Bible Study: John 1:1. The Bible Is Not the Word of God

This item was previously posted on October 24, 2007 on my other blog. It drew a few comments there. I have left the empty post and those comments at that location.

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Everyone agrees the Bible is a book, written by humans. Some think those writers were inspired by God; and of those, some think it is appropriate to examine the words of the Bible with great precision. This is not the message of Jesus, however.

Jesus emphasizes that the religious lawyers of his time were on the wrong track. “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered” (Luke 11:52). The writers of the New Testament books took a similar approach. They did not number the passages of their writings (that was a human addition), and they generally did not argue specific passages with anything like the precision that now appears in many Bible commentaries.

Jesus himself does not seem to have been too concerned about literal precision in his own statements. There are many instances when he says something, and then later contradicts it or seems to be saying something quite different. For instance, John’s gospel has him saying, “If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true” (John 5:31) but also “I am the one who bears witness about myself” (John 8:18).

If Jesus was a human being, then surely he was aware that you can’t freeze statements in stone — that the thing you say on one occasion turns out to be only partly true or relevant on another occasion. It would have been a mistake for him to insist that his words could reliably serve as a guide to every other person, at every moment in the future.

Some Bible interpreters go to great lengths to argue that Jesus and other Bible writers never contradicted themselves or each other. But the Bible does not actually command these interpreters to do this, nor does it explain which procedures they should use. In pursuit of that self-appointed mission, they rely on entirely human ideas, not clarified in scripture: that a certain passage is literal or figurative; that God inspired the original Greek or Hebrew statement but not the translation into English; and so forth. Indeed, they take it upon themselves to develop detailed creeds and carefully worded statements to explain what God meant. Again, the implication is that God himself was not capable of doing the job properly without their assistance — that the Bible is actually not complete and perfect. Thus, Bible commentaries disagree with one another on many things — yet each is nonetheless sure it is right. Inevitably, the Bible — in the interpreted, commentated form that readers contemplate — becomes a truly complex mass of disagreements, contradictions, and falsehoods.

People sometimes come to a form of Christian faith because they believe Jesus taught a simple gospel. Maybe he did. But when that gospel gets mixed up with the attempt to have a completely perfect, divine Bible, the simple gospel loses out. As Jesus said, you cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). If you insist upon the text, with all its history, complexity, and imperfection, you will lose some aspects of Jesus; and if you focus on Jesus, you will move — with him — away from a preoccupation with texts.

The approach of focusing on the text has created a collection of conservative Christian denominations and beliefs that sometimes erupt in bitter and even bloody fights. As shown at various times in Christian history, people will kill for the sake of a Bible passage. This is very far from the concept of a unified body of Christ that appears in some New Testament passages (see e.g., Romans 12:5). When matters reach such a point, it is reasonable to conclude that people have departed from the Jesus who praised peacemakers (Matthew 5:9).

The books of the New Testament do not claim that they, themselves, are God’s word. There is one passage that makes the briefest possible reference to the concept: “All scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). That passage is not helpful. The Bible itself does not clarify which materials “scripture” should include. God, himself, either failed to understand the importance of this question, failed to answer the question intelligently, or did not consider it an important question. In other words, humans created the issue, and then had to fight about it over a period of centuries, before arriving at a state of permanent disagreement that continues today.

Sometimes, people pretend to be speaking about someone else, when in fact they are drawing attention to themselves. A classic example is Mark Antony’s speech in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him; The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft interred with their bones

So it is with people who try to help God by creating a Bible of the sort they prefer. The attention gets shifted to the interpreters. The preachers and interpreters may claim to be humble people, and in some ways, many of them are. Yet there is a monstrous pride and arrogance in their enterprise. “I am humble,” they seem to say, “but I happen to possess the truth of life and mankind — and it’s a good thing someone like me was there to add the chapter and verse numbers, and the many explanations, that God forgot.” Thus, the spotlight turns to them, to help people understand a God who (in their telling) is unable to explain himself adequately. They have the answers — but, in fact, they don’t. All too often, what they say is nonsense.

There is another, better way. The better way is for the preachers and interpreters to stop making claims that do not stand up to reason, that were not clearly authorized by God, and that have the blasphemous effect of making God out to be an idiot.

Imagine you are God. You are watching humanity try to figure out which books to include in the Bible, how to interpret them, what passages to emphasize. You can see that the disagreements begin almost immediately. Your solution? Screw it. Let them fight it out. But make sure they keep preaching about love and forgiveness. That’s the God that the Christian Bible-thumpers give us.

There may actually be no God of the kind that conservative Christians imagine. If there is a Christian God at all, he’s supposed to be far more competent than these Bible interpreters are willing to allow. That, anyway, is the message of the gospel of John. In its very first words, that gospel makes clear that a textual orientation is absolutely the wrong orientation. The Bible, John says, is not the Word of God. Here is John 1:1:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Not, “In the beginning was a Book, and God ordered reprints.” According to John, God did not make the mistake of thinking that a written text (which is the most they had, in New Testament times) would capture things as clearly as audio or video recordings could have done.

God did not attempt to convey his message in words that lawyers would argue about. Instead, according to John, he conveyed his message in flesh and blood. Jesus came into the world as God’s Word to mankind. Obviously, if God wanted people to keep getting the message loud and clear, then Jesus needed to stick around. That didn’t happen, and that raises some questions about God, Jesus, and John.

Those questions are a starting point. To think about difficult things and unpleasant possibilities: that is the challenge of growth. But, of course, a person could insist on staying with what s/he knows. That’s what the Jews largely did. And so, if you believe the Bible passage (Matthew 7:23), Jesus is going to come back someday; and when he does, he will be approached by all kinds of people who will say, Master, remember all the things we did in your name? And he will say, Get away from me. I never knew you.

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  • Paul  On February 11, 2012 at 6:44 am

    Amen my friend, I have been talking about this to a friend the other day. Many accep that the bible is the Word of God yet will deny he who is the Word made flesh, who is himself God and his Word. (John 1:1,14)
    I look forward to reading more of your posts

  • Timothy Evans  On September 5, 2014 at 5:30 pm

    I agree with some of your initial thoughts, but feel the conclusions you came to are not supported in the body of the article. This could be due to a disagreement with them, personally. It is very thought provoking and if a person was just reciting their faith, instead of living it, then this would be a very persuading piece.

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