I love the Bible.
I never tire of excavating the scriptures for new theological insights, provocative challenges for more ethical behavior, and soul-nourishing inspiration for grappling with the human condition. The sacred texts are beautiful. Although I read the same passages over and over again, I am continually amazed by how simultaneously heart-wrenching and thought-provoking they can be.
It’s worth repeating: I love the Bible.
While I now have no trouble admitting my affinity for the Bible, I wasn’t so sure about it just a few years ago. At the time, I was undergoing a crisis of faith. It was a culmination of many things. I had recently developed a more open-minded posture in my professional and personal life. When I tried to apply this to my spiritual life, things got tricky. First, I questioned my theology–beginning my journey with John Macquarrie’s Principles of Christian Theology. Then, I questioned my church–reading a history of the denomination that transformed my view of it. Finally, I listened to a lecture series on the development of the Christian Bible…and that’s where things really got interesting.
This lecture series completely decimated my faith in the Bible as the “Word of God,” and it took me a while to reconstruct my understanding of the scriptures into something meaningful again. As I went through Luke Timothy Johnson’s Great Courses series, The Story of the Bible, and did some corresponding research and fact-checking, I learned that before becoming the “Word of God” as I was raised to understand it, the Bible had to be:
- Written. I was raised to believe that the Bible was “revealed” to its writers in a straightforward manner and written down verbatim according to the utterances of the Holy Spirit. It turns out, that’s not how it happened. It was actually written over centuries by a bunch of different people in a bunch of different places. And there are internal inconsistencies (alternate Creation/Noah’s ark stories, the Synoptic Gospels, etc.) precisely for this reason. Although some of the Bible writers claim some sort of divine inspiration, others simply write the text without comment on the justification. Still others are blatant expressions of human feelings (perhaps divinely “inspired” but likely not divinely dictated) in the form of poems, prayers, and songs (Psalms). Two books (Esther and Songs of Solomon) say nothing of God whatsoever. The author of Luke (who also writes the Acts of the Apostles) explicitly says that he’s writing his Gospel, not because the Holy Spirit told him to, but rather because he’s seen many others do it and just thought he’d give it a go. Paul admits that some of his thoughts are from God while others are his own opinions (1 Corinthians 7:10-12). One Bible writer criticizes the writing style of another Bible writer (2 Peter 3:16). I could go on and on, but the point is this: in whatever way the writings of the Bible are “inspired by God,” they are much more human compositions than I was raised to believe.
- Canonized. This revelation was perhaps the most jarring: that the Bible (66 books; 39 OT and 27 NT) I was raised to accept as the complete and final authority of God was not agreed upon as such until 397 AD. That’s over 350 years following the death of Jesus–more than a century longer than the United States has been a nation. That means that the first several generations of the early church did not have a Bible. What they did have was miscellaneous letters, books, and collections of letters of books–some which are in our Bible today and some which are not. The first proposal for a fixed canon of books wasn’t even suggested until the end of the second century–150 years after the death of Jesus. The debate over which books should and shouldn’t be included proceeded in a haphazard fashion across nearly two centuries. Some of the writings of early church fathers even reference scriptures that didn’t make the cut. Even today, different texts are used in the Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern churches. What all this tells me is that, as beneficial as the scriptures are to the church, there is something more fundamental to its existence. The story of Jesus and the experience of the Holy Spirit in the community preceded the existence of a codified document spelling out the right doctrines and practices for Christians.
- Copied. Here’s another shocking revelation: we don’t have the original Bible. All the manuscripts we have of every text are copies (or, more frequently, copies of copies). Not only that, but no two manuscripts of the same text are precisely identical. As you would expect from ancient people hand-copying lengthy texts onto parchment, there are countless errors. Some have words missing. Others have words added. Still others leave out entire passages. Most striking, perhaps, is that the earliest manuscripts do not contain the end of the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16:9-20), the story of the Woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), or the explicit statement on the Trinity (1 John 5:7). These were later additions that were used by the church for over a thousand years before people realized it. This begs the question: which passages are “inspired?” Which words did God want left out? Which words did God want added? Chances are, the Bible you’re reading today has a vast array of footnotes informing you of the textual variants in different manuscripts. If the Bible was to be God’s direct and infallible revelation to mankind, why do these variants exist?
- Translated. The Christian Bible was originally written in Greek. In Western Christianity, it was then translated into Latin–a version used by most of Christendom for nearly a thousand years. Then, it was translated into German, English, and so on. Of course, the problem is that words lose some of their original meaning when they’re translated. Some words are overly simplified in the new language (like “love”); others don’t easily translate, because the concept doesn’t quite exist in the language they’re translated into (like “Apostle”). There are many translation issues that have caused a stir in the history of the Bible. Perhaps the most egregious is the word translated as “virgin” in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible used by the writers of the New Testament). In the original Hebrew, the term simply meant “young woman.” Ordinarily, this would not have been a big deal–except that it came to be believed that the Messiah would have to be born of a virgin, as opposed to simply a young woman. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin. But, scripturally speaking, it means that he actually didn’t have to be.
- Read. The problem with believing that the Bible is to be a literal, word-for-word judge for an individual’s proper belief and conduct is that, for most of Christian history, the vast majority of Christians did not have access to the Bible. Today, there is approximately one printed Bible (based only on those printed in a single year, plus there’s digital Bibles, smartphone apps, and the Internet) for every 200 people. At the time of the printing press, however, there was approximately one Bible for every 20,000 people. (Note: my math may be sketchy on this. I basically divided the population at the time by the number of extant manuscripts; but, it’s close enough). And, if a community was even lucky enough to have a Bible, few could read it. Expecting people to be personally responsible for properly understanding and following the text presupposes the privileges of access and literacy. Most Christians throughout history have had neither.
- Interpreted. After everything, the Bible still must be interpreted. If you grew up understanding the Bible in a fixed, inflexible way–that’s just because someone else did the hard work of interpreting for you, and you simply accepted it. How much of Revelation is literal and how much is figurative? Was the world really made in six 24-hour days? Does the sun revolve around the earth? How important is speaking in tongues? Are we saved by faith, works, or both? Is God okay with slavery? What about genocide? What happens to us when we die? What is the meaning of baptism? Should we “allow” women in ministry? Is “homosexuality” a sin? Is God in control of everything and, if so, how can we still have free will? Different people have answered these questions in different ways at different times. That’s why there have been so many movements, denominations, and sects within the church throughout history. At the end of the day, everyone brings to bear on the text their own personal and cultural biases. We’re all interpreters.
After you’ve investigated all this yourself, you may go through a period of doubt and deconstruction just like I did. When you face the reality of how the Bible came to be, it’s kind of hard to avoid. If God is not a God of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33), then it seems pretty clear to me that the Bible cannot be God’s exclusive means of communication.
My “Biblical View of Everything”
“Now, wait a second,” you say, “I thought this was going to be an article in support of the Bible!” Well, actually, I think that it is. Let me explain…
Just last week, celebrated Christian pastor and Bible translator Eugene Peterson revealed to a reporter that his views had evolved on the subject of same-sex relationships–affirming the sanctity of same-sex marriage. Just a day later, however, he recanted the affirmation–making the following statement.
To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.
My initial response, as was that of many others, was, “What does ‘a Biblical view of everything’ even mean?” Let’s just, for the moment, consider the hard-line stance of a ‘Biblical view of marriage.’ Which Biblical view of marriage was he referring to?
- The one that allows men to have multiple wives? (Exodus 21:10)
- The one that commands the rapist to marry his victim? (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)
- The one that suggests marriage is just a temporary arrangement and that we are all ultimately bound to be asexual? (Matthew 22:23-33)
- The one that condemns those who forbid marriage? (1 Timothy 4:3)
- The one that affirms those who have a natural, same-sex orientation as people created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14)?
I affirm the Biblical view of marriage too, just a different one than Peterson does. Some might find it scandalous to suggest that the Bible holds contradictory perspectives on any given issue. But when you really look at it, it’s hard to get around this reality. Some examples?
- Jesus said both “whoever is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30) and “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).
- Jesus said both that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34) and that he who lives by the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52).
- The Bible says that God does not change his mind (Numbers 23:19), but Moses changes God’s mind about destroying the Israelites (Numbers 14), God “regrets” making mankind and decides to destroy it with a flood (Genesis 6), and a woman changes Jesus’s mind about healing her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28).
- Paul says that Jesus existed in the form of God and merely took on the form of a servant (Philippians 2:5-8), while Peter says that Jesus was a human being “made Lord and Christ” by God (Acts 2:36).
- Slaves are encouraged to obey their masters (Colossians 3:22), but the dichotomy between master and slave is also supposed to be abolished (Galatians 3:28).
There are countless other examples of “contradictions,” (I prefer the term “variations”) and these probably aren’t even the best ones. The point I’m trying to make is this: that we all have a certain hermeneutic when we read the Bible; we all have a lens through which we funnel texts so that we can alleviate the discomfort of our cognitive dissonance. No one takes the Bible “as is,” or uses a “plain reading.” There is no such thing.
So, what we do is this: we pick out the scripture that aligns with our worldview and then reconcile the other scriptures to it. Of course, this is a simplistic observation. Sometimes, the scriptures do actually change us and we come to see things in a new light. More often than not, though, we already have our minds made up–and we go to the scriptures to simply reinforce what we already believe.
- If we want to exclude people from the community, we’ll say that Jesus meant the thing about “whoever is not for me is against me,” while the other saying must have been specific to the context.
- If we’re pacifists, we say that Jesus meant the thing about not living by the sword, but the idea that he did not come to bring peace must be some kind of metaphor.
- If we want to believe that God does not change, then we’ll say that God didn’t really change his mind; that’s just how it appeared.
- If we want to believe in a more human Jesus, we’ll argue that the Philippian passage is referring to the Spirit of God being emptied into the human Jesus.
- If we want to justify exploiting an entire race of people and using their slave labor to build our country and fatten our wallets, we’ll say that the freedom in Galatians refers to “salvation” but not to temporal reality on this earth.
I’m not saying that I don’t do this. Of course I do. Everyone does. The Bible is a complicated book and, if you’re looking to it for moral guidance, you’ve got to decide what kind of direction you want to be headed in. Personally, I have an ethical hermeneutic (how I use the Bible to help me adjudicate right from wrong) based on Galatians 5:14, which says, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
I funnel everything through love. If following a principle is inconsistent with love, then I must be reading it wrong. It’s all about how I treat people. Of course, there are moral ideas that are not inherently relational–prayer, worship, aesthetic purity, sacred spaces, spiritual rituals, etc. As a follower of Jesus, however, I think the relational should always take precedence over the ritualistic. This, I believe is what Jesus was saying when he broke the Sabbath in order to heal a crippled man (Mark 3:4):
“Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”
The Magic of Messy
When I say that I affirm a “Biblical view of everything,” what I mean is that I affirm a complex, nuanced, diverse, dialectical, and radically human view of everything. Because the Bible, like life on this giant spinning rock, is complicated.
There are no easy answers. There is paradox and uncertainty. There is violence and cruelty. There is sin and frailty and failure. There is death and destruction and evil and hell.
But there is also faith, hope, and love. There is grace and mercy and compassion and empathy. There is inspiration and community and redemption and restoration. There is life and reconstruction and goodness and heaven.
Just like life, the Bible is messy–but that’s exactly what gives it its magic. I love the Bible, not in spite of its complexity, but because of it. The Bible is a microcosm of the human experience. That’s why I love the Bible. Not because it’s simplistic and straightforward and easily manageable. I love the Bible, because it cannot be contained–because it’s bigger and deeper and wider than any of us could ever imagine. In that sense, yes, I believe the Bible is absolutely inspired by God.
I’ll say this, though: if you’re looking for a rule book, you probably want to avoid the Bible. It will just confuse you. Instead, you should just ask your church or pastor what you should believe and/or do. You can go to the scriptures that are pointed out to you, and interpret them in the way you are told to read them. And, if you don’t think too hard or ask too many questions, you’ll be satisfied. If that’s what you’re into, go for it.
But that’s not the Bible. If you read the Bible, you won’t be getting a simple explanation for what to believe or a clear direction for what to do. The Bible will not serve as a surrogate for your critical thinking or your moral agency. If you approach the Bible for what it is, it will challenge you. It will confuse you. It will take you all over the place and back again. Because, despite what you may have been told, when you read the Bible, you are not reading a single story; you are reading an anthology.
And it may just be the greatest anthology ever compiled.
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