God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture (Course in Understanding the Bible)

This is the third essay in a collection entitled, A Course in Understanding the Bible. The full collection is organized as follows:

  1. The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration
  2. Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth
  3. God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture
  4. Why the Bible is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration
  5. All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning

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There are many different theories that attempt to explain how the Bible came to be. What follows are some informal reflections on the origins of scripture that are consistent with my experience and studies in theology.

In his book, Good and Evil, Edward Farley explains that human beings experience redemption in three spheres of existence: the personal, interpersonal, and social. In the personal sphere, we experience redemption as freedom from the dynamics of idolatry and the courage to live by faith. In our relationships with others, we experience redemption as forgiveness, reconciliation, and the freedom to love unconditionally (agape).  In the social sphere, we experience redemption as social justice and emancipation from oppressive systems. In these ways, divine redemption breaks into our lives in very concrete and specific ways.

As people in the ancient world experienced the freedoms of redemption, some felt inspired by God to theologically reflect on what had happened and to communicate these reflections with others, first through oral tradition then through writing. The people who were obedient to this divine calling spoke and wrote as human beings. This means that they drew on whatever was available to them in their specific cultural-historical context to describe their experiences of the divine. This included their given language, symbol systems, traditions, religious ideas, and communal stories.

It is important to note that all of these expressions of divine redemption were limited by at least two things. First, divine transcendence. There is always mystery in God’s activity. As theologians have argued extensively, God does not act in the same way that human beings act. Peter Hodgson explains:

“The causality exercised by God is not that of a first cause or material cause, which bring about specific, predetermined effects, but that of a final cause, which offers a possibility, an invitation, a goal. God’s creative power also works as a formal cause, providing patterns or ideals for the shaping of events, but not controlling outcomes. Final and formal causes exercise real influence within a framework of contingency, freedom, and indeterminacy. God orders the world, orients it to the attainment of value, but God does not mechanically control the dynamics of the creative process.” (Christian Faith: A Brief Introduction 56).

Since there is an ontological distinction between God and the world, and since God does not act with the same kind of agency exercised by human beings, theologians like Martin Luther, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich emphasize that divine revelation has a paradoxical character. It is not only an unveiling but also a veiling. There is a sense in which God remains hidden even as God is revealed. Taken together, all of this points to the fact that God is a (rational) mystery. To speak of God is to point to a higher rationality, a higher truth, which cannot be exhaustively known by means of human language. As those in the mystical tradition remind us, when we say that God acts, there is a sense in which we don’t know exactly what we mean because there’s not a one-to-one correspondence between the words we use and the events they seek to describe. All theological language is analogy or metaphor. This is the first limitation of our attempts to expression divine redemption.

The second limitation has to do with the perspectival nature of human thinking and language.  The way that we experience, interpret, understand, and express the “coming forth” of redemption into our lived existence is always already shaped by a particular symbolic-linguistic worldview, which is limited by all of the blind spots and knowledge gaps associated with finite, located, human beings. There is no unmediated or uninterpreted encounter with God.

Going back to those in the ancient world who played a role in the shaping of biblical content, it is important to remember that most of the stories of redemption started as oral traditions that were passed down for many years before they were recorded by scribes. As these stories were passed-down from generation to generation they were told and retold, interpreted and reinterpreted, adapted and readapted in ways that met the evolving needs of the worshiping community in an ever changing context. The goal was not to construct a modern historiography, but to engage in ongoing theological interpretation that could help a religious community make sense of God, the world, and the relationship between the two in changing and challenging circumstances.

Over time, these oral traditions generated more conceptual thinking about the character of God and God’s relationship to the world. More sustained reflection on the fluid, pliable, theologically interpreted memory of the community functioned to generate theological norms that served in the ongoing adaptation and reinterpretation of the stories (as well as stories and ideas received from other religions). As Walter Brueggemann argues in his book, Theology of the Old Testament, Israel started by attributing verbs to YHWH, then adjectives, and eventually nouns. As the community experienced the redemptive power of God over significant periods of time, they began to see patterns that allowed them to make more general claims about God’s character. All of this gave the community tools for theologically interpreting every aspect of life, which helps us to understand why there are so many different genres in the Bible. As the oral traditions were written and used by the community for various purposes, some of them proved to have enduring value and were collected together as sacred scripture. So the content of the Bible is the community’s theologically interpreted memory of how God acted to save them through a covenant relationship in various ways and in various times and places.

While I reflect on biblical authority and inspiration in another article (see “Why the Bible is Important to Christians“), it is appropriate to mention that part of what we mean by “divine inspiration” is that the Holy Spirit was somehow at work in the traditioning process described above.

All of this helps us to understand that the Bible is not a book but a library of books. The content constitutive of the Bible was shaped by many different people, who lived in different periods of history, spoke different languages, endorsed different worldviews, wrote in different genres, and addressed different problems and needs in the worshiping community.  If you doubt this, simply compare the life and times of Abraham and the Apostle Paul. Some of the books of the Bible have multiple authors and all of them were copied, edited, redacted, and reinterpreted as they circulated among various communities across generations. So the finished product is not a single author book, but a library of books that span the course of centuries.

All of this helps us to see that while God is active in the development of the Bible, it is also a very human text. God acts in redemptive ways and inspires people to think and write theologically about these experiences.  But God did not write the Bible as John Grisham wrote A Time to Kill. Neither did God negate the humanity of the authors by making them passive secretaries or giving them miraculous knowledge of modern science or historiography. The good news is that God does not need to author a perfect book to accomplish God’s purposes in the world and bring us salvation. Just as God did in Jesus of Nazareth two-thousand years ago, God works in and through the humanity of the biblical authors, with all of their limitations, failures, and blind spots, to ensure that they tell the truth in ways that can lead (in the power of the Holy Spirit) to knowledge of salvation.

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Self-Discovery and the Journey to God: What the Wizard of Oz Teaches Us About Finding Our Way Home

During the summer months, the Cobb Theater in my hometown offers free movies in the mornings on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This is a gift to families who are trying to find kid-friendly entertainment that doesn’t break the bank. Last week, I was able to get away for a couple of hours to see The Wizard of Oz with my children. The last time I really watched the movie was in elementary school, and I was struck by something I had never realized before. Dorothy and her three traveling companions actually possessed the things for which they were so desperately looking.

The scarecrow thought he need a brain, but turned out to be one of the smartest characters. The tin man thought he was missing a heart, but showed strong emotions, sometimes evidenced by tears. The lion thought he lacked courage, by like the others was able to face his fears, successfully make the journey to the Emerald City, and save Dorothy from the wicked witch in the process. This insight is confirmed at the end of the film when the wizard, instead of giving them the virtues they were seeking, gave them symbolic objects that functioned to confirm the qualities they already possessed. And of course Dorothy was trying to find the means to get back home, only to realize that the ruby slippers she wore the whole time was all she needed.

What seems clear to me is that this film is about self-discovery. It’s about leaving home, transgressing boundaries into unexplored territories, and returning home with an expanded consciousness. It is about our compulsion to look for wizards who can deliver us from danger and give us magical (i.e., quick and easy) solutions to complex problems so we don’t have to travel the long and painful road to maturity. It is about helping us realize that we have within us the things we so desperately look for in others, but also how evil can gain the upper hand by exploiting our insecurities and convincing us to believe lies about ourselves. It’s about realizing that everything we need to get home, everything we need for salvation, has already been accomplished and deposited in us as a gift. And it’s about the importance of discovering all of this for ourselves in the midst of life’s storms and the grief that comes with saying goodbye.

As I pondered these insights about the Wizard of Oz, I began to see parallels in the church’s teachings on the Holy Spirit and salvation, especially as interpreted by the contemplative and mystical traditions. The biggest temptation of fallen humanity is to look for salvation in other people or things of this world. By looking outside ourselves, we try to secure our own existence with created things, which inevitably leads us down the path to idolatry. We are particularly tempted to seek salvation in other people: a romantic partner, a therapist, a pastor, an inspirational author, or even a friend that we put on a pedestal as a spiritual giant. Anytime we are looking for someone outside of ourselves to “fix” us we get in trouble because the answers lie within.

I am not suggesting that we save ourselves—only God saves. But the Bible teaches that with the sending of the Holy Spirit, the triune God comes to live in us. (In addition to passages referencing the image of God in human beings, see Philippians 2:12, Colossians 1:27, Galatians 2:20, Romans 8:11, 1 Corinthians 6:19). And if God lives in us, then finding or drawing close to God points to the inward journey of the heart. As Richard Rohr says in Everything Belongs, we are “circumference people” who live at the edges of our existence, and the path to God is the movement from the edges to the center. The biblical metaphor for the center of our existence is “the heart.” The journey to God is also the journey of self-discovery. These two kinds of knowing happen together. 

Furthermore, if the very power and presence of God lives in us, then in a certain sense we lack nothing. Some of the most entrenched problems of human existence come from the idea of scarcity—the fear of not getting enough or being enough. We often assume that we are missing something really important for a life of joy and contentment. This compels us to search outside ourselves for what we think we lack, and this outward focus often leads to the comparison trap. We gaze upon the idealized persona of others generated by projections of a charmed life on social media and the material signs of success (wealth, good looks, and influence). Then we compare ourselves to this illusory ideal and find our fears confirmed by thoughts such as, “I wish I had it all like her,” or “I wish I had it all together like him.” The comparison trap intensifies our anxiety and sometimes leads to depression as we struggle with the entrenched suspicion that we are really not good enough and lack the solution.

But the Bible teaches that God has given us everything we need for abundant life and has deposited this treasures in our hearts through the sending his Holy Spirit who lives in us. Just like Dorothy wore the slippers that could take her home all along, so God has given us the means for divine, intimate communion. All we have to do is close our eyes and (instead of clicking our heels three times) call on the name of the Lord (Romans 10:13). The way home is the path of prayer. That is what this message is all about. I hope it blesses you!

Phrases for Meditation: I am accepted. I lack nothing, The Spirit of God lives in me.

Don’t Scare the Hell Out of People, Love the Hell Out of Them

Many Christians are concerned about loved one’s who don’t embrace their faith (or particular brand of Christianity). Some are fearful that if their spouse, child, or friend doesn’t “get saved” that they might suffer an untimely death and go to hell. Others are fearful that their loved ones are suffering unnecessary pain and missing the peace and joy that come from following Jesus. In this message, I invite you to consider how being overly concerned with your loved one going to hell could be grounded in bad theology that myopically focuses on the judgment and wrath of God. I also suggests that this focus on fear and judgment can actually lead to counter-productive ways of sharing our faith that actually push people away and make it less likely for them to become a follower of Jesus. In contrast, if we focus on helping people find real healing, forgiveness, love, and joy in the here and now, then this will lead us to share our faith in ways that actually work. The goal is not scare the hell out of people with threats of divine punishment (which never leads to lasting transformation), but to love the hell out of people by being the heart, hands, feet and voice of the most compassionate man to walk the face of the earth–Jesus Christ. If you really want to help someone receive the good news of the gospel, then check out this message!

Are Conservative Christians Being Persecuted And Does This Signal the End of the World?

In light of all the cultural upheaval in the United States over the last few weeks, I hear many people say things like, “The church is being persecuted,” “The end is near!” and “The rapture and great tribulation is on the horizon.” As a pastor, I would like to offer both a word of caution and an interpretive alternative to popular “end times” predictions.

First, out of respect for Christians who have been and are being tortured, terrorized, and murdered for their faith, we should be very careful how we use the word persecution. As I understand it, persecution involves taking away people’s rights to practice their religion and then trying to force them to recant their faith or face imprisonment, torture, and/or death. Giving someone else legal rights to do something that you find morally objectionable is not persecution. Living in a country where the courts do not legislate your interpretation of the Bible and personal moral code is not persecution. You might find recent legal decisions to be morally objectionable and interpret them as an indication that our country is moving in the wrong direction. But to call it persecution seems disingenuous to me in light of Christians who over the past 2,000 years have been arrested, tortured, and executed (sometimes as public sport) because of their conviction that Jesus is Lord. This includes the Christians being beheaded in the Middle East and the black churches that have recently been burned to the ground by hateful racists. Most of the claims of persecution coming out of the conservative camp of the church in America are based on the false assumption that we live in a Christian country. We do not live in a Christian nation. We live in a diverse, liberal democracy that happens to be inhabited by many Christians, but whose constitution legally protects the freedom of religion for all people, including those who are not Christians and who choose no religion at all. For more on this topic, see Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of  Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church.

Second, before you start talking about current events in light of a “Tim LaHaye interpretation” of the book of Revelation, please read what credible biblical scholars say about this perplexing text. Popular, futuristic readings of Revelation might dazzle our imagination and make for very bad movies (sorry Nick Cage), but this does not mean that this way of understanding should be naively accepted as “God’s Word” without critical thought. The scholarly consensus is that that the Book of Revelation is a piece of apocalyptic literature that was written to encourage Christians in the early church who experienced sporadic persecution under the rule of Emperor Domitian. The author never intended it to be read as a futuristic prophecy predicting events to be fulfilled 2,000 years later. Christians who are genuinely being persecuted can find much encouragement in the book of Revelation interpreted in its own historical-cultural context, but to claim that it is a series of oracles finally being fulfilled by recent shifts in our American context is a misreading. If you are interested in a short introduction to Revelation that will help you understand this strange conclusion to the Christian canon, I suggest James Efird’s little book, Revelation for Today.

Tensions are high and if we capitulate to our fears then we will do things to escalate and intensify the “sky is falling” mentality, which makes true faith difficult. Instead of allowing ourselves to be swept away in the stream of pessimism, anxiety, and doomsday end-of-the-world predictions, let’s take a deep breath and meditate on God’s constant presence so that we can be a healing, peaceful, and loving presence in the world.

Don’t Waste Good Wine: Remaining Flexible in Times of Change

We are living in a time of rapid change and cultural upheaval. Most people don’t like change because it requires us to grieve losses, solve novel problems, and acquire new skills. Some even retreat into religious fundamentalism and a literalistic reading of the Bible to insulate themselves from the challenges that come in the wake of change. In retrospect, we can clearly see that this approach has always done more harm than good to the Christian community and the world it claims to serve. For example, fearful “change avoidance” has compelled Christians to use the Bible to attack modern science, defend slavery and segregation, and deny women equal rights. This impulse is grounded in the idea that unity is a divinely ordained homogeneity that must be defend against any intrusion of difference. Difference is seen as the source of division, as a dangerous enemy to be eradicated. But the New Testament casts a vision of unity that is grounded in and strengthen by diversity. This is a counterintuitive idea for many, and Jesus knew that we would never be able to grasp it unless we had flexible hearts and minds. I believe that this is why Jesus told the parable of the wine skins (Luke 5:36-39). In this message, I exegete this parable to suggest two things: (1) we need fresh interpretations scripture that will help Christians solve complex problems in their contemporary context, and (2) Christians need pliable hearts and minds to receiving and assimilate these new interpretations. If this message blesses you then please share it with others.

For those who would like to learn more about interpreting the Bible in light of some of the most important insights in contemporary biblical scholarship and Christian theology, I highly recommend a book written by Rev. Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today.