Do we have a Bible Personality Type?
Some years ago I went through the Myers-Briggs personality analysis and found out that I was an INFJ. Not knowing what this meant I had to do some research and eventually accepted that this was a pretty good way to describe me.
Once I had done this I began to see that it was useful in many ways and one of the first things that occurred to me was that evangelism as we do it today was not designed for INFJs or any other introverted personality for that matter. This has been helpful to me in rejecting much of modern evangelism methodology in favor of just being me, the INFJ Christian.
Of late I have been thinking that who we are and how we think is something we bring to Bible reading too. But, like evangelism, I am told there is only one way to read the Bible and, if I read it in any other way, I am committing a grave error. The name for this one and only way is the “historical-grammatical method.” It tells me that I have “to discover the meaning of the passage as the original author would have intended and what the original hearers would have understood.”
I’ve always felt there were problems with this requirement. The most obvious is how can I be sure that I actually have correctly figured out the meaning of the original author? I know enough about communication to know that it is risky to assume I understand what the person standing right in front of me means, let alone someone 2,000 years ago in a culture I can barely comprehend. I’ve always felt that this problem is the root cause for the myriad of disputes among scholars who claim to use this method with precision.
The second problem is the assumption that I am a neutral observer, receiving this information with no pre-conceived bias; or the assumption that I would never read into the text opinions and feelings that I already hold. This actually is never possible. For example, I know of a woman who, in her 50s, entered the work force for the first time in her life because her husband became disabled. After 30+ years as a stay-at-home wife and mother she needed to take an entry level job. The family is struggling to get by on her minimum wage job and his Social Security disability. If she ran across a fiscal conservative who tells her that raising the minimum wage is a bad idea and that government social programs encourages dependency what do you think the chances are that she would be a neutral hearer?
So how do people actually read the Bible? Here are some methods:
- Literal understanding. These people blow-off any difficulties. All we have to do is read it literally. So the “days” of creation are literal days and the earth was created in six days. Period. But the problem with this is that the Bible is full of places where literal, only-one-meaning words are used but not expected to be taken literally. For example, the “hand” of God is talked about without us needing to see a literal, five-fingered hand as the meaning.
- Theological textual understanding. These people see the Bible primarily as a text book. The letter to the Romans is likely to be their favorite book. The don’t worry much about the fact that the Bible uses historical narratives in one place, poetry in another, letters in a third, etc. At the end of the day that doesn’t matter, what matters is digging out and reconciling the theological teaching into a coherent system.
- Personal application understanding. These folks see the Bible as a personal message to them. When the Bible says “For God so loved the world…” they read it as “For God so loved me…” Every answer to every life situation they are in is covered somewhere in the Bible. I know someone who feels that the way to be sure about every decision, however simple or complex, is for him is to study the Bible until a passage speaks to him.
- Poetic understanding. These folks say that, since the Bible is the inspired word of God, their only task is to let it inspire them. They see the creation narrative not as a text to be reconciled to science and history but as the thrilling story of God’s loving control over the foundation of the world and of humanity.
- Spiritual/allegorical understanding. In different ways the Eastern Orthodox and some Pentecostal denominations use this. The former is heavily influenced by the early church fathers’ views, the latter by their own spiritual connection to God. But they don’t worry about conclusions that cause apoplexy to some of their more literal friends.
There may be other ways to read the Bible, this is just a sample. So here is my question – does who I am and how I think matter to God? Or does He insist that we have to read His word in just one way? Does He call the poet to put aside is creative/intuitive personality as he reads the Bible? Is it possible God doesn’t want us to nail down all the details?
For example, in II Samuel 6 when God strikes Uzzah dead for touching the Ark of the Covenant it has always seemed to me that the punishment exceeds the crime. I really am not comfortable just saying that “God’s holiness required it.” It seems so heartless. But God is much more complex than any of us could be or imagine. It’s hard for me to believe that He doesn’t anticipate the sympathy that I feel for the hapless Uzzah. Maybe His understanding of this sympathetic reaction is part of his calculated purpose in telling the story the way He does. Maybe wrestling with such complexities is what He wants us to do, even as we can’t grasp them all. Frankly, maybe He doesn’t want us to grasp them all.
I am reminded of how Jesus constantly refused to give straight answers to the questions his critics asked. I am sure He drove them crazy. Would I not be just as arrogant as they were if I assume that I deserve to know and can actually figure out the straightforward meaning of the Bible He has given us?