The Bible Is Not Flat!
The earth is not flat, but the massive data affirming this reality has not deterred members of the Flat Earth Society. The Bible is not flat either, but this reality has not deterred many from reading it that way. What does a “flat” reading of the Bible mean, and why is it a problem?
My first Bible was a King James Version. I’m old enough that in my early years few alternatives existed, but not so old that the language of the KJV matched the language of my daily life. My issue here, however, is not with the archaic way the KJV speaks (which was appropriate, of course, for the time when it was written), but with another factor more relevant to the question above.
Many Bible students realize that today’s chapter and verse divisions in the Bible were not part of the original text. The chapter divisions were added in the 13th century, and verses in the 16th century. The KJV, unlike more recent versions, presents the text of the biblical books as a series of chapters, each containing a string of seemingly free-standing verses. In books like Psalms, the reader observes no indication that this portion of the Bible is written as poetry. In narrative texts, one finds no paragraph divisions.
Although subsequent Bible versions have improved the formatting of the text, the historic influence of the King James Version may have contributed to an unfortunate legacy of approaching the Bible more like a dictionary than what it is in reality: a collection of diverse literary works. To use the Bible as if it were a repository of answers to be looked up by chapter and verse creates a dangerous pattern that lies at the heart of a flat reading. Such a reading ultimately does more damage than the belief in a flat earth. (Ironically, this approach to the Bible has probably contributed to the belief in a flat earth, just as it contributed to the belief that the earth is the center of our solar system.)
Perhaps the best way to elucidate the meaning and danger of a flat view of Scripture is by describing some areas to which we must be sensitive if we are going to avoid this danger and read the Bible more appropriately.
Genre refers to a category that reflects common characteristics. In the realm of music, for example, classical, bluegrass, blues, and hip hop describe different genres. A straight news story represents a different genre with different rules than an editorial. When we encounter familiar literary genres like these, we tend to change gears instinctively as we read.
Not only does the Bible use some less familiar genres, such as law, wisdom, and apocalyptic, but even some of the more familiar ones, like narrative, operate differently at times from our equivalents. Most seriously, we fail too often even to consider the issue of genre when we read the Bible. We cite a proverb or a passage from Revelation or Romans as if they all convey truth in the same way.
To read the Bible as if it consists of a single shapeless genre results in a flat reading that obscures many nuances of God’s revelation.
Two aspects of context carry relevance for the way we read the Bible. The first is literary context, which refers to the relationship of a given verse or passage to the text around it. This context extends all the way from the immediately surrounding verses to all of Scripture. We have all heard people protest that their words were “taken out of context.” The words of the Bible have often suffered this fate.
A second dimension of context deals with the time, place, language, and circumstances into which God revealed himself. He has not given us a collection of timeless truths, but words delivered to people in particular times and places. In so doing, God met them where they were. This gracious and necessary approach, sometimes called contextualization, requires those of us from different times and places to recognize that the Bible was not written directly to us.
To read the Bible as if a given passage can be understood and applied apart from its surrounding literary and cultural context results in a flat reading that obscures many boundaries of God’s revelation.
The way we read the Bible shapes our theology, which is simply our understanding of the larger message of the Bible. The more extensively and appropriately we read the Bible, the healthier should be our theology. Interpretation of particular passages and our theology ideally will interrelate with one another in a positive way. Our biases and blind spots, however, hinder this process.
As we grow in theological understanding (which involves our life response to the text as well as our intellectual study), we come to appreciate some important dimensions of the Bible. We recognize progressive revelation, the way in which God’s will is revealed with increasingly clarity as it comes to its fulfillment in Jesus (see Matthew 5:17-18; Hebrews 1:1-2). We also find certain emphases that give different weight to aspects of God’s revelation (see Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:8; Matthew 22:34-40; 23:23).
Another issue with which our developing theology confronts us is the tensions that exist within Scripture. We wrestle, for example, with divine sovereignty and human free will, or the staggering love of God and his judgment. We often seem to be more eager to resolve these tensions (because they make us uncomfortable) than is the Bible itself. Unfortunately to resolve them to our satisfaction flattens the more complex texture of Scripture.
To read the Bible as if every passage or issue addressed carries equal weight and every tension is a problem to be resolved results in a flat reading that obscures the complexity of God’s revelation.
Avoiding a flat reading of the Bible will not resolve every interpretive disagreement, but it will put us on a much healthier path, one that respects the way God chose to shape his revelation to us.