by Tricia Gates Brown
Acts 17:26-28 …[Paul:] “God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’”
Those who write and teach theology are eventually asked by a student or reader if we “believe the Scriptures are the inspired Word of God.” This is because so much emphasis has, in the past few hundred years, been placed on the Bible as the foundation of faith for many Christians. Some of this emphasis is traced to the Reformation and derives from Luther’s sola scriptura—scripture as authority above ecclesial authority. But the form of biblical literalism we see today, which contends that God essentially used human authors as scribes to put down literal and direct-from-God communications, dates back to the 18th century and the scientific revolution. As such, it is a fairly young development in the history of Christianity. As science challenged certain tenets of Christian faith, the Bible interpreted literally came to be viewed by some as an essential defense against these challenges. So much so that belief in the literal and infallible accuracy of the Bible came to be viewed by fundamentalist-leaning Christians as a core benchmark of faith, on the same level as beliefs about the nature of God or of Jesus.
For me, the question “Do you believe the Scriptures are the inspired Word of God,” is a difficult one to answer in a paragraph or two (or in the space of a Facebook comment). The answer is “yes”—which sounds simple enough. But the challenge comes in what I mean by “inspired,” and what the questioner means. I certainly believe human beings—regular human beings—wrote the biblical texts. God did not possess them and “take hold of the pen,” metaphorically speaking. And I believe sometimes human beings are inspired. That is to say, sometimes human beings have such a profound experience of God that they are in-Spirited, or filled to the brim with the God nature they were born with, and in such times, capable of discerning ineffable truths. All human beings are capable of transcendent experiences, of being filled with Spirit, and for long moments, of being “more than they are.” Certainly the biblical texts, which were assessed and appreciated for centuries before they were deemed biblical (the Christian canon was not fully finalized until the 5th century CE), contain a treasure trove of these moments. But do I believe that every section and sentence of the Bible is so inspired, so written out of a deep communion with God, and thus glowing with truth and wisdom? No. Sometimes—often—humans are demonstrably fallible; including when they are writing what will one day become scripture. Some of what the Bible captures is the person writing at their most wrecked—such as when a Psalmist, in his or her anguish, fantasizes smashing the infants of their enemies against stones. And yet, I don’t see this as discrediting the value of scripture. It is important that the Bible captures the full spectrum of human experience and the history of a people group. Surely, the story the biblical authors told had a meaning much larger than they understood as they were telling it. It is an arc of deepening consciousness—of the ebb and flow of human wisdom. Three steps forward and two steps back, as teacher Richard Rohr likes to say.
For now, let’s focus on the moments when the Bible is inspired in the ways described above. Let’s focus on the three steps forward. By believing that the Bible was written by ordinary human beings, I do not have a low view of the Bible. Rather, I have a high view of humanity. I have a high regard for our potential for inspiration. The scripture with its human authors is the “word of God” in the same way that Christ-followers are “the body of Christ.” These are metaphors for the God-imbued nature of human beings who have recognized their identity as God’s offspring and chosen to live out of that identity. When we recognize who we are, we come to have extraordinary potential, because we can allow the ego to get out of the way so that God can work through us. This is what Jesus was pointing to with all his talk about being of God’s realm (“the kingdom of God”) and of the transformation of human consciousness (or “repentance,” the common translation of the word—meta-noia, which most literally means “to go into the larger mind”). In the understandings of the Pauline School and Paul, who represent a good deal of spiritual genius while also representing the “two steps back” of human fallibility, the incarnated presence of God called “Christ” is present throughout all creation and was from the beginning of time (see for example, Colossians 1:15-17). And in the John 1 terminology of logos (“word” or blueprint), the logos, or Christ, symbolizes God-in-creation—and God expanding and evolving throughout all creation, if you will, from the very beginning. These teachings point to a very high potential not only for humanity, but for all creation, which is chock full of God-presence down to the smallest quark and sub-particle. New Testament metaphors like “word of God” and “body of Christ” speak very highly of human potential. They use theological language to denote the capacity of creation to embody God. That includes the writer of every biblical text; and it includes you and me. If you don’t believe me, study the way Paul writes of our potential “in Christ,” a phrasing he uses dozens of times to denote this high view of humanity. The irony is that often people who cling most tenaciously to the infallibility of scripture have a low view of humanity—indeed, a rather unbiblical view of humanity, when taken all together.
So the question arises, if humanity has this God-imbued potential for inspiration, what makes the scriptures different from any other inspired human creation? Indeed, some non-biblical books I have read seem to me as full of God-presence, wisdom, and meta-noia as anything I have read in the Bible. As do Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Van Gogh’s paintings, and the works of many favorite female singer-songwriters. In the quote from Paul in the speech from Acts 27 at the beginning of this essay, he quotes the poets of his Athenian audience to back up his statements. Is Paul suggesting the Athenian poets he quotes were in-Spirited and speaking God’s truth? It seems so. And this comports with Paul’s elevated estimation of human potential.
So what makes the scriptures different from or more important than any other inspired piece of writing? I submit that what makes the scriptures important is their role as the “canon” (measuring stick) of the Christian faith. They are our traditionally agreed-upon standard or benchmark. They tell us our story and teach us who to be in the world. The story of scripture, taken as a whole and not piecemeal, tells a story of deepening spiritual consciousness and most importantly, teaches us our identity and the meaning of these short lives on Earth. The scriptures—on the whole—teach us how to live out of love instead of fear, openness instead of ego.
Sometimes (of course, not always) those who most vociferously defend the Bible as the infallible, sole authority for Christians, and as God’s direct words, spend little time studying it. Some merely cling to it with white-knuckle tenacity as a defense against what they fear. There is a lot of defensiveness in the contention that we can hold God between their two little hands—between the covers of a book we can possess and interpret in our own ways. It is so convenient for us—this idea. It is much more challenging, much more an opening to faith, to recognize our human ability to be filled with Spirit and to create and think and share and love and sing and write from a place of God-imbued blessedness as the offspring of the creator. This is both an inspiring identity, and a richly challenging imperative. It is much harder to live out of this identity and imperative than to thumb our way to easy, flank-guarding answers in a gilt-edged book.
Image: Paul preaching in Athens. Public Domain