It was May 2012. Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, had just announced plans for a privately funded distribution of King James Bibles into every school across England, to mark its 400th anniversary. Then, unexpectedly, that famed atheist, Richard Dawkins, not only chose to endorse the scheme but also offered to help pay for it. Elements of the Christian press were initially overjoyed at the Oxford professor’s apparent u-turn. But, in an article in The Observer, he came clean. “I have an ulterior motive for wishing to contribute to Gove’s scheme. People who do not know the Bible well have been gulled into thinking it is a good guide to morality….I have even heard…that, without the Bible as a moral compass, people would have no restraint against murder, theft and mayhem. The surest way to disabuse yourself of this pernicious falsehood is to read the Bible itself.”
There’s an erosion of confidence in the authority of the Bible in our globalised society, which Dawkins’ words tap into and which is reaching critical levels, not simply amongst those beyond the Church, but also for many within it. I have lots of conversations with Christians – young and old – who, from different starting points, all want to talk about the same problem; their struggle with the text of the Bible. Typically, they disclose, often rather shyly, the questions they are desperate to ask their church leaders or friends, but somehow feel they can’t voice for fear of rejection; questions about its reliability, its nature and its morality – especially around episodes such as those where God ordered the Israelites to obliterate their enemies, including every woman and child.
Can we have confidence in the Bible? Can we have confidence in the whole Bible? Does it paint an accurate picture of God? Can we use it as a reliable moral and spiritual guide in our twenty-first century globalised, scientifically literate and information rich world?
These questions around the Bible’s authority and inspiration are not only fundamental but also foundational to every other issue facing the Church today. Only in the search for answers to them will we discover the raw material to deal with the array of contemporary moral and theological issues facing us, or the resource which generations beyond us will need as they confront what it means to serve the God of the Bible in the future.
We’ve all heard preachers who imply that every syllable of the Bible is ‘God’s word’ – literal, objective truth that is as applicable today as when it was first penned. At the same time, in spite of 2 Timothy 3:16’s proclamation that, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…”, many Christians – let alone anyone else – sometimes wonder if it might be best to archive large chunks of it to a filing cabinet labelled ‘no longer relevant’.
Why does the Old Testament contain so much material which, on the face of it, depicts God as fierce, wrathful, violent and vengeful? Why does it so often report him as supportive of a justice system filled with oppressive and discriminatory measures? What about the examples of this same kind of teaching that are, on occasions, still present in the New Testament? And, on top of all that, what about the numerous discrepancies, errors and downright contradictions which the Bible contains?
I am convinced it is only as we face up to these issues – rather than sticking our heads in the sand and pretending they don’t exist – that we’ll find answers to our questions about the true nature and the unique value of the whole Bible.
Throughout my life, the Bible has been a constant source of personal inspiration. Because of this, I feel deep sorrow that, on the one hand, vast numbers of people around the world consider it at best, to be confusing and at worst, intolerant and violent. On the other, I am frustrated that our responses, as the Church, to their questions are so often ill thought through, poorly articulated and laden with in-house, inhospitable, inaccessible language.
To put it more bluntly, I believe it is the responsibility of all those who are not ready to agree with, what I regard as, Professor Dawkins’ rather superficial and juvenile conclusions about the biblical text, to create space for a deeper discussion and debate around the way in which we work with it and, as a consequence, who we understand God to be.
Dawkins’ view of the Bible either betrays a remarkable ignorance around the key principles of biblical criticism or, worse, an intentional disregard of those principles in order to sell his argument. But, here’s the twist; he appears to have formed his thinking around the same misguided notions of biblical interpretation that I still hear taught in some churches – the kind of approach which leaves so many with dwindling or lost confidence in the Bible.
First, we have to be honest. For all that’s said to the contrary, for the most part, both more conservative as well as more liberally minded sections of the Church treat the Bible in exactly the same ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ way. Both tend to gravitate to the verses and passages which can be easily co-opted to endorse their pre-determined positions or to hurl at their enemies, whilst ignoring or misreading those which don’t fit – often using clever ‘theological’ devices to ‘legitimise’ our conclusions.
In as far as we fail to take the whole Bible seriously however, including all those passages which we find unpalatable or inconvenient, we only pay lip-service to its authority. Rather than dismissing or neglecting awkward passages, it is our task to explore why they are included as scripture. What is it that makes them ‘useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training’? What are we able to learn about the story of God, ourselves and our world from them? How do we read the whole Bible authentically, honestly and consistently?
It is a very common, but hugely misleading, miscalculation to think of the Bible as ‘a book’. The Bible is actually a library. The word Bible literally means ‘the books’. The Bible is, in reality, a complex collection of historical documents, written over the course of at least 1, 500 years, which represents various literary genres (everything from history to parables, poetry to pastoral letters and legal code to visions of the future) worldviews, languages, cultures, agendas and opinions. So, although we refer to the Bible as our sacred text, it is more accurately a collection of texts – which have become sacred to the Church. It is best read, understood and acted upon in that context.
As you enter this sacred library you discover that, like all libraries, it contains various, sometimes harmonious, sometimes discordant and sometimes even contradictory voices. It is clear that the personalities, politics, prejudices, social understandings and cultural settings of its writers all play a part in their thinking and writing. The idea that the whole thing was dictated, word-for-word, to its human authors, by God, without error or contradiction – that it’s ‘infallible’ or even ‘inerrant’ in any popular understanding of these words – is, to say the least, extremely misleading. Both terms, unfortunately, send the world the chilling message that this text must be blindly accepted without challenge. In truth, there is nothing in the biblical texts that is beyond debate and questioning, and healthy churches are ones that create an environment which welcomes just that.
The biblical texts are not a ‘divine monologue’; where the solitary voice of God dictates a flawless and unified declaration of his character and will to their writers, whose only role is to copy-type. But, nor are they, simply a human presentation of and testimony to God. Rather, in my view, they are most faithfully engaged as a collection of books written by fallible human beings whose work bears the hallmarks of the limitations and preconceptions of the times and the cultures they live in, but also of the transformational experience of their encounters with God. Together they form the account of an ancient, sacred dialogue – a giant conversation – initiated, inspired and guided by God with and among humanity about God, his creation and our role in it as his partners.
It is perhaps a surprising fact that there is not – and has never been – any universal agreement around the question of exactly which texts constitute the canon of the Bible. Various traditions include different books, in different orders, and sometimes divide or combine books, or incorporate additional material into canonical books. In fact, Christian Bibles range from the 66 books of the Protestant canon, through the 73 of the Catholic canon, all the way to the 81 of the Ethiopian Orthodox canon.
It seems an odd thing to say but, there is a sense in which, in the end, it was the invention of the printing press – and particularly the mass-production of cheap books that eventually followed it – which finally fixed the various canons as we know them today. Until then they were more fluid. Each handwritten text had been slightly different, due, not only to copying errors but inconstancies in the texts they were copied from. But, it was also true that before the printing press, the scrolls, and later the handwritten books you had access to in your library varied, as did the order in which you choose to keep them on your shelves.
From the fourth century, there seems to have existed a general unanimity in the West, at least concerning the 27 books of New Testament, which, for the most part, had spread to the Eastern Church by the fifth century. Nevertheless, full dogmatic articulations of the Bible’s canon were not made by Roman Catholicism until 1546 and Greek Orthodoxy until 1672. As late as the sixteenth century, however, Martin Luther – the ‘father of the Protestant Reformation’ – was still arguing for the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation to be dropped from the New Testament altogether because he perceived them to go against some of the doctrines he was promoting.
As the ‘new media’ of the printed book became common, however, the debates over the contents of the canon subsided and instead – encouraged by its new fixedness – those over the exactness of its inspiration (the development of the doctrines of infallibility, inerrancy, et al) began to spring up. So, for instance, in seventeenth century Europe a huge dispute arose over the Hebrew vowel points and accents, which were not originally part of the Old Testament texts but were inserted by the Masorete scribes hundreds of years later. Were the Masoretic vowels which, in some cases, significantly impacted the meaning of the text, inspired or not? Later, in the mid eighteen-hundreds, a group of protestant scholars, based in Geneva, developed the theory of ‘plenary verbal inspiration’ declaring that every word of the biblical text (the Protestant Old Testament was translated from the Masoretic text) was the very word that God intended it to be. Then, in the early twentieth century, the view that God would choose to inspire just one version of the Bible in any given language was developed, mainly in the USA, teaching that, in English, that translation was the 1611 King James. Reflecting on all these disputes, Dr Stephen Holmes concludes that ‘a fundamentalist attitude to scripture relies on the fixity of the printed text.’
What all of the writers of the New Testament are agreed on, is that through Jesus, for the very first time in history, we finally get to see and understand God exactly as he is. God’s character is at last, fully, accurately and completely revealed. Or, to put the same principle slightly differently, if it doesn’t look like Jesus, it’s not God. Ultimately, it turns out; the ‘Word of God’ is a person, not a manuscript. So, it is Christ – his life, example, character and teaching – who is our guide and our primary lens, not only for biblical interpretation but for doing life.
But, if the Bible is an ancient dialogue around the gradually growing picture of the character of God, fully revealed only in Jesus, it is also a dynamic conversation which, rather than ending with the finalisation of the canon of the Bible, continues beyond it and involves all of those who give themselves to Christ’s on-going redemptive movement. A key challenge faced by the Church – one which often goes unrecognised – is that the Bible does not provide the final answer to a whole number of spiritual and moral issues with which society has subsequently wrestled, for example slavery, the role of women in church leadership and the Church’s relationship with other world religions. How, for instance, is it that Wilberforce, came to the view that slavery was wrong, even though some of the verses – the actual words in black and white – of the Bible clearly have a different view?
Biblical interpretation is not finished, rather it is the on-going, open-ended task of all those who take its text seriously and authoritatively. By its very nature – dialogue rather than monologue – the Bible beckons us into discussion and debate in community. To read and wrestle with the meaning of scripture, humbly and honestly, in Christian community is part of our vocation as God’s people; a discipline which some sections of the Church have been better at than others. And, in this task we will always be impoverished if we do not honour and respect the insight, wisdom and contribution of those who, from many traditions and cultures, over the centuries of the history of the Church, have also brought their understanding to this sacred conversation.
The result of all this is that – just like Wilberforce – we may sometimes come to a developed, or even different, view than some of those contained in the canon of scripture. In doing so, however, it always remains our responsibility to explore why the Bible includes the range of voices we find there and what the Spirit of God is teaching us through their inclusion in the biblical text. It is through an acceptance and understanding of the humanness of our sacred text, rather than a denial of it, that we discover God’s inspiration.
Perhaps a sermon should be regarded as great – not because everyone in the congregation agrees with the preacher – but because, at the end of the service, those present just can’t wait to talk about it; to discuss and debate it together, because the text around which it was built has captured their imagination and curiosity.
All this means that the Church will often have conflicting understandings of what it means to live as God’s people in a particular location or cultural setting. Honouring scripture is never to insist on unanimity in understanding it. We will not always agree but, when we disagree, it is clear that our Christ-given responsibly is to continue to extend grace to one another. In the end, if the Bible teaches us anything, it is that each one of us is loved by God not because of how right we are but because God graciously and mercifully accepts us, sometimes despite the positions we adopt!
This article was originally published in Christianity Magazine (UK) on February 13th, 2014 and is an abridged version of ‘Restoring confidence in the Bible.’ The full version can be found at: www.oasisuk.org/theologyresources
This article is a contribution to the Mesa conversation.