This is the third essay in a collection entitled, A Course in Understanding the Bible. The full collection is organized as follows:
- The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration
- Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth
- God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture
- Why the Bible is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration
- All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning
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.