Some consider the Bible to be the “literal” Word of God, inerrant and non-contradictory. “From God’s mouth to the writer’s ear,” so to speak. On the face of it, this seems like a great way to do things. Those who hold to this view claim that they don’t “interpret” the Bible at all. They just read the “plain meaning” of the words.
No doubt that’s a comforting belief. Unfortunately, it’s also incredibly naïve. We don’t have to look very deeply before we start to run into problems.
We could talk about the Old Testament rules that we no longer follow, like wearing clothes of blended fabrics, or not cutting our beards. We could look at the New Testament statements apparently endorsing slavery and the beating of children that no one, outside of a few fringe groups that are rightly labeled cults, would consider defensible today. Or we could get into a discussion about how most literalists are using an Olde Englishe translation, the King James Version, which leaves them working through not one, but two, layers of interpretation.
For me, however, we needn’t look any farther than the sheer number of Christian denominations and splinter sects that all claim to have the one and only correct and inerrant understanding while every other correct and inerrant understanding is dead wrong.
In contrast, most mainline denominations consider the Bible to be the “inspired” Word of God. This view holds that the books of the Bible – those of the New Testament at least – were written by human beings who were acting at the urging of God. This influence, proponents believe, lends extra authority to the collection of manuscripts that we call the Bible; again, with special emphasis on the New Testament.
Inasmuch as it allows us to discuss the Bible’s human origins, it seems to me that it’s a more flexible approach than literalism.
However, here’s the thing that, for me, makes both approaches totally inadequate – they both start with the Bible.
No, I’m not dismissing the Bible. Far from it.
I just think that we’ve got the cart before the horse here. Instead of using the Bible to understand God, we need to start with God, and let our relationship with Theos/Divinity/the Creator help us to understand the Bible.
And yes, I’ve heard the claim that we can’t “know God” without the Bible. I honestly don’t get this.
Let’s use the New Testament image of Jesus as “bridegroom” to the church for a moment. Incompetent husband jokes aside, would any of us depend on a book to decide whether or not our relationship with our prospective spouse was “real”? We may use one to help enhance that relationship, to make it stronger, but it’s certainly not the starting point.
The starting point, whether with our significant other or God, is our personal relationship.
And I would argue that’s also the starting point for the majority of people who’ve left “religion” behind. Debates about which interpretation of the Bible make it the most authoritative are moot. Most of us simply “get God” first hand.
Even if we don’t express it that way.
Even if we don’t profess a “faith” at all.
Whether the post-modern church can interpret the Bible as especially “inspired”, or whether the literal church can explain away the clashing discontinuities of the texts is irrelevant.
The People of God are simply moving on, creating a society in which we not only wear cotton-polyester blends, we also recognize that God is still one with us, speaking to us and through us and urging us to transform Creation into the Kingdom of Heaven.
It’s a starting point that doesn’t rely on the study of ancient of texts or the right set of beliefs.
It relies on relationship – ever-changing, everlasting, ever-beginning relationship.
Seems to me like a pretty good place to start.