The Bible Isn’t the “Word of God,” But Rather a Tool for Hearing the Word of God
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for
training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for
every good work.
--2 Timothy 3:16-17 NRSV
I was raised the son of a Southern Baptist minister, and unlike most preacher’s kids, I loved going to church. Going to church as a Southern Baptist meant lots and lots of Bible stuff. I memorized Bible verses and won prizes in Sunday School. I learned the classic Bible stories. I read through the entire Bible and wore out my Bible’s pages with my underlining and highlighting. I even pledged allegiance to the Bible at Vacation Bible School, right after pledging allegiance to the American flag and the Christian flag (never mind the historic Baptist principle of separation of church and state). The Bible was the “Word of God” even though the Gospel of John says Jesus Christ has that title. My Sunday school teachers taught me the Bible was without error, although when I pressed my father on seeming contradictions in it, he admitted there was a human element involved as well. Nonetheless, the Bible captured me, and even though my understanding of what the Bible is and is not has changed dramatically, the Bible still has not let me go.
By the time I was a teenager, the Southern Baptist bubble I lived in was tearing itself apart because of differing views of the Bible. On one side were so called “Moderates,” like my father, who were basically still conservative but they believed the Bible should be interpreted in light of its original historical context, and the “Fundamentalists” who said any view other than one saying the Bible was “inerrant” or free of errors was liberal heresy. The “Moderates” allowed for differing interpretations of the Bible under the idea of “the priesthood of all believers” which meant each believer had their own access to God without any human or institutional mediation. The “Fundamentalists” said their way of reading the Bible was the only true way, and took as their key issues—opposing abortion, strict gender roles for men and women with men in authority over women, viewing anything as a sin other than heterosexual sexual intercourse within marriage, instituting state-sponsored prayer in public schools and support for the Republican Party. The “Fundamentalists” took over the Southern Baptist Convention and began purging all dissenters. In this time period, I learned how the Bible, or at least certain interpretations of it, could be used as a weapon against people I loved.
I went to a Baptist college and was taught by religion professors who had to defend their jobs against fundamentalist critics. Then I went to a new Baptist seminary populated by professors and students forced out of Southern Baptist seminaries. In my education, I learned about the “historical-critical method” for Biblical interpretation, which meant understanding the writings of the Bible in their own context and as specific types of literature. I even learned of Bible scholars who were female, African American, Latin-American and other perspectives who revealed the ways interpretations of scripture had been used to justify, slavery, genocide, colonialism and oppression around the globe. I even began a Ph.D. program in New Testament at Emory University in Atlanta thinking that the classroom was a space I could finally explore the Bible without being attacked. Yet, despite all the wonderful things I learned as a doctoral student, I ended up leaving the program, because the academic study of the Bible felt too removed from the pain of everyday people, and the Bible that had captured me had everything to do with the pain of ordinary human beings.
I left Baptist life and began my journey in mainline Christianity in the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ. I was pleasantly surprised to find a Christianity struggling to work for equality in gender, sexual orientation, race and class, but I was also shocked to find suspicion of and even disinterest in the Bible. It had been the teachings of Jesus and the words of the Hebrew prophets who had inspired my efforts for social justice, but I found among mainline Christians the Bible was often viewed only as an obstacle to it. I still find it strange that in their liturgy and practices mainline Christians say things like “this is the Word of the Lord” about the Bible while at the same time dismissing it.
Even when I believed the Bible was the “Word of God,” I still understood that the Bible could be used for great good or great evil, depending on its interpretation. I knew that slave owners and opponents of Civil Rights used the Bible to justify their racism, while African Americans and their allies found inspiration in the Exodus and the resurrection of Jesus. I knew church officials who quoted Paul to justify opposition to women ministers, yet I knew female clergy who took inspiration from Mary Magdalene being the first to testify to the risen savior. I knew Christians who viewed homosexuality as a sin citing the first chapter of Romans, and I knew gay and lesbian Christians who based their freedom in Christ on Galatians 3:28. I saw Christians inspired by the Bible to give sacrificially to people in need, and I saw church people use the Bible to justify the meanest forms of hate. For me, the fundamentalist claim that there was a single meaning of scripture plain for all to see rang false, yet I could never dismiss the Bible outright. If I threw out the Bible because of all the bad ways people used it, I felt I would also have to throw out all the ways people were inspired by it to do amazing acts of goodness.
Over the years, I have preached sermons, taught Bible studies and as an adjunct taught college courses on the Bible. I’ve tried to share my understanding that rather than a single book, the Bible is a library of different writings of varied genres, written in different languages by people of different cultures living in different centuries. It is a collection of writings in dialogue with one another, and it invites us into that dialogue instead of asking us to treat it like a rulebook, a political treatise or as a daily horoscope. Yet, now I see an amazing lack of concern with the Bible at all. Not only is our larger culture biblically illiterate, but the loudest Christian voices in it use scripture merely as a justification of their right-wing politics.
Ironically, at a time when technology has made the Bible the most accessible it has ever been, engagement of the Bible on its own terms is at an all time low in Western culture. I don’t long for an imaginary yesteryear when people knew the Bible better, because knowledge of the Bible didn’t prevent white Christians from oppressing all sorts of people. But I do wish for communities of Christians who can be inspired by the Bible’s stories of God working through and on behalf of the powerless. I still believe the Bible can be a source of liberation, even in spite of all the ways it has been misused to harm and abuse others.
Growing up, I memorized 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (printed above) and believed it referred to the Bible as I knew it. Later on I learned that the “scripture” mentioned was probably only what I knew as the “Old Testament”, since the early Christians didn’t really have a “New Testament” yet, and an official list of biblical books weren’t agreed upon until a few centuries later. I also learned that the “scriptures” mentioned were probably “Old Testament” books translated into the Greek language of the writer’s day and not the original Hebrew used for most English Bible translations. I also learned that translators disagree on which ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts were the earliest and most reliable to use for English Bibles, so it is uncertain which versions of scripture are actually “inspired.” I even learned that the apostle Paul may not have written the Second Letter to Timothy. Yet, despite all that knowledge, I still believe the Bible in all its different languages, translations and packaging remains “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
I don’t believe these words in the way fundamentalists mean it when they quote the verses to condemn people they view as evil, but rather I believe it, because I hear the “Word of God’ speaking to me through the Bible and through other people’s interpretations of it. I still believe the distinction between calling the Bible the “word of God” and understanding the Bible as a means of hearing the “Word of God” (Jesus Christ) in my heart and soul remains an essential one. I’m not willing to throw the Bible out, because I believe it is a tool for God’s redemptive activity in our lives and our world.
For the next three days, I’ll be reflecting on Rachel Held Evans’ book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again in hopes Park Hill Christian can be inspired to think in new ways about how the Bible can be a key part of the future of this church. I highly recommend the book to you.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
8/3/2020 10:07:18 am
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11/16/2021 12:17:09 am
Why do Protestant apologists appeal to Peter and Paul for their belief in the divine inspiration of the New Testament? When exactly did God make Peter or Paul the infallible vicar of Christ on earth? When it comes to the divine inspiration of the New Testament, are Protestant apologists papists?
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