Which words are THE WORD?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Back in my first post on women in church leadership, I spelled out my approach to the Bible by saying, “I strongly believe that the Scriptures are the written Word of God.”  One blog reader asked me what I meant by this statement: did I mean to say that every bit of the Bible is the word of God?  The reader wrote:
I believe that much of the Bible is the inspired word of God as interpreted by the person writing it.  However, much of it is a history of the Jews.  Many parts of it are political writings set forth to enhance the writer’s power. Certainly there are parts that I do not believe are the “word of God.”  The prime example might well be in Joshua when the Israelites kill all the people (including women and children) and livestock in a town that they are attacking, supposedly on the orders of God.  This is not the loving God of all people in whom I believe.  If one believes the Bible to be infallible, then God really did order these terrible acts.  I don’t believe that.  Thus in my opinion anyone who does believe that is misguided.
This is a thoughtful, well-considered position, and it shows how we can disagree about how to read the Bible.  It is important for each believer to come to some conclusion–however fluid it remains–of what the Bible is, exactly.  Christians often refer to the Bible as “God’s Word,” but what does that actually mean?  How is it “the Word”?  How much of it is “the Word”?  And what kind of authority does it carry?  Referring to the Jewish Scriptures, the apostle wrote, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:26-27 TNIV)  But what does it mean that the Scripture is “God-breathed”?
I believe there are basically three positions on the Bible and the Word of God.
1. The Bible IS the Word of God written.  This first position could actually be split in two, but the basic assumption is the same.  On the top end, these believers might use extra words like “infallible,” “inerrant,” or even “verbally-inspired” to intensify the authority of the Bible as God’s Word.  Others, who might not be as emphatic as the first group, are content just to say that the Bible is God’s Word, without any qualifiers.  This second group, influenced by John Calvin and Karl Barth, might concede that the Bible is ultimately a witness to the Word-made-flesh, Jesus Christ (while still believing the Bible is the written Word).
  • Strengths: This kind of thinking, which takes seriously our depraved understanding of God and the world (especially our tendency to make room for our own sins while condemning others!), creates a clear vision of authority–if the Bible says, we must believe it.
  • Weaknesses: What do we do with passages of the Bible that are hard to believe (like God’s command to kill an entire city) or otherwise inconsistent?  This position creates tension within the Bible if every word is inspired.  Also, “inerrant,” “infallible,” and “verbally-inspired” are non-biblical, non-ancient words that have been tacked on in response to Modernist skepticism.  Also, the most extreme version of this position can lead to a Quran-like view of the Bible, which is foreign to Christianity.
2. The Bible CONTAINS the Word of God.  Like the blog reader I quoted above, this position professes what many people actually do in practice: some parts of the Bible are inspired, while others are either neutral filler or outright propaganda.  It is up to the discerning mind, hopefully guided by the Holy Spirit, to sort out what is and what isn’t God’s Word.
  • Strengths: This approach relieves some tensions that exist in the large, complex document we call the Bible.  We are allowed to drop what seems out of date, outrageous, or inconsistent (which has its own pitfalls).  In practice, many people do this anyway; we have a “canon within the canon.”  Calvin himself taught that Romans and John’s Gospel have a special place in the Bible, unlocking the meaning of other parts.
  • Weaknesses: This way of thinking places the Bible below human intellect, allowing us to reject parts of the Scriptures that don’t square with our fallen worldview.  Last week at our public library’s used book sale I hit the religion table to see what treasures were lurking there.  I picked up a copy of the Jefferson Bible, which was Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to peel away the inauthentic fairy tales and reconstruct the real, essential Bible.  It is a tiny volume and stands as a monument to the impudence of arrogant, sinful people who try to change God’s self-revelation.
3. The Bible HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH the Word of God.  Many unbelievers assume that the Bible is (on the neutral side) just a collection of religious and historical writings or (on the negative side) a book of propaganda that seeks to justify one group’s hegemony over another.  Another take on this says that the Bible is a record of people’s religious experience–that is, their encounter with the Divine that is not necessarily normative for our encounter with the Divine.  In general, this position is outside the bounds of Christianity.
  • Strengths: This line of thinking allows people absolute freedom.
  • Weaknesses: This line of thinking allows people absolute freedom.

My Comments:

When I was ordained in 2002, I took a vow acknowledging that the Scriptures of the Old Testament and New Testaments are, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to me (W-4.4003a).  I also vowed to sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and I agreed to be instructed and led by those confessions as I lead God’s people (W-4.4003c).  I take seriously those vows and humbly strive to put myself under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as it uses the Bible and confessions to shape me.

Our Presbyterian confessions, which are influenced by Calvin (and later by Barth) are uniformly clear that the Bible is the written Word of God that witnesses to the Word-made-flesh.  (See The Scots’ Confession, Chapter XIX; The Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter 1; The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter I; and even The Confession of 1967, 9.27-30)  And so I submit myself to this collective wisdom of my Reformed tradition.

Certainly there are some things in the Bible that are not palatable for me (e.g., God’s command to put to death seemingly innocent people, the household code in the epistles, and even Psalm 137:8-9).  But, knowing my own depravity and my own limited understanding, I will err on the side of taking seriously the words of the Bible rather than throwing away those that don’t agree with me–even if it means living with tension.  In many ways, a little understanding and contextualization helps to resolve the problems with difficult passages in the Bible.  For instance, Joshua 10-11 recaps Israel’s violent conquest of Canaan, including “devoting to destruction” every living thing.  In the explanation, the Bible says, “For it was the LORD’s doing to harden their [i.e., the Canaanites’] hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the LORD commanded Moses” (Joshua 11:20 ESV).  God’s passionate love for humanity is always held in tension with God’s demand for justice and righteousness.  The example of the Canaanites, who rejected the LORD, reminds us of our own proclivity to reject God and our need to throw ourselves on the mercy and love poured out at the cross of Jesus Christ.

So, after all that involved discussion, I would probably put myself in the first camp, while eschewing fancy words to describe how the Bible is God’s Word.


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