A Whole Lot of Grey


There is a proverb which states that the best place to hide a tree is in a forest. In the case of “relevant” Christianity, the hidden tree is a poisonous one which has to be identified, cut down and incinerated before it bears its bitter fruit.

The sad fact is that so many Christians today, who lack biblical discernment, react with horror at such a cutting response. They stand and stare and ask “Why did you pick that tree to cut down? It looked pretty much like all the others? And it was such a well-meaning tree.”

Well, firstly, we picked this one because there’s a serpent wrapped around it. Secondly, if you wait till the breeze dies down, you may notice a faint smell of rotting flesh. Thirdly, young church member Fotherington-Thomas just took a bite from its fruit and his body is being dragged into the bushes just over there.

There is another proverb which states that ”The devil will flood you with truth in order to float one lie.” The lie I want to deal with is the notion that understanding the Bible in a more mature way somehow leads to the Word of God being less offensive to its enemies. And the example in my cross hairs is an article by John Pavlovitz entitled 5 Things I Wish Christians Would Admit About The Bible. Pastor John rightly takes issue with Christians who “want to make the Bible something it isn’t,” but then his solution to the problem is to commit exactly the same crime only in a slightly more educated, but far less faithful, way.

The reason I am picking on this article is that a friend posted it on Facebook as good advice. At first glance it certainly looks good, but those of us who have been around the theological block a few times are familiar with and thus more able to smell the first signs of spiritual decay.

John writes:

We do God and His Word a disservice when we turn Scripture into something it’s not.

The Bible.

Christians talk about it all the time, though what they mean by “The Bible” isn’t always clear. That is to say, other than the catch phrase “God’s Word” I’m not sure what the Bible is to many who claim it as the sacred text that guides their life. I’m positive we’re not all on the same page, so to speak.

Some Christians want to make the Bible something it isn’t, and it makes for some disastrous conversations and dangerous assumptions, especially in interactions with other Christians.

So good so far. Many Christians treat the Scriptures like fortune cookies, or a spiritual horoscope, or a wooden list of rules. But I’m wondering if John would include in his “disastrous conversations” the knock-down drag-out theological biffos that resulted in the numerous foundational synods and reformations in Church history. Theological controversy isn’t a bad thing if it drives us to further study and a greater desire to understand the Bible. Let’s see if that’s where he takes us.

Here are 5 things about the Bible I wish more believers would consider:

1. The Bible Isn’t a Magic Book.

The Bible isn’t The Good Book. It isn’t really a book at all. It’s a lot of books. It’s a library.

Its 66 individual books run the diverse gamut of writing styles, (poetry, history, biography, church teachings, letters), and those books have dozens of authors; from shepherds, to prophets, to doctors, to fishermen, to kings. These diverse writers each had very different target audiences, disparate life circumstances and specific agendas for their work; so we don’t approach each book the same way—for the same reason you wouldn’t read a poem about leaves the same way you read a botany textbook. Some are for inspiration and some for information; we receive and see them differently.

If we can see the Scriptures this way; as many diverse works telling one story in one collection, Christians can free themselves from the confusion about what they mean when they say “literal.” We don’t have to equate history with allegory with poetry, or read them in the same way. We can also see the Bible as a record not just of God, but of God’s people, and we can find ourselves within it.

On the surface, this is good advice. The problem is that many modern scholars, teachers and preachers use this “truth” to undermine the authority of the Bible at precisely the “pressure points” where they must either take a stand against the current cultural consensus and suffer the consequences, or take the easy route and compromise. The Bible haters know precisely where to pull out the rug, but well-meaning (or spineless) Christians who are afraid of hurting people’s feelings are strangely clueless about their own foundations. When the tables turn, as we have already seen, those whose feelings we are so afraid to hurt usually have no scruples when it comes to prosecuting, persecuting or even incarcerating Christians.

A prime example of such a “pressure point” is the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis, which are written in verse, but are also historical narrative. Moderns love to cut things up and classify the bits, so a history text written in a highly structured literary form shorts their little circuits, which are surprisingly low voltage. They claim they are reading the texts as the ancients would, but they are fooling themselves.1See John Dickson, “The Genesis of Everything,” where the otherwise helpful Christian historian somehow interprets Genesis 1 “as the author intended” yet in a way that contradicts the interpretation of Moses, Jesus and Paul. The number of illogical comparisons and idiotic statements in this paper is surprising. Academia has its very own special kind of dumb. And they are deliberately fooling others, too. Somehow the twin facts that Genesis 1-3 does not follow Hebrew poetic forms, and that the same literary structures found in chapters 1-3 continue, though less obviously, throughout the rest of Genesis, are never mentioned. Moreover, the author does not even entertain the idea that the texts in question could be for both inspiration and information.

In theological schools from the cerebral Protestants to the gooey emergents, genre classification is often used as a mask for apostasy. We are to mature in our understanding of the Scriptures not so that we can capitulate to godless academia but so that we might believe and obey the texts better. Instead, those who claim to be reading the Bible “in its historical context” are more often than not using this “truth” as a way to make the Scriptures less relevant, not more.

Am I being too harsh? Have I misidentified this tree? What signs am I picking up?

If Pastor John did not have an agenda of compromise, he might have qualified his “true” statements in a way that would prevent them from giving undiscerning Christians the excuses they want to treat the Scriptures as an arbitrary collection of ancient inspirational verse. He might have mentioned that although there is amazing variety in the word of God, and many genres of literature written by many authors, the Bible is surprisingly consistent, “magic” in a more mature sense than a spiritual horoscope. He might also have mentioned that the key to understanding how it all fits together is called “Covenant theology,” and pointed the reader to some helpful books. But these caveats and guidelines are not included, presumably because they would not serve his purpose. What is mentioned is true, but what is not mentioned is far more telling. Yes, the Bible is a diverse assembly of literature, but here it seems this truth is being used to “divide and conquer.”

Pastor John is sick of fundamentalists who do not understand the difference between literal and literary. So am I. But give me a fundamentalist over a theological liberal any day. The Bible does use a lot of typology and symbols, but those enhance its veracity and historicity rather than detracting from them.

2. The Bible Isn’t as Clear as We’d Like It To Be.

Often, (especially when arguing), Christians like to begin with the phrase, “The Bible clearly says…” followed by their Scripture soundbite of choice.

Those people aren’t always taking the entire Bible into account.

If we’re honest, the Bible contains a great deal of tension and a whole lot of gray on all types of subjects. For example, we can read the clear Old Testament commandment from God not to murder, and later see Jesus telling His disciples that violence isn’t the path His people are to take.

But we also see God telling the Israelites to destroy every living thing in enemy villages, (women and children included), and we read of Moses murdering an Egyptian soldier without recourse from God.

That’s why some Christians believe all violence is sinful, while others think shooting someone in self-defense is OK. Some find war justifiable in some cases, while some believe all war is inherently immoral.

Same Bible. One subject. Several perspectives.

That’s not to say that truth is relative, that God doesn’t have an opinion on violence or that He hasn’t given us His opinion in the Bible. It’s just that the answer may not be as clear and straightforward as we like to pretend it is.

Many times, when Christians say the phrase “The Bible clearly says…”, what they really mean is, “The way I interpret this one verse allows me to feel justified in having this perspective.”

When you read and study this library in its totality, there are certainly themes and continuities and things that connect exquisitely, but if we’re honest we can also admit there are ambiguities. It doesn’t diminish the Scriptures to admit that they are complex. On the contrary, most great works throughout history are.

This point, once again, contains a lot of truth, but there is a lot of truth which should have been included which is missing. A summary explanation of why the Israelites were righteous in their destruction of Jericho, and why Moses was righteous in his execution of the Egyptian, would not go astray. But that would blow away the air of ambiguity the author is generating so he can more easily make his points. And there are a couple of lies here which steer the ship in a dangerous direction.

A number of years ago, my weekly schedule included lap swimming in the mid-afternoon. The lifeguard was a friend of mine, and he informed me that three weeks in a row, every Tuesday between 2.30 and 3pm, there was found floating a human turd in the learn-to-swim area. It wasn’t difficult to detect a pattern emerging, one particular child who attended weekly being the source of the problem.

In point two, despite most of the water being crystal clear, we have two turds, and a pattern is emerging. Can you spot them?

“If we’re honest, the Bible contains a great deal of tension and a whole lot of gray on all types of subjects;”


“It doesn’t diminish the Scriptures to admit that they are complex. On the contrary, most great works throughout history are.”

These statements might appear to be harmless, but the author is buttering us up for more corruption in later points. “A great deal of tension” is only apparent tension. When taken in Covenant context, the ambiguities evaporate and every event makes perfect sense. “A whole lot of grey” subtly implies that because an issue might be more complex than we have been told, that the traditional stand of the church over the centuries might be completely wrong. It would have been helpful if this statement was clarified. Moreover, if the author was perhaps a little more informed, he might know that the “ambiguous” Hebrew Scriptures often make no judgment on the actions of a person precisely because they want us to think, to make our own assessment based on the previously revealed Law.

The Scriptures are certainly complex, as are most great works throughout history. But the subtext here is that the Scriptures are not a revelation from God, but the thoughts of men about God, a common assumption in modern academia, more akin to human literary works than to heavenly imperatives. Although this is only hinted at in this point, it is expanded upon in point three and hammered home in point five. Pastor John is clever enough not to push us astray, but instead to lead us. False teachers teach.

Regardless of the pristine appearance of the rest of the pool, at this point the discerning reader will contemplate getting out rather than risk swallowing something, um, unedifying.

3. The Bible Was Inspired by God, Not Dictated by God.

Christians will often rightly say that the Bible was “inspired by God,” and I completely agree. However, that idea often gets twisted in translation.

The Bible is “God’s Word,” but we need to be careful about what we mean when we say it was “written” by God. These are the words of men who were compelled by God to tell, not only what they claim to have heard God say, but things happening in and around them—their struggles, personal reasons for writing and specific experience of God. Of course they were inspired by God, but they remained inspired human beings, not God-manipulated puppets who checked their free will at the door and transcribed God’s monologues like zombies.

The book of Timothy says the Scriptures are “God-breathed,” that they originate from God, but it doesn’t claim they are God-dictated.

The perversion is becoming more obvious, now. The more mature Christian would respond that, yes, inspiration is not dictation, but that this difference is actually irrelevant to the point the author is trying to make. The Bible itself makes it clear that the inspired texts are as authoritative as if they had indeed been dictated.

Notice also the use of the word “claim.” Does Pastor John doubt some of these “claims”? And if he does, which ones? The manner in which he “personalises” the texts, tying them to the experiences and struggles of the biblical authors, once again is notable for what he doesn’t say. Certainly, we must take historical, Covenant and personal contexts into account. Nobody disputes this, and it would be a great help for the “fortune cookie” Christians to get a handle on this. But instead of making this point to enhance the power and authority of God’s Word, it is being used to undermine it. It is subtle, but that is my point. We must wise up to these lies wrapped in truth.

4. We All Pick and Choose the Bible We Believe, Preach and Defend.

Christians often accuse believers with differing opinions of “cherry picking” from the Bible; holding tightly to verses they agree with, while conveniently jettisoning ones they are uncomfortable with.

The only problem is, each time this assertion is made, the one making the accusation conveniently claims objectivity; as if they somehow have a firm, dispassionate understanding of the entirety of Scripture, without bias or prejudice, and that the other is violating that.

As we mature in our faith, some of us may be able to shake off some of our personal biases and get closer to the true meaning of Scripture. But until then, most of us have our own Bible, made somewhat in our image. There are as many specific individual interpretations of Scripture in history as there have been readers of it. Our understanding and belief about the Bible is a product of our upbringing, the amount of study we’ve had, the friends we’ve lived alongside, the area of the world we live in, the experiences we have and much more.

Is it really fair to accuse someone else of selectively using Scripture, unless we’re prepared to admit to the same crime in the process?

The words in the Bible point to someone for whom words simply fail. The words give us some frame of reference, but ultimately, God is far too big to be contained in those words.

Lots of truth, but two more lies:

“There are as many specific individual interpretations of Scripture in history as there have been readers of it.”

Despite the statement that shaking off our personal biases allows us to get “closer to the true meaning of Scripture,” this statement above is the ugly twin of a favourite objection of atheists. Certainly, there are different schools of theological thought, but in reality the picture is a great deal tidier than the one the author paints for us here. And once again, the necessary caveat is missing, allowing this accusation of “proof texting” to be used in issues where there has historically been no disagreement in the Church. He makes things worse rather than better. And instead of motivating us to more study and better understanding, this is really a call to just shut up. This is made clear by his nebulous conclusion, the second lie:

“The words in the Bible point to someone for whom words simply fail.”

One of my aunties once told me that while living in France, her appreciation of blue cheeses not only grew, but she slowly developed a taste for what she termed “more and more perverse cheeses.” Pastor John has led us up the garden path, and his final statement is gourmet cheese of the bluest kind. Once again, the statement itself is true. Our words do simply to fail to describe God. But the Words of God do not fail to describe Him. And this leads us to point five, where Pastor John is finally more forthright in telling us that the Bible is simply a bunch of human-authored poems about God, and that our personal experience of Him is in fact more authoritative. For the undiscerning, this is the point at which the boat is cut adrift from Christianity.

5. God Is Bigger Than The Bible.

This past week, I took a walk along the beach, taking in the ocean. For those who’ve ever done so, you understand the vastness; the staggering beauty and power; the relentless force of the tides. You know the smallness you feel; the overwhelming scale of creation you find yourself face-to-face with.

Billions of words have been written about the ocean. I could gather up every single one of them; the most beautiful, vivid, accurate descriptions from fisherman, marine biologists and poets. I could read every last word about the ocean to someone who has never been there—and it would never do it justice.

There’s simply no way to adequately describe the ocean in words. You have to experience it.

I wish more Christians would admit that the Bible, at its most perfect and inspired, is a collection of words about the ocean. They are not the ocean itself.

God is the ocean.

The words in the Bible point to someone for whom words simply fail. The words are filled with good and lovely things that give us some frame of reference, but ultimately, God is far too big to be contained in those words.

The Bible is not God. The Bible is a library filled with inspired words about God. We can discover and explore and find comfort there. We can seek the character of God, and the message of Christ and the path we’re to walk in its pages.

We can even love the Bible. I certainly do.

But we should worship the God who inspired the Bible.

Pastor John has told the “relevance” crowd exactly what they wanted to hear. “God is the ocean… The Bible is not God.” Metaphorically-speaking, a walk along the beach will tell us more about God than the Bible ever could. It is our own experience of what God is like, of what the world is like, of what love is, what the law should be in our own eyes, which interprets the Word of God, not the other way around. And we ourselves decide which of the words in this “library” are the inspired ones. And whether or not they are actual history is irrelevant.

Mature readers will also notice that this article is almost Scripture-free. It is just old-fashioned liberal theology, but the young have not been around long enough to recognise it as a sad attempt at recycling.

To summarise, despite the amount of truth slapped on as a clever veneer, Pastor John

a) condemned those who turn the Bible into something which it is not, and then subtly turned it into something else which it is not;

b) told us that the solution to interpreting the Bible through our own limited experience is to interpret the Bible through our own limited experiences; and finally,

c) condemned Bible text cherry picking which nonetheless exalts the Scriptures by giving us a licence to cherry pick our own non-binding “inspired words about God.”

Pastor John loves the Bible, but I get the impression he loves the Bible like I love W. H. Auden, or Dimple Scotch. The saddest part about all this is that, as of writing, over 90,000 suckers have shared John’s sentimental tripe on Facebook. But it’s not their fault. They lack discernment because they have not been taught by people with discernment.

The Bible is printed in black and white but if you hold it far enough away it is, quite conveniently, just a whole lot of grey.

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1. See John Dickson, “The Genesis of Everything,” where the otherwise helpful Christian historian somehow interprets Genesis 1 “as the author intended” yet in a way that contradicts the interpretation of Moses, Jesus and Paul. The number of illogical comparisons and idiotic statements in this paper is surprising. Academia has its very own special kind of dumb.

One Response to “A Whole Lot of Grey”

  • David Says:

    Mike, thank you for that discerning and careful analysis. It is much needed, and much appreciated. John’s whole article not only discredits the Word of God, but seeks to discredit any Christian that has conviction. This article just reinforces the millions of Christians that are afraid to stand up for the truths of God and make their voices heard in opposition to the wicked culture in which we live.