A wise seminary professor of mine often asks his classes, “Why do you love your neighbor?” He quickly follows with, “If your answer is, ‘because the Bible tells me to’ then perhaps it is time you close the book and get to know the Living Lord.”
The points he is making are well within the bounds of Christian belief. The God of scripture is larger than scripture. Love of neighbor is not a rational assent but something that seizes our whole being. Blind appeals to authority without evidence or experience are misguided. Yet his words can still leave some students stunned or shaken. “For the Bible tells me so” is a line of reasoning many of us learn in early childhood.
How is it you know that Jesus loves you? Is it, ultimately, because the Bible tells you so? Had you never heard God in a music-filled sanctuary, never glimpsed God in sunlit leaves, never recognized God’s love in the eyes of another…would John 3:16 be enough to convince you? More to the point: Think of someone you love deeply and unconditionally. Could mere words on a page ever convince your heart to do otherwise?
Yet is Scripture mere words on a page?
Each year, another wise professor of mine has her theology class debate what kind of truth the Bible holds. The positions are assigned at random the day of (“The Bible is/is not without error in matters of faith and conduct”). My first year in seminary, I found myself, along with a majority of students who associated “inerrancy” with the cruelest strains of Christian fundamentalism, walking into the room praying I would be asked to argue that the Bible is fallible. Yet over the course of the debate I realized that however important and accurate my lines of argumentation (the contradictions within the text, the laws that have long dropped out of cultural practice, the fact that the authors are fallible humans), they all could be transcended by a single belief that I and nearly every student in the room held: God will meet us wherever God chooses. If God has chosen scripture as a special place to meet us, as generations of Christians have believed and experienced, how could shortcomings in the text stop that?
Our journey with the Bible through seminary was tumultuous. We sat in class and pulled it down to its most human terms, scrutinized its darkest moments. Then we sat in a chapel and, in those very same words, met God. The Word met us in words; flawed, inadequate, human words.
The tumult of this journey has not made the Bible less holy to me, but only more dear. When the Bible is not forced to occupy the position of our sole connection to truth—the “word for word” word of God jotted down by entranced humans turned mouthpieces—we can recognize it as something far more hopeful: the writings and wrestlings of people who lived lives marked by suffering, selfishness, and brokenness of every kind and who, nevertheless, came to believe in, trust, and know a good, loving, promise-keeping God of grace.
What hope and what beauty this Bible offers us, for it tells us to be ever on the lookout for the God we meet in its pages to be acting beyond its pages, acting in your own life, however marked it may be by suffering, selfishness, and brokenness of every kind. For—thanks be to God!—God has chosen to meet you. So the Bible will tell you, and so the Living Lord will show you.