In J.B. Phillips’s book Your God Is Too Small, a list appears of names for inadequate conceptions of God. One I remember is the “Cosmic Bellhop,” i.e., the God who in our minds is at my beck and call, hastening to fill my every need because I am a paying customer. Another of these common conceptions was termed something like “Heavenly Policeman”—the God who directs traffic and catches people doing things against the law. While each of these, and all the others, have some truth at the core, they are inadequate caricatures of the whole picture.
Similarly, William C. Lincoln lists a few caricaturish approaches to Bible study for the sake of leading to a more appropriate view of the whole endeavor. I’ll give each one here, with a little dissenting commentary, but mostly with appreciation:
One: the consultation approach: “I have a problem; I must find out what the Bible has to say about it.” The Bible is not to be used like a medical dictionary. “Discouraged? Try this verse. Lonely? Look at this text.” One of the downfalls here, Lincoln says, is that when we really do find ourselves in desperate need, “we don’t know where to look because the book is too unfamiliar to us.”
It’s not that it’s wrong to look to scripture for one’s needs. That’s an entirely valid instinct, and one that shows dependence on, and respect for, scripture—if not on and for God Himself. The basic problem, however, is that coming to scripture in such a subjective, self-based frame will often lead to inaccuracies in exegesis, if indeed it leads to exegesis at all. Starting from a point of what I “need” and looking to largely situationally based sacred writings for specific answers they were never intended to provide is not a valid way to study, although it likely indicates a devoted heart.
Lincoln is right to challenge the consultation approach, insofar as he goes, but he doesn’t go far enough. Actually, it doesn’t matter how desperate one is! It’s not that it’s inappropriate to treat the Bible this way for ordinary problems but OK to do so for the really bad problems. It’s that the approach itself is inadequate.
What Lincoln allows is really too much like what he disallows. He first says it’s not appropriate to consult scripture when you perceive that you have needs. Then he says that it’s OK to do this if you really think you have needs. Hmmm!
Tomorrow, more approaches….