Is the Bible the Word of God?
|Pastor Vincent Achesa|
Let me first outline the traditional, the ancient doctrine of inspiration. Here the idea is that God initiated the writing of every word of the Bible. Where non-inspired sources, like public records, were used, God saw to it that the inspired writers corrected these sources. The result is that the text of the Bible is a repository of infallible, divinely revealed doctrines and historically accurate accounts. It makes no mistake in any area it touches, whether scientific or geographical. Since it is not merely a human document, it is exempt from the thousand natural shocks that human literature is heir to. If it seems to contradict itself or to be mistaken, we have the right, indeed the duty, to harmonize the text, to assume it means something other than what it seems on the surface to say. It must be so, if God is the author of scripture, since surely he cannot err or contradict himself. For conservative Christians, whether evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholic, this is what it means to say that the Bible is the Word of God.
Let me say that I reject the doctrine I have outlined in whole and in part, and this for two reasons. First, it fails to square with the actual text of the Bible at every point. If we began with the doctrine, never having read the Bible, we would never recognize the book we have! The actual Bible, as I read it, is a book that brims with myths, legends, and other nonhistorical types of narrative. It is a book that swims in doctrinal and ethical contradictions, differences of opinion between its writers. It is not even a single book, but rather a set of books, most of which individually are patchworks of ill-fitting materials.
Fundamentalists have made a science of rationalizing, ironing out, harmonizing those contradictions, papering over those errors. The trouble is the contrived and unconvincing character of those harmonizations. They would never convince anyone who did not want to be convinced already. And eventually they fail to convince even many of us who began wanting very much to be convinced.
And when the harmonizers are done with all their reinterpretations and text-twisting rationalizations, I venture to say that the result is a book which, forced to mouth the dogmas imposed on it, is a completely different book, having little to do with what Paul, Isaiah, the Yahwist, and the others meant to tell us. We cannot afford to hear those strange and ancient voices, for fear that their impromptu utterances would torpedo our dogmas. We learn to read the Bible through a screen of reinterpretations and rationalizations that in effect make the Bible into a ventriloquist dummy for our inherited theologies. Fundamentalists, as Clark Pinnock once said, simply don't like the Bible they've got! So they go to work on it with theological hammer, axe, and saw, to make a new Bible that will be more amenable to them. One that will teach the comforting doctrines they love, and nothing else.
The second reason I reject this doctrine of the Bible as the inspired Word of God is that it is not only untrue to the evidence of the text, but it is insidious in its effects as well.
While it pretends to wipe away all merely human authority in favor of objective, divine authority, in fact it does the reverse. What it does is to claim the divine authority of the Bible for a set of human opinions on religion and morality which aren't necessarily false, but which deserve scrutiny and debate, and are not going to get it! Who would dare confute the Word of God, after all, if that's what it is?
You see, what actually happens is that a particular group of Grand Inquisitors decide what is the true dogma. It may be the Pope; it may be Jimmy Swaggart; it may be Martin Luther; it may be Saint Athanasius; it may be Jim Jones; it may be Bob Jones. But you belong to some particular religious tradition, founded by someone. You imbibed a particular interpretation of the Bible with your mother's milk, so to speak, the day you began reading the Bible. You were not told, "Read it for yourself, and conclude what you will." No, more likely, you were told to read it in a context where weekly preaching and catechism assumed and promoted a particular interpretation of the Bible.
Do you think it's sheer #chance# that results in the fact that all Baptists come away from the Bible believing that baptism by immersion is the biblical mode of Baptism, while Presbyterians believe just as surely that sprinkling is the biblical way? Is it just accident that all Pentecostals come away from the Bible believing that one ought to speak in tongues, while others don't?
The Bible says no one infallible thing to its readers. It's not that simple. There's no index that tells you where to look if you want to know the one and only infallible biblical view on, e.g., divorce, or life after death. So if you hear from some church or some pastor that it does say one infallible thing, where can that allegedly infallible opinion be coming from? Isn't it the opinion of that pastor, or of the church that trained him? And isn't the claim that the Bible is an infallible book simply a retreat behind the mysterious curtain of the Wizard of Oz?
The preacher or the theologian who cites the Bible to ram home his opinion is seeking to control you, to bully you into swallowing his opinion without a fight, to exempt his own view from rational scrutiny. He covers himself with the Bible like a political demagogue who covers himself with the American flag, hoping to forestall any discussion and weighing of the issues.
Listen to one more passage, and you will see that the dynamic I am describing is nothing new. "First of all, you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation [or "private interpretation," as the King James Version says], because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." That is the text of 2 Peter 1:20-21.
Here is precisely the connection I have suggested: the divine origin of the Bible is invoked as the reason that no reader should dare to interpret it for himself, but should rather acquiesce in the official line propounded by the church authorities, who claim to speak for God, who claim the delegated authority of the apostles, as does this very writer, who assumes the name of Peter, even though he writes in the mid-second century.
Thus I think I have made it clear that I reject this traditional doctrine of the Bible as the inspired Word of God as being both false in fact and insidious in design. Now what do I put in its place?
Simply the Bible itself#, nothing else. I do not want or need some kind of theological screen to protect me from what the Bible says. Nor does the Bible need some kind of theological screen to give it an appearance of authority it would otherwise lack!
Let me ask you something. Are there things in the Bible that offend your reason or your moral sensibility, things you would never accept if the Bible weren't the inspired Word of God? The repeated command to wage genocidal warfare? The claim of the Pastoral Epistles that women are easily deceived by the devil and should not be allowed to teach? Conversely, those things in the Bible that strike you as life-changing truths -- do they seem so true simply because they are in an inspired book? Do they need that sanction before they seem so true or important? The Bible is a vast ocean; wave after wave of shattering truth breaks upon its shores as you read it. It is a treasure chest of comfort, a powder keg of challenge. And it needs no help from any doctrine about it to be these things.
But it is a complex book, and just because you think it shouldn't be doesn't change that! It does not give easy answers on many things. Just because you wish it would doesn't change that! If you insist that it be so, you will just wind up accepting somebody else's pat answers clothed with divine authority.
But having said all this, I see no need to force terms like "inspiration" and "the Word of God" into an early retirement.
As to the first of them, I agree with C.H. Dodd, William Sanday, and other theologians that we may speak of the Bible being at many points the product of inspired writers in the sense that they were religious geniuses. They were more open to the depths of the Spirit than the rest of us. Their inspiration is analogous to that of the great poets and artists, only in the religious sphere. In this they were not unique; inspiration exists outside the Bible.
Nor can we say this of all the biblical writers. To me it is just nonsense to put the writer of the Priestly Code of Leviticus or of Ezra on a level with the writers of 1 Corinthians 13, Psalm 63, or the Sermon on the Mount. Some are inspired, others aren't, as we would readily admit if it weren't for the blinders imposed by the doctrine of plenary, verbal inspiration.
And now for the title question: Is the Bible the Word of God? I say, Yes, it is. Precisely in the same sense that the bread and the cup of the Eucharist are the body and blood of Christ. There is no exact, one-for-one equation in either case. But both are potent symbols, truly conveying the saving virtue of that which they symbolize for us. The bread on this table is, in its outward form, its chemical composition, in all its testable qualities, simply bread, but I believe that when partaken of in memory of Christ, it brings an encounter with the renewing grace of Christ. To eat it is to partake of the body of Christ.
Likewise with the Bible. In no outward way is this book different from any other human book. If the bread is stale or nutritionally deficient in some way, even so the Bible has its shortcomings and defects. But in it we hear the voice of God speaking to our spirits. Not on every page, or every time we read it. It did not have to fall from heaven or be dictated by angels for you to hear its convicting word when you read it. But deep does call unto deep.
Father, send your Spirit upon this book, that through it we may share in your lively Word.
Achesa is a Pastor at Word Ministry in Nairobi.