to the dead in the new creation of all things. All of these things are things that God does in relation to creation in general, and humanity in particular. Thus, the Bible is neither an anthropocentric text, nor is it a text that treats humans the same as all other creatures. Rather, while not denying all of the ways in which God engages the cosmos, it focuses upon God’s interaction with us because this is what we need to know in order to live within creation. Or, as C. S. Lewis might say, this is ‘our story’, but that we have this story does not mean that there are several other stories being told alongside of it.
(2) However, lest we become confused and reduce this notion to some sort of ‘cosmology of life’, spanning from creation to new creation, I must emphasise that, within biblical history, God’s life-giving engagement with us is primarily revealed in acts of liberation, healing, reconciliation, and peace.
(2.1) Therefore, it is essential for us to realise that there is a fundamental conflict occurring within biblical history. The God of Life is constantly waging war on Death, and all the ways Death finds expression within creation and within our common life together. Of course, by speaking of this fundamental conflict, I am not seeking to restore some sort of dualism, as though Life and Death, good and evil, or light and darkness, are locked into some sort of eternal struggle. Rather, Death has entered into creation as an alien intrusion and will one day be done away with. The God of Life is Sovereign and has conquered Death on the cross of Jesus, and will one day completely abolish Death and its reign.
(2.2) However, until the day of Death’s total abolition, Death still operates within history through the forces of sin (which is that which brings death into the world; i.e. sin is anything that is death-dealing): notably, bondage, sickness, division, and violence. Consequently, God is understood as the great Liberator — bringing about such events as the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt — as the great Healer — offering sight to the blind, wholeness to the broken, and new life to the dead — and as the Reconciler and Peacemaker — restoring humanity to relationship with God, restoring the socially marginalised into the community of abundant life, and bringing together various nationalities, ethnicities, genders, and members of diverse social locations into the form of fellowship that Robert Jewett has described as ‘agapaic-communalism’.
(3) Therefore, given what I have said thus far, we may also understand the Bible as a text possessing coherence, contradictions, and cultural conditioning.
(3.1) We can speak of coherence within the Bible, because the broad theme of God’s life-giving engagement, which is focused upon Jesus of Nazareth, and regularly revealed in acts of liberation, healing, reconciliation, and peacemaking, in conflict with Death and its lackeys, can be traced throughout the various biblical texts.
(3.2) However, we can also speak of contradictions and cultural conditioning within the Bible because this history of God’s life-giving engagement with us, is a history recorded by particular authors (and editors), from particular places, at particular moments. These authors are not infallible voices, but they do their best to understand what God is doing, and what this means for them, even as they impart certain other culturally conditioned paradigms onto God and their experiences of God. Thus, we should not be afraid to acknowledge that certain voices within the Bible stand in tension, and sometimes in total opposition, to certain other voices (say, for example, the tension between what Walter Brueggemann has referred to as the ‘justice tradition’, and the ‘holiness tradition’ in the Old Testament; or, to provide a further example, the contradiction between the imperial Davidic theology found within some Psalms and Proverbs, and the anti-imperial prophetic theology, found within the Prophets and the Gospels). Further, we should also have no issue with other contradictions and scribal errors within the Bible (say, for example, the different accounts of who killed Goliath, found in 1 Sam 17.50 & 2 Sam 21.19). All of these things are to be expected when humans, with all their limitations, try to bear witness to God — and none of these things take away from the fundamental coherence of the Bible, which we have mentioned above.
(4) Therefore, the task of the contemporary reader of the Bible is to learn how to negotiate this coherence, contradiction, and cultural conditioning in order to witness to, and participate within, God’s life-giving engagement with creation in general and humanity in particular.
(4.1) This, then, leads me to reject some other contemporary ways of reading the Bible. Most notably, I am led to reject the more standard Conservative reading of Scripture which tends to favour a supposedly ‘plain reading’ of Scripture, and which tends to assert that we must accept everything said by the Bible — or by a certain voice within the Bible (usually Paul) — to be universally true and binding.
(4.1.1) Thus, to pick a fairly straight-forward example, on the one hand, we can see how Paul’s emphasis upon the ways in which Christ and the Spirit abolish various hierarchies within the community of faith (cf., for example, Gal 3.26-29), coheres well with the broader trajectory of Scripture; but, on the other hand, we can also see how Paul writes as a culturally-conditioned person, when he asserts that ‘nature teaches us’ that it is shameful for men to have long hair, and for women to have short hair (cf. 1 Cor 11.14-16).
(4.1.2) However, this rapidly becomes more complicated and we can begin to postulate that other assertions have more to do with the cultural conditioning of the biblical authors than they have to do with the revelation of the God of Life. Take, for example, New Testament references to hell and the punishment of those who fall outside of the community of faith. It is clear that some New Testament authors believed in the future torment and damnation of their enemies and oppressors (this is likely true of the author of John’s Apocalypse), but one wonders how much this belief accords with the revelatory history of God’s life-giving, liberating, healing, reconciling, and peacemaking character and actions. It is quite possible that the affirmation of hell is simply an element of the cultural conditioning of some biblical authors whose understanding of God is still constrained by then contemporary notions of power, sovereignty, and judgment and who then read those notions into their experiences of God in history (this is what Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza is talking about when she criticises the so-called ‘kyriarchical’ approach taken by Paul in some epistles).
(4.2) Of course, we are negotiating a rather slippery slope, and the immediate objection to what I am saying here is that I, an equally culturally conditioned person, am setting myself up as an authority over the Bible (instead of affirming the Bible as an authority over me) and allowing my own subjective preferences to determine which parts of the Bible cohere with the big picture of God’s life-giving engagement with us, and which parts are simply reflections of the various authors cultural conditioning. However, this is not the case, and I also reject other, more liberal and postmodern readings of the Bible that treat it in this way. At the very least, my approach need not be any more subjective and arbitrary than any other approach to the Bible. After all, we must recall that all approaches are subjective and arbitrary, at least to the degree that we all subjectively choose which approach we are going to take to the Bible, and to the degree that every approach affirms some things the Bible says as universally binding (say that worship of the God of the Bible is related to living fully human lives) and denies other things this significance (say certain Old Testament food laws, or what Paul says about hair). Again, I am doing no different than every other exegete who recognises some injunctions within the Bible as authoritative, and some injunctions within the Bible as no longer authoritative. Furthermore, my approach does require the reader to recognise the authority of the biblical witness to God’s life-giving engagement with us, with all the subplots and implications that come alongside of this leitmotif.
(4.3) One of these implications is that readers of the Bible must not be content to simply hear about, or observe, what the God of Life has done within history. Rather, we must also go on to participate within God’s ongoing life-giving engagement with creation and with us. To properly read the Bible is to learn to embody and proclaim the witness of the Bible in both word and deed. To read this witness is to be transformed into martyrs fully engaged in life-giving acts of liberation, healing, reconciliation, and peacemaking, in opposition to the power of Death, which finds expression in contemporary structures of sin, bondage, sickness, division and violence. Submitting to this implication is a hard thing to do, as it requires nothing less than everything from us, so it comes as no surprise to me that others might be tempted to flee into more Conservative readings of the Bible (which present the reader with a list of requirements, but requirements that are decidedly more manageable than this call to martyrdom) or into more Liberal and postmodern readings of the Bible (which present the reader with a lot more freedom to pick and choose which demands are made authoritative).
(5) Thus, we can conclude that reading the Bible is a difficult task that precludes any simple or straight-forward way of achieving understanding — so beware of any hermeneutical model that offers you these things! Reading the Bible is something we can only do with a good deal of trepidation, and a good deal of assistance from the community of faith, the world at large, and the Paraclete.