Christianity: A Tree Growing Up From the Soil of Scripture


Christianity: A Tree Growing Up From the Soil of Scripture
Brian Zahnd

This summer I spoke to a group of teens at our youth camp. My assigned topic was, “What’s the Deal with the Bible?”

I began my talk by reading this passage from the Bible.

“When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.” (Exodus 21:20, 21)

First I made sure the teens understood what this Bible passage said. If a slaveowner beats a slave and the slave dies immediately, there is to be some form of unspecified punishment. But if the slave clings to life for a day or two and then dies, there is to be no punishment. Why? Because, as the Bible says, “the slave is the owner’s property.”

Then I asked the teens, “How many of you disagree with this?” Slowly and a bit hesitantly every teen raised their hand. (I say slowly and hesitantly, but I do remember some African-American teens shooting their hands up instantly and confidently!)

I then addressed one of the youngest, saying, “So you disagree with the Bible?” She responded a bit cautiously, “Yeah, I guess so.” To which I said, “Good! You should!”

Finally I asked the teens how many of them knew that slavery is an unmitigated moral evil that cannot be justified by any means and must always be condemned as incompatible with God’s justice. They all raised their hands, to which I made the observation that when it comes to the subject of slavery they all had a superior moral vision than the Bible.

I also pointed out that the problem cannot be solved by simply appealing to the New Testament. In Ephesians we find Paul saying, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.” (Ephesians 6:5) The truth is that neither Testament of the Bible has a vision for the abolition of slavery but simply regards it as a fact of life. (This posed a problem for both Southern and Northern Christians in the years preceding the American Civil War. For more on this see Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.)

This is how I began an hour-long conversation with a group of Christian teens on “What’s the Deal with the Bible?”

What was my objective in this talk? To give young people a way of loving the Bible their entire lives.

To love the Bible for a lifetime it’s important that we do not imagine the Bible as something it cannot be. If we suggest to serious-minded, good-hearted people that the Bible is a word-for-word, verse-by-verse perfect revelation of God and God’s will, thoughtful readers will eventually run into some serious problems. At that point the Bible, instead of being a nourishment for Christian faith, can become a deadly toxin to Christian faith.

It’s possible for people to lose their faith by reading the Bible in a wrong way.

This is what I wanted to prevent happening to the teens attending my talk on the Bible.

During the course of my talk, which was held outdoors in a grove of tall pine trees in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, I walked over to a tree and said this:

Christian faith is a living tree rooted in the soil of Scripture. You cannot remove the tree from the soil in which it is rooted and expect it to survive; but neither are we to think that the tree and the soil are the same thing! They are not. Put most simply, the Bible and Christianity are not synonymous. Yes, they are connected, but they remain distinct. Scripture is the soil. Christian faith is the living tree. They are connected, but they are not the same thing.

So if the Bible assumes that slavery is both a tolerable and inevitable institution, even explicitly saying that slaves are the property of slaveowners, that doesn’t mean this is the Christian ethical position on slavery. Christianity is not a slave to the Bible — Christianity is a slave to Christ! Out of the soil of Scripture grows a mature Christian faith that is not only able, but required to oppose all forms of slavery in the name of Jesus.

Since the canon of Scripture is closed, the soil of Christian faith is unchanging. But that doesn’t prevent the living Christian faith itself from growing, changing, developing, and maturing over time. Of course, how it grows and changes will often be a matter of fervent debate within the church, but that’s just the way it goes. (I understand that the deeply fractured nature of the church compounds the complexity of this problem.)

To say that Christian faith is forever rooted in Scripture, yet distinct from Scripture, is both conservative and progressive. Conservative in that it recognizes the inviolability of Scripture. Progressive in that it makes a vital distinction between the living faith and the historic text.

To say that Christian faith is one-in-the-same with the Bible is a fundamentalist mistake that is ultimately untenable. (For more on this, see Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible.) I’ve seen fundamentalists backed into a corner trying to defend the Bible by saying, “sometimes slavery is a good thing.” Don’t be that person.

I love the Bible. I’ve loved it all my life. I’m rooted in the Bible. I’ve read it every day for over four decades. The soil of Scripture is the primary source for the spiritual nutrients that permeate every area of my life. But my Christian faith is bigger than the Bible — and dare I say it  — better than the Bible.

In the end I’m saying nothing more than what Jesus said when he spoke these words:

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; but it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39, 40)

What the Bible does best, what the Bible does perfectly, what the Bible does infallibly, is to point us to Jesus — the Savior of all. After all it’s Jesus that saves the Bible from being an arcane religious text that can be misused to justify all manner of egregious evils, from slavery to crusades to colonialism.

Ultimately it’s Jesus who saves and sustains the Bible, Christianity, and my faith.



(The photo is me hugging a giant sequoia in Sequoia National Park earlier this month.)