The Bible has been part of my life as long as I remember. In Sunday School there were texts relevant to the day’s Bible story to colour in; at home my father read morning and evening the appropriate page from Daily Light, each page containing Bible verses on a given theme; at bed-time when I was a young child my mother took the Scripture Union Bible reading notes for my age group (Stepping Stones I think they were called) and worked through them and the relevant Bible passage with me. When I grew older, I was left with first Quest and then Keynotes to use myself, which I did in a desultory fashion – a quick read and an even quicker prayer.
But even when not physically open or present, the Bible was never far from mind when I was a child and young man. Its stories and verses, in the language of the Authorised Version remain ingrained in me. It was the book through which God spoke to us. It was without error, and absolutely authoritative, the guide for all aspects of life. I was dimly aware as a child of different interpretations of Scripture, but was convinced that ‘our’ take – articulated by church leaders, and reinforced by reliable authors and magazines – was the ‘correct’ take, the only one which expressed God’s ideals and pleased God.
By the time of my 21st birthday, I had already begun to do some preaching, and my parents gave me (no doubt at my request) a ‘Preachers’ Bible’ in the Authorised Version – leather bound, printed on India paper with generous margins for notes; loose-leaf so that pages of sermon outlines could be interleaved with the text. But soon afterwards I moved to using more modern translations – I bought a Revised Standard Version Bible in 1974 and a New International Version when it was published in 1978.
I enjoyed preaching, finding it fulfilling. My models in preaching were evangelicals such as John Stott and George and James Philip, expository preachers whom I heard at the annual Christian Medical Fellowship conference in Crieff. When I had a sermon prepare, I’d reflect during the week before on what was the right passage to speak on, until after more or less struggle and reading an idea, or a verse or a story came to me with a sense of ‘givenness’. I would then unpack that idea, explore the Bible passage in the light of my evangelical beliefs, and apply its message to everyday life.
Even at that stage though, I was moved more by symbols than ideas. I remember speaking one Christmas to the Youth Fellowship at Ebenezer Hall in Coatdyke in the 1970s on St Paul’s thought about Christ being ‘formed in’ us (Galatians 4:19) and drawing a parallel with Christ’s gestation in Mary’s womb. This new-to-me idea I found both evocative and powerful. I found equally powerful the comparison of Old Testament stories with New Testament events and teaching which they symbolised. Thus, for example, I would reflect on the life of Joseph in parallel with the life of Jesus. Joseph’s words of self-revelation to the brothers who had rejected him, ‘I am Joseph’ seemed to me to be possibly the most moving phrase in the whole Bible, symbolising Jesus’ revelation of himself to those who are open to him.
At this point I still retained a thoroughly conventional evangelical view of the givenness of Scripture. Evangelical Christians believe this book is inspired by God. This is not to say they think that its contents were in some way dictated word-for-word by God to its human authors – it’s understood that the writers’ own personalities, experiences and literary style shaped what they wrote, and that the historical works in the New Testament were the fruit of conscientious research.
It’s also accepted (although in my experience little discussed in the pulpit) that in the case of some of the biblical books work was done by editors subsequent to their original writing. But central to the definition of traditional evangelicalism is the belief that God was been so involved in every stage of the process of composition and editing of the biblical books that the end result is a Bible whose contents are, word for word in the original manuscripts, what God wants us to hold in our hands and to treasure in our hearts. It is God’s word for us, today and always.
Some Christians have gone a step further than this, arguing that because God is perfect, any project in which God is involved must be considered to be perfectly executed. Hence the Bible is held to be inerrant, containing no factual errors or mistakes in its pronouncement on any of the subjects it touches on. The Bible, to put it another way is God’s word as it stands, as well as becoming God’s word for an individual in a particular situation when God takes a verse, or phrase, or idea from the book and makes it come alive in their hearts in powerful, life-changing and compelling ways.
It was of course understood that passages from the Bible had to be interpreted in their context, but the kind of evangelicalism I was familiar had literal interpretation as its default mode. It was allowed, for example, that the six days of creation in Genesis might be symbolic rather than literal but not that the story of Jonah’s sojourn in the great fish was anything other than a factual record of an actual event.
By the end of the 1980s I was questioning this received orthodoxy. I remember the uncomfortable shock one Sunday of having to admit to myself that I found the preaching of one minister, a kindly and utterly genuine man whom I heard regularly in the late 1980s to be simplistic in its approach to the Bible. I could not suppress the new thought that he was taking at face value truth claims and narratives which cried out for deeper questioning and examination.
The issues which troubled me relating to the Bible’s content in the late 1980s and 1990s included
The portrayal of God in some passages in the Old Testament as vindictive and genocidal
For example, the prophet Samuel passes on words from God to King Saul in 1 Samuel 15:2-3:
I have decided to settle accounts with the nation of Amalek for opposing Israel when they came from Egypt. Now go and completely destroy the entire Amalek nation – men, women, children, babies, cattle, sheep, camels and donkeys.
I reminded myself you can argue on the basis of the Bible’s teaching that since as a result of Adam’s sin the human race as a whole is deserving of the death penalty, it is only by God’s grace that any of us continues to exist, and that it is God’s prerogative to exercise judgement on any of the human race. But I grew desperately uneasy with these commands to exterminate others which the Bible claims God gave God’s people – they seemed cruel and undiscriminating, unworthy of a God whom we are told elsewhere in the Bible loves the whole of humanity passionately and gives time for people to repent since he ‘does not want anyone to perish.’ (2 Peter 3:9)
The account of Abraham being instructed by God to sacrifice his son Isaac
God had promised Abraham a son through whom he would become the father of a great nation, despite his wife Sarah’s apparent inability to conceive. After many years, the humanly-impossible conception takes place, and in due course Isaac is born. But when this longed-for son is in his mid-to-late teens, God commands his father – ‘Take your son, your only son – yes, Isaac, whom, you love so much – and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I will point out to you.’ (Genesis 22:2)
It is with growing unease that Isaac heads for the highlands with his father. They have wood for fire on the altar; they have a knife to kill the sacrifice; but where is the animal which will be slain? ‘God will provide a lamb,’ says Abraham doggedly, and we are told in a later interpretation of the story (in Hebrews 11:17-19) that so firm is the old man’s confidence in the Lord’s original promise that he is always certain that God in one way or another will allow Isaac to live. Perhaps he imagines that Isaac, once sacrificed, will be resurrected by this God to whom nothing is impossible.
Father and son reach the summit, and still there is no divine intervention. Isaac, with what fears and protestations we can only imagine, is bound to the altar. Abraham raises the knife high, ready to plunge it into his son’s chest.
‘At that moment the angel of the Lord shouted to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Yes,” he answered. “I am listening.” “Lay down the knife,” the angel said. “Do not hurt the boy in any way, for now I know that you truly love God. You have not withheld even your beloved son from me.” ‘
Abraham looks up, and sees a ram caught in a scraggy bush nearby. God has indeed provided a sacrifice. The animal is killed; the precious son walks free.
This story is central to the Christian and Jewish faiths. It demonstrates the father’s naked faith in God, his unquestioning obedience, his unswerving conviction that God has not gone mad, that he is present in the situation and will bring good from it. For Christians, the ram caught in the bush is one of the Bible’s pivotal images, reminding us that though we human beings deserve judgement and death because of our sinfulness, God has in his mercy provided a sacrifice in Jesus Christ so that as Isaac did, we too can walk free. For Jesus, Father God’s precious son, there was no substitute. He and none other must die to win humanity’s liberation.
Yet I found this Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac increasingly perplexing. I had no problem with the concept of sacrifice when it described a costly yielding to God of yourself and your time and talents and resources, or even a letting go of your children to fulfil God’s dreams for them. But I shrank from the idea that anyone would believe, contrary to everything they knew about God, that God would test their faith by asking them to physically sacrifice to him a precious child. Surely human sacrifice and child sacrifice in particular was abhorrent to followers of the one true God? And I was deeply aware of the psychological and spiritual pressure which walking up the mountain must have placed on the son. It seemed to be a kind of abuse. Whereas Jesus willingly participated in the Father’s plan, Isaac could only have glimpsed with increasing horror the agony which lay ahead.
The need for theological sleight of hand to harmonise some Bible passages
It didn’t trouble me that some Bible verses emphasised faith as the way to salvation while others stressed the need for ‘works’ – practical expressions of goodness and love. I could see how these two concepts fitted together, since how you live is inevitably an expression of what you really believe. Nor did I have too much trouble in harmonising those passages which suggest that it is possible for a Christian to fall away from faith and lose their salvation with others which suggest that once you have become a true believer you are eternally secure. I accepted the synthesis of these positions which proposes that God is at work in those who are open to God, granting them the grace of determination and courage not to fall away.
But lesser things troubled me – such as the two differing accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, both of which clearly could not be factually true. Or the two accounts of the numbering of the Jewish people during the reign of King David. The version in 2 Samuel 24 indicates that God, as an act of judgement prompted David to undertake the census, while in the parallel account in 1 Chronicles 21 it is Satan who is behind the king’s enumeration of his people. The theological synthesis accepted in evangelical circles claims that the difference between the two accounts illustrates the truth that Satan is God’s devil – although the census was prompted by the devil, perhaps as a temptation to trust in human resources rather than in God, it was in fact all part of the divine plan, and in this sense God was the author of what happened. But does this really explain the discrepancy satisfactorily? Doesn’t this raise more problems than it resolves in proposing a view of God which makes God ultimately the author of all the devil’s action? Isn’t it more straightforward, and more honest simply to assume that one of the chroniclers simply got it wrong? But the widespread evangelical belief that the Bible is inerrant denied one the option of acknowledging this.
It troubled me when people insisted that there were no contradictions in the Bible, and spoke of opponents of this view being silenced when asked to point out sample inconsistencies. Because of course there are discrepancies in the Bible – between the two accounts of creation, for example, or the two numberings of Israel, or between the different ‘takes’ on events which you find in the gospels.
A reluctance to suspend my disbelief
A high view of the Bible’s inerrancy compels you to suspend your disbelief over accounts which in any other context you would question and assume were legendary and this troubled me. I am sure it is possible to have a profound belief in a God who can suspend the normal divine way of working in the universe and intervene in clearly miraculous ways, while still having honest doubts as to whether God would choose to make an axe-head float (2 Kings 6:6) or whether a man would be raised from the dead when his body was temporarily concealed in the tomb of the dead prophet Elisha. (2 Kings 13:20-21) If we came across accounts like these in any other context, we would be very doubtful of their authenticity: should we accept them as actual, factual truth simply because they appear in the Bible?
The black-and-white nature of much evangelical teaching on moral issues
I also grew concerned about the black-and-whiteness of the views on moral issues held by many evangelical Christians and agencies. For example, many Christians argue on the basis of the Bible’s teaching on the preciousness of human life that abortion is in fact murder, and sinful in every situation. Yet while agreeing absolutely that abortion is normally wrong, I felt there were situations – for example where the pregnancy has resulted from rape – where it might be the preferable option. And given that in the natural course of things many, many fertilised eggs are never implanted in the womb, I couldn’t see any strong moral objection to a ‘morning after’ pill. Again, in the case of euthanasia I felt that despite the benefits of palliative care, there may be situations where the patient’s pain is so intense that it is preferable to help bring their suffering to an end.
I had questions about the fact that though in the Bible marriage is used as a powerful symbol of the relationship between Christ and his Church, there seemed to be little in its pages about the ceremony of marriage or of marriage as a formal contract. I recognised the huge benefits of marriage, and the security which comes from knowing that your partner has made a solemn, long-term commitment to you. But surely, I argued to myself, it is this commitment that matters, and partners can have an equally strong commitment in a long-term relationship as in a marriage: if this were true there was surely no room for the concept of ‘living in sin.’
I also found myself with deep concerns about Christian attitudes towards gay people. The view widely held among evangelical Christians, based on some Old Testament passages and on St Paul’s writings is that any physical expression of homosexual or lesbian love is inherently sinful. This was true, it was felt, both in the case of those who have adopted a gay lifestyle while being naturally heterosexual, and those who have been conscious for as long as they can remember of having a gay orientation.
There was some recognition among evangelicals that this gay orientation was not in itself sinful but it was believed that in many, if not in all cases, this could be reversed through prayer and counselling as wounds inflicted on you earlier in life were healed. If your same-sex attraction remained, then it was considered that the proper Christian response was to live with your gay orientation while, by God’s grace, seeking not to express it physically.
To me, this seemed hard. I was aware of the sexually promiscuous lifestyle led by some gay people – but some heterosexuals are equally promiscuous. But I was aware too of other gay people who were Christians, and who were desperately wounded when ‘exodus’ ministries failed to re-orientate their sexuality. I was also concerned about the injunction not to express your gay orientation physically. Jesus taught that sinfulness in the heart was just as offensive as sinfulness in action. If the expression of gay sexuality is wrong, I reasoned, then surely it must be equally wrong to feel strong attraction to someone of the same sex as it is to express that attraction physically.
And it seemed to me that to acknowledge that this is the case was to condemn homosexual Christians to a perpetual inner civil war. If you are told that somehow you must fight against this deep and ever-present desire in you because it is wrong and offensive to God, then it must be hard not to feel that you yourself are somehow unclean. I respected those Christians who were able to affirm their worth as God’s precious children while doing battle with this part of their personalities which they regarded as the enemy - I supposed it was similar to the battles many of us had with anger and other destructive inner forces.
But nevertheless, my heart called me – in fact, to use an evangelical term, I ‘sensed a burden’ - to affirm gayness, and to stand with those Christians who were supportive of gay and lesbian people, including those evangelicals who argued that the Bible’s strictures related to unbridled expressions of lust in the context of worship of gods other than the one true God, and that it did not extend to committed gay relationships, which could therefore be affirmed in line with the Bible’s emphasis on the primacy of love.
The role of evangelical interpretation
I came to realise that a good number of Bible-based beliefs were in fact interpretations of what was in the Bible, and that you could arrive at different conclusions according to the use you made of the evidence. I was aware, for example, of the many different views of what will happen at the end of time, each position defended by its supporters with great plausibility. And should the children of believing parents be baptised as babies, or in New Testament terms was baptism only to be administered to those who have made an appropriate faith commitment? And was the re-marriage of divorced people in line with biblical teaching, or should people in this situation remain forever single? I was confused by disagreements over these issues and others, and on my bleaker days I wondered if everything was a matter of interpretation, and if in fact there was any firm ground to stand on.
The limitations of systematic theology
I came to recognise the limitations of many of the books of systematic theology I was familiar with. When I worked with Scripture Union I bought a thick, red-jacketed volume in small print by Louis Berkhof entitled Systematic theology, confident that in its pages I would find a summary of all I would ever need to know about the Christian faith. Berkhof and other writers of systematic theologies attempt to construct a coherent overview of the Bible’s teaching on significant topics by scrutinising and harmonising all biblical references to a particular theme. The rationale behind this process is that since the Bible is God-given, since one great Mind was at work through the minds of its many human authors, we should expect to be able to extract from its pages a clear understanding of faith issues.
I remember being asked once at Celt Street Evangelical Church in the late 1990s to give a talk about the work of the Holy Spirit. As well as dealing with the familiar topic of the Spirit’s input into each Christian’s life, I wanted to begin by considering the Spirit’s activities out-with the Church. I was convinced that if God is God, then the Holy Spirit is at work in the world, and in the lives of people who do not yet believe in God, speaking through the beauties of creation, inspiring creativity and prompting people towards goodness and truth and joy, despite the fact that they may have not yet consciously engaged in the quest for God. I confidently opened Berkhof to see what he had to say, and was disconcerted to discover that his pages were virtually silent on the subject, not because the Bible has nothing to say on the subject of God’s work in God’s world, but because that issue must have been off Berkhof’s radar.
It was this issue which led me to question the whole concept of attempting to systematise theology. Was this attempt to capture and display beliefs about God in dense prose really the way to go? Or was it akin to capturing butterflies, pinning them in a display cabinet, and watching as what when alive was vividly colourful become drab and dusty and grey in its lifelessness?
And I began to question the merits of attempting to build a coherent picture of truth about God from a book (the Bible) written over many centuries during which the insights God had given into his nature had developed. Were references from different parts of the Bible to be given equal weight, or did some give a more accurate picture of God than others?
The way forward
These thoughts devastated me. I had been taught that the way of interpreting the Bible I had grown up was the only faithful way of handling it. My understanding of God and of faith was so closely tied to this particular view of interpreting the Bible that it seemed as though if I could no longer hold with intellectual integrity to this perspective – and on my wiser days, when I allowed myself to be real, I longer for intellectual integrity – then what lay ahead for me was atheism, or at best agnosticism.
I remember standing at the bus stop in Oldtown Road in Inverness one grey morning in the late 1990s wrestling with the implications of God’s absence, as all I had ever tried to believe crumbled in my heart. Was life on earth simply an exquisite, mocking cosmic accident? Was the great story which had come alive for me as I studied the writings of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great story in which I had invested so many years, so much energy simply a delusion?
I hoped that if this conclusion kept pressing upon me so that it became irresistible I would be able to find the courage to be real, the courage to walk away no matter the cost from the faith to which I had clung so hopefully for so long, finally admitting that it had failed me. I was afraid that to avoid the pain of realising that life has no meaning other than the meanings we ourselves create, I might manage to bury the doubts and surround myself with the shell of my former faith, persuading myself against all the evidence of my deepest self that I still believed.
But I still did not stop asking questions. On holiday in Carlisle one summer, I picked up a copy of a book by Professor I. Howard Marshall of Aberdeen University’s department of Divinity and Religious Studies on The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture. This underlined for me that there were scholars who knew intimately the process by which the documents in the Bible came to be written and assembled, but who were still able to believe that it was a unique God-given book. Marshall’s book discussed the issue of inerrancy which was troubling me, and yet I finished it with a sense of dissatisfaction. I had, I suppose, been hoping to be utterly persuaded by the evidence that the Bible had divine origins, but it seemed that there could be no absolute proof. Factors such as the coherence of the Bible’s overall message and the giving and fulfilment of prophecy suggested a strong likelihood of divine involvement in its composition but to be convinced of the uniqueness of the book seemed to be a matter of making a faith choice on the basis of personal conviction.
Much as I appreciated the work of Marshall, and of younger evangelical academics such as Alister McGrath and N.T. Wright, I did not want to believe in the uniqueness of the Bible simply because other people did, and told me I should too, but because I was convinced myself, and there were times it seemed to me that the evidence failed to convince. In my search for evidence of the Bible’s divine origins I was perplexed by the fact that it was so clearly a human book, and grew almost afraid to open it in case I came across something else seemed to undermine the traditional story of its givenness.
I read several books by Christians on the subject of doubting, hoping they would help resolve my difficulties, but to my dismay they dealt with doubts about specific aspects of the Christian faith (such as ‘How can God permit suffering?’) and about the individual’s personal connection with the faith (‘How can I be sure God loves me?’, ‘Can I lose my faith?’) and not with the doubts about fundamental tenets of Christian faith which I was struggling with as I asked ‘Is God there?’ and ‘Can I trust the Bible?’
I had read many years before of the crisis of faith over the question of the Bible’s uniqueness which Billy Graham, the American evangelist had experienced while he was a young man. He has described this again in his 2006 volume The Journey: how to live by faith in an uncertain world. It was 1949, and he was preparing for a city-wide outreach in Los Angeles. A fellow-evangelist, whom Graham ‘respected greatly’ had begun to express doubts about the Bible, urging him ‘to change [his] belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God,’ telling him that ‘people no longer accept the Bible as being inspired the way you do. Your faith is too simple.’
In a cabin in the mountains east of L.A. Billy Graham revisited the Bible’s own teaching about its divine origins. The prophets, he reminded himself, ‘clearly believed they were speaking God’s Word.’ Archaeological discoveries had repeatedly confirmed the Bible’s historical accuracy. And Jesus himself clearly regarded the Old Testament as the Word of God. Graham concluded ‘Shouldn’t I have the same view of Scripture as my Lord?’
Finally, he went for a walk in the moonlit forest, and kneeling down with his Bible on a tree-stump in front of him, began praying. ‘O Lord there are many things in this book I don’t understand. There are many problems in it for which I have no solution, but Father, by faith I am going to accept this as Thy Word. From this moment on I am going to trust the Bible as the Word of God.’ And he comments ‘When I got up from my knees, I sensed God’s presence in a way I hadn’t felt for months. Not all my questions were answered, but I knew a major spiritual battle had been fought – and won. I never doubted the Bible’s divine inspiration again, and immediately my preaching took on a new confidence.’
I wished I could do as Billy Graham had done, allowing my doubts to be washed away by faith. But I simply could not with a good conscience accept the Bible as inerrant as I assumed from his description of his experience that he had done. I attempted to deal with these doubts by repressing them, until finally I had to accept that I was quite simply not the uncomplicated evangelical I longed to be.
* * * * *
That I was able to move forward was due to books I came across which validated my questioning, and encouraged me to think that after all I might be on the right track. I came across an older book in the mid-1990s in a second hand bookshop in Inverness, a work by Raymond Abba entitled The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. Abba was clearly a man of deep personal faith, and I was glad to have him as a guide. He showed me that it is possible for us to approach the Bible with our critical senses alert. He showed me that it can be seen both as a human book (with the potential for human errors) and also as a unique gift to us from a God who was both actively involved in its composition, and who encounters us as we read it.
Another ‘Yes! Moment’ came when I read a book by Dr Anne Townsend in 1999. She is 14 years older than myself, and I’d been aware of her writings from 1970 when her first short book Once bitten, an account of her work as a missionary in Thailand with the Overseas Missionary Fellowship was published. Subsequently, she published a series of books giving an honest take on Christian issues – Prayer without pretending, Marriage without pretending and Families without pretending. I was aware that, having returned to the UK Anne Townsend became editor of the Christian magazine Family, and subsequently Director of Care Trust, which co-ordinated practical Christian responses to help people in need. I was also aware that she had faced a personal crisis in the late 1980s.
In her book Faith without pretending, Anne Townsend describes how she came to question the evangelical position on the inerrancy of the Bible – questions which, once she began to bring them into the open, wouldn’t be silenced. She describes an insight she had while sitting on a gloriously beautiful Thai mountain.
it was [she wrote] not difficult for me to see that my faith did not depend absolutely on my own human mind being able to accept the English….translation of the Bible I owned as being totally and comprehensively flawless: ultimately my faith rested on the massive, rock-solid security of Jesus Christ. I had assumed that it would be necessary for me to prove to myself that the Bible held no contradictions which I could not understand or explain to my own satisfaction. And yet I knew perfectly well that I was not sufficiently trained to be able to do this. Realising that my faith was greater than my ability to use my mind to prove certain things about the Bible suddenly set me free. Yes, I knew that I could and should use my brain to understand my faith but my faith did not depend totally on my own intellectual grasp and understanding of the truth. My faith depended on Jesus Christ, God made man, who to me was a historical person and not mere myth.
These words both inspired and troubled me. My concern was this: Anne Townsend’s knowledge of the Jesus Christ in whom she found ‘rock-solid security’ came from the Bible. How, I wondered could she maintain that faith while at the same time beginning to deconstruct the sacred text? It was all very well, I thought, for her to suggest that ultimately our foundation as Christians lies in the perfection of Jesus and not in the perfection of the Bible. But how, other than through the pages of the Bible, do we form an impression of who Jesus is? If you begin to question its unshakable accuracy, how can you be sure that your mental picture of Jesus has any grounding in reality? How can you be sure that your faith is built on something solid? How can you know that the Shepherd whose voice you are following is the authentic God?
A couple of books, Roger Hurding’s Pathways to wholeness: pastoral care in a postmodern age (1998) and Dave Tomlinson’s The post-evangelical (199?) introduced me to the idea of ‘paradigms’ – the windows through which we view, and explain reality – and the process by which we re-think the paradigms we are using when the increasingly evidence doesn’t fit our preconceptions. I realised that the fact that I could no longer regard the Bible as an inerrant, perfect book did not mean that I must abandon faith in God as a delusion. I realised that there were different ways of looking at the Bible and reality, different paradigms in which there was no inconsistency between recognising the humanness of the Bible and acknowledging the reality of God.
Another ‘Yes’ moment book which confirmed that I was not alone on my perplexing spiritual journey was Alan Jamieson’s A churchless faith, subtitled ‘Faith journeys beyond the churches’ which was originally published in New Zealand in 2000, and released in the UK in 2002. This volume was the outcome of a research project which looked at the views of people who had left evangelical, Pentecostal and charismatic churches not because they had abandoned their faith, but because they were questioning the relevance to their own lives of the churches they had been attending.
This book also helped me in my thinking about the Bible. Jamieson describes a phase in spiritual growth which is ‘rich in the mysteries and presence of God, where teaching and Scripture give, and the reality of life interprets.’
This last phrase in particular impressed me. I had always been taught that as a Christian you should interpret your own inner experience and the events of your life in the light of the teaching of Scripture, and that any resistance to that teaching was sinful. Indeed I had frequently been blessed (and continue to be blessed) by ‘choosing joy’, by believing that what the Bible said was true of me as a Christian whether or not I felt the reality of it at that particular moment. Jamieson’s words helped because they gave me permission to ask questions, to wrestle with what the Bible seemed to be teaching when it was at variance with what I saw around me in the world, not to accept unquestioningly the answers I was given by tradition and by those around me, but to arrive at answers which I myself had tested and proved.
Other books kept prompting me to go forward into the new paradigm including The Radical Evangelical by Nigel Wright now the Principal of Spurgeon’s College, and Brian Maclaren’s A new kind of Christian, a fictionalised description of a Christian pastor asking many of the same questions which were troubling me written by one of the leaders of the Emergent Church movement in the United States.
By the summer of 2002 I knew that to maintain my integrity I must move to this new way of looking at the Bible, but it was another four years before I finally had the courage to accept myself and to admit to others that this was where my journey was taking me.
The temptation to regress
The books I was reading provided authentication of where I was at, and yet it was very difficult for me to accept that the way my journey was taking me was a valid one. My upbringing and my church background screamed at me ‘Beware of questioning and unbelief.’
I had been invited to join a leadership support team at the church my wife and I were attending and discovered that the church’s statement of faith to which I would be expected as a leader to subscribe included a commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture. The pastor lent me some books to read on the subject, and it seemed to me on reading them that inerrancy was a mammoth intellectual construct based on the premise that if God inspires something then it must be perfect. I think this is a flawed premise, and on this ground alone I should in honesty have declined to join the team. But I persuaded myself, or allowed others to persuade me that I could accept the ‘inerrancy’ word as long as in a private way I reinterpreted it as ‘trustworthiness.’
In the summer of 2005 our pastor had a deep experience of the reality of God which revitalised his ministry and gave him a new and continuing sense of the divine presence in his life. As we shared lunch one day, he told me he prayed and trusted that I too would soon experience God’s touch in a deeper way.
Torn as I was between an inner sense that I had to follow my own instinctive journey into an uncertain territory where some of the familiar old evangelical landmarks were growing hazy, and an equally profound longing to belong, to suspend my questions and unbelief, to let the warmth of unquestioning evangelicalism enfold me, I wondered what a deeper encounter with God might bring. Would it draw me forward into new pathways, or enable me to live comfortably with the old certainties?
In the autumn of 2006 our church began to use in small groups material produced by Freedom in Christ Ministries. This organisation was the UK arm of a similarly-titled American ministry, established by the US pastor and author Neil Anderson to disseminate the teaching which he had expounded in a series of books – that freedom from any of the multitude of things which bind us inwardly, restraining us and stopping us from fulfilling our full potential as God’s children is to be found in Jesus on account of his victory over the spiritual forces of darkness.
Anderson’s work restated what I had learned so many years ago in volumes of sermons by Martyn Lloyd-Jones minister in the mid-20th century at Westminster Chapel in London, especially his Spiritual warfare, sermons on Ephesians 6. I found the Freedom in Christ Ministries material helpful, and certainly I felt myself in need of spiritual liberation. And yet I noted that the theological context in which Anderon’s teaching was presented was very conservative (as indeed were Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ writings). He had, for instance no issues whatsoever with accepting Adam and Eve as historical figures, and rejected the theory of evolution in any form, even as a description of the means through which God worked.
If I were to experience once again the liberation of which Anderson wrote, would it be necessary, I wondered, to embrace his theological position in its entirety, to make a positive regression to where I had been 20 years previously, to acknowledge that two decade’s worth of struggles and awakenings had been a wrong turning? Could I could gain a sense of belonging and freedom by denying, ignoring, burying, labelling as false and destructive the questions which had been challenging my thinking?
One Sunday morning around this time, the pastor preached a fairly traditional evangelical sermon at the conclusion of which, he urged his listeners to make a response. Those who were not yet believers, he challenged to seek and find salvation; those who already had a Christian faith he encouraged to appreciate more fully the wonder of salvation. He had begun by telling us that the most important question any one could be asked was this – ‘Are you saved?’ But as I wrote later that day ‘To me the most important question of all is “Is God there?” – everything else follows from that.’ This highlighted the theological differences between us.
Sitting in church, I continued, I had reflected on my sense of being ‘on the edge’, and on my questioning whether I had lost my way and must retrace my steps.
Over the last few weeks the church’s take on experiences and activity and the way divine power works has been so dominant. I see that once again I’ve been thinking as I did in the past that the fault is mine. If only I could find the faith, the disciplines, the genuineness in prayer then I too would become as they are. And so I have been miserable trying to be what I couldn’t be, seeking the key to open the door, aware that it could be said that if my experience is not as theirs is then I could be blinded by the devil.
The challenge which God seemed to be presenting to me at the end of the sermon was to acknowledge my distance from some aspects of the teaching and experience of the church, and perhaps even to leave it all together.
Supposing God is saying something like “Different people have difference experiences of Christianity. And you are not called to have the same spiritual experiences as the official line at this church suggests should be standard.” Of course it is very hard to envisage God saying “This church, or this style of church is not for you,” and yet that seemed to be what I was hearing this morning. Perhaps this truth is what I need to set me free.
Once this thought had connected with me, I instantly felt freer. The insecurity and sense of failure that I didn’t fit God’s expectations as projected by the model of Christian living held at that church dropped away.
Then, to reassure myself, I stated what I did believe:
I affirm that I believe in God the Creator; I believe he was present in Jesus in a unique way; I believe that friendship with God is made possible through the death of Christ; I believe that God is present in his people and his world. I believe God hears prayers and answers, although I have difficulty with his silence. I am trusting in God for everything. I believe.
And I added something which was not completely true at the time, but which became true of me in the following years, ‘When I acknowledge both my faith and my doubts then I feel secure.’
I recognised that my life’s journey was teaching me that I did not belong in the conservative evangelicalism in which I had been raised and from which I had drawn much nourishment. Could it really be, I wondered, that God’s call to me at the end of the sermon that Sunday morning was to acknowledge the lessons of the journey? I wrote: ‘I find myself gasping even to write this. Could God really be calling me away from evangelicalism? Something deep in me says ‘Yes!’’
A few weeks later I went public about the thinking I was now embracing in my Christian Viewpoint column in the Highland News:
Throughout the 1990s I became increasingly aware of my problems with the view of the Bible which, up until then, I had held without question – that since it was inspired by God there could be no errors in it. I had, for example, begun to see contradictions between different accounts of the same events. More significantly, I grew concerned about the fact that in some passages in the Old Testament, God urges the Jewish people to eliminate their enemies with a genocidal thoroughness.
I fought hard to suppress thoughts like these, which I considered to be ‘unbelieving’ but they would not go away, and for a while I seriously wondered if I would have to turn my back on the faith around which my life had always revolved.
I remember standing one evening in the kitchen reading The Post-Evangelical [which I’d referred to earlier in the piece] and saying ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ Here was an author who understood and validated my concerns, giving me permission to have doubts and to ask questions. Dave Tomlinson introduced me to the idea of ‘paradigm shifts.’ A ‘paradigm’ is a mental window or belief-system in which we frame, and try to make sense of all the stuff which happens to us. When however too many things occur which don’t fit comfortably into the ‘paradigm’ we’ve been working with, we begin reluctantly to wonder if we need to find a different window on reality which fits better with our new insights.
This book confirmed that because I found it hard to fit my thoughts into the old paradigm didn’t mean that I had to give up on faith. There was another paradigm, which saw the Bible both as a God-given book through which God speaks, and also as a thoroughly human book. Since it is a human book, there is no threat to our faith if we find in it inconsistencies or even errors of fact.
Reading this book and others like it brought great relief – I was not alone. Yet I found it hard to inhabit this new paradigm which was at odds with what I had been brought up to believe, and with what many of my friends believed. Surely I must be wrong? I tried to force myself to look through the old paradigm, to tell myself that the Bible was after all inerrant, and if it wasn’t then at least I could live as if it were. But this led only to unhappiness and tension as I denied my ‘Yes!’ moments.
I have come to realise quite recently that I need to release myself – or rather to allow God to release me to be the person he wants me to be. I have found some release from the fear of going forward in case I am misunderstood or rejected and from the fear of not fulfilling other people’s expectations of me. This new freedom brings the great joy of more sustained encounter with a God whose bigness can only be hinted at in the words and symbols which point to him.
This series of events marked a new beginning. It was not that from them on I was constantly aware of God’s presence – although in the first few weeks the divine whispers were frequent – simply that I knew I had taken a step I must take, and God was still there. I had foolishly always feared that he only loved you if you were a conservative evangelical, and that if I once stepped beyond the safe, enclosing boundaries of evangelicalism I would somehow put myself beyond his love. Yet having taken this step, I realised that he loved me none the less. I realised that it was indeed possible to experience the inner liberation of which Neil Anderson and Freedom in Christ Ministries and many other pastors I’d heard and books I’d read spoke while not necessarily buying into the full theological context in which their programme was presented.
For a long time, it remained hard to read the Bible. On the one hand, I would see constant signs of its human-ness, while on the other I would be constantly reminded of the ways of interpreting it which I grew up with, and stricken with guilt at questioning them. I probably now have more questions about the Bible than ever.
Looking at my heart, I wonder if I shrink from the Bible because I dislike being told what to do, but I think my ambivalence towards it relates more to the fact that I hear so many voices in it, sometimes conflicting – the voices of thousands of sermons, down the decades, the voices of different interpretations and theologies - that at times I feel paralysed and wait for the still, small voice of God to speak through other channels.
But now, on my clearer-seeing days, I realise what a wonderful book the Bible is, giving us in story and in teaching inspiration and enrichment.
I am comfortable with the knowledge that the Bible books are shaped by the personalities of their writers and editors, by the reason which prompted the writing of each book and by contemporary literary forms. I acknowledge that some of its authors wrote at times with a clear sense of having been ‘given’ words by God, while others simply poured out what was on their hearts. I believe that as the centuries progressed, God revealed more of the divine nature to humanity, culminating in the fullest possible revelation in Jesus Christ.
I believe that the gospels give a powerful presentation of this man who embodied the divine in a unique way, and that something unprecedented, and physical took place in the garden that first Easter morning. And in the story arc of the Bible, from paradise to paradise, I see a simplicity and a ‘givenness’ which in my view would be hard to view as simply the fruit of human imagination.
I realise that there is no need for me to have fear when approaching the Bible that I may be judged for having a defective theology of the Bible. My faith rests in Christ, and not in the Bible’s sometimes perplexing pages. It is surely right that we approach the Bible with both faith, and honesty, coming to it with all our questioning, all the things we don’t understand, all the ‘voices’ which have shaped our perceptions of it.
We explore the background to the Bible books, we wrestle with the text, seeking in it the wisdom of the ages which helps shape our living today, always open to the God who is writing through the story of the church what Malcolm Muggeridge called ‘the third testament.’ I believe that God was present in the humanness of the writers prompting their thinking, at times awakening insights within them, giving them words to say, and I believe that the same God is present with us as we read.
Here’s another Highland News column, this time from late 2014, in which I returned to the theme of the Bible, summarising my journey:
At the lunchtime service at Inverness Cathedral one day last week, Father Mel Langille told a joke. It was the day in the Church Calendar when Richard Hooker, a hugely influential churchman and theologian in the 16th century is remembered.
Said Mel: ‘Roman Catholics see the Pope as the source of authority, Protestants the Bible, while to Episcopalians the final source of authority is….’ ‘God, I hope,’ interjected a voice from the congregation. But Mel concluded ‘the last vicar!’
He was reminding us how much important individuals in our lives can shape our thinking about what we believe and how we live as Christians – and how we interpret the Bible.
Back in the 1950s and 60s, I grew up in a church where the Bible was regarded as the one source of authority, uniquely inspired by God. It was to be taken literally, except for obvious figures of speech. Adam and Eve were unquestionably real people. The Bible contained all we need to know about God, all the guidance in living we could ever require.
I was comfortable with this, believing and defending this viewpoint. The Bible must not be questioned. But as the years passed, I realised that my thinking had been shaped, not by the last vicar, but by those I looked up to in churches and in the wider evangelical community.
I discovered different interpretations of Bible teaching on some fundamental issues. I became concerned about, for example the extensive violence in parts of the Old Testament, some of it sanctioned by God, and the fact that I was expected to accept as literally true events which in any other book would be read as myth.
I also began to realise how big and incomprehensible must be the God whose energy lies behind the universe, and how words and symbols and events in a book can only point to, and not define God.
I felt the tension of seeing these things while at the same time trying to hold on to the inherited view of the Bible, until I realised that it’s OK to ask endless questions about the Bible, and OK too not to know many of the answers.
I’ve come to see the Bible as a very human book in which God is present as God is present in our lives – it is not a perfect book, any more than we are perfect. There is a growing sense as the Bible progresses of who God really is.
There has never been a time when the words and stories of the Bible have not spoken to me and blessed me. But I still feel at times a residual guilt at having abandoned the more fundamentalist approach, and a strange fear as I read the Bible of seeing yet more evidence of its humanness.
Last week, Father Mel continued by explaining the four sources of authority in the Anglican tradition – Scripture, Reason, Tradition, to which some add Experience. This spoke to me powerfully, for it affirmed my questioning approach to the Bible. It sets you free to think, to reason, to learn from what others – both inside and outside your own tradition – have thought, and to measure your understanding of the Bible against what you see around you.
Very few people take the Bible as literally as I thought I was expected to. Even those basing their thinking on the Bible alone use reason to understand the Bible’s cultural context and apply its teaching in 21st century culture. Thinking is shaped by great figures of the Protestant Reformation such as John Calvin.
And experience does shape interpretation: for example seeing God blessing the ministry of women has challenged many who believed women should not lead; and despite Jesus’ prohibition of divorce, reflection on grace and forgiveness and new beginnings has moved many churches to accept the remarriage of divorced people.
But with my many questions about the Bible where am I to take my stand? What source of authority helps me live well and with conviction?
I believe God spoke into and through the lives of the Bible writers. But in Jesus God did more than simply speak. In Jesus God came among us. In his teaching and miracles; his life, death and resurrection; his love and compassion; his fierce commitment to justice; his grace and continuing presence, God speaks to us, challenging and empowering us to reflect God’s reality.
The voice from the pews during Mel’s story last week was right – God is our ultimate authority, God revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus.
I have many questions about Jesus, just as I do about the Bible. But it is the voice of Jesus which helps me evaluate all other ideas, all other teaching. Jesus is the Rock on which I stand.