“This is part 4 of a series of posts titled “Relearn the Bible.” These four blog posts are written to challenge notions of the Bible held by Biblically illiterate Christians, including that the Bible is a magical rule book void of human history, influence, & the need for careful interpretation.
This is my final post mentioning the flaws of a simplistic “Biblicist” approaches to the Scripture. The common view that I grew up with, and is still held by most fundamentalist Christians is that God dictated the actual words and then a prophet or scribe wrote them down. Or else that particular prophet was under some kind of trance where God himself used the human hands to write down divine words. In any event most Christians believe the writing of the Bible happened in a similar fashion to modern spiritism: the human writer channeled God in the same way psychics allegedly channel dead people.
While this may have been a good hypothesis for the Biblically illiterate, there are many parts of the Scriptures that don’t add up with such a view. In fact, in approaching the Bible with no dogmatic presuppositions and carefully avoiding selective bias, we find a largely different picture. The Bible is a compendium of many literary styles, genres, and narrative modes. Below are a few examples that contradict the idea the every single word in the Bible was literally dictated by God, apart from the human ideas, feelings, desires or the author. As we explore these ideas, we will consider and compare two Biblical statements that about the Bible, 2 Peter 1:21 and 2 Timothy 3:16, with the other types of passages also found in the Scriptures. I will identity four categories or types of texts found in the Scriptures that are relevant to this discussion, though these are by no means the only types, there many more.
FOUR CATEGORIES OF “SCRIPTURES”
1. Prophetic statements uttered by God
One of the crucial inspiration texts, 2 Peter 1:21, tells us that all prophecy came about from men who were carried along by the Holy Spirit, rather than the mind of men. This may appear to cover everything, however, this specifically picks out passages that are prophetic in nature, and makes no statements about anything else. And certainly any good student of the Bible will readily admit it would be ignorant to try to argue that everything in the Bible is a prophecy. An example of a prophetic passage that certainly appears to be written down “word for word” (verbal plenary inspiration), as dictated by God, includes the famous Jeremiah 29:11:
“‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.”
These types of passages are very clear (in their origin and authorship, though not always in their interpretation for even this needs to read in context as a prophecy to Israel, not necessary to each individual reader). Even those without much education in exegesis can see this records God speaking and His words are being written down verbatim, or word for word (the way that most people assume the whole Bible is written.) That is made obvious in the text. Though our next question is, what about the verses that don’t have this formula and don’t explicitly say God is speaking? If this passage declares “Here is what God says,” what about passages that don’t make such declarations? If we say all of the Bible is God speaking in the same way, why does the Bible need to tell us “God says this” in specific passages and not others? It would be like having a baseline principle that “all university students are humans,” and then later clarifying that ‘this university student is a human.”
2. Historic statements recorded by men
Going back to 2 Peter 1:21 we are reminded of the earlier point, that the specific emphasis in this particular passage is on prophecy, not other types of literature in Scripture. Prophecy is “fore-telling” the future (such as “The end will happen like this, in the future”). Although it is sometimes argued that prophesy can be expanded to also include “forth-telling“ divine truth (“God is good, so you ought to believe it.”) Yet with both definitions, we are still not able to include all of the texts contained in the Bible. The numerous historical chronologies are the most obvious example. These recordings of events, wars, kings, genealogies, census counts and etc, are neither prophetic foretellings of the future, nor are they divine forthtelling of spiritual truths. They are the recordings of historical events, with style and language that unavoidably parallels much of the literature of the Ancient Near East. Take for example 1 Chron 7:2 and Joshua 18
“The sons of Tola: Uzzi, Rephaiah, Jeriel, Jahmai, Ibsam and Samuel—heads of their families. During the reign of David, the descendants of Tola listed as fighting men in their genealogy numbered 22,600.”
“On the north side their boundary began at the Jordan, passed the northern slope of Jericho and headed west into the hill country, coming out at the wilderness of Beth Aven. From there it crossed to the south slope of Luz (that is, Bethel) and went down to Ataroth Addar on the hill south of Lower Beth Horon.”
The first is one fragment from a large section of the Scriptures that contains chapters upon chapters of genealogical and census data about an ancient civilization. The second is an extract from a portion detailing the land boundaries that were allocated to particular tribes, and it reads like an ancient land deed. In fact, according to the text it was not God who spoke the words to make this particular land allocation, but the Hebrews cast lots to decide who gets what property, and in the passage above we see the legal definition of one of these new properties. None of these types of passages are written from a “Thus saith the Lord” perspective, neither do they contain a foretelling of the future, or a forth-telling of some manner of divine truth. They record ancient history in a way that all other cultures recorded history. It is plain that there are unambiguous differences between this type of historical scriptures and the “God said _______” type of passages.
3. Human statements attributed to the authors
Let’s review the second crucial inspiration text. In 2 Timothy 3:16 we find the well-known phrase about Scripture, that all of it is “God breathed.” So while 2 Peter 1:21 declares prophecies were not written by the will of man, 2 Timothy 3:16 says that “All Scripture” is “God breathed.” For most of us who grew up with “The Bible” as a black leather bound book, the passage seems obvious. Yet for many Christians living in the ages before, this was not as easy. Firstly, numerous questions were asked about what it means to be “God breathed.” Were the words directly dictated? Were the ideas dictated? Was it just the ideas breathed into the human authors? None of this is directly specified in Scripture. Furthermore, question were asked about what the “All Scripture” means. Did that include only the Old Testament (because for many decades the Septuagint (Greek OT) was the only Scripture early Christians had and understood to be Scripture (Acts 1:16). Did that include both Paul and Peter? (Peter later alluded to Paul’s letters being Scripture, but he never said that of his own letters.) Did this include the Apocrypha, like the Catholic church stated or not? These questions are not easy to answer, for many of the writings that are “breathed by God” show signs of being strikingly human. Take for example Galatians 6:11 and 2 Tim 4:13
“See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.”
“When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments”
A very simplistic view that presumes: “God dictated each word and Paul wrote it down” suffers an excruciating blow by passages like these. If God was dictating the Bible as His own words and Paul writing them down, it would appear as though Paul also wrote some of his own words in between God’s. Or else that God Himself wrote this letter by His divine hands and pretended it was from Paul (not very likely, is it?) Perhaps even that God dictated this to Paul to make it appear as though it was coming from Paul, but the pronoun “I” was really referring to God. In any case, we run into a plethora of issues by trying to impose God’s dictation into this passage instead of reading it as it is. The only logical conclusion is that Paul was consciously writing this, and it stems from Paul’s identity, individuality, and persona. Paul is the primary, self-identified, author here, not God. Unless we would try to argue that God left his cloak in Troas and wrote the epistles with his own hand?
4. Human statements claiming no divinity
This by far is the most challenging category of statement in the Bible, and to be fair, it is quite rare in such distinct clarity. The Scriptures contain many passages that are obviously written from the human perspective, as well as some passage that apparently say everything is inspired by God, and so some theologians find ways to reconcile the two seemingly conflicting ideas together. Yet, there are some writings where it seems that we simply cannot reconcile these two sources into one. These problematic passages seemingly cannot be written by God and by the human author, for the writer specifically states the following text is not inspired by God. The most clear and unavoidable example of this is found in Paul’s writings, particularly in 1 Corinthians 7:13 and 7:25
“To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.”
“Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.”
Both cases have profound ramifications against the overtly simplistic idea that certain Christian groups profess and proliferate. It becomes very hard to apply 2 Timothy 3:16 to these texts, for they plainly say they are written by the author who is “not the Lord” but “I,” Paul. Those who would argue that God verbally dictated 1 Cor 7:13 to Paul, are essentially saying God dictated the following to Paul: “write ‘I Paul am writing this not God.’” That is absurd for it logically follows that God is a liar! Regarding the second passage, it would be equally bizarre to state that God literally dictated this portion, it would mean God dictated Paul to write: “I have no commandment from the Lord, here is my opinion,” and yet it was God’s opinion. Both cases are equally circular and make no sense in light of the commonly held “Biblicist” views of the Bible. There can be no doubt about it, these passages are not from God but from Paul, quite simply because “the Bible says so.”