Which takes precedence – the Bible or Jesus?
On Twitter, this question has blown up into a rather ugly argument in the last couple days.
I’ve watched the dispute, occasionally chipping in here and there myself, but mostly learning from the various viewpoints thrown into the fight. There’s a lot to be learned from it, but it’s a pretty messy situation. (After all, Twitter is not much of a genteel debate club, but more of a unmoderated mosh pit.)
In this fight, two sides quickly developed. On the side of the Bible, the fundamentalist viewpoint is arousing a ton of passion to defend the Bible’s accuracy and supreme importance. On the side of Jesus, there’s a lot of frustration and impatience with those who are seen as close-minded and idolatrous.
I must admit that it’s a really interesting time to watch this fight, because in the last six or so months, my perspective on the Bible has shifted rather sharply from my evangelical, slightly fundamentalist roots. I grew up in the faith for 45 years being steeped in the inerrancy and complete sufficiency of scripture, and being taught an extremely literalist interpretation of everything that wasn’t explicitly called a parable. On the other hand, recently I’ve read a ton of books ABOUT the Bible and its history and historicity and purpose and meaning, and begun to assimilate some new information that has me looking at Scripture rather differently.
So I sit here with two viewpoints resident in my awareness: the fundamentalist AND the progressive. It’s like being something of an external observer to the dispute, with a certain third-party perspective. And it’s truly interesting watching this messy Twitter brawl, because what I’m starting to see, more than merely the doctrinal or logical viewpoints, is the personalities and motivations of the people involved.
And it’s quite revealing.
One thing that’s instantly obvious from my developing “third party” perspective is that many Christians seem have a deep need for some tangible and unambiguous earthly standard against which they can compare their behavior and doctrine. What seems to result is a sort of need for a “chain of command” – choosing to subject themselves to the Bible as interpreted by their spiritual overseer. And of course this is taught, and sometimes even enforced, by many churches. The basic teaching is “we follow the Bible, and we trust the pastor to hear God’s direction and doctrine and teach it to you.” Even in the4 churches where the present-day ministry of the Holy Spirit is taught and honored, one is likely to hear some form of “when God speaks to you, that must be balanced against what the Bible says; if the clear meaning of the Bible disagrees, it wasn’t God’s voice but a deceptive spirit.”
I grew up believing this to be utterly true, and it was the only way to avoid being drawn away from the truth into heresy.
But I’m increasingly quite uncomfortable with this assertion.
The problem is that it requires that one must depend on a human-produced book (the Bible) rather than the Holy Spirit, to lead them into all truth (see John 16:13).
Now, I am quite well aware – as an evangelical by upbringing – of the ire which that “human-produced” phrase will instantly produce in an evangelical. I just asserted that the Bible is a human product, and I know exactly how I used to respond to that idea. And it wasn’t pretty. But I invite you to hear me out, and let me explain what I mean.
I do understand (and in fact, I grew up with) the idea that the Bible was God’s very own self-revelatory product, and that any human involvement was specifically managed by God to produce the exact and perfect product which we call “the Bible.” Rationally, this makes perfect sense: if God is truly omnipotent and omniscient, certainly He is fully able to use mankind’s skills AND weaknesses to create a perfect product that perfectly speaks about Himself. After all, if He can’t do that, He’s probably not much of a God.
That’s a great idea, but it’s very simplistic, and is challenged by some rather obvious data. When you start to research the history and complexity of the Scriptures, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that “the Bible” is a very vague term that tries to hide the messy nature of the the collection of literature that we call the Scriptures, and discussing Biblical inerrancy requires hiding or ignoring a lot of confounding information.
For starters, even a cursory review of Jewish history and thinking will immediately show that the range of Jewish rabbinical interpretations of the Jewish Bible (what in a slightly different arrangement we call the Old Testament) is wildly varying on many topics, and many things that Christians assert that the Old Testament “clearly” teaches are very much disputed by most Jewish religious thinkers. Surprisingly many of the internal references to the Old Testament by Jesus and Paul and Peter and others in the New Testament are surprisingly unlike the clear meaning of those verses in their Old Testament context: clearly these men were reinterpreting the Old Testament in light of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.
Next, even a simple look at the huge variety of modern English translations (to say nothing of other languages) show that they convey some rather different conclusions on many doctrines, such as complimentarianism or Trinitarianism or hell or heaven. That should clue us in that it’s NOT so simple.
Also, it’s pretty clear that any and every translator, even when working from the oldest-known texts, does their work using their own cultural and doctrinal understandings to choose from possible English words and concepts. As a recent example, when the ESV Bible was released by its translators, they included a note explaining that they selected certain meanings because of their own existing doctrinal position. (At least they were up front about it.) At some level, this is unavoidable. We simply don’t know exactly what the original storytellers and authors were thinking, and the languages are simply too different to be precise.
On a larger scale, a review of the history of Christian doctrine and understanding of the Scriptures will show that many aspects of modern evangelical thinking are extremely recent, and would scandalize the early church fathers and luminaries. Similarly, modern Christians are often scandalized by the interpretations of the early church fathers, and retroactively, some lauded early fathers are now considered heretics. So one must ask, is the meaning we perceive in today’s culture automatically the right one, when the meaning perceived by a previous culture (or denominational doctrine) was different and therefore we must judge it to be wrong? Why is our understanding better or more correct?
And wrapping this all up, there is no doubt that quite a bit of human effort and thought went into assembling the set of books and letters and stories that we now call “the Bible.” And even the term “the Bible” is not clear-cut: just ask the Catholics or Eastern Orthodox Christians what comprises “the Bible” and you’ll get rather different answers than if you ask a Baptist.
So any single assertion of what “the Bible” is, and where it came from, and who wrote it, is going to be disputed by others of good faith and conscience. But it is indisputable that mankind was involved in recording the various books and letters and stories, choosing exactly which of those would be considered “canonical,” and repeatedly translating and retranslating them into our modern languages and dialects. As such, it should be obvious that any given copy of the Bible is very much a human product, even if we assume that God directed its production with utter perfection and control.
But even that assumption breaks down, because it’s clear from reviewing any number of translations that there simply isn’t “one Bible.” They’re all reasonably similar, but they’re far from identical. Which exact one do you call “the Bible?” If you’re willing to call them all “the Bible,” then right away there is no longer a single unified standard.
(This, by the way, is why Muslim religious leaders insist that the Koran cannot be translated, and may only be studied in its original language. It’s one way to ensure that at least the raw words are the same for every reader. But even that doesn’t guarantee identical meaning, as is evident from observing the dispute between groups such as Shia and Sunni Muslims, who each espouse a different form of Islam.)
As a result of all this, when someone says that “we must, with no reservations, trust the Bible above all else to guide our thinking about God,” here’s what I hear instead:
“We must, with no reservations, trust MY particular selected translation of the Bible along with its particular understanding of every doctrine, to guide our thinking about God. And YOUR doctrine and Bible are weak at best and invalid at worst, and you might be going to hell if you disagree with my selected translation and doctrine.“
This doesn’t sound much like “Father, make them one, even as You and I are one” (see John 17:11-12).
I really don’t see any neat and simple way to deal with this problem, other than to admit to myself that the Bible in any form which is available to me simply isn’t perfect.
Stepping back for a minute to my comment about believing that an omnipotent and omniscient God COULD have made it perfect, I have to also admit that therefore, if God does exist, He was okay with the situation that we actually now do have: a messy Bible that exists in multiple forms with various possible interpretations. I can only conclude that He didn’t actually intend the Bible to instantly and impeccably answer every question we might have. He could easily have created a Bible that DID exactly that – but apparently He didn’t want to.
So what DID God want?
I think the answer is pretty simple: It’s not about finding the answer hidden somewhere in 66 books (or 73 or 79 or 81 or 86, depending on which denomination of Christian you ask). Instead, it seems that He wants us to ask Him our questions, and to be able to hear His voice in each situation. It’s about a living spiritual relationship with the Living Word, not a intellectual relationship with the written word.
From that perspective, I find that a single-minded focus on the written word as the most important part of faith sounds like idolatry: it’s worshiping a creation of man, not the Creator. I do recognize that the evangelical and fundamentalist would say that they believe differently: that the Bible is fully the creation of God. But even then, it still looks to me like worshiping something other than God Himself, rather, worshiping His creation.
Even if it’s not worshiping a creation of man, at the least it’s worshiping man’s intellectual ability to find the perfect Bible and create the perfect doctrine, if only we study and memorize enough.
The evangelical response, of course, would be “Jesus IS the Word incarnate. By giving the Bible full honor, we’re worshiping God.” Well, that equates Jesus and the Bible, or more precisely, it elevates the Bible to the same level as Jesus, by equating the two of them. And that still looks like idolatry to me. The written word is supposed to point us to the Living Word, not BE the living word itself.
In fact, it sounds a lot like something that really bothers most evangelicals about the Catholics: the idea that the communion becomes literally the body and blood of Jesus, not just bread and juice. In this case, it’s that the Bible is literally Jesus in some mystical fashion.
Well, as I explained above, I simply cannot reconcile the information about the Bible’s messy nature with that viewpoint. Jesus is perfect and holy, but the Bible seems much less so.
And I cannot simply say “Well, God SAYS it’s perfect, and I choose to believe it as a matter of faith” because, in fact, God never says that about the Bible. That’s a human conclusion, one which I don’t believe is necessary to be fully committed to the Bible as the Word of God. I’ll explain why I say that in a future article, but it’s not the main point at the moment.
In this case, I want to get back to the idea that many Christians have a deep and overriding need for the Bible as a tangible and perfect rule book or road map to holiness.
If you break down that idea of the Bible’s perfection, the natural question an evangelical or fundamentalist will ask – as I used to – is how can we know truth? What can we rely upon? If we give up that ideal, we might as well not believe in God either.
To that I say, nonsense.
Once you cross the threshold of not insisting the Bible is inerrant, you definitely are confronted with a choice: what IS the standard of truth? And that’s a VERY worrisome and nerve-wracking question if you grew up believing that the Bible is the utter perfect standard. To question it is to shake the core of one’s faith.
And it also is very worrisome if you believe that our eternal destiny is entirely controlled by whether we believe the right things about God and Jesus. In that case, of course we need an unambiguous, inerrant, perfect Bible to ensure that we believe exactly the right things to get us into heaven.
Well, I believe that Jesus addressed exactly this situation this very explicitly and directly near the end of His earthly ministry, when He said this:
I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them at the present time. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take from Mine and will disclose it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine; this is why I said that He takes from Mine and will disclose it to you. (John 16:13-15)
If we really believe this is true (and we ought to, if we insist that the Bible is true), then Jesus Himself said that He had things to tell us in the future, and it would be mediated by the Holy Spirit, and thus not the written word.
And I simply cannot believe that the ministry of the Holy Spirit has ended, or that somehow literally everything that Jesus said He still wanted to tell us was communicated in full by the end of the writing of the Bible. That would indicate, much like deists believe, that God wound up creation, and as of the end of the New Testament, stepped back and lets us work it out. No, I think that runs counter to every idea in the Bible, that God chooses to be incarnate in His creation in an ongoing basis, and desires interaction and relationship above all else. If He stops speaking to us, because it all has been said, that’s simply no relationship. And I don’t believe His speech consists entirely of “I already told you that; just read your Bible more and you’ll remember what I said back then.” That’s condescending, not a relationship.
So if we believe that Jesus still has more to say to us, then there’s no choice but to rely on the Holy Spirit to us into all truth, and stop idolizing, or at least overly glorifying, “the Bible” as the be-all and end-all of being a Christ-follower.
Thus we’re commanded to pursue a relationship with the Living Word, not the written word. Yes, the written word testifies to Him, but we cannot worship a book. So we have to be willing to live with mystery and complexity and uncertainty. We cannot demand of the written word more than it is: we must surrender our need for simplicity and unambiguity, and trust the Holy Spirit even when it confounds our mind.
And I fully believe that idea is Biblical! Just like Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus, or Peter’s rooftop vision, sometimes God will interrupt our (correct) ideas about doctrine with a revelatory Truth that is bigger than what came before. And I simply cannot believe that ended with the last sentence of Revelation. Jesus said He had more to tell us!
As a lifelong evangelical, I fully realize that this surrender is a “big ask.” I have wrestled with this idea for the last year, and I finally concluded that it was my own insufficiency that drove me to demand an inerrant, absolutely historical, neat and simple Bible. I couldn’t bear the idea that I couldn’t always, without fail, put chapter and verse onto everything that Jesus told me through the Holy Spirit or others in my life. I needed to know that I could point to something tangible for that proof.
But God has been making it clear to me that He doesn’t work that way, and He doesn’t intend to. He wants me to trust Him as explicitly as Abraham, who God repeatedly asked to go to new places and do new things with no precedent – and who was commended for his faith as a result.
I can hear the protests now: “You’ll lose your connection with truth. You won’t have a standard. Your faith will get permissive. You’ll start accepting sinful ideas, unless the Bible keeps you in line.”
No. The Bible never did keep me, or anyone, in line. That was the Holy Spirit, that continually testifies to our hearts (John 16:13-14, Romans 8:16, Hebrews 10:14-17) about God’s will for us. The Bible points us in the right general direction, and “is inspired by God and beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man or woman of God may be fully capable, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), but the written word isn’t God Himself and doesn’t NEED to be perfect to do all that.
And I can testify that my appreciation for the Scriptures has only deepened, not gotten sloppy or permissive, as I’ve come around to this perspective. If anything, it forces me into a much deeper dependence on God Himself, instead of my own intellect and self-sufficiency. I have to understand what the Bible says about God’s nature, so that I recognize Him when He appears in my life and my mind; I have to understand what the Bible says about my enemy so I can recognize when he tries to interfere.
This whole process is a LOT less simple, and requires wrestling with God’s revealed (rhema) word on a daily basis. Reading and memorizing the written (logos) word is absolutely good – but having the Spirit write His words and concepts and principles on my heart is vastly better. That verse about hiding His word in my heart (Psalm 119:11) is inspirational, but having Christ hidden in my heart, leading and guiding me directly, is the bigger goal. And believing that the Bible is messy and complicated and imperfect doesn’t change my deep conviction that it fully and accurately represents Christ and the Father to me, such that I can live in such a way as to fully please God, as the Holy Spirit reminds me of all truth as I need it.
So in the end, this Twitter brawl, while revealing a lot of ugliness in the Christian community, results in me finding a deeper appreciation for the Bible and Jesus both. I’m thankful for that.
One last thought: I mentioned earlier that I’ve been observing the personalities and motivations of the participants in the brawl. One thing that convinces me that this new position I’ve adopted is correct is how those taking the opposite sides are behaving.
On the conservative evangelical and fundamentalist side, I see a TON of anger and vehemence and outright ugly behavior against the progressives. It’s accusatory, name-calling, and derogatory. Ad hominem attacks against the other side dominate the conservative conversation, in ways that should never come from a Christian’s mouth (or keyboard). There is zero grace for differing viewpoints, and assertions that all who take the opposite side are absolutely hellbound, if not the antichrist themselves.
By contrast, on the progressive side, there is a lot of restraint, puzzlement at the anger, and frustration with the intractability from the conservatives. There’s a fair share of disdain, but usually only among those who have fully left the faith already. Among those who still profess their Christianity, and want to walk with God closer to the way of Christ, there are usually attempts to have honest dialog and make peace – but those are almost all rejected by the conservatives.
It’s pretty obvious to me which side is acting like Jesus here. And that is very telling. I’ve said for some time that our ultimate purpose is to fully accurately represent the Father, just as Jesus did, and I see that actually happening much more on the progressive side. And that, as much as any logical or doctrinal position, convinces me that the conservative position is faulty. If their position leads to that ugly un-Godly behavior, I want nothing to do with it.
So here I am, on the other side of a fence I once viewed as keeping me from the fires of hell, yet fully convinced that I was entirely wrong in my understanding for 45 years. And I’m okay with that, because even as my mind sometimes freaks out just a bit, and my evangelical past screams at me to reconsider, the Holy Spirit continues to speak peace and calm to my heart in this matter.