What is the Bible? Is it simply a collection of ancient writings describing the faith and insights of Israelites and the first followers of Jesus, capturing their biases, their cultural situation, and their pre-scientific world views? Or is it the word of God with every word having been chosen by God, the human authors merely functioning as secretaries or scribes? Is it marked by the authors transient and ever evolving views of God and humanity, and by the unique character of the authors and the needs of the communities to which the books were written? Or is it, in all its pages, and every one of its verses, timeless truth, transcending culture, and applicable to all cultures at all times? Is it, a collection of documents written by fallible human beings, capable of erring in their facts and interpretations, and open to being questioned and corrected? Or is it, as God’s word, perfect, without error, with no real inconsistencies, and true and trustworthy in everything it says?
These questions are meant to represent the two sides in the battle for the Bible that has consumed Christianity in North America for the last 125 years. The participants in this battle, the two sides, were known as “modernists” and “fundamentalists” in the first half of the 20th century. More recently the two sides have tended to use the designations “liberal” and “conservative.” This battle began in earnest in the United States in the 1880s though it had been percolating in Europe long before.
This division began with the nature of the Bible and how it was to be interpreted. The fundamentalists tended to focus on evangelism and “winning” people to Christ, while the modernists would embrace and praise the social gospel with its heady vision of societal transformation.
So, this was the next great schism in the modern Christian Church, and though it started in the Protestant churches, it crossed into the Roman Catholic Church as well. In the first half of the last century the modernists embraced an analytical method for studying the Scriptures. Some were quite radical in their conclusions. Most were more moderate, holding to traditional Christianity, but willing to ask questions of the faith and remain open to new insights.
Fundamentalists, on the other side, emphasized the Bible’s divinity and sought to ensure that their churches were not abandoning what they considered the historical essentials of the Christian faith, including what became known as the five fundamentals of the faith: the inspiration of the Bible (as defined by the doctrine of inerrancy), the virgin birth, the atonement, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the reality of Jesus’ miracles.
Most Christians find themselves between the most conservative and the most liberal Christians. Many conservatives today are willing to embrace, with caution, some of the methods and conclusions of science as applied to any other ancient book.
The affirmation of the Bible’s inerrancy feels to many Christians, who do not hold the conservative view, to be a doctrine that is not explicitly taught in the Scriptures. They believe the doctrines of inerrancy undermines the beauty and inspiration of the Scriptures. The Bible’s humanity helps make sense of the Bible’s more difficult passages, both the inconsistencies and, even more importantly, it’s words about God that seem grossly out of character for the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
So, while the liberals may err on the side of overemphasizing the Bible’s humanity while neglecting its divinity, conservatives may err on the side of over-emphasizing the Bibles divinity while negating its humanity. Once again, the truth and place of balance seems to be somewhere in the gray area between these two.
What is the Bible?
So, what is the Bible? It is a book written by people who lived in ancient times, with their own biases and limitations and knowledge, who had great insights and experiences of God, yet who were also capable of misunderstanding, inconsistencies, and writing things that may have been important to their first century readers, but not necessarily timeless words that apply to every situation. And it is a book through which God has spoken and still speaks, one that is living and active and through which God comforts, challenges, and inspires, the very reading of which has the power to change lives.
No other book has so shaped my thoughts, my values, my life. I feel connected to God and find my soul nourished by it. I want to live by its precepts—to allow its words to be a “lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119: 105). I love both its humanity and its divinity. Both make it what it is.
Rob Bell summarizes his experience of the Bible in his book Velvet Elvis: “It is a difficult and complex book. But it is also a wonderful, amazing, and life-giving book.
Dive Into the Environment of Jesus’ Time
I believe we must say ‘yes’ to bringing the best of human scholarship to analyzing, dissecting, and studying the text and ‘yes’ to asking questions. We don’t have to be afraid of this. We don’t have to be afraid to discover the Bible’s humanity. We don’t have to hide it, harmonize it, or explain it away. And we must say ‘yes’ to reading, studying, meditating, and demonstrating great respect for this book, as we listen for God’s voice in its words.
I think this place of balance is what the great theologian Albert Outler had in mind when he wrote:
“In almost any foreseeable future, Christianity will “disciple all the nations” more effectively, as it is enabled to summon more and more open-hearted interpreters… to hands-on engagements with the Bible… In response, inquiring souls may stand before the Scriptures — not under them in mindless assent; not above them, in hermeneutical (interpretive) arrogance —to see and hear what may be seen and heard of the Mystery of the Lord Almighty.”
There is a brief study of the emphasis found in various portions of the Bible in
A particularly fascinating look of the years between the Old and New Testaments and how they influenced the arrival of Jesus is discussed in:
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Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White by Adam Hamilton