A few years ago I visited a mentally disturbed young woman at a psychiatric hospital in our town. As we talked, she showed me her Bible, opened to Genesis one, and told me how the chapter had taken place in her life, point for point in the past few days. Then she proceeded to explain each day’s events as her own last six days. As kindly as I possibly could, I told her, “No, this only happened once in the past, long before you or I were ever born. If you want to be glad because the God who created everything also exists in your life, I affirm your thinking but Genesis 1 was all in the past. It happened once.”
“Oh,” she said, “I see.” Then we had a sensible conversation. At least for the time of my visit, we agreed on Genesis 1.
Extreme, you say? To be sure. The lady’s interpretation, however, was the extreme form of an error frequently made by Christians trying to make sense of their Bibles. Many Christians interpret passages of Bible history in terms of what they are experiencing. Please don’t misunderstand my intent. I am not criticizing application, which can legitimately be many-sided from any given Bible passage. I am talking about the process, which says, “For me, this is that.”
The most refined form of experiential Bible interpretation is the existentialist interpretation technique of Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann, an expert in the New Testament, was convinced that existentialist philosophy laid the right foundation for understanding the Bible. The Bible is not directly God’s Word, he said, but rather God’s revelation concealed in human words. And the truth revealed will be ever new. The believer must experience God himself as he reads. That is the revelation.1
For Bultmann, Jesus never fed the five thousand by a miracle. But that is no matter, because in the passage God conveys a truth, such as the truth that He affirms our existence by sustaining us in need. To someone else, God may convey a fully different truth through the story. No doubt, some reading this find Bultmann’s concept absurd, if not revolting. Nevertheless, many a pious Bible reader has been swayed by the ideas of Rudlof Bultmann. He regarded himself as a teacher of the church, not its enemy. And in some sense, most Christians tend in Bultmann’s direction at one time or another, even if they have never heard of him or his teachings. The tendency starts when they begin reading historical passages in their Bibles thinking of themselves, rather than looking for God. “I need answers,” they say to themselves, “Hopefully, this passage is about me right now.”
Existential Bible interpretation happens like this: I come to the Bible with a desire to connect with God. I expect the Bible to say something to me about me. And I am sure to find it, most of the time, that is. Let’s say you happen to read Judges 3, the story of a Judge of Israel who drives a homemade dagger into the belly of the fat tyrant Eglon. Almost everyone would recoil from thinking the story of Ehud is about them, and only the most theoretical and undisciplined mind would see itself as King Eglon. So existential interpretation has its limits.
But many have no difficulty becoming existential interpreters with a passage like 2 Chronicles 23, the dramatic story of young King Joash. “God, speak to me!” we begin (in itself a good prayer). But then here come a host of historical details, “In the seventh year, etc…” What interest is that to us? Who would not identify, however, with King Joash: weak, young, vulnerable, anointed, the hero? For us, Jehoiada is a counselor, a friend, or our pastor. Athaliah is the antagonist in our current life’s battle (be it demon, human, or circumstance). Or, why not this interpretation: Jehoiada is the Holy Spirit, Joash is our pastor, Athaliah is a tongue-wagging deacon’s wife who is stirring up trouble, and the soldiers are the church? Her execution really means church discipline. She gets the blade. You get the blessing. Glorious!
There are two substantial problems with this kind of interpretation. The first is that though God wanted to talk to you, you made it hard for Him by using His Word to talk to yourself. The second is that you missed out on God.
People reading the Bible miss out on God all the time because they have difficulty understanding how Jews wrote about God. For believing Jews, God-events were historical events. The Jewish scholar, Robert Alter writes, “The implicit theology of the Hebrew Bible dictates a complex moral and psychological realism in biblical narrative because God’s purposes are always entrammeled in history.”2
The God of Israel acted in history. He also interprets history for us. That is why all the historical details in the Bible are significant. Even if we don’t understand them all, we can at the very least get a sense that what was written really happened. For believing Jews, every human being is important and has his place in history, in salvation history. For that reason, the point of origin of his ancestors is a serious issue. The things that happened in the Bible were God-events that took place in the lives of people like you and me. Jehoiada and Joash, not to mention Athaliah, are dead and gone. But the God who literally intervened in their lives is still living now. He will act for me, in my own story, when the time comes. There is also a warning in such Bible stories: if I decide to live like Athaliah and persist, the God who lives will see to my demise.
The writers of the Psalms repeatedly express this view of the God who lives. When Asaph penned Psalm 77, he was spiritually at rock bottom: “Will the LORD cast off forever. And will he be favorable no more? Has his mercy ceased forever?” (KJV, v. 7-8). Asaph’s thinking does a 180-degree turn in verse ten, and so does his theology. The change comes through his reflection on God’s mighty act for his people at the Red Sea. Asaph’s thoughts conclude with a tender remembrance that God led His nation like a flock (v.20). The recollection of God’s acts for His people in history did more than bring personal consolation to a distraught Asaph; it motivated him to talk about God in the here-and-now (v.12-13). Note the heading of the Psalm: “To the chief musician.” It was written for the public. The God who walked with Israel in their most desperate hour will walk with me now. This is the God we need to get to know as we read the Bible.
J. Gresham Machen once said, “No institution other than the Christian faith has based itself more squarely upon the authority of a by-gone age.”3 Add the Jewish faith to his statement, and Machen’s point is well taken. So let’s learn to stop using the “it’s about me, it is now,” interpretation (unless the Bible specifically says so). After all, here-and-now is only a fraction of our whole existence. And the God of the “It’s about me; it’s now,” interpretation is a weak deity.
Let’s learn from the pages of Scripture about the God who lives: who chose the Jews as a nation, who chooses believers in every age. Let’s stop using our experience to interpret the Bible and let the Bible interpret our experience. Let’s learn to be fascinated about the God who did mighty things in the past, so that we can understand what God is doing today and trust Him for what He will do tomorrow. I am not a disciple in a boat on the storm-tossed waves of Lake Galilee: either physically, existentially or any other way. But the Jesus Christ of the Gospels really stopped the storm and any modern meteorologist could have measured the miracle’s effects, had he been there. And since I know that the God who lives still holds the powers of nature in His grasp, His words “Peace, be still,” have an incredible sway in my soul just when I need them.
1 See his “The Problem of a Theological Exegesis of the New Testament,” in The Beginnings of Dialectical Theology, James M. Robinson, ed. (Philadelphia: John Knox Press, 1968).
2 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, 1981), 12.
3 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972 reprint).