Central to the conflict are two ways of seeing the Bible's origin. The first sees 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, and that's why it matters. Why should we take it seriously? Because it comes from God.
It is easy to understand why the Bible is seen this way. In the Christian tradition, we have consistently spoken of it as "the Word of God" and "inspired by God," language which suggests that the Bible is a divine product as no other book is.
The second way of seeing the Bible views it as the human product of two ancient communities. The Old Testament is the product of ancient Israel, and the New Testament is the product of the early Christian movement. As the product of these two communities, the Bible tells us about how they saw things--how they thought about God and told their stories.
This view is the result of modern biblical scholarship over the last three centuries. 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 one of the most remarkable features of the contemporary church.
Much is at stake in these two ways of seeing the Bible. Here are two illustrations:
But if the Bible is a human product, then these stories are ancient Israel's stories of creation, not God's stories of creation. Like most cultures, ancient Israel had its creation stories, but there is no reason to think that they contain scientifically factual information--and if they did, it would be sheer coincidence. Let me add that, as a Christian, I think Israel's creation stories are profoundly true--but true as metaphorical or symbolic narratives, not as literally factual accounts.
The second illustration involves the laws of the Bible. To use one of the current hot-button issues as an example, consider the single law in the Hebrew Bible prohibiting homosexual behavior between men (Lev. 18.22), with the penalty (death) specified two chapters later (Lev. 20.13). If we see the Bible as a divine product, then this is one of God's laws, and the ethical question becomes, "How can one justify setting aside one of the laws of God?"
But if we see the Bible as a human product, then the laws of the Hebrew Bible are ancient Israel's laws, and the prohibition of homosexual behavior tells us that such behavior was considered unacceptable in ancient Israel.
The ethical question then becomes, "What is the justification for continuing to see this issue as ancient Israel did?" The question becomes even more acute when we realize that this law is embedded in a collection of laws that, among other things, prohibits planting two kinds of seed in the same field and wearing garments made of two kinds of cloth.
My point is that we readily recognize some of these laws as the laws of an ancient culture that we are not bound to follow. Why then single out some as "the laws of God"?
I see that relation as twofold. On the one hand, I see the Bible as the response of these two ancient communities to their experience of God.
On the other hand, I see the Bible as a sacrament. A sacrament is a mediator of the sacred, a means whereby the Spirit of God continues to speak to us even today. The sacramental function of Scripture occurs especially in its use in Christian devotion and worship. The Bible is the "Word of God" in this sense: in its function, not in its origin.
I am sometimes asked, "Do you believe in the Bible?" My response is, "It depends upon what you mean."
If you mean, "Do I think it is a divine product and that everything in it comes from God," then "No."
If you mean, "Do I take it seriously as ancient Israel's and early Christianity's witness to their life with God," then "Yes."
One can take the Bible seriously--without taking it literally as the words of God.