Is the Bible really “all we need?”
“I just need the Bible…”
“The Bible is enough for me, I don’t need to read or hear sermons…”
“If all I had on a desert island was the Bible, I’d interpret it this way…”
It’s a simple and effective illustration. You’ll use it when you’re leading a Bible study, preaching a sermon, or even having a discussion with someone around a specific Scripture passage or theological issue. Maybe you come across a hard passage from the words of Jesus about sacrifice, or perhaps it’s a harsh story from the Old Testament having to do with war, or it could be a miraculous story in the New Testament, leaving your congregation or small group in a state of bewilderment. You want to help them understand the passage, but also, as a good leader or preacher, you want them to leave actually obeying the text.
Frustrated with how to explain it, you give them the illustration: “Imagine you’re on a desert island,” you start out, “and you’re reading this Bible, when all of a sudden you come across this particular passage…what do you think you would walk away thinking? What would you end up believing on your little desert island?”
Have you heard this? Have you used this? It’s pretty effective. I have heard this analogy (and used this analogy) when teaching on things as diverse as the early church community, the hard sayings of Jesus, and various other passages.
“If, on that desert island, you were to read about the early church,” you may say, “and then you were to see how we practice church…would you think we’re doing it right?”
This kind of illustration is what I like to call, “The Desert Island Hermeneutic.” Anyone can do it. It’s simple and it gets people passing along to the next point in your teaching — and it is seemingly effective. People respond and they can understand the point. Sometimes people refer to a Desert Island Hermeneutic as a “plain reading” of Scripture. Just read it and do it — don’t get caught up in all the stuff around the text or the background, just read the text and go with it!
Many use the Desert Island Hermeneutic in order to skip past all of the difficult exegetical work to “get to the point.” Many might argue: “you don’t need to know the history or context behind a lot of the Scriptures — you just need to do it.”
And I tend to agree with this much of this. It’s true: there comes a point where, as Bonhoeffer would say, Jesus just wants us “to get on with it” and obey. And many passages of Scripture do not require much to obey. We are certainly guilty of overanalyzing our Bibles, sitting on our hands as we “get to know God” with zero obedience. This is not God’s will for his church.
But there’s more wrong with the Desert Island Hermeneutic than meets the eye. While it seems simple and harmless, there are problems with skipping over the interpretive work in order to inspire people to obedience. Not all passages are as plain as they look. What’s wrong with the Desert Island Hermeneutic? Why should we not settle for “the plain reading of Scripture?”
1. You do not live on a desert island
There is no such thing as a “plain” reading of Scripture. Biblical objectivity does not exist. No one shows up to the Bible in a hazmat suit, untainted by the world. Everyone reads the Bible with their family experience in their blood, their cultural assumptions attached, and their life they’ve lived behind them. A lot of baggage comes with us on the mysterious desert island. It’s not just us on this island, but our luggage comes with us — we just call it “culture” or “our experience.”
When I read the Bible, I read it as 21st century Western, white American who grew up in the upper middle class. I spent time in the Catholic church and seasons in suburban Evangelical youth groups. My grandfather is a baptist and my father is agnostic. I have never been to India or Israel. My understanding of any decade other than the last 20 years is extremely limited to those who wrote history books. Don’t these things matter when I read a Bible?
Between us and them exists thousands of years of history and church practice. Volumes has been written and hundreds of thousands of teachings or sermons have been published. An ocean of thought and Christian practice has come after Paul or James or Peter wrote their words. We would do well to pay attention to some of it.
2. The Bible was not written on a desert island
The Bible was also written by ancient people from ancient societies, speaking specific languages and written to particular audiences. Our Scriptures are not written by one person who received “divine revelation” and wrote it down. The Bible has many authors and many audiences. They often addressed large amounts of people, sometimes entire cities.
They did not write “Scripture,” or “holy writings,” but rather histories, letters, polemics, and personal memoirs. They wrote songs and poems, genealogies and prophecies. When we open our Bibles, we open a complicated library of world literature inspired by the Holy Spirit of God and assembled in a particular way for very good reasons. We cannot read it as something it is not.
3. Bible reading has always been a community effort
Only in recent human history has there even been such a thing as “personal Bible reading.” For thousands of years, the reading of Scripture and the interpretation of it was something formed by the Church, God’s community.
Often attached to the Desert Island Hermeneutic, is the idea of reading your Bible “for yourself” or “on your own.” Certainly personal and devotional Bible reading is important, but it’s not enough. We need the family of God, the body of Christ, in order to properly interpret Scripture. Our churches — filled with our pastors, brothers, sisters, and elders — correct us in our misreadings and also provide for us the environment in which we complete our interpretive work. We get to obey the word together and practice Scripture on “one another.”
The scholar Nicolas Lash has written, “The fundamental form of the Christian interpretation of scripture is the…activity…of the believing community.” When we read the Bible together and obey it within our churches, we are completing the work of interpretation, not accessorizing it. We cannot understand the word of God without the family of God. So long as we stay on our desert islands and only “get alone with God,” we’re bound to miss something — maybe everything.