In 2010, I set out on a quest to read the whole Bible in a year and to blog about my reading every day. The first few weeks were more than a little daunting and overwhelming, and it was only by God’s grace that I pressed on past January. As unsuited to the task as I felt, however, and as overwhelmed as I often was by my own ignorance, there was also a part of me that–let’s be honest–was ever so proud of the fact that I was reading and blogging through the Bible. My whole life, I have heard of the importance of daily Bible reading and disciplined time with God, and there was a definitely a part of me that was tickled pink at the fact that I was now averaging an hour a day at Bible reading and reflection. This was the spiritual “big leagues,” in my mind. This was monk stuff. A bid for sainthood even!
I know that’s obnoxious. I know it now, and I knew it then. But you know how thoughts are. They just come to you, and you’re like, “That’s so bad.”
…but you still thought it. And I found those little prideful reflections seeping in fairly regularly in my first few weeks of reading and blogging.
For all I know, I might have gone on like that, awash in my own sense of self-importance, were it not for another thought that came, unbidden, one chilly afternoon. I had been having a normal day with the run-of-the-mill frustrations, and some situation was annoying me, gnawing at my mind. I honestly cannot remember what it was, but I remember that I was unduly frustrated with some person–maybe even one of my children. And I was having a hard time reacting in a Christ-like manner. As I was stuck in this common, human moment, my brain asked me a question. It echoed a scene from Batman Begins, in which Alfred chastises/motivates Bruce Wayne when he is in a tough spot. Wayne manor is burning down around him, and the bad guy is getting away, on his way to do some dastardly deed. In the meantime, Bruce Wayne is pinned helplessly beneath a beam from his crumbling manor, unable to get free. Alfred comes running and tries to help, but he, too, is no match for the heavy wood. Frustrated, he asks Wayne, “What is the point of all those push-ups if you can’t even lift a bloody log?”
Needless to say, that rebuke does the trick, and before long, Batman is in full pursuit of the villain.
It was that style of rebuke that forced its way into my mind that afternoon, and it cut me deeply:
“What is the point of all that Bible reading if you can’t even love your neighbor??”
In a second, all my pride evaporated, and I was left in a puddle of humility and even self-loathing. What was the point? Who cares how many hours I spend reading and studying the Bible if I can’t even treat people right? If the Bible is not changing me into a more loving person, then what purpose does it serve?? Why am I even doing this–it’s a complete waste of time, if my actions are any indication.
In his book, The Blue Parakeet, Scot McKnight addresses this issue of reading the Bible versus living the Bible. He is very careful not to couch this discussion in terms of a list of rules, however. Instead, he emphasizes that we read the Bible in order to have a relationship with the God of the Bible. The Bible is not God, neither is it a list of rules. Instead, it is God’s story to us, a story told in a myriad of ways over hundreds of years by many different authors. This story cannot be tamed or systematized or completely “figured out.”
I feel the need to say all that because without that background, his emphasis on actions could be perhaps construed as legalistic. Again, McKnight is not advocating a “rules” approach to Scripture. Rather, he argues that the Bible should transform us, as the same Spirit that was at work in the Bible’s formation is at work in us as listeners. Thus, reading the Bible should empower us to live out the story of God “in our days in our ways” (109). Because of that emphasis on transformation instead of a systematized theology, McKnight questions the idea of proper theology apart from actions. He illustrates his doubt with a story about a student, who comes to him with the following question:
“Why does my youth pastor ask me all the time if I still believe in the ‘inerrancy’ of the Bible?” I was about to explain to him the history of the doctrine of Scripture and the battles Christians have waged over the Bible when he interrupted me with these words (and this is how he said it): “You know, Scot? I don’t give a d–n what my youth pastor’s view of the Bible is because he doesn’t give one frickin’ dime to the poor and he’s never met a homeless person in his life and he didn’t even know about Darfur when I mentioned it at Christmas” (94).
In McKnight’s story, the student goes on to aver that he, in contrast, tries to read the Bible and do what it says. Then, the student asks another question:
“What good is ‘inerrancy’ if you don’t do what God says?” Then he asked a question that shook me a bit: “If I do what God says, doesn’t that show that my view of the Bible is the right one?” (94-95).
As inelegantly as it is worded, the student’s frustration echoes a frustration that I have felt many times. It is the same frustration, in fact, that I felt when I asked myself that question about reading the Bible. There just seems to be something pointless in studying the Bible if you don’t act on it.
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus shares a similar sentiment:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
Jesus’ little brother agrees with the importance of actions:
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do (James 2:14-17).
I believe that this “faith and deeds” dichotomy can also be applied to “Bible reading and deeds.”
As McKnight points out in his book, Paul makes the point explicitly in 2 Tim. 3:16-17:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
I’ve heard 2 Tim. 3:16 all my life, but it has not always been taught in conjunction with the verse immediately following. McKnight argues that verse 17 is the main point. The words, “so that,” signify that the point of Scripture is to equip you for good works. Furthermore, he argues that these good works can only occur in the context of a relationship with God and can easily be summed up in the greatest commands: Love God, and love others.
Now, the push back I would expect to receive from this position is that it downplays “proper theology.” Is such theology not important? I grapple with this question often. How much does one need to understand of the Bible to follow it? What views are indispensable? And even more pointedly, does it matter if your view of substitutionary atonement is askew if you sincerely love God and love others?
I don’t know the answers really. I do know that misinterpretations of Scriptures can really hurt people and drive them away from Christ. At the same time, I have worshiped with people throughout my life that I believe are misinterpreting Scripture, and they believe that I am, and we will probably never come to an agreement…and yet, I love God and them, and they love God and me, so does it matter?
I’m inclined to answer no.
Maybe that’s problematic.
I’m more confident in stating the reverse of that position. Maybe proper theology does matter more than I think it does, but I can confidently say that one’s pristine theology doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if they aren’t living out God’s love in their lives. I’m confident that love is the most important thing, and being filled with God’s love is more important than cognitively understanding the right things about Him.
Unfortunately for me, that means that there is no point in doing all this Bible reading if I can’t even love my neighbor.
There are all sorts of ways to push back on this. Feel free to try out some of those ways in the comments.
Also, the quotes from McKnight are taken from:
McKnight, Scot. The Blue Parakeet. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.