“How I Understand the Bible from Genesis to Revelation,” by Michael Nelms
I believe the historical person named Jesus who lived in the first century of the common era to have been the “embodiment of Divine Life,” meaning, Divine Life/Energy in human form. I believe this as the result of a personal experience, a personal experience in which I believe I encountered the Spirit/Energy of this Jesus as a living presence today. This personal experience came as a result of another person telling me about Jesus, and her pointing me to what others have said about him, those “others” being the first-hand eyewitnesses of the historical Jesus, the writers of the Gospels. This is a belief, a matter of faith, and it cannot be proven by me, or the Bible, or anything else. Those who wrote things that are now in what we call “the Bible,” wrote based on personal experiences and beliefs. For example, the writer of Genesis chapter one writes as one who believes in “Elohim,” (God or gods). It is written from a perspective of faith. It does not seek to “prove” the existence of “God” or “gods” and therefore it cannot be used to prove the existence of “god” or “gods.” The writer of Genesis chapter 2:4 writes a different story of creation, a story with a different “God,” a God named Yahweh. He/they did not seek to prove Yahweh existed. It was simply their belief he (and Yahweh was a “he”) existed.
I do not look to “Elohim,” nor do I look to Yahweh. I look to Jesus. I believe (faith statement, nothing can be “proven”) Jesus is the embodiment of Divine Life. Neither the Bible as a whole nor the Gospels in particular are the embodiment of Divine Life. However, the Gospels, unlike the rest of what Christians call “the Bible” are first-hand, eyewitness, and human accounts of Jesus who was and is, for me, the embodiment of Divine Life. Therefore, I read the Gospels not because the words are the “words of God,” rather I read the Gospels because they contain the eyewitness accounts of this Jesus who was and is the embodiment of Divine Life, this Jesus I personally experienced for the first time in April 1974. As with any human eyewitness accounts there are differences in details/perspective, but in listening to the various eyewitnesses a pattern of life emerges. The early believers of Jesus called this pattern of life “The Way.” We discern this “Way” in the Gospels, and this “Way” is the way of Life, the way of divine life that even death cannot overcome.
Things Found in All Four Gospels That Point Us Toward this Pattern of Life, “The Way.”
1. Story of Jesus being baptized by the John the Baptist.
2. Story of Jesus choosing 12 disciples.
3. Jesus was an itinerant Jewish rabbi who taught people mainly through parables and his own way of life, and Jesus himself never wrote anything down to pass on to future generations.
4. The story of the cleansing of the temple which shows Jesus’antipathy towards the religious leaders of his day and an indifference to the political powers of his day as well as his preference for those who were considered religious and political outcasts.
5. The story of the feeding of the 5,000, which is a symbolic story in which Jesus is presented as the Shepherd who feeds his sheep spiritually and sustains them in desert places.
6. The transfiguration story which also symbolically shows that what the disciples saw in Jesus with their human eyes was not all there was to Jesus: the “glory” of Jesus, his being the embodiment of divine life, is only glimpsed on occasion, occasions we cannot control and create, only look for, hope for.
7. The summation of the Jewish law (613 commandments not 10) as loving God and neighbor, and that to love our neighbor is to love “God.”
8. The story of a last meal with his 12 disciples, including sharing the bread and cup with Judas who would betray him, Peter who would deny him, and the other 10 who would run away from him in his hour of need.
9. The story of the crucifixion as a result of a life lived in love for God and neighbor which led to a life in antipathy toward the religious leaders and indifference to the political powers of his day.
10. The story of his resurrection from the tomb and his continuing presence with believers thereafter.
11. Women were a vital part of Jesus’ ministry, and women were the first witnesses to his resurrection.
12. The 12 disciples Jesus chose were utterly clueless during Jesus’ earthly ministry.
These twelve things are the only commonalities in the four eyewitness accounts, the Gospels. The pattern of life, “The Way,” that emerges from these twelve things is a life lived in both continuity with his culture (baptism, disciples, teaching through parables) as well as in opposition to it (love not laws, mercy not rules, self-sacrifice not self-fulfillment, service not power).
Divine Life, therefore, is life lived in continuity with culture as well as opposition to it. Jesus did not join the Essenes , a group of Jews who decided to live out in the desert because they thought the culture was too corrupt, so, to ensure their purity, they isolated themselves from everyone else. Instead, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi engaged in the community and culture yet at times in opposition to it, in opposition to it wherever and whenever laws were made more important than love, or rules more important than mercy, or self-fulfillment replaced self-sacrifice, or wherever power trumped service.
It is not always easy to discern “The Way,” because it is a “Way:” It is not a “word” written in black and white, nor a collection of words. “The Way” is not found in any book, not even the Bible. The Gospels contain eyewitness accounts to the One who embodied the Way, and to the degree we can discern this Way from the Gospels, we can critique all other writings, both Biblical and non-Biblical, as to whether or not they point toward this Way.
I believe in Jesus and this way: I do not “believe in the Bible.” For me to “believe in the Bible” would make the Bible as important as Jesus, to put the Bible on the same level as Jesus. I believe in Jesus and Jesus alone. Those who believed in Jesus and The Way in the first couple of hundred years after Jesus did so without a “Bible.” If “believing in the Bible” was necessary, this would not have been possible. In the absence of a Bible, what they had was an experience of this Jesus in which they encountered the Spirit/Energy of Jesus, such experience following being told by others about this Jesus, and in some instances—not all—certain of the writings of the eyewitnesses (the Gospels).
Beyond the Gospels, the writings of what we call “The New Testament” are simply words of human people doing the best they can to talk about how “this Way” should inform their living in that day and time. People, like the Apostle Paul, experienced the Spirit/Energy of Jesus, and based on such experience gave advice on what following that Spirit/energy would look like in his day and time. This is, I believe, what should have continued to happen throughout history, and what we should continue doing today. Paul’s comments about what following the Spirit/Energy of Jesus would look like in the first century of the Common Era need not apply to us today in the 21st century. We, like Paul, should be looking to Jesus (not the words of Paul), and in looking to Jesus discern “The Way,” the “pattern of divine life,” and then we should be looking to follow that pattern both in continuity with as well as in opposition to 21st Century culture, just as Paul was doing in the mid-first century.
Instead of looking to Jesus and this “Way,” what happens is people argue over what Paul said, and what he meant, and what he did not mean. In other words, we become focused on words not a “Way.” I believe Jesus avoided writing anything, or having anything written directly for him, because he knew written words would make the Way less clear. We give the written words of the Bible equal status with Jesus, and then the Bible ends up trumping Jesus because the Bible is something we can see and hold and control in whatever ways are good or comfortable for us individually or our group, team, state or nation. The Bible is something we can hold in our hands and that gives us comfort and a sense of control. The Bible allows us, so we are tempted to think, to be dogmatic: “the Bible says______, therefore the case is closed. I am right and you are wrong.” As has been proven countless times over the centuries, used in this way the Bible can be used to “prove” anything: why it is okay to have African-American slaves (Ephesians 5:6) as well as why it is not okay to have slaves (Galatians 3:27-28); to prove why Saturday is the “correct” day for worship (Exodus 20:8 and Mark 2:7) as well as why Sunday is the “correct” day for worship (I Corinthians 16:2); to prove why baptizing children is the way to go (Acts 16:33) as well as prove why only adults should be baptized (Mark 16:16, Acts, 8:12-13); to prove why women should not teach in the church (I Timothy 2:12)as well as to prove why women should teach in the church (Romans 16:1, Galatians 3:28); to prove why there should be a paid clergy (I Timothy 5:18) as well as to prove why there should not be paid clergy (I Corinthians 9:18). These are but a few examples: the list is nauseatingly endless.
Looking to Jesus and a “Way” entails greater humility and less dogmatism. If the “Way” involves “love not law, mercy not rules, self-sacrifice not self-fulfillment, and service not power,” then if those who believe in Jesus in the 21st century are asked the question, “Should a woman be allowed to teach in the church?” then, instead of saying, “The Bible says ________,” the response instead might be something like this: “Let’s talk to this particular woman who desires to teach, and let’s listen to her: what has been her experience of Jesus and the Way, and does she desire to teach love not laws, mercy not rules; is she interested in teaching for some form of self-fulfillment which would not be ‘The Way,’ or is she interested in doing this even at the sacrifice of her self? Is she interested in this because she thinks it will give her some power in the church to get things done in the manner she thinks they should be done, or does she want to do this out of a sense of service and humility? Following “the Way” invites a conversation and a process of mutual discernment. Simplistically saying “The Bible says _____,” results in arguments over what the Bible does and does not say and/or mean, as well as dogmatism based on whatever conclusion/interpretation we choose.
“The Way” applies also to what some people who identify as Christian call “The Old Testament.” We must read the Hebrew Scriptures through the lens of Jesus: if Jesus is the Way, then we begin with Jesus, not Genesis, and then we read Genesis with Jesus-colored glasses. If we find in Genesis, or any of the other writings, something that does not fit the Way of Jesus—love not laws, mercy not rules, self-sacrifice not self-fulfillment, service not power—then we know that whoever wrote it did not yet know the true Way, or, we are not yet reading/understanding it fully (humility). We can read such things for an understanding of how people in those times perceived of “God,” and we can find places where their understanding is quite unique from the general ideas of their time, and when such uniqueness correlates with The Way, we might discern such uniqueness as “inspired,” and such inspiration might be found in what we call “The Bible” as well as other books and writings. In doing so, we can put together an “inspired” evolution of thought about The Way, as the various writers of the Hebrew scriptures (and others) over a 1,000 year span attempted to discern the Divine Way. However, I believe (faith statement, cannot be proven) it is in Jesus alone that we truly see the Divine energy fully embodied, and through the eyewitnesses of Jesus—as well as the continuing presence of Jesus— we can discern something (not everything, humility, not dogmatism)of the Way as well as discern what is probably not of the Way.
This discernment is a communal activity and is never complete or final. We might be wrong in either our discernment of the Way or how it guides us to live in a particular moment. The communal aspect of the discernment (there were 12 disciples, not one) is a help toward discernment, but it is also no guarantee. Humility is always in order—the willingness to hold any discernment as one would hold a baby bird in one’s hand. Jesus and Jesus alone is the Way, and our communal discernment of Jesus and his Way is never equal to Jesus, never the exact same as the Way he, and he alone, fully embodied. “Lord, have mercy,” should be a constant prayer amid our constant desire to discern Jesus and his Way in our individual and collective lives.
This need for humility and constant discernment is tragically truncated by the idea of a “closed canon.” A “closed canon” means that the writings in what we call the Bible are the Words of God and the only words of God. The idea of a closed canon means that there are no more “scriptures,” that everything we need to know is to be found in the pages of the Bible. And so people go to the Bible to find answers about particular problems (the Bible was not written to address individual problems), and people use the Bible to dogmatically assert why they are right and others are wrong.
I do not believe in the idea of closed canon. I do not believe the divine energy in which we live and move and have our being suddenly stopped inspiring people once the last book of what we call the Bible was written. I believe Jesus alone to have been the full embodiment of the Divine energy, and I believe the Way Jesus embodied to be a Way equally accessible to disciples today as it was in the first century of the Common Era, the only difference being none of us were eyewitnesses. However, through a discernment of the Way Jesus embodied as portrayed by the various first century eyewitnesses, as well as the continuing presence of this Jesus/Spirit (resurrection)—the same continuing presence as the both the eyewitnesses and those Biblical writers who were not eyewitnesses enjoyed— we today, just as much as the Apostles Paul or Peter in the first century, are given the freedom and responsibility to discern how this Way, how this one Lord Jesus, calls for us to live in our own day and time.
What do Presbyterians believe about the Bible?
The Living Word
By David Robert Ord
Reprinted from the April 1995 issue of the Presbyterian Survey (now Presbyterians Today)
“You can prove anything from the Bible,” a person who knows little about the Bible assures me. As a Presbyterian minister with a deep respect for the Bible, I recognize that there is both truth and error in that statement. Error, inasmuch as the Bible obviously can’t be used to support every imaginable viewpoint. Truth, inasmuch as Presbyterians reach different conclusions on the same issue and support their conclusions with Scripture.
For some of us the message of the Bible is consistent from Genesis to Revelation. To say the Bible is inspired is to say it is accurate and factual–and therefore contains only one viewpoint, that of the Creator.
If other people arrive at different beliefs from reading the same Scriptures, it is obvious to us that the problem lies with interpretation. Either the scribes who copied the manuscripts misinterpreted what they were copying and introduced error, or the person reading it is misinterpreting the meaning.
For others of us, the Bible can be used to support a variety of different beliefs and ideas because it actually contains, not a monolithic point of view, but different points of view. These differing ideas were expressed, not just by named writers, but by sometimes quite large groups schools of thought such as priests and scribes, cloaked by a particular name like Moses over a period of about a thousand years.
Battling about the meaning of the Bible is not new, not an innovation of the modern division between conservatives and liberals. There have always been a variety of different ways of interpreting Scripture. The apostles themselves actually differed over the interpretation of key Scriptural passages. Witness the battle over circumcision in the story of Acts. Consequently there existed in the early church two quite opposing viewpoints, both strongly defended from Scripture. Jewish Christians, headed by James and Peter, had the clear testimony of Scripture that circumcision and the law of Moses were based on an “eternal” covenant, and therefore essential for salvation for not only Jews but also Gentiles. Paul taught differently. Eventually, at a conference in Jerusalem not unlike our General Assembly today, they decided to tolerate each other’s viewpoint, remaining in fellowship while agreeing on some points and disagreeing on others. As a result two quite different churches emerged, one distinctively Jewish and the other liberated from the law of Moses.
The great strength of Presbyterianism is its uncanny knack of fostering a fellowship in which people of different viewpoints continue to dialogue.
Not only in the same denomination but also in the same congregation it is often possible to find folks who believe every word of the Bible to be factual worshiping alongside sisters and brothers in Christ who treat the Bible as true in meaning but not necessarily factual, and still others who would not even agree that the Bible is wholly true in meaning, let alone factual.
None of these viewpoints contradicts our Presbyterian Constitution. The church is charged with giving full expression to the rich diversity within its membership. Our Constitution requires us to promote inclusiveness, which means including all the different theological positions that are consistent with the Reformed tradition.
What that tradition emphasizes is that while the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and conduct, Christ is present with the church in both Spirit and Word. This means that before I can use any particular statements of Scripture as a guide in life, more is required than simply the ability to read. Otherwise I might read something that was never intended for me and subscribe to a practice that is contrary to God’s will for people in 1995. This is the mistake cults commonly make.
To handle the Word of God responsibly, Presbyterians have always stressed the importance of scholarship. All the way back to John Calvin it has been crucial that our decisions as a church do not rest on the understanding of Biblical novices whose knowledge of Scripture is only surface deep, but on the most thorough and scholarly search for truth of which we are capable.
In seeking to address any issue from a Biblical perspective, under the guidance of the Spirit, Presbyterians have found it incumbent upon them to ask penetrating questions of the kind the early apostles asked. To whom was a Scriptural injunction directed? Who wrote it, and why? What is the context? For what time period is it applicable? Are there Scripturally justifiable exceptions to the rule? How was the statement understood in its own time?
What our Constitution is saying to us is that isolating certain statements of Scripture and using them to prove a particular viewpoint is not kosher. While my right to private judgment is inalienable, so that I must listen to my conscience when it comes to determining the revealed will of God, conscience also requires me to listen to “the whole counsel of God.” In other words, if I am really to hear the Word of God for me today (I am not asked to hear it for someone else), I cannot be individualistic in my reading of Scripture. I need to remain in dialogue with the whole church.
We Presbyterians therefore believe in the importance of listening to each other when it comes to interpreting the Bible. No matter how alien a viewpoint may be to us on first exposure to it, we have a responsibility to hear it fully and not reject it out-of-hand.This entails adopting the role of a student toward my s sisters and brothers in the church. It means I must exhibit a willingness to try to see an issue through their eyes, rather than treating them with hostility because what they are saying contradicts my present understanding. As the Constitution expresses it, being Presbyterian means we exercise forbearance toward each other.
As a minister I am often asked what I believe in. The fact is, what I believe in has changed drastically in my 48 years. Some positions I once took a stand against, I now embrace; others I at one time accepted, I now reject. As they have shown themselves willing to listen to each other on issues such as the ordination of women, a great many Presbyterians have changed their understanding quite drastically over the course of their spiritual journey.
The more grounded I become in the Protestant watchwords grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, the more I question the validity of a question concerning what I believe. I find significance in the order of those good Protestant words: grace first, then faith, then Scripture. My faith is the result of God’s gracious activity in my life, and not the other way around. What I believe in has become less important to me over the years than belief. More appropriate, it seems to me, is the question of in whom I believe.
My faith is not something I have to defend, as if it were a set of doctrines to which I must cling for dear life. It isn’t because I believe certain things that I belong to God; rather, I belong to God, and that leads to belief. I wouldn’t be giving up anything significant if most of the ideas that seem important to me and that I say I believe in right now eventually prove either in error or inadequate, and I have to modify them.
My spirituality would be unaffected because I don’t have to hold on to my beliefs; rather, the one in whom I place my faith has got ahold of me! That is the glorious message of grace.Because I am secure in my confidence in God, I can now turn to Scripture with an open mind that is ready to be challenged, eager to question, keen to investigate. My faith is not staked on a particular interpretation of a passage of Scripture — it rests on God’s grace. So there is nothing to be afraid of anymore.
We Presbyterians believe in ongoing dialogue concerning the Bible because, to people of faith, no idea should be so shocking that it cannot be given a hearing. If our faith is genuine, we have nothing to fear from any quarter.
We do not feel threatened if an opinion we presently hold as Scriptural turns out to be a misunderstanding of the Bible. That is why we welcome what archaeologists, historians and linguists have to tell us about the Bible. We are willing to hear all sides of an issue, studying it closely from every possible angle.
I like being Presbyterian because it is a great relief not to have to be “right”! A reading of our confessions these past 2,000 years shows that even the greatest minds had only limited understanding — even got it wrong at times — and had to be updated. That means I can entertain the possibility that, as obvious as something appears to me, I might be wrong. It’s OK to be wrong. In fact, if growing in grace and truth means anything substantive, I ought to delight in finding out that some concept I have held to be true is flawed and requires modification. Indeed, it is when we feel most sure of our viewpoint that — if we take the examples and warnings of Scripture seriously–we are most in peril. To return to the issue of circumcision, when Peter ate with and baptized uncircumcised Gentiles (Acts 10-11), everyone at the headquarters church back in Jerusalem knew he was wrong! They had not only the weight of a thousand years of tradition behind them to show that Peter had gone astray, but also direct, clear, incontrovertible statements of Scripture. But they had not counted on the Holy Spirit–that wind that blows where it wills, without asking our permission — which had an entirely different interpretation to put on those ancient Biblical texts.
What do Presbyterians believe about the Bible? We believe that through it God speaks to us–that it is inspired. For some, that means the Bible is inerrant. For others, it means that even though the Bible is culturally conditioned and not necessarily factual or even always true, it breathes with the life of God. In their limited ways, the ancients grasped something of the infinite that we need to hear and dialogue with today. Above all, the Bible points us to the living Word, the Christ who is present in each of us in Spirit, inviting each of us to become the Word enfleshed in the steps of Jesus — what Paul calls in his first letter to the Corinthians “living letters from God.”