Beliefnet
How we see the Bible matters. Conflict between two very different ways ofseeing the Bible is the most divisive issue among Christians in NorthAmerica today. It divides fundamentalist and conservative churches frommainline denominations. Even within mainline denominations, the conflict isalso present, though to a lesser extent.

Central to the conflict are two ways of seeing the Bible's origin. The firstsees it as a divine product; the second sees it as a human product.

The first is affirmed by fundamentalist and most conservative Christians.They say that the divine origin of the Bible is the basis of its authority.Unlike any other book, the Bible is the uniquely revealed word of God, andthat's why it matters. Why should we take it seriously? Because it comesfrom God.

It is easy to understand why the Bible is seen this way. In the Christiantradition, we have consistently spoken of it as "the Word of God" and"inspired by God," language which suggests that the Bible is a divineproduct as no other book is.

The second way of seeing the Bible views it as the human product of twoancient communities. The Old Testament is the product of ancient Israel, andthe New Testament is the product of the early Christian movement. As theproduct of these two communities, the Bible tells us about how they sawthings--how they thought about God and told their stories.

This view is the result of modern biblical scholarship over the last threecenturies. Thought it was known mostly in scholarly circles until recently,this approach is now being embraced by many mainline Christians.

Indeed, a strong grass-roots desire for a new way of seeing the Bible is oneof the most remarkable features of the contemporary church.

Much is at stake in these two ways of seeing the Bible. Here are twoillustrations:

The first concerns the Genesis stories of creation. If the Bible is a divineproduct, then these are God's stories of creation. As such, they cannot bewrong. That leads to belief that the earth was created by God in six literaldays. Going very far down this road leads to scientific creationism andschool board conflicts about whether Genesis should be taught alongsideevolution in high school biology courses.

But if the Bible is a human product, then these stories are ancient Israel'sstories of creation, not God's stories of creation. Like most cultures,ancient Israel had its creation stories, but there is no reason to thinkthat they contain scientifically factual information--and if they did, itwould be sheer coincidence. Let me add that, as a Christian, I thinkIsrael's creation stories are profoundly true--but true as metaphorical orsymbolic narratives, not as literally factual accounts.

The second illustration involves the laws of the Bible. To use one of thecurrent hot-button issues as an example, consider the single law in theHebrew Bible prohibiting homosexual behavior between men (Lev. 18.22), withthe penalty (death) specified two chapters later (Lev. 20.13). If we see theBible as a divine product, then this is one of God's laws, and the ethicalquestion becomes, "How can one justify setting aside one of the laws ofGod?"

But if we see the Bible as a human product, then the laws of the HebrewBible are ancient Israel's laws, and the prohibition of homosexual behaviortells us that such behavior was considered unacceptable in ancient Israel.

The ethical question then becomes, "What is the justification for continuingto see this issue as ancient Israel did?" The question becomes even moreacute when we realize that this law is embedded in a collection of lawsthat, among other things, prohibits planting two kinds of seed in the samefield and wearing garments made of two kinds of cloth.

My point is that we readily recognize some of these laws as the laws of anancient culture that we are not bound to follow. Why then single out someas "the laws of God"?

From these illustrations, my own point of view is clear: I see the Bible asa human product. But if so, what then is its relation to God? Is it in anysense "the Word of God"?

I see that relation as twofold. On the one hand, I see the Bible as theresponse of these two ancient communities to their experience of God.

On the other hand, I see the Bible as a sacrament. A sacrament is amediator of the sacred, a means whereby the Spirit of God continues to speakto us even today. The sacramental function of Scripture occurs especiallyin its use in Christian devotion and worship. The Bible is the "Word of God" inthis sense: in its function, not in its origin.

I am sometimes asked, "Do you believe in the Bible?" My response is, "Itdepends upon what you mean."

If you mean, "Do I think it is a divine product and that everything in itcomes from God," then "No."

If you mean, "Do I take it seriously as ancient Israel's and earlyChristianity's witness to their life with God," then "Yes."

One can take the Bible seriously--without taking it literally as the wordsof God.

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