Our twitterized culture loves quotes. We love that punchy punchline or catchy catchphrase. The Bible is used as a source of such quotes by many people, some of whom believe the Bible as God’s Word and some who do not.
I completely understand the “quote book” way of using the Bible. It is after all an enduring piece of literature. A cultural artifact you might say. Any historian or literary buff who displays ignorance of the Bible is displaying transparent bias rather than an objective plurality of interest in human sociological history. This being said, a person who studies the Bible as a cultural treasure certainly has no obligation to agree with everything they read. Those who read Plato don’t have to agree with him either. Of course if they find some quotable treasure that expresses their opinion well, or some point of wisdom that strikes them as helpful in today’s age, so much the better. They have no obligation to see the unity of the Bible and certainly have not committed themselves to finding its originally intended meaning, let alone submit their own perspective to what they read. They may speculate about possible interpretations and suggest modernized re-readings or even cut and paste their favorite sections into their own…Bible quote book.
What does strike me as odd is that some who use the Bible in this way also claim to trust some of the promises in the Bible. Some who would recoil from many Bible verses still claim that its great themes represent a real god who has provided a trustworthy offer of eternal hope to human beings. In this view, sometimes the Bible represents a real god who can make incredible promises, but sometimes the Bible is just another human book to be discarded in a dusty library along with ancient dynasty characters, suites of armor and a scrap of papyrus from Alexandria. But doesn’t this use of the Bible seem…contradictory? Why would a god powerful enough to give humans eternal life allow himself to be completely misrepresented in the Bible–in those quotes that the researcher finds distasteful? Why would he be so careless as to leave people with a wrong view of himself?
Perhaps it is simply that our culture is comfortable with discordant conclusions. For example, “A god powerful and caring enough to grant eternal life allowed himself to be misrepresented in the Bible.” Some may choose to believe that–but that god sounds a lot more like the ancient mythological gods of Greece and Rome, full of human passions and contradictions, unsteady in purpose toward the human race. A scary thought indeed. Couldn’t it be that a god who chose to allow himself to be misrepresented in the Bible is deceptive enough to change his mind about providing eternal life?
But perhaps the real belief of those who use the Bible this way is more consistent than this. Perhaps the belief is that there is a real God out there, who does offer real promises of eternal life and relationship with him, and the Bible is just a book written by humans who were attempting to describe this God. Sometimes they got it right and sometimes they got it wrong. I think this is more likely the belief of many modern people who pick and choose quotes from the Bible. They have a pre-conception of what god/heaven/eternity is like and they view the Bible as one source that, sometimes, gets it right. Of course in this viewpoint, god hasn’t said anything about himself at all. He has just left to people to guess what he’s like. But isn’t this a scary thought as well? Why would a god who is so secretive and concealing be trusted to grant eternal life. If people aren’t worthy of hearing a word from him from the history of the world, why would we think he would want to have us in his heaven forever?
The hope connected to these view points seems much more like wishful thinking–hoping that somehow this contradictory god ends up being loving and kind and just and good because we want him to be, and we don’t want to imagine the alternative. In my mind, the modern secularist who simply quotes the Bible without claiming it in any way as Divine revelation is more consistent, though of course, leaving unanswered the question of human creation, the spiritual capacity in the human soul, and the common human desire for eternity.
Then there is that increasingly strange anomaly in the modern world: a person who claims all of the Bible as God’s inspired, inerrant Word. I confess to be just such an anomaly, along with my brothers and sisters in Christ who make the similar claim, freakish in our culture and hopelessly antiquated in the modern secular mindset, and uncomfortable to those who would rather claim part, but not all, of the Bible as their own. But to any who would be surprised or dismayed at this belief–let me seek to avoid misunderstanding.
This position is not held because of a preference for an older way of life or a simple minded inability to recognize that some of what the Bible says contradicts modern social values. It is not held because I think I am better, more intelligent, more studied, more moral, or more of a spiritual being than anyone else. This position is based on the belief that God has spoken. And since God has spoken, rejection of his revelation is immoral in the first place, but finally pointless in any case. I also hold this position because though I find the Bible confronting my modernized sensibilities I also find it offering me incredible promises. Of course the Bible is challenging to my preference to make up my own mind about everything, but it also gives me the true purpose for everything and true promises by the only Being able to make them come true. Actually, the fact that the Bible confronts (painfully at times!) as well as comforts encourages me that I am not simply creating a God out of my own imagination, who suites my fancy and fits all of my preferred notions about him. Furthermore, such an all-powerful Being certainly wouldn’t be required to explain all of his reasons and rules to me, so it surprises me that he has explained as much as he has, and that so much of his explanation is incredibly gracious and kind and gentle. What surprises me the most is that he did not keep himself aloof or keep us guessing on his identity, but came to earth, became a man, lived in our world, and even paid for our rejection of his Word and offers a fresh opportunity to know him. This is the central message of the Bible and the main reason it’s more than a quote book. This is a book about the person, Jesus Christ, called the Word of God, who revealed the God of the Bible to us in a way that we could understand, and fulfilled that Word by paying its penalties and fulfilling its commands for everyone who would believe in Him. I find belief in this God much harder and yet infinitely more comforting than the wishful thinking of modern religious notions that use some of the Bible while dismissing the rest.
If you are reading this and you are drawn toward the “quote book” use of the Bible, let me encourage you to consider the value of believing in an objectively true Bible, an objectively authoritative God, who has surprised us by reaching out to us in grace. Don’t reject the God of the Bible and recreate a god in your own making–such a god surely cannot offer true promises about anything. And if you describe yourself as a modernist, let me encourage you to consider that believing in a timeless God is not any more strange than believing in a timeless universe, even less so, since life creating life makes more sense than lifelessness creating life; order creating further order makes more sense than chaos ordering itself. If you are a Bible believing Christian who reveres God’s Word, let me encourage you to enjoy the comfort that comes in trusting the Bible. Don’t surrender to a modern mindset that dismisses the very source of our eternal hope in an attempt to fit in with a modern plural flexibility.
The Bible works alright as a quote book. But it’s much better to quote the Bible as a direct Word from God himself.