Each week, Christians around the world hear passages from Scripture read. Often the reading closes with the statement “this is the word of God”. But what does that mean?
Does ‘Word of God’ mean that every word, every story is to be seen as factual, as having happened just that way? Does it mean that we need to take the whole of Scripture as having been uttered by God? Or does ‘Word of God’ mean that in the very human words and stories we find some lasting truths that point towards God? For many people the first option is a source of comfort and forms the bedrock of their faith. At the same time many people, both in and out of the church, find the second possibility to be much more realistic.
It is my opinion that taking the Bible literally does injustice to the intent of the original writers. Modern Western culture is one of the few cultures that equates truth with fact. The cultures that wrote the books of the Bible were much more comfortable with metaphor and parable. They had an understanding that the truth told by the story was often more important than the actual events. When we, with our scientific mindset, try to literalize the story, it then becomes ridiculous and we lose the truth that is being told. For me the question of literalism is best summed up by retired Episcopal Bishop John Spong who said: “I take the Bible far too seriously to ever take it literally.”
Mind you this raises another question about the ‘Word of God’. How do we determine what parts are more important or have more weight? If we say that God literally spoke every word, then all the words are equally important. Unfortunately, many of those words contradict each other. But if we see the Bible as a collection of books where humans are trying to explain how God is active in their lives then we can see that sometimes the biases and prejudices of the writer have slanted the vision of God. In the past, taking those biases literally have led the church to condone and encourage slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, and many other forms of oppression.
The alternative is to remember that humans wrote the Scripture. Therefore it does not perfectly express the will of God. One principle often helpful is to work out the core messages that run through all of Scripture and judge individual passages by that. One of those core messages is shown by the Rabbi [named differently, if at all, in different versions of the story, generally linked to one of the great Talmudic scholars such as Rabbi Akiba] who was asked to explain the Law and the prophets while standing on one foot. His answer? “Love God, love your neighbor - everything else is commentary.”
The Bible is part of the foundation of Christian faith. As those who were forming the United Church of Canada said a century ago:
We receive the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, given by inspiration of God, as containing the only infallible rule of faith and life, a faithful record of God's gracious revelations, and as the sure witness of Christ. (The Basis of Union of the United Church of Canada)
and as the same denomination said a few years ago:
Scripture is our song for the journey, the living word
passed on from generation to generation
to guide and inspire,
that we might wrestle a holy revelation for our time and place
from the human experiences
and cultural assumptions of another era....
The Spirit breathes revelatory power into scripture,
bestowing upon it a unique and normative place
in the life of the community. (A Song of Faith, United Church of Canada, 2006)
Scripture is vital to our faith. Engaging and interpreting Scripture is not optional. This means we all have to deal with it. Engaging Scripture challenges us to work out what God is saying to us through these ancient words. We are challenged to see beyond what we want it to say to what it really does say. When we can all do that and live the life that God wants us to live then we can truly say that the Reign of God is being made real. May God help us in our quest. Amen.