There are three ways to teach the Bible.
The first is to teach it as a good book, full of aphorisms and stories that enrich human life and thought. This is the “classical” educational approach.
The second is to teach it as a practical book, full of principles and practices that enrich human life and thought. Every idea, every maxim, is about you. As some have quipped, this is more “narcigesis” than “exegesis.”
This tends to dominate many, if not most, contemporary churches.
The third is to teach it as the Word of God, full of truth and revelation that commands human life and thought. This is the historic approach, and the one most tied to the Bible’s actual nature.
The difference in the way you teach it matters.
If you teach the first way, then you may as well teach Hemingway as Habakkuk, or Rousseau as Romans. You are teaching it as literature – beautiful, small “I” inspired – but literature. As such, it is no different than Proust or Dickens. You can be appreciative, but not affected.
If you teach the second way, then you are offering little more than a self-help seminar that could be matched by anything on Oprah’s network. You are engaged in therapy more than theology. Therapy matters, to be sure, but if the therapeutic rests on little more than seeing the Bible as the source for “tips and techniques,” then it is only as significant as the latest edition of Cosmopolitan.
If you teach the third way, well…
Then you have unleashed revelation itself. God has thundered and we can only bow our heads and open our hearts, minds and hands. Revelation is different than something good or helpful; it is the voice of God echoing down from Heaven. It demands that we become like clay, malleable and shaped. If we harden against its voice, then again, like clay, we can only crumble in response to its touch.
Not simply in practice, but thought.
As Mark Galli wrote in a recent editorial in Christianity Today:
“The Bible is the Word of God primarily because it reveals the nature of God – who God is and what he has done for us. And that in turn shows us what it means to be those created in his image. Yes, it includes practical teaching for daily living. But most…[p]astors, teachers, and small-group leaders would be wise to spend more energy showing how the Bible is the source of the great church doctrines – which are so often about God and his saving world. It’s time for our main pedagogical question to be not, ‘What difference does this make?’ but, ‘What does this tell us about our good God?’”
Sadly, most teach the Bible as a good book, or a self-help manual. They fear tapping into its deepest voice, and deepest waters, in fear of turning people away.
Shame. Both “it’s a shame” and “shame on them.”
“It’s a shame” because it’s only the Bible’s true voice that will offer the world that which it doesn’t already have. And most desperately needs.
And “shame on them” because most know only too well that it is a slap in the face of the doctrine of revelation to teach the Bible as anything but what it is.
James Emery White
Mark Galli, “Why We Need the New Battle for the Bible,” Christianity Today, September 24, 2015, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.