The Bible as Human Literature

Lucas and I read this text on Easter while in Kenya together

Photo: Lucas, my youngest son, and I read this text on Easter while in Kenya together

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The Bible is only human literature.

Breathe.

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.

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(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.))

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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.

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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.)

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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.

CONVERGENCE

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.

(1)
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.

(2)
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.

(3)
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.

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tR of Jesus >>>>> Persons of faith >>>>> Community of faith >>>>> Scriptures

GOD

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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?

Other Links:
When it comes to the Bible, Many Christians are Disciples of Descartes

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

Bibliolatry

See you in the mystic…

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108 thoughts on “The Bible as Human Literature

  1. John G, since you asked… I’ve been inspired by your thoughts. In fact, everyone here seems deeply passionate about Jesus. This tells me that, irrespective of how we abstractly define religious texts, Spirit breaks through.

    Frankly, any of the opinions expressed in these 60+ comments seems plausible. I say, if you perceive text as being infused with some manner of “divine power,” I’ll be the last to argue with you. And I wouldn’t stop with text – I think nature can reflect God’s presence as effectively as words. One thing I won’t do is put God in a box. If God wants to inspire text, so be it.

    Here’s something I know: I know that the cross remains the most influential notion in my life. And while I have the highest respect for the vehicles from which I came to this faith (which parallel Alex’s in many ways), I simply don’t get the notion of infallible text. Karl Barth called this “contradictio in adiecto” – a contradiction of ideas.

    John G, et al, the fact that you’re writing with such Jesus-infused inspiration tells me FAR more about the reality of Spirit in your life than your opinions on semiotic divinity.

  2. John L,

    I see when you click on your link it goes to the TED website. I love that site. I’ve watched a bunch of fascinating videos from it. There’s a lot of speakers I still want to see. This reminds me of the George Smoot video on TED.

    You said, “And I wouldn’t stop with text – I think nature can reflect God’s presence as effectively as words.” Alex expressed a similar sentiment. I agree. Totally. You add a speaker like Smoot to express and explain the nature of the creation of the universe from a scientific perspective and it’s totally enlightening. But it doesn’t negate the text of the bible either. Of course strict fundamentalist would flip listening to Smoot, but what these physists like George Smoot, Stephen Hawking, or biologists like Francis Collins actually do is show us HOW God works. Though scientists like to defer to Nature, what they really are referring to is God of course. Nonetheless they show us the how, but the scriptures show us the why. One doesn’t cancel the other. They actually support each other.

    Likewise the Genesis account of creation is identical to a scientific accounting in essence, that is swap out the literal word “day” for “era” and both the scientific accounting and Moses’ rendition match perfectly. I assume you al know the Genesis account so I won’t reiterate it, but scientifically, the Earth was in darkness during its formation as it was a creation entirely from gases. And as the gases condensed and formed the core and mantle, the atmosheric gases thinned enough to allow the Sun to start filtering through, thus heat. Heat enough for the waters to begin evaporating into clouds, which became saturated enough to cause rain, thus the weather cycle begins, as well as the separation of clouds and oceans stated in Genesis.

    Scientifically, this is the Proterozoic Era and within this era the land masses form, as do the first vestiges of life in prokaryotic cells, simple cells which later evolve into more complex eukaryote cells. This was a long era of evolution but by the end of it, “members of all major animal phyla had appeared.

    The Paleozoic Era was a period of rapid evolution of plants and animals. Though primitive fishes preceeded the influx of seeded plants in this accounting, the Earth at the end of this period is believed to have gone through great change biologically and geologically. An event is believed to have happened where the majority of marine life disappeared, as well as much of the land animal life, allowing for reptiles to become dominant in the next era- the Mesozoic era.

    Within the Devonian period of the Paleozoic era the first seed plants evolve, over 50 millions after the first vertebrate fishes, and simutaneous to amphibian development. Reptiles then later appear. Birds don’t appear until the middle of the Mesozoic era–after the first mammals and into the age of dinosaurs. After the dinosaur go extinct and into the beginning of the present Cenozoic era, the rise of mammals begins, eventually evolving the modern homo sapien species.

    Now consider Moses totally understood the creation of earth as well or even better than Smoot explains the creation of the universe. How did Moses get this knowledge? He didn’t certainly experience it. Moses didn’t have the scientific backing or foreknowledge that Smoot gained his knowledge. COMMON SENSE would lead one to only conclude divine revelation. Well maybe aliens I suppose.

    Now how would Moses transcribe this revelation to a band of desert nomads? With a scientific accounting? They would have thought Moses mad, or at the least just too smart to understand. Genius comes in taking a huge concept and distilling it down to terms the average Joe can comprehend. And that’s what Moses had to do. Likewise that’s what Jesus constantly did as well.

    I mean imagine: “Moses what the zip do mean ‘in the Proterozoic Era?’ ‘Prokaryotic cells?’ What are dinosaurs? What have you been smoking?” “Okay now I get it, like the ‘first day’ that happened. There you go. Dude just speak plainly so we understand. Who cares about what about what happened before we even existed?”

    Seriously, how would the account of Genesis so closely match a scientific accounting without divine inspiration?

    Back to TED, John L are you connected with TED?

    • John (#71), I want to make sure that you don’t think I’m trying to negate the Bible.
      I’m trying to affirm that literary treasure. It is extraordinary and unique human literature.

      John, Turning to the paragraph towards the end in which your write “COMMON SENSE”. I see some there and I want to point it out.
      While I don’t think Moses wrote the Pentateuch, I want to point out that the way you argue his “knowledge” proves my COMMON SENSE point.
      Moses did not have the Bible or need the Bible to know what you think he knew.
      By your process:

      God speaks (The word of God) to Moses (a Human)
      Moses (a human) writes (a human product) about his encounter and produces a human document (Bible).

      Yeah, we’re there! The writings of Moses are human literature. But let’s take it a little further.

      Apply your very same logic to the Resurrection of Jesus and 21st century people.
      In the same way that you believe Moses knew about creation through direct revelation from God, the Bible is not even needed — much less an inerrant divine Bible — for someone to know God through the resurrected Jesus. If you apply your own logic to your earlier thinking, you will find yourself arguing against yourself. A sticking point for you may be that you believe that God spoke to Moses, but you doubt that God can reveal Himself to the rest of us without a divine inerrant book (which doesn’t exist, btw).

      You’re making a lot of sense when you describe how Moses may have known about the creation (and I’m not agreeing that he did but your description of the process by which he may have gained his mystical knowledge works.). Take that same process and apply it throughout our conversation and you will find yourself making MY argument.

      My original question was, If Jesus is raised from the dead, what do we lose if we consider the Bible to be exactly what it is, only human literature? Your argument lends support to my thesis that we lose nothing. However, this extraordinary literature lends amazing support to those who come to believe in the mystic….(X files theme music here).

  3. ********God speaks (The word of God) to Moses (a Human)
    Moses (a human) writes (a human product) about his encounter and produces a human document.********
    That’s what I’ve been saying all along. I’m dizzy. You win.

    ********I would never…! But your glasses…?*******
    I don’t understand what that means or refers to.

    ********Apply your very same logic to the Resurrection of Jesus and 21st century people.
    In the same way that you believe Moses knew about creation through direct revelation from God, the Bible is not even needed — much less an inerrant divine Bible — for someone to know God through the resurrected Jesus.*******
    I don’t think I ever said you HAD to have the bible to know God, but that the bible IS divinely inspired. It’s not the object of worship. And it not ONLY a historical document. It is a mystical handbook so to speak.

    For example, one doesn’t need a manual to operate a piece of software, say Photoshop for example. One can do some pretty basic and useful stuff without knowing the full extent of Photoshop’s capabilities. Scale, Brighten, add some text, etc. But to master Photoshop’s full capabilities the manual comes in very handy for learning and for reference. It allows one then to color correct, add wonderful filter effects, automate tasks, and a slew of other things. Is the manual neccessary? No, one could attend seminars from experts, take classes, hire a tutor, view other books, trial and error. But the manual is the de facto, authorized guidebook. The bible.

    • John (comment #74), I’ve been arguing that the Bible is “only” a human document…by which I mean that God did not write it. Humans did. You’ve been arguing that it is not “just” a human document. But it is “just” or “only” a human document — a human document only that gives a human witness only to a life changing encounter with God.
      ————————-
      Sorry, I mentioned in my prior comment that some of us read the scriptures through glasses provided by fundamentalists.
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      I think you did say this…here’s a direct quote from your comment #49:
      Comment #49: “>>>> I believe first and foremost, not in the Bible, but in the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.<<<
      That’s a contradiction in terms. Either can’t be certain without the Bible holding authority. How would you even know of Jesus Christ no less of the prophecies that foretold his coming and mission? The Resurrection you say? Prove that even happened without the authority of the NT."

      This is not meant to win a point but to help us clarify what we mean when we talk about the Bible.
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      Finally an analogy I like!

      I have a new post coming that's sure to entertain.

      Alex

  4. Hi Alex,

    Sorry about the slow response .. same guy as way back in comment #40. Read a past post & noted your reference to Murphy’s “Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism” – one of my top-10 favourites.

    Maybe to put things into context I should explain that one of my primary interests is the science / faith discussion, in particular the interaction of evangelical theology and biological evolution. I believe that the acceptance of both can be coherent. The perceived conflict is just a perception. So I fully accept that God is the creator of everything – creation has its origins in him & he continually sustains that creation. However, I also accept that biological evolution is an excellent explanation on how life developed on earth. But this explanation does not in any way mean that creation / nature is not from God.

    As the 19th century Anglican clergyman Charles Kingsley said:
    We knew of old that God was so wise that He could make all things; but behold, He is so much wiser than that, that He can make all things make themselves.

    Which brings us back to the discussion at hand: the source of scripture. Yes it is human literature. In fact, what we’ve learned from biblical criticism, historical criticism etc. recently shows us that its not always even good literature, and is certainly (at times) naïve history, and almost always includes outdated (read: wrong) scientific assumptions. So even though we have excellent explanations for scripture’s human source, doesn’t necessarily imply that it is not “from God” or is “merely ancient human literature” (as if it is on par with Homer etc.). For starters, (as you noted) it is the best witness we have to the historical incarnate Christ (and BTW, I believe the history in the gospels is pretty darn good; Gen 1-11, not at all). As Enns notes, we shouldn’t be embarrassed by the Bible’s situatedness.

    That the Bible, at every turn, shows how “connected” it is to its own world is a necessary consequence of God incarnating himself. How else would we expect God to speak [in scripture]? In ways wholly disconnected to the ancient world? Who would have understood him?”

    Re: my comment on the Holy Spirit, maybe that wasn’t really clear (maybe because I’m not really clear on it myself 🙂 ). I was thinking (again from science – neuroscience etc.) that we have a lot of good explanations for religious experiences and the like. But that doesn’t mean these explanations preclude the involvement of God. BTW, Murphy is one of the best writers on “Emergence” and “Non-reductive physicalism” – short version: the idea of a soul independent of the body is a Greek idea imported by the early Church (over against Hebrew ideas) and that orthodox Christians need not be dualists. I’m still working through these implications but her book “Bodies and Souls or Spirited Bodies” is the by far the most accessible introduction to the topic.

    • Hey Steve (comment #76), It sounds like we have a lot in common. I totally understand that the Bible is culturally conditioned. How could it be otherwise? However, since the Bible as human literature is the focus of this post, let me focus on your point that the Bible’s human source does not “necessarily imply that it is not ‘from God’ or is ‘merely ancient human literature’ (as if it is on par with Homer etc.)” I think I can bring clarity to my point by replacing your “merely” with my “greatly” and your “from” with my “resonant with”.

      In this series of posts I am creating an argument for the importance of the Bible in the life of faith. In order to do that I need to eliminate the superstitions so prevalent among Christians about the Bible. Rather than talk about the Bible as “from” God, which allows a co-authorship idea, and thinks of the Bible as a unit written, compiled and edited by God, I prefer to think of the Bible as human literature that resonates with the activity of God in the world. (Of course, I prefer to think this way because I think it is the most accurate and truthful).

      Also, the word “mere” would imply that all human thought and literature is deficient in truth, quality, etc. I think some human literature is greater than other human literature. I used “only” in my original statement to mean that God did not write the Bible. Humans did. But I do not consider everything that humans create as “mere”. (Most of the commentators that focused on the word “only” revealed a depreciation of all human literature. Some things that humans create is brilliant and of great value to the species. This human literature (The Bible) is of extreme value because it offers stories of human encounters with God that were kept alive (until today) because of their resonance.

      Thus the Bible is exactly on par with Homer in that they both were written by humans and humans only. They are not on par in that the Bible points to God’s activity in history among men. So it is the inspiration for these two works of human literature that separates them and not that one is written by humans and the other by God.

      I never bought into the dualism of Christianity so I’m not having to work through the implications of it. The issues of the Bible is not about dualism to me. It is about clear and common sense categories. In part I think that Christians have a need to believe the Bible is written by God in order to feel more certain about their faith. It is a lust for certainty. I think certainty is nice. I just don’t think the foundation for that certainty is the Bible. Once the “foundationalist” philosophy is removed, and certainty is returned to its source, namely God, then I think believers will be able to see what the Bible is more clearly.

      Last thing, love the quote. I use this idea that God makes a world that makes itself all the time. Thanks for the excellent input. Alex

  5. Hi Alex (and everyone else),

    I’m jumping in kind of late here. Thanks for the outstanding post and thank you to all of those who have responded. This is an extremely valuable discussion and I’ve gotten a lot out of reading through all the posts. To answer your question with another question, how do you feel this view has impacted your thoughts on evangelism? In other words, on what authority and by what authority would you point people to Jesus? How much stock can we really put in Paul’s christology, or the OT basis he argued from, if there was no divine guidance in his writing? Why not give equal authority to R.C. Sproul, John Calvin, or…Alex McManus?

    Referencing your conversion, you said, “I observed a community of faith. I read the NT. Others prayed over me. I had a vision. I said a prayer. I told someone else. I heard a voice. I felt forgiven. I began to care about others. All of these were threads that weaved a reality web for me.”

    How is that in any way different than how others are converted to other religions? The same exact thing (substitute their book for NT) could be written by a Hindu, Muslim, Jew, and Sikh. Does it matter if you take out the sentence “I read the NT”? Are you ultimately arguing with a universalist framework in mind? If so, why bother tell people about Jesus? Just have them follow God within their own cultural background.

    I apologize if you’ve already covered this ground throughout the posts. I do feel a kinship in what you are writing but feel it may be more of a backlash against the hyper-conservative view of biblical authority (bible worship) that has dominated evangelicalism lately, over a more reasonable view of God’s involvement and use of the Bible throughout history.

    • Michael, Great questions. Thanks.

      I have covered some of this but a recap would be appropriate here. (Also, I am going to post next on how the Bible can have authority. At present my most current post is “Christianity: Religion or Revelation“. This is a transition post leading to the question of authority.

      Your questions are about Bibliolatry, Universalism, and Evangelism.

      BIBLIOLATRY. Yes, I am against Bible worship. But my point is less about hyper-conservatives and bibliolatry and more about the Bible itself. I think it is a common sense pov to say that the Bible is human literature. (I dropped “only” because by now it should be obvious what I mean by human literature: God did not write the Bible nor did He co-author the Bible. It written by humans.) The common language between bibliolaters and everyone else — i.e. the Bible is God’s written word to us — is the same but the meaning, intention, and implications are different. Once you separate the differences you realize that they are both still wrong, it seems to me, about the Bible. I think these over exaggerated claims on what the Bible is comes from our fear of not being in control of the truth.

      UNIVERSALISM. This is as really a question about the process of CONVERSION as much as it is about UNIVERSALISM. The word conversion means “turning” from one thing to another. Q: What determines what kind of conversion it is? A: The object towards which we turn. Thus the process of human conversion –secular to Christian, Christian to secular, Muslim to Christian, Christian to Buddhist, etc — is the same, but the object towards which they turn differ. So the answer to your question is there is no difference in general about how people are converted from one thing to another. I tell people about Jesus because it is conversion towards God through Christ that heals the world.

      EVANGELISM. Funny thing, Michael. The board that approved me for ministry (not that I needed their approval) failed me in every way save one. They approved me based on my “evangelistic spirit”. Your question here touches on a couple of important issues. On what authority do I evangelize? And, how much trust can we put in Paul, the OT, etc? My next post addresses these so I won’t go too far.

      Authority has many layers. Let’s take one. We evangelize based on the authority of our encounter with Christ. This is a two fold posture. First, a relationship with God is the basis for the people we are becoming. we have no authority if we have no relationship to God. If we do have a relationship with God, it is not that we became authorities about God, but witnesses to Him. Second, our witness has the authority of a personal witness and that’s it. We have no power to create the revelation we have received in the brain of another person. Thus we are totally and utterly dependent on God to reveal himself as we tell the story.

      I think it is this sense of “not being in control” that causes us to create false frameworks that convince us that we are right, and indubitably right, and even obviously right. When it comes to the Bible many of us would prefer to have false certainties than true uncertainties.

      Thanks for these questions, Michael. I hope my replies touched on what you were asking.

  6. Thanks for the followup Alex. There’s much to digest here – looking forward to the next post. In the meantime, I came across this quote while reading today and thought it was fitting to pass it on:

    “Haven’t you always felt that you live forever on the brink of knowing a great truth? Well, that feeling is true. There is the truth. It does exist.

    You’ll have to live entirely for that one sensation – that of imminent truth. You’re going to have to holler for it, steal for it, beg for it – and you’re never to stop asking questions about it twenty four hours a day, the rest of your life.

    Every day for the rest of your lives, all of your living moments are to be spent making others aware of this need – the need to probe and drill and examine and locate the words that take us to beyond ourselves.

    Scrape. Feel. Dig. Believe. Ask.

    You’re going to be forever homesick, walking through a cold railway station until the end, whispering strange ideas about existence into the ears of children. Your lives will be tinged with urgency as though rescuing buried men and lassoing drowning horses. You’ll be mistaken for crazies. You may well end up foaming at the mouth in a central Canadian drug clinic, Magic-Markering ideas onto your thighs which are bony from scouring the land on foot. Your eyes will always feel as if you’ve been staring at the sun, your bodies seemingly aching to cool them by staring at the moon. There aren’t enough words for ‘transform’. You’ll invent more.”

    Douglas Coupland – “Girlfriend in a Coma”

  7. I’ve been afforded a couple week’s bed rest, so all I’ve really done for a couple weeks is think. And I’ve thought about this blog a bit. I see it’s still alive and active. Cool. I have a couple things to say, along with a couple comments made recently, if I may.

    ==========Thus the Bible is exactly on par with Homer in that they both were written by humans and humans only. They are not on par in that the Bible points to God’s activity in history among men.===========
    Weak analogy. There are many books that are written by the hand of man that point’s to God’s activity in history that are NOT on par with the bible, because they are actually from the minds of man, not inspired, and not part of the cohesive tapestry of the bible collection. Or perhaps some do include all these attributes, but are simply redundant, thus not included in the canonized collection: The “lost books” of the bible, such as The Gospel of the Virgin Mary (which maybe should be included in the canon), the Protevangelion, Infancy, the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Epistles of Clement, the General Epistle of Barnabas, and dozen of other Christian era “lost book” documents.

    Then there are the forgotten books of Eden: the Books of Adam and Eve, the Book of the Secrets of Enoch, Psalms of Solomon, Odes of Solomon, Letter of Aristea, the Books of the Macabees, and several others.

    Then there are all the Gnostic gospels: The Gospels of Mary, Truth. Thomas, Philip, Judas and several others.

    The Catholics have several canonized books Protestants have not.

    The Koran.

    The Book of Mormon.

    All books that point to God’s activity with humanity.

    Many of these uncanonized texts sound right, and many speak bits of truth, but they also have inconsistencies and fallacies that contradict with the canonized books. Sure there is truth to be gleaned from many of them, but it’s like picking out the salt mixed with sugar. You have to know what you are looking for to separate the two. And that is what makes the “canonized” bible a distinct set of books—they don’t contradict whatsoever. One doesn’t need second guess them.

    Numerous other religions also have texts that “point to the activity of God.” So bad analogy my friend.

    =========In part I think that Christians have a need to believe the Bible is written by God in order to feel more certain about their faith. It is a lust for certainty.=========
    A lust for certainty? Low blow. I would agree with you though that many fundamentalists misguidedly think each and every word is a word-for-word dictation from God. Little do most of these folks realize or take the energy to think that the bible they hold in their hands is a translation from a translation from a translation. Many of the “words” in our English version never even had a word for it in the Aramaic Jesus spoke, or even the Greek thereafter. So there could NEVER be a literal word-for-word translation. The concepts and abstracts were translated.

    Semantics aside though, I would say most thinking Christians believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God, written by the hand of man. I do. If that concept is too abstract for you—that God can sweep a man’s mind with holy revelation—you need to be inspired buddy. You’re missing the whole point and magnitude of God if you think this is just some historical accounting.

    =========I prefer to think of the Bible as human literature that resonates with the activity of God in the world. (Of course, I prefer to think this way because I think it is the most accurate and truthful).========
    I think, I think, I think. Okay I used to “think” thunder was angels bowling. Lets put some logical substance to our thoughts, or maybe even some empirical considerations.

    If one can imagine all the grains of sand on all the beaches of earth. That’s how many stars are in our Milky Way Galaxy. Then there are that many galaxies in the Universe. And I would venture to say that many universes to boot. Universes of different composition and dimension. We really are insignificant beings aren’t we, yet God knows us.

    Science says all the physical matter of our universe—all those stars and galaxies—were once compressed to the size of a baseball (or basketball, I forget)—then the Big Bang, a singularity. A moment in time. And from this great compression—whatever that actually means—the universe has blossomed into the universe we know today. A universe of the strictest parameters. One that should gravity be even slightly stronger the universe would collapse upon itself. One that should gravity be a hair weaker the universe would fly out of control. Design?

    Many physicists confirm that a universe the size of ours is the minimum needed to spark life in the first place anywhere. The first gen stars were mostly hydrogen and helium, with just trace other elements. These stars exhaust themselves, implode, explode—to generate new elements. A cosmic stew. So all the elements that we carbon beings are composed is the result of an evolution of generation upon generation of stars being born, dying, changing. We ARE stardust.

    Then consider our home—Earth. The following “12 Bottlenecks/Conditions” are needed for cosmic life-forming conditions:
    1.) Host star must be of right size and type.
    2.) Planets must start from a small, short-lived type of protoplanetary disk.
    3.) System must be devoid of large planets with elliptical orbits
    4.) Large planets with circular orbits are required at the right distances.
    5.) Planet must maintain a circular orbit within narrow limits within the
    “Goldilocks zone.”
    6.) Planet’s size must fit within narrow limits to hold the right kind of
    atmosphere and maintain moderate temperatures.
    7.) Planet must be a member of a double-planet system (the Moon is
    considered of planetary distinction) to avoid tilting too far on its spin axis.
    8.) The time when a parent star heats up must coincide with the time in
    which the planet’s atmosphere changes to a cooler mixture.
    9.) Continuous tectonic plate activity is required to keep planet from
    freezing and precipitation.
    10.) Planets must have two kinds of crust of right thickness.
    11.) Must overcome the odds against the formation of life.
    12.) Must overcome the odds against the formation of intelligence.

    Our solar system’s not typical of other planetary systems with small, inner system terrestrial planets protected by outer system gas giant planets (which sweeps the system of comets and asteroids). Most planetary systems have large planets closer to the star, as best as we can tell presently).

    And yes I would venture to say that man is a likewise evolutionary creature as well with the Adam and Eve being the first humanoid to bear the image of God, but that’s a whole different topic.

    My question then is with all this magnitude and glory I’ve cited here. All this design and precision. The insignificance of humanity in the big scheme of things, yet God has chosen to have an intimate relationship with, don’t you think God has the means to devise a communication system, or is capable of “inspiring” people to write what God has to say? Or a purpose for doing so?

    How? I don’t know. Perhaps in some synapses sort of way. I certainly couldn’t articulate such, but I did do an abstract Flash model once about The Kingdom that may suggest the connectivity with God: http://www.cyberalley.com/FractalModel.swf
    (Takes a minute or so to load)

    Peace.

    • Hey John, Hope your feeling better.
      Ok…I still think the analogy works. It is not the authorship but the correlation of these human texts to God’s activity in history that matters.

      You write: “Semantics aside though, I would say most thinking Christians believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God, written by the hand of man. I do. If that concept is too abstract for you—that God can sweep a man’s mind with holy revelation—you need to be inspired buddy. You’re missing the whole point and magnitude of God if you think this is just some historical accounting.”

      Perhaps. But if you think what the gospels recount is “just” history, then you haven’t let it sink in yet.

      You write: “I think, I think, I think. Okay I used to “think” thunder was angels bowling. Lets put some logical substance to our thoughts, or maybe even some empirical considerations.”

      Well, it makes sense then why you believe as you do about the Bible today. 🙂 And, yes, “I think” is correct. I am responsible for my thoughts. I assume because you are here writing very long comments that you are also thinking.

      You write: “don’t you think God has the means to devise a communication system, or is capable of “inspiring” people to write what God has to say?”

      When you use these arguments (cosmological and otherwise), It makes me think you’re missing the point. It is not about God’s “capacity”. It is about what is the Bible actually. If it were about God’s capacity, then you would have to be satisfied with being told that “God is capable of using only human literature to bring the world to himself.” Why? Because he is. So don’t keep going back to God’s capacity because it works both ways. In fact, my view is that God is using this purely human literature to change the world.

      Best to you and thanks!

  8. Alex,

    Four thoughts:

    1) You will have to do much more to ever convince me that everything in the NY Times is always true. I will accept that it is human literature.

    2) I do not think Paul became a Christian because of the resurrection or because he believed Jesus was the Messiah. It was because he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. It all grew out of relationship.

    3) In the early writings of the Church, the reference to the “Word of God” was a reference to Jesus just as “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” was also a reference to Jesus. When did people start assuming that the phrase “Word of God” was a reference to the Bible?

    4) I can not think of a Christian service I’ve attended that did not include the Lord’s Prayer. Is this included because one day a liturgist was reading scripture and thought, “Hey, this is good. Let’s add this to our worship?” Or did people start praying it after Jesus taught it. Then, it was so common and popular that some of our members included it in their writings which are now known as the Gospels?

    • David,

      1) LOL. I hear you. The NY Times is definitely falsifiable. So is the NT and the gospel. (For example, what if the body of Jesus had been found?)
      2) I agree. Paul encountered and entered into a relationship with the Resurrected Jesus. That’s my point. Paul was not changed by the doctrine of the resurrection but by an encounter with the resurrected one (out of which his teaching on the resurrection rises).
      3) I’m not sure but it sure is common in some parts of the Christ following world.
      4) I’ve attended many, many services in which the Lord’s prayer was not offered, but since I get your point, I suspect that there are multiple paths for the emergence of this prominent prayer at different times in history for different traditions and not just one.

      Thanks.

  9. to Quote:

    “It is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events. It does not tell stories symbolizing suprahistorical truths, but is based on history, history that took place here on this earth. The factum historicum (historical fact) is not an interchangeable symbolic cipher for biblical faith, but the foundation on which it stands: Et incarnatus est — when we say these words, we acknowledge God’s actual entry into real history.”

    Pope Benedict XVI in the foreword to his book JESUS OF NAZARETH. I had to quote it knowing how you enjoy Latin. I would highly recommend you at least the foreward where he spends quite a bit of time talking about how we interpret scripture. Towards the end he also says, “Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.”

  10. First I want to apologize. Upon reading my words you quote, that sounds pretty snide and didn’t mean it as such. I respect you too much to be snide to you.

    I guess what I was trying to push was in a logical argument any premise (I think) be backed by evidence. But this really isn’t a debate forum, but your blog. My apologizes for that assumption as well.

    And you’re right, I must be missing the point. If you could recap you’re whole point in a sentence or two, I be most appreciative.

    Just a few clarifications on my end:

    ======= But if you think what the gospels recount is “just” history========
    I never said or thought that.

    =======If it were about God’s capacity, then you would have to be satisfied with being told that “God is capable of using only human literature to bring the world to himself.” Why?=======
    I’m not “satisfied” with just that. Nor did I say that. My argument is the bible is not only human literature as Homer is, or as Tom Clancey is. And if the God who create such a vast and intricate network as this universe and knows insignificant mankind within it, has an intimate relationship with humanity, which is but a speck upon a speck to nTH degree; then God certainly has the means to communicate with humans in a divine way.

    Over and out, to the next blog entry.

    Peace,
    John

    And thank you, I am feeling better and hurting less notably each day. Heart valve replacement a couple weeks ago.

  11. If one believes the bible, canonized as we know it, as only human literature, then I solicit you, if you hadn’t already, read some of the “lost books of the bible.”

    Some really give very interesting and enlightening back stories to such characters as Mary, Joseph, infant and child Jesus, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathmea, Adam and Seth, Pilate, the Jewish Council in Jerusalem, as well as Beelzebub-the prince of death and hell, Satan-who in underestimating Jesus on earth really screwed things up for the underworld.

    Also are some back story perspectives from these characters on such events as the birth of Mary and her religiously dedicated self to God; Joseph being divinely selected to marry the virgin Mary; his trip out and enlightenment of her pregnancy; the birth of Jesus in a cave; the shepherds and wise men; the exodus to Egypt and travels throughout of the holy family; 13 year old Jesus and his dialog with the teachers; Jesus’ trial before Pilate with insightful dialog exchanges amongst Pilate and the Jewish leaders, Jesus defenders, Nicodemus, Jesus; Jesus’ triumphal entry into hell and release of the dead; Joseph of Arimethea’ miraculous “escape” from a prison cell.

    Interesting gospels that flourished in early Christianity, but didn’t get canonized many years later. Many commentaries on the lost books give further explanation and historical authentications. Most lost gospels don’t contradict the canonized scriptures, so much add much back story to many events and concepts the official scriptures just vaguely touch upon.

    If nothing else, these are historical writings and beliefs from such times.

    • John, I’m not sure I get your point.

      Regarding the “lost books”…they are human literature too. As such we would weigh
      them as we would any other literature that relates to a historical subject.
      As far as history goes, primary sources are preferred to secondary sources,
      lost or not. The farther in time, geography, and worldview the source moves
      from the subject of interest — in this case Jesus — the less it weighs.
      (These sources weigh less unless, of course, your subject of interest is the
      secondary sources themselves and how they might have informed and helped shape
      some of the popular piety of the growing Christ following movement in later centuries.)

      You can’t just lump “two or three” centuries together and call them “such times”. The development
      of this extra-biblical literature certainly points to the magnitude of the Resurrection and how it continued to
      capture the imagination even centuries later, but it doesn’t replace primary sources that are rooted
      in the 1st century worldview of Israel. The NT is rooted in the life, stories, and person of Jesus. And
      the life, stories and person of Jesus are rooted in the life and stories of Israel. That’s how we evaluate
      all of this human literature.

      Thanks.

  12. Point is, these books, gospels and epistles give more in depth back story to the biblical characters I mentioned. If the canonized books aren’t divinely inspired, then these should be worth a gander as well as they were regarded as authentic by many early Christians and early fathers of the Church—both Eastern and Roman. Many beliefs today and traditions in various countries stem from these lost books.

    Now don’t confuse these “lost books” with the Gnostic gospels, those found buried in Egypt a several decades ago by a farmer. Two different sets of writing from antiquity.

    =======You can’t just lump “two or three” centuries together and call them “such times”.=======

    Slow down cowboy. Many of the lost books were attributed to apostles, though I will give you some were considered forgeries or writings by over-zealous Christians compiled from popular legends and controversies.

    For example, The Gospel of the Birth of Mary is attributed to Matthew. The Protevangelion is ascribed to James. The Epistles of Paul to Laodiceans and the Epistle of Paul to Seneca have always been considered genuinely from Paul. respect to Paul.” All first gen Christian.

    Likewise the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, Clement was a disciple of Peter. Okay 2nd gen, but wasn’t Mark as well? Nonetheless this was a writing read publicly by the primitive Christians and once stood in the collections of Canon Scripture. Though the second epistle isn’t regarded so highly as the first due to some controversial beliefs of the writer, its still attributed to Clement.

    The General Epistle of Barnabas is considered genuine and cited by many ancient church fathers: Origen, Eusebius, Jerome to name a few. First gen as much as Paul, Barnabas being Paul’s companion and fellow preacher.

    Anyway, I could go on and on. Yes a few of the “lost books” are forgeries, some even from Gnostic third century, but most are or at least were considered genuine accountings from genuine witnesses and 2nd gen reiterations. The Acts of Paul and Thecla is a piece forged by a Presbyter of Asia, who, “Confessed that he did it out of respect to Paul.”

    Again, don’t confuse these with the Gnostic gospels—which ARE quite whack with Gnostic theology.

    And again, my point is these writings give very interesting back stories that the canonized scriptures just briefly touch upon. If we are to scholarly study scripture, then I suggest these books be read as well, for nothing else than this is what many 1st and 2nd gen followers of The Way read as well. And many Church fathers and leaders for many years hence.

  13. Do you not think additional writings by such close to the source writers as James, Matthew, Paul, Barnabas, Clement not hold enough weight? Of course authenticity plays into all this, but as I was saying many of the “lost books,” at least those I cite here, are believed to be authentic and are no more unauthentic as the canonized scriptures where authorship is concerned.

    Some of the writings are controversial in some of the beliefs held by these 1st and 2nd gen Christians. My point being that these writings were shared, preached and believed true right out of the box, and not until the Council of Nicea were many of these disregarded, or less regarded, though many church leaders before and after still ascribed to them.

    Ignorant as I am of how to truly evaluate such literature, logic leads me to think such characters’ writings are weighty. I understand he further from the source the less weight, but that’s not always true, lest all today’s writers be shoveling nothing but bull roar.

  14. Alex,

    Can you please explain to me 1 Thessalonians 2:13 which says “when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.”

    Do you see the Bible as having two natures similar to Jesus Christ himself? Jesus being fully God and fully man and the scripture being written by humans and divinely written by God?

    I cannot express how much I disagree with this post and I am trying my best to understand your position that seems to directly contradict a foundational pillar in the Christian church.

    Thank you

  15. Esther, I think I can. First let me say that I am convinced that Jesus is raised from the dead like the scriptures say, but not because the scriptures say it. The resurrection of Jesus itself and the telling of this story of Jesus — the gospel — has priority and primacy over the text of the Bible. With that in mind…

    When Paul writes in 1st Thess 2.13, “when you received the word of God” it may be that you supply “Bible” as the meaning of the phrase “word of God” and I do not. Our Bible — which consists of both OT and NT — didn’t exist yet.

    So, Paul is not saying, “when you received the Bible, which you heard from us…”

    I think Paul is referring to his preaching of the gospel to them, not to his reading of the Bible — which didn’t exist in our form — to them.

    He is referring to the proclamation of Christ risen from the dead.

    I think that as we tell the story of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself, God speaks to us. When we hear Him speaking to us and we respond, it is His word at work within us — not the Bible, but the voice of God.

    I do not think the Bible has two natures like Jesus. I think that to speak of the Bible this way leans towards bibliolatry — worship of the Bible — and this is what I am trying to avoid.

    So, I think, Esther, that I disagree pretty strongly with you too. I do not think of the Bible as a foundational pillar of the Christian church. I think God is heart and horizon of the Christ following movement and I try not to confuse the two — that is, I try not to confuse God with the Bible.

    Thanks for your question. And, by the way, I don’t think of my thoughts as a “position” but as a “point of view” that is open to change. I’m glad to be strengthened and refined by your challenge.

  16. Alex,

    I think it’s clearly understood your pov that the bible not be worshipped, nor the word-by-word translations be an exact dictation–as many evangelicals and fundamentalist hold fast to. I would agree. Wholeheartedly. But you do contradict yourself here.

    You say, “I think Paul is referring to his preaching of the gospel to them, not to his reading of the Bible — which didn’t exist in our form — to them.” Well it didn’t and it did. There are numerous prophecies in OT that did speak of this. However that point aside, 1 Thessalonian 2:13 does explicitly state, “when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God…” So what Paul is explicitly saying is this gospel, this testimonial, this message, this story is NOT that of man, of himself, but of God. Not just a reiteration of a personal experience, but divine inspiration.

    No the bible, as we consume it, didn’t exist then—in mass-produced, written form of a canonized selection. But the very same thing did exist and flourish in an oral tradition. For millennium. So what’s the difference? The very thing that Paul states is of God—in a letter—today we still recognize as true—in book form. Should we worship those words? Absolutely not. But they should be recognized as true, just as a road and signposts lead to a destination.

    As such the bible—the written, divinely-inspired, experience of human beings is a pillar of Christian tradition—just as a map is foundational to a journey. You can get to that final destination without a map or instruction, but unless one is so righteous that God speaks clearly and distinctly to that individual, the journey is perilous and without direction. Imagine being in Denver with a destination of Los Angeles WITHOUT a map or direction. What are the chances of actually making it to LA?

  17. John, Good to hear from you again. I take your point. Paul may be saying something like, “those words that I spoke…that was God speaking not me”. My thinking is more along the lines that our speaking and doing is either resonant or dissonant — versus identical with — with what God is saying and doing.

    When it comes to the text…

    Of course, Paul and I may have a different view of what the text is. It would be interesting to hear how he might write this if he were writing today.

    In my understanding, Paul’s preaching was a human testimony pointing/ recounting the action of God in Christ much like the Bible is a human witness to the actions of God in the world.

    God, not the Bible nor Paul’s words, is who works within us when we hear the story and believe.

    The map analogy works for me. The map is not the territory. It represents a pov on what the territory is. What’s more, having a map in and of itself does not give a journey direction. Thus a map is not foundational to the journey.

    A present location and a destination are far more determinative than having a map in terms of giving one a sense of direction. And an experienced guide not a map would be my first choice to traversing the territory.

    In the end, this whole idea of arguing internally from the scripture about the scripture doesn’t work for me. Imagine a Muslim saying, the Qu’ran is the word of God because the Qu’ran says so. This would hardly be persuasive. But Christians make this circular argument with the Bible and are content with it. At best, we get an idea of what some of the writers of the text thought about parts of the text we call the Bible. That’s helpful, but not enough.

  18. “And an experienced guide not a map would be my first choice to traversing the territory.”
    That may work for you, and I don’t take that away from you. (Nor do I take away anything from one’s personal experiences with God.) I guess I’m kind of obstinate in traveling alone. I did that when I recently traveled through Europe: a duffel bag, a camera bag, maps and go-anywhere train pass.

    Spiritually, following an “experienced guide” is to me akin to Catholics practice, or what Kabbalists do, or Rosicrucians. Why put trust in a guide—in one who claims a special knowledge—who may be right or wrong—when a map clearly points the way? Like why pray to a saint or Mary—when one can directly petition Christ himself? Why go through sacrament or ritual when its really much simpler and direct than that?

    So what does Paul mean, ““when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God…” Do we not take him to his word? I mean of course he’s speaking of the resurrection and mission of Christ. He is saying this message is NOT one of man, but of the word of God. I know I’m not seminary trained, or biblically educated in any formal manner, and I’m not deep like most who frequent this blog, but even in a broad stroke I can’t read this in any other way than Paul is saying these are not his words, but God’s.

  19. “And an experienced guide not a map would be my first choice to traversing the territory.”
    That may work for you, and I don’t take that away from you. (Nor do I take away anything from one’s personal experiences with God.) I guess I’m kind of obstinate in traveling alone. I did that when I recently traveled through Europe: a duffel bag, a camera bag, maps and go-anywhere train pass.

    Spiritually, following an “experienced guide” is to me akin to Catholics practice, or what Kabbalists do, or Rosicrucians. Why put trust in a guide—in one who claims a special knowledge—who may be right or wrong—when a map clearly points the way? Like why pray to a saint or Mary—when one can directly petition Christ himself? Why go through sacrament or ritual when its really much simpler and direct than that?

    So what does Paul mean, ““when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it ACTUALLY is, the word of God…” Do we not take him to his word? I mean of course he’s speaking of the resurrection and mission of Christ. He is saying this message is NOT one of man, but of the word of God. I know I’m not seminary trained, or biblically educated in any formal manner, and I’m not deep like most who frequent this blog, but even in a broad stroke I can’t read this in any other way than Paul is saying these are not his words, but God’s. Inspired.

  20. After being asked by a mutual friend to review Mr. McManus’ article, The Bible as Human Literature; such reading compelled me to do the second part of my friend’s request – that is to provide commentary on the issue. As such, the following thoughts are submitted humbly and with the purpose of advancing the conversation to my friend, to Alex, and to any others who are interested in reading. These thoughts are also posted on Mr. McManus’ blog, On a Quest Into the Mystic… at alexmcmanus.org. With over 100 comments to the original article by the time of this commentary, the author has dealt with many criticisms already, but those arguments and the additional light they shed on the discussion are not covered here; so, there may be redundancy or further clarification that has already taken place, as the case may be, but due to limited time this discussion is the one put forth.

    Naturally, the premise, “The Bible is only human literature” is as earth-shaking as the author believes, given his second line instructing the reader to “Breathe.” He then clarifies his question, playing off that reaction, by asking, “Why does embracing the Bible as human literature disorient some of us?”

    Such is the nature of the article, with the assertions and questions coming so fast and furious, interspersed with some supporting rhetoric, that the reader is likely to be constantly confused, unsure of the writer’s point or his justification of it. In his defense, Mr. McManus may have written this as a near stream-of-consciousness, an intellectual journey of sorts with him while he’s asking these questions. Given the strong, committed opening and its related cousin at the end (“If Jesus is really raised from the dead, what do we lose if we consider the Bible as only human literature?”) it would seem that it is less of a confused series of inquiries and more of a dialectic or Socratic teaching. This is reinforced through the reading in that while the author does back up some of his points, such evidence or reasoning is mostly by point of example and not comprehensive, leading one to believe he is building toward the conclusion – again, emphatically stated at the start – than in the exercise of finding that answer. It seems clear that the author’s point is asking, “What does it mean to the Christian faith if the Bible is only an assembly of human-interest pieces?”

    Also, as the author references having some elements of Biblical study, namely textual criticism, it is assumed that he is aware of the foundational arguments for the canon, inerrancy, and inspiration of Scripture, as well as is Biblically literate, and has simply chosen to ignore these things. As with most, the fundamentals of the topic by itself would be enough to answer the questions. However, they will not be the bulk of this discussion, they will be referenced in this commentary due to their importance and supporting role.

    Finally, it should be known that far smarter people than either the author or myself have spent lifetimes of study on these same questions. They are not new to our generations. The Bible has withstood such scrutiny for literal millennia, and will continue to do so. Scripture is not threatened by the inquiries posed by the author, and for that matter, not defended by my efforts. If it is God’s Word, it stands on its own and nothing can tear it down; if it is not, it is void and nothing can build it up.

    That said, let’s start at the end, and work backwards; the original thesis will be more easily understood and discussed.

    If Jesus is really raised from the dead, what do we lose if we consider the Bible as only human literature?

    In this question the entire consequence of the belief of the Bible as anything less than the inerrant, infallible, and literal Word of God is seen. The issue really isn’t about the Bible at all, but of what it is the foundation: Christianity itself. This is not a simple issue of phrasing. If what the Bible says is not true, or at the least questionable in its representations, about the least of the details contained within, then the claims it holds on the most serious ones – God, sin, death, and the resurrection – are suspect.

    Hence we see the quandary, “If Jesus is really raised from the dead.” If he is not, then nothing – absolutely nothing – else matters about the religion based in his name and which practices deeds based on his teachings. This is so for many reasons, not the least of which Jesus is the only religious patron who rose again after dying – or, at least, in a documented fashion. Which is, of course, the crux of the whole issue.

    How can this be said? Isn’t the author’s point that the Bible is irrelevant so long as Jesus did rise? This is the liturgical corollary to the persistent question, “If a tree falls in a forest but no one hears it, did it fall?” And, of course, if the event occurs but no chronicle of it happens, the event still occurred. But the author assumes that antitheses would also be true and equally valid, being that, “If Jesus were raised from the dead, but the Bible said he wasn’t, what would the truth be?” and “If Jesus did not rise, but the Bible claims he did, what would be truth?” That is, he looks for validation of events based on the account of Scripture, not the Scriptures validated by the events they chronicle.

    Naturally, nearly 2,000 years removed from the latest historical events of the Bible, this would be an intriguing question, especially for one who approaches scripture from the approach of textual criticism. But the Bible is not a linear document, though it is canonically organized as such for our modern Greek minds.

    Consider instead if the Bible is exactly as it claims to be (more on the importance of that in just a moment). That is, that it is theopneustos – literally God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16)? What that means in terms of mechanics is another discussion entirely; let us agree for sake of discussion that it is as simple as transcription, that God spoke and the authors wrote what he said word-for-word. Regardless of what it was in reality, the fact that the Bible claims itself to be the literal words of God is a serious claim, as is any claim to the contrary.

    And if it is such a document and the God, whose words they are, is who he claims to be in those revelations, namely timeless and exhibiting the perfections he describes (holiness, love, mercy, grace, patience, to name a few) then what we have is a document approximately 4,000 years in the making. A document that exhibits the infinite wisdom of its author – not the scribes – distilled into doses that were given at the precise moments in time they were needed for the temporal direction of God’s most treasured creation: humankind.

    The author suggests that it is not this. That it is, instead, more like millennia of the front page of the New York Times. It is cringing to think he chose that particular publication, but let us assume he meant it as a gesture of respect out of the esteem he has for that newspaper. In consideration of that example, we will discuss some elements of what he means: that events happen; that the historical record of import investigates them; that a human instrument wrote about them from their perspective or the perspective of those they interviewed; and that such accounts are generally truthful.

    While it is an entertaining distraction to think of the Bible as having various sections, as does a newspaper, and imaging what would appear on A1, or in the Life, Sports, or Money sections, there are serious flaws to consider in the analogy.

    First, the Times, while it takes itself very seriously, it does not claim to be the Word of God. Mr. McManus may well receive a letter from the editor expressing their umbrage at such a thought, given all the space that has been dedicated debunking even the concept of God, much less the Christian one. In all seriousness, however, even in the height of their journalistic integrity, the Times would never have presumed to have made some of the claims the Bible does about itself.

    Of course, all that does not even deal with the fact that the Bible was not just a backward looking account, but also prophetical. The author forgets this in his portrayal of scripture. Like the weather forecast, it told the future; however, the Bible was never wrong about what it prophesied whereas the accuracy of the weatherman is anyone’s guess.

    But I digress. The point is that each publication has very different purposes. God’s was the giving of preternatural wisdom to people when it was needed, culminating in the prophecy, then the fulfillment, of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus the Christ, as the substitute sacrifice for the ultimate sin, the rejection of Him, and then to tell what that event meant to those who came behind. Throughout history, anyone could have looked at the amount of the Bible available at that time and seen this. The Times simply exists to print all the news that’s fit.

    What then is the standard for truth?

    The same test applies here that it does for Jesus, the pre-eminent character of the Bible. Many compromise and say that they do not believe Jesus was the Son of God in the flesh, but that he was a good moral man or ethical teacher. The reality is that, if he was not God, he was either a liar or a lunatic, but certainly not moral or ethical. He could not make the claims he did if he were not God, insane, or the king of con artists. Those are the only three viable options.

    Likewise, the Bible cannot merely be truthful human literature if it is not what it claims itself to be. It claims to be literally breathed by God. It claims to judge the shortcomings of man against the perfection of God. It claims to detail the only way to receive forgiveness of these sins. It claims to tell the past and the future accurately. If it is not these things, no one can credibly say it has any modicum of truth. And, while the standards of today have fallen significantly, it would still require the suspension of disbelief to then consider it literature, too. It is either Revelation or it is rubbish – it cannot be both.

    Consider then the author’s assertions.: the Bible is not authoritative, but secondary to the events that happened “in the real world”; it has no authority in and of itself but dependant to the interpretation of the believer. To wit, he references the same kind of example we have already discussed: Jesus did not rise because the Bible says so, but was written because He did; and, Israel did not emerge on the stage of history because the Bible says so but was written because Israel emerges.

    Conspicuously absent from those frameworks is God. In the author’s mind, there exist only three factors: history, the Bible, and the reader. If he is as influenced by Descartes’ deism as he claims the whole of modern Christendom to be, such a Clockmaker mentality would make sense. To him, the solution must be one of the three factors of man, history, or Scripture being supreme when, in fact, that is a perfection truly held by God alone. The author says that the Bible is only literature because it was written by primitive people after historical events occurred and is now read by modern man and open to our interpretation in our greater understanding so many years later. He does not consider that God, who is infinitely wise and good, controlled both the occurrence of the events and the perfect historical record of them for our consumption – not in our excellence, but in our need – in the more dire future. Indeed, with the removal of God, the author’s conclusions are reasonably logical, and yet so much more terrible as a result of the means necessary to accomplish them. As previously said, such a discussion is about much more than just the nature of the Bible; it then becomes about the nature – even the very existence – of God.

    So then, to reiterate, if Jesus is really raised from the dead, what do we lose if we consider the Bible as only human literature? Put simply, everything. Not one thing we understand about God, His work, or the need for it can be believed without the supernatural validation given by God in His perfect, complete, inerrant, breathed Word: the Bible.

    Why does embracing the Bible as human literature disorient some of us?

    The author deals with many things between his first and last question; namely, the perfection or adequacy of Scripture, the foundations for faith, convergence, and the human and special elements of the Bible. Most of those have been also addressed here, if only in principle. That is satisfactory as they are the filler between his first and final questions, and in dealing with those questions, so, too, are those – either directly or through their newfound irrelevancy.

    So, why does embracing the Bible as human literature disorient some of us? Because it removes the Bible from its rightful, self-proclaimed place as the Word of God, theopneustos. And, since John 1:1 tells us that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, without such a holy classification for the Bible, we not only lose the Bible, but everything within it; not only that, but God and all His work, as well.

    Could God exist outside of the Bible? Or, phrased differently, could God exist outside of what is told about Him in Scripture? In a purely philosophical realm, yes; and, in fact, He does – He is not limited to what is contained in those pages, as evidenced by His continued work of redemption after the closing of the canon. However, since God has told us the things He has in the Word, He could not exist contrary to those things, or, fantastically, if those things were pure fancy.

    Some of us are disoriented at the concept of the Bible as only human literature because to lose it as what it claims to be – holy, literal words of God – means we lose everything. Which also means, as correctly illustrated by the author, that our religion can be morally equivocated to others. Or open to historical criticism. Or any other number of things. If, however, it is the religion that is truly instituted by God, as explained in His Word, given for the purposes of reconciliation, and constantly validated by any number of proofs, then nothing else compares to it.

  21. Wow, Bret. On other forums, a post like that is referred to as a “discussion killer.”

    I only had time to skim your post, and I am probably sympathetic to your position (as I agree with Gnotek’s last bit), but even a cursory glance notices that you aren’t really dealing much with Alex’s argument. You have set up a straw man, one that Alex specifically tried to step away from.

    Examples: Alex says “just because something is written by humans does not automatically make it false”, yet you seem to say that Alex IS arguing for the inadequacy and falsehood of the scriptures… and Alex says “the Bible is inspired by this encounter between God and humans and the sustained relationships (both individual and societal) that follow”, yet you seem to argue that Alex is rejecting any inspiration that might come via the Bible.

    At some point I’ll sit down and read your essay more carefully. Perhaps I’m off base.

    But if I write my own essay in reply to you or to Alex, I’ll post it on my own blog, under my own name, with a trackback or pingback to this original post so folks can follow me over from here.

  22. Simply put, if we think of the Bible as a work of human liturature then we equate it to a plethora of works designed and inspired by the human mind. As a sort of novel, a collection of fantastical experiences at best, and just as a moral guide to live by. And yet it is not those things. The Bible is divinely inspired by God and humans are merely the scribes of the events that took place (and teach us how to live today from past failures and experiences of the chosen nation Israel,something each nation and person can identify with and see themselves within the pages)and most importantly of supernatural knowledge and wisdom that is imparted to us, His creation.

    Mr. Macmus seems to imply (at least to me) that it is merely a great philosophical work and set of works of knowledge, wisdom, and moral codes that are good to live by and apply in our daily lives. Yet the Bible is so much more. The Bible, Christianity is not a religion. It is a way of living. It gives us the historical account of who we are, what we are capable of and directs us with love in how we should live in order to be successful in our daily walk, and in bringing each and every person in this world to have an intimate relationship with Him. To know Him, Jesus Christ our father God personally, as we do people.

    Very thorough and well put piece, Bret!

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