Over the years, I’ve been given to expressing an increasingly strong conviction of mine about the Bible as it relates to the Word of God. I’ve often expressed it as simply that the two are not one and the same, specifically that the former is a reflection of the latter. Simply said (perhaps overly so), “The Bible is not the Word of God,” any more than I am Jesus Christ. The Bible being faulted, limited, human while the Word of God is Truth transcendant and divine. This has gotten me in no little trouble with my fellow Christian brothers and sisters, esp. of those given to more fundamentalist leanings.
In trying to explain my point of view, I’ve noticed that I’ve had trouble conveying my thoughts, beliefs, and convictions because when I speak with my brothers and sisters in Christ we often use the same words to name very different perspectives on things. Today I was inspired by remembering a personal story that I think does justice to explaining where I’m coming from. It shows how I can disagree with my fellow Christians about the Bible’s ontological nature vis-á-vis the Word of God, yet agree to its Truth.
I grew up as a boy believing in Santa Claus. I would be that kid that spied “to see if reindeer really know how to fly.” One year, my parents decided to have a little fun and give me a thrill. It was getting late on Christmas Eve and my mother took me into the kitchen ostensibly to give me some warm milk and honey before go to sleep. We talked about Santa and what gifts he might bring. We talked about how he was going to make a stop at our home and perhaps we might catch him this year leaving some presents. Suddenly, Mom said that she heard something in our living room and that it might be good ol’ St. Nick. Well, warp speed had nothing on me that night! I was in the living room in a flash hysterical with joy at the presents that suddenly appeared under the tree and asking my father a million and one questions about Santa. What did he look like? Did he speak to you? What did he say? (I’m sure Mom had a good laugh with Dad about that. They gave me a wonderful, joyous memory I’ll cherish to my grave.)
As I grew older and outgrew the Santa myth, I questioned how they were able to pull off such a stunt. Mom explained how they managed to get those presents to appear: My aunt who was also my next door neighbor passed them through a front window to Dad. Mom would simply have me wait a few minutes in the kitchen and after a short time get me into the living room to see what “Santa” had brought.
Many of the elements of that story have parallels with my burgeoning understanding of the Bible. As a young Catholic, I was taught many of the familiar ideas: inspiration, eyewitness accounts, holy history in the Holy Writ. I had quite a jolting experience when in Catholic high school, I was taught that things were not quite as advertised. (That cause be no little consternation and crisis, but that’s a story for another time.) I came to see the people-in-the-pew understanding of the Bible as myth divorced from the reality taught to priests and theologians and unsuspecting Church History students. But rather than rejecting the Bible, I’ve come to cherish and appreciate it now more than I ever did with my earlier understanding. Just because one doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, doesn’t mean that I didn’t receive those gifts. Neither should a more rigorous historical understanding of Scripture and that anthology we call the Bible somehow make it less True. Changing the explanation for a truth doesn’t change the truth. Thank you, Jesus!
For the New Testament is True because each book reflects its author’s belief and is a human expression of faith and community tradition. This is especially true of the Gospels which are anything but cold, disinterested, historical accounts. The authors had a clear agenda. Every word is intentional in that sense, the books of the NT (and I would assert non-canonical books as well) are the words of God expressed in the words of men. To those who cherished them, they were and are the Word. I find that distinction critical. Specifically, that faith is what makes Scripture not the other way around. It really is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
So why is the Bible ontologically not the Word of God? Here are some of my reasons:
- While faith is a gift of the Spirit, belief and ideology are quite human. We are not perfect nor omniscient. We can believe in things that aren’t so, e.g. Santa Claus, to explain things that are, e.g. presents appearing under the tree. Simply asserting that the Bible is the Word of God doesn’t make it so any more than saying the sky is falling should cause panic.
- Even if the autographs, that is the original works of the biblical authors, were the dictated Word of God, we don’t have His words. Our earliest manuscripts are copies of copies of copies that date centuries after the authors wrote. On top of that, these manuscripts show clear evidence that the texts were altered and/or expanded by later copyists. These are facts not opinions, supported by direct, incontrovertible evidence. (Why they were changed is subject to debate. The fact that Scripture was “corrupted” is not.) Because of this, our Bibles today are products of scholarly educated guesses at the author’s original intent. There is no way to know what changes were made between the originals and our earliest copies for which there is no evidence.
- The canon, i.e. the list of Scriptural books, did not descend down to us from heaven. It’s creation was quite a human process fraught with politics, power, vitriol, debate, and competing faiths. This process has examples and features I would consider less than Godly. I’m quite leery of anyone who says that there should only be four Gospels because there are four elements, four points on the compass, four winds, and four corners of the earth. Or if not for a very persuasive man who was skilled at strong reasoned argumentation, we probably would not have the Book of Revelation in our Bible today since many doubted its apostolic credentials. Even my Church acknowledge that the grounds for claiming that the John is John the Apostle is shaky. Or that those one might consider “heretics” were often the victim of slander, much like conservatives today distort who liberals are and what they stand for, in order to bolster arguments of that liberal beliefs are “perverted”.
- Because the Bible is a temporal object subject to interpretation by imperfect humans, I find it considerably weaker than a timeless, unalterable sublime truth. We must spend considerable effort to explain and rehabilitate that which we find uncomfortable in the Bible, e.g. Jesus telling the Jews they are the spawn of Satan in the Gospel of John or Paul’s acceptance of Roman chattel slavery. We must advocate for the “correct” interpretation for that which could be used for evil. Why should God’s Word need our help? Why does our interpretation matter at all?
- Because the Bible is an anthology which did not exist at the time the Scriptures were written, it is not always consistent in small and large ways. These include large things like the irreconcilable birth stories in Matthew and Luke. (Herod died in 4 B.C. years before Quirinius was governor of Syria 6-7 A.D.) To small things like how could Paul have consulted with the apostles in Jerusalem as Acts tells us if he emphatically denies this in Galatians? It’s hard to reconcile that with historical accuracy or reliable eyewitness testimony.
In the end, I concluded that it’s just not safe to believe uncritically that the Bible is (ontologically speaking) the Word of God. I’d have to believe in copyists, the canon, scholarly educated guesses, politics, etc. as I do God and Jesus. Fat chance! And I can’t go back to pre-high school biblical knowledge. I’d have to somehow believe in Santa Claus again while denying facts that I know to be true and somehow through all that not lie to myself and my Lord. I find it far safer to let people’s faith speak for themselves, trust that, and have faith that God will take care of revealing Truth to me as any other person of faith.