If you have spent any time within Christian circles you will probably have heard the Bible referred to as ‘the Word of God’.
It is a common expression in many churches in the West, an assumed settled position in regard to what the Bible is (and therefore, also, what the Bible is not).
This then determines the way this ancient text is handled.
You will hear people claiming the ‘authority of Scripture’ in regard to theological and ethical positions, using the Bible as the means through which a position can be justified and believed.
For instance, take the Evangelical Alliance who ‘are the largest and oldest body representing the UK’s two million evangelical Christians’. In their ‘Basis of Faith’ they write that they believe in,
‘The divine inspiration and supreme authority of the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which are the written Word of God—fully trustworthy for faith and conduct.’
This is pretty standard.
These kind of statements tell us that the Bible matters, and what we believe about who God is, how we behave and how we believe, comes from the Bible. Why? Because, according to the statements above, it is ‘divinely inspired’ and ‘fully trustworthy’.
So if someone comes along and questions this statement, and argues that the Bible is not the Word of God, well, as you can imagine, all hell breaks loose.
Now this is not to say that in churches who hold to the Bible as the Word of God you can not ask questions about what is in the Bible (although my experience is that there are only certain types of questions you can ask before you end up being seen as a troublemaker), but it does mean you can not ask questions about what the Bible is.
So the 66 books of the Bible, Genesis to Revelation, according to Protestants, (Ethiopian Orthodox have 81 books in their Bible, 76 in Eastern Orthodoxy, 73 in the Catholic Bible ) is the place of divine revelation, fully trustworthy in its portrayal of who God is and the ethical/moral life humanity is called to live by. This ancient text is the ‘God-breathed’, infallible/inerrant ‘Word of God’.
When it comes to issues such as homosexuality for instance, arguments are frequently deployed in regard to ‘what the Bible says’ about sexuality. And those who want to hold to same-sex sexual relationships as sinful, and same-sex marriage as ‘unbiblical’ will quote Scripture to support their theological position. And so to question such views, to argue for the full inclusion and affirmation of same-sex relationships, is to be seen to be questioning the Bible itself, and so find yourself regarded as ‘walking a dangerous path’ or ‘liberal’ or ‘heretical’ (despite the theological, exegetical, philosophical, scientific, sociological and anthropological evidence for full inclusion).
To question the Bible as ‘the Word of God’ is often to be seen as no longer a genuine or faithful Christian.
The Inerrant Bible
The idea of scriptural inerrancy arose at the beginning of the 20th Century through the publication of 12 books called ‘The Fundamentals’, a reaction to what was deemed as liberal theology. Whilst a ‘high view’ of Scripture had existed for a long time whereby the Bible was seen to be divinely inspired and trustworthy, scriptural inerrancy took it to another level whereby there was no longer any room for a symbolic or allegorical interpretation of Scripture, and any apparent contradictions within the Bible were dealt with through ‘proper’ theological and exegetical means. Of course there were Christians through the centuries that held to something that looked like inerrancy, but The Fundamentals put it into dogma, something that had not previously been done.
The German monk Martin Luther (1483-1546), in many ways the father of the Reformation, taught sola scriptura – Scripture alone – a doctrine that contests that the Bible is the only infallible means through which doctrine and Christian living can be derived. And, in light of the scandal and corruption and compromise of the Catholic church at that time – a church Luther was part of and, it seems to begin with, had no desire to leave – it is no wonder that Luther sought a doctrine of God and Christian living that was faithful to Christ, a lens through which to read the Bible and confront the defective life and practice of the institution he saw around him. Yet although Luther held to a doctrine of sola scriptura, he criticized some of the books of the New Testament, so much so that in his version of the New Testament published in 1522 he put Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation separate in the back, claiming that they had a ‘different reputation’ to the rest of the New Testament. In other words, he didn’t like them and was not convinced of their place in the Bible.
The Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) and the French theologian John Calvin (1509-64) held Scripture to be divinely inspired and the only infallible means through which doctrine and Christian living could be derived. Both regarded the Bible as ‘true, divine Scripture’ and were typically Protestant in the belief of the unique authority of Scripture.
Yet these great reformers inherited a theological tradition that formed Western Christianity; Augustinian Christianity.
Augustine (354-430) was one of the most brilliant thinkers and theologians in the history of the Church, and his theology has shaped the Western Church to this day. His theology of grace, human guilt, human freedom and sin continues to be the lens through which the Western Church reads the Bible. And the Reformers belong to that monumental tradition. Whilst Luther taught a doctrine of sola scriptura in reality he and Calvin were children of Augustinian thinking and theology. We are all shaped by tradition, upbringing and background.
And the Reformers were no different.
The Bible has a long history, it did not drop from the sky fully formed and ready to go. The church formed the Bible over hundreds of years, and to this day, as we have seen earlier with the differences in various traditions as to how many books belong in the Bible, there is contention within different traditions as to what should be seen as canon. For instance, the early Christians held the mystical and visionary book The Shepherd of Hermas to be part of the New Testament, a view that survived until as late as the fourth century in some Christian communities. Some traditions rejected Hebrews, Revelation and Jude up until the late fourth century.
Why the discrepancy? Because the church were seeking to make sense of who God is in light of the peasant carpenter, Jesus of Nazareth. And what resulted were many and various letters and teaching circulating, seeking to bring insight into this phenomenon called Christianity that had emerged as a result of this strange Rabbi from the Middle East. And in Jesus the Church had come to believe God had been fully revealed, that in Christ, ‘the invisible becoming visible, the incomprehensible being made comprehensible, the impassable becoming capable of suffering.’ (Irenaeus, AH, III xviii ) And of course, in light of passages in the Old Testament, there are valid questions as to character and nature of God, and how we understand this in light of Jesus of Nazareth. And there were those in the early church who asked these valid questions.
Marcion, probably born around the end of the first century, argued that in Jesus of Nazareth we truly have the ‘newness of the gospel’ (cf. Von Harnock, 1929, p 128), using the parable of old and new wineskins to further his point. What Marcion sought to teach was that in the gospel everything is new, that nothing can compare to it,
‘O fullness of wealth, folly, might, and ecstasy, that no one can say or think anything beyond it or compare anything to it!’ (cf. Lietzmann, Beginnings, p 274)
For Marcion God enters the world as a stranger, not as someone already known. Adolf von Harnock said,
‘All Christians at that time believed that they were strangers on earth. Marcion corrected this belief: God is the stranger who is leading them from their homeland of oppression and misery into a quite new home of which hitherto they have not even had an inkling.’ (Harnock, Marcion, p 4)
Marcion could not square the depictions of God in the Old Testament with the gospel of love proclaimed by Jesus. And this should not be underestimated. Marcion believed that the crucified Jesus was the ground of all faith. Marcion believed that this God of Jesus was distinct and radically different from the God of the Old Testament because, for Marcion, in Jesus we see One of tolerance, forgiveness and love, a character that he believed was absent in the God of Hebrew Scripture and in places within the New Testament. Marcion therefore rejected the whole of the OT, three of the gospels and those writings that didn’t belong to Paul.
Marcion recognised the challenge faced when reading accounts of God’s wrath, genocide, impetuous nature, willingness to kill because of broken laws and other acts of violence, as well as a theology that attributed violence to God. Whilst many of the church fathers read the Old Testament allegorically and not literally, for Marcion the need was to abandon it altogether.
And so Marcion sees in Jesus the One who brings liberation from the Law, whose Law is love. Yet he also believed that some other God, not the Abba of Jesus, created the world. This is part of the reason why Harnock says about Marcion, ‘Only one Gentile Christian understood Paul – Marcion – and he grossly misunderstood him.’ So whilst Marcion came to a conclusion that actually held more problems than it solved, he was asking the right questions. Yet, there was no need for Marcion to reject most of the Bible, for we are dealing with a question of hermeneutics. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330- c. 395) was possibly the greatest thinker the Church has ever produced, and his book The Life of Moses is a quite brilliant example of how to read the whole of Scripture through the lens of the Cross; not rejection but interpretation.
Let us be clear, to hold to the Bible as the Word of God, as an infallible and inerrant book that must not be questioned or contradicted, but believed, creates a schizophrenic god, a god like Two Face. The villain Two Face is not consistently evil, using the flip of a coin to make a decision on his course of action. When confronted with a situation, whether it is for good or for evil, Two Face will flip a coin to decide the outcome. He has a psychotic obsession with duality reflecting his hideous scarred face on one side. Once Harvey Dent, a man who stood for justice, now Two Face, consumed by rage and the evil around him. For Two Face justice is arbitrary, life is arbitrary, good and evil decided on the flip of a coin. And there are many instances in Scripture where God is equally arbitrary, deciding who lives and dies according to mood, favour and insistence of following the Law in the correct way. And the only way to make sense of this god is to cling to a Augustinian/Calvinistic hermeneutic of holiness that is totally forensic and forsakes ontology. This god has a very dark and scarred side, a god who sees and values our lives like the flip of a coin.
Marcion recognised the difficulty with this typology of God as depicted in some parts of Scripture when reflecting on Jesus and his law of love.
A Better Way
Michael Hardin in his majestic The Jesus Driven Life deconstructs an infallible/inerrant Bible and wonderfully maps out why such a view is incoherent and, more importantly, completely at odds with who Jesus is and how Jesus read his Hebrew Scriptures. Hardin and others have enabled us to understand the context in which Jesus lived and spoke and preached and taught, a context of Second Temple Judaism, a context where there was not a single way the Scriptures were read and interpreted. To completely unpack this here is a series of blog posts, and my suggestion is that you get yourself a copy of Michael’s book. But for now it is important to say that Hardin and others show us that Jesus’ own hermeneutic completely removes any trace of a violent God, rather showing us as the One who is fully God, the One who shows us fully who God is at what God is like, the One who says if you have seen him you have seen the Father, this Jesus, through his own handling of the Hebrew Scriptures, declares that God is nonviolent, free from wrath, free from vengeance, free from retribution.
What the French literary critic, anthropologist and philosopher René Girard (1923-2015) has done through his thinking and teaching is show us how human communities and culture have formed since our beginnings. Our collectivisation around a scapegoat, projecting all our wrath and violence on an innocent victim to deal with our rivalry, fear and violent implosion; that is how communities survived. Then the rise of taboo and ritual and sacrifice, and the need to preserve such a code and way of life for fear that our unconscious rivalry and violence would explode again, a violence we projected onto the gods. This where our need for a god of exchange who blesses us or curses us depending on mood and our ability to sacrifice the correct way, a genie god of rescue, a god who is only satisfied by blood arises from. We fear these gods for what they might do if we break the laws, do not sacrifice the right way or satisfy their desire for blood. And Girard’s thought and anthropology is being confirmed through science, archaeology, theology, philosophy, sociology and history.
And a reading of the Bible that finally takes into account these discoveries, that recognises and takes seriously the context into which Scripture has been written, the culture of Jesus’ day, and the revelation of who Jesus is and how he fully reveals God to us, we see that the Bible is itself, as Girard puts it, ‘a text in travail’; within it we hear the voice of both oppressor and oppressed, the voice of the innocent victim amongst the voices of the violent. It is when we hear the voice of the innocent victim we encounter and discover the voice of God. Martin Luther argued that what we need is a theology shaped by the cross, not a theology shaped by glory. We read the whole of Scripture through the cross, with no need to reject it like Marcion did, but to interpret it well. And so we read Scripture through the voice of the One who suffers and dies on a Cross, the innocent One. And in hearing his voice we hear the voice of every victim, and so see how their cries are at times smothered in the biblical text, needing to be heard.
A nonviolent reading of Scripture, taking into account all that we have discussed, enables us to finally hear their voices.
Jesus has shown us the Way. But it is a tough Way, a Way of challenge and radically subversive, a Way that is painful and difficult; to live nonviolently in a violent world will never be easy; Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr reveal the reality of a life committed to the Way.
And the church continued to speak of the Way, a Way that had been encountered through relationship, continued through relationship, the sharing of stories, lives lived and a community that shaped one generation to the next.
Jesus reveals a God who is non-violent, full of grace and truth, total unlimited forgiveness, unconditionally, peace, the One who is Love.
And here’s the thing, at the beginning of John’s Gospel, the blasphemous, remarkable and outstanding declaration is made,
‘The Word became flesh and tabernacled amongst us.’
The Word became flesh and blood, the Word did not take on paper and ink and become text.
And so we can approach the Bible in a manner that actually takes it seriously, a reading that pays respect to the text, does not elevate it to the place of God, yet equally does not throw it away on the fire, but a reading where we hear the voice of Jesus speaking, where we discover ever greater insight into our own humanity and into the wonder of who God is.
The Word, the Logos, is fleshed out, present by Spirit, revealing the extravagant love of Abba God, no Two Face, no dark side, no violence.
That really is Good News.