A sermon given by Vernon Curnock.
Sunday 16 March 2008
Last year Brenda asked for volunteers to complete a questionnaire for the Baptist Union after church. One question related to whether we saw the bible as God’s word. I, and others here, had problems over that question, so it got me thinking.
So I’ll now share some of my thoughts, and end up with some suggestions on how to read the bible for what it is. As I am covering a lot of ground the sermon will be put on the Cityside website to read later..
I’ll start with some types of writing in the bible
Wisdom Literature, this is where the Israelites tried to answer the big questions of life and where they compared real life with how they understood it was meant to be.
It also contains simple yet profound concepts for righteous and sensible living.
The wisdom books are Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, some of the Psalms, The Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, and Ecclesiasticus. The last 3 were in the Greek version of the Old Testament, but not in the Hebrew version and you will find them in the Apocrypha. Additionally, Jonah, Song of Solomon and Lamentations are often considered as Wisdom literature.
These books sometimes ask rhetorical questions about God and life, are sometimes written as monologues or dialogues, and you could say they are early attempts at theological debate.
Proverbs sets out mostly conventional wisdom of the day about how to live and be blessed by God. Whereas Job is essentially challenging the conventional view that if you live righteously, God will look after you and if you don’t, then God will punish you. There are also many subplots in Job. Likewise Ecclesiastes also challenges the conventional views outlined in Proverbs.
A common issue is that of good things happening to ungodly people and bad things happening to good people which is taken up in Job and Ecclesiastes but also in many Psalms. Questions such as: “Why have you forgotten me?” “Why do you hide your face?”, and “ Why, O LORD, do you stand so far off?” are found frequently in the Psalms. We too today may ask the same questions about life and God as those writers of wisdom literature did and we therefore share a common link with them.
Storytelling and culture
Most of the scriptures were originally oral stories or traditions passed down over the generations. They were often worded according to conventions that made them easy to remember and for the hearers to understand and images had symbolic meaning that people of that era and culture knew.
For instance, water as in Genesis 1, was a symbol of chaos. Hence water existed before creation and God separated water so that dry land (symbolising order) could appear. Evening and morning, night and day, represent chaos and order. The fight against chaos was a daily one, and it occurs with regularity in the ancient texts of all Ancient Near Eastern cultures, not just the Hebrew writings. The flood story is another example.
Until our very recent modern scientific way of writing came about, a mere few hundred years ago, people used stories to convey a truth or message. The story itself was not the truth or message but just the carrier.
So ancient texts reported creation as a drama or story. Stories in those times had meanings whereas today we would write a scientific report instead. Truth was seen as the climaxing point of the story or drama. The “props” used to build towards the conclusion were often a meaningful and symbolic or dramatic aid. Whereas we tend to say each “prop” must be factual and true or the conclusion is false.
The main issue for them was “why”, whereas the main issue in the scientific era is “how”. Two very different perspectives.
Another commonly misunderstood way of writing is called Apocalyptic such as Daniel, Zecharaiah, Ezekiel and Revelation. It contains many symbolic images, dreams, and visions, with a common thread of God’s sovereignty.
Unfortunately it’s caused so much preoccupation and misunderstanding and is hard for modern readers to understand, because we have nothing like it today. Traditional prophets used everyday items for their imagery but apocalyptics used images of fantasy. Beasts with four heads, dragons with several heads and so on.
The images and symbols used are normally known to the listeners of the day and often represented current powers. Of course the problem comes many generations later when the symbolism used is no longer understood. Revelation is of course the prime example for us today with many weird, wonderful and fanciful notions being passed off as the correct interpretation. Whereas there are many indications that it is writing about their present day and their very near future and Rome is its focus
Poetry. Years ago there was no distinction made in bibles between what was and what was not poetry. Nowadays in many modern bible versions like the New Revised Standard Version, poetry is shown by indenting the text. Amos is a prophetic book that is mainly written as poetry, and you find poetry in many of the prophetic books as well as Psalms, and the wisdom books, and it pops up the most unexpected places like Genesis and Deuteronomy. Poetry rendered stories easy to remember because of their pattern.
In ancient days, the purpose of telling genealogies was different to the factual historically accurate purpose we use them for today. Their aim was to show a connection between the past and present and sometimes to connect one specific person to the past. It was common practice to jump generations, or leave out anyone considered unpopular or insignificant or replace them with a well thought of brother or relative.
This explains why some genealogies in the bible contradict each other or don’t make sense.
Epistles are letters but unfortunately Paul’s letters are used as some sort of theological textbook. Grab a bit from here and a bit from there and form a theological argument. But Paul’s letters are often written in response to other letters or news. Each relates to a particular period and particular issues. Paul tells the Galatians to loosen up and let go of rules and regulations yet he tells the Corinthians to bring in order and rules. Each group were facing opposite issues.
You can see the problems if we turn his letters into binding theology and just apply it across the board. There were also several cultural issues, which some people today still want to apply, such as the debates about the place of women. Of course cultural issues also apply to much of the Old Testament.
Now onto a couple of topical issues.
Literalism is where people insist that the bible must be taken literally, that is every word means exactly what it says. So when the bible says the earth has 4 corners, is supported in the heavens by pillars and does not move and the sun moves from one side of the earth to the other we must take all this literally. Reading Genesis chapter 1 this way just doesn’t make any sense at all. Water exists before anything is created and there is light and darkness before we get the sun, moon and stars. We also have the earth and plants before the sun, moon and stars. Evening and morning exist before the sun, and how can a day be 24 hours before the sun and moon exist?
Literalism also means the parables have to be taken literally, including the Kingdom parables, which is just plain nonsense. Insisting on taking words literally, robs the reader of the true meaning and point of a lot of the scriptures.
There is no room for poetry, imagery and symbolism, yet these forms of writing are very prevalent in the bible including the New Testament.
Literalism makes Christians look silly. When Galileo discovered the earth did move in the heavens and it circled the sun he was threatened with excommunication and death by the Church as it contradicted the scriptures I have referred to previously. It has contributed greatly to a conflict between science and religion that doesn’t exist if you remove this way of interpreting the scriptures.
Let’s just remember that the bible is a work of theology not science. Much of it is a book of why not how.
Inerrancy is another issue tied closely to taking the bible literally. Inerrancy is where people say there are no errors or contradictions in the bible and it is correct in every way even regarding scientific matters. This view formed in the Enlightenment period and was a reaction to Darwin and scientific discoveries. There are many flaws with this notion. One is which bible translation do you believe is inerrant as different translations say different things.
There are also significant translation issues, considering Jesus spoke Aramaic and there were problems translating it into Greek then into English. Some words didn’t even have an equivalent meaning in the other language.
Now a few errors and contradictions.
Matthew 27.9 says it is quoting from Jeremiah but the quote is found in Zechariah,
1 Cor 14: in verse 22 Paul says that tongues is a sign for unbelievers not believers and that prophecy is a sign for believers not unbelievers.
In the next three verses Paul says the exact opposite. In addition to the flat earth language already mentioned there are many other scientific inaccuracies.
Then there is the Garden of Eden account which contradicts the 7-day account. According to the first account, a man and woman were made together and last, after the birds and animals, as the crown and climax of creation, whereas according to the second account the creation of man was first, then the animals and birds, then lastly the creation of woman.
(There are over 100 creation stories in the bible and many are in Psalms and Isaiah and all are different).
Remove the modern way of thinking that everything must be factual and totally accurate. Remove the demand that scripture be literally interpreted. We can then allow for people to write as they genuinely saw it in their culture and understanding, and to use imagery and poetry. We also then allow a simple mistake in the way a sentence is compiled or where the translator doesn’t quite get it right.
The bible is essentially the bearer of a message. Readers should not have to worry about individual words or verses but rather what is the overall message that is coming through.
Enjoying the Bible
None of what I have said above is to undermine your desire to read or believe the bible. Rather it is to free you to actually enjoy the bible for what it is. An amazing and informative collection of writings that in most cases have a quality about them you will not find elsewhere. That quality I believe comes from inspiration and is a hallmark of the scripture’s value and authenticity. They deal with real life and portray people (even the heroes) as genuinely human with many faults and failings, which is encouraging to me.
Additionally, Christians have regularly received personal revelation and inspiration from the scriptures when the Holy Spirit takes what was written and just makes it come alive, with fresh insight and understanding, or helps you to apply it to a particular situation or need.
Three quick tips to help get more insight from the scriptures:
- Try to look beyond the actual words to what the story or message is really about.
- Sometimes just take time to picture yourself actually being there in the setting of that place and time and try to feel what it was like.
- Never just read it like a text book you can just pop in and out of to grab a couple of instructions for something.
I also want to add that it is usually better to read the scriptures in the original writer’s context and just accept them for what they are. A window into a different era and an insight into how those people related to God in their life. There are good books you can buy that put various scriptures in their historical and cultural perspective which can be very helpful.
For me I very much see the bible as serving a very important function in helping me with the spiritual side of my life.
It is easy to get seduced by TV, friends, society, and our own desires into having attitudes and beliefs that are harmful to our spiritual life. So the bible then becomes a reminder of spiritual reality. A yardstick or measuring stick. It can keep us grounded rather than carried away on flights of superspiritual fantasy and keep us loving rather than hardhearted.
I find the gospels particularly helpful as they reinforce what Jesus stood for. Again they keep me grounded in what my core values ought to be.
The bible is invaluable for young Christians to help growth, understanding and connection.
So to come back to my original issue of whether I see the bible as God’s word.
Firstly, the bible is not one book, but a collection of writings written over thousands of years. Secondly none of those writings claim to be infallible or written by God and neither do they claim the position and god like status that some sectors of Christianity have given them. So I don’t think the term “God’s Word” does much for me anymore. It certainly implies something much more than the bible ever claims to be, and much more than what I perceive it to be. Certainly early Christians did not see scripture the way some Christians do today.
The bible is essentially the bearer of a message. Readers should not have to worry about individual words or verses, but rather what is the overall message that is coming through. It is the message that should be focused on more than the messenger is.
Let’s just remember that the bible is a work of theology not science. Much of it is a book of why not how.
So in conclusion, I see the bible as invaluable for several reasons. For Inspiration, encouragement, consolation, questioning, wisdom, insight into the spiritual life and realm, standards, guidance, knowledge of God.
However, it is important to free it from the confines and shackles placed upon it and its readers, by the more fundamentalist elements of Christianity and from modern day cultural and scientific ways of viewing these wonderful writings.