Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Giving Up on "The Word of God"

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
II Timothy 3:16-17

I have given up on “The Word of God.”

That does not mean that I have given up on the Bible. I do more in-depth Bible study now than I ever did. And I learn more now than I ever did. The new biblical scholarship of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan has opened up new insights. And I read the classical works of William Barclay with renewed appreciation. I can go on for a long time about “The New Interpreter’s Study Bible,” which is, by the way, the best study Bible ever. I would not describe myself, as John Wesley did, as “a man of one book,” but the Bible holds a special and sacred place in my thinking. Because it is so important, I am careful in how I describe it.

Christians routinely speak of the Bible as the "Word of God."

In many congregations, the weekly reading of Scripture on Sunday mornings is punctuated by saying, “The Word of God for the people of God,” and the people respond, “Thanks be to God.”

The problem is that when we call the Bible the “Word of God,” many people both inside and outside the church take it as an endorsement of biblical literalism. In spite of our efforts to make clear that when we say that the Bible is the Word of God, we don’t mean “the words of God,” many people still hear it as meaning that we believe the Bible is inerrant and infallible. Many assume we believe that God actually communicated those words in some form to the people who then wrote them down. Of course, we don’t mean that at all; we mean that it is inspired, that it speaks to us of the deepest things of the human soul and spirit.

A few years ago at our church we replaced that response with something that is closer to our theological understanding. Now after reading the Scripture, the leader says, “As we hear what the Spirit says to the Church.” And the people respond, “May our hearts be open.” 

We hope that makes it clearer that we are listening for the Spirit to speak to us through the text, that we are listening as the community of the church, and that we want to be open to what the Spirit of God is saying to us today.

More than half a century ago, Paul Tillich argued that much of our Christian language had lost its power. Words like “grace,” “salvation,” “sin,” and even “God,” no longer resonated in the way that they did across nearly two millennia of Christian history. He believed they needed to be reinterpreted, or perhaps even abandoned completely and replaced with new language.

Tillich was clearly right that we needed then and now to learn new ways of speaking. It is not so much that the ancient words have lost their power as that we no longer understand them in the way that earlier Christians once did. Their power has been corrupted by the modern tendency toward literalism. And taken literally, the words sound crude and strange to modern ears.

The words are still powerful. But not in a good way. 

As the Apostle Paul wisely said, “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” Literalism kills the spirit and makes the letter all powerful. It does not encourage the spiritual journey. It excludes rather than invites. And, of course it misunderstands the very text it is trying to elevate.

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