How the Bible Is God’s Word [Questions That Haunt]

How the Bible Is God’s Word [Questions That Haunt] April 12, 2013

OK, it’s time for me to quit stalling and answer Jake’s question, which so many of you have already endeavored to answer here and here. Jake asked,

I’m having trouble with believing that the Bible is literally God’s words, God’s actually intended message to humanity. I’m also having trouble with taking the Bible as my sole authority. I always hear Christians in arguments say, “Do you have a verse for that?” or “Where in the Word-of-Gawd does it say that?” So my question is: Is the Bible really inspired, and should we take it as our sole authority?

Jake, I am teaching a class this semester at St. Cloud State University. It is a new experience for me for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve never taught undergrads before — only grad school students — so that’s been a fun, new challenge. And second, I am teaching “Introduction to the Christian Scripture.” If you know anything about theological education, you know it’s pretty rare for someone with a PhD in theology to teach courses in biblical studies, and vice versa.

Teaching about the sacred text of Christianity at a state university poses its own challenges, especially as someone like myself who trucks in having opinions on the text. I’ve had to disabuse some of the students of their preconceptions — for instance, I had to remind a couple of the students on the first week that we refer to him as “Jesus of Nazareth” in class, not “the Lord.”

The class has forced me to look (again) at the origins and composition of the New Testament. We’re using Bart Ehrman’s ur-textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, and I am listening to Ehrman’s lectures from The Teaching Company as part of my prep. Lately, as I’ve listened to Ehrman on my drive to St. Cloud, I’ve found myself yelling at him, “My god, get over it, man!” I’ve yelled that because, even in his “objective” lectures on the New Testament (unlike his trade books), Ehrman brings up over and over the contradictions between New Testament books. It’s a complete hang-up for that guy.

It isn’t for me. I don’t go into a book looking for complete coherence, and I surely don’t go into the library looking for that. And the Bible is nothing if not a library of 66 books. (One of my favorite novels, The Things They Carried, is basically a meditation on just how slippery historical narrative really is.)

Let me take your question point-by-point. You’re having trouble believing that “the Bible is literally God’s words.” The way that you’ve crafted even that sentence points to something. It’s one thing to say that the Bible is “God’s word,” it’s quite another to suggest that it’s “literally God’s words.” Those who affirm the latter statement tend to believe in a thing called “verbal, plenary inspiration,” the belief that those who wrote the Bible transcribed what God wanted them to say, word-for-word. Some even claim that writers like Paul were in a trance-like state when they wrote — that they were channeling God like a psychic might. As you might guess, this is position that’s brushed aside as ludicrous by virtually every scholar of the Bible. You’ve only got to read a couple of Paul’s letters, for instance, to see that his personality comes shining through. Paul’s fingerprints are all over the seven letters that he definitely composed. So, no, the Bible is not literally God’s words.

To your friends who ask, “Do you have a verse for that?” I’d just smile and change the subject if I were you. One of the worst thing that’s happened to the Bible is the addition of chapters and verses. To quote a single verse does an irreparable violence to the text, and I hope that all Christians will vow, with me, to stop doing that. If the Bible is in any sense God’s word, it surely isn’t that on a verse-by-verse basis. There are tens of thousands of verses in the Bible that have no edifying value and virtually no meaning outside of the book in which they reside.

To your question of whether the Bible is “really inspired,” well, the answer to that is purely a matter of faith. Depending on how one reads that question, you could say that all great literature is inspired; and, depending on your view of God, that it’s all inspired by God. And the Bible is nothing if not great literature. But, of course, your question is really whether the Bible is uniquely inspired. That is, is the Bible a unique revelation of God to humanity?

I believe that it is, and that is an article of faith for me. I will admit that I have a difficult relationship with the Bible, and it’s only become more difficult as I’ve gotten older and learned more about it. Let’s take the Book of Hebrews, for example. I don’t like it. I don’t like the anti-Jewish bias, I don’t like the talk of the necessity of blood for atonement, and I don’t like the obscure references to the order of Melchizedek. Hebrews made it into the New Testament because the Church Fathers thought it was written by Paul. Based on the writing style and theology, virtually no one thinks that today.

But there it is, a strange (if beautifully written) anonymous letter in the middle of the library that is the New Testament, demanding to be reckoned with. Strangely, one of the reasons that I believe the Bible to be inspired is because it is such a difficult collection of books. It’s too real to be a hoax.

Also, I find the Bible to be resonant with my own beliefs about God. It seems very clear to me that God is intricately involved with the cosmos, and even with human affairs. This is the unequivocal testimony of the Abrahamic religions, and I think it is generally counter to the human proclivities regarding God. When humans make up religions, they tend to be Gnostic — that is, they tend to preach a God who is pure spirit, and they exhort human practices that get to that God via strange, esoteric practices. The Bible, on the other hand, depicts a God who is almost shockingly attached to creation, even by dint of God’s own self-limitation.

The orthodox Christian answer — and one with which I concur — is that the Bible is not actually God’s word. Jesus the Christ is God’s Word, and the Bible is the unique testimony to Jesus. Insofar as the Bible witnesses to God’s revelation of Godself in Jesus of Nazareth, then the Bible is the testimony to the Word of God — but the Bible in and of itself is not God’s word.

Finally, should the Bible be your sole authority? Absolutely not! For one, God gave you reason, and your reason and intellect should temper any fideist leanings that you have. For another, human beings are essentially relational beings; we’re not meant to be alone, nor to interpret this collection of books alone. And thirdly, a great host of hermeneuts has proceeded you and me in interpreting this text — whatever we think of the Bible and what it means should be put in conversation with those who’ve gone before us. They don’t get to trump our interpretations, but they do get a voice in the conversation.

Jake, how one reads the Bible is at the very core of what it means to be a Christian. Every issue that has divided Christians in the past and that divides us today (women in the church, slavery, gay marriage, etc.) comes down to interpretation of the Bible. In other words, you’ve asked the most important question there is.

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