The Bible is…progressive?
Seeing the Old Testament through new eyes
I stumbled across a profound tweet from Brian Zahnd the other day. Here’s what he wrote:
“One way of thinking about the Old Testament is that it’s the inspired diary of a chosen people as they come to know the God who chose them.”
I’ll come back to that in a bit, but first…
The Old Testament makes up the first two thirds of the Bible. And it is full of great stories that continue to stand the test of time. It is also full of some horrific stories that, on face value, seem to present a vengeful God who isn’t afraid to tell his people to commit genocide (to give just one example). There’s then a host of rules and regulations that seem utterly backwards by today’s Western twenty-first century standards. We then get to the New Testament and we’re told ‘God is love’. How are we to reconcile this?
The situation isn’t helped by the way in some church circles the Bible is taught as being ‘timeless truth’. That every every verse as equally inspired and to be followed and obeyed today. (Except, of course, the ones that they don’t like for whatever reason — but that’s another story.)
The problem with this approach is that the Bible was written at a particular time, in a particular place, for a particular people. You cannot simply strip the Bible from it’s context and plonk it in our world today and tell people it’s all truth to be obeyed. That’s what leads people to thinking the Bible is irrelevant, outdated, and backwards.
What I’ve come to see though is that when you allow the Bible to sit within it’s context, you can see everything through fresh eyes. Suddenly, when you understand the historical context in which it was written, passages that seem backwards are actually revealed to be, for their time, incredibly progressive.
That brings me back to Zahnd’s quote. What if the Bible isn’t inspired in some perfect, straight from the mouth of God, sense, but rather is inspired in a messier sense of writings that give us a glimpse of a people—gradually and incompletely—coming to understand who God is? And some of what they understood and wrote down about God was wrong?
When the writers of this ‘inspired diary’ said that God told them to kill loads of women and children, what if this was a reflection of their limited, incomplete understanding of God? They genuinely thought God was telling them to do it, but if Jesus is the complete picture of what God is truly like, surely we can all agree that there’s no way it was actually God telling people in the Old Testament to kill women and children?
It was, instead, a reflection of their limited revelation of God. A revelation that, thankfully, has kept evolving. And, in fact, if you look carefully, even within the Old Testament itself, you can see on ongoing, increasingly progressive view of what God was like.
Clearly I’m barely touching the surface here. But if these thoughts and questions are something you’d like to explore further, I’d recommend The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns and What Is The Bible? by Rob Bell. These books have helped me reengage with the Bible, see it with fresh eyes, and gleam new wisdom and understanding.