When I was young, I was taught to read the Bible as a message directly from God. It was recognized, of course, that the message came through human writers. But the picture I got was that God somehow arranged things so that these human writers said just what needed to be said and didn’t say anything false. We could refer to these human writers as the authors of biblical books, but God’s control over what they said meant that God was the real author. Since God was the author, what one Bible book said wouldn’t be in conflict with what another said, though you might have to work at figuring out how the different texts could be put together into a unified whole. Given this picture, if I found some teaching in any part of the Bible, I was assured that I could take it to the bank because it came with divine authority.
This way of reading the Bible now seems to me inadequate for many reasons. But my primary concern here is to describe an alternative picture. Grasping the alternative begins with noticing something about ordinary communication between two individuals. What you are able to communicate to another person depends on what that person is able to understand, and what people can understand depends on what makes sense to them, given what they already think. So, stating some truth may not be enough to communicate that truth to another. You might need to bring the other person to the point of being able to recognize the truth. This is what teachers do when they help students to develop new frames of reference that enable them to make sense of what they are trying to teach. This kind of teaching is a process that takes time, and often it calls for some degree of creativity and patience by the instructor, as well as receptiveness on the part of the student.
So, imagine that God wants to communicate some things, but there aren’t any human beings who are ready to grasp much of what God wants to communicate. We can think of God as initiating a kind of teaching task that starts with what people already believe and utilizes the ways of thinking available to them. If God’s efforts to communicate occur in the ancient world, it will be received by people who accept ancient views of the nature of the world, of human life, and of powers beyond the human realm. The need to fit communication to what makes sense for an audience of the time means that what is expressed by biblical authors may reflect the limitations of their ways of thinking. Some of what they say may convey significant misunderstandings that conflict with what God ultimately wants to reveal. Early Christian writers sometimes used the analogy of explaining something to a child in terms the child could understand. From a more mature perspective the child’s grasp of what is taught may be inadequate, but it might be a step on the way to fuller understanding.
If we think of God as engaging in this kind of teaching process, we can imagine it to involve nudging people in a direction that enables them eventually to come to greater grasp of what God wants to teach, but it might take generations for them to become prepared to receive some truths. For example, earlier biblical authors may conceive of God as like the bloodthirsty warrior gods of neighboring tribes, assuming that God is glorified when they ruthlessly destroy their enemies. They may picture God as having fits of anger and lashing out violently. It may take considerable time before the community moves beyond relatively primitive ways of thinking about God.
But thinking of biblical revelation as a process in which defective ideas are revised in the light of fuller revelation calls for some way of identifying particular texts as closer to the truth God seeks to communicate. Most people who read the Bible make this kind of judgment whether they realize they are doing it or not. That is, they find high points of revelation that can be used to modify or reject understandings that are less adequate. Some of these high points are found in prophetic writings that convey God’s concern for just living as being more important than performing ritual acts. But for Christians what is revealed through Jesus is the most important place to look for an understanding that might serve as a corrective to less satisfactory accounts. The book of Hebrews portrays God’s revelation through a Son as the place where God’s revelation is most complete.
Some people say that the revelation in Jesus can be accepted along with everything else biblical writers say. However, that view is implausible. There are biblical accounts of God doing things that just don’t fit with the kind of God Jesus talked about. There are teachings of Jesus about matters such as loving your enemies that don’t fit with the vengeance biblical writers sometimes represent as appropriate in responding to enemies. It is a futile task to treat all biblical teachings as being on the same level and think that you have to reconcile them into a single whole. By contrast it is a relief to be able to think instead that what you find in the Bible can often be thought of as a stage in a learning process through which God is gradually preparing people to understand more. There are high points in the process in which deep truths seem to shine through, but there are also places where biblical authors are locked into ways of understanding that block God’s efforts to communicate.
Reading the Bible as a process of this type means not taking everything that is said as a message directly from God. It takes judgment to decide whether what is taught in a particular place measures up to a more complete understanding of biblical revelation. Nevertheless, we can often be in a position to affirm some things with confidence, especially when we are confident that we can recognize climactic moments in biblical revelation that can be used to assess the rest. For Christians, the story of Jesus is the interpretive key that enables us to see best what God seeks to reveal.
For a fuller discussion of biblical interpretation, see chapters 4-8 of Changing Your Mind Without Losing Your Faith.