A handful of events have conspired these last couple weeks to get me thinking about the nature of the Bible. Some intriguing questions raised by Peter Enns in his new book, to which I’ll be sure to return presently; a few terrific one-on-one conversations; and JRD Kirk’s post today have all circled around this topic.
I don’t know if the average Christian thinks much about the actual Bible that we have. My vague understanding from childhood and teendom was something like God the Puppeteer animating the various biblical writers over the course of 1500 years or so, from Moses to John the Seer.
Anyone braving the gauntlet of seminary, however, has gone through the rather daunting experience of having those pictures blown to smithereens as she discovers that, in fact, the process of building and collecting the canon has been quite complex – unknown authors; unknown and much later editors; copyists and their various mistakes; and textual critics trying to correct those mistakes, making decisions that range from coin-flipping to well educated (an issue highlighted in an interview with Wayne Grudem in the last five minutes of the Colin McEnroe Show). Plus, there’s the added difficulty of translation quirks, for those of us who don’t read any of the three ancient dialects that make up our holy book.
Such revelations often cause problems for believers because they’ve been taught from a young age that the Bible is clear and understandable to anyone with moderate literacy. But the more we discover about the ancient cultures of the biblical world – of Israel and its neighbors – the more we seem to discover that actually understanding the Bible takes a lot of work.
Personally, I’m discovering for myself a rather interesting paradigm shift happening in the way I look at Scripture. Beginning from a place in which I had regarded the Bible as virtually written by God’s own hand, I have ever so slowly drifted toward viewing Scripture as a collection of wondrously human documents.
Now, such a statement must be qualified. I do not suggest that the Creator had nothing to do with the Bible, by no means. Rather, I am beginning to see Scripture similarly to the way in which we often see Christians themselves: an awe-full and awful entanglement of the corruptible and incorruptible.
We have a human document. It has been written and edited and copied and mis-copied over the course of many hundreds of years by any number of hands within the contexts of languages and historical settings we know all too incompletely. It often reflects incomplete perspectives on its own world or even on the nature of the God it proclaims, as one peering through a dim glass.
And yet, we have a divine document. Believers throughout the generations, myself included, have read these words and whispered in awe, “Herein lie the words of life. Where else would I go?” We possess a book that peels back the curtain on the heavenlies, revealing glimpses of a spiritual reality transcendent of our earthly lives.
We have, as Enns put it, an incarnate book, which makes it both muddy and beautiful.