What is the Bible?


Heather Reichgott has started a "theology game", in which she writes a series of blog entries that pose theological questions, offers her own answers, and invites others to blog about the same questions.

Her first topic is "What is the Bible?" The questions under this topic are:

What is the Bible?
How is it the revelation of God (if it is) ?
How does it relate to us (as individuals, as church, as community...) ?
How is it a source for theological reflection?

My answers are as follows:

What is the Bible?

I believe that the Bible is a collection of writings by human beings who strove to understand God. The Bible was not written by God, nor were the diverse authors of the Bible were not in any sense "used" by God to suit Divine purposes. Instead, the Bible is a collection of documents by humans about God. I believe that God did not use people in to write scripture; the authors of the Bible, like the rest of us, were free individuals, rather than merely instruments of Divine will. The authors were no different in a sense from all of us, to whom God speaks and whom God lures through his/her Divine Call. The authors of the Bible were "inspired" in some sense to write what they wrote--just as poets are inspired to write poetry, painters to paint, and prophets to prophesy. But the authors of the Bible were human beings, flawed in their own ways, prone to make mistakes, and products of their culture and time. The authors conducted an ongoing dialogue with one another, with history, and with God, and as such their theologies reflected evolving understandings about God. Furthermore, many of the books in the Bible did not simply pour out of a single author's pen, but were in fact the result of an ongoing editing process. The Pentateuch, for example, was the product of several authors, whose works were interwoven (not always seamlessly) into five books.

Furthermore, the decisions about which books to include in the Bible, which to exclude, and which to censor and suppress, were all human decisions, influenced by all sorts of factors, running the gamut from mundane to sublime, and often influenced by political considerations.

An analogy that I like comes from Jack Good, who describes the Bible as a family album of a community of faith, reflecting the diversity and dialogue and disagreements that characterize any family. Family albums are often sloppily inconsistent; some photos are blurry, some too dark, as the books of the Bible surely are as well.

How is it the revelation of God (if it is) ? I would say that it isn't. It is instead a record of a community of faith that was trying to make sense of divine revelation. It is a record of how Divine revelation was filtered through limited human understanding. It isn't, therefore, "the" revelation of God, and as such is neither comprehensive nor final. God reveals him/herself everywhere at all times, to all people. God is still speaking to us today.

How does it relate to us (as individuals, as church, as community...) ? The value of a historical record of human attempts at understanding Divine Revelation lies in providing us with something to work with. We learn from the mistakes of Biblical writers as much as we learn from their successes. We are not starting from scratch, but rather from a rich and varied history that can serve as a fabric from which we can work through our own communication with the Sacred.

To the extent that we can appreciate the human yearning for the sacred that its authors expressed, we can interpret and channel our own yearning for the sacred as well. To the extent that we can appreciate the evolving theologies that produced the Bible, we can appreciate that dogma is not necessarily cast in stone, thus making us free to continue to re-imagine the Divine as human understanding evolves.

How is it a source for theological reflection? There are many themes that run through the Bible, but I think that two of the most important are the ever-evolving understanding of God's nature, and the expanding concept of inclusive love. The Bible shows us a developing conception of God--from Yahweh, a tribal warrior deity, to a universal God of peace and justice. And the understanding of love became ever more inclusive as well--where more an more people became included in the circle of divine and human inclusiveness. This human inclusiveness and divine love translated strongly into the prophetic tradition of social justice. In this way, the Bible can inspire us as we also struggle for social justice today.


Aric Clark said...

Great to see you're participating in this little meme too.

The one question I have, is that from your last couple paragraphs one could easily get the impression that scripture has rather limited usefulness. I am not necessarily disagreeing, but I wonder what you think about the element of surprise. Do you ever find yourself surprised by scripture? Do you ever come away with a changed mind?

Mystical Seeker said...

That's an interesting question, Aric. Yes, there probably are parts of the Bible that do surprise me. I would not claim to be an expert on the Bible, and I may encounter passages or ideas that I had not expected. I have no doubt that my thinking on many subjects are open to change.

jim said...

I think I would have to say that I agree with your take on the Bible and I'm encouraged by your assesment of it. You seem to have a realistic view yet you haven't lost a significant appreciation for it and believe that it shouldn't just be turfed, rather it has significant spiritual value for us. I think that's what I find encouraging... I've come to view the Bible in a very similar way but coming from a background of Christian Fundamentalism. I think I've just passed through the stage of "well maybe I should just turf it all" to "wait a second, it maybe it has even more value understood in the right light".

Thanks... I've appreciated your blog and comments that pop up on other blogs.

Mystical Seeker said...

Jim, thanks for your comments. I can understand the tendency to "turf it all". It is sometimes hard to take a more nuanced and moderate view of the Bible.

Orhan Kahn said...

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You have a nice site. Keep up the good work.