The Bible as literature and what that means to us

Mike Beidler pointed me to an article entitled “The Bible as Human Literature” that culminates in the provocative question, “If Jesus is really raised from the dead, what do we lose if we consider the Bible as only human literature?” This is something I’ve been asking for quite a while, but I’ve not read any version of these thoughts written quite so well as in Alex McManus’s outstanding post. Please read it! Encountering writing that good and thinking that clear is exactly why I’ve tapered off on my own production on this blog of late. 🙂
I’d like to make some comments about this little excerpt.

God did not write the Bible.

Humans wrote the Bible.

Thus the Bible is not God’s written word if by that we mean that God wrote it.

    The Bible is human literature and humans are the authors. Just to be clear, the Bible is not co-authored by God and humans either. The Bible is only (by which I mean that the Bible is not divine) human literature.

    I tentatively made similar claims in my longwinded (and somewhat outdated) series on bibliology and hermeneutics. But more and more, I’ve decided that McManus’s comment about “only human” literature is in the right direction. At least in the sense that McManus presents it: as I have said before, the divine is the subject of the Bible, not the substance, so the degree to which it accurately represents the divine depends on how theologically accurate it is. There is, without doubt, absolute truth contained in the Bible. The question comes in about whether that truth is revealed as the intent of the passages in which it is contained or whether it is almost incidental, much in the way that a good photographer finds good subjects not because sunrises, laughing children, etc. are posing for him, but because he knows where to look and is prepared to take the shots when the opportunity arises.

    I’ve been reading Evolutionary Creation by Denis Lamoureux, the fullest treatment of a Christian approach to evolution that I am aware of (I highly recommend it). Lamoureux’s central contention in the early chapters is that the Bible, and particularly the OT, was never intended to mirror the details of historical and scientific reality perfectly (what he helpfully refers to as “historical” and “scientific concord”), but were accommodations of ancient history and science to the original audience for a greater purpose. Here again, this is something I argued for in the above mentioned series. Crucially, he insists that the Bible was intended to be theologically concordant. For Lamoureux, Scripture was intended to reveal certain infallible truths, which he calls “Messages of Faith”, and that they are merely wrapped in ancient science and history so that they would be understood by their original audience. And once more, I argued this as well. But even when I stated these propositions, something didn’t sit well with me: one of my greatest expectations in reading Evolutionary Creation (EC) was to gain a better understanding of how to go about finding those divine revelations and separate them from the errant notions the Hebrews had even about God and His ways.

    Instead, the problem became even more stark when I read EC. The fact is, sometimes what might otherwise appear as a divinely inspired message is noted to be incorrect, or incomplete at best (e.g. the three theodicies mentioned in EC: Genesis 3, Job, and Jesus, all of which Lamoureux counts as incomplete). Even worse, it’s next to impossible to tell which theological belief on the part of the writers is correct (revealed) and which is a product of their cultural ignorance (un-revealed, but inherited from earlier misconceptions). Most confusingly, Lamoureux argues (as I have) that both an inaccurate theological picture being taught and a new, revealed theological truth may occur within the same passage! For all we know, the “Message of Faith” in Romans 5.12ff might well have been (as it has appeared to believers throughout Church history) that Christ’s work was necessitated because of an historical Fall, except that this understanding has now been debunked by science. How many other things do we currently believe are Messages of Faith that simply haven’t had enough light shed on them? And what good is saying that God hid an infallible message in there somewhere when it’s impossible to verify which is accurate and which is not? It appears that, while rejecting historical/scientific concord, Lamoureux is engaging in some special pleading for theological concord, especially given that he himself debunks some theology contained in Scripture. It seems that he’s saying, “Everything that is true in the Bible is true, and nothing that isn’t,” in a way palatable to folks clinging to the old “inerrant and infallible” standard we were taught to uphold.

    It is attractive to think that lurking behind most every passage is a “Message of Faith” divinely deposited for us, but here I think even the good old audience relevance principle precludes us as direct recipients of those messages. So in the end, calling the Bible the “incarnational Word of God” is no more helpful than simply saying, as McManus puts its, that “the Bible exists because God encountered people — encountered not in the Bible but out here in the real world — and some of these people lived to tell about it,” and that sometimes their insights are dead on. But sometimes, not so much.

    This thinking is fledgling, but I’m finding it useful for understanding what I have gathered. If it sounds too extreme, keep in mind that I am still holding this tentatively enough to be talked out of it! I can’t think of a better way of posing it than McManus did: “What exactly do we lose if we consider the Bible to be exactly what it is, only human literature?” And in all candor, I’m not particularly interested in the standard evangelical appeal to consequence, “Well, this must be false because otherwise we don’t know what’s crap and what’s divine.” Apart from that, what are your thoughts?

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