The Bible Doesn’t Change–But We Do
One of the statements that some Christians like to throw out whenever they want to exclude or limit the participation and acceptance of women, LGBTQ people, people of color or any group they deem threatening or unacceptable is, “the Bible doesn’t change.” Meaning that there are verses in the Bible they can point to that say these folks are not okay and that stands for now and all time.
There is a myriad of things wrong with that statement, but I’ll just mention a few here:
The pages between the covers of the Bible we’ve had since we were 16 have not changed, but we certainly have (or at least I hope we have). This is not just true of the Bible, but of everything we encounter. Take the movie Pretty in Pink. The classic John Hughes film has not changed since it was released in the 80s. When you saw it at age 16 you were thrilled that Molly Ringwald’s character ended up with the the handsome rich kid, Blane (Andrew McCarthy. But when you watch it again at age 26, you know she really blew it by not running away with the Duckman (John Cryer).
The way a Bible passage or story speaks to us when we are 18 is very different from how it speaks to us at 38 and still different from how it speaks to us at 78. We bring our own experiences and understandings to the reading of scripture.
We see new things every time we turn to scripture. This is what is so wonderful and holy and mysterious about scripture. It reveals something new to us all the time. No matter how well we know our Bible, no matter how many times we’ve heard the stories, we’re always discovering new things. It happened in our Doubting Believer Bible study just this week when one of our members discovered a line in a very familiar story that had never really caught her attention (she’s been a church-going, Bible-reading Christian her entire life), and it shifted her focus about that story. It happens to me all the time. Passages that I have read and even preached on many times will show me something I’ve never considered before. It’s the same words that have always been on the page, but bearing something new to for us to discover.
And then there’s the whole translation thing. Our scriptures were canonized (gathered in the book we know now) in the fourth century. The original scriptures were compiled in a bunch of languages that don’t really exist any more. You can still find a smattering of people who still speak Aramaic (the native tongue of Jesus), but the ancient Hebrew and Greek languages that make up most of the scripture narratives are very different from their modern-day counterparts. As we continue to delve into original translations, we discover translation errors and (even more fascinating to me) editorial decisions. Those times when one of the original words has more than one meaning, and the translator made a decision on which meaning to use. Going back and looking at the other possibilities can really shed some new light on very old passages.
Because the Bible was not spoken by God into the ear of a single scribe to be recorded for all of history, but compiled by humans from a number of different writings by a number of different people, it is dangerous to pull out one verse and pronounce that solitary line to be “what the Bible says.” It is much wiser to read verses in context with the whole and (for Christians) to always read the Bible in light of the work and words and witness of Jesus Christ. In other words, ask yourself, “Does this sound Christ-like?”
So no, the actual make-up and structure of the Bible doesn’t not change, but our interpretation and knowledge and experience of the Bible does.
Does this broad and ever-changing understanding of the Bible place us on a slippery slope toward interpreting the Bible to say whatever suits our own purposes and personal beliefs? You bet! But people have been doing that with the Bible since the the Bible was born. It’s exactly what those who use “the Bible doesn’t change” to exclude others are doing.
The Bible is a large and rich and complex book that can be twisted to say whatever you want it to say. But it is also a holy book. A gift from God. So we must ever vigilant in our study and application of scripture so that we are not merely mining it for proofs to back up our own assertions, but allowing it to speak the word of God to us so that we might become the people God calls us to be.
Rev. Anne Russ is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), currently based in New York City. Doubting Believer provides tools and encouragement for the rollercoaster ride of your faith journey. Follow us on Facebook and get emails to keep up with all that is happening.