Back when I was about halfway through seminary, I took a job as a student pastor for two churches in Heath and Rowe, in Northwestern Massachusetts. Every week, I would travel back and forth to Boston for classes, and every time I did, I would pass by a little church on the Mohawk Trail, about 20 miles up from Greenfield. It was a small place, hardly any different from thousands of other little roadside churches. It had white clapboard siding and a little steeple. It looked like the kind of place you might manage to squeeze in fifty people for an Easter Sunday. It was easy to miss if you blinked. Yet almost every time I drove by, that little church caught my attention, and the reason was the name on the sign out front. They called themselves, “The Whole Bible Church.”
Being in seminary, wrestling with my theology, I often found myself wondering what they meant by that. What did it mean to be a “Whole Bible” church? Obviously, it meant they took the Bible seriously, that it was central to their understanding of faith. But to put “Whole Bible” right out front for the whole world to see suggests something more to me. It suggests a belief, on their part, that they took the Bible more seriously than people from other churches. Calling themselves a “Whole Bible” church implies that, at least in their opinion, other churches are less than whole Bible churches. If we’re not a whole bible church, then we must be some sort of partial Bible church, I suppose. We must be people who pick and choose what we like from the scriptures and ignore what doesn’t suit us. Clearly, there was an element of implied criticism in what that church chose to call itself. Never underestimate the power of the sign on the front lawn.
Maybe you can tell, I always felt a little defensive when I drove by. But still, I wondered what they meant by “Whole Bible.” Did they mean they read the whole Bible? Well, we do that, some of us. Do they use the whole Bible in their worship services? I imagine so, a little bit at a time presumably. Probably though, what they intended to say is that they were a church made up of people who believed that the whole Bible is the Word of God, and therefore, everything in the Bible is equally valid, inspired and without error; inerrant as we say. That’s what I think they meant. Something like that anyway. I never did drop by the Whole Bible Church to ask them, and clearly, they are not here to speak for themselves. But I’ve known a good many Christians over the years who think this way about the Bible. The whole Bible is equally the word and truth of God.
Now I have to tell you honestly, I have a problem with that, for a lot of very good reasons. For one thing, there are lots of places in the Bible where it contradicts itself. For instance, in Deuteronomy, Moses is commanded by God to build the Ark of the Covenant and he does so with his own hands. In Exodus though, it says the Ark was built by Bezalel. Clearly, at least one of these accounts must be wrong. Moses and Bezalel could not have both built the Ark all by themselves, so clearly, there is some contradiction there. Maybe you know that, in Genesis, there are two versions of the Creation story that do not agree in all their details. There are also two different versions of the death of Judas, and four different versions of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, all of which conflict with one another in some significant ways.
Truth be told, there are lots of contradictory passages like this. I’ve got a book in my office called “The Inspiration of Scripture” that lists dozens of them. But more troubling than simple contradictions, there are passages where the Bible approves of slavery, ignores bigamy, encourages the superiority of men over women and advocates for the wholesale destruction, without mercy, of the “enemies of God,” whoever they may happen to be at any given time. I always shudder when I read the end of psalm 137; “O daughter Babylon … Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” This is not the poetry of grace. It is the poetry of war and revenge. The God I believe in would never sanction it. But in our Christian history people have used passages like this to justify all kinds of horrible behavior. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the burning of “Witches” and the Holocaust are all deeply painful chapters from our Christian history. And all of them have been conducted by people self-righteously quoting from the bible. As long as the “Whole Bible” is taken as the very word and truth of God, how can we imagine that it will ever be otherwise.
Now folks, you should know me well enough by now to know that I love the Bible. I love its wisdom, its inspiration, its beauty and glory. I strive to shape my life around the stories of Christ and the words of Paul. But I am not blind to the Bible’s defects, and I would never call myself a “Whole Bible” Christian. Mainly because, I don’t believe that’s what God wants from us. God is not looking for a slavish, literalistic devotion to these ancient words. And part of the reason I know that is because of the sermon on the mount.
Read through these chapters in Matthew. Right away, you’ll notice a pattern to what Jesus was saying. “You have heard it said by the people of ancient times… But I say to you…” “You have heard it said … you shall not murder… But I say to you, do not harbor anger toward your brothers and sisters.” “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you … turn the other cheek.” “You have heard it said “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Now clearly, there’s a lot of stuff here to unpack. But what I’d like you to notice this morning, is that Jesus was first quoting scripture, and then changing it. When he uses this phrase, what he is saying is that the ancient words of scripture need to be seen in a new light. They need to be understood with a new spirit. In our relationship with the Bible, that Spirit is what we are looking for; the heart, the essence, the center of its message, not simply a blind belief that all of its passages should carry equal weight.
And fortunately, when we go looking for the heart and Spirit of the Bible we don’t have to look very far because Jesus himself spelled it right out for us. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment” he said. “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And if that isn’t clear enough, he goes on to say, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” The “law and the prophets” is the Bible; the Torah and the Nevi’im, the law and the prophets. It was their way of saying the scriptures. Which is to say that all of our scriptures, all of the Bible, and obviously, by extension, the whole of our lives, must be judged in light of these two commandments. This is the very heart and soul of Jesus’ message: if there is something in scripture or in life that violates the love of God and neighbor, it is wrong. As far as Jesus was concerned, it is just that simple.
Now, as I have already said, there are quite a few places in the Bible where the love of God and neighbor are not much in evidence. But fortunately, there are many more passages where they are. Think of Paul’s song of love in Corinthians. Think of all the healings, all the expressions of compassion and the self-sacrifice of Jesus. Think of all the Psalms that cry out of how God’s steadfast love endures forever, through all circumstances and all conditions. Think of the prophet Micah, who said that all the Lord requires of us is to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. It is against passages such as these that our scriptures and our lives need to be measured.
You see, if we take the whole Bible as equally the word and truth of God, then we really are free to pick out whatever we find there and make it the heart of our message. We can preach fire and brimstone, the damnation of all who refuse to bow to Jesus if we so choose. We can pick over the ancient laws, ignoring those which condemn people to death for eating pork, but screaming about those that seem to condemn homosexuality. We can lift out the prayer of Jabez, like the prosperity gospel folks do, claiming that God wants everyone to be successful and prosperous, and if we’re not successful and prosperous then we’re not right with God. Using the Bible like this, we can attack or defend most anything we want to, because it’s all in there, in one form or another. So long as we believe that the Whole Bible is equally the word and truth of God, we can claim a divine mandate for basically anything.
These are things we don’t tend to think about or talk about all that much here at our church. But how we view the Bible is actually very important to how we practice our faith, how we live in the world. The title of my sermon this morning, in keeping with my Lenten series, is The Lesson of Scripture. Obviously, there are lots of wonderful lessons that the bible has to teach us. But to me, the most important lesson is this. The Whole Bible, is not, should not be I believe, what guides us. The most important lesson of scripture is that it all needs to be seen in the light of love. It is the heart of the Bible that we are after; the Spirit of God moving through the Bible. And nowhere is that Spirit expressed more clearly than in Jesus’ words: love God, love your neighbor as yourself, on these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets. We are called to be centered in God’s love, not only for our own sake but for the sake of our neighbors as well, for the sake of all God’s children whoever and wherever they may be.