Many Christians today are increasingly unsure about how to “take” the Bible. To borrow from the childhood game “Mother, May I?” I’d suggest we take two giant steps back. We need to move ourselves back to challenge two assumptions that block our comfort with the Holy Bible.
First, Christians typically view the Bible as the “Word of God.” Following the reading of the scriptures during a worship service, many congregations respond, “Word of God, thanks be to God.” How hearers exactly define God’s authorship varies, but typically there is strong conviction that the contents of the Bible come from God and represent God’s will and nature.
The implications of reading the Bible as God’s words lead to the second stumbling-block assumption: Everything in the Bible must be true if it is “of God.” (A digression here: In a future blog I will talk about “truth” and “inspiration,” but for the time being, I’m talking about the Bible being truly the words of God and thereby, being correct, accurate, and “true.”)
While most Progressive Christians have stopped thinking of the Bible as literally and historically true, much less scientifically true, remnants of these uneasy assumptions often create Bible-avoidance or Bible-rejection. There is a tendency to think that parts of the Bible are true and parts are not—leading to uncertainty about which are which. By wishing to avoid the uncertainty, many of us avoid the Bible, but in doing so we have “thrown the baby out with the bath water.”
By adopting a new perspective on the scriptures, a new way of looking at the Bible, we can sincerely value the written record of ancient Judeo-Christianity. We can even move beyond mere Christianity, to a “Clear Faith,” breaking down the walls between all religions. I write about this point of view in my book, Clear Faith: Clearing Away the Stumbling Blocks for a Faith that Makes Sense.
That new perspective, which may by now be quite familiar to Progressive Christians, is viewing the Bible as a completely human document—created in its many genres by humans, written down by humans, interpreted by humans, and acted upon by humans. Some of the multitudes of biblical contributors were no doubt inspired by their God-experiences and wrote out of those experiences. From them we can be blessed to compare our own God-experiences and discover community over centuries. Other contributors put down opinions about how the world came to be, why bad things happened, why a system of rewards and punishments seemed to be at play, and how God used both nature and human nature in that system. Still others interpreted previously-written parts of scripture for their time, or offered their theological perspectives to their readers.
The assumption that God directed the content of scripture is inaccurate. Does the Bible contain any God-wisdom? Almost certainly. Did God give it to the writers to write down? Not likely. The question concerns God’s intentionality and culpability. Once we acknowledge that the Bible is a human document, through and through, God is off the hook for endorsing any of its content.
The second stumbling block, that of the Bible’s “truth” (What parts are “God’s truth” and what parts are not?) crumbles with the removal of the first assumption. If the Bible is a human production, then of course we will allow it to have errors, discrepancies, and bad judgment. It is fully subject to its historical, geographical, ethnic, and intellectual context. It contains Godly wisdom, but not outside of its human context and not without layers of human interpretation and human intention. The Bible is a wonderful compilation of human faith writings that reach across centuries of ancient history. Period. With that perspective we can take giant steps forward.