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April 26th, 2012 @ 6:10 am by Kevin
In his book The Jesus-Driven Life, theologian Michael Hardin says he dislikes the term “God,” because it’s like a suitcase–you can pack anything into it you like. He prefers the term “Jesus,” because it’s not so generic, and it reminds us of the centrality of Christ.
I tend to agree with Michael, but I would extend the same way of thinking to the Bible itself. Whenever I hear the phrase, “The Bible says…”, I cringe, because I know I’m about to be met with a statement that takes the complex blend of authors and literary genres that make up the Bible and flattens them into a generic voice that says one–and only one–thing.
Of course, depending on your theory of inspiration, you might think this is perfectly acceptable, because that generic voice is actually the voice of God, which supersedes the voices of all the human beings who wrote the Bible (not to mention the voices of the human beings who edited the biblical books, translated the biblical books and chose which books would be part of the Bible and in what order.). But then that begs the question of why God had human beings involved in the process at all. If his intention was to give us a book that gave us the full, unvarnished truth unblemished by human fallibility, why didn’t he just write it himself? Jesus could have even hand-delivered it to us.
Rather than “The Bible says…”, I much prefer to use language like, “Matthew says…”, “The Apostle Paul says…”, or “The writer of Genesis says…” Singling out individual authors or books like this helps to remind us of a couple of things: First, that the Bible is not a book. It is a library of books written over hundreds of years by different authors writing within vastly different cultural contexts. This list of authors includes prophets, poets, kings, theologians murderers, prisoners and people of unknown background, whose circumstances had a huge bearing on how they perceived God.
Second, no matter your theory of inspiration, it reminds us that these authors weren’t merely taking dictation from God. They were also expressing their own opinions, hopes and fears, which were a product of their personalities and their historical and cultural context. An oft-quoted case in point is Galatians 5:12, where the Apostle Paul wishes the Judaizers–those who insisted Gentile Christians should be circumcised–would go all the way and emasculate themselves. Ouch. I guess you could interpret Paul’s anger as God’s anger, but I think even Paul would take issue with that, seeing as such wishes are hardly in accord with Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbor as our self.
So the next time you’re tempted to say, “The Bible says…”, stop for a moment and consider why you’re doing it. Especially if you’re tempted to use that phrase to support your position on hell. (This applies equally to Infernalists, Annihilationists and Universalists.) Because chances are, that one biblical author you’re so certain supports your case is probably contradicted by another biblical author (or perhaps another book written by the same author) who makes quite a different argument. This is not to say that the biblical authors were not inspired or that they aren’t united on a great number of things–including the notion that after we die, we will have to give an account to God for the way we’ve lived our lives and then face the consequences of our actions. But how this works out exactly is a matter of which not even the biblical authors appear 100% certain.