The Bible: Paradigm of Liberation, Miracle of Amazing Grace

The Bible: Paradigm of Liberation, Miracle of Amazing Grace

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Published:
April 9, 2020

2 Timothy 3:16–17; 2 Peter 1:19–21

The Bible is perhaps the most amazing body of sacred literature in the history of civilization. It represents the confluence of two great world religions—Judaism and its offspring, Christianity, becoming the canon of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Emerging from this great religious tradition, the Bible has shaped human civilization as no other world religion has. Notwithstanding the abusive use of the Bible throughout Judeo-Christian history, it is from this tradition that the world today advocates human worth, human rights, and human freedom. It tells a coherent story that is a profound paradigm of history—the human struggle to reunite with its infinite source. It is very important to understand that the Bible did not fall from the sky. It sprang up out of genuine human struggles that reflect the multifaceted nature of human relationships, human understanding, human vice, and human virtue. It is at this paradigmatic literary site that we may observe the Divine struggle with the human, directing it on its way forward. Without this acute vision of the Bible, we lose its most profound and nuanced meanings, and we fail to grasp it as a kerygma of liberation, rather than a weapon of control.

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction….” (2 Timothy 3:16, NRSV)

A large and influential sector of Christendom tends to make claims for the Bible that it does not make for itself—claims that assert or even approach verbal inspiration. There is a particular world religion whose sacred text is said to have come directly from heaven to its single author. We should never be tempted to make such a claim for the Bible because it makes no such claim for itself. This does not in any way mean that the Bible is not inspired or supernatural. Our attempt to weave false ideals around the Bible to render it supernatural, or the tendency to reject and ridicule it because one comes to understand the reality of its production, comes from a dualistic view between the natural and the supernatural, the sacred and the secular. The supernatural manifests itself in the ordinary and everyday functions of life. This is how the Bible has generally emerged with the developing potential to direct humanity towards its never-ending yearning for freedom.

The question here is: what are we talking about when we talk about inspiration? What scripture is the author of the letters to Timothy speaking of? For sure, what he held to be scripture is not what we hold today to be scripture—including his own letters to Timothy which he never imagined would become scripture. Many have made the loose and irresponsible claim that the author of the Bible is God. Such statements tend to issue from a narrow view of inspiration that falls flat when one views it in light of the history and transmission of the manuscripts which comprise the Bible. There is one statement by Ellen White with which I like to begin any discussion on inspiration: “The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not God’s mode of thought and expression. It is that of humanity. God as writer is not represented. Men will often say such an expression is not like God. But God has not put himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible.” (1SM 21.1)

It is as we understand the process of the production of what we now call the Bible—its multifaceted genre and the long and circuitous developmental route through which it has come to each of us in our own language, speaking to us in our diverse circumstances, whether as scholars or preachers, laity or clergy, suffering saints or willful sinners, that we can fully understand the extent to which it is a miracle of grace. The miracle lies in the reality that through this most elemental and even flawed human process God speaks hope and rebuke, healing and freedom in a world where the human ego threatens human freedom.

Content, Source, and Production

The Bible is a collection of 66–84 “books” (39 comprise the Old Testament, 18 comprise the Apocryphal or Deuterocanonical books[1], and 27 the New Testament) written by dozens of authors, for various purposes, to various groups in various circumstances over thousands of years. These books were progressively chosen for canonization from among many other like books. None of the original manuscripts that came from the authors exist. What eventually became a fixed canon emerged from manuscripts transcribed multiple times and progressively compiled over several centuries. A major reason for transcribing manuscripts was for preservation and for distribution.

Sacred tests emerge from the deepest needs, desires, questions, and concerns of a community. This dynamic occurs not only at the original point of writing, but continues through to canonization and interpretation. In most instances, these sacred texts did not carry the status of scripture at the point of origin. In fact, their origins, as in the case of large portions of the Pentateuch, were often oral.[2] But as they become more and more important to a community’s memory, self-definition, and self-preservation, they evolve as written sacred texts (Exodus 17:14). For example, the prophetic writings emerged from exhortations to stem the tide of corruption and injustice that persisted in ancient Israel. The Psalms which emerged from multiple authors and settings are hymnic liturgical performances of praise and thanksgiving in ancient Israel. They reflect on Israel’s daily life and struggles, and on its hope and assurance of Yahweh’s deliverance.

The New Testament emerged from the early church’s (re)interpretation of Judaic Messianic expectation, and the issues and conflicts that arose as the church itself developed from this dynamic. The earliest of the New Testament books were written by the apostle Paul. Paul (like other New Testament authors) did not consider his writings to be Scripture. Rather, he was writing didactic letters to address issues and conflicts and questions that arose in the church in various sections of the culturally and politically volatile Greco-Roman world. He addressed these issues based on his interpretation of Scripture (particular his [re]interpretation of Messiah) and even based on his own discretion (1 Corinthians 7:12).

The four Gospels arose later than Paul out of the need to preserve the Jesus tradition as saints continue to die while waiting for the return of Messiah. The earliest Gospel, Mark, came about 30 years after Jesus. The Gospel writers researched and collected fragments of oral and written tradition and compiled them around profound thematic interpretations of the Christ event. This is clearly stated by Luke at the onset of his Gospel (Luke 1:1–4). They were composed not only to teach, but to defend the Jesus tradition. The same stories often differ radically among the Gospel writers because they were not attempting to get the details correct, rather they were preaching, and thus they told the stories to reinforce the theme they exposit. For example, Mark sought to explain how a Messiah can die at the hands of his enemies, by asserting that the power of Messiah comes not through institutional approval or political and social clout, but through the powerlessness (kenosis) of the cross. Luke attempts to posit Jesus and the church as a continuation of the Hebrew prophetic tradition that advocates justice for the oppressed, overlooked, and marginalized, and Matthew argues that Jesus is the fulfilment of Judaic Messianic hope. In fact, Matthew is so intent on this argument of fulfillment, he tells the story of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem radically differently from the other three Gospel writers just so that the story might fit the Zechariah 9:9 oracle: “Look your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey.” (Observe carefully Matthew 21: 1–7).

Canonization

The Bible did not miraculously appear as a single collection of 66/84 books. Further, the books of the Bible do not appear in chronological order. Even individual books such as Psalms and Isaiah have sections that were written significantly later than other sections. The rationale for the order of the books is mainly the order in which each was accepted as authoritative. For example, the book of Job is over 400 years older than Genesis,[3] but the Pentateuch was the only authoritative text of Judaism for a long time. The letters attributed to Paul existed before any of the Gospels, but the Gospels were the first set of writings to be accepted by early Christianity as inspired. Hebrews existed before several books, including Luke/Acts and John, but for a long time no one wanted to include it until someone decided to associate it with the apostle Paul (though it was common knowledge that Paul did not write it).[4]

As early Christianity evolved, so did the canon. There were many Old Testament and New Testament writings vying for canonization, but this 66/84 comprising the Bible gradually and eventually won out. Many have criticized the process of canonization, stating that it was intent on orthodoxy and so excluded those that did not toe the line.[5] However, if one takes a little time to read those that have been excluded, one may see the extent to which including them would disrupt the kerygmatic flow the Bible. For canonization, they appear disruptive at worst and unnecessary at best. Nevertheless, those writings, such as the early church writings that did not make the canon, remain a rich collection of primary sources for understanding the full pulse of early Christianity, and even throw light on some of the canonical texts.[6]

Language

The Bible has come to us through painstaking recording, conscientious transcription and preservation, profound storytelling, creative hymnology and poetry, ardent letter writing, soul searching prophetic oracles, conscientious preservation, and contentious canonization. But it did not originate in the hundreds of languages in which it now appears. Classical Hebrew was (overwhelmingly) the original language of the Old Testament, and Koiné Greek the New Testament. Those who are acquainted with language studies, or even those who are multi-lingual, know the extent to which meaning gets lost in translation. Jesus and all the New Testament authors used the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint). Again, those who have worked with both the Hebrew Text and the Septuagint can see the extent to which some significant differences occur between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible.[7] This is because language is a carrier of culture, and much of the Septuagint renderings of the Hebrew Bible reflect a Greek influence. Also, those in Biblical studies can see firsthand how some of the best modern translations still fail to capture the full meaning of a passage.

And yet, through all of this, the kerygma of liberation persists as today translators and paraphrasers, and biblical scholars, and expository preachers, and theologians, and the least erudite among us, wrestle to capture the profound elements of the biblical witness.

So, What Is Inspiration?

I have said all of the above to say that we cannot view inspiration in the narrow, unrealistic way that some in Christendom attempt to view it. (Some even believe that the King James Version is the only inspired translation.) Inspiration is a process, not an act. Again, Ellen White’s summary is profound. She says that it is not the words that are inspired, but the authors who are inspired. She further says that inspiration does not act on the author’s words or expression but on the author, period, without superseding the individual mind (1SM 21.2). The individual mind includes all the experiences that shape it. This is to say therefore, that God infuses the ordinary human process to shine the light towards freedom. So, in light of all that we have noted so far, it is not only the original authors that are inspired, but the scribes, the compilers, the synods on canonization, the translators, and yes, even interpreters, that are inspired; for the Bible finds its end in interpretation and application. In the case of the Bible, inspiration is a long and winding road by which the Spirit of God works with and among humans in community from the point of origin to the point of delivery as communities and individuals interpret and apply it from the place at which they stand.

But Whose Interpretation Is Correct?

It is in community that the Bible takes on full relevance and meaning, because the Bible itself emerges from community. This is how we must understand 2 Peter 1: 19–21: “…no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” (NRSV). The prophecy about which the passage speaks is the specific prophecy of the end of the world (based on the Old Testament in this case). Contextually, the author is addressing an Early Church community that stood on the brink of division and dissolution as many languished (and justified their faithlessness with false teachings about the end [3:3–4]) in the delay of the expected end of the world (Chapters 2–3). But the call of the letter is, in a general sense, a call to community to maintain faithfulness and restore hope in the promise of Messiah’s coming.

The overarching takeaway from 2 Peter 3:16–17 is that we best interpret and apply the Bible in community. No one person, or one interest group, should dominate, influence, and/or bully everyone else into compliance to their interpretation. This is the most dangerous threat to community. We all read the Bible from where we stand regardless of what method of interpretation we apply. (The Early Church itself read the Scripture from where it stood.) And we read it from where we stand because we view the Bible as a source of affirmation and liberation. If we listen to each other, we can see what one sees and what the other overlooks. For example, a person from a Native American community may not interpret the Exodus as liberation, because their land and people were ravished and captured by invading forces. Or, a person raised to consciously or unconsciously embrace social hegemony will only see verse 3 in the 1 Corinthians 11:3–16 passage, and that person will read the rest in light of it. But someone on the underside, acutely aware of the ill effects of social hegemony, will also observe verses 11–12 and read the rest in light of it. This person may also observe that verse 7 is contrary to the Genesis account of creation,[8] and she may sensitize the community to read and interpret the passage more rigorously and conscientiously.

The point here is this: it is only as we read the Bible together from where we stand in our varying circumstances, and listen to each other in true, delivering love, that we can nurture a community towards liberation for all. It is at this point that the Bible, through its long journey, finds fulfilment as a miracle of Amazing Grace in the all-encompassing process of inspiration.


[1] These are included in the Roman Catholic Canon, whereas the protestant Canon excludes them.

[2] See Thomas B. Dozeman, The Pentateuch: Introducing the Torah, Introducing Israel’s Scriptures (Augsburg Press, 2017), 135–200.

[4][4][4] According to the third-century scholar, Origen of Alexandria, “As for who has written it, only God knows.” Cited by Bart D. Ehrman, A Brief Introduction to the New Testament, 4th ed. (OUP, 2017), 304.

[5] See for example, Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (OUP, 1996).

[6] For example, in Gospel of Thomas, vs. 114: “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, ‘I myself will make her male so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven’.” This throws light on the question of Mary as one of Jesus disciples and why as such she was closed out of Christian tradition, and also on the general gender conflicts in early Christianity that led to their subordination as the church became an institution of the Roman Empire.

[7] If one compares Septuagint quotations in the letters of Paul and in Hebrews for example, one sees radical differences when one looks at the quotation in the Hebrew text.

[8] The is not Paul’s own interpretation of Genesis 1. Rather, he employs the argument in verses 3–10 as a rhetorical devise, often used in Greek philosophical schools, to lay bare the argument he wants to oppose before he throws it out (verses 11–12).

 

Olive Hemmings is professor of religion at Washington Adventist University.

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