Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
I understand why we should treat the Bible with exceptional reverence, taking it as the single most essential book we have among the millions that have been written. The Bible is the best account of Jesus’s life and ministry, the best account of the teachings, travels and travails of His disciples as they began to preach the Gospel. It opens with the best account of God’s efforts to draw the Israelites into faithful covenant life, an account that provides the necessary context for Jesus’s appearance in the world. The Bible is, I believe, a book we should consult early and late, in hope and despair, in moments of confusion and in fits of arrogance.
I do not understand why we should treat the Bible as the sole source of understanding what God expects of us. Nor do I understand why we should treat the Bible as Truth incarnate and without error or dross. Thus, the appearance of five bits of text in the Bible that appear to speak negatively of same-sex sexual relations does not lead me to the conclusion that homosexuality is a sin – especially when these bits of text run athwart the love-affirming current of Jesus’s teachings.
Nowhere in the four Gospels do I hear Jesus saying to his disciples or anyone else, “you should write down what I am saying, because after I am gone, what is written down will be all you to have to cling to.” Nor do I ever see any of the disciples volunteering to take the transcription on this day or that as Jesus went about His ministry. The Gospel writers were each of them retelling stories recollected to them by others; none was a direct witness.
But Scripture is “God-breathed,” one might object, referencing 2 Timothy 3:16. Does this mean that we should believe the Bible as the One and Only source of Truth because the Bible says that it is? That would be deeply circular reasoning. And “God breathed” doesn’t necessarily mean “inerrant” nor “exclusive.”
I do believe in divine inspiration. I do believe that human beings can be filled with the Holy Spirit, that through that inspiration we can know something of God’s will, and that we can communicate what we learn in this fashion to others. It is in large part because I believe in the possibility of such divine inspiration that I became a Friend. George Fox’s epiphany that “Jesus has come to teach His people Himself” resonates strongly with me. The Teacher Within that I hear when I still myself, is (I find) the same Voice that I can hear in the Bible when I read it with care and reverence.
I do believe that the Bible was written by human beings under such divine inspiration, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That is why I revere the Bible and turn to it regularly for spiritual guidance.
I do not believe, however, that the leadings of the Holy Spirit cleanse error entirely from what human beings hear and then may communicate to others. My experience in hearing vocal ministry in Meetings for Worship is that I learn profound, fresh and unexpected things. I hear messages of tremendous spiritual depth that help me grow closer to God. But in these messages, however exalted, there is also likely dross and imperfection. Human beings are prone to such error. We struggle to escape it, and we should, seeking God’s help and also seeking God’s forgiveness when we fall short. Recognizing the possibility of error does not lessen the value of such divinely inspired spoken ministry. Rather it is a reminder that we are called to worship and obey God, not God’s messages.
The predicament of “whisper down the lane,” the child’s game in which error creeps in as we whisper a message from one to another in turn, is as much a problem in hearing what God says to us as it is in what other people say to us. God may say it perfectly, but that is no guarantee that we will hear it and communicate it perfectly.
And so I do not believe that the Bible, doubtless divinely inspired, is thereby a work of inerrant perfection. Those who wrote the various books of the Bible were certainly filled with the Holy Spirit. What was communicated to those authors as God breathed in their ears may have been perfection itself. But what they heard, what they transcribed, what others selected for inclusion (or exclusion), what others copied and recopied, and what still others translated may be marvelous, may be the best spiritual material we will ever have, and yet not perfect, not inerrant.
Each of those authors was a human being living in a particular time and place, each had beliefs (even prejudices) arising in a certain time and place that may have shaded what was heard. Each of the authors struggled, again with divine assistance, to put in human language with all its embedded beliefs and perspectives, what the Holy Spirit communicated. Jesus may have spoke Aramaic, the New Testament authors may have spoken Koine Greek, but I doubt the Holy Spirit knows or speaks best in either. Every great mystic testifies to the impossibility of putting the holiest of insights into human language.
That God gave us the ability to hear the Holy Spirit speaking within us also means that God gave us the ability to notice the odd errors that may creep in. That God gave us the ability to gather with others in worship to hear the received messages and leadings of others further strengthens our ability to hear what is true and set aside what arises from inevitable human error. That gathering together in worship can also help correct our wandering minds. These are gifts of God for which we should be thankful.
I believe that today we have the same capabilities to hear the Holy Spirit that human beings had in the first and second century CE. I do not believe God closed an era in the third century such that human beings before a specific date had an exalted capacity to hear the Holy Spirit, and which those following would forever lack. I believe Jesus came to earth to teach so that all human beings might hear and follow.
I believe in one God. I do not believe in the divinity of the humans who wrote the books of the Bible. I revere the Bible; I do not worship it in itself.