Those of you who have told me you enjoy my writing will be pleased to know that I’ve given up not blogging for lent. I’m going to write a post every 2-3 days, starting with a 10 part series based on what I used to call “The Omega Course”, challenging a series of commonly held orthodoxies in the Christian faith.
I wanted to begin by examining one of my least favourite entries in the Christianese dictionary: “The Bible is the Word of God”. It’s a phrase we’re probably all very familiar with; but one which in my opinion has some dangerous connotations.
Let’s begin by looking at what the Bible is. Bear with me if this seems a little basic, but it’s worth going over.
- Half is a collection of writings from an ancient near eastern culture
- Half is a collection of writings from a slightly-less-ancient, Hellenized version of that culture
- A set of stories from a range of people in a range of different situations, each with their own particular contexts, bias, opinion and background.
- Not something that claims to be handed down word for word by God to man
- At least half of it is considered to be “scripture” (according to Paul, and indeed Jesus)
Now, most historical sources for anything other than religious belief are taken with a pinch of salt. They are read in context and balanced out by alternative perspectives. Not so with the current way we are taught to read of the Bible.
Myth One: The Bible is Different
Of course, we know that in 2 Timothy, it is written that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”. For one thing, this is only referring to the Old Testament anyway, which rules out the idea that the new testament was considered by the writers at the time to be ‘scripture’. Taking the idea that the Old Testament is indeed “scripture”, then we must examine briefly what is meant by that.
The word for “scripture” in the Greek text is (ἡ) γραφή, often occurring in the plural, (τῆς) γραφῆς, which literally means “writing(s).” It would have been considered to have spiritual authority in the context of first century Judaism.
So we can choose, if we wish, to accept that the Old Testament is indeed ‘God-breathed’. The interesting thing about this phrase is what else we know to be God-breathed. Namely, Adam.
The interesting thing about Adam, of course, is that Adam (should he even have existed) is not perfect. He sins. He messes up. And it is through messed up God-breathed people that a God-breathed collection of writings, decided upon as ‘Scripture’ by a council in the 4th Century AD that we are interpreting the history of our faith. Perhaps the time has come to examine this bold assumption.
Myth Two: The Bible is Consistent
Having taken away the idea that the Bible is unlike any other source (i.e. inspired outside of fallible human context) we must investigate the possibility that the Bible is erroneous.
There are two ideas I would like to outline here as examples. Firstly, the Old Testament military victories. Secondly, the Gospels.
The Old Testament:
There are many stories of military victories for the Israelites in the Old Testament. These have been shown in various historical studies to be both false and true, depending on who you believe. That’s not the interesting question. The interesting question lies in the fact that during OT times, it was normal to exaggerate military victories, to tell your side of the story as though God was always on your side. If you didn’t, that was just… well… weird.
So do those stories need to be literal? No.
Do the accounts of Jesus’ need to be literal? Maybe.
Is it okay for some parts of the Bible to be taken ‘literally’ and others not? Of course.
The New Testament Gospels
In the Gospels there are varying accounts of different parts of Jesus’ ministry, some of which are widely believed to be copied by each other.
Is there anything wrong with this?
Do we take Alistair Campbell’s Downing Street Diaries and say that everything in them must be false if it doesn’t add up with Blair’s “A Journey”? No, we use our intellect to deduce what has happened by reading in between the lines. Instead of suspending our beliefs, as fierce loyalists would seek to do, we instead engage with what is presented to us and come to conclusions about what happened.
I submit that we can do the same with the gospels. It doesn’t have to add up, make sense, be in the same order, say the same thing. What matters is the message beneath.
The consequence of these myths is that we end up with an idea that the Bible has an authority almost on a par with God himself, and becomes in an almost Douglas Adams-esque fashion, the “fourth person of the trinity”. If we affirm this plausible inerrancy, we reject the need for faith. When we affirm inerrancy ,we ascribe perfection to the creation rather than to the Creator. When we affirm inerrancy, we create an idol fashioned out of the same need for certainty and control that drove Adam and Eve to snatch divinity away from God.
Perhaps then the ‘Word of God’ is something else.
Perhaps it is the words of Jesus, as outlined in the gospels?
Perhaps it is simply Jesus himself, as suggested by the opening of the gospel of John?
Perhaps it is the hands of feet of Jesus, as the Church?
Perhaps it is not verbatim, but instead a sentiment, an idea, an expression of love?
Perhaps we can believe in the Word of God not simply because it is written but because we have seen and experienced it being lived out, and that living out makes so much more sense to us than words on a page. Perhaps then, we are the word of God?