Sunday, 10 May 2009

My Love Affair with the Bible

I first recall being really interested in the Bible when I was in Grammar School. "Religious Education" lessons were a bit hit and miss in those days (as they probably are today), but one year our history teacher, Percy Williams, who was a keen Methodist (it sometimes showed in his history lessons too!), took us through the Acts of the Apostles. In those days we hardly ever saw anything except the Authorised Version, which was difficult for a child to understand, but Percy Williams taught us to read it slowly, thinking about every word, and the whole story came alive. Using that technique, I went on to read even the Epistles of Paul, and found I could understand them most of the time.

At 17 I started preaching. My usual way of preparing a sermon was to pick a text that jumped out of the page at me, and build my ideas around it. Sometimes, needless to say, my ideas (good and Christian as they might have been!) sometimes had little to do with the actual meaning of the phrase in its context. This was a concern I was first taught when I went to theological college. My sermons then became careful expositions of the text in its context.

The next step I owe largely to Henton Davies, Principal of Regent's Park College, Oxford, while I was there. He was a great believer in "concordance work". Up to that time I had thought of a concordance as just a handy reference book to look up a text that was on your mind but you couldn't remember where it was. Henton Davies taught us to browse through the concordance to see how a particular word was used in different parts of the Bible and how the theme was developed. My sermons then became the tracing of a theme from the early parts of the Old Testament to its culmination in Christ. Browsing the concordance and exploring the Bible became one of my greatest pleasures.

After I had been in the ministry for a few years, a conference speaker whose name I can't remember left me with a powerful message. He stressed that the whole Bible, every bit of it, is important, and if we take it all seriously we will never be short of preaching material. From that time on I began going through the Bible book by book and chapter by chapter, alternating Old Testament and New Testament books. By the time I left that pastorate I had got as far as Daniel in the Old Testament and 2 Corinthians in the New. Since then I have usually followed a lectionary, but still with the attempt to deal seriously with every part of the Bible, including the most difficult bits.

After nearly 20 years in the ministry I had a year off to study, and did a thesis on the question of the New Testament Canon. I had never been a conservative Bible believer (or at least not since childhood, when I was unaware of any alternative). However, that year of study and thinking brought home to me something that had never quite hit me before, namely that there is no logical halfway position between strict fundamentalism and complete scepticism about the authority of the Bible. However we dress it up with high-sounding theological contortions, the idea of a partial authority of the Bible is untenable.

We may say it is inaccurate in its history, biology etc., but infallible in what it says about God. But most of the things it says about God are about God's actions in history - if they didn't really happen, where does that leave us? Worse than that, many of the things said about God's actions and commands in books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy are morally appalling. Unless we are absolute fundamentalists (and I have never yet met one), we have to recognise that the Bible writers could be just as wrong about God as they were about history and science. If we do not take every word of the Bible as infallible, there is no reason why we should believe anything just because it is in the Bible.

Does this mean we need not bother with the Bible because it is unreliable and misleading? "God forbid" as Paul (in the AV) would say! It is in the Bible that we have the story on which our faith is based, and all sorts of wonderful statements to which our faith can respond. I know from experience that newspapers are full of exaggerations, slanted news, and sometimes even statements that are blatantly untrue. But I still read the paper to catch up with the news and occasionally find some wise analysis and sound opinions. So with the Bible.

To use another analogy: we can relate to the Bible like we relate to our parents. Most of us love our parents. We owe to them the fact that we are alive at all. quite apart from all the love and kindness they have shown us. When we were children they were infallible. When we were teenagers they were always wrong, boring and hopelessly out of touch. Now we are grown up we appreciate them for what they are. We don't agree with all their points of view or share all their tastes. Perhaps we remember things they did that were really wrong. But we appreciate and love them for what they are.

It was out of this love for the Bible, anger at seeing it abused and twisted, and determination still to take is all seriously, that I wrote "Let the Bible be Itself".


  1. Although I haven't really read your book (just flipped through it in a bookshop last sunday), I think it is a great book. Very comforting to those of us who find it hard to accept what many Christians insist on ie the Bible is totally God's word. Would have bought the book there and then but for the price. Still thinking about it though. - a Malaysian

  2. Congratulations on being the first person to comment on my new blog! Glad you at least thought about buying my book! If the price worries you, think of ordering it from Amazon - it's cheaper.