The Bible Tells Me So
On Knowing & Obeying the Biblical Pattern for Life & Godliness
by David Mills
If you know your Bible, you will begin to see the pattern in the biblical cloth. You will know that any particular error doesn’t fit the pattern, is a blotch on the tartan or a tear in the tweed. You will know it doesn’t feel biblical, even if you can’t refute it. If you read a story set in a place where you’ve lived, you know with some certainty whether the author really knew the place. He might have made some error in description. Or he might have gotten all the details right and still not described the place itself, so that though you can’t point to any particular error, you can still say “No, that isn’t my home.” So with the Bible. If you live in it, wander down its streets, play in its parks, you will easily detect the frauds and imitations.
If you want to know a true Rembrandt from a forgery, you study true Rembrandts.* You learn to distinguish an authentic painting from a very good fraud by studying with excruciating care paintings known to be authentic. (Their authenticity, by the way, you have to take on reliable authority, as most of us must take the authenticity of the biblical books on reliable authority, in which we’re as justified as the student who accepts the consensus of Rembrandt scholars.)
You use a magnifying glass to study Rembrandt’s brushwork, and you stare at his paintings for hours to learn how he composed his pictures and how he used color, and so on. You’ll never know Rembrandt if you don’t spend a lot of time with Rembrandt. But if you won’t learn his methods with scientific reliability, you won’t ever be able to say with mathematical certainty that this or that painting is authentic. But you will have trained your eye to recognize Rembrandt. If you think this an unreliable way of judging things, just remember that prudent people spend millions and millions of dollars on paintings on just such recommendations.
Knowing the biblical pattern helps us discern its teaching on controverted questions. If someone says that self-fulfillment is more important than continued faithfulness to his wife or that St. Paul condemns only promiscuous homosexuality but would have approved “loving, committed, monogamous relationships,” and he produces a wealth of scholarship to support his claim, you will be able to say that it simply doesn’t fit the pattern. If you know the pattern, you will be able to say that every time the Bible mentions homosexuality, it condemns it, and that nowhere does the Bible commend or approve such acts, as you would expect if they were sometimes permissible, because otherwise God had failed to tell us something important. You could add that the biblical ideal is either chastity or faithfulness between husband and wife, and that this is understood to be the source of joy and happiness and contentment, and that unfaithfulness is understood to be a source of sorrow and pain and tragedy.
Further, if you know the pattern, you will know how intimately God has tied together the body and behavior. It will be clear that the fact that men and women have complimentary sexual organs, and that the combination of those organs produces fruit, means that they are meant for each other and that to use them in any other way is a perversion. You will know that becoming “one flesh” through sexual intercourse is not a metaphor for “growing closer” but a natural and supernatural reality.
And you will sense the many more profound and subtle meanings, even if only the wisest men and women are able to make them explicit. Since the deepest truths are the truths most easily denied by the liberals’ simple and rational (or rationalist) criticisms, it is thus important that you actually sense them yourself rather than take them on someone else’s authority, if you don’t want to wander into deeper darkness. It is easy to believe things seen in the distance are actually mirages or illusions when they are only far away, and can be reached if you keep walking.
The Biblical Pattern
Thus, there are sometimes no conclusive answers to questions about biblical teaching—answers, that is, that will win arguments and convince skeptics—but there is a conclusive pattern, which convinces despite our inevitable ignorance on one point or another. This pattern of answers will convince and sustain you despite your ignorance, much as a net with a hole or two will still catch enough fish to feed your family.
The better you know the Bible, the better you will know the pattern, and the better you will understand even the difficult parts that scholars dispute among themselves. Reading the Bible daily is like living with a family. After a while, you know what they are going to say almost before they say it, and you know what they mean even when they don’t make any sense. Actions you couldn’t understand when you were first married make perfect sense when you’ve been married five or ten or twenty years.
Read the Bible Within the Church
So, read and study the Bible. That is absolutely necessary, and you won’t get anywhere if you don’t start there. But still more is required. The second thing to do is to read the Bible within the Church and her teaching Tradition, for otherwise you will go wrong. This may seem to contradict my claim that the Bible is astonishingly clear and coherent and consistent, but it really doesn’t because the man or woman committed to hearing the Word of the Lord will want to hear it within his Body. If you don’t want to hear it within his Body, it’s likely that you really don’t want to hear it. You aren’t really a friend of the Lord if you don’t care what his other friends think.
Only within Christ’s Body, the Church, will you find guidance and direction, the answers to obscurities, and the encouragement to accept the (to worldly minds) unlikely and (to sinful hearts) unappealing. There, in the line of believers going back to the apostles, you will find the insights and discoveries, the accumulated wisdom, the experiments and theories successful and unsuccessful, to balance and correct your own weaknesses and most grievous faults.
We are in grave danger without the Church. Because we sin we will misread the Bible in our favor. When I commented to a friend that a priest we knew had suddenly taken a lax view of extra-marital sex, he cynically asked who the priest was in bed with. He turned out to be correct. It is all too easy to use the pages of the Bible to paper over all the mirrors in our house so that we never see ourselves as we really are.
It has to be noted that to read the Bible within the Church and her Tradition is necessary to keep from reading the Bible within the increasing rejection of Tradition now practiced by many in the churches, including their elders. Error and heresy are as likely to come from the elders and official bodies of the churches as from anywhere else. We need the Church, the Church of the ages, to protect us from the wrongful teachings of some in our churches.
The Church’s guidance is not just intellectual but spiritual and moral. The fellowship and counsel of other believers sustain us, while we are restrained by their censure and scrutiny. Holy Communion nourishes us and gives us strength to act rightly, and confession forces us to admit that we act wrongly. Most of us would be much worse without “the goodly fellowship of all faithful people,” as the traditional Anglican liturgy puts it. It is often much easier to offend the Lord than the people in your parish.
Be Formed into the Image of Christ
So, read and study the Bible, and read and study it within the Church and her Tradition. But there is yet one more thing to do, and it is the most difficult. You must give yourselves to be formed more and more into the image of Christ by his Word in his Body the Church, of which he is the Source and Author.
In the beautiful words of the Anglican prayer of consecration, we ought to live so that we may “be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and be made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.” You will only begin to truly understand the moral teaching of the Bible when you become like its Author, when he dwells in you, and you in him. The Risen Christ spent the time before his Ascension opening the Scriptures to his disciples. The Lord dwells with us to open his Word to us.
We tend to think that we can go to the Bible and find out what it says, and then obey it or not as we wish. This belief is the product of an entirely modern way of thinking often called “positivism.” Positivism wrongly applies the objective methods of scientific observation—which aren’t, as philosophers have been saying for some time, quite so objective after all—to moral and spiritual things. It assumes that anyone can discern God’s law as easily as he can observe the law of gravity.
Modern liberalism or skepticism, born from the great advance in the scientific study of the Bible in the last century, began with this assumption. When, after decades of confidently announcing “the assured results of biblical criticism” (which tended to contradict the previously assured results), liberal scholars found that the Bible could not be quite so reliably understood with the methods of science, they generally abandoned not the assumption but any belief that the Bible had a coherent message. Such is the reason, I think, for the current vogue of movements like “deconstructionism,” “postmodernism,” and “reader response criticism,” which deny that “the text” can carry truth from the author (who is definitely not the Author) to the reader.
Positivism fails in spiritual things because it leaves out the human heart. The heart is the instrument through which we see and measure spiritual things. If your heart is corrupt and unredeemed, you won’t be able to see with it—or rather more worrisomely, its subtle flaws will make you see wrongly while thinking you see rightly.
The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” seems absolutely clear. It means “Don’t kill.” Even those who believe it allows for war or capital punishment know that it forbids the killing of innocent people. But today certain ideologues in the mainline churches believe it doesn’t apply to unborn children. I suspect that the ideologues’ interpretation is often distorted by their lust for power and control. However “sincere” the abortionists’ reading of Scripture might be, innocent people still die.
You cannot come to the Bible as a scientist observing a physical phenomenon. You can’t read the Bible and then decide whether or not to believe and obey it. You are the instrument for interpreting Scripture, and how you live your life determines how accurate and sensitive an instrument you will be. What you say to God in the way you live your life determines whether you can hear him speaking in the Bible. You have to believe it and guide your life by it, have to read it with a humble and a contrite heart, or you’ll never know with assurance what it says—or, worse, will think it says something to your comfort when it announces your damnation.
The Choice of Heaven & Hell
The only way to avoid this is to be formed into the image of Christ, by cooperating with the work of the Holy Spirit. And this means making, with what light you have at the moment, the choice God would have you make. “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before,” C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity.
To be the first is heaven, he concludes:
Part of heaven, notice, is knowledge; part of hell, idiocy. Goodness and knowledge are all mixed up together. To know the Lord of heaven is to know the truths he gave in his Scriptures; not to know him is to believe the lies and nonsense of hell. As Chesterton said, when men stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they’ll believe in anything—a truth the tragedy and buffoonery of our age’s pursuit of answers, from Communist utopias to uninhibited sex to crystal pyramids, should make clear to anyone.
“When a man is getting better, he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him,” Lewis continued.
This is just common sense, Lewis continues.
In other words, if you want to know what is good, become good. If you want to know what the Bible teaches about morality, you must not only read and study it, and not only read and study it within the Church, but you must become conformed to the image of its Author.
This will convince us of the truth of the Bible’s moral teaching and protect us from the subtle and seductive arguments of its enemies. But what of those to whom we speak? How can we convince them when we still don’t know all the answers? As we each become more like our Lord, we will find that our witness for biblical morality will increase. People are rarely convinced by arguments but often transformed by love.
We ought not to rest satisfied with our knowledge of biblical morality, nor with our spotless orthodoxy, nor with our painfully acquired ability to explain every doctrine and refute every objection. Even the devils believe. Biblical morality is not a possession or accomplishment of our own, to be used when needed and then put away. It is the life we live in Christ, who came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.
* I am grateful for this illustration to Fr. Kenneth Hunter of St. James Church in Newport Beach, California.
This excerpt is from an article based on several talks by the author at conferences and churches in the Episcopal Church in 1992 on the topic of the Bible and morality. Reprinted from Touchstone, Summer 1992.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“The Bible Tells Me So” first appeared in the Fall 1997 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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