Old Testament Reading#: Jeremiah 1:4-10
New Testament Reading#: 2 Timothy 3:14-17
A word of introduction: First, let me explain how I came to choose this
topic. A few weeks ago, Ed Mills was lay reader and he was supposed to
read 1 Timothy 3:16. Making one of the easiest mistakes one can make, Ed
read the corresponding verses in 2 Timothy instead. As he read it, he
said, "Never let it be said that our pastor avoids the difficult
passages!" Then he noticed what had happened, returned to the lectern, and
read the assigned passage. Now what Ed had done without meaning to was to
issue a challenge: I had better be able to preach on 2 Timothy 3:16, or
else be guilty of side-stepping the most important passage in
conservative theology, the one in fact from which all conservative
theology stems, and simultaneously the most difficult for liberal theology
to deal with. This morning I will try to rise to the challenge! You may
judge my failure or success.
Let me first outline the traditional, the ancient doctrine of
inspiration. Here the idea is that God initiated the writing of every word
of the Bible. Where non-inspired sources, like public records, were used,
God saw to it that the inspired writers corrected these sources. The
result is that the text of the Bible is a repository of infallible,
divinely revealed doctrines and historically accurate accounts. It makes
no mistake in any area it touches, whether scientific or geographical.
Since it is not merely a human document, it is exempt from the thousand
natural shocks that human literature is heir to. If it seems to contradict
itself or to be mistaken, we have the right, indeed the duty, to harmonize
the text, to assume it means something other than what it seems on the
surface to say. It must be so, if God is the author of scripture, since
surely he cannot err or contradict himself. For conservative Christians,
whether evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, or
Roman Catholic, this is what it means to say that the Bible is the Word of
Let me say that I reject the doctrine I have outlined in whole and in
part, and this for two reasons. First, it fails to square with the actual
text of the Bible at every point. If we began with the doctrine, never
having read the Bible, we would never recognize the book we have! The
actual Bible, as I read it, is a book that brims with myths, legends, and
other nonhistorical types of narrative. It is a book that swims in
doctrinal and ethical contradictions, differences of opinion between its
writers. It is not even a single book, but rather a set of books, most of
which individually are patchworks of ill-fitting materials.
Fundamentalists have made a science of rationalizing, ironing out,
harmonizing those contradictions, papering over those errors. The trouble
is the contrived and unconvincing character of those harmonizations. They
would never convince anyone who did not want to be convinced already. And
eventually they fail to convince even many of us who began wanting very
much to be convinced.
And when the harmonizers are done with all their reinterpretations and
text-twisting rationalizations, I venture to say that the result is a book
which, forced to mouth the dogmas imposed on it, is a completely different
book, having little to do with what Paul, Isaiah, the Yahwist, and the
others meant to tell us. We cannot afford to hear those strange and
ancient voices, for fear that their impromptu utterances would torpedo our
dogmas. We learn to read the Bible through a screen of reinterpretations
and rationalizations that in effect make the Bible into a ventriloquist
dummy for our inherited theologies. Fundamentalists, as Clark Pinnock once
said, simply don't like the Bible they've got! So they go to work on it
with theological hammer, axe, and saw, to make a new Bible that will be
more amenable to them. One that will teach the comforting doctrines they
love, and nothing else.
The second reason I reject this doctrine of the Bible as the inspired
Word of God is that it is not only untrue to the evidence of the text, but
it is insidious in its effects as well.
While it pretends to wipe away all merely human authority in favor of
objective, divine authority, in fact it does the reverse. What it does is
to claim the divine authority of the Bible for a set of human opinions on
religion and morality which aren't necessarily false, but which deserve
scrutiny and debate, and are not going to get it! Who would dare confute
the Word of God, after all, if that's what it is?
You see, what actually happens is that a particular group of Grand
Inquisitors decide what is the true dogma. It may be the Pope; it may be
Jimmy Swaggart; it may be Martin Luther; it may be Saint Athanasius; it
may be Jim Jones; it may be Bob Jones. But you belong to some
particular religious tradition, founded by someone. You imbibed a
particular interpretation of the Bible with your mother's milk, so to
speak, the day you began reading the Bible. You were not told, "Read it
for yourself, and conclude what you will." No, more likely, you were told
to read it in a context where weekly preaching and catechism assumed and
promoted a particular interpretation of the Bible.
Do you think it's sheer #chance# that results in the fact that all
Baptists come away from the Bible believing that baptism by immersion is
the biblical mode of Baptism, while Presbyterians believe just as surely
that sprinkling is the biblical way? Is it just accident that all
Pentecostals come away from the Bible believing that one ought to speak in
tongues, while others don't?
The Bible says no one infallible thing to its readers. It's not that
simple. There's no index that tells you where to look if you want to know
the one and only infallible biblical view on, e.g., divorce, or life after
death. So if you hear from some church or some pastor that it does say one
infallible thing, where can that allegedly infallible opinion be coming
from? Isn't it the opinion of that pastor, or of the church that trained
him? And isn't the claim that the Bible is an infallible book simply a
retreat behind the mysterious curtain of the Wizard of Oz?
The preacher or the theologian who cites the Bible to ram home his
opinion is seeking to control you, to bully you into swallowing his
opinion without a fight, to exempt his own view from rational scrutiny. He
covers himself with the Bible like a political demagogue who covers
himself with the American flag, hoping to forestall any discussion and
weighing of the issues.
Listen to one more passage, and you will see that the dynamic I am
describing is nothing new. "First of all, you must understand this, that
no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation [or
"private interpretation," as the King James Version says], because no
prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit
spoke from God." That is the text of 2 Peter 1:20-21.
Here is precisely the connection I have suggested: the divine origin of
the Bible is invoked as the reason that no reader should dare to interpret
it for himself, but should rather acquiesce in the official line
propounded by the church authorities, who claim to speak for God, who
claim the delegated authority of the apostles, as does this very writer,
who assumes the name of Peter, even though he writes in the mid-second
Thus I think I have made it clear that I reject this traditional
doctrine of the Bible as the inspired Word of God as being both false in
fact and insidious in design. Now what do I put in its place?
Simply the Bible itself#, nothing else. I do not want or need
some kind of theological screen to protect me from what the Bible says.
Nor does the Bible need some kind of theological screen to give it an
appearance of authority it would otherwise lack!
Let me ask you something. Are there things in the Bible that offend
your reason or your moral sensibility, things you would never accept if
the Bible weren't the inspired Word of God? The repeated command to wage
genocidal warfare? The claim of the Pastoral Epistles that women are
easily deceived by the devil and should not be allowed to teach?
Conversely, those things in the Bible that strike you as life-changing
truths -- do they seem so true simply because they are in an inspired
book? Do they need that sanction before they seem so true or important?
The Bible is a vast ocean; wave after wave of shattering truth breaks upon
its shores as you read it. It is a treasure chest of comfort, a powder keg
of challenge. And it needs no help from any doctrine about it to be these
But it is a complex book, and just because you think it shouldn't be
doesn't change that! It does not give easy answers on many things. Just
because you wish it would doesn't change that! If you insist that it be
so, you will just wind up accepting somebody else's pat answers clothed
with divine authority.
But having said all this, I see no need to force terms like
"inspiration" and "the Word of God" into an early retirement.
As to the first of them, I agree with C.H. Dodd, William Sanday, and
other theologians that we may speak of the Bible being at many points the
product of inspired writers in the sense that they were religious
geniuses. They were more open to the depths of the Spirit than the rest of
us. Their inspiration is analogous to that of the great poets and artists,
only in the religious sphere. In this they were not unique; inspiration
exists outside the Bible.
Nor can we say this of all the biblical writers. To me it is just
nonsense to put the writer of the Priestly Code of Leviticus or of Ezra on
a level with the writers of 1 Corinthians 13, Psalm 63, or the Sermon on
the Mount. Some are inspired, others aren't, as we would readily admit if
it weren't for the blinders imposed by the doctrine of plenary, verbal
And now for the title question: #Is# the Bible the Word of God? I say,
Yes, it is. Precisely in the same sense that the bread and the cup of the
Eucharist are the body and blood of Christ. There is no exact, one-for-one
equation in either case. But both are potent symbols, truly conveying the
saving virtue of that which they symbolize for us. The bread on this table
is, in its outward form, its chemical composition, in all its testable
qualities, simply bread, but I believe that when partaken of in memory of
Christ, it brings an encounter with the renewing grace of Christ. To eat
it is to partake of the body of Christ.
Likewise with the Bible. In no outward way is this book different from
any other human book. If the bread is stale or nutritionally deficient in
some way, even so the Bible has its shortcomings and defects. But in it we
hear the voice of God speaking to our spirits. Not on every page, or every
time we read it. It did not have to fall from heaven or be dictated by
angels for you to hear its convicting word when you read it. But deep does
call unto deep.
Father, send your Spirit upon this book, that through it we may share
in your lively Word.