Almost all of the controversies we have in the church today come down, in the end, to the question posed in the title. To some it’s a no-brainer. It’s like that Sunday school ditty I learned as a kid: The B.I.B.L.E., yes that’s the book for me. I stand alone on the Word of God, the B.I.B.L.E.

Some Christians tend to view the Bible as Muslims view the Quran. Just as the Quran was verbally whispered to the Prophet, the Bible was revealed word for word to those who wrote it. If that’s the case, then, as the saying goes, “God says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” The Bible is not like the Quran, however, and that makes all the difference.

In the Reformed tradition, we have always understood that the inspiration of the Bible is not like a verbal, word for word, transmission from God to the world. It is far more complex and far more marvelous.

The Reformed tradition (and many others) has viewed the Bible not as “verbally” inspired, but “organically” inspired. That means that God revealed himself through human beings embedded in their own language, culture, and history. The landscape of the Bible is not some featureless, timeless landscape, but in the textured landscape of human history and experience.

But that’s the way God works. After all, THE Word of God, Jesus Christ, came to us as a Galilean Jew, born in a stable in Bethlehem, speaking Aramaic, and telling stories about seeds and harvest, landlords and tenants, yeast and sheep. It’s called incarnation.

In the same way, the Word of God we call the Bible is an incarnate revelation. It comes to us by the Holy Spirit, but through human authors imbedded in their time and place, understanding the nature of the world in terms of the culture and cosmology of their times. Yet it tells a consistent and powerful story of God’s unwavering covenant commitment to save his creation from sin and death. It’s the story that makes sense of the world and of our lives.

But there’s the rub. It takes a never-ending process of interpretation to untangle the essential, saving truths of Scripture from the sometimes time-bound forms in which they come. For example, does Genesis 1 describe the world as we understand it today, or does it describe it in the thought-world of the ancient Near Eastern world? And who has the authority to make that determination?

The Bible belongs to the church, the whole church through all of history. Only the church has that ultimate interpretive authority. It is not given to any person or any ecclesiastical office in any given time and place.

And because the Scriptures belong to the historical reality of the church, sometimes our understanding of biblical truth changes over time, which is exactly what has happened time and again. Think of issues from slavery to the earth’s place in the solar system. That’s not to say that everything is up in the interpretational air. For many of our most basic interpretative frameworks, such as the Trinity, we still depend on and adhere to the two-thousand-year old interpretations of the early church.

Still, we can expect that as time moves on the church will arrive at new ways of interpreting and understanding certain biblical texts. But whatever changes in interpretation appear on the horizon, they need to be tested over time with patience, humility, and, above all, a prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit.

Because God’s revelation comes to us inextricably and incarnationally embedded in time and space, interpretation is not always a simple or easy matter. But with all that, I can still sing “The B.I.B.L.E., yes that’s the book for me.” It’s still the Word of God on which I stand, it’s the one true story of the Creator’s love, and it comes with all the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

About the Author

Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.  

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Comments

I wonder which one of the 10 Commandments could be reinterpreted over time?

"Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens." Psalm 119:89

Kevin, that's easy.  "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy."   When I was young, "keep it holy" meant CRC people did not go to restaurants, ride bicycles or shop at grocery stores on Sunday.  Over time, the concept of "keep it holy" has evolved to a less restrictive interpretation.

John, good point. I guess we could say lawlessness reigns in the church. Perhaps God's word is not firmly fixed. Well... at least not in the CRCNA church, so it seems.

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There have been many articles written in the banner over the years that promote the idea that the winds of change and new interpretatation is in the air. A recent Q&A response in the banner called "Relationships" basically swept abortion under the rug. There have been a plethora of articles promoting evolution. We reinterpreted and bypassed the Bible on women in office. We now are promoting interfaithism and ecumenism, by holding hands and building relationships with false religions and denominations. All in the name of Christ.

Homosexual marriage and transgenderism is no longer evil, but now being promoted in the church and even voted on. And should we even go into the arenas of soicial justice, climate change, political correctness and catholicism being promoted in the church? Nearly every article I read in the banner tells me we are moving further away from the word of God. There is a prevailing liberal worldview in the C.R.C that does not match the B.I.B.L.E

Like the churches in europe, the Bible has become irrelevant and many church buildings have been turned into museums and night clubs. But then, Jesus is just a myth anyway, open to reinterpretation, right?

Why not let the authoritative Bible contextually interpret truth for us in the church- through expository preaching, and our obedience to that truth prevail in our understanding of Scripture? Why this growing idea that we impose our bias and wordly worldview on the Bible and make it tell us what we want to hear? So over time our interpretation of the Bible becomes what we want it to become...soft, irrelevent, accepting, and appeasing to our pleasures and sin. One has to wonder why God didn't mean what he said-like the 6 days of creation. And why does the church have to promote and play "wordly-wiseman interpreter" and tell God what they think he meant to say?

 

"For the time will come (I think is now here) when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." (2 Timothy 4:3)

Thanks Kevin for your answer to John S......and Len VanderZee!

Thanks John for your answer in response Kevin’s question.  Kevin seems to think a possible reinterpretation of one of the commandments is proof that modern day Christians are simply liberalizing the Bible and that “lawlessness reigns in the church.”  But your observation, John, has nothing to do with Christians wanting to let sin creep into the church.  But it has everything to do with how one interprets the Bible.  Eating at restaurants, riding a bicycle, reading the newspaper, or playing baseball are not prohibited by a Christian observance of the 4th commandment .

John Calvin, in both the Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion and in his Genevan Catechism, makes clear that he is not a Sabbatarian when it comes to the fourth commandment.  Christians should follow the fourth commandment differently than Israel who was called upon to follow it, because within the command was the requirement to keep one of the most important ceremonies of Jewish law.  And we all realize that all the ceremonies of the law were fulfilled in Christ.  That’s why Calvin and even our own catechism does not forbid physical labor on Sunday.  To Calvin, Sunday was not a Christian Sabbath; those who kept Sunday as such were Sabbatarians.  Of course many Christians (such as those who followed the Westminster Confessions) were strict Sabbatarians and many in our churches followed that pattern.  As Calvin saw it, physical rest was part of the ceremonial law required of Jews, but spiritual rest is required of Christians, not just on Sunday but everyday.

So what John Slagter sees as a less restrictive interpretation of the fourth commandment is exactly what John Calvin taught, as well.  It was not meant as a liberalization of the Bible’s teaching or an expression of lawlessness, as Kevin would suggest.  Not only does Kevin have it wrong on the issue of the 4th commandment, but also on the other issues he mentions, as well.  The correct reaction to Kevin’s concern is spelled out clearly in the original article by our Banner editor.  No one is trying to reinterpret the Bible but rather interpret it correctly for our day.  Thanks Len for an insightful article.

Man, I get tickled pink when i think about the fact that God wants me to have a day off of work. God is too good to me. Work is good and I am thankful for it. But man, it makes a sabbath day even sweeter. I love to kick back in my lazy-boy chair and digest my Sunday dinner and take a little nap. Somtimes I have jumped off my boat in the clear blue waters of lake Michigan and giggle like a two year old in the bathtub, splashing all over the place. Wow is that refreshing! Please don't let those in the church take the sabboth day away from me, by insisting that I don't have to obey it.

Hey Kevin, you don’t need a special day sanctioned by God to take a nap or to go swimming off your boat.  You can do that any day of the week.  If I hear you correctly, Sunday, for you, is a day to do anything you want other than to go to your regular job.  That’s your idea of Sunday observance or Sabbath keeping?

Leonard, you suggest that with the passage of time and with insights from various disciplines, Christians may come to different interpretive conclusions than what they have had in the past.  True enough.  But you also suggest that there are some things (Biblical teachings) that are not up in the interpretive air, or do not change.  I would suggest that at different times and points in history, almost anything and everything has been or is open to interpretation, when it comes  to our understanding of the Bible.

You suggested that the teaching of the Trinity is one of those things.  But you do realize that the present day teaching on the Trinity was up in the interpretive air for some five hundred years after the time of Christ.  Most Christians recognized Jesus Christ as being divine, but it took five hundred years, for Christian scholars to decide to what extent he was God.  Was he fully God and equal to the Father, God Almighty, or was he divine but to a lesser extent than the Father?  The same frustration was felt throughout the church in regard to the Holy Spirit, as to whether the Spirit was a separate person from the Father and the Son, or was he the influence or personality of the Father?  This didn’t finally get settled until the writing of the Athenasian Creed and even then has been a bone of contention throughout history.  That is why there are a number of so-called cults that get excluded from finding harbor under the Christian and Trinitarian umbrella.  

The same point can be made in regard to the Bible itself.  Which books to include in the Bible was not a settled matter until the time of the Reformation when the Protestants separated from the Catholics.  And even then, Bible scholars, such as Martin Luther, thought the last four books of the Protestant bible should be excluded because he didn’t think their message was consistent with the rest of the New Testament.   What does that say about “all Scripture is inspired by God?”

The point is, there isn’t much in the Bible that isn’t up for or open to interpretation, at least in some point and time.  From major concerns to minor ones, Christians have separated themselves from other Christians because of differences of interpretation.  Do you think this might say something to the issue of infallibility?  And when did such infallibility start, in the apostle Paul’s day or in 500 A.D.?  But even though those outside of the church may chuckle when those inside put so much stock in the Bible (with all their differences of interpretation) we still remember the song, the B.I.B.L.E., yes, that’s the book for me, as you suggest Leonard.  But isn’t that a children’s song?

John, that commandment hasn't changed. Jesus' rebuking the Jews about finding the sheep on the sabbath was ALWAYS in force. One might ask..... should Christians be shopping, dropping kids off and playing sports on Sundays or hanging with church families, family and friends?

The writer states reformed understood the bible wasn't verbally inspired. I'm not sure that's true. Most of the reformers I've read back in the day, seemed to believe other than what the writer says.