Part Five: The Word of God?
Here we are, the final week of our series Five Misconceptions About the Bible. Before we begin I wanted to note that I think there are many more misconceptions about the Bible than just these five. My gut was a series called 2,857 Misconceptions About the Bible might be a bit too much, so I opted for the five I see popping up frequently in my own interactions and conversations. I’d love to hear from you on this. What misconceptions, that I haven’t covered, do you encounter most? Feel free to share in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Now, on to misconception number five.
This one can be a bit of a doozie, and people often react passionately about it. The final misconception I want to explore is about the Bible being the Word of God. Simply stated, I do not believe that the Bible, in and of itself, in its entirety, is the Word of God, but sometimes we can hear the Word of God through the Bible. Let me add to that, this is actually really good news.
First, the claim as often stated is that the Bible is the Word of God BECAUSE the Bible says so. Here’s the problem with that: the Bible wasn’t written in one setting, by one author. It emerged over time, from the pen of several authors, representing several communities. The Bible, then, can’t talk about the Bible because when the Bible was being written the Bible didn’t exist. (Yes, the very nature of that sentence should help us see the problem.)
The phrase “Word of the Lord” appears often in the Bible. For example, many of the Hebrew prophets begin their writing with a description of their call to take up the mantle of prophet. Notice how Jeremiah begins:
The LORD’s word came to me:
“Before I created you in the womb I knew you;
before you were born I set you apart;
I made you a prophet to the nations.”
(Jeremiah 1:4-5, CEB)
What do we imagine that moment being like for the prophet? An Amazon drone drops off a package that, when opened, contained a scroll with canonical scripture written on it? I say that tongue in cheek, but the point is important. The “Word of the Lord” isn’t a text, but an inspired message the prophet is called to share. That understanding is paradigmatic for the prophets, who were commissioned as the mouthpiece of the Divine. Their message was often one of doom, and that doom was coming because of the injustices that were being systemically perpetuated by those in power. Prophets were a challenge, not just to the religious establishment, but also to those with political and economic power. Our spiritual ancestors understood what we still miss: Religion, economics, and politics are intimately and intricately connected. They cannot be parsed out and separated. They are wedded together, and we are deceiving ourselves and perpetuating injustice if we continue to pretend that that isn’t the case.
The inspired Word received by the prophets in some cases was written down, and those words about the Word were included in the library we know as the Bible. The written word is a witness to the Word experienced by and expressed through living, breathing human beings. Seeing all the words found in the Bible as the Word of God is problematic because the ways our spiritual ancestors thought about and wrote about God were a product of their contexts. In the best moments in scripture we see our ancestors taking steps—even giant leaps—forward in their understanding of God. They were invited to move forward into a new understanding and experience of the Divine, and they stepped faithfully in that direction. At other times the limitations of their context come through. God does not command genocide, endorse slavery, misogyny, xenophobia, or homophobia. Sadly, God often becomes a source for defending our own prejudices and biases, then and now. This doesn’t make our ancestors “all bad” or mean they have nothing to teach us. The opposite is true, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:11, “These things happened to them as an example and were written as a warning for us…”
Our ancestors learned and grew over time, and that process of changing perspectives when better information becomes available is what faithfulness looks like. Here’s an example: The Law of Retaliation. In Leviticus there’s a law that focuses on the scope of retaliation allowed when someone harms another. You may only take eye for an eye, or tooth for tooth. In its context, this is a progressive leap forward in limiting violence. It caps retaliation to tit for tat, meaning you can’t just go kill someone because they cut off your finger. It creates a proportional response. The problem becomes when this command, intended to limit violence, ends up doing the opposite by becoming an excuse for violence. When Jesus enters the story, not as an outsider trying to start a new religion, but as a member of the Jewish Tradition and a participant in wrestling with and shaping what the Tradition would become, he takes the command and invites the Tradition forward. Not only does he call the Tradition away from violence, but he also enacts a call to practice love of our enemy.
These examples are throughout scripture. Again and again we see our ancestors wrestling with the received text and Tradition, and when the Spirit calls, transcending into a new understanding. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as Jesus says to his disciples (and us):
“I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now. However, when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth. He won’t speak on his own, but will say whatever he hears and will proclaim to you what is to come. (John 16:12-13, CEB)
It seems a more accurate way to describe the Bible is that, at times and in places, the Bible is a witness to the Word of God. I am reminded of the statement by the Swiss theologian Karl Barth said:
“The Word became flesh – and then through theologians it became words again.”
This reminds me that the word “Word” here doesn’t mean, well, a word. It means the dynamic, creative, ordering energy that gave birth to, and holds together, all of creation. That same Word bubbled up in the bellies of the prophets, who spoke on behalf of God in calling the people to justice. The Bible points to that Word and stands as a witness to how it has moved and challenged people.
This understanding also helps us deal with the uglier texts we find in the pages of the Bible, and this is also why I said the Bible in and of itself not being the Word of God is actually good news: I can’t call commands to commit genocide or practice xenophobia the Word of God. God never commanded such things, and never will. And before someone says the whole, “You’ve just fashioned a god out of your own image,” let me say this: if we end up being more compassionate, kind, and loving than our understanding of God, then that understanding of God needs to go. It’s too small.
What do we do with such ideas? Well, these texts matter and must be engaged. We must be reminded how many people over the past 2,000 years have used proof texts to baptize crusades, pogroms, witch trials, slavery, and even the Holocaust, lest we continue to make those same destructive choices. We must take the Bible seriously and with care, from cover to cover. That doesn’t mean, however, that each text has the same weight or significance, or that we must take the whole thing as the Word of God, or none of it. That’s not realistic. Everyone cherry picks. We just do. Liberal or conservative. Protestant or Catholic. Do we embrace swords into plowshares or plowshares into swords? We must choose which vision presented in this library called the Bible will receive our energy.
I do not think that the Bible, as a library, *is* the Word, but I do think we can hear that Word in the lives and words that fill many of its pages. The Bible is a witness to that Word, which is too large to be captured completely by ink on a page. Our work is to learn, together, in community, guided by Spirit, to discern the Word from the words.
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