Joel Watts writes the blog Unsettled Christianity. He recently published this post about Thom Stark’s response to my review of The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It (a 12-part review which begins with this introduction).
I’m just going to leave the dialogue there at Joel’s site because it’s long and it would be too tedious to try to reformat it here. This link above will take you to it. The dialogue begins just beneath the short post. (There were some others who commented, but it was mainly Joel and me.)
I’ll let the conversation speak for itself except to say that one of the things I learned from this exchange is that the phrase “The Bible is the word of God” is an anathema to someone like Joel. Going into the conversation I knew that he disagreed with that statement (because he was supportive of Thom’s book), but I did not know the revulsion that its utterance provoked in him. This explains in part why it must have been hard for him at times to engage reasonably and exchange views with a goal of finding any points of agreement that might exist. This also helps explain why the conversation ended the way it did: I finally gave up hope that we could summarize our points of agreement and disagreement.
Regarding the fundamental issue, I often say “The Bible is the word of God,” or “The Scriptures are the word of God.” When I do, I don’t mean that it’s all of the word of God there is. Nor do I intend to distract from the truth that Jesus Christ is the embodiment of the word of God (and thus is rightly called “The Word” or “the Word of God”). Less still do I want to obscure the truth that the Bible is pointing us to Christ and not to itself (John 5:39).
What I do mean to say by those phrases is that the Bible is reliable. It is a message from God – that the men who wrote the texts that we call the Bible were writing on behalf of God and not on behalf of themselves. In other words, Scripture is trustworthy as communication from our Creator, and we can read it with at least the same degree of confidence that we read a book, a newspaper, or any other reputable media today.
Having said that, I am not saying that we living in the 21st Century can open it up at any page and read the sentences as if God were speaking directly to us (like a newspaper or magazine published today). Nor am I saying that we can read it from beginning to end as we would normally read a book. The Bible is a collection of documents and each document is a product of the age in which it was written – in language, idiom, culture, and other respects. And of course there are variations in genre and writing style. There are letters, histories, poems, and more. And all of it comes through human expression.
The Bible is thus a special book, but it is not magical. It was written by humans and it is read by humans. If we read it with a humble heart we can hear the word of God in its pages, and the Holy Spirit will bring to us the meaning for us. But that understanding usually comes as we recognize, for example, that the apostle Paul was writing a letter to churches in the region of Galatia which knew him face to face and who had become misdirected by other teachers who we do not know…and so on. You get my point. We should not let the expression “The Bible is the word of God” cause us to read it out of context or impute to it single-book structure that it does not possess.
Would this pacify Joel? It didn’t seem to, but I thought it was worth emphasizing here.