Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What inherently accords the Bible the Sacred Status of Word of God?

If I was correct that the phrase "Word of God" is heightened language to express the opinion of an individual or a community about a particular collection of books, then it follows that the sacredness of the books does not derive from their essential nature, but derives from what people think about the books. In other words: like beauty the Bible's character as "Word of God" lies in the eye of the beholder!  Let's take the one poetic term that seems to undergird and support the other figurative terms.  The claim that the Bible (whichever version) is inspired by God seems to be the principal claim and other descriptions are derivative from it.
            Divine inspiration of individuals was a common idea in Graeco-Roman antiquity; the inspired ecstatic utterances of certain figures were commonly treated as oracles (i.e., utterances of the God).  The God spoke through an inspired host.  One of the best known oracular sanctuaries was the shrine of the God Apollo, located at Delphi in central Greece, where individuals throughout the ancient world would go for answers to personal, political, and religious questions.  A priestess known as the Pythia received the questions.  She was believed to be possessed by the God when she spoke the oracle, and her reply was considered "the Word of the God."
            This situation was similar to that of the ancient prophets of Israel; the words they spoke at the Lord's behest were treated as the Words of Yahweh, the God of Israel (for example, Jeremiah 1:1-10).  Both situations are likely part of the deep historical background behind the modern appellation "Word of God" applied to the Bible.  The legendary story of the translation of the Bible into Greek clearly reinforces the idea of the Bible's inspiration: the translators who were put in separate cubicles make exactly the same translation from Hebrew into Greek without consulting the work of one another.
            The Roman state consulted the Sibylline Oracles, a collection of ancient Greek oracles, which had been gathered from women thought to be inspired by the God.  The books were brought out and consulted for guidance at times of national crisis.  Some of the books show the influence of Jewish and Christian thought.
            The need for a "word from God" in the Jewish, Christian, and ancient Roman traditions originates in the human psyche where a similar need for divine guidance was felt in facing the uncertainties of life.  The shift from the oracular utterance to the written word is likely occasioned by skepticism and the decline of oracular centers in the ancient world.  Plutarch, a priest of the God Apollo at Delphi (late first century CE), for example, has two essays on the decline of oracles.  With the loss of confidence that the Gods were continuing to speak audibly through inspired individuals, divine authority is transferred to the written collections of what had once been thought a living word from God.
            The early Christians treated the Jewish Bible like prophetic oracles that proved the truth of Christianity.  They did not use the literal sense of the statements in the Bible as word from God, but insisted that the Bible's oracles were veiled prophecies attesting to Christ (viz., Galatians 3:16; 1 Corinthians 10:1-4; Romans 10:5-11): they argued that the truth of the "Christ centered nature" of the Jewish Bible was clear to anyone who read it with the eyes of faith (viz., 2 Corinthians 3:13-16, 4:3-6).  For Christians the words of the Jewish Bible in a literal sense already by the time of Paul had generally ceased to be meaningful for the Christian experience (1 Corinthians 9:9-12; Galatians 4:22-31), and hence the eventual development of a new set of holy books for Christian communities that became the authority for interpreting the old "obsolete" Jewish books.
            These three ancient religious collections constitute the traditional remains of two different religious communities, which extend from the Israelite Exodus to the writing of 2 Peter.  They reveal different social, cultural, ethical, and religious traditions covering around 1200 years.  The Jewish Bible is a library of traditional writings of the ancient Israelites containing among other things the history of the people told from a religious perspective, along with its ancient laws, prophetic literature, hymnbook, wisdom literature, etc., from the 13th century BCE to roughly 400 BCE (second temple period).  The Apocrypha consists of additional Jewish religious texts written between 300 BCE to 70 CE.  The New Testament (50 CE to early second century) contains among other things stories, personal correspondence and theological essays.
            These collections are quite diverse and clearly primitive.  How can one today recognize a valid Word of God within them?  Indeed, how would anyone know a word of God if they saw it?  The texts are written in different social contexts at different times, and thereby contain the seeds of their own irrelevancy.  To maintain relevance the ethical and religious values of each book must constantly be prioritized and re-interpreted for every new generation.  However, some instructions in the books are clearly not the words of an ethical God (for example, Deut 17:2-5; 21:18-21; 1 Tim 2:8-15).  If there was once a justification for such advice, no justification can be offered for such practices in modern society.  In short, the Bible is out-of-date as a book for faith and practice—at least in part.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


Anonymous said...

If some attachment to the bible contributed to turning a person's life around and changed it for the better, for that one, I guess, its the word of God. Maybe that's happened with the Bible more than any other book.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Gene,
That was my experience. What I believed about the Bible framed and shaped my life. As a kid growing up in Greenville, Mississippi in a Southern Baptist Church I was taught that the Bible is the Word of God. That teaching was reinforced by the sermons, and even by public media and public schools, although somewhat more modestly in those latter two venues. No one ever told me why the Bible was the Word of God, or how I could identify its divine elements. I suspect that other sacred texts shape lives in other geographical locations of the world; the Bible plays a dominant role only in Western culture, and may not be responsible for the greatest number of lives influenced. My next blog will be on what distinguishes the Bible from other collections of Holy Writ.

Anonymous said...

Very much appreciate this word of God series, Charlie.

My early experience was in the evangelical methodist traditions where the church Book of Discipline avowed that the bible "contained everything necessary for salvation," and that meant recognition and confession of sin and the heart changing belief that Jesus bore the sins of humankind on the cross and washed them away, including mine.

There was also a social, even universal, aspect to this church experience, however, and that was early on expressed in the Sunday School song:

Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in his sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

I'd always thought that song should be sung in adult worship, perhaps changing the words "little children" to "human beings."

Later on as a freshman in college I learned that there was a flip side to this word of God coin. The flip side was human-word-of-God, which hit me broadside when the History of Western Civilization professor said that the Israelites crossed the "reed" sea. It took several days for me to process that message, but it began a life long approach to the bible that was investigative as well as existential. It also brought me into head-long existential conflict and conflict with the congregations that I pastored for five years. I was born a couple decades too soon, how I wish I'd had the pink/red votes of the Jesus Seminar back then for some firmer more confident footing.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.