The Bible is often described as the Word of God. In this article I want to describe the implications of this teaching for our lives and beliefs, and explain why I personally consider most of the Bible to be a “divinely approved message pertaining to God” as opposed to the “Word of God.” My view is not constructed to cast doubt on the validity of the Bible. The only differences from the conventional Evangelical view of the Bible are some subtle matters involving interpretive methodology. However, I feel that the differences bring out some points that are important to discuss.
If we say that the Bible is the Word of God, that implies that we have to treat the Bible as if it is something that God Himself is saying to us. While it is acknowledged that the Bible was written by humans in ancient languages, using the writers’ own word choice and writing style to some degree, it is simultaneously assumed that the Bible should be seen as absolute, authoritative revelation from God Himself, that should be the basis for our beliefs and lifestyles.
If we are dealing with the parts of the Bible that record actual sayings from God or Jesus, I consider those parts of the Bible to the Word of God (translation and manuscript issues aside). But what about the rest of the Bible, such as narrative sections and epistles? These are the parts that I consider to be “a divinely approved message pertaining to God.”
What do I mean by a “divinely approved message pertaining to God”? When I use that phrase, I am conveying the idea that God has approved the Bible as a way for people to learn about Him and His plan for mankind. By placing their faith in the writings of the Bible, people move toward the truth rather than away from it.
I believe that the writers of the Bible were enlightened by God as to His nature, His plan for mankind, and the ways in which we should orient our lives. The authors of the Bible used their writing abilities to communicate the principles that God revealed to them, framing the knowledge they were given with their unique writing styles, experiences, and priorities in teaching. God approved their writings as a way for people to learn about Him, and through His sovereign design, influenced the early church leaders to include certain books in the Biblical canon.
In light of these beliefs, why do I not consider the whole Bible to be “the Word of God,” as the phrase is often understood? It primarily involves the issue of “context.” When the Bible is considered the Word of God, there seem to be competing methodologies at play. On one hand, specific verses are quoted as absolute, authoritative truth that everybody must subject themselves to in the way presented. But on the other hand, there is a continual emphasis on the need for context when interpreting the Bible. It is often said that you cannot latch on to a single passage in isolation.
But here is the issue I see. If the entire Bible is the Word of God, it seems that you generally should not need “context” in order to understand it. The reason we need context when interpreting human writing is because, often times, humans do not communicate clearly. For example, people get passionate and over-generalize matters, or they forget to mention certain details to qualify statements, or they use ambiguous wording because they know what they are trying to say, but are not thinking from a reader’s perspective. Thus, to understand what a person is trying to say, you have to look beyond any particular statement in search of the overarching theme of a person’s writing.
However, if the Bible is the Word of God, I would not expect it to have those communication issues that necessitate context. If the Bible is to be looked at as writing commanded by God Himself, it seems He would have made sure that each passage is perfectly clear on its own.
Obviously, in some cases, context is only a matter of looking at the immediately-surrounding passages to find straightforward information to dictate interpretation of a key passage. However, many Biblical commentaries deal with context much more broadly, referencing passages from different parts of the Bible altogether in attempt to explain a passage under consideration. In many cases, this seems like the only way to understand certain passages. But it is impossible to engage in such far-reaching synthesis of passages without bringing in subjectivity.
People’s own intellectual tendencies and experiences will shape the context that they perceive. Just consider all of the arguments over the “context” of politicians’ statements. But when the entire Bible is seen as the Word of God, it is often said that we cannot interpret the Bible subjectively; rather, we must submit to it as absolute Truth. But I find this to be a problematic approach, because I believe we cannot separate context from subjectivity.
So, then, what is the difference between my view of the Bible as a “divinely approved message pertaining to God,” and the traditional view of the Bible as the “Word of God?” All things said, the differences are relatively minor. However, there are some subtle differences involving interpretive methodology that do have implications for how I relate my personal life to the Bible’s teachings, and how I communicate my beliefs.
The first difference is that I am more open to the idea that seemingly contradictory passages are actually different perspectives on the same truth. Because of differences in psychology and personal experiences, different people relate to the same truth by believing (or maybe even acting) in seemingly contradictory ways. But underlying the differences on the surface, people’s lives move the same direction as they are living according to the same underlying principles.
I think that my view of the Bible reduces the need to always make contrasting passages convey the same idea. It is often assumed that, when passages seem to contradict each other, the conflict is only due to a failure to regard context, and that, if context is respected, all passages should straightforwardly express the same doctrine.
But I am more inclined to let differences be differences, but talk about how both ideas ultimately point in the same direction. Also, I am more inclined toward thematic interpretation. When deciding whether an idea is “Biblical” or “unbiblical,” I try to assess how well the idea lines up with recurring themes of the Bible.
The second impact that my view of the Bible has on interpretive methodology involves scientific literalism. Ultimately, I am open to the idea that certain parts of Scripture may not be scientifically or physically literal. However, I believe that we should build our doctrines on a literal interpretation. I said earlier that I believe God has approved the Bible as a way for people to learn about Him and His ways. I believe that God has approved the literal meaning. In other words, if people base their beliefs on a literal interpretation, their understanding will grow in the direction of Truth.
I said “direction of Truth” because the absolute Truth on certain (if not many) matters is beyond what we can comprehend in this life. But if, when we leave this life, we discover that certain things we believed from the Bible are contrasting to ultimate realities in some aspects, I believe we will nevertheless conclude that the literal meaning of the Bible led us in the right direction.
I do not feel threatened by findings of scientists that seem to contradict the Bible. I would not use the Bible to tell them that their research is wrong. We will find out, eventually, whether certain aspects of their theories are reflected in the ultimate realities, or whether they are altogether wrong.
My disagreements with liberal Christianity come from the fact that liberal Christianity presupposes the Bible to be non-literal, and then it builds teachings from a non-literal base. Of course, if there is substantial cultural or linguistic evidence that certain parts of the Bible are allegorical or symbolic, I give that due consideration. But in many cases, my concern is that a non-literal starting point leads to unbounded imagination, and you can miss the intended message entirely.
The writers of the Bible obviously took their beliefs very seriously, and it is my goal to approach their writings with the same regard. I know that this article has discussed controversial and challenging subjects, but I felt that it was important to talk about these matters in order to set the stage for some other material that I plan to post on the blog this summer. So, let me know what you think about all of this, and feel free to critique anything I’ve written or share your own views.