Truth, not facts: how to read the Bible

The saying goes like this: “The difference between fundamentalists and Lutherans is that fundamentalists read their Bibles but don’t think about it, and Lutherans think about their Bibles but don’t read them.” It’s actually pretty accurate in my experience, and a crying shame, because both groups miss out on a vital part of their faith life. So I’m going to talk a little bit about the Bible today, and how to read it and think at the same time. God gave us brains for a reason, and God also gave us the Bible for a reason.

First, let’s talk about what the Bible is and is not. The Bible is a testament to the faith life of the people of God; a collection of stories about the actions of God in the world; God’s self-revelation to the world. The Bible is not and was never intended to be a science textbook, nor a history textbook. Nor is the Bible the Living Word of God. Jesus Christ is the Word; the Bible is a collection of words about that Word. The Bible speaks to us and to our lives today; but it was written for and by people who lived thousands of years ago in a specific place and time, and that has shaped it in pretty profound ways. The Bible is extremely important to our faith, and can shape and guide our faith lives and our understanding of God, and for that reason everyone should read it. But please, by all means, keep your brain turned on while you do so.

Let’s talk a little bit about the difference between “truth” and “facts.” “Truth” is about the deeper reality, about (hopefully) profound insight into the way things are. “Facts” are the surface things, the things you can see, hear, touch, measure, and prove beyond the shadow of a doubt. For most of human history, truth has been far more important than facts, so much so that the accuracy of facts was sometimes unimportant, as long as the deeper truth was preserved. It is only in the Western world since the seventeenth century and the beginning of the Enlightenment that facts have become more important than truth. Because of this, we look at the world very differently than the ancient Hebrews or the Jews of Jesus’ day did. We think that facts can reveal the truth. They thought that truth determined facts, and only facts which supported the truth mattered.

All Western people of the last several centuries have been trained to think in a literal, fact-based manner. Given that mindset, people often read portions of the Bible and find it too incredible, too unrealistic, too unlikely to ever be true. If they are faithful, they tend to either find “natural, realistic” explanations for miracles, or ignore their incredulity and insist that everything in the bible must be literally fact. If they are not faithful, they dismiss it as too fantastic to have any factual basis—and if there is no fact, there cannot be any truth either. The ironic thing is that people on all sides of the issue—the ones who doubt, the ones who cling to literal interpretations, and the ones who try to find natural explanations—all have a tacit agreement that the facts are what is most important. And there are only two ways to argue the Bible as a faithful record of God’s word and actions in history based solely on factuality: to turn off our God-given brains and ignore everything that science tells us about the world God has given us, or try and force pseudo-scientific explanations on the miracles God has given us. Both attempts ignore the richness and vitality of God’s creative and redeeming work.

How does this affect our reading of the Bible? It means that when we read a Bible story, our focus should not be on the facts but on the deeper truths they reveal. For example, take the creation story. Whatever your beliefs on the theory of evolution, the most important thing about the account of Creation in Genesis is not whether or not it took exactly six twenty-four hour periods to accomplish. Here are some of the important things, the deeper truths, that we learn in the story of Creation:

  • That God did create the world, and God created it to be good (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).
  • That humankind, male and female, is created in the image of God, and that the world was given to us to tend and care for.
  • That God worked through a process in Creation, doing one thing at a time, always building and continuing on what had come before.
  • That everything was perfect until it was broken by sin.

When we focus on facts like the amount of time it took and the exact order everything happened in—whichever side of the evolution debate we are on—we lose track of the truly important truths.

Here’s an exercise to help you focus on truth instead of facts when you read your Bible. Ask yourself these questions: What does this passage say about God? What does it say about the way God works? What does it say about God’s relationship with the world and with people? What does it say about humankind? What does it say about the world? What does it say about my life and relationship with God?

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