How is Scripture Going to be Useful if I can’t take it Literally?

 Jesus restored sanctity to the Scriptures without walking around waving them in everyone’s face and citing verses like there was no tomorrow.

The centuries-old controversy over the role of scripture, the letter of the Law and the spirit of the Law, were clarified by Jesus in one bold and powerful response in which he brought forth the context in which scriptures are applied.

   “Master, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?”
You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.
   This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it :You must love your neighbor as yourself
   On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets too.”

Many an argument between one who believes the Bible to be inerrant, absolute and literally true and one who disagrees runs aground when those of the absolutist view “prove” inerrancy by quoting the book in question.

It has been my view that the Bible is the Word of God but not the literal words of God. In this I’d like to quote another book, Reading the Bible for the First Time, by Dr. Marcus J. Borg, Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University:

“The sacramental function of scripture leads to a final point about the relationship between God and the Bible: the Bible as the ‘Word of God.’ …speaking of the Bible as ‘the Word of God’ has often led Christians to see the Bible as coming from God.

… It is important to emphasize that the Christian tradition throughout its history has spoken of the Bible as the Word of God (capital W and singular), not as the words of God. If it had used the latter phrase, then one might reasonably claim that believing the words of the Bible to be God’s words is intrinsic to being Christian.

But the use of a capital W and the singular suggests a different meaning. Namely, ‘Word’ is being used in a metaphorical and nonliteral sense. As with metaphors generally, this one resonates with more than one nuance of meaning. A word is a means of communication, involving both speaking and hearing. A word is a means of disclosure; we disclose or reveal ourselves through words. Words bridge the distance between ourselves and others: we commune and become intimate through words.

To call the Bible the Word of God is to see it in all of these ways, and no doubt more.

The Bible is a means of divine self-disclosure. The traditional theological phrase for this is ‘the Bible as the revelation of God.’ In the Bible, as the foundation of the Christian cultural-linguistic world, Christians find the disclosure of God – not because the Bible is the words of God but because the Bible contains the primary stories and traditions that disclose the character and will of God. … calling the Bible the Word of God refers not to its origin but to its status and function.”

Regarding the Bible in the context of a faith statement of my own, I would then say that my own agreement with Dr. Borg’s points – present in my life before I discovered Marcus Borg – is part and parcel of my on-going love affair with scripture.

Jesus said search the scriptures for in them ye think ye have eternal life.

He also said that the Kingdom of God is within you which for me has always meant that eternal life is not something far off to be won, rather the actual present; the here and now in which we live and breathe.

And Jesus said that there were two fundamental truths upon which all the writings of the Law and the words of the Prophets hang: Love God with all you have and love your neighbors as you love yourselves.

In that marvelous utterance I find the ultimate key to the scriptures. If, as Dr. Borg has written, the Bible reveals God Himself to humanity and discloses the character and will of God while remaining the creation of mortal beings who have expressed the traditions and primary stories in their own words, we realize an equally marvelous discovery.

The Bible, as does other scriptural writing, contains within its stories the evolution of human understanding of God complete with interpretations and portrayals of that understanding.

Add to that the words of Jesus – whether literal or myth – which expand with Jesus’ understanding of God expressed through his sayings and we have at our disposal the ability to interpret what Jesus said without some religious obligation to force it to harmonize with other traditions,  interpretations and accounts elsewhere in the Bible.

The Bible then becomes and earthly tool for earthlings who have the key to the disclosures or  revelations of God. The gap suggested by Isaiah 55, for example, where “your thoughts are not my thoughts” and “your ways are not my ways” does not constitute a chasm impossible to bridge. Rather it represents the very thing Jesus, in pointing to God and not himself, emphasized .. the chasm is bridgeable … the Kingdom where God dwells is within you- and me … I and the Father are one – and so are you.

We are not then left to argue the conflict between differing interpretations of the words of God as some sort of ultimate test of fidelity and obedience. We are instead left to hold fast to the Bible as the Word of God in which we can compare our lives to ancient others about whom there are numerous stories and traditions within biblical pages.

All those “others” were mortals just like us who formed their own opinions based on their experience of God and from who we take example to do the same.

By taking the Bible literal and inerrant with the implied literality of the ancient stories, we are left to assume that at some point in human history, interaction between humanity and the supernatural came to an end and a barrier fell into place. We are left to believe that God once spoke directly to folks like Adam and Eve, Noah, Jacob, Joseph and the later prophets, but after the barrier, God stopped.

We are left to believe in the ancient divine interventions and manifestations as recorded in the Bible but remain bereft of anything so dramatically convincing in the last 2000 years and – excluding the stories of Jesus – the last 2000 to 6000 years.

We are left to conclude that God deliberately brought His intimate and direct relationship to man to an end at some point and that afterwards future humans were not to be so blessed.

Hindsight reveals to us that left with only the Law and/or the Bible, human propensity for trusting the tangible over exercising faith and mystic thinking reduces the Bible effectively from being the Word of God to a confusing collection of words of God by which horror, persecution and war were the fruits of conflicting ideas of God.

In that aftermath we have come to see God Himself shackled by words, limited by literal word meanings, conceptually denigrated by the limits of language. This not only in the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries, but clear back in the meridian of time into which Jesus was born.

We have come to see more clearly the meaning of John 3:16 with its powerful declaration of God’s intervention by sending a son at that moment who would speak out against the short-sighted cruelty and judgmental society that Judaism with its jots and tittles of the letter of law had become.

We are reminded by that passage that it’s all about living eternal life during the moments of mortality itself.

We understand that Jesus’ key to the scriptures is that ultimate context in which He answered a question about God‘s highest priorities.

Search the scriptures and understand them in the context of the two great commandments – love of God and love for everyone else.

Read scriptural writings against the powerful background and framework of loving God and loving everyone else.

Define the meanings against the key.

The highest manner of belief is founded on that key. Beliefs need not be “biblical” but – according to Jesus – they should harmonize with the two great commandments.

If belief and understanding harmonize with Jesus’ key, then interpreting the meaning of biblical passages no longer hangs on strict conformity to the Law and the Prophets. Rather, interpreting meaning trusts that the Law and the Prophets intends understanding within that higher context. The Law and the Prophets ultimately aims at loving God and neighbor

Do not judge. Do not condemn. Do not shun.

We understand why Jesus found parables more useful than direct statements because words generate pictures in the mind and stories about Good Samaritans, Sparrows, Lilies, Houses on sand, Prodigal Sons and Forgiving Fathers had much greater impact than head-to-head confrontations with Law-citers who could only plot to kill him after failing to overpower him with “words of God” – because He understood the “Word” of God.

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