“‘But the Bible clearly teaches...’ How often have I heard or read that line’? The sentence is then completed with the supposedly clear biblical teaching.”
Have you encountered this approach to the Bible?
New Testament scholar Tim Geddert offers this reflection describing what he calls “the concordance method” to biblical interpretation. People use a concordance (Bible word search) to compile as many verses as possible that reference a particular topic (e.g. gender roles) and then like a puzzle, try to put the pieces all together to provide a coherent Biblical teaching to apply to all situations. The goal is to arrive at the “correct biblical view.” As Geddert elaborates (tongue firmly in cheek),
“Some Christians imagine that somewhere in heaven God has a special bookshelf. Alongside the Book of Life and other books mentioned in Scripture, there is no doubt God’s original copy of the Bible, the one God dictated so that we could have a copy of it on earth as well. Among the other books would be one entitled The True Theology Book, another called The True Ethics Book, and so on. These books contain the ‘right answers’ to all the questions we ask. We do not copies of these books, but we do our best to reconstruct what must be in them.”
Stated as such, the approach seems absurd. As Geddert concludes, “Does anyone seriously believe that this concordance method is a helpful way of learning anything important in the Bible?”
Such simplification of the Bible doesn’t address the reality that equally passionate people can arrive at wildly different conclusions when relying on the concordance method. It also doesn’t address the complexity of the Bible itself - different genres, different contexts, different teachers, different motivations. Many times, one “biblical answer” doesn’t exist.
And here is where I don’t think the alternative is to suggest the Bible is now somehow irrelevant. Difficult interpretation should not cause us to discard interpretation altogether. Facing this challenge of biblical interpretation, Geddert offers a compelling alternative:
“The goal is not to find one always-valid answer. The goal is to learn to think biblically.”
In this approach, the Bible is as much about intellectual and theological formation (i.e. finding the “correct biblical view”) as it is about character formation. The Bible remains important and relevant for Christian faithfulness in a way that addresses our whole lives. Jesus speaks of faithfulness as involving our heart, soul, will, and mind (Lk. 10:27) and Paul describes the scriptures as “equipping” us to live good lives (2 Tim. 3:16-17). In our search for biblical answers, the concordance method falls short - we need the biblical life.