A Difficult Word

“[The Bible] has to be interpreted.  And if it isn’t interpreted, then it can’t be put into action.  So if we are serious about following God, then we have to interpret the Bible.  It is not possible to simply do what the Bible says.  We must first make decisions about what it means at this time, in this place, for these people.”

– Rob Bell in Velvet Elvis

I am finally reading Rob Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis, and I am loving it.   This passage above is from the second chapter where he makes the important point that every person who reads the Bible must interpret it.

Occasionally I hear talk of just “believing what the Bible says,” but two people can easily say that while having differing opinions on what a passage actually means.  Both have interpreted the verses in light of what they believe about the text surrounding it, their own past experiences, and the way they already view God.

After reading this chapter in Bell’s book, I was also reminded that what we think about the Bible’s message really does matter.  We may be tempted to abandon the effort to study and understand, since there are so many varied opinions out there.  How could our opinion make a difference?

Our thoughts on the Bible matter because as we connect with other thinking believers, we contribute to a ongoing conversation about what God has to say to us and what he is doing in the word.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that God didn’t give us an easy book because he knew that a difficult word would more likely draw us to be engaged with God and his people.

8 thoughts on “A Difficult Word

  1. So, what I hear you saying is that the Bible can only be properly interpreted within the context of a community of believers? Could it then be true that the Bible is rather something more of a “We” book than a “Me” book? The implications are profound! But, why would God draw us isolated individuals into a corporate context? Unless, perhaps, it’s part of His over-arching plan of redemption… something about fellowship with Him and fellowship with His body? Maybe 1st John & 1st chapter has it after all — “this is [in fact] the message”!

  2. “the Bible can only be properly interpreted within the context of a community of believers?”

    I would not go quite that far, but pretty close. We are most likely to maintain a balanced interpretation of Scripture when we are discussing it in small community settings.

    That way, when I go off the deep end in trying to determine who gets to go to heaven and who doesn’t, I’ll have my friend bsmack there to lay the smack down by presenting a balancing thought on the text.

  3. …I’ve read the book and found it both insightful and also a bit weak at the same time. I do like some things Bell has to say, but I also think his theology is a bit off. And considering his platform—it concerns me. While I’d agree with my friends who’d be quick to point out, “Who doesn’t have an incomplete theology or who isn’t wrong about a few things?”—it’s a dangerous theology we need to be careful about—every one of us. Obviously, I read books I don’t only agree with. But, like many of us—I read books with an open eye, especially ones presenting a view (and I am not necessarily referring to Bell’s Velvet Elvis here). The back cover of the book is a great disclaimer but it doesn’t automatically excuse bad theology for me—not saying his theology is bad, but I am suggesting I find his book leaving a bit to be not only questioned—but possibly examined (which has been done by the likes of John MacArthur and others like him). And I am aware the book is a contribution to a “conversation” and not intended to re-invent the Bible. I understand writers wanting to get readers to think rather than shoving an agenda or series of answers down their throats. That being said—I also understand debate serving as a healthy thing. But that’s not my point in commenting. Bell may be more “right” than I give him credit for.

    I did enjoy “Movement 1” quite a bit. The trampoline and defending the wall made a lot of sense.

    I don’t agree much with Bell’s takes in “Movement 6” however—“who we are now”. Specifically his conversation with the “new” Christian distraught over his sin. Bell’s wondering and questioning if the young man’s life was better as a non-Christian is not only simplistic but shallow if you ask me. More than that—dissapointing that he’d even suggest such nonsense. I’ll be the first one to say a life of following Jesus is neither easy nor pain free—but I’d be damned before I say it’s not “the life”. With David—“I’d rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God”…

    Yes, we are redeemed, and being a Christian is the life of joy to be sure!—but Jesus did have some things to say about the poor in spirit that may contradict “an all Christians should be happy and unfazed by sin” approach. While Bell does much for the poor and I admire him for it—there is more to the gospel message than it’s social-economical ramifications. I understand the Beatitudes don’t say to be all consumed in your sin—but I don’t (along with my reading of the rest of the Bible) get the impression that Jesus isn’t saying (here or anywhere) that sometimes we won’t be depressed about our own failures or even have bouts of feeling tormented by our sense of guilt (right, wrong, or indifferent). The church fathers and the NT writers were clear about the fact that we are (or “were” if you prefer) sinners—and now that we “see”, we are the saved sinners (I’m only echoing what a pretty large supporting cast have taught). I think the cornerstone of our theology has to be cast in the atonement and the atonement isn’t just something we pay mental ascent to in order to be saved. Our entire hope is anchored in the great substitution. And a proper understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice is presupposed by a keen awareness of our utter and complete lostness without him.

    We are sinner/saints and I just find Bell as too willing to skim over this dichotomy. To wallow in our muck or to tout our past is one thing—and an offense to Christ—but to be aware of it and thankful we are forgiven for it, is altogether different. And entirely necessary. We are being saved and Bell’s takes seem to just undermine the sanctification process to me—and the fact that we still do struggle with sin. Bell has done much I like—I just question his theology a bit like I say. A good youth pastor friend of mine has been out to Mars Hill and speaks well of Bell. I realize not a one of us has a corner on the market when it comes to interpretation (while you’re on the subject).

    Your excellent closing paragraph reminded me of the early church—“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.”—ESV

    We were never intended to go it alone in our study and dividing of the word—and I’d add the application of the Scriptures in our “individual” lives–it’s to be experienced together and for one another. And of course, ultimately to the glory of God.

    You brought up Bell’s book—I figured I’d weigh in with a couple observations having read it.

    Good post as usual and it’s good to see you are writing more of them of late.

  4. Great post, Ken, I enjoyed reading your comments. It would seem that properly balanced biblical interpretation both begs and necessitates, as a matter of course, a communal setting within which to distill truth-concepts (isn’t this how new versions of the bible are deliberated over by counsel before appearing in print with a stamp of approval? and don’t we call that interpretation?)…

    Perhaps the various and successive councils of our early church history shed light on the path ahead of our variegated “evangelical” theologies, wherein are disclaimed the veracity of counterpoints on the basis of sectarian differences. The mainstay stipulation seems to remain clear however, and as well, Proverbs would have us know that whoever isolates himself (if it looks like a cult…) rages against wisdom… so, then, I wonder what the voice of wisdom would say about us getting together and convening a modern day Nicea? Heresy was prolific in their day – at least as much as in ours – so that is nothing new. What appears to be new is that we have too much pride to lay these matters at the apostles feet!

    I submit that to you, fair and noble peers, to deliberate over and judge in your own right. 🙂

  5. bsmack,

    Good idea—maybe you could help organize such a modern-day Nicea. I’m guessing from the content of your comments that you must have connections with some of the theological and apologetic minds of our times. Let me say that the Nicene Creed is a wonderful creed.

    Pride does serve as a real wedge between the various “camps” (for lack of a better term). I suppose the best (in my biased opinion) we have today is “The Cambridge Declaration”, I do speak for myself (and yes, it is “evangelical” so to speak). I think for those of us who take the Bible seriously, I’d say it’s as solid an article in recent times you’ll find in specifically spelling out the vital need to recover a “truth” rooted in biblical truth, and a God-centered (must I say “Christ-centered”) theology/worldview. It’s an ever man-centered theology we tend to drift towards—and the Gnostic climate about us today only seems to feed it. But it’s nothing new at all. And as you rightly point out—it is an era of much heresy.

    If we are to do anything at all of significance, we must contend for the faith. We can’t afford to not be willing to call a spade a spade just so we never ruffle any feathers—flirting with “other” false gospels does more harm to our listeners than we take the time to notice.

    Much of what I read today is what I would consider Pelagianist, or at least semi-Pelagianist—it’s poison and leads so many astray (that never believed the truth to begin with I suppose). I’d contend that Paul’s message to the Galatians is a message for our modern day church if there is any message at all. We so much want a gospel that elevates man and somehow accounts for our many contributions.

    My frustration isn’t so much over disputes concerning my own Calvinistic preferences or tendencies. I consider those negotiable and secondary. The larger threat is the heart of the gospel message that I believe is too often forgotten—or worse yet, under attack. Our fascination with being cute, hip, and relevant (while it’s important to relate) has been maddening to me. It’s as if being popular somehow has replaced the power of the gospel as the centerpiece on our figurative table. We must remember that the gospel message—as beautiful as it is—is an offense to those who are perishing. Always has been and that won’t change. How can it evolve when it is already perfect? Do we forget that the message of the Cross causes a great number to stumble? Is our calling to make it more palatable? We can be as seeker sensitive or emergent or conversational as we want to be. We can trade in our Dobson books for all the Jim Wallis ones he writes–and that might be a great idea.

    But Jesus has shown us the way. We don’t feed the poor to build up our spiritual resumes or show up our adversaries in “another” camp—and likewise our hopes shouldn’t be in our family values, America, or anything else save Christ. The bottom line—if it is not the love of Christ compelling us in what we do, it’s worthless. My contention is this—it’s sinners we ought to be reaching out to and sharing our lives with when they are willing to engage or hang out with us—and certainly in no way am I suggesting we abandon the assembling of ourselves with one another (our first responsibility is to our brothers after all, and as Jason has reminded us—we need one another constantly and desperately).

    So often I sense that we are wasting our time begging and pleading with intellectuals to debate us and listen to our “reasoning”—as if our showing them up will accomplish anything! How apt we are to pontificate all the while ignoring a call to simply preach the gospel—and that doesn’t come down to reasoning—rather it’s a “foolishness” we must present.

    And then there is the nasty fighting we do with those ensnared by the death grip of religion.

    Luther and his reform minded contemporaries (and I recognize they were not the first, i.e Augustine) were attempting to expose what I consider to be the battle of the ages for the church. It wasn’t mere corruption they lashing out against—it was the corruption of God’s holy and inspired Word they were outraged by. I see many similarities today—we can sure point to compromise and the commercialization of the mainline church or even within the larger evangelical circles we rub shoulders with if we like—but can we articulate the one true gospel to a lost and dying people? Do we make it clear that “the just shall live by faith”? Do we ourselves have a handle on just what a genuine faith is—an understanding of the role of sheer and prevenient grace at odds with a salvation by damnable works?

    These are the silent-unspoken and invisible threats we miss most often.

    I am reminded of some wise words from Eugene Peterson, in his Intro to Jude (-The Message)—“There is far more, of course, to living in Christian community than protecting the faith against assault or subversion. Paranoia is as unhealthy spiritually as it is mentally. The primary Christian posture is, in Jude’s words, “keeping your arms open and outstretched, ready for the mercy of our Master, Jesus Christ.” All the same, energetic watchfulness is required. Jude’s whistle-blowing has prevented many a disaster.”

    And I would submit that our own whistle-blowing can somehow be effective in doing likewise.

    Jude writes—“Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” -ESV

    I know I have said much that’s not in relation to the post, but Rob Bell and the issues he and others like him bring to mind are plentiful.

    And I would add that I am afraid it is a radical theology we (myself included) need more than a balanced one.

    Thanks for allowing me the spirited dialog.

    God bless you.

  6. Wow, I leave town for a couple of days and I come back to a dissertation in the comments! 😉 Seriously though, focusing on a response to one or two issues would help. That would provide some focus to any discussions that would develop here (discussions I want to always encourage!).

    I am about halfway through Velvet Elvis. So far, I’ve not come out of it with the same impressions as Ken.

    I’m having a hard time believing that Bell encourages people “to wallow in our muck or to tout our past,” or that he is “flirting with ‘other’ false gospels” However, I still have half a book to read. I’ll post my own review when I’m finished.

    I won’t try to comment on a lot of the other things you’ve said, because there are so many different things to respond to.

  7. Hey Ken – After reading through your blog, I’d like to invite you to participate in a blog book tour I’m having October 1. The tour topic is “Do what it says” from James 1:22, a verse I use extensively in And God Was Pleased: Biblical Principles for Creating Christian Success.

    If you’re interested, here’s a link with some additional information.


    Thanks and I hope to hear back from you soon!


  8. Jason, you are right—I was much too wordy and was too lazy to shorten it up and do some of my own blogging instead. I should have been clearer in jumping from a commentary on Bell to my point that we should’t wallow… (I was referring to my own tendency to do such) and saying that Bell proposes no such thing—so that’s much different than what you took me as saying. But oh well. When you get wordy you can’t expect to be understood. Like I said, I think Bell makes some very good points. Thanks for the correction.

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