Thursday, December 07, 2017

Don't mine the Bible

When I was a younger man, and learning how to read and teach the Bible, there were always particular warning signs posted around those sections which were classified as 'narrative'.  One had to be particularly careful when reading narrative, and especially when drawing doctrinal affirmations or practical applications from it.  Narrative was slippery, capable of multiple readings, uncomfortably open.  The common wisdom seemed to be: 'never make a doctrinal or practical point from narrative which is not found explicitly taught elsewhere in Scripture'.

"Like gold from a mine, so the truth of faith has to be extracted from Scripture by the exertion of all available mental powers."  Thus Herman Bavinck, with an image also utilised by Hodge and Warfield.  It is interesting to pick at some of the assumptions behind this metaphor.  One obvious one is that the purpose of Holy Scripture is to teach doctrine; the gold which Bavinck envisages being extracted from the mine of Scripture is a set of true propositions about God and man.  Then there is the idea that these truths have to be excavated.  The stuff of value is hidden in there.  The thing with a mine is that most of the stuff that comes up from it is just rock.

Now, I don't want to push these theologians on a particular metaphor; I do understand that one cannot in one image say everything that one would like to say on a particular subject.  But I do think that this notion of what the Bible is and how it works leads fairly directly to that practical approach to Bible reading which makes the story of Scripture very definitely secondary to the more straightforward 'teaching' sections of, for example, the Pauline epistles.  I think it's no coincidence that the NT epistles are privileged in many evangelical churches.  I think people who think that this is what the Bible is will obviously relegate the narrative sections - and let's be clear, that's most of the Bible - to the status of 'illustrative material', adding some colour to the real business of the doctrinal matter.

The way we typically use Scripture in our lives and in our churches backs this up.  Normally we have a fairly small chunk of Bible in front of us for our morning devotions, or read to us for exposition in the sermon.  And because this is our shot of Bible for the day or the week, we want fairly immediate pay-off: a take-away that we can meditate on or take action on during the long hours and days of secularity.  We want to know what the point is.  Now, when we read doctrinal or ethical statements from the NT, that seems straightforward.  But when we read narrative, we naturally start to try to boil it down: what am I mean to think, believe, do?  In other words, what propositional truth or practical instruction is hiding in this story?  What is the gold, and how do I mine it?

This has an effect on our theologising as well.  We construct a view of God based on the propositional statements we see made in parts of Scripture, and then explain the narrative (dare I say it, often explain it away) in light of these.

But what if the story is the point?

A simple reflection on the gospel should tell us that this is absolutely correct.  The gospel is a narrative.  And yet - wouldn't some evangelicals be fairly happy if the Gospels went missing from their Bibles, so long as they could still construct a doctrine of the atonement from Paul?

So, here's the plan: let's just read the story, in bigger chunks, with less attention to immediate application and more determination to just accept that this is the story.  And let's shape our thinking about God around the fact that he is the God who made this story.  When we make our systematic theologies - and please don't hear me as saying anything negative about this process! - let's make sure that our ideas and our vocabularies are shaped by Holy Scripture as the witness to what God has done - that is to say, by the story.

I suppose if I were to offer a different metaphor, I'd say: let's be in the Bible like we might be in a river, being carried in a particular direction, 'at the mercy' of the current.

It's more exciting than digging.


  1. YES.
    Yes yes yes yes.
    Thanks for giving theological important words to what I'm trying to do :-)

    1. Glad you liked it. I do think it's important, and difficult: goes against the grain for many of us, including myself. (I like theological important words, and they are easier to deploy in a traditional approach...)

  2. To put it another way, sometimes it seems like the narrative is there only to be 'defused', like the story of the rich young ruler (or James 2's propositions, for that matter). I agree that much is missed this way. Like the garden/temple/church/New Jerusalem progression which, whatever you make of the details, is seen through eyes looking for conceptual imagery rather than propositions, but is no less enriching for all that. And is it any surprise that the approach you criticise often ends up with a rather static doctrine of the atonement - something solving a logical problem in a single moment, rather than something that buries you and launches you into the ongoing narrative of a new life?

    That said, 'descriptive, not necessarily prescriptive' does have some truth in it in terms of application, I think - particularly concerning John's Revelation. The problem is that so many key prescriptions concerning the nature of kingdom life in the epistles are overlooked from all ends of the church that the application of the narrative (e.g. pertaining to Babylon and the Beast) are misunderstood or overlooked. I say humbly claiming to have understood the prescriptions correctly myself...!

    1. Yep, agree with all that, in broad brush strokes at least. It is important, of course, to recognise that some things are descriptive and not prescriptive - but the odd thing is, when would anyone ever assume that a narrative was prescriptive in any sphere outside Bible reading? It seems like a category error.

    2. Perhaps I'm sensitive to it because I grew up in charismatic circles where Acts was used to justify belief in a baptism of the Spirit subsequent to salvation, amongst other things.