Sunday, November 16, 2008

Holy Bible, Book Divine - Proper 28A - Nov. 16, 2008

Holy Bible, Book divine,
Precious treasure, thou art mine:
Mine to tell me whence I came;
Mine to teach me what I am.

So we sang in Vacation Bible School right after the pledge to the Bible.

Today’s collect praises God "who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning" and asks for grace that we may "so ... hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them" to the end "that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life..."

However, what use can men and women at the beginning of the twentieth century make of a book that is between 1900 and 2500 years old? In what sense can we say that the Bible is true?

The Bible is a product of an age that believed that the earth was flat disk and that the sun orbited the earth. The writers of the Bible knew nothing of electricity or nuclear power, of penicillin or heart transplants, of air and space travel.

For some, the meaning and authority of the Bible were forever destroyed by Darwin's theory of evolution, and the controversy between creationists and evolutionists still rages. The state of Alabama's science textbooks contain an insert saying that evolution is just a theory.

Episcopalians still believe that the Bible is the word of God. When I was ordained deacon and priest I had to affirm that I believed "the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation", and I had to sign a declaration to that effect.

I do believe that, and I encourage you to believe the same. Yet, I am a person of my age. I believe that the world was created over a period of millions of years, not in six days. Psalm 19 tells us that God "has set a pavilion for the sun; it comes forth... like a champion to run its course", but I know that the sun does not revolve around the earth but the earth around the sun.

Even more problematically, I know that the Bible was used very effectively to justify slavery. The Bible urges slaves to obey their masters (Eph. 6.5). Women are sometimes urged to remain in abusive relationships because Paul wrote, "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord." (Eph. 5.21)

Furthermore, the Bible does not speak with a single voice about divorce. The Bible reports two conflicting statements of Jesus regarding divorce. In Mark Jesus forbids divorce and remarriage completely; in Matthew he permits divorce in cases of adultery.

So, what sense can we make of the Prayer Book's claim that the Bible is God's word and contains "all things necessary to salvation"?

I want to make three points about the Bible:

First, there are different kinds of truth. There are mathematical truths such as two plus two equals four. These are very useful truths and seem to be universal. But there are also truths that are equally true and universal but can only be communicated symbolically and metaphorically. They cannot be verified in the same way that a mathematical equation can be verified.

There are works of fiction that accurately mirror human life, event though they are not "true" in the same way that a mathematical equation is true. For example, Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist presents a true picture of the horrors of early industrialization and urbanization in England, even though there was no such boy as Oliver Twist in "real life".

When Jesus said, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead", we need not suppose that Jesus is telling us of a real man whom he knew. The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us something that is true about human life.

Similarly, the Books of Job and Jonah are more than likely extended parables, different from the parables of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan only in their length. Yet, Job and Jonah present a picture of human life that rings true.

The opening chapters of Genesis are more problematic. In my opinion, they are myth. The events of Genesis 1-11 tell us of events that no human being could have witnessed: the creation of the sun and moon, the forming of the earth, the origin of all plants and animals and human beings. Yet, the stories of Genesis are profoundly true. They tell us of God's care and love and that God's judgment on creation and on human life is that it is very good indeed. Indeed, the stories of Genesis tell us something that can only be communicated in story, parable, and myth. Some truths can only be communicated in poetry; prose will not do.

On the other hand, the account of the reigns of David and Solomon in Jerusalem plainly rely upon accounts of eyewitnesses. I would also argue that the gospels, too, must rely upon eyewitness accounts. Although an historian reading 1 and 2 Kings and the gospels might question the accuracy of some details, no responsible historian would say that David or Jesus never existed.

Secondly, there are existential truths. These are truths that we cannot know until we engage with them. Sometimes we have to stake our lives on them to find out if they are true. A simple example of existential truth is when a man says to his wife, "You are the light of my life". She cannot know whether or not he is telling the truth without entering into a relationship with him.

Similarly, if we just read the Bible as a story or textbook, we will not fully appreciate its truth, but if we engage with it, if we risk our lives upon its truth, then we will find it to be a solid foundation upon which to live our lives. If we take up our cross and follow Christ, we will find that he is the Lord and Savior of the world. If we deny ourselves, and give sacrificially, then we will find that God abundantly meets our needs. If we read the Bible carefully and faithfully do what the Bible tells us to do, then we will find that it mirrors the real world, even when we are reading Genesis or Job or Jonah or the parables of Jesus. If we are faithful to the Bible and the God revealed in the Bible then our lives will make sense and our lives will make much more sense than if we tried to live our lives without the Bible's guidance.

And that is the kind of truth we can only know by experience. It is a kind of truth that we cannot know just intellectually or abstractly. It requires personal engagement, risk.

Third, the Bible is a living document because through it the voice of the living God speaks. This last point is the most difficult to convey. To say that the Bible is a living document seems to suggest that it says one thing today and another thing tomorrow. That is not quite what I mean. The Bible does not change; God does not change, but we do. And because our situation changes, we need different messages from the Bible. Our view of what the Bible says about women and slavery has changed completely, and yet the underlying message of the Bible is the same.
Harry Emerson Fosdick put it well: “Astronomies change but the stars abide is a true analogy of every realm of human life and thought, religion not least of all. No theology can be a final formulatin of spiritual truth."
So is the Bible true? Is it true that if we "hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest" the Bible that we will have "the blessed hope of everlasting life"? Yes, absolutely, without question.

Finally, I would say that if we are reading the Bible faithfully, then it will not only comfort us, sometimes it will also disturb us. Mark Twain said, "I'm not bothered by the things I don't understand in the Bible; its the things I do understand that bother me."

For the Bible says not only, "Come unto me, all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you"; it also says, "Depart from me, you cursed... for I was hungry and you gave me no food..."

Father of mercies, in Thy word
What endless glory shines!
For ever be Thy name adored
For these celestial lines,

Here may the blind and hungry come,
And light and food receive;
Here shall the lowliest guest have room,
And taste and see and live,


Here the Redeemer's welcome voice
Spreads heavenly peace around;
And life and everlasting joys
Attend the blissful sound,


Divine instructor, gracious Lord,
Be Thou for ever near;
Teach me to love Thy sacred word,
And view my Saviour there.

Anne Steele, 1717-78.