Thursday, May 11, 2006

Word of God?

Here are some questions for discussion which came out of my post, Exodus as a Macro Story:

What does it mean to say that the Bible is the "Word of God," and do you ever say that?

If you say that the Bible is somehow the Word of God, what do you mean by that?

If you are within the Christian tradition, and do not use that phrase to describe the Bible, why don't you use it? What phrases do you use to describe the Bible? How do you approach the Bible?

If you are outside the Christian tradition, what do you think of a group holding up a work like the Bible as in some form a communication of God and from God?


Brian Cubbage said...

My church's liturgy calls the lectionary readings "the word of the Lord," and when I do readings in church, I read the liturgy as written. Now, do I call the Bible the "Word of the Lord" or the "Word of God" when I'm not reading the lectionary/liturgy? Very rarely, if ever.

In fact, I very rarely use the word "Bible" all by itself. Usually, if we're talking about a book of the Hebrew Bible, I say that; same with the New Testament or the Apocrypha (hey, I'm a Protestant).

Why do I talk that way? To be honest, I haven't reflected on that very much until you asked the question. I think it's because I learned enough in my Biblical studies and church history courses that (a) the Bible is more of a library than a single book, and (b) the precise books that made it into the canon of Holy Writ got there as a result of a process that was governed by a good deal of historical contingency.

Do I doubt the wisdom and/or inspiration of the process that led to the formation of the canon? Not exactly, but my faith in Jesus Christ does not rest in any profound way on my faith in the canon-forming process.

Not a very sophisticated position, but that's where I am at the moment.

Troy said...


I'm surprised there aren't more posts here. Thanks to Brian for writing so honestly.

I had a dream last night where I was setting my EFM textbooks in a corner and then going on to something else. I decided this meant I needed a theology-break. But here I am, digging in and liking it. I'm only working for a short time, then off to other responsibilities like buying a mother's day present for my dear wife. That is true religion.

I used to think the Bible was the Word of God, inerrant and infallible and all the rest. I was told that, and given the proof texts from Isaiah and 2 Timothy. I did ask, even then, what does Is. mean by the 'Word of God' since the Bible, or some of it, didn't exist then. Same with 2 Tim. and the NT.

The history of this idea appears to be long and complex and clearly pre-Christian. The fact is the texts we have show that the ancient Jewish prophets functioned a lot like other ancient oracles; they could forecast a battle victory, tell the future, or, often in the surviving manuscripts, speak for God's displeasure and judgement on the nation (something I don't know survives from other ancient cultures). Some made political recommendations, strong ones. And always, 'thus says the LORD.' My guess is that was what all prophets of Y*** interspersed through their oracles: 'Thus says the LORD.'

The vast majority of this was probably not written down, other pieces have certainly been lost.

At some point the ancient legal codes, the law, the ritual cultus, and the words of the prophets who were generally right about Judah's fate came to be seen as God's Word; these were the accurate prophecies so they must be the correct ones. Perhaps. Direct revelation from the deity. This probably became most important during and after the exile.

It became easy to say the ancient purity and dietary codes, some of which may simply have been healthy living in a microbial world, were God's moral law; the thing that made the Jews distinct during the exile. It is possible these things were always considered God's law, but we know they dropped out of favor much of the time and the ancient Israelites worshipped other gods alongside Jehovah often.

(None of this is original, but it is the theory that makes the best sense to me. It must also be noted that there are elevated moral passages in the Torah, including Jesus' two great ethical imperatives: love God and neighbor. I am unaware of any other ancient nation that had such a developed religious morality).

Other cultures have sacred books. True, many come after the Jews elevated theirs, but the Vedas, for example, are very old; I actually do not know how they were read in ancient times, as revelation or simpy somehow sacred. Homer was not necessarily considered God-written; the Greeks had no single-deity to do the writing, but his books, or pieces of them that dealt with sacred hospitality, were taught to children as moral example (a funny idea which I believe could never have occurred to the original myth-writers).

Already my limitations as a religiou historian are poking through.

What does this mean?

People crave certainty; they crave clarity and direct revelation to make sense of their lives. We want a transcendent law! As much for other people as for ourselves, something I think N.T. Wright says. That's why we have so many holy books. Information, like space, can be sacred.

(But when Jesus tells us the entire law is love, that's not good enough and we're still looking for sin-lists).

The Christians saw Jesus throughout the Tanakh and also believed what they'd been told about it being God's oracles. Hence, after a time, the scraps of apostolic writing which survived became universal Scripture though they were addressed to small groups at specific times; the gospels worth anything became determinative for the community of faith. We're looking for proscriptive ethics, answers to questions about God we can't know, deciphering the texts as if close enough reading will reveal the hidden mysteries.

That worked pretty well during Church history (though the Bible was certainly used to further unnumbered human evils, including executing other Christians who disagreed with a particular Scriptural interpretation) until we started reading it with modern critical minds.

So what do I think we actually have?

At this point, a fairly historical description of Jesus' life, miracles and teachings. St. Paul must have had a genuine revelation from Jesus, but it surely doesn't mean for me that everything he wrote is God's revelation! The other epistles are the author's opinions which may also contain revelation. The book of Revelation? Forget it. I can't begin to approach that without help and I'm not there yet.

As for the Tanakh, I just don't know. I see great strands of later Christian theology so of course I think that was somehow revealed, without the original author's knowledge; even Jesus says the Spirit spoke of him through the Pslamists; even with the kenotic emptying he may well have been right. But I don't believe all the books in the HB or the NT even claim to be God's word and certainly many, like Joshua, attribute things to God I can't accept anymore than Plato accepted Hesiod and Homer. Some HB texts tell me more about the authors and the community than the transcendent God!

Could I be wrong about all this? Oh yes. Am I reading with Christain presuppositions (as Chris has poitned out to me)? Sure. (I'd note Jesus seems to have read the Tanakh with Christian presuppositions.)

I'm still sorting and am new to it all. Frankly, I think God cares more about how I talk to my wife and son than what I think about the different views on the Bible. But I believe a low view of scripture, or perhaps that's not the right term, makes the most sense with the text we have. Most arguments for innerrancy depend on deductive arguments I find unsupported by the text we have: 'God can't lie! Why would God say the world was made in seven days if it wasn't?' Men wrote the Bible and since God got himself in there at all, I'm impressed. The other thing innerrantists do is come up with stretched explanations of harmonization problems. Some of these are very stretches. Occam's razor is not perfect, but maybe the biblical writers just made a mistake!

Incidentally, more than once, I've seen scholars and lay thinkers fall away from faith, Bart Ehrman comes to mind, because the Bible they worshipped let them down. In fact, that was part of what drove me out of church before God actually found me seven years later.

How can the living Christ be contained or described in a human book! How can the transcendent God!

It would be nice if we had a word for word direct revelation, something like Moses' ten commandments written with the actual finger of God on stone (maybe we do have those ten?). No, it would be more than nice. But it doesn't seem God did it that way. He works in the inner space of each individual person, and he sent his Son not a book (and one skeptic friend of mine, EddieF, says he can't believe that if Jesus was God he wouldn't write his own book instead of leaving the gospel formation up to humans; interest point.)

C.S. Lewis' view of scripture may be a bit higher than mine, but it is certainly not a high view. He sees the ancient literature of the Tanakh as 'taken up' by the early Christians and I agree with just about everything he says regarding 'second meanings.' He argues that God did it this way because it must have been the best way. Maybe. I have no idea why God did it this way. Free will? Perhaps it's simply sufficient. This method works where and how God wants it to. I came to Christianity through the gospels myself.

This is why I hate proof-texting: it says right here? Sure. You know what it says right here? Some Christians, to harmonize these differences, argue that one Mind wrote the entire thing and everything must somehow fit. This ignores the very human components of the book. God uses a base material, a collection of human ideas, and puts Christ into it the same way Christ dwells in the cracker of the host.

What is the Word of God? The Living Christ, before, while, and after he was on earth. If God indeed revealed things to the HB prophets, I'm still sorting out how that came out in the writing. But no, I don't believe these 66 books are God's hoy word. I've read too much of them to miss the human piece.

Thanks for asking, Chris. I continue to wrestle with these things. Peniel.