Thursday, September 9, 2010

Rightly Dividing the Word -- A Summary

I was under the illusion that I had completed my occasional series on Biblical Inspiration until several friends pushed back on my "ROCK" summary of my faith distinctives.  Reading back over my posts I see that I never really wrapped up my position, so this is a shot at doing so.  I shall not attempt to fully justify my position in this post; interested readers may want to go back to earlier posts in this series for more of the foundation behind what I'm claiming here.

In contrast to most Evangelical statements of faith, I reject the claim that the Bible--either the Protestant or Catholic canon--is the Word of God.  In fact, I believe that insistence on treating the Bible as God's Word is at the root of a great deal of error, as well as the foundation for many "endless controversies" that both create division and strife within the body of Christ, and drive many who otherwise might believe, from the faith.  The dogma of "Verbal and Plenary Inspiration" (VPI) and its variants (including the companion dogma of "inerrancy") tend to lead to what I call a "flat book" interpretation of the Biblical texts, whereby any phrase, anywhere in the text can become the foundation (dare I say, the pretext?) for doctrine, often without regard to either its textual or historical context.  But beyond the errors of "flat book" interpretation, I primarily object to calling the Bible the Word of God because to do so is, on the very face of it, UNbiblical.  At its worst, this error devolves to Bibliolatry--ascribing divine status to an object.  Listen carefully to the arguments on VPI from many Evangelicals and you'll find they're often not far from Bibliolatry.

The Bible does not call itself God's word--therefore, neither should we.  Specific places--particularly the prophets with their "Thus saith the LORD" declarations, highlight that at the particular point thereby designated, they are repeating God's word.  If we believe anything at all about Jesus' divinity (a topic for another time), then Jesus' own words certainly rise to the level of God's words...and of course Jesus himself is described as the Word of God become flesh.  The apostle Paul referred to "all scripture" as "theopneustos" ("God-breathed?"or "God's breath?"  Paul unfortunately coined a term or borrowed a rare one, and neglected to define it); however, careful thought makes it quite obvious that whatever Paul was referring to by "all scripture," he wasn't prospectively endorsing our current canon.

In contrast to flat-book Bibliolatry, I hold to what I have come to describe as a "Word of God hermaneutic" which I have also described as "Rightly Dividing the Word."  In choosing this phrase, I freely admit that I've borrowed a phrase from the King James version of 2 Tim 2:15, even though the Elizabethan English phrase "rightly dividing" does not mean what I think it means (inconceivable!).  I find it a helpful way of encapsulating the notion that we are to approach scripture in an inquiring mode, searching within its texts for that subset which actually is God's word.  As a rule of thumb, I hold to a hierarchy of authority among the texts, where the words of Jesus as reported in the Gospels take supremacy, and shortly behind them, the words of the prophets where they explicitly highlight their message as the "Word of the LORD."  Explicative works like the epistles follow behind these, and historical reporting still further behind, with wisdom and poetry such as Proverbs and Psalms bringing up the utmost rear (well, along with apocalyptic literature which frankly nobody really understands any more).

This is not to state that the rest of the Bible is either false or untrustworthy.  In particular with the Gospels, I find a great deal that leads me to the belief that they are the honest accounts of faithful human witnesses to Jesus' words and actions.  The Old Testament historical writings I'm less sure about, in that they so patently include stuff that seems awfully similar to the jingoistic, prejudiced attitudes that many similarly-ethnocentric peoples have displayed throughout history.  But here I argue principally that unless interpreting a text has demonstrable bearing on the life of the disciple of Jesus, it's really not that important just how true it is, or isn't.  (please take note I said the "life," not the "thought," of the disciple)

Valuable teaching can still be gleaned from much that is not the Word of God...for that matter from much that isn't in the Bible at all.  But we must learn to reserve the stamp of the divine for that which merits it.  When we do, our priorities tend to skew somewhat differently than those which hold sway in contemporary (and much historic) Christian thought.  It really IS all about Jesus!

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