You both walk into the coffee shop. You sit down, sip your drinks, and have a long talk. It is at times difficult, confusing and emotional. You disagree on issues you both consider important, and those disagreements do not disappear by the time your drinks are gone.
Ultimately, however, you both walk away from the conversation edified and enlightened. You have gotten to understand and appreciate each other more fully.
A better model for reading Scripture?
How many conflicts might we resolve, or at least ease, if we took a conversational approach? A calm and respectful conversation has the chance to make a difference when debate and argument might not. And difficult though they may be, conversations are generally less taxing on our emotions than fighting.
Conversation is a wonderful way of interacting with other people. But is it a proper model for how we should approach Scripture?
In recent years, several popular preachers, bloggers and theologians have suggested Christians approach the Bible as more of a “conversation partner.” It is still sacred. It is still inspired. It is still useful and edifying for believers everywhere.
But according to the conversational view, the Bible serves primarily to provoke deep reflection and thought about God without necessarily circumscribing the conclusions we might reach. The Bible is an indispensable, treasured part of our Christian faith, but to speak of it as our “final authority” is a bit off the mark. Instead, we ought to engage the Bible in a “conversation.”
Is this an appropriate model for a Christians’ approach to Scripture?
Conversation is good, but not good enough
In a sense, yes. When reading the Bible, we ought to ask probing questions. We ought to request clarification. We ought to offer up our own experiences and perspectives to see what the Bible says about them.
We may even express dismay when it says things we struggle to accept. The Bible itself bears witness to people doing this and does not condemn them. Read Lamentations. Or the Psalms. Or Job.
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To describe a Christians’ approach to the Bible as a conversation, however, is not completely adequate. The primary reason is the attestation of Scripture’s authority by both historic Christianity and the Bible itself.
No person on earth carries the kind of overriding and unique authority the Bible claims. Disagreement is common and acceptable between conversation partners. Even in discussions with beloved mentors and teachers, we may often find ourselves disagreeing, which is fine. But neither the Bible itself nor the history of the Church suggests such a thing is fine when it comes to Scripture.
The witness of the Bible and the historic Church
Jesus and the apostles considered what we now call the Old Testament to be the inspired and authoritative word of God (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:20-21, Matthew 22:29). Jesus, whose teachings and actions have been recorded in our four Gospels, was literally God himself. The apostles considered their own teachings and writings to be inspired and authoritative (1 Thessalonians 2:13, 1 Corinthians 14:37-38, Revelation 1:1-3).
Even as the New Testament was still being written, some—if not all—of Paul’s letters had been recognized as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16). Throughout our history, Christians have received the Bible as our rule for faith and practice. Even Catholic and Orthodox believers insist that their authoritative traditions, by their very nature, do not and cannot contradict Scripture.
Why should Christians now diminish this view of the Bible’s authority? Why believe in Jesus, yet reject what he said about the Old Testament? Why accept some parts of the apostles’ testimony, but not others? If we decide to accept only some parts of the Bible as authoritative, to what higher authority do we appeal to make those judgments?
If we wish to give the Bible a place of privilege in the church, why not do so in the way the Bible demands and church history demonstrates?
The role of conversation in reading the Bible
That is why the conversation approach is inadequate. There exist no potential conversation partners who carry the kind of authority Scripture does. This imbalance between the Bible’s perspective and ours is not analogous to any sort of human conversation, even one with an authority figure.
So, is there any place for conversation in our interpretation of the Bible? Yes: Christians ought to have conversations with each other. The Bible is authoritative; our interpretations are not.
Of course, there are times when we must stand firm in our convictions and part ways if we cannot agree. But this parting of the ways should only happen at the end of a long, honest and humble conversation. Preferably involving coffee.
Joshua Sharp is a Master of Divinity student at Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas.