Between parts one and two, the response is rather long, and, between the obvious effort and thought put into it, and the esteem with which I hold the author (hi, Barry!) not less than a well-crafted, well thought-out response to the response will do. All of which it say, my response will also be rather lengthy and therefore posted in multiple parts. I will at least try to organize it in a way that makes sense.
1. The Bible as the “Word of God”
This seems to be the essence of the question raised in the original post. And I believe it needs to be separated from whether the bible is useful or even authoritative (however defined). The “Word of God” question is one of what the bible is and how it should be used, as either way one could still see it as valuable and even essential. And on this count, I feel that the response does not actually address why one would consider the bible “the Word of God” (unless we are using different meanings of the phrase).
To me, the term “Word of God” (“word” singular, often but not always with the capital “W”) denotes more than what God said (words of God), but, given that Christ is the “Word made flesh” inescapably bestows divinity on their entirety of the canonized scriptural text. Beyond the obvious issue of idolatry (which, as you marveled Barry, leads some Christians to preference ancient Judaic practices over the teachings of Jesus), this leads to a number of ontological problems (such as which manuscript versions or translations are, in fact, divine). I think this swiftly leads to the conclusion that that isn’t what was intended at all, but something else. We then want to ascribe living attributes to a inanimate text, to talk about the “Word among us”, but for which no clear definition is available and which becomes even more varied (among different church practices) and subjective (across varying interpretations), producing a very confused deity indeed.
But, perhaps “word of God” in this instance was intended to mean “words that God said (wrote/inspired)” or “words provided by God”, and therefore not Jesus Himself. However, this necessitates not viewing the bible as unique in holding this name. The phrase “word of God” is used in the bible itself to indicate individual prophecies or instructions for a particular time. Sections within the bible are ascribed directly to God and others aren’t, sometimes rather explicitly (like Paul indicating he is speaking in his own capacity, not God’s). From that, it appears the bible itself contradicts the idea that the entire bible is directly God’s words.
This is not necessarily to say the bible isn’t authoritative or even inspired, but it clearly calls into question the idea of inerrancy (as they are human, not divine words) or that it isn’t bound by time, place and culture (as the bible describes the word of God as being thus bound). Indeed, the biblical texts were canon long before the doctrine of inerrency even existed.
2. The Bible as “the” Foundational Document
Leaving aside for the moment the question of canon selection (it is hard to argue that we can know God placed importance on the correct selection of cannon when even the original manuscripts were not preserved, nor has any consistent translation or interpretation of the texts been achieved – if he could guide that he could also have guided these others but evidently did not… not to mention it is entirely circular: the books are viewed as inspired because they were canonized and don’t conflict on major points because cannon was chosen for consistency, but I digress…) I do believe a strong case can be made for the need for a guiding set of foundational texts. (Even then, the early churches existed without it, and with other competing documents as well… but again, I am drifting from the point at hand…) And what better selection, generically speaking, than the accounts about Jesus, the religious context in which Jesus lived and taught, and early church interpretations of Jesus’ teachings, death and resurrection. These need not be divine, nor inerrant to guide our beliefs and spiritual practice. Our faith is in Jesus and we are therefore guided by what he taught as best we can know and understand it.
I have to disagree, however, that this allows us to escape having a human-made religion, or saves us from deception (even cannon selection aside). Interpretations of translations of particular manuscript copies of the bible are still required. Nothing illustrates the humanness of these stages more than the extent to which they disagree with one another. The human element will be unavoidable. This is not to say we shouldn’t try – there is better and worse, and means of judging between them – but it should introduce a greater degree of humility, skepticism and accountability.
The point of using these texts as the foundation is therefore to add to our understanding of Jesus and are not elevated for their own sake. While they may contain, say, wise advice or beautiful description in their own right, it is not for that reason that we would consider them authoritative. The bible is simply then the means by which we come to understand the Word, not the Word itself.
3. The Separation of Testaments
From this proposed use of the bible, the Jewish scriptures would be approached in light of what Jesus said about them and what the new testament writers said Jesus’ teachings, death and resurrection meant in relation to them.
But this cannot be such a clean separation. If Jesus came to fulfill the law and not to erase it, if Jesus’ guiding teaching according to Paul was his summary of the law, then the law is still of significance. What Jesus asserted in his time was that the Jewish authorities had misinterpreted and misused the law and the prophets. What was abuse of the Jewish scriptures then was not just abuse in light of Jesus and the cross, but abuse even before that in its own right. We would be wise to recognize many long traditions of Jewish scholarship that do not believe in an “angry and hard-to-please God” and instead do see a “benevolent, loving God” without the new testament – a group of people that included Jesus Himself.
The standard seems clear from the teachings of Jesus and as further expounded by Paul – love. Here, I think we agree, Barry. If we teach love, of God and others (which Paul summarized further as simply loving others), then we have taught not only the law in it’s purest form, but how to properly interpret and apply it. This becomes a lens for the applicability of the old testament. In any apparent contradiction with love (and love alone), the interpretation of love trumps all others. Thus we see Jesus healing and the disciples picking grain both on the Sabbath, with Jesus essentially explaining, as Paul will later, that the law is for the benefit of people, not the other way around. (Paul’s teaching that Jewish purity laws do not apply to Christian converts is an entire conversation on its own. The purity laws forbid mixing of kinds – seeds in a field, fabric in clothes, pork, shellfish – which was adhorent until God did a new thing in including the Gentiles in the covenant. Ultimately, we see that the law is context-dependent. Which is the reason that Paul so strongly opposes Christians having a written law or applying principles indiscriminately – and yet we do that very thing with Paul’s own writings, even the ones expounding against such practices!).
But it doesn’t end there. Because this is the true timeless law written on our hearts, the essence of Jesus’ teachings and ministry, the same standard will continue into the new testament. In any apparent contradiction with love (and love alone), the interpretation of love still trumps all others. Paul goes as far as to say that all things are permissible – the standard is what is beneficial (loving). Without this, we are also likely to misinterpret the writings of new testament authors (in a foreign language for a foreign time, geography and culture) – just as we are old testament ones. I would even posit that the teachings of Jesus themselves can, to some extent, be put to this test, not allowing particular isolated phrases to contradict the overarching message. Indeed, Paul himself does this when going beyond Jesus in his instructions on divorce.
This unites both testaments into an over-arching theme, meaning, and approach (although this is not without its challenges – which I think Cindy is going to address and I will leave for now). Indeed, it means there is nothing new under the sun – even the bible.
4. The “Word of God” Revisited
The Word of God, then – both the sprit of the law (God’s decrees across the ages) and Jesus, the Word made flesh – is love itself, the Light that came into the world to save us from darkness.
Insofar as the bible calls us to love, it bears the Word, but only that far. The Holy Spirit will testify of Jesus-the Word-Love, and so people hear from God insofar as they love and call to love, and only that far. In obeying Jesus’ summation of the law – love – we love Jesus, but only if we love others. Insofar as we love others we minister to Jesus and are his disciples, and are otherwise unknown to Him. Love is the standard by which all things are judged, including the bible, and the bible testifies to this.
But that is the milk, not the meat, as Paul put it. How we love and know what is loving can be difficult. For this, the bible can provide some, but limited guidance. For those Paul is writing to, he is giving examples in their time, but is ultimately entrusting them with learning the difference for themselves, for renewing their minds. Jesus challenges those who question him and teaches in parables. In answering what love is, Jesus encourages his followers both to do as he did and to empathize with others, doing what we would want in their place. Both are teaching how to think, not what to think, when it comes to love. And self-sacrifice, thinking of others and their circumstances first, is at the heart of it. The bible helps to get us to that point, where love is clearly the standard, with some criteria for judging what love looks like, but it cannot answer our modern dilemmas for us – and warns against such static written laws. I believe we are being called instead to walk the difficult road of letting our minds and hearts and experiences show us the way.
5. The End… (at last)
This isn’t everything that struck me, but it is the general concepts I had in mind when reading your responses, Barry. There are more comments to come and I look forward to the discussion.
Of interest to you might be the bible re-read Cindy and I are doing. You can read and comment about it on my own blog, if you like (www.unnameablecuriosity.wordpress.com) – not that I haven’t said plenty already. I’ll likely put this up on my own blog, too, since it’s more than I’ve written for that all week. There might also be some other interested individuals who I’ll refer here who would also hate to pass up a good (especially civil) bible discussion.
Good to hear from you. Until next time.