Is the Bible a treasure in a jar of clay?

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Paul says we are like jars of dirt that contain a priceless treasure. We hope others can see Christ in us, even though we am broken and flawed as a human beings. There is something beautiful inside that jar of clay.

Could we say the same about the Bible? That is contains Christ inside a jar of clay? That despite the fact that it is flawed, just as we are, that it can also be redeemed just as we can?

We may be tempted to disown the violence in the Bible, but instead we need to own it as ours, own it with a spirit of repentance and humility. Not owning it in the sense of calling evil good, but owning it the same way we own our own hurtfulness. We need to lovingly face the dark parts of Scripture, just as we lovingly face our own darkest parts.

Just as we have found a way to understand ourselves to be broken but still accepted and loved nevertheless, we need to find a way to see the Bible like that too. Neither tossing it out, nor denying it's problems, but lovingly facing it.

Loving ourselves does not mean we call everything good in our lives. It can mean repenting, changing. Loving the Bible also does not mean calling everything in it good, but just as we are being formed into Christ's likeness, so we can see in Scripture a progressive growth towards Christ-likeness. We need to keep moving in that direction.

If the Bible is a witness to a people's growing encounter with God--who is most fully revealed in Jesus--then that relational encounter is the real thing, and the book is merely a witness to it. The purpose of the Bible is to serve as a witness to that encounter with Life so that we may also participate in that encounter, so that we may know the one who is Life. If that's all true then we need to keep moving closer to Christ, to keep growing. To do that is to be faithful to the spirit of Scripture whose purpose is to point us to Christ.

But Christ is not stuck in a book. We do not have a relationship with a book. That book cannot contain Christ or exhaust all there is to know of his way. The Bible is meant to lead us to the living Christ, and not tether us to the past. So to get stuck in the place where the last page of the Bible ends would be to not continue to grow and move with Jesus, and to do that is to be unfaithful to the aim and telos of Scripture. To do that is to miss the Spirit.



At 11:12 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

Wow - treasure in a jar of clay. That's rich imagery right there. From a psychological standpoint, I just wonder if "inerrancy" is a doctrine that arose from the very human desire to have certainty, to have a sanctuary where we can enter and say "Ah! Now we are in the unadulterated presence of the Lord, safe from human messiness." We want to know a God who can come to us, and make sense out of all this chaos.

Alas, now we're saying that the Bible, too, is like every other way God relates to us. Being an intensely relational being, God is never unilateral. God will always work through human agency. So it is with the Bible, which was written down through human agency. Which means we introduce "mess" into it.

But if that's the case, being the father of a toddler, I long for an easier way to present the Scriptures to children - one that will get them excited about the Bible and using it for their lives as a way of knowing God deeply and intimately. I have to give that part some thought.

At 8:53 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

Question for you Derek: if the purpose of the Bible is to point us to the living Christ (an affirmation I agree with), then does the Bible carry any more weight than a good pastor's sermon collection, or a collection of stories compiled in modern times of people's personal relationships with Christ?
In other words, how in your mind is the Bible more helpful than other human resource in pointing us to the living Christ? I think we all agree that Scripture is special in some way as a way of forming our relationship with Christ, and can serve as a base foundation for that. But how exactly?

Re: using a Christocentric hermeneutic to critique OT (or even NT) texts... once you make the decision to use Christ's way of using Scripture as a way to make judgment calls on whether, for instance, Numbers 31 accurately reflects who God is, then one has to call into question how we can be sure that the Gospels themselves are fully accurate in their portrayal of Jesus. Should they be considered 100% reliable, or do certain parts need critique as well... and if we do critique a NT portrayal of Jesus, what reliable yardstick must we use?

I'm sorry if I'm being redundant with questions you're already planning to address in your book. But I'm sure they'll be asked by others too. While agreeing with the basic substance of your thoughts, I find myself struggling with more questions.

At 1:51 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Great questions. I'm gonna address the second question in a new post. The first question is one that will need to wait for another day because we need to first understand how we should read the Bible like Jesus did, and then once we have done that we will be able to address what the role of the Bible is based on that understanding. 

This brings me to an important point: While a blog is great a fostering interaction and conversation, blog entries themselves (even the long kind I tend to write) are just little single-serving thoughts and ideas, unlike a book where you can slowly build up complex idea over hundreds of pages. Because of that, we will need to return in a later blog post to the first question of how the Bible is unique/special. That doesn't mean I don't think it is an important question, (it is!), but it's a question at the top of the staircase, and we are standing on the middle step now.

At 6:13 PM, Blogger Ryan Myers said...

Like Samurai, I too struggle with how to teach scripture to my children (ages 5.5 to two weeks) in light of these discussions. We primarily use the Jesus Storybook Bible (I skip the paragraphs referencing penal substitution), but children just aren't capable of understanding the idea that some of the Bible stories they've heard may not actually have represented the will of God. To teach them the Bible we not only have to present it at more-or-less face value, but with much of the backstory and aftermath (where much of the violence is found) stripped away.

So in a sense, using the ideas you've been presenting, wouldn't our children first have to learn the Bible the "wrong" way before they can learn it the "right" way? And would this hold true even for adults who have never had access to the Bible and don't have the most commonly known OT stories embedded in their cultures (as we do here in America)? And what of peoples from cultures in which genocide and rape are more commonly accepted?

At 7:58 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


I have little kids too and so this is something I also wrestle with. Here are my thoughts:

Little kids are developmentally at an earlier stage of moral development than adults are. A classic expression of this is Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development. This has to do with brain development, and as a consequence, small children can't comprehend the kind of moral complexity that mature adults do. Their thinking is very black and white still.

This does not just apply to the Bible but to everything. So I find I need to “censor” things from my kids that I feel they are not ready for. So we write letters together to the Compassion International kids we sponsor, and talk about poverty and about the need to have compassion. But I don’t tell my kids about what happens to child soldiers in Uganda. I also could not finish the story of Abraham and Isaac in our Children's Storybook Bible the other day as I felt it was much too graphic and violent and knew it would deeply trouble my little girl who always projects herself into stories.

So I do present a different picture of the world to my little kids than the adult one in the new, and I likewise do not present the Bible to them as I would to an adult. As they grow older they will be ready for a more adult view, but I think it’s important as parents that we are sensitive to guide them towards this. Of course I also don’t want to teach them things I think are wrong. So I need to walk that tightrope the best I can. One thing I definitely don't want is for them to internalize an angry and hurtful image of God that they later need to be healed of. So I try to take what I believe and present it in the most straightforward way I can to them. One thing we say a lot around the house is "God turns bad guys into good guys."

Frankly, my approach is to read them stories that I feel reflect Christ (and there are lots of stories like that in the OT and NT), and to simply not read the “troubling texts” to them at all. There are a lots of adults who read the Bible this way too, who never read the genocide accounts, and instead just read the nice parts that get colorful highlights in our Bibles. I think this is a perfectly fine place to begin. I just don’t think that it is where we as adults should stop. We need to face the dark parts of Scripture as we face the dark parts of life and ourselves, and do so motivated by compassion, just as Jesus did.

I don't think doing that would be "wrong" but rather it would be "developmentally appropriate." As to adults, I think it may hold true if they have not developed to a stage of moral sophistication. When Paul speaks of those with a "weak faith" I think this is what he means. So we might need to lead them to that point.

Finally, let me say that there are no cultures in which genocide and rape are accepted nor have their even been times in which it was. There are cultures in which such horrific and traumatizing events are more common, but that does not mean it is not profoundly traumatizing. Perhaps that is not what you intended to imply, but I just wanted to clarify that.

Now, If a person has been the victim of violence, including children, then of course this is something that we should address with sensitivity and care. However I don't think a person who has seen their family killed in a genocide (or by a misguided "Hellfire" missile) would really appreciate hearing the story of Jericho :)

At 4:48 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

Very good discussion! My offering, after wrestling with this and talking with my wife a bit on our anniversary night out last night :)

Perhaps it's best to see the Bible with the lens of "people and relationships." Let me explain that a bit. Perhaps it was wrong to assume that the Bible, instead of being a relational meeting place between God and humanity, is some rarefied, purely divine entity. As such, we can say that the Bible is a finite way of containing the infinite - as Derek put it, treasure in a jar of clay. Both the Biblical authors, and the characters depicted within the Bible itself, are all finite people. The beauty is that God used finite, imperfect beings to make his heart known in critically prophetic ways

Seen from the other more positive angle, finite means not merely "imperfect" or "broken", but also "a special piece of God's heart." How do we delight in a person? By looking for, and delighting in, that unique piece of God's image or heart which he or she exhibits or exemplifies. That doesn't mean we don't call a spade a spade when it comes to broken aspects that need change, but we don't define a person by his/her faults - but rather we do so by the image of God within him/her (that is, that finite but precious piece of God's infinite heart that is implanted in that person).

Concretely, if Deutoronomy for example fully packages the divine heart perfectly and wholly, what need is there for any other book of the Bible? Each author was inspired by God to reflect a very distinct but counter-cultural piece of his heart despite the author's limitations and perhaps some flawed cultural assumptions at the time. So perhaps it's helpful, when read any book of the Bible, to sift in this way: what is the core message of this book that reflects the mind of Christ? (while calling a spade a spade when there's clearly evidence of spiritual progress still left to be done in the theological worldview presented - for instance, when the Deutoronomist assumes that you won't have a bad harvest, infertility, or illness just as long as you obey God's every command!).

The mind of Christ reflected throughout Scripture may be the core message that we delight in, just as we delight in an imperfect but wonderful person who reflects the image of God in a finite way. Perhaps that "core message", that piece of the mind of Christ, can be what we focus on as we teach our kids?

As we trace these core messages in the Bible, these pieces of the mind of Christ, perhaps we can see "trajectories" as you mention, Derek.

At 5:49 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

I would elaborate further and say that "mind of Christ" would refer to his heart for us when it comes to how we are to relate to him as well as to others. In other words, how do the core messages inform our ability to have healthier relationships to one another and to God here and now?

At 9:53 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

I like that. To add weight to your idea, consider this: 1 Timothy says that Scripture is "God breathed" (sometimes translated as "inspired") and many folks take that to mean it is infallible. But who else does Scripture say is "God breathed"? Adam! Gob breathed life into humanity and called it good. But Adam and Eve were not infallible, even pre-fall, because if they were they would not have fallen. So the Bible is God breathed, like humanity is. The Bible is created good, like humanity is, the Bible is not infallible, just as humanity is not. Just as we can love people we can love the Bible, even though neither are perfect....


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