Thursday, March 03, 2005


Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.
(1st John 5:21)

During the depression in Louisiana we had a servant or two, poor as we were. Dad had taken a black dictionary and used it as a door stop for an innner door. Someone heard our old housekeeper passing that spot and pronouncing in awed terms, "the Word of God". Completely illiterate, she still knew what the word of God was.

Raised in a Methodist parsonage in Louisiana, I was never exposed to the idea that the Bible is perfect. My father, a respected member of the La. Conference of the Methodist Church for 45 years, held that the Bible is a collection of books. Open ended, he did not hold with the idea that God had miraculously closed the canon in 325, using ecclesiastical politicians as his miraculous agents. Dad would never have said any such thing; he just advised his congregation to add to their collection of books if they found anything more meaningful and spiritually nurturing.

As a teenager I knew that the people to whom Dad ministered generally thought the Bible was perfect-- without error, written by the hand of God. They believed this implicitly, usually without ever having read very much of it.

Years later in seminary, coming straight from a degree in science, the oft mentioned incident of Jonah and the big fish assaulted my sensibilities. OMG who said the book was a record of something that actually happened? some people apparently want to believe that, but there's no such indication in the Bible; it's a story, like the stories we tell our children.

So much of the Bible is stories; to get their true import we must rise about the material; these are stories with a spiritual dimension-- not about facts! Do you believe Job really happened? As an actual event it has relatively trivial meaning; as a philosophical and theological tome, it's a masterpiece.

What does all this boil down to? To me it smacks of idolatry; there's a special name for it: bibliolatry! It just takes too much of our spiritual energy to focus only on the material.

Did those things really happen? Who cares?


kiznath said...

It's a true test of faith to abandon a linear thought process and consider that the Bible is a collection of stories.

My dad's position? Of course those things happened. God can do anything - why would it be in the Bible if it didn't? Besides, if you start to say that some parts of the Bible aren't true, then you can pick and choose what you want to believe happened/was said/etc. It's either all or nothing.

My position: Does the reality of the flood, of Jonah in the belly of a whale, etc. radically change my view of who God is, his love for me and the redemption of what he created? No. But I love to discuss these things - reminds me of how big God is.

Larry said...

Hurrah! At last I've provoked a rejoinder. Wonderful.

To Kiznath: your "dad's position? Of course those things happened."

My dad's position? God never said any such thing. He didn't dictate the Bible.

"if you start to pick and choose". My God told me to worship him with all my mind. I don't think you're doing that.

"All or nothing" is the refuge of an uncritical mind. Such as "if you don't do such and so, you don't love me."

Re "how big God is": God is much, much bigger than anything said about him, in the Bible or anywhere else.

Thanks, Kiznath for the stimulating comment.

Ruthie said...

I wrote a little opinion piece about the church's use of the Bible. I grew up in a church that believed in infallibility of the scriptures.

In fact I wrote it a couple of years ago when I was just leaving church, so perhaps some of my zealousness might come out ;)

I hope you enjoy it...


It ain't necessarily so
It ain't necessarily so
The things that you're liable
To read in the Bible
It ain't necessarily so
(George and Ira Gershwin)
~ sung by Jamie Callum on the amazing album, Pointless Nostaglic)

I grew up in the kind of Christian church that declared from the roof tops that the Bible is the Word of God.

Maybe it was listening to the dodgy music sung by Jamie Callum, maybe it was the devil's influence, or maybe I was just growing up and learning to think for my late teens and early twenties I began to wonder just how true that was, and whether or not I wanted to take things on just face value. Having found inspiration and hope in the pages of the Bible I've never been quite ready to bin it or burn it...but I do think I'd like to add a little qualification to the statement, "The Bible is the Word of God"

Simple Fact number 1 - The Bible can be used to justify bloodshed and corruption. Some of the greatest and most horrific examples of human violence, the wiping out of entire cultures and communities by was carried out by people using the Bible to claim divine authority for their atrocities (the Crusades, the Inquisitions etc).

Simple Fact number 2 - The Bible has also provided some of the raw materials used to bring liberation, hope and healing in the face of injustice, apartheid, racism, poverty and sickness (e.g. Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoffer, Corrie Ten Boom, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Gandhi etc.)

So...I am never one to trust anyone who waves a few verses from the Bible around to justify their opinions and often their prejudices, but having considered the influence of the good book on some of my heroes and heroines, I wonder if it may be possible for God to speak through its pages?

The way I see the Bible is as a collection of writings from Jewish and early Christian people wrestling with what it means to be human and what it means to interact with God for their day and their time. As such, I don't see it as a theological text book with all the right answers, but rather as a starting point for exploration. The Bible is therefore central to my faith - perhaps in a not dissimilar way that the creeds are to Christians from more liturgical traditions, in that it provides ancient wisdom, that has echoed down through the ages and that it is something that we share in common with followers of Christ all around the globe. So when I read the Bible, I remember that the same words have been read through many generations. I allow myself to be challenged and provoked by its words and by the history of how those words have been applied. It roots me to a tradition from which it is possible to grow, develop and be very creative with.

For me, the Bible is intricately tied up with other things & other people. The Bible speaks to me but only in so much as it is inter-woven with many other influences - great thinkers, protestors, liberationists, literature, art, music, creation, the people around me etc - all of these things knit together. I believe that God speaks to us through a great mish-mash of voices, images, ideas and events and challenges us concerning how we are going to respond in the society in which we live in the 21st century.

Perhaps the Bible only becomes the word of God in its interpretation and practical outworking of that interpretation. So in order for the Bible to be the word of God, it must become incarnational. It must be lived - much like Christ, who according to the Bible, actually is the word of God, took on flesh and lived amongst us.

I once saw an image of Christ holding out a giant Bible. Needless to say, I wasn't so keen on that little piece of art. However, perhaps if I was a decent artist I would paint it the other way round, in that the Bible holds out Christ to us - but it is only in interpreting and living the Bible in our every day experiences that we actually hear and experience God's word with us. And I don't think its just the Bible that offers Christ to us, but rather Christ can be found in history, in art, in literature, in human rights movements and especially in lifestyles that seek justice, and practice forgiveness, reconcilation, compassion and love.

Larry said...
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Larry said...

Ruthie, some Christian churches "declared from the roof tops that the Bible is the Word of God."

Quakers don't. Quakers consider the Word of God to be Christ, the Christ Within. When asked what was his authority, Fox did not say the Bible; he said "let Christ be your teacher." Thank God for Christ, George Fox, and the Bible-- as the Christ Within opens it for us.

david said...

For me the simplest way out of the dilemna is toa sk if the bible even claims to be the infallible closed Word of God and basis for all faith and practice.

Answer: No it doesn't. In fact it suggests that if anyone or thing should make that claim we should not trust it. Biblical principles include -- requiring witnesses to witness to another and not to themselves and requiring multiple witnesses to base a claim.

The bible -- like all the witnesses recorded within it and all teh witnesses to spiritual truth since cannot claim infallibility nor does it or them require it. The test is faithfulness not infallibility.

Our world has become so englamoured with the successes of the physical sciences that it has forgotten the difference and religion has been seduced by it. The notion that the scripture must be interpreted literally or not at all is only a few hundred years old -- if that.

Larry said...

David said, "The notion that the scripture must be interpreted literally or not at all is only a few hundred years old -- if that." Thank you, David; that's a truly valuable contribution to this discussion.