At our Fête on Saturday the following conversation took place “See that man over there? He might come to our Tuesday group, but he doesn’t come to church.” Me: “How Come?” “He said that once you preached that the Bible was not the word of God.
So first of all, the facts need some explanation. At a University commencement service one year, the preacher said to us budding theologians, “The problem is not whether we can understand the word of God! The problem is whether we can withstand the word of God!” Or he might have quoted the writer to the Hebrews when that author says ‘The Word of God is alive and active, sharper than any two edged sword which can penetrate between marrow and bone.’
This means that an encounter with the Word of God is a frightening thing. An encounter with the Word of God is like meeting Jesus. Both frightening and comforting if the stories in the Bible are anything to go by. It is possible to read the Bible, and not be encountered by the Word of God.
A scholar who is an atheist, for example, can study the Bible like any other ancient text, and distance themselves from it, and not be reading the Word of God, because the Word of God is Jesus, and it is only when we are gripped by Jesus as the one who calls us to ‘Follow me’ do we actually ‘;get’ the Word of God in the Bible.
The other thing that is an integral part of the Christian understanding is that the bible is always read ‘in the Spirit’. That is, the power of the Bible in our lives depends upon the work of the Holy Spirit, which opens us up and makes us sensitive to what God is saying to us. This activity of the Spirit can be resisted so that the Word of God may not come to us in the words of the Bible.
This is not the same for all religions. Islam, for example, and the Mormons too, believe that their holy texts are the actual words of God transmitted verbatim to the prophet. That is why Muslims need to learn Arabic, because God spoke to Mohammed in Arabic. Every translation is an interpretation, which cannot be admitted as ‘words of God’ if God spoke directly to Mohammed. But the Christian belief in the Trinity builds in the work of the Spirit both in the writing and the receiving of the Bible as Word of God, and allows for the possibility that this encounter may not happen. In which case the Bible is not ‘Word of God’ but ‘words about God.’
Given these conditions, you can see why it is not all together accurate to say that the Bible is the Word of God. Sometimes the Bible is just words about God. But sometimes, when the Spirit moves us, the Bible becomes like the two edged sword for us and puts us in a place ‘before God’ and then we cannot do anything but listen to is and act on it.
The possibility of both receiving and resisting the Word of God in the words of the Bible has been given form in a number of ways. Martin Luther says [In scripture] you will find the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies, and to which the angel points the shepherds. Simple and lowly are these swaddling cloths, but dear is the treasure, Christ, who lies in them. Karl Barth says “What makes scripture holy scripture is not the correctness of the prophetic and apostolic statements about God but the I-Thou encounter, person to person. (…) Only within this I-Thou relation, in which one speaks and another is spoken to, in which there is communication and reception, only in full action is revelation.”
In Church too, when we read the Bible we announce the end of reading by saying ‘For the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God’. That is not the same as saying ‘This is the Word of the Lord’, because for many people it might not be! It might just be ‘This is a reading from the Bible’ Other responses convey this image. One that I particularly like is ‘Lord, may your Word live in us, and bear much fruit to your glory.’ That captures Barth’s invitation for action following a hearing.
But there is one thing that has to be positively affirmed about the Bible as words. This is what we mean when we say that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit. This is true and a part of our basic belief. This means that the true Christ can be encountered in the Scriptures. Another way of saying this is ‘The Scriptures contain everything necessary for salvation.’
There are a lot of people today who adopt an interpretative stance of suspicion. They see the way in which the canon of Scripture was manipulated by men against women. They see the way in which some ideas that were current in early Christianity are supressed in the text of the Bible, and so approach the Bible with suspicion about the Christ presented there, rather with trust and faithful following. When we say that the Bible is the cradle in which the Word of God is laid, we mean that in the Bible, when read in the Spirit, God who is as weak as a baby comes to us and dwells with us. Then follows the necessary action that Barth says is the result of true Revelation. If a person does not believe that the True Christ (Word) can be encountered in the (words) of the Bible then that person may never encounter Christ.
So while saying that the Bible is not the Word of God, I also want to say that the Bible is capable of delivering the Word of God to me because it is written in the Spirit of god. When that same Spirit possesses me, then bingo! Word of God comes to me.
The famous Doctor and theologian Albert Schweitzer did a survey of the ‘biographies’ of Jesus that had been written in the 150 years of critical study of the Bible up to his time in the early 20th century. He discovered that they had more in common with their authors, than they did with a common picture of Jesus. HE asked ‘Then if Christ looks like the people who write about him, to whom does the true Christ reveal himself?’ He answered ‘The True Christ reveals himself to those who follow!’ This is pure Barth, before Barth. God is weak because God needs us. The ones who encounter Christ are not the ones who read the Bible alone, but the ones who Follow the Christ revealed in it.
This is both a more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between the Word of God and the Bible, and a more demanding one.
So before someone takes what they think I said and makes a decision based on that, it is more important to come to have a conversation about it.