The following piece was a presentation Dr. Joe LaGuardia gave at a recent interfaith dialogue with the Interfaith Network of the Treasure Coast. The topic of the dialogue was “Sacred Texts”..
What is it about the Bible — this text consisting of over 66 books, two testaments, and multiple genres — that makes it both the source of hope and faith for so many people across the ages and Ground Zero for conflicts that have divided communities of faith?
The Bible is a source of hope and faith. People claim that it is God’s word, infallible, inspired, and the living word of God. It has shaped people of faith and records God’s interaction with people of faith since the beginning of creation to the end of the first century AD.
But the Bible has also been a source of consternation and conflict. In my own, Baptist tradition, we have used the Bible to support slavery and oppose slavery, advocate for women in ministry and oppose women in ministry, argue that we ought to worship on the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, or the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week. The Bible has been at the heart of every church conflict and split for centuries.
The best way to show you how Christians see the book as authoritative is to show how people of faith believe that it has been inspired directly by God since its inception. This process of inspiration and its source for the formation of the Bible reveals why it holds this kind of power in making and fashioning communities of faith.
Christians believe that God inspired the Grand Divine Story in its oral form. Well before the written word, the story of God’s people passed on from generation to generation through oral storytelling inspired by God. God’s inspiration sustained the consistency and resiliency of this story down to the time of its writing.
Christians believe that God inspired the writing, recording, and editing of sacred scripture. Although the Bible is made up of various authors spanning hundreds of years, moving scripture from oral to written form, God’s inspiration was instrumental in the writing of the text. Some books, however, are a tapestry of God’s revelation from a variety of authors, so the editing of each text also contains within it God’s fingerprints of inspiration.
Christians believe that God inspired the formation of the Bible. From the first to the fourth century, both Jewish and Christian communities were defining which books were to be included in their respective canons. The word “canon” means “closed” and literally implies that the Testaments–both old and new–are “closed” off to new books of revelation. God inspired the formation of the canon, which involved drawing boundaries around what ended up being the authoritative Bible or “word of God.”
Christians believe that God inspires the reading community. We believe that inspiration does not end on the written page. The Holy Spirit inspires our reading of the text to shape and form communities, fashion and guide communities, and transform the hearts of those who read scripture. The Bible is, therefore, central in worship and liturgy and the source of belief and behavior.
The problems with inspiration arise when people confuse the authority of Scripture with authority they assert in their interpretation of Scripture. Scripture is inspired; our interpretation — set within a reading community — is not. Interpretation is contextual and stamped within a certain time and place. That’s why people can read the Bible to support slavery while their neighbors can read the same Bible to oppose slavery.
If we see our interpretations as authoritative, then it is not far-fetched to only read, interpret, and apply the parts of the Bible that we like. We begin to gerrymander our reading of the text, and we ignore parts with which we either disagree or dislike. That’s why the very people in my tradition can disagree whether women can preach while ignoring verses right next door that enforce head-coverings for women in houses of worship. We choose to historicize some verses while claiming that the very next set of verses is universal in its application and scope. It all gets very confusing.
Although there is division in our reading of scripture, we hold in common the ongoing work of discerning the Word of God in our liturgy, reading, and proclamation of the word. Preaching the Bible is our best attempt to apply and appropriate an ancient book to a specific time and place.
The fundamental conviction of most Christians is that the Bible is inspired and authoritative in living a life of faith with God. How we apply sacred scriptures depends on time, place, and the people reading the Bible–and the values and convictions that drive their interpretations of the text that shape communities beyond the written word.