Apparently, more copies of the Bible have been printed than any other book. It is translated into a host of languages. Even in English, there are a multitude of translations.
It is a book of power: Kings, princes and governments, have opposed it being translated into the language of the people. Regimes have restricted its availability, if not banned it totally. In prisons and concentration camps across the world it has been forbidden, because its words give people dignity and power to go on.
In story after story, whether it be Corrie Ten Boom or Richard Wurmbrand, we hear of people's hiding small bibles as they were shifted through the prisons, and gaining life and solace from their words. Others, without the written text, have carved scraps they could remember into their cell walls.
The church has a love affair with the Bible. We are called the people of the Book. People devote their lives to its study. We love and reverence it on our pulpits. It precedes the processional into church.
Our love even extends to jokes about it; the first cricket match was played at Pentecost when Peter stood up with the eleven and was bold. Jonah, we are told, is really a treatise on economics; small profits and quick returns. ..... Only a people who love scripture could dream up this last joke, let alone recognise the pun: What happened when John the Baptist jammed his fingers in his mother's weaving? ...... Answer. ... He wept in his mother's loom!
But we are deadly serious too. Outsiders had better be careful what they say about our Bible. And there is hot dispute about translations. Some will tell us than anything less than the King James version is a 'cardboard sword.'
And it is central in our Christian living. In any dispute over anything people will write to the New Times, or The Advertiser, quoting chapter and verse of The Bible to support their views. And any argument in theology, conservative or liberal, passes through the Bible at some stage. The Bible is central to the life of the Church.
It's because that book has the earliest traditions of our faith. It tells the story of Jesus Christ written down only decades after his death. And as we read it we have our own kind of Pentecost experience. We meet the risen Lord. It is a Holy Book. It opens us up and puts us in touch with God. It has done that for the church over centuries, and for Israel before us. In the words of this book, like in no other, we meet the words of God. It instructs us. It gives us comfort and solace. We find the courage we need to go on within it. It explains the frightening world in which we live. It gives us a story to live by.
Some of us Protestants have taken great umbrage at the Roman Catholic church and made rude comments about the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. It is interesting that the Roman Catholics will sometimes reply in return, " ... but you have a Paper Pope."
And the accusation is not with out its truth. The truth that scripture is 'God breathed', which is what 'inspired' means, often has additions made to it. The extreme of this is a doctrine called Biblical Inerrancy. The common proven experience of God speaking through the book is taken much further in this doctrine. Too far.
I want to look at this. It can help us learn something about ourselves and our faith. And it will warn us of a wrong turning in Christian discipleship which we would do well to avoid.
In the heresy of Fundamentalism, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy says, roughly, that what is written is the literal and historical truth, valid for all time. The doctrine, despite its claims to the contrary, ignores the fact that people of a particular time and place and persuasion, wrote the Bible, however much God influenced their writing. It is unable to see plain contradiction within the scriptures. [God of love; Psalm 137. Cleansing of the temple in John vs. others. 1 Cor. 11 vs 1 Cor 14 on silence. etc.] It causes them to be used to make pronouncements on issues they say nothing about. Fundamentalism makes the Holy Bible a paper pope.
The Inerrancy doctrine often appeals to Calvin and Luther, the great heroes of the Reformation, for its support. It ignores, or is ignorant of, the fact that Luther reduced Hebrews, James Jude and Revelation to a secondary status. He didn't just say this. In his September 1522 Bible he put them in a separate list in the table of contents. Calvin agreed with him and added doubts about the authenticity of 2 Peter and 2 and 3 John.
The doctrine is ignorant of the fact that it was really only developed in the church in the last century or so in response to Darwinism and evolution, and perhaps the Roman doctrine of Papal infallibility. It was also a fearful response to the development of biblical criticism, which for all its early faults was also an act of devotion as scholars tried to understand the bible.
The doctrine claims it has always been the view of the church, and calls us to be obedient to it.
Basically, this doctrine is a doctrine of fearfulness. It seeks to help us be unafraid by assuring us the Bible is totally true in every respect. No matter what else happens in this world, we can trust the Bible, it says. The Bible is pure, and uncontaminated. And because it is so we can trust what it says about Jesus and be sure about our salvation. The doctrine goes on to claim that if we cannot trust the Bible we cannot be sure of anything. The Bible, it tells us, is the Word of God.
And that is a good place for us to have a closer look at it. Let's be very precise with our language. The Bible can be called the word of God, but only in a derivative way, or secondary way. The Bible itself tells us that the Word is Christ. "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the word was God."
The Bible is only the word of God in the sense that it tells us about God, as Jesus the Word does. It is Jesus Christ the Word who is the God. Fundamentalism makes the book the God. And the book has to be literally and historically perfect, or else we cannot believe in Jesus, it says.
Fundamentalism bases its faith in Jesus upon the Bible. What we ought to do is believe in the Bible because we have met and have faith in Jesus the Living Word!
Of course it's a bit of a chicken and egg situation for us. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? That question is very hard to answer. But in the church, if it is to be Christian, Christ must come first. We may have read the Bible before we met him. But if he is God, and if he is a living Lord, then he must have priority.
If we put our interpretation of the Bible before or above what the living Lord of the church is telling us through the Holy Spirit, then we are worshipping an idol. Even though it's the Bible we are talking about, it becomes an idol in that situation. We may be a people of the book, but we are called to be the people of Christ first. As much as the book may introduce us to Christ, bring us back to Christ, and guide us in our understanding of Christ, it in the end must be the Christ who controls our interpretation of the book. It is the living Jesus Christ who is Lord, not our interpretation of the book.
Now it could be asked what Jan is on about. This is not a fundamentalist church, so what's the problem? The problem is this: As I hear current debates in the church, whether they are about baptism, the ordination of women, homosexuality, or social justice, I discern something. Very often the argument is not about the issue at hand at all. The issue at hand is only the occasion or framework for another more serious debate. The real debate which is going on is about the nature of the Bible.
Look at the debate over the ordination of women, for example. If we subscribe to the fundamentalist doctrine of scripture, we cannot allow the ordination of women. It is not possible. The Bible which is right and with out error for all time, plainly says in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians that women are to be silent in church, not to teach, and not to have authority over men.
End of story. As a fundamentalist, any debate with a person wanting to ordain women is really for defending our view of scripture. There is no question about it for us. For a Fundamentalist, to ordain a woman, is to admit the bible is no longer right in some places. We cannot do that or our whole faith will collapse. Our faith stands and falls with the inerrant trustworthy word.
Now as I hear the debates in our churches, I hear people who have started to move in the direction of fundamentalism. I am not saying they are fundamentalists; they would be hurt and horrified by the suggestion. What I am saying is that because of the aggressive preaching of some of the more conservative churches, and because of the massive success of some conservative religious publishing houses, we have tended to get sucked in by the story, the untrue story, that unless we hold to the literal truth of the Bible we are being unfaithful to Christ.
No one wants to be unfaithful to Christ, so without realising it we tend to overreact in a conservative direction, before we think.
If nothing else is clear from this we might be able to understand that a lot of our arguing is happening not so much because we disagree on the issue, but because we and the other person are quite different in our understanding of the nature of Scripture. That explains why we so often go around in circles and get exasperated by each other.
But there is more than this. Jesus is our Lord. And he should be our standard for use of scripture. He contradicted whole slabs of scripture in his time; reinterpreting food laws, divorce and so on. And we have done the same since then. I am not saying something new here. We don't have slaves. Women don't wear hats in church anymore.. We do ordain women. We do allow remarriage. We do invest money at interest, and so on.
If we are truly to be Christ's church we must not move towards the Fundamentalist solution to problems. We must make Christ the Lord of the church. We must listen to the Spirit. When a new situation comes along and a woman says she hears God's call to be ordained, to take just one example, we cannot simply turn to the Bible and trot out the old answers of last century. We must seek to pray and seek to discern if Christ is not perhaps calling us on into a new area and new life; Even though we have understood the Bible to say something different in the past.
What does this say to us about the Bible?
It means we can't stay in "Bible Sunday School." It amazes me how many of us have home computers and are hackers of some ability, but have never showed the same enthusiasm for the Bible. We learn about computers or fishing or sailing or all sorts of areas, all for fun, but not the Bible. Let's put some energy into the Bible, and getting beyond simplistic understandings. There is nothing wrong with a simple faith; there is a lot wrong if we are simplistic about things when we have the ability to do better. Especially since we so often claim to base our thinking and decisions upon the Bible.
It also means we need to be part of the church universal with respect to the Bible. In other parts of the church we will see and learn other ways to read and learn from it; AND other ways to meet Christ. With the greatest of respect, I am are inclined to think we sometimes feel ecumenism means going down to the local Pentecostal church on Sunday nights. I wonder if that is not going from our little church to something more insular, rather than expanding our experience of the whole church. It is not enough to choose what we would like to hear, we need to be challenged.
But the most important thing any of us can do, and which all of us should do is ask what this book is and who we are. Are we people who serve a living Christ, or people who serve a particular interpretation of a book?
If we will seek to serve the Living Christ who is the Living eternal Word, then we are truly Christian. And if we will reverence this book as the record of Israel and the Church as they struggled to come to terms and explain their experience of the living God, then we are Christian.
And if we reverence the book in that way the living Word will spring from its pages. Yet if we make the book God, then we really will have a 'cardboard sword'.
We are all wrong about the Bible. We are all in error here and there. We all misunderstand. But the Living Christ will lead us into the truth it says in John. If we will serve and worship the Living Christ, and not the book, we are walking in the right way.
Let us worship the Living Christ and put our faith in Him, if we will be Christian. To worship a book is a poor substitute.
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