When we feel used and abused, the Bible says we are loved. When we feel abandoned, the Bible says we are never alone. When we feel rejected, the Bible says we are redeemed. When we feel lost, the Bible is a lamp for our feet and a light on our path. When we feel worthless, the Bible says that we are God’s handiwork created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which He prepared in advance for us to do.
The problem with a “free” translation, on the other hand, especially for study purposes, is that the translator updates the original author too much…On the one hand, these renditions often have especially fresh and vivid ways of expressing some old truths and have thus each served to stimulate contemporary Christians to take a fresh look at their Bibles. On the other hand, such a “translation” often comes very close to being a commentary, but without other options made available to the reader. Therefore, as stimulating as these can sometimes be, they are never intended to be a person’s only Bible; and the reader needs constantly to check particularly eye-catching moments against a true translation or a commentary to make sure that not too much freedom has been taken.
The icon of the Bible as God's textbook for the world is as bankrupt as the idea that it stands for, of religious faith as absolute black-and-white certainty. Just as the cultural icon of the flag often becomes a substitute for patriotism, and just as the cultural icon of the four-wheel-drive truck often becomes a substitute for manly independence and self-confidence, so the cultural icon of the Bible often becomes a substitute for a vital life of faith, which calls not for obedient adherence to clear answers but thoughtful engagement with ultimate questions. The Bible itself invites that kind of engagement. The iconic image of it as a book of answers discourages it.
The concern of the scholar is primarily with what the text meant; the concern of the layperson is usually with what it means. The believing scholar insists that we must have both. Reading the Bible with an eye only to its meaning for us can lead to a great deal of nonsense as well as to every imaginable kind of error—because it lacks controls. Fortunately, most believers are blessed with at least a measure of that most important of all hermeneutical skills—common sense.
In many ways, those dedicated to removing all potential biblical contradictions, to making the Bible entirely consistent with itself, are no different from irreligious debunkers of the Bible, Christianity, and religion in general. Many from both camps seem to believe that simply demonstrating that the Bible is full of inconsistencies and contradictions, as I have just done, is enough to discredit any religious tradition that embraces it as Scripture. Bible debunkers and Bible defenders are kindred spirits.
The history of the Bible is one of perpetual revolution. In that light, we might begin to think about the Bible not so much as a fixed thing but as a dynamic, vital tradition. In light of its history, the Bible looks less like a rock than a river, continually flowing and changing, widening and narrowing, as it moves downstream. For some, thinking about the Bible as a river and not a rock is liberating. That rock has been a millstone around the neck and a tombstone that won’t be rolled away. But for others, seeing it this way can be disorienting. That rock has promised solid foundation in a stormy world. Cling to it or be swept away.
For years I viewed my interaction with the Bible as a debit account: I had a need, so I went to the Bible to withdraw an answer. But we do much better to view our interaction with the Bible as a savings account: I stretch my understanding daily, I deposit what I glean, and I patiently wait for it to accumulate in value, knowing that one day I will need to draw on it.
Bible publishers are not selling Bibles. What they're selling is that iconic idea of the Bible. Their value-added biblical content promises to provide answers to questions, solutions to problems, and speaks in no uncertain terms about God's plan for your life and how to live it. Adding value to the Bible almost always means adding "biblical" values that are either missing or really hard to find in the Bible itself but that provide that feeling of Bibleness so many seek.
For many potential Bible readers, this expectation that the Bible is univocal is paralyzing. You notice what seem to be contradictions or tensions between different voices in the text. You can't find an obvious way to reconcile them. You figure that it must be your problem. You don't know how to read it correctly, or you're missing something. You're not holy enough to read the Holy Bible. It might even be sacrilege for you to try. If the Bible is God's perfect infallible Word, then any misunderstanding or ambiguity must be the result of our own depravity. That is, our sinful nature as fallen creatures is what separates us from God, and therefore from God’s Word. So you either give up or let someone holier than thou tell you "what it really says." I think that's tragic. You're letting someone else impoverish it for you, when in fact you have just brushed up against the rich polyvocality of biblical literature.
Like my peers, I believed that the Bible was God's Word written down for me, answering all my questions about who God is and what God wants for my life, from the mundane to the ultimate. Or at least I knew that was what I needed to believe. But that was not what I found when I actually opened the Bible up and looked around inside.