The Bible is only human literature.
I have a question I want to consider, and I have asked this question at the end of this post. But let’s begin with this lesser question:
Why does embracing the Bible as human literature disorient some of us?
Perhaps it is because many of us are so used to being told that the Bible is a book written by God — The Bible is God’s word. But the Bible is not written by God. It is written by humans.
Having said that, does claiming that the Bible is only human literature mean the Bible is false? Of course not.
The New York Times is also produced by humans. Does that mean it is false? Of course not.
The Bible is only human literature, but it is based on true stories. Yes, the stories are so unbelievable in parts that it is up to each reader to sort out what lies behind it all. That’s where the danger lies. The danger is not that each reader must determine for herself what lies behind it. The danger is what lies behind it. In a sense the Bible is like the shadow of the invisible. Enter the shadow at your own risk.
PERFECT OR ADEQUATE
One of my very favorite classes at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary was textual criticism. One thing that my prof, Carlton Winberry, said then still seems very timely and important. Dr. Winberry said that the scriptures were “adequate” to perform the task God intended.
In hindsight, this struck a chord for me because it aligned with my own thinking on the subject. But beyond this, the word “adequate,” when used of scripture, seemed to me to resonate with an important truth in the otherwise often deluded ethos of the SBC.
(Scot McKnight’s recent post, The Bible and Knowledge 2 (RJS) also mentions this word “adequate” when it comes to scripture. Though, in fairness to Scot, you must not mistake this mention as a way of trying to equate my mystic wanderings with his solid evangelical writings. (To listen to my recent interview with Scot about his new book, The Blue Parakeet, click here.))
I know that both my opening line and the use of the word “adequate” may be unsettling for some of you. Let me make that worse. Let’s turn my opening statement into a question:
What exactly do we lose if we consider the Bible to be exactly what it is, only human literature?
I know that there are three words in this question that some of you won’t like when used in regards to the Bible: “literature,” “human,” and “only”.
There are other related questions underneath this one.
- Does the proclamation of the gospel include a call to believe “in” the Bible?
- Is the canon of the Bible revelation?
- Is the Bible revealed? (another way to ask the same question)
- Is the Bible culturally conditioned?
To me the answers to these questions are No, No, No, and Yes. (For some of my ideas about these things see my prior articles: Scripture Part 1, Scripture Part 2, Bibliolatry). But today, I’m playfully questioning the language that we choose when we speak about the Bible.
God did not write the Bible.
Humans wrote the Bible.
Thus the Bible is not God’s written word if by that we mean that God wrote it.
The Bible is human literature and humans are the authors. Just to be clear, the Bible is not co-authored by God and humans either. The Bible is only (by which I mean that the Bible is not divine) human literature.
To keep you centered and balanced — even though it makes me feel queezy when someone refers to the Bible as divine — here’s an argument for not considering the Bible as “only” human, see Scot’s Jesus Creed post The Bible and Knowledge 5 – Inspiration and Incarnation.)
I think that after a little while, you will think obvious the simple claim that the Bible is only human literature. But I may be deluding myself here. I am reminded that the Baptist Faith and Message places the Scriptures as the first Article directly above article number two, God.
There is a lot at stake in these issues. The main issue in my sights as I write this is the continued global conversation between Islam and the West. This conversation may shape anew how Christians think about the Bible.
The way many of us think about the Bible today — as the foundation of our faith over and against science and reason — was shaped by the rise of science and reason. This era is often called the Modern Era and many consider René Descartes the philosophical father of the Modern Era. Many Christians today are more shaped in their thinking — at least when it comes to the Bible — by Descartes than by scripture itself. (For more on this, read my article, When it comes to the Bible, Many Christians are disciples of Descartes. )
The way many Christians think about the Bible was reinforced when they set out to defend this foundation against the anti-foundational attacks of postmodernism. Against science and reason, the arguments revolved around “which” foundation was “the” foundation. What had the last word, science, reason, or the Bible? Against the postmodern element of anti-foundationalism, which corrected Descartes and rightly maintained that no indubitable foundation for knowledge exists, the argument revolved around whether the Bible was the authoritative foundation for certainty against a view that maintained that our knowledge and certainty could not be absolute.
Today we have another challenge. Many Christians will need to learn to think about the Bible, not in contrast to “unbelievers” who trust in reason more than scripture, or in relativism rather than absolutes, but in contrast to fundamentalist believers who also have a book written by God.
Muslims, like Christians, have a book written (well, at least revealed to Muhammad who then dictated it to scribes) by God. Their book is the Qur an. I see a time coming when Islam will enter the modern era in which some will apply to the Qur’ an the same critical methods applied to the Bible. Some or much of Islam will begin to wonder if God did in fact write (reveal) the Qur’ an. That will be a good day when it comes. That day hasn’t come for Christians who still believe that God revealed the Bible.
FOUNDATIONS FOR FAITH
When I converted towards God through faith in Christ, I entered an evangelical world that was in the midst of a battle about the Bible. In essence the battle raged over a single question: what are the foundations for faith?
On the one side of the valley were the troops that battled under the flag of inerrant scriptures. They believed that, as God’s written word, the Bible was The Truth Objectified. What is truth? The Bible.
On the other side of the valley were those who rallied under the flag of reliable experience. They believed that, as God’s written word, the Bible pointed to a truth that could be subjectively embraced. What is the truth? The peace in our hearts.
In other words, the foundation for faith on one side was the scripture and on the other side was experience.
When asked about the actual Bibles we held in our hands, some of those who stood on the foundation of scripture immediately retreated to mysterious “original manuscripts” that had been lost to us. (Sounds like competition for the DaVinci Code to me). But even though lost, these manuscripts imputed their “inerrancy” on our modern Bibles. But it was imperative to insist that the Bibles we had in our hands were perfect and inerrant. All their shouting and war cries had been a rouse. The real matter was that they did not believe the Bibles in their hands to be adequate.
Same for the Subjectivists. When asked about the Bible, some who stood on the foundation of experience retreated to the sphere of emotion and subjectivity. The content of the Bible itself is not at issue, but what the reader gets out of it. That’s what matters. How do we know what is true? If it warms the heart, then it is true. The Bible is God’s word in the sense that, when we read it, God speaks to the heart. So, whatever anyone feels regardless of how it relates to the Biblical content, that was God’s word. The real matter here was that, like their objectivist rivals, they did not believe the Bible to be adequate.
Both had made sinking sand the place of their last stand. I’m sure these are oversimplifications. I also know that there are really smart people on both sides of the valley. But, it’s weird how often rivals are kissing cousins. They were both right and wrong in the same ways.
How were they both right? The Bible is NOT adequate. The Bible alone is not adequate. In order for anyone to share the faith of Israel or of the Christ following community, God must encounter each of us in a way that is adequate for us to believe. And, both my experience and my reading of the Bible inform me that God isn’t limited to the Bible or to feelings as the foundation of his work. Neither the Bible nor Experience can do the work that only God can do, and he works in plural and mysterious ways.
How were they both wrong? The Bible IS adequate to perform the work the communities that wrote, edited, and sustained it desired. The Bible is one human community’s way of explaining how it came to be the community it is. Their story is that God encountered them and shaped them in particular ways. Their aim is that the readers would have their sensors awakened to the presence of this same God around them.
In fact, the way most of us come to faith is not based on one foundation such as “the Bible” or “an experience”. We all rely on multiple and converging lines of evidence or urges:
- we grow up in a Christian context
- we grow up in a non Christian context but some one tells us the story of Christ
- we read the Bible
- we admire someone who believes
- we experience death, disease, or demonization
- we experience a Jesus community
- we have a mystical experience
- we gain insight from a sermon
- we “remember” God in nature
- we take a leap of faith
- we think and reason through truth claims
- we have a vision
- all or some of the above
At some point we
- (1) consolidate these converging lines of evidence into one cohesive but messy transmission about the meaning of everything or, at least, the meaning of something
- (2) begin to suspect that all these things make sense in light of Jesus and his story
- (3) awaken to the encroaching presence of God through all of them
- (4) make a commitment to move in Jesus’ direction
There is no one foundation for faith besides God, but there are plenty of clues.
HUMAN AND SPECIAL
Just to be clear, just because something is written by humans does not automatically make it false. Again, we read the New York Times and don’t require that it be penned by God to believe that we’re getting something that resembles the truth.
In fact, I think the Bible exists because God encountered people — encountered not in the Bible but out here in the real world — and some of these people lived to tell about it.
So at a primary level, the Bible is inspired by God in the sense that the movie Chariots of Fire was inspired by the life of Eric Liddell and his journey towards the 1924 Olympics in Paris. In other words, the Bible (and the communities that created it) is inspired by people whose lives, according to their testimonies, were interrupted and forever changed by the activity of God.
This is a first clue we are given: Is God active out here in the world outside of the literature? But it doesn’t end there.
To add another layer, the Bible is inspired by this encounter between God and humans and the sustained relationships (both individual and societal) that follow. Real people engaged in real encounters that sustained their life transforming energy and community forming genius through story telling and ritual re-enactment.
This is a second clue: Where does religion come from? To be more pointed about it, what explains the emergence of Israel and of the Christ following movement? To bring it to an even finer point, how did those who came before us work out their lives and fashion their communities after their encounter with God? But there’s more.
To add yet another layer, I hear in the Bible a story that resonates with the trajectory of the universe. I think it is esteemed — and will continue to be esteemed — as human literature because the stories it tells corresponds to something that is happening out here where all of us live, and think, and have our being. But in the end, it is these humans that tell us their stories of extraordinary things and we are seized by the realities behind them or not.
This is a third clue: What is this all about? Where, if anywhere, is the universe taking us? Where does consciousness, morality, religion, and art come from? What am I?
The Bible is great human literature, but its importance is secondary to the believer. For the believer the scripture has no authority in and of itself. In fact, quite the opposite of being authoritative, the Bible is dependent. The bible is dependent on the events that happened out here in the real world. For example:
- Jesus is not raised from the dead because the Bible says so. The New Testament exists because Jesus was raised.
- Israel did not emerge on the stage of history because the Bible says so. The Bible exists because Israel emerges.
The Bible is secondary, it follows events. The events themselves are of far greater importance than the text that documents them. The Bible is the story of a community that gives witness to the extraordinary events that shaped them.
Persons of faith were prior to the community of faith that was prior to the scriptures. But the initiative of God to engage the persons of faith is the genesis moment of it all. Everything depends on the reality of that genesis moment.
tR of Jesus >>>>> Persons of faith >>>>> Community of faith >>>>> Scriptures
So I have arrived at the final form of the question I want to consider:
If Jesus is really raised from the dead, what do we lose if we consider the Bible as only human literature?
Just in case you ran through that last line without really reading it:
If Jesus is really raised from the dead, what do we lose if we consider the Bible as only human literature?
What do you think?
Contexts and Trajectories for Faith: The Kinds of People the 21st Century Needs Part 3
Contexts and Trajectories for Faith: The Kinds of People the 21st Century Needs Part 4
See you in the mystic…