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I get questions like this now and then.

Pete, I hate you—but I digress.

You talk about the Bible being “messy”—it has historical problems, tensions, and contradictions. How can such a messy book be God’s authoritative word to us? How can we now trust the Bible? 

My answer: That question—though genuine and heartfelt—presumes something of the Bible for which “messiness” poses a problem.

The presumption is that a book worthy of being called “sacred scripture” or “God’s word” would not be messy but neat and tidy.

And I simply reject that presumption of how the Bible should act. The Bible is what it is. The Bible is messy. The only question for us is whether we will take up the challenge of incorporating the Bible’s messiness into our theology.

Taking the Bible really seriously means dealing with its messiness, not finding clever ways of avoiding it.

I also balk a bit at the thought of “trusting” the Bible. I understand the point, but perhaps the Bible shouldn’t be the object of our trust to begin with. Maybe—as the Bible repeatedly says—the object of our trust is God alone.

And God and the Bible aren’t the same things.

Calling the Bible “God’s word” doesn’t elevate it to an object worthy of trust. Rather, as I see it, the Bible bears witness to God. Christians will say that the Bible bears witness ultimately to what God has done in Christ.

But here’s the catch: The Bible bears witness in ancient and culturally diverse ways. That’s why the Bible is such a “mess.” And that is why working out how the Bible functions in the life of faith is an ongoing task.

The Christian Bible was written (roughly) between 2000 and 3000 years ago. We are as distant from the “world of the Bible” as we are from the years 4000 to 5000 CE.

Respect that distance.

The writings that would eventually make up the Bible were composed and eventually collected over a period of about 1000 years, in times of war and peace, triumph and tragedy, under Assyrian, then Babylonian, Persian, and Roman rule, in a plethora of social settings, written by simply folk, kings, priests, prophets, and who knows who else, in three languages.

Respect that diversity.

The Bible we have is ancient, diverse, and therefore invariably gives us multiple perspectives on many things—including even what God is like.

The Bible is in that sense messy and that messiness cannot be corralled into a seamless and consistent object that we are called to “trust.” Nor should it be.

The Bible doesn’t say, “Look at me and trust me!” It says, “Look through me so you can learn what trusting God looks like.”

The Bible, if we are paying attention to it, decenters itself and drives us to center our trust in the living God, whose actions are neither restricted by nor fully described in these ancient and diverse writings that bear witness to God’s actions.

The Bible is, however, worthy of serious reflection precisely because of its diverse and ancient ways. That is why the interpretation of the Bible and Christian theology is hard work and not simply a matter of leafing through the Bible or expecting things to line up in a handy index of topics we can point to in order to get the right answers.

A theme of The Bible Tells Me So is that the Bible does not work well as an owner’s manual, a rule book, or a field guide to the Christian life. It does work well, though, as a diverse and ancient model of the journey of faith, which is for us as diverse, contextual, and messy as the Bible itself so patiently lays out for us.

We just need to accept the Bible for what it is, not for what we would like it to be. The Bible bears the marks of the messiness of the diverse human drama. Christian theology, if it wishes to be compelling and speak into people’s lives, needs to incorporate that fact, not shy away from it.

This post was originally published in October 2017.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.