Chapter 2: The Bible and God

Beginning a discussion about the Bible with the question: “Is it God’s word or a human product?” is punchy and provocative. Most either/or propositions are. Which side of that proverbial line drawn in the sand am I going to stand behind? If I opt for the belief that the Bible is the word of God not a human product, doesn’t that reduce the obvious imprints of the authors who crafted the Scriptures within their cultural and historical settings? On the other hand, if I opt for the Bible as an exclusively human product doesn’t that reduce its significance as a guide for my beliefs and lifestyle? Borg seems to have the moxie to take a stand. Do I? If not, why not?

Borg’s bold stand that the Bible’s origin is a product of human communities, that its words are exclusively human, cannot and do not stand alone in this chapter. After awakening the reader with the controversial idea that the origin of the Bible is human, he proceeds to carefully suggest the relationship of the Bible to God by discussing how Scripture is sacred, sacramental, and the Word of God. Before discussing his provisos to the human origin of the Bible, I have to admit that as a reader I found it hard to look past his first point that the words of the Bible have their origins in human communities.

The faith communities that formed my beliefs and practices had always appealed to the divine origin of Scripture as ground of their authority and the very backbone of the life they recommended. These groups were not fundamentalist insofar as there was no room for interpretation but they did stand firmly behind the proposition that what the Bible said, God said. In a broad, sweeping way I asserted this along with their position until I started reflecting on exactly what the Bible did say, whether or not the God-made-known in Jesus Christ could say all the things that he supposedly did. By taking the Bible seriously I came to question my original beliefs about it.

Borg takes the Bible seriously but not literally when he questions whether the creation stories were God’s or Israel’s or when he wondered about the sanctions against homosexuality in the Levitical code that also legislated on the wearing of different blends of cloth. One prescription is held strongly, the other hardly even mentioned. He also ponders a strange story about God in (Exodus 4:24-26). God wanted to “kill” Moses, only to be diverted by his wife’s almost magical act of placing their son’s foreskin at Moses’ feet to ward off the curse. While the story is more about circumcision and its importance in the covenant, it nonetheless alludes to a very odd intention of God toward his future liberator. There is undoubtedly a very primitive sounding darkness to this tale, an earlier strata of tradition.

The distance between the God I encountered in Jesus Christ and the one I found in some portions of Scripture came up when I took a course on Women and the Bible. Even though many passages about the subjugation of women could be exegeted away, not all could. The general tenor of much of the later works of Paul (or someone writing in his name) were as Borg says in this chapter, misogynist.

During this class, much to the frustration of my more evangelical classmates, I suggested that we can’t with integrity change our views on how to treat women in the church without first addressing how we viewed Scripture. I wasn’t completely aware of it at the time but I was implying that Scripture was culturally conditioned and had to be not just reinterpreted but discerned as to its own faithfulness to God in Christ. Borg explains my barely aware intuition very well:
There are parts of the Bible that we will decide need not or should not be honoured, either because we discern that they were relevant to ancient times but not our own, or because they never were the will of God.

Examples include passages of holy war, apocalyptic revenge and punitive Psalms. While I have one foot on the human side of the Bible’s origins, I think that I have the other foot straddling over to the divine side as well. Borg seems to creep up upon this line when he discusses the connection between the Bible and God through sacredness, sacrament and Word. He makes a very helpful distinction when he advises, calling the Bible the Word of God referring not to its origin but to its status and function.

The status of the Bible according to Borg relates to its canonical quality. These are the books that over the centuries those who have practiced discipleship have identified as containing an authoritative message, to be read in relation with how to believe and live the Christian life. They are not to be taken literally but seriously as dialogue partners along with the Spirit in community. True though this is I would like to ponder the question about how closed the canon ought to be. If the Scriptures are human voices witnessing to their understanding of God’s action in faith communities is it not possible that some other human product can speak authoritatively in our own time? If this is the case then what criteria are there for acknowledging other channels of revelation? Why not the book of Wisdom or Enoch? Perhaps the acknowledged canon is sufficient but the question should be raised. My first step would be to take one of the acknowledged texts from the Apocrypha and use it in devotion and preaching to explore the fruit of its message. The ultimate criterion is whether a text is faithful to the ultimate revelation of God in Christ.

When Borg speaks of the Scripture’s sacramental nature he means how the Bible mediates the presence of God. He rightly connects how we view Scripture with how we approach the Eucharist. The Eucharist is not magical nor is the Bible but it does communicate God to us when we approach it in faith. If we only emphasis the human origin of the Bible we may in fact not take its sacramental function seriously and through critical reductionism diminish its worth. This is what happens when the Scriptures are only seen through a scholarly grid and not as a means of prayer and communion with God. It is the function of the Bible as the Word or self-disclosure that Borg emphasizes. He doesn’t seem however to stress the fact that this Word is preeminently identified through the incarnation in Jesus the Christ. He does approach this perspective in one of his last metaphors of the Bible. Using the Buddhist teaching concerning the finger pointing to the moon, he says,
Christians sometimes make the mistake of thinking that being Christian is about believing in the finger rather than seeing the Christian life as a relationship to that which the finger points.

I would paraphrase this slightly differently, Christians sometimes make the mistake of thinking that living the Christian life is about believing the literal words of Scripture rather than trusting the one who reveals God - Jesus Christ is the Word.