Sunday, August 3, 2014

Is the Bible the Word of God? What Could that Mean?

I wish I had known my grandfather—my Opa—better.

He was a taciturn man, not given to much speech. My favorite memory of him is from Sunday mornings, after church. The whole clan—six kids, their spouses, and me, the oldest grandson, sitting on the floor—all of us would gather in Opa and Oma’s front room. It was only opened on Sundays. Opa would sit in the corner throne, his Morris Chair, and listen to his family talk religion and politics. Everyone played to him—everyone was looking for his nod and cryptic, “Ja, zo ist it.” But he never said much himself.

Still, Opa was a wise man. For example, a few years after World War II, when fear of the USSR was high, he decided to leave the Netherlands and move overseas. His employer, Atlanta Paper, offered him a job as manager of their new factory in Johannesburg, South Africa. He thought long and hard about it, but in the end—on the advice of a wise friend—he decided to move to Canada instead, where he (eventually) found work as a hospital janitor. Opa believed something was wrong in South Africa, and he backed that up by choosing entry-wage poverty in Canada over status and power in South Africa.

Opa also didn’t write. I half-remembered getting a letter from him while I was in college. My aunts and uncles didn’t believe me. So a few years ago I went through all the mail I received in college, looking for that Holy Grail of a letter. I couldn’t find it. Maybe I lost the letter. But I think I just remembered what I wanted to believe. He never wrote me. I really wish I knew more about him than I do.

Which gets us to the theme of this blog post. Some Christians say, “The Bible is the Word of God.” But, as with my Opa, the written record is actually pretty sparse. Just 66 short books—some only-page-long letters—that we call the Bible.

As a result, just as my memories of Opa are fleeting and fragile, so is our knowledge of God. We wish we knew more. So we turn to the Bible. Christians say it is, “God’s Word.” We hope it will be chock full of good stuff about God. But there is less of that than you might think, even according to the Bible’s own account.

The Bible does suggest that a tiny bit of what is inside comes straight from God’s hand or spoken words. God, according to the story in Exodus, personally carved the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone. The Bible says the laws in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were dictated by God to Moses. And if Jesus was God—or even just very close to God—then his words—if they have been correctly recalled by New Testament writers many years later, are at the very least, very Godly words.

But most of the Bible does not claim to be God’s actual speech. Most of it is the musings, experiences, wisdom, mysterious encounters, and the stories of people who were pretty sure that God was mysteriously in touch with them. In other words, the Bible is full of second-hand reporting by ancient people who, after Moses, were in touch with God mostly through dreams and visions. In fact, the Jewish scholar Richard Eliot Friedman argues, in his excellent book The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery, that God purposely ended his personal encounters—they’re called theophanies—God ended his personal encounters with Jews to force them to grow up, spiritually and morally.

Of course, when Evangelicals and others say that the Bible is the Word of God, what they really mean is that everything in the Bible is inspired by God, and has God’s stamp of approval. But does it, really? And what would that mean? Just for example (and there are many), the stories of God sending plagues upon innocent children, and upon Israelites for having a disobedient king—is that really believable as the sort of stuff a loving God would do? Is the story of Genesis—written to look like a true story about the past—really what we call history? What about all the New Testament promises—even by Jesus himself—that he is coming back “soon,” to judge the living and the dead. Is 2000 years later still “soon?”

And this is the crux, really. How much of God is really in the Bible? Enough to call it the Word of God, instead of “words about God?” Is every word in the Bible really divinely inspired? And what would that mean, anyway, if they were? That every word was dictated to the writer by God? That seems unlikely, given that the Greek, for example, in some of the New Testament, is laughably bad compared to the Greek of classical Greece, or even compared to other parts of the New Testament.

Maybe rather than arguing about how much of the Bible is actually from God, it would be better to pay attention to how seriously the Bible itself expects us to take it. And probably the favorite image used in the Bible to describe itself is the image of lamp light.

How seriously should we take the Bible? Well, in Psalm 119:105 we read, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” And perhaps with this very text in the back of his (or, less likely, her) mind, the author of 2 Peter 1:19-20 wrote, “so we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

The standard Evangelical reading of such texts suggests that as light, scripture is glorious. As light, scripture banishes the dark. As light, it leaves humans without excuse when it comes to getting God right. There is, however, another and better way to read such texts.

Consider the Psalmist’s lamp. This is a lamp from the days when ancient Hebrew lights couldn’t match even our puny candles when it came to giving light. The lamp the Psalmist speaks of was dim, smoky, sputtering and fuelled by olive oil. Such lamps were a stopgap measure until daytime, and not a very good one at that. Enough light, perhaps, to put one foot before another on a path without breaking your neck, but not a light to see the scenery or wild animals or survive a strong wind. The Peter passage further suggests that the words of the prophets, by which is meant the Old Testament, are a stopgap sufficient—barely—but only until the “morning star,” rises—that is, until Jesus returns.

In sum, these two “light” texts, the first with its reference to an imperfect emergency light, and the second with reference to its weakness compared to the light of the Christ who will soon return (although he didn’t)—this juxtaposition certainly suggests that it is easy to claim far too much for the light of scripture, whether or not it is inspired by God in whole or part. The Bible is certainly not the sun in the daytime. It isn’t even a forty-watt bulb, or even a cellphone flashlight. The Bible describes its light as a flickering, as a barely-enough stopgap measure for knowing God.

Which gets me back to my grandfather. I wish I knew more about him. I wish I had taken the time when I was in college and seminary to visit him more often. I wish I had more personal letters from him.

But in the end, what really matters is the core that my Opa passed onto his kids, and also to me. His love for family. His moral core that led him, at great personal cost, to turn his back on a privileged life in South Africa. His love of learning and wisdom. His heart for justice and fairness. His courage as a participant in the anti-Nazi labour-union underground.

And so with the Bible. We could all wish for more God in it, more clarity, more assurance that this is actually all from God and all we need—wherever or however God is now. We might even assume, as I did about that non-existent letter from my grandfather, that there is a lot more of God in the collection of letters from the ancient past we call the Bible than there actually is.

But that’s not what the Bible says about itself. It is a flickering lamp. Enough to assure us we are beloved. Enough to inspire us to live for the same values that Jesus did. Enough for us to wonder and dream about a hopeful future on account of the stories of Jesus’ resurrection. Enough to remind us that the marginalized, the week, the poor, and the oppressed are God’s favorites. Not a lot to go on.

But a great core, and enough to absolutely transform our lives.


  1. Thanks for your thoughtful reflections here. I too have been wrestling over the issue of how the Bible as we know it is God's Word, and I believe this is a crucial question in our day.
    If you haven't yet, you may want to read Kenton Sparks new book, "Sacred Word, Broken Word," in which he argues for a new understanding of the humanness of God's Word, yet still from an essentially (admittedly left leaning) evangelicalism. I am finding his insights very helpful.
    Regarding the matter you discussed about the Word as (dim) lamp - how is that impacted by the fact that the Word become flesh has now appeared as "the Light of the world," shining brightly. It seems to me that Jesus' coming does make all the difference. Sparks makes this point in his book as well.
    Thanks again for the stimulating discussion. Blessings.

  2. Hi John, thanks for your thoughts. I have a couple to share as well. One idea I've played with for a while is to think that there may be three of which we may best say, 'fully God, fully human'. Jesus, of course. Maybe the church too though, and the Bible.
    I also like to think of the Bible as the record of part of the great human-God conversation, a conversation in which we now also take part. And, somehow, mysteriously, the One to whom and about whom we speak, shows up and is present with us yet today. Just as, and in a much different way than, perhaps, the person of your Opa is present with you still. Surely, it is the person of your Opa, not really 'the core' which is present with you. Blessings to you, John

    1. Thanks John. Worth thinking about. In fact, I will! I'm not sure I can say that the "person" of my Opa is with me, though--rather than the core. Maybe for all my post-modern flirtations, I'm just too enlightenment rationalistic to think about him still, as a person rather than a core left over in my mind. Again, interesting comments!


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