When the Bible loses its magic.

Disenchantment. It’s what Disneyland adverts rely on, reminding parents that their children won’t be forever wide-eyed and overawed at meeting Disney characters. Kids grow up, they remind us, so best take them to Disneyland now while the magic is still real. Disenchantment is part of growing up, and for me, that has meant realising that the Bible, like most other things, is not a magic book.

Writing in 1873, Matthew Arnold lamented the way in which the Bible was treated as a book of scientific, dogmatic propositions by many Christians, and therefore rejected by many on that basis too. He argued that after the Reformation, Protestants felt the need for an authority as fixed and as absolute as the Church was to Roman Catholics, and so the Bible came to be “endued with talismanic virtues.”

Photo credit: Wikipedia

The language we use to describe the Bible, at least inside evangelical circles, betrays these talismanic virtues. Words like “infallible”, “inerrant”, “final authority” – for a book which was written by people, rather than directly dictated by God (and in fact by many groups of people over many centuries and in many contexts) to be described in these terms does seem to make claims that would be pretty magical. Although we might avoid a word like magic, it’s an appropriate description of the way we often treat it: if I read the Bible in the morning, my day will go better. If I need answers to a dilemma, opening the Bible will solve it. For any personal problem, from addiction to selfishness to depression to pride, we take people to the words of the Bible, and trust them to do their thing. And of course, it has the magical power of being able to end any argument or debate, with just a few words on any given subject being enough to bring a victorious cry of “because the Bible says so.”

If Arnold was right about our motivation to regard the Bible in this way being a need for stability and absolute authority, then disenchantment could leave us with a lot of uncertainty. So, is it safe for Christians not to regard the Bible as a talisman? Can we hold on to any concept of inspiration and authority without such a view? What is the Bible if not magical, and what role should it have in Christian life?

It might seem like it’s easier just not to ask these questions and leave our Biblical amulet alone, but I’m convinced it’s a constructive conversation to have. Naturally, I don’t have the answers. But I’ve got a few thoughts. Here are five quick reasons why I’m glad that in my mind at least, the Bible is losing its magic:

1. Avoiding idolatry.

There’s a perceptive phrase about the Trinity of conservative evangelicals being the Father, the Son and the Holy Bible, and not only because we’re a bit scared of charismatic worship. When we talk about the Bible in terms like “infallible”, and certainly when we see the book itself as the answer to all our dilemmas, don’t we risk worshipping the Bible instead of God? Don’t we elevate it to divine status, forgetting its human origins and considering it the Way, the Truth and the Life? We worship it as God’s Word, forgetting that the Word of God came not as paper and ink but as a human being, Jesus Christ. It is God, revealed in Jesus, who is infallible and inerrant, God who is the stability and authority we long for, and the Bible points not to itself, but to him.

2. Avoiding culturalising God.

As much as our tendency to worship the Bible, we also have a tendency to idolise the particular cultures represented within the Bible. Sometimes we recognise that a part of the Bible is ‘culture-specific’, usually when it involves an obscure Levitical law or slightly embarrassing instructions of the length of men’s hair, but the reality is that all of the Bible is culture-specific. Of course it is, none of it was written in a vacuum. Each text was written with a particular group of people, in a particular time, place and set of circumstances in mind. The more we let go of a talismanic view of the Bible, the less we idolise those cultural circumstances and get on with meeting God in our own.

3. Opening a dialogue.

As I wrote in an earlier post, there’s nothing more frustrating when you’re trying to have a discussion than someone playing the “but the Bible says so” card. Taking the words of the Bible as having an intrinsically magical and infallible nature, regardless of their literary or historical context, is a sure-fire way to shut down conversation. Christianity is not stagnant. There are always new questions, new challenges, new problems to puzzle over, and the Bible can be a great dialogue partner for working through those puzzles. But only if we respect the texts for what they are: letters, poems, sermons, songs, musings, folk tales and even satire. As Matthew Arnold would remind us, literature not dogma.

4. Affirming humanity.

Not only did the Word of God come to us as a living, breathing, sweating, bleeding human being, but the book we call his written word is about as human as a book can be. Not a scroll dropped from the heavens, or a voice dictating to one man in a cave, but the record of centuries of people and communities, documenting what knowing God means in their own experiences. That God chooses to use the articulated struggles, thoughts and prayers of flawed and frail people as a vehicle of communication is pretty staggering.  That he makes himself known in communities’ history written down for their grandchildren, and in imaginative stories of heroes and beasts, that he somehow shows himself in creative outbursts and considered reflections, is incredible. To imagine that we hear God speak through the Bible despite its human authors is to miss the point entirely. We hear God speak through the Bible because through it he values and respects our humanity, and affirms our experiences of knowing him in all kinds of contexts.

5. Inspiring example.

With all of that said, we can conclude that the texts of the Bible give us an amazing snapshot, an insight into what it looked like for God’s people to meet him and live out their identity as his people in a few different contexts. Sure, some of them were particularly important contexts, like the context of those who met Jesus on earth and walked about with him as his disciples, or the context of those who first faced questions like who was to be welcome and included in the Church. We get the privilege of looking on as these people in these contexts work out their questions and learn how to love and serve God where they are, and we can be inspired to do the same. We can learn principles to help us navigate our own challenges and be encouraged by the various mishaps, uncertainties and failures of those who have gone before us, trying to learn from their mistakes. We can counteract our feelings of insignificance by seeing how our little piece of history fits into the much bigger story, and be inspired to make our chapter the very best it can be.

So I hope you don’t take this the wrong way. I hope you don’t think I’m dismissing, disregarding or devaluing the Bible. I’m just seeing as I grow up that the Bible isn’t magic. It’s much, much greater than that.

100_5492

_______________________________________________________________

As ever, I’d love to hear any thoughts you have, any additional points to make or anything you disagree with. Leave a comment if you’ve got anything to say…

Advertisements

About Claire

@claireylegs Keen on Jesus. Keen on justice. Ministry assistant in the Great North East. Blogger. Find me in: coffee shop / church / pub / bed.
This entry was posted in The Bible and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to When the Bible loses its magic.

  1. gracepennr123 says:

    Claire:

    I am new to blogging and wasn’t sure what to expect in others’ blogs. I have to say that I was compelled to immediately follow your blog. I admire and am inspired by your thoughts regarding the Bible. I have not known exactly how to put it into words when I have had discussions with friends, family, and even new acquaintences regarding Faith. I am also energized, though, to read more of your posts hoping to find something to discuss with you further. I feel we are of like minds in that one of the greatest ways to learn more about my own Faith or Theology or Spirituality is to discuss it with others, especially if you can disagree in a respectful manner and simply sharing a different point of view (not right or wrong… just different). Thank you for your post and I look forward to exploring your blog further.

    Grace

    • Claire says:

      Grace, thank you so much for your kind words.
      It’s always encouraging to know there are others thinking about similar questions and coming at them from a similar perspective. I really liked the post on your own blog too, and likewise I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts!

  2. Pingback: When the Bible loses its magic. | GRACEful Iris

  3. Thanks again for such a helpful blog post . I’ve been thinking more about what the authority of the Bible really means recently – your thoughts are much more coherent than mine! I was struck recently by a comment by the theologian Jane Williams, when questioned about the notion of biblical ‘infallibility’; she replied “the Bible infallibly does what God wants it to do, which is to bring us into a relationship with God through his self-revelation in Jesus Christ”. I’m finding this idea really useful in reminding me how to approach the Bible 🙂

  4. Carwyn Graves says:

    Have you read Tom Wright on biblical authority? It is cracking. 😀

  5. Hi Claire. Interesting thoughts. However I think that the Reformed definition of Innerancy was far more nuanced than you’ve stated. For example the classic theologians who wrote extensively on Innerancy like Charles Hodge and B B Warfield never thought as the Bible being ‘dictated’ but by God inspiring human authors with their individual styles to write accurately in the things they were describing. See Old Princeton, Westminster, and Inerrancy — By: Moisés Silva.

    The idea that that the Bible is a book of scientific facts read separately from the contexts of the Biblical writers original intent is not a product of Reformed Orthodoxy by one of 20th century fundamentalist anti-intellectualism.

    If you have a problem with the Bible being a source of proof texts, fine. But read documents such as the Westminster Confession of Faith and you’ll find that the texts for each doctrine stated have been well researched and thought through – so much that you don’t realise that the verses match up to the statement because we’re so used to looking for a proof text!

    • Claire says:

      Hi David,

      Thanks a lot for your comments – I didn’t mean to imply that inerrancy means the idea that the Bible was dictated by God, apologies if that’s how it came across. I’m more inclined to think the idea of inerrancy is problematic because it assumes that the texts of the Bible are of the sort that could be ‘wrong’, so it has to assume they are all universal propositional statements, at least in their implication if not in their grammar. But so much of it is of a genre where it doesn’t really make sense to talk about error – how can a poem be wrong? How can a deep cry from someone’s heart be judged for its factual content? Equally, a command which was ‘right’ in one context, might not be right in another context – but the idea of inerrancy often leads to universal application of commands without consideration of their contexts. It makes things too black and white, I think, because something is either true or false.

      I’m not saying that this view of the Bible is a necessary consequence of the Reformation either, and I agree that it appears particularly strongly in 20th century fundamentalism. But where the ideas of inerrancy and infallibility are used of the Bible, where they Bible itself is seen as having the power rather than God, and so on, it’s often the same places that make the Bible out to be a science or history text book too. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy for instance, says at article 12: “WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit. WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.”

      Hope that clears up what I meant a bit – do come back at me though!

      • Thanks for getting back on this Claire

        You say if you believe Innerancy you a forced to treat the Bible as a set of presuppositions (correct me if I’m wrong). The thing is no proponent of Innerancy ever preaches on a book (say the Psalms) and treats it that way. As the Chicago statement you quoted says in Article 13: “We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose”.

        Neither does it mean that all commands in the Bible are universal for all time. Historically Christians have divided up OT commands into 3 categories: moral law, ceremonial law and civil law. Jesus affirms the moral in the sermon on the mount, denies the civil law by creating a church with no political power, and declares all foods clean (Mark 7:19). By looking at the Bible this way, Christians have held a high view of scripture, and been able to live the Christian life knowing what God requires of them. I think questioning the authority of scripture simply makes the problem of how Christians should live worse and not better. It’s hard enough to interpret and apply a Bible without error, it’s even harder with a Bible with errors, because who decides what the errors are?

        • Claire says:

          I see your point, yeah. Maybe it doesn’t require a person to think that absolutely all of it is propositional, though I quote Gordon Clark as an example: “Aside from imperative sentences and a few exclamations in the Psalms, the Bible is composed of propositions.” So maybe not quite all of it, but still a lot more than I think was intended to be propositional, at least in this sort of way.

          But I do think talking about error and inerrancy means assuming that ancient writers, some only 2000 years ago, some a whole lot more, thought the same way in terms of history and science as we do now since the 18th or 19th century. I’d be keen to hear a historians perspective on this, but as far as I’ve been taught, no-one wrote dispassionate history for the sake of recording history in the ancient world. No-one attempted objectivity and journalistic reporting, and nor do the books of the Bible claim to be that – I think we see it more in the gospels, but even they are open about their motives (eg John 20:31). That doesn’t mean we write them off as ‘false’ but that we have to think back into an ancient Israelite or a first century Jewish mindset when we think about what they were trying to do. For instance, things in the gospels presented as if they were chronological, when they clearly disagree on chronology, presents a bit of a problem if we’re thinking about it in terms of error – John puts the incident with the money changers in the temple near the beginning of his gospel for instance, when the synoptics put it at the end. Was he wrong? Or did he just have a different purpose to what we would consider the right way to report history? I agree that a Bible with errors would be hard to deal with. But I don’t think its fair to talk about say historical or scientific error according to our post-Enlightenment agenda when Biblical writers didn’t have the same priorities or purposes in mind.

          • I would agree with you that we can’t judge scripture by the same standards as our post-enlightenment way of reporting history. As article 13 of the Chicago statement continues:

            “We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.”

            • Claire says:

              In which case, I’d ask what inerrancy ends up meaning if it’s not negated by the reporting of falsehoods?
              Also, how does the reporting of falsehoods allowed by article 13 tie up with article 9 which states “We deny that the finitude or fallenness of these writers, by necessity or otherwise, introduced distortion or falsehood into God’s Word” and article 12’s description that it is free from falsehood?

              • Good question. Because the Bible’s purpose there is simply to shown what people said, as plenty of people mentioned in the Bible lie and so the authors want the reader to see that. I assume the difference is in the phrase “reporting of falsehoods” in 13 as opposed to “introducing distortions and falsehoods” in 9. Sometimes the Bible can be more helpful in showing us the mistakes of other people!

          • marcusampe says:

            Every Biblical writer wrote his book with a certain purpose and with a certain group of people in their mind.

            I do not think the apostles wanted to give as such a chronological report of the happenings they were part of. Every person remembers certain things in an other way or look at it from a different angle, therefore they would not disagree or contradict wit the other. Ask for example those around you what they saw just a minute ago, and you will here different stories of the same moment at the same place. Compare for example the reports of an accident on the street. The witnesses using other words remarking other things, but all telling about the same event.

            With the apostles you also may not forget they did not keep a diary at the time itself, but wrote down the things many years later, why they would recollect things in perhaps a different order and give priority to different things according to their profession and feeling.

    • gracepennr123 says:

      David,
      I do not presume to defend the thoughts of another person, but i do have a certain perspective of Claire’s post that leads me to this comment. I reread point #4 and she, in my opinion, states that God uses these writings to communicate with us. She only confirms that it is written over an extended period of time and by several people. I think for some people it is difficult to grasp the miracles thar went on in Jesus’s time on earth and shortly after through the disciples. My own experience as someone beginning a true Faith journey with Jesus Christ at the Helm in my mid 30s has shown me that there are definitely things that i miss in my studies of my Faith, but if everything came to me at once i feel it would have been too overwhelming and scary.

      My point is, dont miss the point of Claire’s writing at least from a newcomer’s perspective, she is writing from her heart and is touching others with images that encourage us to seek further knowledge about our Savior and Lord.

      I am going to check out the text you mention myself, but only because i am at a place where differing points of view draw me in. I know in the beginning i would have really taken your words as chastising her for posting something you feel is untrue. I pray that was not your intent.

      Grace
      Romans 12:3

  6. marcusampe says:

    The Bible is the Word of God bringing history of mankind and revealing the Messiah Jeshua or Jesus Christ who is the son of God but not god the son. There is only One God of gods to be worshipped and that is the Father of Jesus, who is not part of a triune God. That is a false teaching brought in many years after the death of Jesus and his disciples, the apostles. The Bible tells very clearly who is who in the universe and Creation of the Divine God, who is One and there should be no other.

    • Claire says:

      Hi Marcus, thanks for sharing your views. I know there are a number of non-Trinitarian churches/perspectives out there, do you identify with any particular one? I had an interesting email chat with a Christadelphian minister some years ago now about Trinitarian theology, though I was certainly in over my head at the time!
      I’ve found it really interesting to study how doctrines like the Trinity came about though, as you say, it wasn’t fully formed till some centuries after Jesus was on earth. Personally I’m convinced that it’s the best we’ve come up with as a way to describe the identities of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and their relationships to each other – but I can see that others might not be so convinced.

      • marcusampe says:

        I am a Christadelphian, living in the Flemish part of Belgium (Western Europe).

        Like so many Bible Students we do not believe in the Trinity. That word you shall also not be able to find in any Bible, in the actual Text of the Old and New testament nor in the Apocryphal writings.

        At the Belgian Bible Students you may find an historical overview, and links to other articles, demonstrating how the Trinitarian idea came into being. Butt when people just listen to the words like they are written in the Holy Scriptures, not taking in to account any doctrinal teaching, they shall becoming to see clear and understand who is who in the Word of God. The problem is that it takes some effort and courage to go from the first letter of the scriptures until the last, being prepared to take the words like they are written down, so when there is written ‘father’ to take it for ‘father’ and when there is written ‘son’ to take it for ‘son’ and not for ‘god’ or God’, also being aware that there always have been many gods, like any high person was called a god, but not the divine God Creator.

        The full bible reading is a quest or voyage worthwhile taking and bringing marvellous explorations. I only can recommend to do it once (but not to wait to long)

        Wishing you a nice day and the best of luck,
        Marcus

  7. Pingback: » I’M TAKING MY CHANCES WITH GOD EVERYTHING ELSE IS MEANINGLESS

  8. Ian says:

    Hello Claire,

    I enjoyed your post very much–I can’t think of a single thing I disagree with (and while I don’t usually go out of my way to find people who agree with me, it is nice to hear a kindred spirit for sanity’s sake). I have been troubled by the general Protestent view of scripture for some time.

    I’m not sure what the current state of scholarship on this is or whether you have already considered it, but I recommend looking into philosophical hermeneutics; you may find some fun tools to add to the ole’ intellecutal toolbox. It wasn’t more theology that turned me off to orthodox expressions of infallibility/inerrancy (e.g., I can’t bring myself to affirm the Chicago Statement’s Article 9), it was a combination of philosophy and simply getting older and more accustomed to the human condition.

    I think your blogging efforts are excellent. Please keep at it!

    Ian

  9. Pingback: The Word of God in print | Broeders in Christus

  10. Pingback: BABE IN CHRIST | I’M TAKING MY CHANCES WITH GOD EVERYTHING ELSE IS MEANINGLESS

  11. Beth says:

    This post is very timely for me. Like, crazy timely. Thank you.

Have your say:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s