The Bible is not the word of God. Let’s get that out of the way right up front. I think that if we are to make genuine advances in our understanding of who God is, and why He would choose to become human in the person of Jesus, we need to relinquish our grip on that cherished idol. The Bible is not God’s revelation of himself to humanity; it is not a manual for spiritual living; it is not the benchmark for determining God’s will against which all our beliefs and our ethics ought to be judged. That singular honour belongs to Jesus. Anything else is idolatry.
In fact, the Bible never claims to be the word of God. Not once. The closest that those who defend this view can come to such a claim is to be found in 2 Timothy 3: 16-17 “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” First, perhaps the obvious needs to be stated: the writer is not referring to the Bible as we know it, which won’t exist in that form for several hundred years more. Second, I do not believe that the writer sees the Scriptures as the inerrant word of God. He says that they are inspired by God (which is a significant departure from their being authored by God), but sees in the them a utilitarian purpose – as a guide to wise living – rather than a divine revelation of God to humanity.
On the other hand, the gospels are very clear that Jesus is God’s word:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind…14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1: 1- 4; 14)
The distinction is important. Jesus is 100% God’s revelation, without ‘interference’ from humanity. The Scriptures are human dialogues and human perceptions of divine events. And the problem with humans is that when they interact with the divine, they tend to descend into religion. And religion always ends in bloodshed. The Scriptures, over and over again, paint a picture of a quest to know God that ultimately results in innocent blood being shed in order to appease his wrath. It is a picture wholly at odds with the ethics and the theology of Jesus, as seen in the gospels. So which do we trust? It seems clear to me that if Jesus – and not the Bible – is God’s revelation of himself to us, then we ought to be interpreting the Scriptures through the lens that is Jesus, rather than attempting to understand Jesus through the lens that is the Bible. That is not to say that there is not much about God that is revealed in the Scriptures, but we need to understand that sometimes the theology in the Bible is terribly wrong, when set against the true Word, Jesus.
Even Jesus did not use regard the Scriptures as inerrant and complete. He used Scriptures with a recklessness that would appal many modern conservatives, just as it did many of the teachers of the law during his own lifetime.
I owe the following example, and the insights that follow, to a series that Michael Hardin taught on how to read the Bible. It is the third instalment in the series, and can be viewed here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dn6zV2IIkXw ). It provides much insight into how we ought to understand the Scriptures.
To provide the context for this passage from Luke 4, it is the Jubilee year, and Jesus is preaching to a Jewish nationalist crowd with very strong anti-Roman sentiments. They believed that the promised Messiah would crush the Romans and liberate the Jews. During the Jubilee year (once every 49 years), Jewish law required debtors to cancel the debts that were owed to them, to provide a clean slate, so to speak, to those who were indebted to them. Jesus’ identification of himself as the Messiah on this occasion, and using the text he does, in the way he does, speaks volumes about the character of God.
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
Jesus preaches a sermon that espouses peace and social justice, making reference to a text that those hearing would have clearly understood to be a Messianic prophecy. According to this translation of verse 22, it seems to be well-received. And then something inexplicable happens. Jesus loses it. He berates them for rejecting him and they become so furious that they try to kill him. What possible explanation can we provide for why Jesus becomes incensed at the people’s seemingly favourable response to his message, and for why – even though Jesus might seem to be unreasonably vexed – the crowd’s disposition turns so suddenly from adulation to homicide?
If we were entrenched in the mindset that the Bible is infallible, we would probably miss why this passage is so powerful. The key, Hardin asserts, lies in the translation of part of verse 22 from the Greek: πάντες ἐμαρτύρουν αὐτῷ which can be translated as “all bore witness to him”. The word αὐτῷ, though, is in the dative case, and could equally accurately be translated as “all bore witness against him”. But because it was Jesus teaching, and the evangelical translators could not possible conceive of the notion that he would not be well-received, the account becomes translated as “they spoke well of him”, rather than the probably more accurate “they spoke against him”.
And then suddenly we see that it was, in fact, the “gracious words that came from his lips” that made the crowd angry! Why? At this point we see how Jesus treats Scripture. If you go back to the Isaiah passage that Jesus quotes, we notice a very important omission. Absolutely deliberately, Jesus has taken a well-known passage, claimed that he is God and is bringing this prophecy to fulfilment, and is leaving out an idea that the Jewish nationalists in the audience would have regarded as quintessential to their understanding of the Messiah. The original, found in Isaiah 61, reads (my emphasis):
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God ”
The power behind the “gracious words” that rile the people to the point that they wish to kill him lies in what Jesus left out, more than what he quoted. It is not because the people were opposed to God ministering to the socially marginalised that they became incensed. It was Jesus’ tacit suggestion that the Messiah was not going to smite the Roman oppressor, and more than that, that the Messiah’s mission was not concerned with retribution for the suffering of the Jewish people, that stirred them up.
In this high-voltage atmosphere it is easy to lose sight of another important facet of the narrative: the manner in which Jesus treats Scripture. He does not benchmark himself against it. He does not use the words of the prophet Isaiah to inform how he ought to think about God. In fact, he uses himself as the yardstick by which to measure the validity of the Scripture. As the one true word of God, he is able to render completely nonviable the parts of the prophet’s words that are not aligned with the nature of God, as evident in himself. And he utterly dismisses notions of vengeance. There is no “God wrote it, I believe it, that settles it!” mentality with Jesus, when it comes to reading the Scriptures. Because he does not view these documents as the inerrant word of God, he feels no compulsion to accept everything in them. And indeed throughout Jesus’ ministry, we see evidence of him reinterpreting Scripture, adding to and subtracting from it as he sees fit. If he is himself the Word of God, that makes sense.
I find it ironic. Whenever a preacher, like Jesus, dares to suggest that God will have nothing to do with vengeance, but instead proposes that God wants to allow us to start again; whenever somebody preaches that God is about love and not about retributive justice, it angers people to the point that they become nasty. I see it time and time again – in this story, as well is in the internet responses to any of the sermons on peace and love preached by theologians I have come to respect (Brad Jersak, Michael Hardin, Tom Wright, James Alison, J. Denny Weaver): religion and God will always struggle to find a meeting place. Religion demands blood. But Jesus, the true Word of God, rejects violence.
So our journey must begin with our willingness to let go of the idea that the Bible is the infallible word of God. It certainly has value, but we need to accept that it is steeped in religion, as human understandings of God always are, and religion is invariably a bloody affair. In Jesus, though, we see God incarnate, as he reveals himself to us, and in the Jesus narrative outlined in the gospels, we get a glimpse of how God interacts with religion. We are faced with two choices, really: either we must see the Bible as the flawless framework through which to understand the life, thinking, death and resurrection of Jesus, in which case we are bound to find a wrathful deity who needs to be appeased; or we must see Jesus as the perfect framework through which we understand the Bible – our religious attempts to understand God through blood – in which case we shall find a God who forgoes vengeance; who never sanctions violence; who embraces the socially marginalised; who disregards moral virtue as the quintessence of spiritual virtues; who opposes systemic inequality; whose grace extends even to the Romans, to his vilest enemies; who – even as all of our violence is directed at Him, because we cannot accept that God loves those we regard as unlovable, chooses to forgive; who inexplicably and abundantly surprises us with love. The two frameworks do not co-exist happily. We are compelled to a decision: religion or God. For me, anyway, it seems simple.