Evangelicals like to quote Paul’s letter to Timothy: “All Scripture is God-breathed, and profitable for teaching, correction, training in righteousness, that the man of God may be equipped for every good work.” Paul affirms that God is the author of the written text, a sine qua non of Evangelicalism. Paul also stresses the usefulness of Scripture, an equally favored Evangelical theme.
When we look closely at the Bible though, things get dicey. The Bible rarely lives up to our ordinary standards of practicality. Page after page is given over to genealogical lists of obscure people whose only role is to be a human bridge between famous ancestors and notorious descendants. A third of Exodus is nothing but verbal blueprints for building the tabernacle and the first quarter of Leviticus contains detailed regulations concerning sacrifice. Two lengthy chapters of Leviticus diagnose the varieties of skin disease that cause impurity. It seems so tedious, and even when the Bible holds our interest, it doesn’t seem very useful. Stories of plagues, exodus, and wars of utter destruction make for juicy reading, but how do they help one become virtuous? Why can’t the Bible be more relevant?
While one can mine nuggets of moral instruction from the depths of the text, the Bible’s apparent lessons are difficult, and not infrequently troubling. Abraham goes to Egypt, deceives Pharaoh about his relationship to Sarah, and leaves Egypt richer than ever. What’s the lesson—that lying pays? What moral do we draw from Moses’ killing of the Egyptian, or Joshua’s slaughter of everything that breathed at Jericho? The more we read the Bible, the clearer it becomes that the book isn’t a Hebraic Aesop’s fables.
Treating Scripture as a directory of moral lessons or compendium of moral rules assumes a constricted view of moral practice and reasoning. We don’t pursue virtue simply by applying general principles to particular situations, and true morality is never simply obedience to commandments. Practical morality requires the ability to assess situations accurately, memory of our own past patterns of action and of others’ inspiring examples, and enough moral imagination to see how a potential tragedy might become the birthplace of unforeseen comedy.
Scripture is ethical paedeia, not an ethics manual. All Scripture is practical because God breathed all of it to form people, both individuals and community. God tells stories to stock our memory with a common moral past that projects his people into the future. God’s word expands our imagination to grasp more of what’s really there and to envision what might be there in the future. The Bible is useful because it opens our eyes, and because it’s highly impractical to walk through life with our eyes closed.
Not all the morally relevant truth about the world is self-evident. We have to be told, and the Bible is there to tell us. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that life is a race run before a great cloud of witnesses, which means that those tedious genealogies are designed to inspire patience and temperance. Jesus promises that the Father gives angels charge over us lest we dash our foot against a stone, which means that the Bible’s ancient history of sudden deliverance and unexpected protection should arouse courage. Purity rules tell us that the unclean are cast out, so when the proud and cruel rise, we anticipate that they will eventually descend. Scripture thus cultivates a taste for justice.
Prudence requires a sense of timing. With its cycles and types, its first and last Adams, its first and second exodus, Scripture scans the rhythms and rhymes of history. Trained by Scripture, we can sniff the air of an epoch and think, “We’ve been here before.”
Above all, Scripture makes visible the invisible God of infinite power, compassion, generosity, and justice. In a wonderful passage in his God’s Companions: Reimagining Christian Ethics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2006), Sam Wells lists the gifts God gives for moral formation: “witness, catechesis, baptism, prayer, friendship, hospitality, admonition, penance, confession, praise, reading scripture, preaching, sharing peace, sharing food, washing feet. These are boundless gifts of God.” If we could see the world accurately, we would recognize that ours is never a scarcity of moral resources but a boundless, overwhelming excess: “God’s inexhaustible creation, limitless grace, relentless mercy, enduring purpose, fathomless love: it is just too much to contemplate, assimilate, understand.” The Bible unveils a God who gives enough and more than enough, if we will only see and receive it.
Most days, we don’t catch even the slightest glimpse of this “tidal wave of glory.” We are like the servant of Elisha who trembled at the horses of Aram until Elisha prayed that his eyes would be opened. Then, “behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” We need an Elisha prayer to see reality as it is, and Scripture is God’s answer to that prayer.
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic).
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