A reader commented on my last post with a response that really got me thinking about how I view scripture:
I see a third choice. The Bible is exactly what it is. A collection of writings and letters that were written for a specific reason to a specific people in a specific time in history, which a living God now uses through His Holy Spirit to teach me about Himself. The problems arise when I try to gather and apply universal truths on my own without His help.
Does the historicity of the Bible matter? In other words, did the events depicted in scripture really happen? Did God really speak the words to Abimalech (Genesis 20) that scripture attributes to him? Did Jephthah really do what scripture says he did Judges 11:39 (offered his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord and is later listed by the Holy Spirit as one of the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11:32)? I am trying to grasp the meaning of the above writer’s third choice. I see two obvious options when reading a biblical narrative: (1) It happened as written, (2) It didn’t happen. Would the third choice look something like this: (3) Maybe it happened, and maybe it didn’t; or maybe something happened, but the original story is so embelleshed with myth that we cannot really know for sure what actually occurred. But so what–it doesn’t matter whether it is fact, fiction, or a mixture of both.
According to this view the question of historicity is completely irrelevant. The Bible is not the word of God–Jesus is. We read the Bible and all that matters is that we encounter Jesus. This was the position of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. Oh, Deitrich Bonhoffer too.
The problem is the Bible is written in such a way as to claim these events really happened as written. Jesus speaks of Noah as if he really built an ark and world was really flooded. He speaks of Adam in such a way as to suggest he was a real literal man who sinned in a real garden. He bases his prediction of resurrection on the story of a real man Jonah who was really swallowed by a great fish for three days.
So if it does not matter whether these things really happened, does it really matter whether Jesus was literally crucified and raised bodily, or whether the stories of his miracles are true? Maybe we cannot know any of this for sure, but so what? So in this event our epistemology becomes a theory of knowledge based on personal subjective experience–some kind of inner voice or witness.
But to me the issue of historicity is black and white. If scripture tells me that God did or said thus and such, then that is exactly what he did. The application of truth might be individualistic and subjective, but not the interpretation on which the application is based. The text as written tells me something concrete about what God is like. I do not need to pray or ask for some kind of special giudance from the Holy Spirit to know if God really parted the Red Sea or sent the angel of death against the firstborn of the Egyptians. Scripture says he did and that settles it. Moreover, since Jesus claims repeatedly to be Jehovah, then I attribute the acts of God in the Old Testament to him.
So I am not sure what the middle path–the third option–really is. Further, I am not sure what this help or assistance from the Holy Spirit is supposed to look like. If I see a verse or whole class of verses which teach the deity of Christ, do I need to wait for the Holy Spirit to help me deductively conclude that Jesus is God? That seems like a universal truth to me. A timeless truth, a truth that God to be sure laid down at a specific time and place in history.
It is true that God did give commands and regulations that were situation and culture specific. The ceremonial law of the Old Testament is an example. But the New Testament makes it clear that these types and shadows have their fulfillment in Christ and are now obsolete. But the underlying universal timeless truth is that God is holy and man is a sinner–without the shedding of blood there is no remission for sin. There are many capital offenses in the Old Testament; and although we no longer impose the death penalty on individuals for these crimes because we are no longer living under a theocracy, the fact that such behaviors are worthy of death tells us they are acts of wickedness God hates. I do not need to wait on the Lord for special guidance to arrive at these conclusions. All I need to do is compare scripture with scripture and the meaning is as clear as the nose on my face.
Emil Brunner, the famous German Neo-Orthodox scholar, used the following metaphor to desribe how scripture functions. He said that when he listened to a phonograph recording of his favorite classical music, what he heard was beautiful, but it was not the real symphony. Through the scratches on the vinyl disc and the distorted sound coming through the speaker he could hear a faint reproduction of the musicians, but this was not the same as hearing it live.
Bruner believed that because fallible men wrote scripture using propositional statements recorded on papyrus with ink, what they wrote could not have been the pure word of God. And yet through the literary styles, personalities, errors, and biases of the writers we hear a faint representation of the voice of God. To Brunner this was not the word of God but a signpost pointing us to the word of God–Christ. The Bible truly becomes the word of God when we are encountered by the living Christ through it. To Brunner the questions of inerrancy and historicity mattered not a whit, and he spent no time even discussing this. In fact he claimed to take a middle ground between the fundamentalists, who held to a high view of scripture and the liberals who relegated it to the realm of mythology. That debate was for Brunner largely beside the point. His approach was to stop arguing about the Bible and seek Jesus. (My question to Brunner would be, Which Jesus are you referring to? If not the Jesus literally depicted in the Bible, then who?)
I wonder if this sounds anywhere close to the above writer’s third option.
To me the issue of whether it is me or memorex is settled by 2 Timothy 3:16. Scripture is God-breathed. It is as much the pure word of God as if God were speaking audibly to me face-to-face. I will not claim I always understand it aright or obey what God says. But the problem is on my end. In the Bible God says what he means and means what he says.