Over the past two or three centuries, the relationship of people to the Bible has undergone a shift. In earlier ages, people were able to engage with the biblical texts more imaginatively. They were understood to be the Word of God in the sense that they opened and inspired a spiritual connection. The Bible, along with other elements of the Christian tradition — like the sacraments, the writings of the saints, and practices of prayer — were understood to work together to bring people into a relationship with the living God. It was that relationship that was key, because it was truly in the context of that relationship that real transformation of the human person could take place. But beginning in the 18th century, people began reading the Bible not for inspiration but for information. The Protestant Reformation had already, in a sense, laid the groundwork for this by separating the Bible from other traditional Christian practices. While the Bible had long held a privileged place within the Christian tradition, Protestantism tended to give the Bible a rather exclusive place in that tradition, giving the Bible a controlling interest in Christian spirituality and theology (reflected in the Anglican tradition, for example, by the assertion at ordinations that the Bible contains “all things necessary to salvation”). When such a high view of the Bible collided with a rising scientific sensibility that valued informational texts and equated truth with verifiable facts, the result that ultimately was produced was a view of Scripture that required every word of it to be given equal weight and authority, despite the fact that the Bible is a collection of texts that often have different perspectives on the same events, and despite the fact that these texts do not always agree.
When we land in a place that wants to give equal weight and authority to every biblical verse, it becomes very easy to lose the forest for the trees. We easily get bogged down in arguments over minute details or in passages that seem compelling but represent what really is a minority viewpoint when one looks at all the biblical texts. For example, in the hills of Appalachia, you will find churches whose central act of worship is snake handling — a practice that is really based on one isolated passage in the Gospel of Mark (16:18), and can hardly be said to be at the heart of the message of the New Testament.
The truth is that there is no theology or spirituality that is able to give equal regard to everything that is to be found in the Bible. A doctrinal position that insists that every part of Scripture is equally authoritative requires this truth to be covered up and outwardly denied. But even among those who insist that every word of Scripture has equal weight, the reality is that there are parts of the Bible that they emphasize and parts that they do not.
Whether we choose to recognize and acknowledge it or not, everyone uses some kind of interpretive key or lens to make sense of biblical texts. The theologian James Alison suggests that for the Jewish people, this key is Moses. For the last many centuries, it is the story of the Exodus — and of Moses’s place in that story and the stories that flow from it — that has been the central, key narrative of the Jewish people. This was not always true, but became so during the time of the Babylonian exile among those who experienced that exile and their descendants. The content of the Hebrew Bible is viewed and understood through the lens of the Exodus story and the interpretation of Jewish faith and life that was credited to Moses. The Exodus story lifts up larger themes, giving them a privileged significance: themes like liberation from oppression, freedom, the idea that God is particularly interested in the welfare of the disenfranchised, among others.
For Christians, Jesus becomes the interpretive key, meaning that we should be interpreting the Bible from the point of view of Jesus’ life: taking into account both what he enacted in his life and what he taught. When we focus on these, once again larger themes emerge which then take on a privileged significance: the attention Jesus paid to people at the margins of society; the freeing of people from bondage to disease or conditions that the New Testament describes as demons; the self-giving nature of God revealed in the cross; the overcoming of all forms of death proclaimed in the Resurrection.
The forest of the Bible, if I may use that image, is shaped by these larger themes, by the central concerns of God revealed in the lives of Moses and Jesus. It is this forest that we must not lose sight of as we meander among the individual trees — the passages of the various biblical texts. When we lose sight of the forest, we lost sight of what is most important. We lose track of the central concerns of God revealed by Moses and Jesus: liberation, freedom, compassion, generosity, healing, self-giving, death-defying love. Moses is credited, in the Book of Deuteronomy, with saying, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Now choose life….” However we interpret the Bible, whatever lens we use, we should be sure that we are choosing life and blessing — and not just for ourselves, but for all people.