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“All scripture is inspired by God.”
When I was a teenager I had a number of friends who were conservative Christians with a pretty literalist understanding of the Bible. They would often quote this verse, sometimes using the translation “God-breathed” where the translation we heard today uses “inspired by God.” Now the word in Greek can mean either one. But of course there’s a difference between believing scripture has been inspired by God, or perhaps breathed into by God’s spirit, and believing that it is breathed directly out of the mouth of God. And as a bit of a contrarian, I would sometimes point that out. I would also point out that it’s a circular argument to quote scripture to support your argument about the inerrancy of scripture.
I don’t think we ever settled those debates. But even though I don’t share my friends’ literalist understanding of scripture, I have a lot of admiration for the way they loved scripture. They memorized verses and entire chapters, played games of Bible trivia, recognized the names of obscure characters and places. They marinated their minds in scripture. They loved it, and lived by it.
Episcopalians and other liturgical Christians often pride ourselves on how much scripture we read in church. Three readings every Sunday, and more in the daily services of Morning and Evening Prayer. But we tend not to do as well with personal study of the Bible. Hearing three isolated snippets of scripture out of their wider context each Sunday doesn’t in and of itself help people know and understand the overall story. So there are many devoted Christians who don’t feel they know the Bible well. And who may know that they aren’t fundamentalists, but aren’t quite sure what they do believe about the Bible.
It doesn’t help that reading the Bible can be hard. Often people try to start from the beginning and read straight through. That goes well for a while. Genesis, the first book, is full of powerful stories like the one we heard this morning, about Jacob wrestling with God until he receives a blessing. Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, Joseph and his technicolor dreamcoat: a lot of us have some familiarity with these Genesis stories even if we’ve never studied scripture as adults. It goes on pretty well into the book of Exodus: ten plagues in Egypt, the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. And then we start getting into the details of the laws Moses receives from God at Sinai, and things get a little … bogged down. And that’s where a lot of attempts to read the Bible stop.
So reading sequentially may not necessarily be the right place to start. Part of the problem is that our culture thinks of the Bible as a book, when it’s not. It’s a library. The word Biblia is plural, “the books,” 66 of them, or more if you count some of those that some denominations include and others don’t.
Now there is an overall narrative across those sixty or seventy books, which we can sum up as Creation; Fall; Israel; Jesus; Church; God’s Future. Creation: God creates a beautiful and beloved world. Fall: sin, evil, and death enter that world. Israel: one particular people in the ancient world comes to know and worship God in a special way. Jesus: God’s own Word becomes a member of that people, lives and dies as one of us, goes freely to a criminal’s death, and conquers death by being raised from the dead. Church: Jesus’ friends and followers spread the good news and share in Jesus’ mission. That’s the time period we live in now. And God’s future is something not fully describable, but something we glimpse in images of a restored creation, a universe at peace, a heavenly banquet, eternal abundant life.
The Bible tells that narrative in many ways, through various kinds of literature. There’s history; legend; poetry; fables; prophetic visions, and much more. So we can’t read the Bible in just one way. What we need is a theology that takes inspiration seriously without getting stuck in literalism.
One traditional Anglican way of describing the scriptures is to say that they are “the Word of God, and contain all things necessary to salvation.” That’s part of a declaration everyone ordained in this church must make. And notice what it says and doesn’t say. It doesn’t say the scriptures are literally inerrant, and it doesn’t say everything in the scriptures is necessary to salvation. It says everything necessary to salvation is in the scriptures. That you don’t need anything else besides what’s in the Bible to know what you need to know about the love of God, the person of Jesus, and the power of the Spirit.
The catechism in the Prayer Book explains a little more about what it means to call scripture the Word of God. It’s on page 853: “Q. Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God? A. We call them the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.” We believe not that God dictated these texts, but that the human people who wrote these texts in their own place and time wrote in response to God’s call, and that God worked through them in the writing. And more important still, we believe God speaks to us in these texts today. Even when it’s hard to understand or challenging. Sometimes we have to be like Jacob and wrestle with a passage of scripture until it blesses us. But there is always a blessing to be found.
The Bible is the Word of God, yes. But of course only in a secondary sense. Because the primary Word of God is not a book but a person, Jesus Christ himself, the true Word that God has been speaking since before creation.
I’d like to leave us with a prayer from the first Prayer Book:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.