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Reflection July 30, 2017
Loving the Bible Without Losing Your Mind
by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
On Wednesday, July 19, I presented the first of a two-part lecture series on the Bible. This coming Wednesday, July 26, I will conclude this series. There were some 14, besides myself, who attended the first lecture. I want to put a tiny portion of that first lecture into this week’s Advance. Much of what I said, however, was without notes - so this will be an approximation.
The Bible lies at the core of our Christian faith. A difficulty arises, however, when we speak of the Bible at “The Word of God.” This rightful appellation can be confusing. We might mistakenly imagine that God somehow “spoke” the words of Scripture into the ears of the Bible’s authors. This is not theologically appropriate nor in any way accurate. The Bible is the very human work of the many divinely-inspired authors who wrote it.
Yes, the Bible is inspired by God. But this “inspiration” needs to be rightly understood. My favorite Bible commentary, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, speaks of Scripture as something “which has been breathed by God - in other words, the very breath of God.”
It might be best to visualize the Bible as the “Breath of God” rather than the “Word of God.” We could then understand inspiration as God “breathing” upon the authors of Scripture, helping them like sailboats to voyage further than they otherwise could. Some of the biblical writers were able to catch a great deal of breath in their sails, traveling great distances. Others, however, had sails which couldn’t “catch” as much breath, so they didn’t travel as far.
We hold that the Bible is theologically true. We, as American Baptists, do not normally understand the Bible as historically or scientifically accurate in all respects. We are not Biblical literalists. There are way too many inaccuracies in the Bible to claim it is all literally true in every respect (which is a rather recent claim!).
Take, for instance, the two accounts of creation found in the opening pages of Genesis. The first account of creation goes from Genesis, chapter 1, verse 1, to Genesis chapter 2, verse 4. In this lovely account of creation, we read about the seven days of creation (actually 6 days of creation - since God rests on the 7th day). And these six days are “24 hour days” - not epochs or any other notion. The Hebrew word used, yom, always means a 24-hour day.
On the sixth day of creation (see Genesis 1:24) God creates the creatures that live on land. At the end of the sixth day, God “created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” It’s very clear from this text that animals are created and then humans follow.
This is very different from the second account of creation which begins in Genesis 2:4. In this account, God creates Adam from the ground. This is followed by God creating all the animals of the earth which Adam then names. Because no helpmate can be found among the animals, God creates Eve from Adam’s rib.
These two accounts of creation cannot both be historically true. They contradict each other. Did God create animals and then humans or the first human and then all the animals?
This is but one small example of the problems that arise when we cling to a “literalist” account of Scripture. The Bible is neither a history nor a science text. It gives us theological answers. It unfolds for us our biblical ancestors growing, developing, understanding of God and what it means to be faithful to that God. Our Jewish sisters and brothers were not and are not now Biblical literalists. We would rightly follow their lead in understanding the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament).
The truth of the opening chapters of Genesis is this: God is the Creator of All There Is. We don’t know how this miracle of creation occurred, how it unfolded. But we believe it happened because God made it happen. This is the real truth of the opening two chapters of Genesis.
For any of us Christians to assert that the poetic, symbolic, accounts of creation in Genesis reflect historical reality is profoundly misguided. It is only in the past 150 years or so that many Christians have adopted a “fundamentalist” view of Scripture. This has, unfortunately, led to a continuing clash between faith and science.
In our country, something like 44% of people believe that the earth (and the cosmos) is about 6,000 or 7,000 years old (this number of people who hold this view has been dropping steadily in recent years). This belief flies in the face of the scientific reality that creation occurred some 13.75 billion years ago. Our earth came into existence about 4.5 billion years ago. These dates are not theory - they are scientific facts.
So many believe the earth (and the cosmos) is 6,000 or 7,000 years old because somehow they imagine the Bible says so (which it doesn’t!). Yet many of our young have turned from the Christian faith because of this misguided (and wrong) interpretation of the Bible.
My lecture covered many other important facts but they cannot be included here. I’d also point out: the Christian tradition of divine inspiration is that inspiration is to be found in the original texts alone - never in any translation of the Bible. All translations of the Bible are human interpretations of the Bible and are not, therefore, ever divinely inspired (this includes the famous King James Version). We take the Bible seriously but not literally. This, I believe, is how God wants us to come to the Sacred Scriptures!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor