On Saturday March 8th, Ray Vincent led a debate about the Bible. These are his notes.
One of the principles Luther and other Reformers stood for was “scripture alone”: God speaks to us through the Bible itself, not the Bible as interpreted by the Church authorities. But soon the Protestants too had developed a systematic framework of doctrine which dictated the way they interpreted Scripture. Present-day “evangelicals” say that the Bible is God’s infallible Word, but they actually interpret it within the framework of evangelical doctrine.
The framework is:
· The Fall through Adam’s disobedience
· Original sin
· The need for a sacrifice
· Jesus the perfect Son of God offers his blood for atonement
· Salvation by grace for those who believe
· Eternal damnation for those who do not believe
· The Second Coming and final judgment
Even this framework is not exactly clear. If our eternal destination is fixed by the time we die, what is the point of the second coming and the final judgment?
Apart from this, there are many things in the Bible that do not fit into this framework. Other patterns can be seen, e.g.:
· God’s siding with the weak to bring down the world’s powers
· God’s creating of a people to bless the whole world
· Creation and re-creation
The Bible is very complex. We tend to start with assumptions:
· if the Bible is God’s Word, it must be perfect in every way
· if the Bible is God’s Word, it must proclaim the evangelical faith
There are problems with these assumptions when we come to look at the Bible itself.
Why not start from the other end? If God speaks to us through the Bible, let’s look at the Bible and let it tell us how God speaks.
God speaks gradually, not all at once
The Muslim faith is based on the Qur’an, the product of one man’s life in the 7th century AD. The Bible took much longer.
The earliest parts of the Bible are probably simple songs and proverbs that could date back to at least 1200 BC. Then there are stories that are very old but have been adapted through the ages:
· Some (e.g. the Flood) appear in different forms in other ancient cultures, and it is interesting to see what the Bible writers did with them
· Some (e.g. Joseph) are obviously meant to appeal to a much later time
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets …” (Heb 1:1)
The latest parts of the Bible could well come from after 100 AD. So the Bible probably took about 1300 years to be written.
God speaks through stories
If you look into the Bible to find out about God, you don’t find much theology there! It’s mostly stories. That surely tells us something about the way God speaks, and something about the nature of truth itself. The Bible has:
· Symbolic stories: Adam and Eve
· Folk tales to entertain and encourage: David and Goliath
· ‘What if …?’ stories: Jonah
· History: the story of a whole nation
The faith of the Jews is basically a story, centring on the Exodus
The faith of Christians too is a story, centring on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus,
This is another contrast with the Qur’an. Many Bible characters appear in the Qur’an as examples to follow, but there are very few stories, and no overall history as such.
God speaks through life
God does not speak just in visions and oracles. What he says to us is often hidden in life itself. Even the lists of names in the Bible are part of the message.
Other mundane things too.
There are parts of the OT where not much is said about God at all. In the book of Esther God is not mentioned! Nor is he mentioned in Song of Songs, which is a collection of love poetry.
God speaks through fallible human beings
· The constantly rebellious children of Israel
· David’s fall into temptation and its disastrous results
· The disciples of Jesus, constantly misunderstanding him
· Corinth: the original “messy church”?
People whose morality we would question:
· Slave owners
· People advocating extreme punishments
· Massacres thought to be commanded by God
Some words in the Bible are said by Satan!
God speaks in our words to him
In the Bible there are not only words addressed by God to human beings, but many words addressed by human beings to God:
· hymns of praise and thanksgiving
· desperate prayers for help
· questioning and reproaching prayers
If this is God’s word, this implies that God speaks through human prayers.
God speaks in questions
Questions God asks:
· to Adam: “Where are you?”
· to Cain: “Where is your brother Abel?”
· to Jonah: “Should not I care …?”
· Jesus to Saul: “Why do you persecute me?”
· Jesus often answered a question with a question: Luke 10:26; 20:24
Questions we ask:
· “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
· “How long, O Lord?”
· The questionings of Job
· Eccles 2:22; 3:21
God speaks through a multitude of voices
· Samuel/Kings and Chronicles
· Four Gospels
We benefit most from the Bible by listening to those voices, not trying to fit them into our idea of the Christian message, but letting them be themselves.
God speaks through Disagreement and Dissent
Two interpretations of kingship
God speaks through Jesus
John 5:39: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
“The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”
God does not stop speaking
The canon of Scripture is the result of a long conversation in the Church:
· It was fairly complete by the end of the 2nd century
· Loose ends were tied up by the end of the 4th century
· It was never finally settled: e.g. the Apocrypha
· It is not a complete systematic presentation of Christianity: it is largely accidental
· There is a process of interpretation that never ends
Lionel Blue observed that Judaism is “one long argument”! So is Christianity. We are part of the ongoing conversation.
We have seen that the Bible is not a monologue in which God speaks to human beings, it is a conversation between God and human beings. Why should that conversation end?
Let’s let the Bible speak for itself, and let’s talk back to it!