Molong cloudset, NSW 2011

What is the Bible?

This article was written as an appendix to one of the Lectionary Commentaries on this site. However it has wider application.  There has been some slight editing of the original.

What do you think of the Bible?  What is its nature?  Even if you do not agree with the sketched out material below, it is clear that the way we think about it, will affect how we hear it. Comments are welcome!

There seem to be two main ways to approach the Bible. Let me summarise these in a deliberately unsubtle way, using two extremes.

One approach says the Bible is revelation in the sense that God wrote it.
The other approach sees the Bible as a human response to the history of God's revelation to people.

Both these approaches have many nuances, and perhaps they grade into each other. I do them scant justice in my description, apart from showing their essential difference as baldly as I can. But these two approaches also have significant implications in their differences.

Few people would believe God dictated the Bible word for word. However, in some sense the Bible is revelation approach does identify the words of the book as words of God. There may be errors in translation, or emphases that reflect the individual authors, and cultural artefacts, but this book is in some sense, God's word.

With this approach, after the reading in church, people literally mean it when they say "This is the Word of the Lord."

The other approach affirms that God has spoken to people. Those people have responded to God, including writing down their understandings of what God revealed to them. Other people have reflected upon their words, which we call theology and prayer. It's clear that a lot of theology, aka editing, has happened in some of the texts, before they reached the form we now call "Bible."

With this this approach, after the reading in church, some congregations say, "In this is the Word of the Lord," and they mean it.

Bearing in mind that I am talking baldly, without subtlety, let's look at the implications of the two approaches for this week's reading. In the first case, where God wrote it, John need make no apology for the way he speaks of the Jews. It is Word of God he is giving us. If there is any fault in our attitude toward Jewish people throughout history, it is only in our interpretation and application of that word.

In the second approach, if we are to take John's invitation from Jesus seriously, the bible is not just history of revelation. It becomes a vehicle of revelation to us as we seek to understand it, and struggle with it.

In this case, we may see the word of the Lord in "negative" ways. That is, "I will not respond as John did."

This may seem like we are judging scripture, deciding which to accept and which to ignore. In fact, the other approach does exactly the same; all interpretation takes authority over the text. The very fact of reading and deciding on a meaning, is to take authority over. This is a reality to which the various fundamentalisms of the world remain curiously blind.

We cannot escape this fact of interpretation. In reading scripture, our only options, again speaking baldly, are to decide to be arbitrary in our assigning meaning, or to decide to discover as accurately as possible the original meaning of the author, and how that applies to our time.

What the God wrote it approach does, is assign authority for all times to an author alive at a certain time, and then tends, usually, to assign authority to a particular interpretation of that author. Those who seek God's current revelation through struggling with our history, also risk assigning too much authority to one interpretation, especially one in tune with the fashions of the time.

For me, however, the second approach offers a greater freedom. With this second approach, thre has been more of life in all its fullness (John 10:10) .

Andrew Prior

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