Sunday, April 28, 2013

One More Time, With Feeling: "The Bible says..."

...nothing, and many things. The Bible does not talk, it is not alive. It records what other people (and beings) said. God says things. Yes the Word of God lives, and it is incarnated in Jesus Christ. But the Word of God is not simply the words of the Bible. God says things all the time to His people, even today. That Word, that proceeds from the mouth of God, is alive. I don't doubt that some of the Bible's words are the words God spoke, and so ARE the living Word of God. But discerning this isn't as simple as reading whatever is there are proclaiming it to be God's Word.

The Bible is not a book, it is a collection of books. And those books, incidentally, are actually usually collections of other sources, mostly oral traditions. Whenever fundamentalists or atheists quote the Bible, they almost inevitably commit the same stupid mistake. They say things like "The Bible says,". The fundamentalist then quotes whatever part of the Bible they happen to agree with and give it the authority of the divine. The atheist then quotes whatever part any sane person would disagree with and then act as if I am forced to giving it the authority of the divine. In both cases they sound pretty ignorant, to me. For most Biblical scholars know that the Bible is an anthology and that in any anthology one is likely to find a variety of positions on important matters. The collection we call The Bible was written over 1500 years by hundreds, yes HUNDREDS of writers. Isn't it prima facie unreasonable to believe that a unified message on almost any important subject is unlikely to be contained in such a text?

I go one step further. Not only do I think the Bible is an anthology, I think it is something like a collection of theological debates. I do not think it is just by chance that Jeremiah contradicts Deuteronomy when he says that a true prophet is either a prophet whose prophecies come true OR a prophet who tells you what you do not want to hear. No, I think that Jeremiah knows of the Deuteronomic tradition and adds to it to speak to his own direct encounter with God. Jeremiah is saying in essence, "Deuteronomy is incomplete on the issue of true prophecy. It is more complex than just 'being right'."

People are arguing all the time about whether the Bible is God revealing Himself to mankind, or mankind reaching out to God. Is it God's thoughts, or man's thoughts about God? This seems like a false dichotomy to me. Remember, fallacies of bifurcation are the most common when it comes to religion (black/white, all/nothing, false dichotomy). Barth solved this problem a long time ago. The Bible is not the Revelation of God, but the record of God's revelation. God revealed Himself to people. Really revealed Himself. People wrote and thought and talked in response to that revelation. They struggled with what they had just encountered. God is infinite, is it any wonder that an encounter with Him spawned conversations that often contradict. Even physical objects lead to contradicting theories in science.

So the Bible is both God and man. Figuring out which is which, is not easy. But it takes a familiarity and a study of the entire set of texts. Each book is like one person putting their hand on one small part of God. They do what all humans do, and extrapolate beyond their experience and build bigger and more overarching pictures. The correct way to really understand God is to look at ALL those pictures and use your reason to try to tease out what it all means. It is more like a mosaic than a photograph. You have to step back and look at the overall. Historical study helps, as it can give you some perspective on the biases of the person writing. Those biases may be positive or negative (not all biases are bad, I am biased to believe that tomorrow will be in many important ways very much like today, even though technically this is not logically, necessarily true; but this bias is not a bad bias, it makes induction possible). Using your own reason, your own personal religious experience, simple ethics, faith, the Holy Spirit, other people's perspectives, and more, to weed through the books to get a good picture, well this is just the work of being a human being. God is infinite, you are not.

1 comment:

  1. "So the Bible is both God and man." Beautiful, just beautiful, Josh.