Getting Theological: The Bible

If you’ve been reading the series of posts in which I “get theological,” then you might have noticed that I use and reference the bible sparingly.  A commenter on my very first post, on God, noted this immediately, saying that there “isn’t a whole of of scripture or Christ in your brief analysis.”  True enough.  In part this is because I think that there is plenty to say about God that is beyond the bible.  (Cue righteous indignation from certain Christians now.)

It will come as no surprise, then, that my understanding of the bible does not include the concept of inerrancy or infallibility.  That does not preclude me from having a sense of the bible as the word of God … it just means that I understand it’s authority differently.

First, the bible is a human book.  Written by humans, compiled by humans, shaped, ordered, and disputed by humans.  So everything I wrote about what it means to be human has an influence on what I believe about the bible.  Graced and broken.  Gifted and flawed.  Sainted and sinning.

Second, God works only and always through human beings, despite their flaws and limitations.  So when it comes to communicating truth, how else would it happen?  And how great it is, that this is how it happens.

Third, this means that our reading and interpretation of biblical texts, canonical, apocryphal, non-canonical, and those yet undiscovered, is part of an ongoing process of revelation.  God didn’t say everything that there was to say to human beings a few thousand years ago, and then stop.  As the UCC motto says, “God is still speaking.”  Thank goodness.

Because the world today is radically different as well as shockingly similar to the ancient world in which the canonical bible came to be.  It is different in that we confront social, political, and scientific realities that ancient authors couldn’t have imagined.  It is similar in that human beings have always been able to create amazing and inspirational communities, and always been captive to their own worst instincts and limits.

Do I think the bible is true?  I think it communicates some truths, yes.

Do I think that everything we need to know about God and the world is in the bible?  Of course not.

And yet it remains a powerful witness to truth, God, the world, and our human community throughout time.  It has authority in the same way that tradition has authority.  Until it doesn’t.

I have a lot of bibles in my possession, each signifying something about this book of books.  In my office you’ll find The HarperCollins Study Bible that is the standard for use in my classroom and scholarly work;  the Greek New Testament that I can’t read but picked up once I realized the bible had been written in ancient languages;  the RSV, NIV, NRSV, and other translations I’ve gathered over the years for comparative and teaching purposes.

Then at home there is another HCSB for good measure, a Good News Bible that was presented to me by the women of the church as part of our third grade Sunday School rite of passage (now there’s a “translation” not to be missed), and several other sacred texts that have found their way to me after the deaths of grandparents.

Two of those texts, worn from age and use, say something else entirely about the bible.  As we first flipped through one small old bible, two small black and white photographs fell out.  One is of eight cows and a grove of trees in the distance, with handwriting on the back:  Cattle sold April 1952.  The other is of a man on a tractor, snow-covered barn, barren trees, and chilly prairie landscape surrounding him, with handwriting on the back:  Winter 1952.

The other text is The Lutheran Hymnary with my grandmother’s name embossed on the cover, inscribed to her from her in-laws on her birthday in 1946.  Tucked inside it as a page marker perhaps, page 18 from a seed catalog listing soybean varieties and characteristics.

I tell these stories because whatever else I say or know or don’t know about the bible, I know that it has a unique role in many people’s lives.  It is personal, beyond just a book.  These artifacts of the daily lives of my grandparents, seeds, snow, cows, and tractors, were part of their lives and part of their faith and part of the tradition that I inherited.

So is the bible.

Christian communities have found in it source and sustenance for millennia.  It has also been the root of controversy and a weapon of choice.  It has cultural and political influence in this country whether you personally accept its truth or not.  And like tradition, the bible is something that each member of the Christian community has to reckon and wrestle with.  To see how it is graced and how it is flawed.  To take better care with how and when and why it is used.

To see it for what it is.  And what it isn’t.


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About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • (wwjd?)

    Sigh* (to be sincere I didn’t realy have the patience to read through to the end, but forgive me. And do see my view if you so wish)
    Do you really Think so? because it means your bound to believe anything. One of the sayings I like quoting is “further from the truth everything seems right”. And you may ask what is the truth? (I’ll handle that in a few words but before that).
    You had me when you said God works through people. That meant you believe he exists and you know he works through people. But on further reading contradicting what you said when you said that “the bible is written by y humans, compiled by humans,
    shaped, ordered, and disputed by humans” . How? No doubt people dispute the bible, but if you understand that the bible have only one writer who wrote it(works) through humans then you would see that the only bibles being shaped are not really bibles after all. (Forgive my ignorance and lack of knowledge of how the other bibles came about I know only the kjv ) the bible says “its secret would be hidden from the wise men” . I put this part of the bible here in this write up because I’m assuming that you also believe its words( a wise man trust hus understanding so much and because of that the secrets are hidden). Being wise and logical would keep you far from the truth.

    What is truth if we don’t know which and which are lies?
    Well I know that The truth is his word(that is the Bible ; another passage puts it thus “your word is truth”).
    Reading it with other books is like a drop of cyanide in a ton of water which probably looks safe and logically clean.

    Try reading it alone with out distractions and if you believe ask him to show you the truth.

    And sincerely you would see.
    In Jesus name.

    • Pseudonym

      Do you really Think so? because it means your bound to believe anything.

      I’m not Caryn, but I’ll have a go at this.

      That’s a risk, for sure. But it’s not a risk that’s unique to those who don’t accept the inerrance and infallibility of the Bible. There is no shortage of people (especially in the US) who claim to believe in an inerrant and infallible Bible, and believe anything.

      Fred Clark stated the problem far better than I can:

      “We claim that we are treating the Bible with great respect as the final arbiter of all things. But we are doing no such thing. What we are really doing is making our interpretation of the Bible the final arbiter of all things. Therefore what we are ultimately arguing is that WE are the final arbiter of all things. Our assertion, in other words, is not really that the Bible is inerrant, but that we are.”

      The modern insistence on certainty is a kind of idolatry, and it’s a particularly dangerous one, because the Bible isn’t the idol, we are. This is the very opposite of approaching scripture with humility. Humility is the most important protection against believing “anything”.

      Incidentally, the Bible never refers to any written text by the phrase “word of God”, “word of the Lord” or any similar title. We should, at the very least, follow its example.

      • Caryn Riswold

        Well put.

    • Pseudonym

      Oh, and one more thing.

      And sincerely you would see.

      …through a glass, darkly.

    • Caryn Riswold

      “Sigh* (to be sincere I didn’t realy have the patience to read through to the end” …

  • Frank

    This so clearly explains how someone could be for abortion on demand. Very telling indeed!

    • Caryn Riswold


  • Andrew

    So how do you discern God’s will then?

    • Caryn Riswold

      How do you?
      The bible is not the only way that human beings discern the will of God. It never in fact has been.

    • Johnson

      Through the continued revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was, is, and forever more shall be. Christ has come to teach the people himself.