Our local radio phone-in programmes often take calls from Christian people who claim that their views have a basis in the teaching of the Bible. When given the opportunity, they sometimes say that certain behaviours are sinful and have been prohibited by the Scriptures.
The common response from the radio presenter is, “So then, Mr Christian, if you believe the Bible forbids certain practices, why do you eat bacon or seafood? Or why do you wear clothes that have been made from more than one type of material? Aren’t those things forbidden by the Bible as well?” It seems like the presenter has played a logical check-mate and exposed the inconsistency of the Christian who claims biblical authority for his views.
Even if the Christian caller to the radio programme had the ability to answer the presenter’s questions, the sound-bite of the talk show does not allow for the development of a reasoned argument. Serious, complex issues like the nature of the Bible are often trivialised. The result is that most listeners are left thinking that Bible-believing Christians have no answers to these questions.
What many people fail to understand is that the Bible is not a flat book. It has contours. There is movement and development within the Bible. Not all of the Bible applies uniformly to the Christian or to our society today. But that does not mean that we jettison or ignore parts of the Bible, especially the difficult parts of the Old Testament. Rather, we read of all of the Bible as Christian Scripture understanding that biblical revelation is progressive, organic and redemptive.
The Bible is a single story with a single Hero. Even though it spans many thousands of years and involves many personalities and participants, the individual stories are all threads woven into the pattern of a single tapestry. For me, coming to an understanding of this holistic way of reading the Bible was like finding hidden treasure.
One of the main reasons why many devout church attenders may be stumped by the clever interviewer’s questions is that they have never been taught how to read and understand the Bible for themselves. It is a constant challenge for those of us who preach regularly to explain how a particular passage or story fits into the overall flow of redemptive history and what it means in our lives today.
Well-known Bible stories are often misinterpreted, even by preachers. The story of David and Goliath is not primarily a story about how we can slay the giants in our lives. Nor is the main application of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee simply that He is with us in all the storms of our lives. These stories must be placed within the context of the single, great story of redemption. They have a purpose way beyond the details of our individual lives.
This is one of the main lessons that we have been trying to teach in a course organised by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland for suitably-qualified and interested members of the church. It is known as the Accredited Preachers Scheme, and following a pilot scheme earlier this year, a new course of study will commence in the next few weeks. Hopefully this course will provide the denomination with a new human resource in the form of gifted people who can preach from the Bible in an accurate, clear and cogent way. Participants will be encouraged to think carefully about the nature of the Bible, and especially about the unity of the Old Testament and the New in the person and redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
For those who are interested in pursuing these issues, there is a very helpful bibliography by Dane Ortlund which can be read here. Many pastors and lay preachers will benefit from the insights offered by these books, and will be able to help their listeners understand that there is an intelligent answer to the questions people ask about the Bible.