The Bible is the Word of God.
I agree with that.
It’s in the constitutions of my denomination (ELCA) and its individual congregations:
The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God. Inspired by God’s Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God’s revelation centering in Jesus Christ. Through them God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.
But to limit our definition of, and our relationship with, the Bible to “The Word of God” is ultimately reductive. It is in its simplicity too susceptible to misinterpretation, especially of the type seen on bumper stickers:
GOD SAID IT
I BELIEVE IT
THAT SETTLES IT!
The truth is, God’s word says a lot of stuff.
Does anybody believe all of it? How could they when so much of it contradicts itself or history or science?
And if the Bible settles everything, why can’t Christians agree even on what it says about such basic matters as whether babies should be baptized or what’s going on in communion or who should be ordained . . . not to mention what ordination even means?
The Bible is deeper, richer, holier than an instruction manual that can be summarized in cloying acronyms that insult both the Bible and the intelligence of those who treasure it.
Those who claim to read and interpret the Bible literally (although nobody really does), or to give all of its commands equal weight because every bit is God’s Word after all (again, nobody really does) diminish and distort the Scriptures. They tie Bible and themselves into knots to make it all fit together like frenzied frustrated puzzle-workers attempting to complete an image with pieces from different sets. The Bible rather than the God who inspired it becomes the object of their devotion and the ultimate source of their authority.
To claim that the Bible is infallible makes a claim that even the supposedly infallible Bible never makes.
Again, I believe the Bible is God’s Word, but there is more going on than that.
Asserting as the ELCA constitutions do that God’s Word the Bible is “inspired” by God rather than infallibly dictated helps clarify things. But because “inspired” is a one-sided (God-sided) qualifier, the door to bibliolatry might be narrowed but remains ajar.
The Word of God we have in the Bible is collaborative.
The diversity of cultures, literary styles, and even personalities that shape the Bible cannot be discounted. Rather than complicating our reading and interpretation, recognizing the variances guides us in our understanding, and frees us from the shackles of literalism.
So, if not just as God’s Word, how can we regard the Bible?
This is how I am thinking about Scripture lately:
God’s Word in Conversation with God’s People
God inspired Scripture, but it is clear from what ended up on its pages that those who wrote it down or expressed it orally thought and felt deeply about what God had inspired, poured it through the filters of their experiences, attitudes, and opinions, and discussed it. They made it their own individually and in community before making it ours by sharing it.
This conversation is most obvious in the Psalms and other poetry. These verses burn with passionate fire ignited by God’s divine spark and fanned by God’s Holy Breath, but fed by the wood-fuel of emotions grown in the varied soil – sometimes rich, sometimes barren – of the writers.
The conversation is evident in the differences of perspectives, chronologies, and even facts inherent in the four accounts of Jesus’ life. It is ongoing in the sometimes contradictory instructions grounded in culture and circumstance found in the Epistles.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the passages of war and violence often shock us and seem opposed to the person and life of the Prince of Peace. But these accounts of bloodshed, even genocide, reportedly ordered and approved by God indicate not a God who had a sudden change of heart when the calendar turned from BCE to CE, but rather God’s people in difficult conversation – wrestling with – God’s Word for them in a violent place and time.
To say that the Bible is God’s Word in conversation with God’s people asserts that the conversation did not end when the books of the Bible were written and canonized. It goes on today – and beyond – as God’s people continue to confer with and about God’s Word. The Bible was never meant to ensnare us in any single way of understanding it. Our perception evolves as we learn about and from each other as well as from and about God’s creation, all empowered by the Holy Spirit working in and through us.
The consensus of Christendom was once that the Bible not only supported but commanded slavery. Once it was near-universal that women could not be ordained. And of course allegiance to the Bible required holding on to a flat earth created in seven literal days as long as possible.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, God’s people have been in conversation with God’s Word for, well, ever.
The conversation continues.
God’s Holy Spirit continues to fill us and breathe through our holy conversations with God Word and with God’s people past, present, and future. Our understanding grows when the diversity of participants in the discussion increases, and when we listen empathetically to the multitudinous voices the Holy Spirit has gathered, gathers, and will gather into the conversation.
Join the conversataion . . . What do you think?