There are many ways to read the Bible, but one of the most helpful, from a Christian perspective, is to keep the life and message of Jesus at the centre. This gives the Bible a metaphorical ‘hourglass’ shape with the Old Testament pointing toward Christ and the New Testament flowing out of Christ.
This episode of the EvoFaith Podcast explores what it means to read the Bible as an hourglass in this way, and how an ‘hourglass reading’ of Scripture can be part of an evolutionary approach to the Bible and to Christian spirituality.
I’ve said this before in this series, the Bible wasn’t just written, it was written with an agenda. That agenda wasn’t history, or science, or philosophy in the way that we know it. The Bible was written as salvation history. Its purpose, its agenda, is to tell the story of God’s saving work in the life of God’s people. And that agenda shapes the narrative of Scripture from beginning to end.
In the Old Testament we see it playing out like this: The Old Testament speaks of Israel’s place and purpose in the world. The Hebrews were aware of this calling that they had as God’s chosen people, as the ones who were blessed to be a blessing, as children of Abraham. That of course expanded and developed to the place where they saw themselves as the people through whom the messiah and the reign of God that the messiah was going to bring, were to come into the world. And so this identity of the Israelites and their role in the world, their purpose, shapes a lot of the Old Testament. And their relationship with God in the light of that chosenness is a big part of what we read in the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament they’re working that purpose out—in Creation myths that give a different version, a different story of Creation than other myths of the time, and the first Creation myth in Genesis 1 was written, of course, when they were in Babylon as exiles.
And so, it’s a very different kind of Creation myth from the one the Babylonians had. We see them working out their identity and purpose in their history of the prophets, the judges and the kings, including when the people were conquered and taken off to exile and then returned. We see it in their songs, the Psalms, in their poetry, their wisdom literature teaching them how to live and love well. We see it in the laws guiding their life together as a nation and as a community. Throughout all of this is the people of Israel working out what it means to be the children of God, the chosen of God, the ones who are blessed to be a blessing for the sake of the world. And sometimes they embrace that calling, and sometimes they resist it, but they are working it out the whole way through.
In the New Testament that continues, but in a different way. The gospels portray Christ as the fulfilment of God’s messianic promise and as the one who fulfils that promise, that purpose of Israel, the chosenness, the one who brings God’s reign and God’s wholistic saving purpose into the world, the one who brings that blessing that Israel received—the blessing to be a blessing—Jesus is the one who brings that and the gospels tell that story. And so it’s all about Christ’s life and teaching, and the different gospels pick that up in different ways with different agendas, but trying to portray Christ, all of them in different ways as the fulfilment of what you see in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Acts then tells how Christ’s followers continued that work, and how they spread it throughout theworld—that’s the book of Acts, that’s what it’s about. And then of course, there are many letters that fill up…most of the New Testament is letters. And those letters are about teaching communities, and sometimes individuals but always even communities through those individuals, teaching them how to navigate their specific issues and how to live by Christ’s values and priorities in their particular circumstance. And then of course, the New Testament closes with John’s Revelation, which is really about reminding the churches of John’s time of this vision of God’s reign which seems absent in the face of the world’s power struggles, but which is actually always at work, and which is always filling the lives and directing the lives of those who choose to follow Christ.
So that’s that arc, this idea of a people called, who are blessed to be a blessing, and then how that is worked out through the history of those people right through the Old Testament and then into the New.
All of this can be read in a variety of ways—but not all of those ways are as effective as some others. And not all are as faithful to the biblical purpose, and I have to confess as I understand it, as others might be. And so one helpful metaphor for this is to view the Bible as an hourglass, the narrative takes the shape of an hourglass in a couple of ways.
I want to begin with something that Jesus says in John 5:39-40, he’s speaking to the Pharisees and he says to them: “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.” That idea—the Scriptures point to me, says Jesus—that’s at the heart of this idea of Scripture as an hourglass.
In the Old Testament everything moves toward the coming of the Messiah. There’s this idea of being chosen by God: this blessing that God gives to Israel to share with the world and that develops and grows into this idea that there will be this time where peace happens, and where all the world will stream to the Temple to worship God, because from there will come justice and righteousness and peace; this vision of a new world where God rules over them, and this brings with it this idea of a messiah—in some of the prophetic books it’s referred to as the Servant of God—the one who helps this to come about; this reign of God, that brings this peace and this new age of prosperity not just for Israel, but for the world.
Now in the Old Testament of course, that’s not referring to Jesus as such. The Old Testament writers didn’t have this clear picture of Jesus Christ and that he would be the messiah. That reading of the Old Testament was put in by Christ’s followers after his life. But the general concept that Christ and his followers claimed he fulfilled, that does exist in the Old Testament—this reign of God and the messiah who would bring it, and that in this way the messiah would fulfil the promise to Israel that they would be blessed in order to be a blessing.
And so there’s this bottom end of the hourglass from Israel, of God calling a family and then a nation, and this nation becoming more and more laser-focused on this message of the reign of God and sharing it with the world. And then in Jesus it’s fulfilled. And then the person, work and message of Jesus, that becomes the significant point where the promise to Israel actually comes true. And then the rest of the New Testament flows out from the point of Christ’s life and work and applies his message to the lives of those who seek to follow him, and ultimately into the world as they then knew it. So there’s this hourglass shape heading to Christ and then from Christ out into the world.
The point in all of this is that, from a Christian perspective, the Christian Scriptures including both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures—Old and New Testaments—is that Jesus needs to be kept at the centre. If we want to understand Scripture, it all has to be understood through Christ and through his message of love as the primary thing. The only commandment Jesus gave is love the Lord your God, and love your neighbour as yourself. Love was the fulfilment of the whole of Scripture for Christ, and it’s the primary hermeneutic, the primary way we need to understand the Scriptures. We need this Christ-centredness.
So what does that mean for us practically? Well, Brian McLaren has a lovely illustration where he takes a Bible and he says if you take the left cover and think of that as the Old Testament, and you take the right cover and think of that as the New Testament, and the spine is the gospels—people read the Bible in different ways. Many people will read the Bible completely flat—it’s all equal, it all has the same authority, it all has the same meaning, we treat it all exactly the same—whether it’s Old Testament, New Testament, gospels, whatever, we come to it in exactly the same way. We don’t recognise the differences in genre, the differences in inspiration potentially, the differences in their understanding of God or their culture, or any of that, we just treat it all like we would pretty much any other book—we come to it as if it’s one cohesive whole with no differences and no complicated history of coming into being. And some of us will read the Bible like that.
Others of us will read the Bible where we make the Old Testament dominant, we focus on the laws, we focus on the calling of Israel, and we interpret everything— even as Christians—as if we are part of that originally called Israel and the laws apply to us. And so we focus on it, it tends to be a kind of legalistic reading, and it’s a reading of Scripture that really tries to embody Israel’s calling in our time, but in the same way that Israel did and in Israel’s terms.
Others many want to read the Bible focusing on the New Testament side, and particularly that would mean, for many people, focusing on the letters of Paul, and that will give us a different interpretation and we will begin to explore Paul’s teachings and his guidelines. And it can be similar to reading with the Old Testament as the focus, but of course Paul brings a new spin on the Old Testament laws and teachings and so we read it in that way and we make that the most important thing.
Brian McLaren suggests that perhaps for us as Christians, as followers of Christ, the best way to read it is with the spine as the predominant thing, and then reading Old Testament and New Testament in the light of the life and message and teaching of Jesus. I like that, I think that makes more sense to me. And you can see it has got kind of a bit of an hourglassy kind of feel to it. But this idea that understanding the Old Testament is important because it helps us to understand Jesus’ message, because his message was shaped as a Jewish man by the Old Testament Scriptures and its story and its laws and being brought up immersed in this story. But we also can’t understand what Paul is talking about, or the other writers of the letters, unless we understand what Jesus was about. And yes, they wrote before the gospels were written, but the gospels really are there to get us a glimpse of Jesus the man, the person, and his teaching and his life. And so even though Paul may have written before the Gospel were written, and we need to take that into account when reading, nevertheless Paul’s writings are informed by the life and message of Christ. And so the gospels help us get a bit of a window into that in order to understand what Paul is saying. And so I commend that to you as a way of potentially approaching Scripture.
But what does all of this mean practically for us? Well it means that we need to recognise that the Bible itself presents a growing understanding of God. The Bible itself has an evolutionary story in it. So we can’t build our view of God by simply lifting verses out of wherever. We need to recognise that there are some very primitive, too-human, and quite violent visions of God in the bible. But there are also more developed, more complex and loving and justice-centred visions of God. And in the end, in Christ, the love-centred vision wins. And that’s why it’s great to start from Christ and then work our way out from there. Reading the Bible in this way also helps us grow in our own understanding of God because we go through the same journey, we start out with fairly primitive visions of God in our own image and we have to develop that and we need to learn that God isn’t made in our image and we have to open up to new ideas of God, in the same way the people who wrote the Bible did.
And that means we need to be very careful which verses we use to support our view of God. And we need to keep on working and developing and growing our view of God, never allowing our picture of God to get fixed, or feeling like we’ve got God all defined just because we can quote a few Bible verses that support what we believe. This also means we can’t read the Bible as flat with everything all the same. We need to choose what we must emphasise—the Old Testament, the New Testament or the gospels, and then use that choice as wisely as we can. And once again, I really am a big fan of choosing the gospels as the starting point—the life and message of Christ, that’s where we begin and the rest of it gets interpreted through that.
And then as we work with the Scriptures we have to deal with Christ as the archetype of God—a God who is, yes, human, who is incarnated, who comes into human life and experience and flesh, but a God who is loving, and humble and sacrificial. But we also have to deal with Christ as the archetype of our humanity at its best—a humanity that has this wonderful capacity to be loving, and serving, and inclusive, and that seeks for all to flourish, and that seeks forgiveness among us and for us all. And as we read about God and we begin to understand God through this Biblical archetype that Christ presents and we understand ourselves through the archetype that Christ presents, we can begin to shape our lives, we can allow it to guide us and lead us into a life of flourishing, of living fully, authentically and courageously.
Once again, I have spoken here from the perspective of my Christian tradition. I mean no disrespect to the Jewish tradition, which obviously sees the Old Testament differently in the sense that, as far as I’m aware, they wouldn’t see Jesus as the fulfilment of the messianic promises. Nevertheless, the progression and development of the idea of the Messiah and of the reign of God that the Messiah would bring does remain in the Hebrew understanding.
But from a Christian perspective—or perhaps I should say from a Christ-centred perspective—the Bible’s agenda is to keep Christ, and his message and life, at the centre. Christ is the key to understand the New Testament, and helps us to understand the Old Testament because Christ’s message and mission without the Old Testament background that shaped and informed him—we don’t really get it, we don’t really understand it. And so the whole Bible fits together, comes together, is understood through Jesus Christ as the lens. And this view of the Bible as an hourglass can be a very helpful metaphor to inform our reading of the Bible from an evolutionary perspective. I hope it has been helpful for you.
But for now, that’s all I have. Next time, we’re going to look at the Bible as a diving board that launches us into a life of fullness, and vibrancy and authenticity. Thank you for your time and attention. Stay connected to the sacred. And I’ll catch you next time.
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