Confessions of a Recovering Biblicist

“Hi, my name is Dave, and I am a Biblicist.”

“Hi Dave,” reply my Bible Anonymous sympathisers. We’ve all been on quite the journey. Conservatism runs deep, and we’ve each had to face our demons. I sense the empathy emanating from my new found friends, so—tentatively—I launch out on my story. …

Well, I was brought up in a good Christian family, where we took the Bible seriously. (Sighs leak from their lips—my tale is all too familiar.) Actually, we took the Bible “literally”.  When it said “jump”, I said “how high”. After all, God said it, I believed it, so that settled it. Or so I thought. We liked to think we were ‘Bible-Centred’ through and through.

Homer's OdysseyI guess I first identified my problem while reading Homer’s Odyssey. It’s another old book, from around the time of King David, and it’s definitely an epic tale of divine intrigue. It’s centred on this hero Odysseus taking ten years to return from the Trojan wars, getting waylaid by the Gods. Zeus sends thunderbolts, Poseidon stirs the seas, this Nympho traps the hero on an island, Odysseus blinds gigantic Cyclops by poking  him in the eye … a cool tale right!  But no one speaks of being “Odyssey Centred.”  It’s an ancient book, right?  No one wears WWOD bands, asking “What Would Odysseus Do?”  So why was I so proud about being “Bible Centred”?  Even if the Bible is “inspired”, why live looking in the rear-view mirror at what once was?

My next jolt came from a secular Jew, A. J. Jacobs; his caricature helped me look myself squarely in the mirror—and I didn’t like what I saw. Backtrack. A good Christian friend noticed how ‘Biblical’ and ‘literal’ were joined like engine and caboose in my theological travel-train.  So he lent me Jacobs’ book for some light relief: The Year of Living Biblically.  I remember it like yesterday: this archaic looking dude with full facial hair and robe juxtaposed with a modern city skyline.  Jacobs is a catchy journalist, and he records in hilarious detail his “humble quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible.” First he compiles 72 solid pages of commands.  The big ones of course, like “The Ten Commandments”, “Love thy neighbour” and “be fruitful and multiply”. But also hundreds of oft-ignored ones: “do not wear clothes of mixed fibres”, “do not shave your beard”, and “stone adulterers”. In his words, he tried to live the “ultimate Biblical life”.

It was LOL funny … I snickered as he retold his attempted stoning of a Sabbath-breaking workaholic with pebbles, in New York’s Central Park. But then it hit me. I was laughing at myself.  The point was clear: it’s impossible to ‘literally’ live the Bible in today’s world—times have changed, and no-one appreciates a backward looking bearded guy in a robe, stuck in the first century. God may be timeless, but the Bible’s not a timeless tale … it’s a story embedded in real history. For all my talk of being ‘literal’, I was really just picking and choosing commands that froze my world in a time-warp when Christians were in charge and Christianity was the status quo. All this talk of being Bible Centred was a cover for backward looking conservatism. I had to grow up. I had to learn how to read.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve studied enough over the years to be convinced that the Bible is no mere ancient tale like Homer’s Odyssey. The history checks out, and the prophecy stacks up.  I still believe this book is inspired by God. I still believe it holds authority for my life.  But what exactly did that mean? I was floundering.

How come all the heroes in the Bible—like Abraham, Moses, David, Mary, Jesus, and Paul—were forward looking radicals, too progressive for their time?  And why was it that the longer folks like William Wilberforce, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Junior dwelt in this old book, the greater their challenge to the status quo in changing the present?

That’s when it hit me.  God is always on the move. The Bible was never meant to be a backward looking book, calling us to codify the past. I’d found it easier to “deal in simple, clunky affirmations and denials rather than appreciating that the Word of God itself tells a story which is moving forward and getting to new points as it does so.”[1] My Biblicism was broken. The Bible doesn’t just position itself as an ancient tale. It’s more like the authorized story of the world from God the Creator’s perspective. He’s the Alpha and Omega, so He has the bird’s eye view on how it all hangs together.  Your story, and my story, only make sense in light of the Big Story.

Sometimes I fall off the wagon: I start throwing around rules and regulations and boasting that I’m more Biblical than the next guy. But on a good day you’ll find me “living Biblically” in a way both simpler and more complex than anything conservative Dave ever dreamed of … I’m trying to faithfully improvise. My life is lived in the story, part of the grand trajectory from the garden where we fell, over the Mount of Crucifixion where we were restored, and reaching toward the garden-city where God’s presence will dwell with us, setting everything right. I’m one actor in an epic script, connected to what went before, and reaching toward what lies ahead, keeping my ears open to the prompting of the Divine Director.[2]

Who am I, now?  I am Dave, a recovering Biblicist, learning to read an old book and, in its pages, discover new life.

Dave Benson


[1] Wright, N. T. Acts for Everyone. London: SPCK, 2008.  See also http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Bible_Authoritative.htm.

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8 responses to “Confessions of a Recovering Biblicist

  1. Can I be biblical without being biblicist?

    I too found A. J. Jacobs’ book amusing–and a bit disturbing as I remember that many churchgoers don’t know how to contextualize Scripture. By this I mean first identifying the surrounding content of a passage or book or covenant, then correctly identifying the Covenant believers are now under, and with an obedient mind and will, identifying the permanent and ongoing truth principle taught or illustrated in the text and determining how to apply that truth now.

    The Hebrew Bible A. J. was applying so literally has as its context a different Covenant than the one I am in now. Torah is for the faithful of ancient Israel. Grace is for the faithful of today. Note the word that occurs in both the previous sentences.

    However, recoiling from blue fringes on robes and stoning for Shabat-breaking might drive us to the opposite error–not taking the Bible as lastingly authoritative, Including Torah and the Hebrew Bible at large. The important thing here is to apply both Covenants–but to see the first through the second (New) Covenant.

    • Hi Art,

      great comments … really appreciate your insights. In response to your opening question, “Can I be biblical without being biblicist?”, I certainly think so. Hopefully my article wasn’t undermining of the centrality of the Scriptures–more of a light hearted way into an awfully complex topic!

      I’ve come off a project with Australia’s Bible Society, called “The Journey: Entering God’s Epic Story” … it’s a DVD, available through http://www.onthejourney.org.au, but if it’s of interest you can read my fuller thoughts in a manual I’ve uploaded to http://issuu.com/nikanddaveabroad/docs/journey. In those sessions, I head a similar direction to what you’ve suggested … my basic hermeneutic being Christ-centred and missional (which Jesus suggests on the Emmaus walk in Luke), so framed around the developing story of the Kingdom of God. (Major influences: Christopher Wright, “The Mission of God” and N. T. Wright, “The Last Word”.)

      In short, every time I read a passage (even in the New Testament), I ask, “What does it mean FOR THEM, THROUGH CHRIST, TO US today?” … For them: understood in light of historical context …
      Through Christ: given that Jesus has fulfilled and advanced all the symbols of the old covenant, of law, land, leadership, and temple … and
      To us: read in community and illuminated by the Holy Spirit to bring the letter to life (Hebrews 4:12-13) so I can faithfully improvise as part of the mission of God, in my setting … connected to what went before, and reaching toward what lies ahead.

      Hopefully in this model I avoid the opposite error, which you well highlighted, of gutting the inspiration and authority of the revealed Word, by either a totally flat reading, or by relativising everything so it has nothing lasting to say … both of which I think represent where many Christians are at: picking and choosing, or ignoring the Scriptures altogether and improvising irrespective of the story.

      Thanks again for taking this to a deeper level, exploring what this really means :)

    • I love love love your Word Press tag!! … B Flat Minor … very catchy!

      Glad the post was helpful :) … if you’re wanting to explore further on what the inspiration and authority of the Bible means–i.e., how an ancient story can have authority in our lives today–then check out N. T. Wright’s book “The Last Word” … well worth a read.

  2. Great thoughts Dave, thanks! I especially like how you place yourself in the overall biblical narrative:

    “I’m trying to faithfully improvise. My life is lived in the story, part of the grand trajectory from the garden where we fell, over the Mount of Crucifixion where we were restored, and reaching toward the garden-city where God’s presence will dwell with us, setting everything right. I’m one actor in an epic script, connected to what went before, and reaching toward what lies ahead, keeping my ears open to the prompting of the Divine Director.”

    • Thanks David, glad it was useful.

      In the church where I Pastor, I’ve been trying to simplify as far as possible this amazing story–hopefully without oversimplifying–as a frame so people can clearly see how it hangs together … I’ve followed N. T. Wright’s emphasis on the 6 act play: creation > fall > Israel > Jesus > Church > New Creation.
      (Actually he often describes it as a 5 act play, seeing the church as essentially continuous with New Creation, but I think that while we’re a foretaste through the Spirit of what will be, New Creation affects everyone and everything, sufficiently discontinuous from what went before to warrant an act of it’s own as the dénouement of the story.)

      Here’s how we’ve been framing it, tying each segment of the story to a physical location that best represents the action, fusing it with James Choung’s “big story” form of evangelism (see “True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In):

      THE GARDEN … designed for good
      We’re designed for good, to love God, love others, and garden the world

      THE TOWER … damaged by evil
      We’re damaged by evil, despising God, abusing others, and vandalizing the world. Genesis 3-11 culminates in a rebellious uprising at Babel

      THE TENT … chosen to bless
      Israel is chosen to bless the world, but continual sin threatens the covenant and lands them in exile, awaiting Abraham’s seed and the Kingly Messiah … recorded in the books of the Law, the history books, poetry, and prophets

      THE MOUNTAIN … restored for better
      God enters the story through Jesus to restore us for better on the mount of crucifixion, completing Moses’ and David’s work with a New Exodus

      THE HOUSE … sent together to heal
      In that upper room, God’s Spirit falls in power. We’re sent together to help heal, a taste of how the story ends when Jesus returns. The Epistles (letters) direct a diverse bunch of former enemies in how to become a community of love

      THE CITY … God sets everything right
      Jesus returns and judges the world to set everything right. Sin is replaced by shalom, and as we read in Revelation, God’s reign is established everywhere

      … Thus, the Bible is the story of God’s epic journey with humanity, from the garden to the garden-city, via the climax at the mount of crucifixion where God restored us for better.

      God bless as you keep living the story :)
      Dave

  3. Really enjoy your style of writing Dave. Trajectory hermeneutics is something I’m still coming to grips with, and you’ve just authored what I perceive as a very amicable summary of either camp. I think Christians are treading a very fine line in regards to T.H. as the concept has the capacity to become a seemingly ‘intellectually fulfilling’ cop out (a pet peeve of mine, as you may recall). It’s something I struggle with alot, particularly in regards to biblical accounts of women in ministry.

    Thoroughly glad that you are one of the contributors to Wondering Fair. Bookmarked for sure. It’s a rarity to find an apologetically/theologically centered blog that is relatively free from the gracelessness and harm of internet bickering. Looking forward to reading more of your musings and dropping a line or two.

    • Thanks for the encouragement Rowan … there’s a great collection of writers on this blog–glad you’ve joined us, and picked up on the grace emphasis even as we’re genuinely trying to say something beyond just being ‘nice’!

      I totally agree that trajectory hermeneutics (TH) can be risky and prone to relativising … but I think this is the right way to read the Scriptures, and if anything it pushes us to a deeper theology. True, we can rationalise anything, but if we’re genuinely looking for what is faithful to God in light of the whole story, then it becomes a lot clearer. (This isn’t meant to be a purely intellectual approach to ‘faith’ though, as ultimately the Divine Director prompts in some novel ways! It’s premised on real time encounter with the resurrected Jesus for spiritual guidance, through His Holy Spirit.)

      Clearly this is helpful in terms of women in ministry, without relativising Paul’s writings … it gives full weight to the original words and context, while recognizing that Paul also was looking forward to a day when distinctions of male and female, master and slave, Greek and Jew were relativised in favour of being the family of God, one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). TH is also helpful on the controversial question of Christianity and homosexuality … was this God’s creative intent? how has sexuality been affected by the fall? did Jesus restoring us for better essentially change the nature of sexuality? does homosexuality (in terms of the action, not the predisposition) reflect the kind of ‘holiness’ God requires of his kingdom of priests? and where is the whole story headed, in terms of the new humanity?

      … none of these questions is meant to be leading, or presuppose the answer. But these are the kind of deep discussions we must have in light of the Scriptural story, to ensure that any novel change in morality or mission is a GENUINE trajctory of the story, and not something we prefer in light of our current cultural climate.

      Looking forward to your interaction with future articles. Dave

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