*originally posted on December 10, 2010
I was born and raised in a particular brand of Christianity that championed the superiority of the Bible. Above all, we were exhorted in church, camp, and college to "hold fast the faithful Word," to "think biblically," to "run everything through the grid of the Bible." In a very real way, the Bible was the mediator between us and God. We did not ask if something was holy or godly or good. We asked if it was "biblical."
We didn't worry too much about spiritual disciplines, we worried about our "quiet time," which was code for a academic version of inductive Bible study. We slapped each other on the back for making new observations from the biblical texts. We argued over the merits of various interpretations of just about every biblical passage. And we studied Greek and Hebrew so that we could do our study in the original languages, which we surmised got us even closer to God.
This approach to the Christian life is helpful in a lot of ways. With the Bible as an anchor, it keeps people from wandering through life like a person who has lost her compass. It also drives people toward searching, questioning, and seeking ... Which is good, of course, if the Bible is the only place they look for answers. And, all in all, it's not a bad thing to have ever-increasingly thoughtful Christians.
But as with so much else I was raised with, I'm starting to have my doubts about this kind of Bible-centered Christianity.
First, I consider what Jesus said in John 5 to the biblical scholars of his day, "You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." Jesus seems to indicate that the Bible is not the mediator between us and God; he is. How similar have we become to our ancient forefathers who knew the Scriptures but not God when he was speaking to them? That's a probing question that needs to be honestly considered.
Second, I'm beginning to wonder if being "biblical" is the best way to judge a theological system. With so many interpretations, how do we know which one is really right? With so many approaches to belief and life, how can we say with any confidence that I've got it figured out and you are mistaken? With so many worldviews, how can we say that one is true while others are not?
If our standard is simply what is “biblical,” we are left with having to choose who has made the most convincing case based on biblical grounds. And if the history of the church tells us anything, we may live to regret what we claim the Bible teaches:
•The case for the Crusades was made on “biblical grounds.”
•The case for slavery was made on “biblical grounds.”
•The case for torture is being made on “biblical grounds.”
In addition to these, the Bible has been used to justify war, oppression, the death penalty, bigotry, polygamy ... and just about anything else we want to try to justify.
Maybe “biblical grounds” are more shaky than we realize. Maybe we need some other way of discerning what belief systems are good, bad, and ugly. Maybe we need to listen to Jesus again.
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them." (Matthew 7.15-20)
Jesus does not say that we will be able to discern the validity of someone's belief system based on their ability to prooftext their argument. He says very clearly that it is the fruit of a person's belief system that will be the indicator of whether or not their approach to theology and life is good or bad. Fruit is what matters.
How do we know whether or not fruit is good to eat? We look at it, smell it, squeeze it, tap on it and listen to find out if it sounds hollow. We discern and examine it against what we know good and ripe fruit to be.
In the spiritual realm, we know what good and ripe fruit is. It is that which is loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled (Galatians 5.22-23).
So, if I am going to follow God in the way of Jesus, and I am examining the validity of a theological system or a belief structure, I need to ask these kinds of questions:
•Does this belief system promote sacrificial service of others, particularly those who have been unloved previously?
•Does this belief system foster a deep and abiding joy and satisfaction in life?
•Does this belief system make the world a more peaceful place?
•Does this belief system slow people down enough that they can seek to understand one another better?
•Does this belief system lead to gracious actions?
•Does this belief system encourage people to be present in the lives of one another?
•Does this belief system affirm a posture of vulnerability?
•Does this belief system encourage people to be true to themselves?
Recently, I heard a young woman speak about her struggle to find acceptance in the Christian community. She talked about how she tried to conform to the expectations of others, expectations produced by their belief system. And after years of trying, she was unable. The fruit of that belief system was a fragile and fractured young woman, depressed and suicidal. That can't be good fruit, can it?
In all honesty, I don't know where this journey will take me, but I do know that I've got a new compass and a new map. I'm going to begin to care less about whether or not something lines up with my interpretation (let alone someone else’s) of a given biblical passage and more what its fruit looks like