(Thank you for the enjoyable comments and discussion! Sorry for the slowness between posts. I’m going to bite off less than I originally said I would in this post, so that I’ll actually keep moving forward. This post will be some of my presuppositions about the bible, the next will get into the specific biblical witness about issues related to atonement.)
This past Sunday in worship, I shared an analogy for the bible that I’ve held for awhile. I think it bears repeating here, as a building block for how I view the bible.
Sometimes when a child is lost or kidnapped, the authorities bring in search dogs. They take clothes and other items from the child’s room, things that they know have the scent of the child on them, and let the dogs carefully smell and learn the scent of the child. They start with something they are sure has the correct scent, so the dogs know what they are looking for; then, they launch them into the woods or the fields or the streets, to find in the world the scent of the child.
For thousands of years, God-followers have agreed that the 66 books of the old and new testaments contain the “scent” and voice and revelation of God. They become a fertile training ground for us to discover how God speaks, for discovering what concerns God. Immersing ourselves, studying these books, trains us on the right scent of God. When we “go out” into the world, into our day-to-day lives, we are better equipped to find God’s activity in us, in others, in the world.
Can we find God without the training? Yes. It’s possible because God’s desire is to be known, and because God’s presence is everywhere…in creation, in relationships, in truth, in our minds and conscience. But just like the search dogs hunting for the missing child, it’s much more effective to begin with what is agreed upon as the true scent.
To broadly stereotype and apply the analogy coarsely…”liberals” run the risk of being search dogs running here and there without a solid foundation in the “scent” of God. “Evangelicals” run the risk of spending all their time sniffing clothes in closets and drawers, and never going out and attending to the voice of God in the world. My desire is both/and: to be on the God-hunt constantly in my life, letting the books of the bible train and shape my understanding and recognition of the voice of the Spirit, and also actively looking and listening for that same Voice in its myriad forms in our world, and aligning my life with it.
The written words of the bible point to the living Word, Jesus (John 5:39-40). God’s desire is to be known by humanity, because the very purpose for our creation was to be in relationship with God. So yes, the bible is a part of the self-revealing of God, in the words of human authors who carefully attended to the voice of the Spirit. But those very words in those pages point us to Jesus as the clearest example and revelation of God’s self. And in a strange but beautiful way, John 17 gives a glimpse of how Christ can dwell in us, and we can dwell in God, making Christian community, Christ’s body, yet another revelation of God’s Spirit.
How can I assign such a definitive value to words written long ago over almost a thousand year time span? Isn’t it naive, given recent discoveries of other “gospels” and “scriptures”, to think that there is something special about these 66 books and these alone? I find myself having a lot to say here, and probably run the risk of boring some…so feel free to skim or be done. 🙂
First, in regard to the other texts. Many who use the existence of such texts to denigrate the role of the bible do so without examining carefully the history of these texts or their marked differences from the bible. For instance, looking at ancient texts that correspond with what we call the old testament is a good comparative study. I’ve read the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish, for example, works that are often thrown out as “proof” that the bible merely copied familiar stories like creation and the worldwide flood from other traditions. To say, “They have a flood, too,” and then discount the originality or value of our bible doesn’t do justice to the complexity of either the bible or the other documents. Each is not just reporting facts, but making sense of the world as it looks at the origins of our world. And each says vastly different things about what undergirds our origins and our current reality.
Similarly, there were other gospels and books written about Jesus- the Gospel of Thomas and other gnostic gospels being the most often cited thanks to Elaine Pagels and others. Again, these are more than just documents giving facts: they are saying vastly different things about the nature of God and our world. One notable difference is the spurious nature of Jesus’ miracles. In these other gospels, the boy Jesus stretches out lumber that carpenter father Joseph cut too short; he brings clay birds to life for amusement.
The point I want to make is that the mere discovery of other, similar documents does not ex post facto invalidate the bible. It simply demands that we must use discernment to make solid decisions about which (if any) speak to the nature of the Light Within, as Quakers say, or to our own worldview about the nature of God and our world.
If we are people who trust and believe in corporate discernment…if we are people who trust and believe that a meeting for clearness is a valid way of hearing the voice of the Spirit…there is absolutely no disputing the clear sense of godly people the world over for thousands of years. Some write off the early church councils which established the “canonicity” of our bible as political bickering (of which there undoubtably was some). I find it odd that Quakers would so quickly discount the power of the Spirit to be expressed through a community seeking direction. Add to that the overwhelming textual evidence, which demonstrates the overwhelming value people of history have voiced by saving these 66 books in exponentially more copies and fragments than the other texts. Add to that the evidence of lives changed in multiple cultures in multiple centuries by these books. These reasons do not “prove” the inspiration of the bible, but these are the things that bolster my belief in it.
Next, the bible displays a remarkable unity of theme and purpose. This is really what I want to unpack in my next post, connecting the dots of a unified picture of how God relates to creation.
Finally, the bible has consistently matched, amplified, and illuminated my own experience of God. (And just so you know, I very much realize this is the epitome of circular reasoning, since I started out trying to show how the bible shapes my understanding of God. 🙂 But consider this a big nod toward a postmodern, Wittgensteinian, web-oriented view of knowledge. And consider this a pathetic parenthetical attempt to sound smarter than I really am.)