Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Some Assembly Required

James F. McGrath, Associate Professor of Religion at Butler University, Indianapolis, over at Exploring Our Matrix has posted a few thought-proving pictures a couple weeks ago. Click on the previous link to check them out for yourself. What do you think? Did God put the Bible together himself or did God use people to do the work for him? What does this tell us about the Bible itself? Can the Bible escape man's fallible nature or does it contain fingerprints of man's highest hopes and dreams to our deepest fears and darkest issues?

As I've stated many times before, if I believe in anything with every ounce of my being it is that man is capable of making mistakes. With this humble approach to our fallibility how then do we reconcile the view that the infallible and inerrant Bible was penned, edited, arranged, and transmitted by the hand of Man? Should we even try to reconcile these two points or simply look at our freshly assembled Bible with new eyes?

I have noticed two main views when it comes to the Bible's transmission throughout history presented now in a crude graph. (Click to enlarge the image)

  • From Divine Inspiration to our modern Protestant Bible (the Catholic Bible is a whole other can of worms), God has guided the transmission of the Bible throughout history to it's Inerrant, and Infallible state
  • From Divine Inspiration to the present day the Bible has been through countless of human hands for it to be completely free of error. It has errors that the church must examine and deal with as a community.
Inerrant and Infallible
The first view is governed by the belief that regardless of man's attempts in assembling the Bible (which was no easy task) God guided the entire process which resulted in an inerrant and infallible Bible. I believe it is alright to believe this as long the only version you read is the King James Bible. Once you crack open an NIV or any other versions/translations that has updated the KJV by removing erroneous texts you run into questions that challenge the view of an infallible and inerrant Bible. We have thousands of examples of scribal/copyist error so either we can
  1. Ignore ALL of these and accept that God has indeed protected the Bible or
  2. We can accept that God has not protected the Bible from error and we can begin examining these texts for the best and most reliable witnesses (manuscripts).
The first is easy to believe (a bit too easy) because it validates God's superiority and let's us off the hook without having to face any tough questions. The second is troubling to anyone who holds the belief that the Bible is inerrant and infallible but which DOES NOT erode the spiritual importance and connection with the Divine. More on that in a minute. Another challenging issue is the concept that either God would not (or worse, could not) tamper with the production of the Bible, in other words, either he chose not to protect the Bible from error or he was unable to protect it. So far, I've only spoken on the subject of scribal error. The possibility (and probability) of error is increased exponentially at each junction of human interaction with scripture. Did the author hear the words of the Spirit correctly? Did the author and his scribes pen the first copy correctly? Were the subsequent copies copied correctly? And worse, did those who took part in the canonization of the Bible choose the correct books? At each junction of human contact, the original inspired words have a greater chance of containing human error. I do not challenge the original Divine inspiration, I just question man's role in transmitting it.

Bible Written by Man
The second view is governed by the history of the Bible itself: a long history of men battling over the Word of God. I believe that Divine inspiration was (and is) possible but how that inspiration was passed on through written words from generation to generations is what is continuously being challenged in the field of textual criticism. How close we can get to the original words is the goal, not diluting the spiritual importance and beauty of the Bible itself. The Bible can still be viewed as a source of spiritual strength and truth, when read spiritually, while also holding that fallible man had a part in its assembly. Just because the Bible was put together by man does NOT reduce its worth. As long as it guides us to God then we should keep it in our hearts. As long as I keep compassion, which I believe is the central quality of the Divine, as my compass then I can read the Bible without being trapped by it. Passages like 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 can be better understood as an interpolation, a result of the church wrestling with its beliefs and traditions on women than an outright Pauline command to keep women in their place within the early church. I can not believe that a compassionate God would give commands based on gender on the teaching of scripture. To me, this is an example where men have interjected with their own ideas while proclaiming they came from the lips of God.

We should not despair in the fact that the Bible was written by man but raise our voices in praise. It has been a source of inspiration and hope to millions throughout history and is one of the most widely read and highly praised books of all time. We should not bicker over the origins of this valuable gem but instead focus our energy and eyes on the progression of the human condition. What can a book written centuries ago help us to solve 21st century issues? There are only a handful of verses on homosexuality, should we really turn to the Bible when debating such controversial topics? With a humble understanding on the origins and history of this revered book I can no longer see it as a "Cure-all" text for issues and problems in my life. Again, this does not dilute its worth. It is a source of inspiration chronicling the outpouring of the human spirit. As it is then a human creation (although I do accept there was Divine inspiration) we must not put it on a pedestal so high that we are unable to reinterpret it with 21st century eyes. If there are verses that lack compassion then we must always seek to be compassionate even though our ancestors thought otherwise. In seeking God through scripture, we must surpass the words and deeds of history and transform ourselves into that which those very words beg us to become: imitatio dei, Being compassionate as our Father (God/Brahman/Allah/Yahweh) is compassionate. Even if God throughout the various religions lacks compassion, then we must strive to surpass God him/her/itself in compassion. Then we might discover a glimpse into the true image of God.

Blog Series: Some Assembly Required

Part 1: Some Assembly Required
Part 2: The Best and Worst Intentions


YogaforCynics said...

Don't forget the third main view, held by more people than the other two put together: the Bible was written and put together by men without any divine intervention, based on their best and worst ideas about God, as well as quite a bit of self-interest (need to justify subjugation of women, slavery, atrocities committed against neighboring tribes, etc.).

Eruesso said...

When I initially wrote this article I envisioned tackling the view of an inerrant, infallible Bible being protected by the hand of God when we in fact have evidence proving otherwise. I am familiar with the third main view and did not originally include it (in fact I completely spaced out and forgot about it) to focus on the fallible nature of man when it comes to handling Divine Inspiration. This is based on the notion that the majority of people who read and accept the Bible as scripture tend to lean to at least some sort of Divine intervention. Now I feel motivated to write a second part to also include this third view, but will take some time since I like to research a topic before writing about it. Thank you as always Dr. Jay for your insightful comments.

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