Prompted via an offline discussion of last week's post, I am going to continue digging into reflection on Scripture as the Word of God written.
Can we say, accurately and fairly, that the whole of Scripture is "God's Word written"?
Scripture, after all, is pretty much divisible into two kinds of passages: the perspicuous and puzzling (see last week's post on Psalm 17), and the perspicuous passages in turn could be divided into the pleasant (i.e. passages we like, which inspire and comfort us) and the painful (i.e. passages we do not like, for one reason or another, which are difficult to reconcile with our understanding of God and God's Word, as revealed in the pleasantly perspicuous passages).
Thus my interlocutor during the week mentioned passages I am calling "painful": 1 Samuel 15, Joshua 11 (passages about destruction of Israel's enemies) and 1 Timothy 2:13-15 (a passage with a dim view of Eve/women). There are many such passages.
We can, of course, attempt to respond by explaining such passages: they are not as bad as they seem ... the destructive talk was rhetoric, it never actually happened ... but even the best explainers among us have to admit that we are not going to deal with all such passages. My interlocutor's point was not whether we can minimise the number of such passages but whether the existence of even one such painful passage undermines generalised talk of Scripture as God's Word written.
Is it reasonable to speak of Scripture as God's written Word when it contains painful passages (i.e. passages which raise the moral challenge of whether God is actually good) and puzzling passages (i.e. passages which raise the moral difficulty of why God communicates through words we do not understand)?
Note that this question is not an idle one for Anglicans because we are committed to reading Scripture in our public worship services, in our daily devotions when we follow Morning and Evening Prayer, and generally because of our commitment to Scripture through our constitution.
Thus, I remind myself and you, dear reader, of Article 6, "In the name of the holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testaments, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church ..." and Article 20, "... And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another." The book we commonly call "the Bible" is the Scripture which is God's Word written.
What are we to say about the painful and the puzzling passages in Scripture: are they God's Word written, or not?
Another bit of inspiration for this post is a lovely three volume set of books which arrived at my front door this week: Robert Alter's three volume translation with commentary of The Hebrew Bible. Reading his superb apologia for why he is offering "yet another" translation, I was struck in a fresh way by the depth and width of the humanity (i.e. human authorship) of Scripture - a process across time, arising from community and experience, incorporating diverse sources and varied theologies.
In short, Scripture is NOT God's Word written because God dictated the words of Scripture in toto. (Clearly some of Scripture is a form of dictation because "thus saith the Lord" passages are composed with words the prophets believe have been dictated to them to say.) Whatever we make of the painful and puzzling passages of Scripture, we acknowledge that the humanity of Scripture lies behind those passages and is expressed through them.
Then, reflecting further on the recognition of the humanity of Scripture, I suggest we need to account for the fact that Scripture's words are counted as "Scripture" by a community which received them. And the nature of that community has changed through the centuries. In the mists of time, for instance, the community of Israel received the Book of Judges as among its Scriptures, even though it includes the most horrible stories such as the story of Jephthah's Daughter (chapter 11).
In the not so misty period of ancient time, the Christian church has chosen to maintain such a story within its combination of Old and New Testaments. Yet dare any Christian today say that if we were compiling Scripture from scratch from ancient treasured documents for the edification of the church today, then we would include this dreadful story?
That is, our continuing reception of the Bible as the Scripture of the church (NT and OT), in continuity with the Scripture of ancient Israel (OT), involves some fancy theological footwork. We simply do not accept that the theology of Judges 11 (God blesses a man who takes a vow with tragic, terribly, terrifying consequences) is the final, completed - in the light of the whole of Scripture - theology of the church. Yet. Yet we do not expunge that chapter from the Scriptures we read, commend and reflect on. Why not? Why risk detriment to an understanding that Scripture is
God's Word written?
I suggest that we retain rather than exclude Judges 11 because a stubborn integrity acknowledges that in the history of God's people understanding who God is and what God is saying to us has developed over time as not only God has revealed more of himself but also as we have demonstrated capacity to receive more of that revelation. Even when God in Christ came into the world, there was a limited capacity to receive him as God's living and final Word (cf the gospels!! ... and the importance of Paul, on the one hand, and the writer of the Fourth Gospel on the other, in making sense of what God was saying in and through Jesus Christ). Judges 11 stands as witness to an impoverished and dangerous understanding of God's Word for that day but it stands in our Scripture as a witness to God's continuing patience with God's people as God spoke and spoke again to stubborn hearts and limited minds. As also do the prophets stand witness, in a different, centuries later era.
There is lots more to be said - books and books have been written on the topic, and by far better thinkers than myself -but I will stop here for now, with one final thought.
It is not necessarily the case that the latest writings to be written down which represent the greatest, clearest "Word" from God. The greatest, clearest Word is the message of divine mercy, grace, kindness and love. That message permeates Scripture. It is summed up in 1 John. God is love.