The Bible, Part 4

John 3, Wycliffe Translation, Lutterworth Church

John 3, Wycliffe Translation, Lutterworth Church

In the first three parts I looked at what the story is that is told in the Bible, the answer to the first question I posed. If you missed them, they can be found as The Bible, The Bible Part 2, and The Bible Part 3. Now it is time to at  the second question. This will also take a few posts.


It is now time to turn my attention to the second of the two questions I posed at the start: How do I approach the Bible? Clearly this is a very large topic and whole books can and have been written on it. I shall try to keep it shorter and give the major attitudes and principles I try to bring to it.

The first question many will want to ask me is: Do I believe that the bible is the Word of God? The problem is that this question is too vague for me to answer simply. Or rather, it has a very definite meaning, but that meaning changes depending on who is asking the question. Let me try to break out the various meanings and give my answers to them.

One meaning is: Do I believe that the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit? My answer is both yes and no. Yes, I do believe that the Holy Spirit was actively involved at all levels of the process that brought us the bible. He was active in the people and events contained within it; in the lives and thinking of the prophets, sages, and poets whose thoughts we find in it; in the various authors (and committees), editors, and those who decided the canon as they did their various jobs; And in us as we approach it now. But if you mean “Do I believe the Holy Spirit dictated the words we see before us, then no, I most definitely do not believe that. The very idea that God, who through all of history has taken the most delicate pains to make sure He did nothing to infringe on our free will, should take some of His most dedicated people and, in effect, turn them into mere typewriters for the Spirit is, frankly, repulsive! How much more wonderful and encouraging to think that earnest seekers, using the minds God gave them under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit, came to know God and His purposes clearly enough to be able to set it down for us.

Indeed, one has only to read Acts and some of the epistles to watch as the apostles work through some of the issues facing them—and in at least one case fail to come to consensus. On the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols (pretty much a dead issue to us) it appears that Paul was teaching quite early on that it didn’t matter. However when he brings the issue of gentile circumcision before the apostles in Jerusalem they send a letter back with him agreeing on the issue of circumcision but sternly warning against eating meat sacrificed to idols. Later on we find Paul teaching that, indeed, it is OK to eat but that if there is anyone around who thinks it is wrong, to abstain. The call to avoid idol-sacrificed meat is seen later in other writings. How do we reconcile this back-and-forth with the idea of dictation? But it fits wonderfully if what we are supposed to see is the people of God working out their salvation.

If I do not believe in dictation, then others will ask if I am of the opinion that the Bible “contains” the word of God. I think I must answer no. I accept Paul’s statement to Timothy that all of scripture (to him, of course, that would mean only the Old Testament) is given by God and is useful. I think it is a very slippery slope we are on if we begin to separate what we think of as weeds from the wheat of God’s word. What criteria can we use? How can we be sure that what we end up with shows us God as He is and not just as we would like Him to be? Personally, I would rather accept that God has given it all to us, and to admit that, for now at least, there are parts that I neither understand nor like.

“Aha!” says the fundamentalist, “at least you believe in the inerrancy of Scripture!” Well again, the answer is yes and no, I’m afraid. Yes, I believe that all scripture teaches us truth, but no, I don’t believe that everything happened exactly as it is recorded. The key is, in some sense, to ask with Pilate “What is truth?” Does truth always imply historical accuracy? Ursula LeGuin has said that novelists are people who tell us the truth by lying, and there is a lot to that. Jesus told parables, which are, in a sense, lies (they didn’t really happen) that tell the truth. I must admit that I am sometimes caught unawares when I meet Christians who believe that there must have been an actual Good Samaritan or Prodigal Son! Maybe Jesus did draw on real situations/events for these parables, but they lose none of  their power or truth if he did, in fact, make them up out of whole cloth.

And what of poetry? There is so much scattered through the Bible, not just the Psalms, some of it hard to detect. Are we to deny poets the use of imagery or hyperbole? There is, of course, one small part of Scripture where all of this comes into very sharp focus and for many becomes the litmus test of whether one believes the Bible to be truly the Word of God. I am referring to the first two chapters of Genesis. Are they true or not? To this I would answer no, and yes. No, I do not believe that they are a literal, scientific, account of how God created everything, nor were they meant to be. But yes, they tell us everything we need to know to understand the rest of the story. This is too big to go into fully here and I will do it more justice later. For now let me just point out that if God did create the universe in some fourteen billion years, how many chapters would be needed to describe it fully? I imagine it would take something an order of magnitude or two more than the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Plus we would all need to know advanced calculus, Schroedinger’s equations, and a lot more stuff like photon de-coupling to make any sense of it. Not to mention that we’d have a lot of very unhappy theoretical physicists because, let’s face it, for all they talk of wanting to understand the origin of the universe what they really enjoy is the search for the answer! If God simply gave it to them, they would feel like a bunch of crossword puzzle fans who have just opened the Sunday paper to find, not a blank matrix, but one with all the answers already printed in it.

I’ll end here for now and continue next time.


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2 Responses to “The Bible, Part 4”

  1. The Bible, Part 5 « thoughtfulspirituality Says:

    […] Time to pick back up my series on the Bible. (You can find the first four parts here: Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4) […]

  2. The Bible, Part 6 (the end) « thoughtfulspirituality Says:

    […] for the final part of this series. The other parts are here: Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part […]

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