I’ve recently had occasion to discuss with my Christian brothers what the proper understanding of the Bible is. Is it the Word of God? Is it proper to read it literally? Is it infallible? And so on. As I reflected on the conversation, I noticed at times we were speaking past each other. Despite being intelligent, sensitive individuals, our vocabulary got in the way of understanding one another. This happens all too often to me, and that inspired this post.
Specifically, I believe the Bible is
- A human, historical book,
- rightly called holy and sacred,
- but neither an idol nor a magical talisman.
Containing the Word of God in the Words of Men
My spirituality is Jesuit and one of its important tenets is God uses all things to accomplish his will to love, a reflection of God’s sovereignty. So, I try to see things as they are so as to see God clearly. Biblical criticism, the scholarly investigation of biblical writings, is the beginning of that quest (but certainly not the end). After all, the Bible was not magically dictated by God, it was inspired by God. The texts within were written by human minds and hearts using human hands in human circumstances made known to us by our study of history, anthropology, linguistics and the like.
As a Catholic, I pretty much follow my church’s teachings on biblical criticism as explained in Catholic Study Bible.
The conciliar statement about biblical criticism appears in paragraph 12 [of the Vatican II document Dei verbum]… It is prefaced by an acknowledgment that since God speaks in Scripture through human beings, and so in human fashion, interpreters should give careful attention to the ways in which the sacred writers thought and expressed themselves…
First, it insists that we take into account the various literary forms in which the Bible is written, and it warns us against confusing historical, prophetic, and poetic texts. Next, it urges us to pay attention to the historical setting in which the sacred author wrote, suggesting that such historical awareness is necessary for grasping what the author intended. Finally, it recommends that we learn about the literary conventions and cultural assumptions that people accepted at the time when the biblical books were composed. Thus the conciliar document encourages the literary, historical, and sociological study of biblical texts.
The acceptance of biblical criticism, of course, does not reduce the Sacred Scriptures to the status of other, strictly human books…
In this way the conciliar document achieves a balance between the human and the divine contributions to Scripture. Interpreters are thereby encouraged to apply all the tools of biblical criticism, while bearing in mind the Church’s longstanding conviction that the Bible contains “the Word of God in the words of men.” [emphasis mine]
Containing “the Word of God in the words of men” is key for me. Implicit in the phrase is that the Word and the words are distinct. I’ve long said, perhaps provocatively, that the Bible (words of men) is not the Word of God to draw a bright line on this relationship. The vessel is not what it contains. Where my more fundamentalist leaning, literalist friends demand that the Bible also be as “infallible” and “inerrant” as The Word of God is where we part company.
What does it mean to be “infallible” or “inerrant?” I think for many literalists this means that the Bible can contain no error of any kind. The Catholic Church rightly avoids this error: “the Bible’s inerrancy consists primarily in its being a trustworthy guide on the road to salvation.” (Catholic Study Bible) This is a far cry from creationists who demand that Genesis be historically and scientifically true, i.e. Genesis conveys history and objective facts about the material world in keeping with it’s claimed infallibility. But for any thinking modern this will entail serious problems. Consider “The World of the Hebrews” image on the left. Does this look like our world to you? Of course not. We know the prescientific ancients had a very different cosmology to our own. Our planet doesn’t rest on pillars with floodgates installed in a domed sky.
What does it mean, then, to insist that Genesis is scientifically correct? For starters (and I must be blunt here), it means you aren’t telling the truth (to yourself or others). We erase the author from the equation. As stated above, who the author was, how he communicated, the time and place he lived, etc. All of which are important to understanding the intended meaning of the text. In the case of Genesis, the author weaves two disparate Hebrew myths using a template common to the creation myths of the different peoples in the Near East at that time. In other words, the author’s audience would immediately know from the form of the story what they were hearing: a myth telling them the who they were, from whence they came, and why the world is the way it is. What they did not expect is a science text explaining how the world came to be. Ironically, my literalist friends expecting such a text stray from the literal meaning the scriptural author intended, supplanting their worldview and their assumptions onto the words. (This is why I call creationism bad religion, not just bad science.) This leads to all manner of error including misinterpretation.
Consider an amusing example from one of my favorite comedies, Galaxy Quest: [Don’t worry. No spoilers.]
My intention here is not to mock Bible literalists, far from it. It’s simply to show that reading a text without the proper context can create huge problems. In the clip above, a melodramatic science fiction series becomes a series of “historical documents.” In the movie it made for hilarity, but in real life such misreadings of the Bible can (and has!) lead to tragedy. If the point of reading the Bible is to get to know God, we seriously compromise that goal reading the Bible “literally.”
We should let the text be and let it tell us what it means rather than the reverse. God inspired the biblical texts to be written in a certain time and place by a certain people. As believers, we should deeply, deeply respect God’s choices, so to speak, with more than lip service. Biblical criticism is a tool to help us to do that.
Holy Human, Batman!
So if the Bible is not identical with The Word of God, is it simply “just another book” as literalists fear? The short answer is no. The full name of the book is: The Holy Bible. “Holy” means “to be set apart,” not perfect or infallible. My marriage as a union before God is certainly holy, but it is neither perfect nor infallible! We Christians consider our bodies temples of God and thus holy and sacred. They are by no means perfect or infallible. If our very human bodies are holy, then why not Scripture?
I’ve been told this is a “slippery slope” into a holiness relativism of sorts in the text. “Why not venerate The Purpose Driven Life?” for example. Frankly, that’s utter nonsense. The weakness of the slippery slope argument notwithstanding, if you regard something as holy then by definition you are setting it apart from the profane, from the rest. Scripture is set apart from the NY Times or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. They aren’t holy. We certainly don’t believe they are inspired by God. I pray with my Bibles (both Hebrew and Christian) not The NY Times. There is a reason for this: prayer is a sacred act where I converse and commune with God. Scripture is a primary means for such an act. Besides, it’s kind of hard to have a two way conversation with God reading about The Seventh Habit: Sharpening the Saw. (I will, however, admit to using Jesuit books on spirituality and God in my prayer primarily at the suggestion of my spiritual director. I contend that the purpose and the subjects of these writings is holy: to know God intimately in prayer.)
Why the Distinction Matters
The short answer to why drawing a distinction between Bible and Word matters is that humans have an enormous propensity for idol making. We almost can’t help it. We evolved that way. So, the temptation to make the Bible into an idol, or “bibliolatry,” is almost irresistible. I am not immune. For years when I flew on business trips, I wouldn’t feel at peace boarding a plane unless I had my Bible with me. Superstitious!
Where modern literalists miss the mark is making the words of men the transcendent Word, the very definition of idolatry IMHO. The logic goes this way: Because God is sovereign he would mysteriously (magically?) have made sure the words of The Bible are The Word we need for salvation. If not, how could we be assured of our salvation? Atheist critics call this logic wishful thinking. I am sympathetic. It is all neat and tidy. But to my believing ears it’s more putting God to the test for our convenience: effectively telling God how to satisfy our need for “reliability” and security if we’re being totally honest.
I believe in God and God’s sovereignty and that has ramifications. Seeing the way things are, rather than the way I wish them to be, is critical. The former is of God. The latter is of me. Words are things and I will not turn them into idols if I can help it. Furthermore, they were written by human beings just as fallen and biased as I am. I won’t turn those men into idols either. Why? Because you can control an idol. They become projections of ourselves. God starts to say what we say, think what we think, and support all of our actions no matter how abominable or bloody. We cook the books and get God’s absolute stamp of approval. And that’s the reason why I’m such a stickler about this stuff.
So where does The Word come in? For the answer, I turn to my fellow disciples walking on the Road to Emmaus.
Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while [Jesus] spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)
The scriptures didn’t open themselves. It was Jesus who opened them to the disciples. And I know precisely what it means to have one’s heart burning within as you contemplate scripture. That is The Word not scribblings on paper or pixels on a screen. That’s what I mean when I say, “I got a Word from pastor today,” or “I got a Word reading Luke 6.” That Word is what changes your life. That Word is living water and the bread of life. The scriptures must be opened by someone to give us The Word.
No doubt many will say, “But how can you be sure you’re getting The Word?” The answer is you can’t. My question in reply would be, “Where is your faith?” Do you trust God or not? Even if the Bible’s words were infallible, readers and preachers are most certainly not. We bring ourselves to every word we read, hear and write. The difference between me and my literalist brethren is that I acknowledge the humanity in both reader and writer and trust God to take care of the rest.
That’s the faith I have in God and his Word.