Almost all of the controversies we have in the church today come down, in the end, to the question posed in the title. To some it’s a no-brainer. It’s like that Sunday school ditty I learned as a kid: The B.I.B.L.E., yes that’s the book for me. I stand alone on the Word of God, the B.I.B.L.E.
Some Christians tend to view the Bible as Muslims view the Quran. Just as the Quran was verbally whispered to the Prophet, the Bible was revealed word for word to those who wrote it. If that’s the case, then, as the saying goes, “God says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” The Bible is not like the Quran, however, and that makes all the difference.
In the Reformed tradition, we have always understood that the inspiration of the Bible is not like a verbal, word for word, transmission from God to the world. It is far more complex and far more marvelous.
The Reformed tradition (and many others) has viewed the Bible not as “verbally” inspired, but “organically” inspired. That means that God revealed himself through human beings embedded in their own language, culture, and history. The landscape of the Bible is not some featureless, timeless landscape, but in the textured landscape of human history and experience.
But that’s the way God works. After all, THE Word of God, Jesus Christ, came to us as a Galilean Jew, born in a stable in Bethlehem, speaking Aramaic, and telling stories about seeds and harvest, landlords and tenants, yeast and sheep. It’s called incarnation.
In the same way, the Word of God we call the Bible is an incarnate revelation. It comes to us by the Holy Spirit, but through human authors imbedded in their time and place, understanding the nature of the world in terms of the culture and cosmology of their times. Yet it tells a consistent and powerful story of God’s unwavering covenant commitment to save his creation from sin and death. It’s the story that makes sense of the world and of our lives.
But there’s the rub. It takes a never-ending process of interpretation to untangle the essential, saving truths of Scripture from the sometimes time-bound forms in which they come. For example, does Genesis 1 describe the world as we understand it today, or does it describe it in the thought-world of the ancient Near Eastern world? And who has the authority to make that determination?
The Bible belongs to the church, the whole church through all of history. Only the church has that ultimate interpretive authority. It is not given to any person or any ecclesiastical office in any given time and place.
And because the Scriptures belong to the historical reality of the church, sometimes our understanding of biblical truth changes over time, which is exactly what has happened time and again. Think of issues from slavery to the earth’s place in the solar system. That’s not to say that everything is up in the interpretational air. For many of our most basic interpretative frameworks, such as the Trinity, we still depend on and adhere to the two-thousand-year old interpretations of the early church.
Still, we can expect that as time moves on the church will arrive at new ways of interpreting and understanding certain biblical texts. But whatever changes in interpretation appear on the horizon, they need to be tested over time with patience, humility, and, above all, a prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit.
Because God’s revelation comes to us inextricably and incarnationally embedded in time and space, interpretation is not always a simple or easy matter. But with all that, I can still sing “The B.I.B.L.E., yes that’s the book for me.” It’s still the Word of God on which I stand, it’s the one true story of the Creator’s love, and it comes with all the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.