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Biblical Proportions, part 1
The Word of God
The Bible is a big deal. That’s why I am titling this new series of blogs Biblical Proportions, because when we talk about the Bible—what it is, how it functions in the life of the Christian community—we are talking about something that evokes passionate response from Christians of all perspectives. I’ve always known that to be true, but it was recently reinforced when a meme that summarized a recent sermon I gave to my church went viral. It’s been two weeks since the post, and the meme has been viewed by more than half a million people, covered by several online conservative Christian publications, and set off a flurry of comments, emails, and DMs. Everything has it’s limitations, including memes. They can tend to lack nuance. So, yes, I did say that, in my view, the Bible itself is not the Word of God. I also expanded on that idea in the sermon, and my hope is to clarify more fully what I mean by that statement (and about inerrancy and infallibility) over the coming days in this blog series. I’ll also be engaging the relevant biblical texts that have been commented, emailed, and private messaged to me over and over…and…over.
I want to make two introductory comments before I move on. First, I have read all of those texts many, many times. Many. It’s interesting that some people seem to assume I came to my position overnight, with little engagement with the Bible, Tradition, or Church history. It’s the opposite actually. I arrived at my current perspective because of my study of those very things. I have been encouraged to read the Bible my entire life, and I have done just that. I learned the languages in which the Bible was written. I still read the Bible every day, not just to find something to say about it, but so I can discover what it might want to say to me. I am a Progressive Christian, not because I ignored the Bible; on the contrary, I am a Progressive Christian because of the Bible. The more I study, the more I am convinced and convicted that the Christian Tradition is inherently progressive. By nature we are being invited to learn, grow, and change our minds (which is what ‘repent’ really means) as the Spirit invites us forward. It’s stunning to me that some people seem to think that those of us who have made this journey have decided to do so overnight (not how it works), with little thought (it’s the opposite, actually), or that we’ve done so “for the money” (which is hilarious).
The second comment is this: I love the Bible. Love. It. My life has unfolded on the backdrop of the stories, songs, and letters that comprise this sacred text. The Bible has shaped my imagination since I was old enough to have one. I’ve given my life to teaching and preaching it. I do not come as an enemy hoping to destroy or remove the Bible; far from it. My work derives from a particular pastoral hope: I want to help people who have been victims of rigid and uncharitable understandings of a weaponized scripture. I meet people often who have grief around the loss of the Bible because of how it was used to wound and exclude. My hope is to help them find a way back to the Bible, and maybe in the process, healing from those biblically inflicted wounds. I don’t mean I want to twist the text to make it say something it doesn’t. That’s dishonest and unfaithful. What I mean is that I think the Bible has been approached and appropriated in ways that has allowed it to become weaponized, and I want to be part of the reclaiming of what scripture can be for our faith communities and in our individual lives.
Let me summarize in a sentence the key idea I want to explore:
The Bible *isn’t* the Word of God, but you can hear the Word of God through the Bible.
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 of 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 is problematic because the ways our spiritual ancestors thought about God were a product of their context. 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. God often becomes a foil for 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 it’s 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)
I can’t call commands to commit genocide or practice xenophobia the Word of God. Yet, I do believe 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.
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 it’s pages. Our work is to learn, together, in community, guided by Spirit, to discern the Word from the words.
Up Next: What about inerrancy and infallibility?