It seems like a silly exercise, attempting to define a text that is so hotly contested. But you are always at a disadvantage when you have to debate using the terms of your opponent, and the Protestant Mainline has for too long allowed the proponents of the selective literalist heresy (the so-called “fundamentalists”) to define the terms. We speak in rebuttal, state what scripture is not, but rarely do we make a positive claim about scripture. I believe that if we are to re-engage scripture in a deep and meaningful way, in a way that allows us to seek biblical guidance for our very different contexts, we must have some operating definition of this pillar of Protestant belief. So consider this a working draft, a synthesis of the many responses I have given to Christians of every stripe, from my UCC sisters and brothers to members of the radicalized religious right, when asked to define my understanding of “The Bible.”
I would love to hear from colleagues and friends who can help me clarify and correct. This post will not be acceptable to those readers who belong to a religious trajectory that is in fundamental disagreement, especially one that claims a perfect text or interpretation. This is not the forum for that debate. Many blessings- Gary
The Holy Bible is a collection of religious writings composed and edited over a period of a thousand plus years. It tells the story of multiple trajectories of belief, all originating with a Semitic people commonly known as the Hebrews. The earliest texts, composed (with small exceptions) in Hebrew, are shared by both the religious trajectory known as Christianity and the trajectory known as Rabbinic Judaism, with both groups adding material in the years after the Jewish War (approx. 70 CE) to create an accepted canon. In the Christian tradition the additional materials were composed in Greek and are referred to as the “new” testament or covenant. This material reflects the belief that Jesus (circa -3 CE to 30 CE) initiated or taught a new relationship between humans and the divine, telling the story of his earthly ministry and collecting documents from early Christian communities.
The texts preserve multiple understandings of the human relationship with the divine. Conceptions of God recorded in scripture include belief in multiple deities, in a universalist monotheism, in an anthropomorphic deity filled with ego and rage, in a Platonic deity that is unchanging and incapable of relationship. The texts include history, poetry, fiction, legal codes and correspondence, and often reveal more about the historical and cultural contexts in which they were composed and edited than in the era they pretend to cover. The Bible is the story of the winners, the version accepted by those whose understanding became authorized, that was associated with earthly power, yet in its pages can be found alternative narratives, the voices of the oppressed and marginalized. At it’s best, the Bible is intimate and compelling, a very human story of the individual and communal search for right relationship with God. At it’s worst, the Bible is a tool for the creation of false gods, of idols onto which we project our own desires and prejudices.
The Bible is composed of ancient texts written in ancient languages and recovered in multiple versions of often fragmentary manuscripts. There has never been a single universally accepted version or translation of these texts, as no such Bible ever existed. There is no single authorized interpretation.
Contemporary Christians must use caution when attempting to interpret this ancient complex text, placing passages in their original context as well as following the theological trajectories in the two millennia since the text took it basic form. Progressive Christians can gain the most in their engagement with scripture when they combine the technical knowledge of scriptural interpretation with their own context as a living and practicing covenant community.