Embracing the Humanity of the Bible: Listening for the Divine through Human Words

Embracing the Humanity of the Bible: Listening for the Divine through Human Words August 3, 2012

Many Christians hold to a doctrine of scripture that sees only the divine side of the documents, while significantly downplaying the human dimension. It’s almost as if they believe the writings came from outer space somewhere, magically appearing on earth as a complete book, directly from God. Others believe they were divinely dictated, leaving the writers to simply record what they were verbally given. As before, this view dehumanizes the bible. It doesn’t take seriously the cultural, linguistic, and historical situations present at the time, as well as the specific circumstances each writer addressed.

But what about the writers? After all, do we not refer to many of the works in the New Testament as letters and epistles, written by people like Paul, Peter, and James? These are real people, writing to real churches, addressing real situations, in real time. With this in mind, these sacred writings are essentially human documents. And, while God has chosen to uniquely witness through them, He has done so through human language, identifying with us through every stage of the theo-drama. In essence, they become divine when God breathes upon them and witnesses through them. In those moments, they are reliable witnesses that point us towards God.

A significant problem with maintaining a completely one-sided, divinely written bible, is that any notion of error, however minor, is quickly dismissed. The inconsistencies are either explained away or labelled as yet another example of a liberal reading of scripture.

As a reactionary move, many also attempt to argue that the original manuscripts are error-free. However, the fact that we do not possess any of those original manuscripts makes the point a moot one. How can you make a claim about original manuscripts when those documents don’t even exist? It’s as if this argument is one the system requires in an a priori sense, rather than one that exists as a result of careful analysis and thoughtful reflection.

Arguments in favor of a wholly divine document seem to exist because people are afraid the bible will lose all credibility and become untrustworthy without it. I disagree. If anything, they will be viewed with even less suspicion because we will no longer be afraid to treat them for what they are, human documents. The central message will retain its faithfulness and trustworthiness, but we will not be threatened every time we encounter a discrepancy, which usually has to do with geography, science and a time-based cultural idea (the ancients believed, for instance, that the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth).

I once heard Clark Pinnock outline what he termed a plenary profitability doctrine of scripture. In this model, the scriptures faithfully serve the purpose for which they were written, are profitable toward those ends, and will never lead us astray. Pinnock argued that the bible is first and foremost a collection of human writings that God speaks through by accommodating himself to the language, customs and cultures of the day. That is, he used what was at his disposal.

Similar to the incarnation, on which Christ took upon himself the totality of what it meant to be human, so in scripture, God incarnates by taking on the humanness of the writers and the situations they experienced at the time. These are not timeless documents, removed from the world of real life, but time-driven and time-determined pieces of literature. God led the writers along as wind moves along a sailboat, not in the sense of control, but enablement and inspiration. The documents are real, down to earth, living witnesses to God’s ongoing care and relationship with humanity. They are testaments to the ever-presentness of God’s life and our lives coming together. These are not some secretly coded, multilayered, cosmic writings, but living stories of God’s loving interaction with creation.

Scripture, therefore, is not a depository of propositional truth statements to be mined, but a witness to God’s gracious and redemptive activity. Scripture is story, a redemptive story, that seeks to draw people in and invite them to become apart of what God is doing in the world.

Scripture is an example of God using the finitude of human words as symbols of communication. Human language can never fully capture or convey all that God is, for the finite could never grasp the infinite in its totality. But, through human language, God testifies, works and acts to invite people into his action-story. Human words become a vehicle for divine witness.

However, such a view doesn’t mean that the book is perfect. No, what it does mean is that God accommodates to human words, ideas and cultural/historical situations to display his role in the cosmic, redemptive drama. God comes to dwell with us through human language, in spite of its inadequacies.

God speaks through and enlivens human words. It becomes a living and loving word precisely because of this. He works through the human language of story, metaphor, symbol and poetry. Even the historical accounts, wrapped as they are in cultural nuance, become vehicles of grace. God works through the imperfections of human language, and redeems it. He doesn’t feel the need to make corrections, but maintains the humanness of the documents to showcase his own beauty; a treasure in a clay pot.

God took the author’s words seriously, including their flaws, and uses it in a unique way to reach out to the world. We need to allow scripture to be free of our right-brain grip of certitude and learn the art of embracing the openness and ambiguity of the story and its characters. If God isn’t afraid of the human ambiguity in scripture, why should we? We’ve been given what we need to know to make us wise for salvation; filled as it is with parable, paradox and punctuations of uncertainty.

We can, however, be certain that God will lovingly and faithfully witness through the uncertainty of these human writings. We need not fear imperfection, but learn to embrace the perfect One within it – Jesus, the Living Word. We need to learn how to read scripture as it is, while embracing the depth of the Lord’s witness through it. When we learn to appreciate the humanity of the bible, we will be in a better position to listen to the divine voice that speaks through it. In order to understand what a passage means, we first have to understand what it meant. Then and only then will we be able to listen for the divine voice through the vehicle of human words.

This is the bible.


Jeff K. Clarke is a blogger and an award-winning writer of articles and book reviews in a variety of faith-based publications. Blog: http://jeffkclarke.com/, Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeffkclarke, Facebook: www.facebook.com/jeffkclarke

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  • Amen. This understanding, along with (in my opinion) being more truthful to how the Bible understands itself, is far more beautiful than what Brian McLaren calls “the constitutional framework.”

    • Jeff K. Clarke

      Thanks, Ryan. I think so too 🙂

  • Simon Nicholls

    The “divine only” view (like the notions of infallibility and inerrancy) is one that is never claimed in any of the writings that make up the Bible. We read of the scriptures being “God-inspired” but that is a rather different thing.  We hear “the Word of the Lord came to…” but that too is a different thing and of limited scope. So the very idea is only read into scripture from elsewhere. Good post.

  • Jesuslovesyoutoo

    2 Timothy 3:16

    •  “All scripture is inspired of God…” exactly. I alluded to this point above. And, Pinnock’s profitability doctrine echoes this verse as well.

      • Kelly

        What “scripture” was the writer of this passage referring to? Wouldn’t it be the old testament? This is a sincere question, I don’t know the answer.

        • Bingo, Kelly, despite clever attempts to make the canonization process hundreds of years later work retroactively to change what the writer meant.

  • KC

     beautifully eloquent  and divine in itself. God is still using His human’s writings to inspire and bless.

  • Brigid O’Carroll Walsh

    I take a similar but different view. I’m rather big on community and tend to see the world through this lens. My view is – particularly when people complain about some of the things in the Old Testament – that these are/were narratives, documents valued by communities of faith. These narratives were important to these communities and so have survived. For this reason alone they demand to be valued.

    The other thing to remember is that the Biblical books and letters can be read in different ways, at different levels. One can go hunting for doctrines. One can examine and define the literary style. One can intellectualise what is written – or one can spiritualise.

    I prefer to read the narratives as God’s relationship with communities of faith. The communities (either in the Old or New Testament) are not perfect. The communities get things wrong, misunderstand. The communities defer too much to the powerful – religious or political or populist. But in all this there is a divine and transcendent longing – on both sides of the relationship. And these are the records we have of historic yearnings and divine interventions.