Given the reality of literally thousands of textual variants, which make discerning the original text at times virtually impossible, how can one be certain? Add to this the bits of Scripture, like the wonderful story woman caught in adultery, that somehow appear in text several centuries later. And enough difficulties and ambiguities and uncertainties in translation to drive most scholars mad. Is Scripture the Word of God? Of course it is.
Scripture IS the Word of God.
But what is “is”? That pesky odd little intransitive verb in English. Verbs, in English, are supposed to do something, change something – they are, by definition, action words. Not so for ‘is’. “Is” is quite the opposite. And therein lies a problem. Let’s assume your eyes are blue. If I say ‘your eyes are blue’ that would be a true statement. But blue is more than your eyes. Other things are blue too. The sky. Oceans. Levis. My old 66 Valiant. And there are blue tones, indigo for one, that don’t even resemble your eyes. Plus your eyes are more than blue. They’re also black and white and in the corners red. They are cones and rods and gooey stuff. Blue is more than your eyes and your eyes are more than blue.
So ‘is’ doesn’t limit or define either your eyes or the colour blue. Is doesn’t make them identical.
The Bible is the Word of God, but it is not all of the Word of God. The Word of God is far greater than the Bible. And, similarly, the Bible is more than the Word of God. “Is” doesn’t make them identical, it gives them shared properties. They share some common elements. ‘Is’ doesn’t make things synonymous – is creates a connection, links the realities.
So what does it mean to say the Bible is the Word of God?
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, , , So begins the well-known prologue to John’s Gospel, an in that poetic prologue, logos [usually translated as 'word'] is the agent, the method, the conduit by which God created everything. Through logos everything was made and nothing was made was made except through logos. But the world wasn’t created through the Bible, it wasn’t even around then. There was nothing then, only void, And then God spoke and light was, God spoke and earth was, God spoke and cows were. Etc.
Well if logos is the Word of God and it made the world, clearly then the Bible is not that Word of God. The bible is a book. What we are saying when we say that the Bible is the Word of God is that the Bible partakes of the same energy, same quality as that logos/agent-of-creation.
Language, our logoi, fails us, especially around the word is, but we can approximate what we mean: The Bible expreses the Word of God, witnesses to the Word of God, provides access. Etc.
We are speaking a poetic truth, a metaphoric truth, when we say that the Bible is God’s Word. It’s shorthand. Sometimes though, the Bible is just text. Simply words on a page. Those words become for me the Word of God when the text fuses with the Spirit, God’s breath, and somehow I inhale that Spiritfusedtext into my heart and brain and suddenly it explodes and I am changed – convicted, comforted, bewildered, excited, angered, chastened, held, etc. It is God’s breath breathing onto those consonants and vowels and punctuation and making it come alive inside me, inside the community, making Word happpen - 'Word-izing' - in that instant we are experiencing Divine logos, the Word of God, tearing/breaking open our innermost reality, . . . or in the ancient metaphors a sword cutting open spirit and soul.
This is where faith comes in for me. The Bible, for me, is not like other text. Good poetry can come close, Donne or Rilke for example, but it’s still not the same. Good literature can too, Shakespeare or Lawrence or Atwood sometimes. But its still not the same. How is that? Dunno. The difference is not amenable to positivistic analysis. Not left brain determined. In the Qu’ran the Prophet (peace be upon him} challenges anyone to write anything as beautiful or powerful as the Qu’ran. No one could. When I say there is something qualitatively different about the Bible I am speaking a devotional truth, not positivistic fact. It’s the same as saying ‘I am married to the most wonderful woman in the world” – that is a true statement, but it is a truth of devotion, a poetic truth, not historical or scientific data.
So what do I believe about Scripture? One of the clearest self-explanations by Scripture comes in 1 Timothy: Every Writing is breathed by God, and profitable to teaching, for admonishing, for setting straight and for instruction in right living, so that God’s people may me up to the task, have what they need for every good work. I find I agree with each element:
- Exhaled by God, yep, and inhaled by me/us.
- Profitable for teaching. Yes. I’m a pastor after all. Though I guess that doesn’t prove much.
- For admonishing/critiquing. I have known its pinpoint precision too often in my life.
- For setting straight, living right. Continuously.
- So that we might be adequate/up to the task. One of the Hebrew names for God is Shaddai, the One who is enough/adequate. Engaging with Scripture is one way God’s adequacy clothes us.
Nowhere of course does it say that the Scripture/Writing is infallible/inerrant. That docrtine developed much later. Infallibility in our world is always a slippery slope. Weary of all the ambiguities, we long for that kind of certainty. Catholics developed the idea of papal infallibility. Evangelicals criticized this, but developed their own version . Catholics tried to get off their slippery slope by saying there are only certain occasions when the pope is infallible. Evangelicals have had difficulty too – it means going through some odd contortions. You have to say that there are not two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis, in which creation occurs in different sequence, there are in fact one, even though it seems quite clear to the casual reader there are two. Similarly Jesus had to have cleansed the temple twice – because John places it at a different point in Jesus’ ministry. And we have to ignore the fact that Matthew, apparently not understanding Hebrew poetic repetition, has the disciples picking up two donkeys, one younger than the other, and Jesus somehow riding the two of them into Jerusalem.
Even Billy Graham, in these latter days, has come to recognize that the Bible is not infallible in detail.
But all this just goes around the perimeter, doesn’t really get at the heart of what is for me the truth of Scripture. For me it’s not about the objective truth of Scripture, because fundamentally Scripture is never the object – it’s the subject of every sentence that I am in, and I am the object. What matters is how Scripture changes me, and its power to do so is in no way enhanced or diminished by either scientific method or footnoted claims of inerrancy. “I will restore to you the years that the locusts have eaten” isn’t about data, its about the soul, and violation, and promise.
Take for example the story of the virgin birth – I believe it and think it’s important, for the same reason Karl Barth does, because it specifically leaves the male out of the picture. Maleness, in the hapless figure of Joseph, stands bewildered and left out as Mary, woman of the earth, is impregnated by God. The scientific possibilities/limitations of parthenogenesis, don’t matter much to me. I don’t much care about Jesus’ Y chromosome. It’s the truth of the story that matters, not the facts of the story. Similarly, I love the Nativity story, no room at the inn and all. But there was another legend about the birth of Jesus, that it took place in a cave, and Joseph, after placing Mary in the cave runs out to try to find a midwife. Off he goes knocking on doors. Trying to do the male thing, help fix a problem. And he misses the whole blessed event. Different story. Same truth. If I found out that the cave story was more historical than the barn story would I care. Not at all. Same truth. It’s the truth that changes me, not its historicity, not its factuality. I believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus in part because I have experienced resurrection in my own life – and I could care less about the bonds between the molecules of the Risen Jesus, and how it could be that he passed through doors and could pick up fish. Talk about straining out gnats and swallowing camels. This isn't a postulation or treatise, it's narrative, a narrative that transforms human lives.
Scripture is far more capable of judging me than I am of judging it. Let other minds worry about inerrancy or historicity or whether Paul wrote this or that. I have too little time in this life to worry much about that kind of stuff [or maybe it’s just someone else’s call]. I can't be bothered worrying about all that. I need to worry about whatever it is that it is breaking open within me. "It ain't the parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand." [Mark Twain]
Even as I write this it all still seems like such left brained crap, these words can’t even come close to explaining what a single breath-drenchedgodthought does once it leaps off the page of Scripture and burns into my mind my heart, my guts, and suddenly everything is turned upside down and nothing makes sense and at the same time everything makes sense and I am afraid and ecstatically happy and humbled and exalted and it is all happening at the same moment and it is the process of Scripture coming alive inside me. And I have no words for that. No doctrine. No hermeneutic. It’s just God laughing at my stupidity and somehow getting me to laugh at it too, it's this calloused heart suddenly juicing with some unexpected love or hope, and I can hardly breathe i.e. hardly inhale any more. That’s not about text per se, not about consonants and vowels. It’s about whateverthehell-logos-is leaping inside, and if I think for a moment I am not going to think any more about this then there is such a fire burning within me and I get weary from trying to hold it in and I cannot.
And I don’t know if fundies get that. I know I didn’t when I was one. I was too scared. Thought God needed my protection. Not sure if liberals get it. Requires a lot of passion and liberals fear that above all. It might lead to excess, or ecstacy, or something. But I know that some people get it. That I am not alone. That it’s not madness, though it’s close. Or maybe it is madness, but how great is that madness.