What is the Bible? A Progressive Perspective

The following is a sermon that was delivered at Missiongathering Christian Church in San Diego, CA. 

I really love, and really dislike the Bible.

On one hand, there has been no book that has shaped my life more than the Bible. Since I was twelve, I’ve read the Bible daily, I have a degree in the Bible, and I quote the Bible frequently. I’ve traveled the world, seeking to walk in the footsteps of the Bible’s authors, and have relied on the message of Scripture in my moments of greatest challenge.

At the same time, I’ve also really struggled with the Bible. If I’m honest, there are times when I read the Bible and find it’s words completely unhelpful, uninspiring, or even offensive. There are sections of the Bible that I believe have sparked some of the greatest atrocities in human history. And most days, if I have the choice between reading the Bible or some other book, the other books win out. They tend to be more relatable, more enriching, and more inspiring.

So, like I said, I really love, and I really dislike the Bible.

Yet, over the years, there have been a number of things that have redeemed the Bible for me- not the least of which is learning what exactly the Bible is, how we got the Bible, and what the Bible is intended to be used for.

On one level, I am sure that many of us believe we know the answers to these basic questions about the most influential book in the history of the world. And yet, at another level, I believe that many of us would be surprised by the true answers to these questions.

To start, I want to give us a working definition of what the Bible is. For our purposes today, we’ll say the following:

“The Bible is a library of writings, recorded over a period of four thousand years, written by dozens of authors in various countries from primarily oral traditions, that record the history, myth, laws, and religious teachings and rituals of the Hebrew people.”

The Bible as we know it today- Containing the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament- was not compiled until well into the third  century. Our particular Protestant edition of the Bible leaves out numerous sacred writings that are considered by the majority of the Christian Church around the world to be official Scripture- these books are called The Deuterocanonical and the “Apocrypha” Beyond those books, there are also dozens of other texts that have been disregarded and suppressed throughout the centuries that also have been considered Holy Scripture to various groups.

At a surface, objective level, this is what the Bible is. Now, after the Bible was officially compiled, a theology began to develop around the Bible that took it from the status of being a text of stories and ritual and elevated it to the status of “divinely sacred”- literally believing that the hand or voice of God worked to compile this work.

They began to say that the Bible was “inspired” by God- that word literally meaning “in-spirited”, that the Spirit of God speaks through them as a unique channel to the community of faith.

And following the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s, Christians began developing a theology that saw Scripture not merely as sacred, but as divine themselves. The Bible began to be called “the Word of God” and was taught to have been dictated by God himself.

The Scriptures moved from being merely inspired by God to being inerrant and infallible- modern standards that the ancients wouldn’t have ever even thought to ascribe to the Scriptures- which meant that literally every word of Scripture proceeded from the mouth of God and therefore was absolutely true, factually correct, and was the final word on all matters that is spoke to- regardless of what science, history, reason, psychology, or any other discipline claimed to have discovered.

The Bible became, for Protestants, the “Paper Pope” and a rigid, so-called literal interpretation was declared to be the only permissible way to understand the Scriptures. The face value of the words was considered to be true, without any deeper context or room for interpretation.

This way of viewing the Bible has been the dominant view in American Christianity and in Conservative Protestant/Evangelical Christianity around the world for the past 2-300 years.

At the same time, Christians around the world that haven’t identified with the Protestant or Evangelical tradition have fought to maintain a broader understanding of Scripture that stays truer to the original use and intent. In the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Traditions, many Anglican Traditions, and Mainline Protestant traditions.

And of course, for most of the Jewish people in the world, the Bible has always remained open, flexible, and seen as a living text- something we’ll talk about in a few mins.

Now, the reason I am emphazing the difference between the traditional Protestant view of Scripture and the broader Christian and Jewish views of Scripture is because most of us here this morning likely have been exposed to this singular Protestant/Evangelical view of the Bible, but at Missiongathering, it is my hope that we would begin to move beyond that view of Scripture and begin to use it in what is actually a more historical and traditional way, which leads us to a more freeform usage and interpretation of Scripture.

Now, because the Bible was never intended to be a single book, but is a library of books written by dozens of people over thousands of years, we shouldn’t be surprised that it doesn’t give us a single coherent storyline or narrative, its understandings and conceptions of God differ based on who is writing and what context they’re in.

Has anyone else noticed this? Throughout Scripture, the main character- God- seems to go through a number of major changes.

The oldest book in the Bible is the Book of Job, and in that book, we see an image of God that almost none of us likely would relate to or believe in. God, in Job, is not a single God, but one of many Gods.

God is equal, in Job, to the character of Satan, and God actually makes a bet with Satan about the life of a human named Job.

Then in Genesis, we continue to see this pluralistic image of God- Genesis 1 refers to God as “Elohim”, a Hebrew word that literally means “Council of Gods” and God is referred to in the plural.

By the time Abraham arrives on the scene in Genesis 12, we begin seeing a singular reference to the monotheistic deity named Yahweh, and this God becomes a more consistent character throughout the rest of Hebrew history.

However, Yahweh is a God of war, of wrath, one who desires to see the world conquered by his chosen people and who demands allegiance to him through blood sacrifice- both of animals and humans.

By the time we get to Jesus in the New Testament, we see a dynamic shift in the way God is spoken about- Jesus intentionally amends Scripture he quotes from the Hebrew Bible, leaving out images of a God of war, wrath, or who thirsts for blood, and instead proclaims a God of justice, love, and grace.

After Jesus, we see a wrestling with in the rest of the New Testament between how the early Christians- who were all Jewish believers- conceive of God. We see some relying strongly of Jesus, and some reverting back to the traditional God of the Hebrew Bible. The Christian canon closes with an apocalyptic writing in the Book of Revelation where we see a mixing of both visions of God.

Again, because the Bible is not a single book but a library of books and people and times, this makes perfect sense. You would expect this from a bunch of random people writing random books that they never knew would be compiled into a single book and revered as Scripture.

But the other interesting and important aspect that the Bible gives us is that is shows us a comprehensive history of how human consciousness has evolved- how we have progressed as a species morally, spiritually, and physically.

In our oldest Scriptures, we see how our ancestors understood God and the world- as a deity that wasn’t necessarily good, or kind, and one that needed to be appeased through sacrifice and ritual. They cried out to God to provide rain, to control the weather, and to defeat warring tribes.

We then see an evolution to an organized legal and religious system from Moses onward, and we see Judaism emerge as a strict religion with fairly high moral standards compared to other groups that surrounded them.

Nonetheless, we have ample Scriptures that show us how the Hebrew people put words in the mouth of God as a justification for their conquest and violence done to others. After all, it can’t be wrong if “God said” to do it.

When the Temple emerges, we yet again see another shift, away from literal to more figurative ways of speaking and living- Judaism becomes a more official organized religion and is intertwined with politics and culture.

And again, in Jesus, we see a revolutionary turn away from a system of rules and rituals towards a simple life lived in service to our neighbors and our enemies is the way to embody true justice and spirituality.

In the later New Testament, we see a distinct leap away from these Scriptures and traditions being limited to Jewish people and expanding to all people of the world- called “Gentiles”, and this way of Jesus being lauded as hope for the transformation of the world.

Do you see the arc? Do you see the trajectory?

From a Garden to a city. From one person (Adam) to one family (Abraham) to a tribe to a race to a nation to all of Creation. From darkness at the dawn of Creation, to a world of light where there is no need for a Sun any longer in the book of Revelation.

Because the Bible was compiled over such a huge swath of time, it provides us with this unique glimpse and understanding into how humans once thought, and also shows us where some of our ideas and impulses come from as people.

See, in this way, the Bible is truly holy, sacred, and set apart.

There is no other book that has compiled so much wisdom, history, tragedy, stories, and teachings. There is no other book that has been used by billions of people on every continent as a source of wisdom, myth, and spiritual insight.

I like to say that I see the Bible as my spiritual family’s photo album- when I open it, I am looking to see where we’ve been, what I can learn, what I can learn from.

But I also must acknowledge too, the more mysterious and mystical reality of the Bible- that for some reason, the Spirit has worked through these particular words to heal, inspire, and nourish billions of people for four thousand years. These myths have shaped lives and societies. These instructions have shifted the way governments and families live. And every day, people pick up this book and hear a fresh, personal word from the Spirit.

That reality must also be acknowledged and held in tension as well.

Now, one question that some of you may be wondering is why I haven’t referred to the Bible as “the word of God”.

The reason that I haven’t ascribed this familiar phrase to the Scriptures is because it’s untrue.

The Bible is not the word of God.

In the Bible, the phrase “word of God” does not refer to the Bible itself. First, because the Bible didn’t exist when the Bible was being written, and no one knew that the Bible would ever be compiled. In this sense, it’s absolutely impossible for the Bible to be considered the “word of God” based on what the Bible says.

So if the phrase “word of God” doesn’t refer to the Bible, then what does it refer to?

Let’s look at two passages where this language is used most clearly. The first passage comes from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Hebrews. He writes:

“The word of God is living and active, sharper than a two-edge sword, piercing between bone and marrow, soul and spirit.”

If you grew up in church, it is most likely you were taught this verse and told it was talking about the Bible.

There are even youth groups that would do “Sword Drills” which was a cheesy way to make sure kids brought their Bibles to church.

But for a second, I want you to be a Biblical literalist with me.

What does this verse actually say?

First, it says that the word of God, whatever that is, is living and active.

In the early church, there was one unique claim that all Christians gathered around- do you know what that claim was?

That Jesus Christ was risen- that he was still alive, still active, still at work in the world.

Paul says that if Christians didn’t have faith in this claim, then our faith was meaningless.

At this point in history when these words are being written, the New Testament doesn’t exist, and the early Christians are beginning to be expelled from synagogues and broader Jewish community because they are seen as unorthodox.

Jesus directly amended, contradicted, and changed the words of the Hebrew Bible and violated its commands. Paul spills so much ink telling the early church that they are not bound by the Laws of the Hebrew Bible.

So, from this context alone, we can safely assume that whatever Paul is talking about probably isn’t the Hebrew Bible.

The Hebrew Bible, first and foremost, isn’t living and active. That’s a strange statement to make about a book. Second, the early Christians primary faith claim was that Jesus was alive and active in the world.

So, from logical deduction alone, we could assume that Paul is speaking of Jesus when he is speaking about “the word of God”.

To further prove this point, however, it would be helpful if there was some place in the Bible that directly referred to Jesus in this language.

And luckily for us, there is.

In the Introduction to the Gospel of John, the writer of the Gospel opens with these words:

“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.”

Fourteen verses later, the writer pens these words:

“And the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. And we beheld his glory, the glory of the Son of God.”

Here, in John 1, the writer is announcing the beginning of a new Scripture. He’s playing off of Genesis 1, the creation of the world, which begins with the words, “In the beginning” and has God using words to create the universe.

But the writer’s creation account begins not with God’s act of creation, but with a word that exists as God.

In other words, we’re getting a description of God. The word of God in John 1:1 is God. The word is with God and is God. The word is from God and is God.

And then, we’re told, that this word becomes flesh and dwells among us as the Son of God.

Clearly, this is a reference to Jesus.

This is the first time in the New Testament that the phrase word of God is used, and from the very beginning, it is used to refer to Jesus Christ himself, and not to the Bible.

So, based on context and logic, it becomes clear that when Paul later writes that the word of God is alive and active, he’s actually making a statement about Jesus and not the Bible.

Isn’t it interesting though, that in the modern American Evangelical context, Jesus is often replaced and confused with the Bible. Or rather, replaced by the Bible.

Instead of allegiance to the living and active spirit of Christ that continues to work, speak, and act in our world, many of us have confessed our allegiance to a book and our modern, literal interpretations of it.

And do you know what happens when we begin to take the Bible, instead of Jesus, as our central authority? When we say that every word of the Bible is equally authoritative and literally true?

We begin to do what our ancestors did- we use their examples and stories to justify war, oppression, and to make God in to the great justifier of our actions.

We begin to believe that we are a chosen people, just like in the stories of old, and that God has given us a mandate to conquer nations and tribes and lands in order to promote our version of “righteousness”.

When this kind of tool gets into the hands of the powerful, who are able to divorce the words from their context, and interpret them based on their singular worldview or perspective, this becomes a tool of manipulation rather than liberation.

We move backwards on the trajectory of human evolution instead of forward. Instead of following the Spirit of God, whom Jesus promised would “continue to lead us into all of the truth”, we become bound by the chains of what was once written.

This isn’t how Jesus used the Bible. It’s not even how the Jewish people have traditionally used the Bible. So, it shouldn’t be the way that we as 21st Century Christians use the Bible either.

At Missiongathering, let it be known that we’re all about Jesus. And yes, we get what we know about Jesus from the Bible. But we take the teaching of Jesus literally and we believe that he is living and active, and we seek to be faithful to him wherever his spirit leads.

Which sometimes may call us into contradiction with some of the things different authors of the Scripture have written. We will often be called to move beyond the static words of Scripture to see the principles behind them. But when we do this, we will only do this through the lenses and in devotion to Jesus.

Amen?

So, the big question that remains for us this morning is this: How then should we use the Bible?

I want to propose three ways that we, as a community committed to Christ, should use the Scriptures:

First, we should read the Bible always through the lens of Jesus.

When I say this, I mean that we should begin with the words of Jesus as written in the Gospels. For Christians, the Gospels were written to be our new torah, the place where all of our ethics, spiritual principles, and lessons come from.

The Gospels are a fairly reliable accounting of what Jesus actually taught and did, and as we engage with the rest of the Bible, we should always come back to the way that Jesus reinterpreted the Scriptures and the vision he casts for the world.

So, when we read about the God of the Old Testament calling for mass execution, we need to look through Jesus lens- he says to love our enemies and he did the same with his. Therefore, we take Jesus’ standard as ours and can learn from those older standards.

Second, we should read the Bible as a channel through which God still speaks.

Again, I don’t know how or why, but I do know that the Spirit of God speaks through the Scriptures in a unique way. Billions of people would testify to this experience and many of us in this room could as well. I want to encourage you to pick up the Bible, find a portion of it that really resonates with you, and ask God to illuminate and speak through it

Oftentimes, you will receive words that speak directly to your life, words of comfort, rebuke, or direction. This doesn’t have to be your only or even primary spiritual practice, but rooting ourselves in the Scriptures as a means through which the Spirit communicates is a historically Christian practice and it has enriched the souls of many.

Lastly, we should read the Bible to learn from the timeless wisdom of our ancestors.

At the end of this message, I also want to reiterate that while humans have evolved beyond many of the ways in which ancient people saw the world, we by no means have become superior to them. The wisdom that they had, the lessons they learned, and their experiences often mirror ours. The stories they told are full of meaning and truth, and the example they left is a good one. So, as we read the Bible, do so as a conversation with our forerunners in the faith, not taking all of their words or actions as absolutely true, but rather, listening for the wisdom and lessons that can enrich your life and that you can pass on to others.

These are three practical ways in which all of us can engage with the Bible. And I officially give you permission to experiment- get pissed off, disagree, wrestle, learn, and delight in this peculiar and holy book.

I promise you, you will be better for it.

 

 

 

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