Why are churches leaving the PC(USA)? Some leaders of exiting churches with whom I have relationships have said that the PC(USA) no longer takes seriously biblical authority – seen in the movement regarding certain social issues within the General Assembly and presbyteries. While I know this is a gross generalization of the divisions that plague the denomination, as a person who was raised in the more evangelical side of the denomination I initially accepted this argument. My bias had been to distrust the positions of brothers and sisters in Christ who read Scripture differently than I did as “unbiblical.” As I understood it, the Bible tells us how to live and we should take it seriously – even if what it says makes others uncomfortable.
I never went so far as to say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” After all, the Bible must be interpreted. One of the things I love about being Presbyterian is that we take Scripture seriously – seriously enough to learn the text in its original languages, seriously enough to ask questions of the text and not to be satisfied with pat answers. I would not be ordained as a pastor today if Presbyterians before me did not read certain Bible passages in their context rather than at face value. Still, I considered biblical authority in a top down kind of way. God used the Bible to tell us what to do. God used human writers, but it was the “God-breathed-ness” of Scripture that gave it authority in my life.
And then I began reading Rob Bell’s new book on the Bible, “What is the Bible?” Bell never defines what he believes about biblical authority, other than to deconstruct how more conservative folks think about biblical authority. (He spends a whole chapter doing this – chapter 37.) A more conservative reader might think that Bell does not take the Bible very seriously because he does not talk about its authority. However, I got a clear sense that the narrative of Scripture has defined Bell’s life’s trajectory – because he believes the story it tells is true.
Bell emphasizes the humanness of the biblical text. This library of books was written by humans, rooted in a particular time, place and culture. So, when we read something that disturbs us (like the stories of violence and genocide in the Old Testament), we need to ask questions about why people found it important to write this story down and why this passage has endured. We must read more deeply, asking questions about the cultural context in which the passage was written, asking how it fits into the overall story the Bible tells. Did this story, despite how it disturbs our sensibility today, represent a step forward in human consciousness and/or humans’ understanding of God?
While Bell never says this outright, his view of the “weight and power and influence” of the Bible is found in its humanness: “You find the divine through and in the human, not around it.” Bell most clearly sees the divine lurking in Scripture’s trajectory into “new stages of growth, maturity and consciousness” which bring “greater freedom, inclusion, and complexity.” Where people experience freedom, there is God.
As I read, I questioned how we discern what is simply cultural and what holds authority for the way we live our lives now. I suspect Bell might direct us to how we understand the whole story Scripture tells, particularly how the story ends. If we believe that the end of the story is the renewal of all things through Christ, then whatever points to that renewal is what holds authority, rather than all the smaller details and commands. If we keep moving forward into “freedom, inclusion and complexity” we are moving in the right direction.
Still, I was left pondering: Who gets to decide what is moving forward and what is moving backward, other than our own cultural biases? Bell is not free from his Western, North American bias, nor from his more progressive view of the world. Surely his worldview informs what he discerns is movement forward in Scripture. Why is his reading better than the interpretations of more conservative readers or readers from the global south or east?
Whether or not a reader agrees with Bell’s hermeneutical framework, Bell’s sheer delight in the stories of Scripture is contagious. Authority comes from the ground up, and it is found in Bell’s love of this ancient library of books and in his exploration of its stories over years of study. He shared insights and connections I had never seen before (for example, check out, in chapter 9, his interpretation of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not throw your pearls to pigs”).
Bell’s excitement about the truth in the stories of the Bible renewed my desire to read Scripture deeply and “literately.” This book will remain on my bookshelf, and I will share it with anyone who struggles with whether the Bible is still relevant for us today. And I suspect that I will pick it up throughout the remainder of my pastoral career, to remind me of the good story Scripture tells.
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.