Putting the Bible in Its Place
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My immediately preceding post was about the canonization process of the Bible. Of course it did not cover all the “ins and outs” of that process or all the “ups and downs” of scholarship about that. But I tried to show, or at least express my opinion, that the canonization process was one in which humans were involved; the Bible did not just drop out of heaven as one fundamentalist book has it (viz., “That Manuscript from Heaven”).
Here I want to build on that and go further, theologically examining and expressing a Christian theological belief about WHAT THE BIBLE IS. Please permit me to “jump” right over two beliefs about the Bible that are simply untenable to me as an evangelical Christian.
The first untenable belief is that the Bible is a “flat book” in which every verse is equally authoritative for faith and practice. Included in this untenable view is usually the belief that the Bible interprets itself and there is no need for hermeneutics, the science of Bible interpretation.
The second untenable belief is that the Bible nothing more than “our sacred stories” in which “our” refers to Christians. Included in this view is usually the idea that “Christians” is like a culture and “our faith” is inspired by the biblical stories of Moses and Jesus, et al., but the Bible is not for everyone, everywhere. It is simply our Christian “classic” to which we return again and again for inspiration while interpreting much of it non-literally, especially all portions that seem to conflict with the “best of modern culture” meaning philosophy, science, etc.
Is there any view of the Bible “between” these two untenable views? Unfortunately, these are the only two views (and each has varieties) known to most people.
What do I mean by “putting the Bible in its place?”
First, the Bible is NOT “the Word of God” in the SAME WAY as Jesus Christ; it is not a book of magic or a divine book to be worshiped. Humans wrote it and it reflects human cultures and personalities.
Second, the Bible IS “God’s Word written” AS our primary witness to Jesus Christ and, interpreted correctly, our primary authority for Christian faith and practice.
Third, the Bible IS “the cradle that holds the Christ child” (Luther) and is NOT a book to which we turn for the answer to every question life brings (e.g., about modern medical science). In other words, the primary purpose of the Bible is to identify God for us (Hans Frei) and to bring us into life-giving encounter with Jesus Christ (Emil Brunner).
Fourth, the Bible does contain apparent errors which does not undermine the Holy Spirit’s ability to use it to speak truth into our lives. Emil Brunner used the analogy of a 78 rpm record being played on an old Victrola record player with a huge megaphone. (See the Victrola logo with the dog listening to Caruso’s voice.) The record has flaws but the dog listening hears his master’s voice nevertheless.
Fifth, that God used humans through historical processes, involving culture and debate (e.g., about the canon) does not require throwing the “baby out with the bathwater.” Nor does it require keeping the baby soaking in the bathwater without distinguishing between them.
Sixth, ultimately, belief that the Bible is God’s Word written, our authority for faith and practice, does require a “step of faith,” but, ultimately, that belief depends on whether a person or group “hears the master’s voice” speaking through it. That is, faith in Jesus Christ arises not through belief in a doctrine of the Bible but through the Holy Spirit communicating Jesus Christ to us through the words of scripture.
Seventh, and finally, our faith in the Bible is dependent on our experience of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, not the other way around. Our faith in the Bible as the Word of God written, in spite of its human character, depends on our encounter with Jesus Christ and the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit in connection with the Bible. Once we have that encounter and the faith it arouses in our minds and hearts, it is no longer essential to know the answers to every curious question about every detail of the Bible’s human origins, however interesting those might be.
I feel it is important, at least for some of you, for me to say which theologians who wrote about this subject helped me come to these conclusions about the Bible: Donald G. Bloesch and Emil Brunner. Once I read them, I knew they had to be right. They, together with some others, liberated me from the formidable and untenable choice between fundamentalism and theological liberalism.