Ok, know I promised that this next time we’d finally get to the fact that the Bible is the word of God inspired for us and our salvation.
But even as I sent that last post to press, I was thinking that I did not do a good enough job exploring why this errant, deeply contextualized Bible is so important. I blog about this and teach from this angle in my classes not only because these two points are demonstrably true, but because they make us better readers of the Bible.
Moreover, affirming both that there are errors and that the Bible was written to speak, first of all, to people of another time and place provides us with a couple of key components for dealing with a number of otherwise troublesome issues and a posture from which to start developing a mature, twenty-first century Christian hermeneutic.
Thus, for example, when we read the Bible knowing that it was written from the perspective of a flat-earth, geo-centric universe, we can both understand the language and imagery better and recognize that we are not bound to affirm the same cosmology even if we choose to praise God with the same language.
But if we have a category for both errors and historical limitation, we are not bound to burn heliocentrists as word-of-God denying heretics. We can say, instead, that within the errant framework of the ancient view of the world the true God was truly praised as creator and sustainer of all things, a God who is praised by the fullness of the work of God’s hands.
The denial of biological evolution or the old age of the earth are modern-day battles that rage because we did not learn a large enough lesson from the Galileo fiasco. The point to be learned from our discovery that the earth is round and rotates around the sun is that we have misconceived of the Bible if we expect it to be free from errors of scientific fact and theory. God has spoken within and by means of the errant worldviews of the people to whom the word has come.
But then once we leave the question of the age of the earth and the like aside, we can return to the text of Genesis 1 or 2 or 3 and listen afresh for the ancient questions it was meant to answer: questions about God’s relationship to humanity; questions about humanity’s place in the world; questions about where Israel as God’s people fits into God’s plans for the world; questions about what a rightly ordered world looks like, about what a rightly ordered humanity in relationship with a loving God looks like.
Getting rid of inerrancy and the transhistorical nature of the Bible actually frees us from the shackles of other whole sets of questions that actually keep us at arms length from the religious claims of the texts.
One thing that happens once we can accept the fact that God inspired an errant Bible is that we no longer have to fight for God over the details, but can even listen through the errant details for the claim that God may be striving to stake on the lives of God’s people.
In practice, the defense of this or that historical detail is not only forcing us to wrestle with a question that the text did not pose for our edification, but keeping us from aligning ourselves with the first hearers of the text to understand how these claims would have sounded–and moving from there to the reimagining of our own lives as people to whom the same word comes as one freshly spoken among the community of God’s people.
Of course, this can go both ways. Finding historical errors can become its own distracting game. But more often, these serve to highlight the ways that God has chosen to speak, or that humans have conceptualized the way that the story should be understood. Put Kings next to Chronicles and you have one of a few options: (1) exert your whole life on an impossible quest of trying to harmonize unharmonious texts; (2) deny that the contradictions are real; or (3) use the discrepancies to get into the head of the Chronicler–who changed Kings on purpose in order to preach a different story from the history of Israel.
Relaxing about errors and context frees us for option 3, which takes us closer to hearing a particular message from a particular book for a particular people–and thereby moving to understand better both what the message was and what we might do with it.
Finally, there is an attendant imperative that goes along with much of this. Study much of the history of biblical texts and you’ll realize that they are often the end results of a process of telling and retelling and shaping and combining and writing afresh–all with the deep-seated conviction that these sacred texts must reach beyond the past and continue to speak today. The point I want to make, somewhat contra mundum, is that the humanness of scripture is one of the keys to understanding how it has spoken through the millenia and how it will continue to do so.
Once we recognize the freedom that the ancients felt with the text; better, once we realize the compulsion they felt to reread and rewrite the texts in light of their ever-new situations, we will start to recognize that we, too, have both a freedom and an obligation to reread the texts as words spoken to us.
First, as Christians, this means that no Old Testament text comes to us directly, but all are mediated through the climactic moment of the story in which Jesus inaugurated the reign of God through his life, death, and resurrection. And then there is the business of bringing the text into faithful conversation with the twenty-first century worldview–allowing it to both speak meaningfully to our time and to challenge us with where we may be blinded by our world.
But the point for today is that such up-dating is simply the logical conclusion of a recognition that the Bible was written up-to-date and rewritten numerous times over to keep it that way. Does holding onto the Bible as the word of God mean merely accepting the words that resulted from that process 2,000 years ago? Or does it also mean continuing the process that brought these books into being? To a certain extent we all act like the latter is true. I think we are right to do so, and that both the mistakes and the temporal embeddedness are our first clues as to why we are.