The Word of God, or..words about God?
May 29, 2018
If you want to wake up tomorrow morning thinking exactly about your faith as you do right now.. don’t read this.
If you desire for me to speak that which will affirm what you already believe, and make you feel special for believing that way.. don’t read this.
If you want a Sunday morning pick-me-up, in preparation for a rest-of-the-week beat down, or if you are expecting a mere unpacking of scriptures to be rearranged in neat little piles of homiletic insight..don’t read this- not today, not ever.
However, if you are willing to have your carefully crafted system of spiritual understandings pulled from and added to like a pile of Jenga blocks, until they fall into a pile of disappointment and confusion, proceed. Because like a petunia forcing its way upward through an inch of newly laid asphalt, the breaking of our spiritual shell casings is what allows new Light to enter our lives, and resurrected Life to emerge.
Because sermons are arranged best around scriptures, so shall it be with this one. These are the words of the Apostle of Jesus, Paul, who is writing an instructional letter to his disciple, Timothy. In the letter, Paul is telling Timothy how to be an advocate for the story of Jesus the Christ. Timothy is young and separating from Paul’s nearby presence in order to go into the mission field on his own. Paul reminds Timothy of what Paul has demonstrated him about being a missionary for Jesus.
But if and when instruction fails or is forgotten, Paul tells him, this (from 2Timothy 3: 16,17, Common English Bible):
Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.
The scripture Paul wrote of was the collection of Hebrew scripture: the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), the prophets, the books of history and wisdom. Paul’s letters, other apostolic letters, and even the four gospels themselves had not yet been gathered together into the smells-good leather bound book we call the New Testament. When Paul says “scripture,” he’s talking about the collection of scrolls written on parchment in Hebrew- what is popularly called the Old Testament.
And he says those scriptures are “inspired by God.” The Greek words for “inspired of God” have been translated as “God-breathed” by countless preachers and teachers in the many centuries since Paul wrote this letter to Timothy. Among many Christians, it is believed that God literally breathed the words of scripture, Old and New, through the quill pens of the men whose names are attached to or mentioned within the various biblical writings.
Believing the words to have been written that way means, to those who teach this way, that the words are infallible (i.e., without error) and interchangeable. “Interchangeable” means that what is written in one part of the Bible can support, amplify, and explain what is written in another part of the Bible. That is why we often see preachers and teachers who believe this way, flipping back and forth from front to back, from one book of the Bible to another, to formulate or give credibility to their arguments. That is a practice that can be done legitimately- Jesus himself refers often to the Old Testament prophets. There are many, many other such examples of one part of the Bible’s writings supporting other parts, as well.
But there are also weak, illogical, even silly such connections made and taught. Whole denominations exist because of some of them, and doctrine has poured like a mighty river from such oddly-contrived connections, and they continue to drown the original intentions behind the individual scriptures.
One example: Augustine, a “Church father” of the fourth century CE, wrestled most of his life with a very active libido. His mother convinced him that such behavior was bad, so Augustine set about finding the biblical reasons that it was bad, so that he could (hopefully) tame those urges within himself.
Sex, Augustine determined from his mother and the fact that people throughout the Bible had babies, was not evil, but the desire for it (all the time in his case) was. He dug around, and around, and found his “Aha!” discovery in what, at the time, was regarded in Christian and “pagan” circles as an obscure, and becoming more obscure book- the first book of the Torah, Genesis.
In it was the story of Adam and Eve, first man and first woman. God, Augustine determined, had created them without evil, so procreation for them, he further determined, would not/ could not possibly involve the kind of desire he fought within himself. He determined that sex, as God created it for humans, would have been something which was merely functional, like the quick, seemingly joyless couplings of birds or turtles. But Adam and Eve went against God and discovered “evil” anyway, by biting into the forbidden fruit of the Knowledge tree.
Having done so, Adam’s and Eve’s “eyes were opened” exactly as the temptor devil-serpent had told them they would be opened when it was urging them to go against God and bite the fruit. And when their eyes were opened they saw something neither Adam nor Eve had ever noticed before in their days-old lives: the other person’s genitals.
From that point on, according to Augustine, sexual desire for the other entered their lives and through them, our first parents, into all subsequent generations. It was the Original Sin which has befouled humanity since that first bite, that first glance, and that first lusting.
I’m not making this up. Augustine’s conclusions (about Original Sin and much else) were institutionalized by the growing Christian church, and have been affecting every man, woman, and child in the world since then. (Think about it: what’s the first thing missionaries the world over, throughout history, sought to do when meeting and “converting” indigenous tribes and people in Africa, the Americas, Australia, and everywhere else the merchant families of Europe sent them? They made them put on clothes!)
What Augustine did is called “cherry-picking” by detractors of the infallibility argument. I cherry-picking the Bible, one picks the best cherries for the argument being made from here and from there, from that tree and this tree, and bakes them together into one pie. Add one’s own biases, misinformation, and “druthers,’ and it becomes possible, and it has been done many times, to make almost any argument bend your way through cherry-picking the (approx.) 807,000 words of the Bible, found in its (also approx.) 31,000 verses.
All that is to say this: The Bible is not God-breathed. It is not the Word of God in the sense of “God said it, I believe it, and that’s that.” It didn’t blow down on us from angelic messengers, or fall down from the heavens sealed in a Baggie© for printing into all of our various languages. God didn’t cause the Bible’s many various writers to take quills in hand, fall into trances, and become divine stenographers.
When you hear anyone preface what they’re about to say with the words, “The Bible says..” then you are hearing someone who believes a form of one of the above absurdities. The Bible doesn’t speak! But individuals and communities do speak. And the collection of what many of them have had to say about their encounters with God is the Bible.
Thus, the Bible is “inspired.” People were inspired to write down in many different ways the reactions they had during encounters they believed were with God, the stories handed down to them concerning God, the meanings of historical events in the context of God, the wisdom about God they felt was vital to be preserved and passed on, and laws which they felt would honor their God and preserve their status as “chosen of God.”
Different writers did these things in different ways. Many of the stories in Genesis and Exodus are the kinds of stories passed on for generations around campfires by and for people who cannot read or write. Poetry and song- both memory triggers- were made great use of in stories of the beginnings of all things (Genesis). The story of Adam and Eve, so misused by Augustine (IMO) was, nonetheless, one the truest stories ever told about human shame, guilt, irresponsibility, and our human proclivity to blame the “other” for our own mistakes.
Other writers collected other stories thus told about the beginnings, struggles, and ultimate triumphs of their tribes- the Hebrew tribes of Israel. The Psalms honored God through song, and dance, and musical instruments, and kept the inspiring stories of King David and others alive through time. The Song of Songs must have troubled the later Augustine to no end with its erotic stories of young people in love, which were interpreted to be exactly the kind of intensive love of God for humankind. The tough-to-read histories- Kings and Judges and Chronicles- were records of what were perceived as God’s motivating touch and presence in the establishment of Israel as the home of “God’s chosen people.” And the prophets were social activists who collectively decried the idol-worshipping and poor people neglecting which they determined Israel had become as God was set on a shelf, rather than allowed to continue to inspire, as they believe God once had been allowed to do.
And those are just Old Testament examples! Stick around in coming weeks for many others from the New Testament- the gospels and letters and that so-abused book of Revelation. Those are the stories that wind around my heart and soul and indeed inspire what I write here right now and which I hope color the shade and the light of my life. But they have have been cherry-picked, too! And there are some mouthfuls of the subsequent pies which have been baked as a result of that cherry picking which should also be spat out! Quickly and forever! (Stay tuned!)
My point in all of this, and then I’m done for this week: The forest, the lush, green, vibrant, life-teeming, and deep so deep forest has been obscured by the planting of Bradford pears, kudzu, English ivy, and other invasive weeds. Ancient and very strangely born doctrines are choking the love of God from humans wanting to respond to it, able to respond to it, but thwarted from doing so because of historical and present human egos with loudspeakers set on “too loud” from pulpits raised too high.
But we don’t have to be pawns in the ecclesiastical games of anyone. We don’t have to be afraid. Our eyes are indeed able to be opened and we can help each other to see. Invasive weeds are not easy to get rid of, but in community with others dedicated to doing so, they can be eradicated.
In the meantime, hang onto this: There is more, always more to know. The path of Knowing more winds its way through Doubt sometimes, and even Fear. But it also often bumps head on with wonderful, light drenched Surprise. When it does, just sit back and simply.. behold! And let all things become new..
David B. Weber