A Look Back
Why I Love the Bible
Krister and Brita Stendahl, early 2000s. Photo courtesy Brita Stendahl.
By Krister Stendahl
The first “no” statement . . . became the watershed in my love story with the Bible: It is not about me. . . .
I started to recognize that when Paul spoke about justification by faith, he was really giving the argument in favor of his Gentile converts. He had to come to grips with how, in God’s word and God’s mind, his mission to the Gentiles fitted into God’s total plan. It was about the Jews and the Gentiles and not about me. What an awakening. . . .
It was not about me, but it was teaching me about God’s way of dealing with the world, with people, with tensions between people of different faiths. . . .
Second, it’s not always as deep as we think. . . .
. . . One of the best rules for reading scriptures is the very same as for preaching: It should be light, it should be quick, and it should be tender. It should not be ponderous, it should not be labored, and it should not be heavy.
Third, in the scriptures, sometimes it ain’t as sure as you think. St. Paul . . . had a lot of human flaws, but he was . . . a great, great theologian. A theologian is someone who sees problems where no one else sees problems, and sees no problems where other people see problems . . . I think he was the last preacher in Christendom who had the guts to say that new situations come, really new situations. What shall we then do? . . . What a lovely Bible that tells us that sometimes we might need to think, and not . . . that it is all settled.
The fourth “no”: not so uptight. Apologetics, defending the Bible—defending God, for that matter—is a rather arrogant activity. . . . I love to use the old Swedish expression, “It is pathetic to hear mosquitoes cough.” I don’t know why that is funny, but in Swedish it is funny. And apologetics is mosquitoes coughing. It kills so much of the joy in reading and practicing the love of the scriptures. . . .
Let a thousand flowers bloom. Richness. Plurality. Plurals. Yes, meanings is better than meaning. Isn’t that, in a way, what the Trinity is about? . . . We couldn’t quite settle for something which was just oneness, we had to have more of . . . an interplay, of a giving and receiving. . . . It’s like the biological world: Everything is interdependent. . . .
Which leads me to the fifth point: Not so universal. . . . I always felt that to speak about the uniqueness of Christianity or the uniqueness of Christ does more for the ego of the believer than it does for God. . . . What one religion says about another religion, what one beloved scripture claims to be over against other scriptures, comes pretty close to a breach against the commandment “Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”. . .
We are born . . . as a religion among religions. And we are heirs to the Jewish perspective on these things: that’s what I learned from the scriptures. . . . Israel is meant to be a light to the nations. . . . The Jews have never thought that God’s hottest dream was that everybody become a Jew. They . . . thought that they were called upon to be faithful and that God somehow needed that people in the total cosmos. What a humility, and we called it tribalism. . . . But when Christianity started its universal claim, and got power, it led to the Crusades. We couldn’t really think that it was not God’s hottest dream that everybody be like us. So I say, no, the Bible is my Bible. This is the breast that I, as a child of God, have been nourished from. And for the little child, when the child is born that’s the whole world, the mother’s breast. But maturing means to recognize that other kids have sucked other mothers’ breasts. That belongs to growing up
Krister Stendahl served as Dean of HDS and Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Divinity from 1968 to 1979 after fourteen years as Professor of New Testament Studies. He also served as Bishop of Stockholm from 1984 to 1988. This essay was adapted from an address Stendahl delivered at Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church in 2001.