Saturday, January 6, 2007

THE BIBLE: A Third Option

I was once an evangelical seminary professor and minister. An evangelical acquaintance recently wrote and tried to re-convert me back to the Bible as the inerrant literal Word of God. Below is my response; I have used the Bible as a source of authority to demonstrate that even when playing by their rules, the position is indefensible.


I must begin by saying that the 16th century Protestant Reformers didn't go far enough in their religious reforms. Had they gone all of the way back to the Gospels of the New Testament, they would not have found Jesus calling himself or anyone else a Christian. It seems to me that Jesus was a Spiritual Humanist rather than a Christian.

Clearly he was a Jew, but he emphasized over and over that he loved all humans and worshipped God in Spirit and truth. Therefore, I find myself more in company with the Jesus of the Gospels than the Jesus of modern evangelical Christians, with their detailed and myriad exclusionary creeds which came after Jesus. I am more concerned about humans than religious sects, more focused on Spirit than a dogmatically defined God, and much more interested in truth than sectarian creeds and systematic theologies.


That being said, I still have great affection for the Bible. But now I see the Bible as God's Compact Disc rather than God, live in concert. I read, or to continue the CD anaology, listen to it frequently. I meditate on it as Spirit's call echoing out of the valleys of other's spiritual experiences, but hardly God's pure untainted and perfect Voice.

The personal and fascinating Voice of the Sacred sometimes comes to me THROUGH the Bible, but never AS the Bible. I will not make the limited Bible a substitute for Infinite Spirit.

Unfortunately, Fundamentalist Jews, Christians and Muslims give their followers two simplistic choices:
  1. Either their particular Holy Book is the only inerrant Word of their God to be read literally and obeyed as they interpret it, or:
  2. Every Holy Book is nothing more than false stories, human lies and factual mistakes.

I refuse to be restricted to this narrow, either/or reductionism.


The third choice is that Infinite Spirit, some call it God, may speak through the Bible. Some humans from the distant past have had exceptional spiritual experiences and they communicated them to subsequent generations through the spoken or written word. Their words about those unique experiences have been copied and passed down to others. The words are symbols on a page until those symbols are stirred by an auspicious situation, and then Spirit touches the heart and mind of the reader in an unusual way.

Sometimes these written or spoken accounts mesh with our life circumstances and become a vehicle or bridge for Spirit to cross over into our experience. The words are not God, but a bridge to an experience of God. The bridge is not the other shore, but a means to the other shore. The Bible is not Spirit, but a means to Spirit.

Years ago, I read through the Gospel of Matthew and something very sacred took place internally during the reading. At the time, I knew nothing about theological doctrine, an inerrant Bible or the atonement of Christ for my sins - yet I had a dynamic spiritual awakening. Spirit crossed the bridge of Matthew's 2,000 year old story to open my soul to experience a touch of something life changing. It was magical. However, after the experience, certain religious teachers got hold of me to tell me what it all meant and what had 'really' happened to me. I swallowed their doctrines like a starving baby bird. After many years, they had taught me their Evangelical system and had convinced me that my experience that night and their system were synonymous. A long while later I discovered that they were not the same and it took me years to separate the legitimate sacred experience from the subsequent theological interpretations.

The people we read about in the Bible had experiences similar to mine, powerful emotional encounters with a life changing Presence. Like me, they told others about their experiences. The stories were told and retold and eventually written down. These amazing stories were gathered into communities, and some were esteemed very valuable, and eventually esteemed as especially sacred.

However, such personal experiences could never be contained by a tiny alphabet on a page. I have come to believe that The Divine communicates with all humans in different ways, each according to his or her unique place and set of life circumstances. That Voice and encounter, I call it Soul-Making, speaks to each human in every detail of ordinary life. Sometimes we 'hear' it, often we do not. Like radio signals, the presence of the Voice is always 'in the air', but without a receiver, nothing is heard.


Many biblical, and non-biblical, characters admit to “hearing” such a Voice. Jesus heard and felt it, as did Paul, Peter, Mary the mother of Jesus, Abraham, Moses, David, Rahab, Ruth, Deborah, Daniel and a host of others in the Bible. This Soul-Making Voice is not limited to any one religious system. Most spiritual people from the ancient world had no Bible or books of any kind. Most couldn't even read or write!

QUIZ: Was biblical Abraham:

A. A Jew
B. A Christian
C. A Muslim

ANSWER: Abraham was neither a Jew, nor a Christian, nor a Muslim and had no Torah, New Testament or Qu'ran.

The book of Genesis records that Abraham heard God directly, had faith and worshipped where he stood. Thus, belonging to one religion or another did not prejudice the Almighty in his cosmic conversations. God communicated directly, as He did with the Old Testament characters of Melchizedek and Jethro . Neither of these men belonged to a currently recognized religious or theological system, and they were both called 'priests of God'! The biblical accounts say that each of these fellows heard God directly without an inerrant Bible, a mediating priest or theological text book.

All humans have direct access to the Divine Voice. In my opinion, it is ludicrous to have to even assert and argue for such a point! How dare we deny that the Universal Intelligence is incapable of making souls without our puny religions and books of stories? How dare we asssume that we tiny humans can stand in a pulpit or look another in the eye and tell them dogmatically what God says?! This is arrogance for which we will surely be held accountable one day. No wonder the New Testament writer, James, said, "Let not many of you be master teachers for you shall receive a more severe judgment." James 3:1


But once we hear that Voice, and that Divine Voice is sifted through a unique individual's conditioned mind, it becomes the Voice of Spirit intermingled with the voice of the specific human being who 'heard' it. Then, when that person's words about the experience are spoken and subsequently written down, their dynamic experience is reduced to a set of limited and limiting symbols on a tiny page disconnected from the living, individual context where it originated.

The Infinite can never be reduced to an alphabet on a piece of paper. The experience of the Living Spirit is no more contained and conveyed by the written word than a love letter can convey the actual experience of love making. The Living Voice can no more be captured in a book than the sun can be captured in a mirror. You may see and feel the warm reflection of the sun in the mirror, but only a madman would believe that the sun is actually in the mirror! Similarly, the Bible may reflect the warmth of God's Presence on a page, but it is only mirroring the vast and dynamic Real Thing.


Once the limited and limiting words of the ancient author are written down, the inscribed words must then be translated into the reader's unique culturally conditioned language, and then filtered one more time through the incredibly unique context of the reader's personally circumstantial life and uniquely personal interpretations. This creates a new set of mental images for each individual who is conditioned by his/her education, experiences and culture. Then the new reader's words are spoken aloud, making the original experience several more steps removed from the supposedly Pure untainted Voice of Spirit.

I remember the chef Julia Child once saying, "When I see a plate of food that has been decoratively arranged on the plate, I know it has been touched by many hands." The same is true of every written and interpreted holy text. When you see a book like the Bible, and works of biblical interpretations that have been neatly arranged on the theological plate, you are not looking at the original Voice of God. You are looking at the work of many hands.


At this point, conservative scholars perform all sorts of theological magic tricks by saying, “the scripture has somehow come down to us from God protected and pure, even though the texts retain the unique mark of the human author."


When I used to hear that kind of argument in seminary, and in various sermons from pastors, I nodded the expected bobble-head orthodox assent, but something inside of me detected B.S., and that doesn't stand for Bible Study. That kind of logic is nothing more than scribal gymnastics, theological sleight of hand. It smacks of priestly invention, apologetic shenanigans and baseless religious rationalization. There is no proof offered or even possible, just an assumption that you can somehow have a perfect word of God that sounds exactly like the unique human author's limited vocabulary and personal life experience. Once you examine the notion, it sounds ludicrous and quite Pharisaic. Why not just say that God can speak directly to each human's unique situation? The latter is far easier to believe and much more God-honoring!

These semantic jugglings and scribal justifications allow seminary trained 'professional clerics' the freedom and power to use the text to define, defend, and build elaborate theological and moral systems while claiming that their positions have God's authority and stamp of approval. Besides, if they finally admitted that God worked in, and spoke directly to, all humans without an inerrant Bible, these guys would be out of a job! Many Pastors defend these Bible-based doctrines out of economic necessity more than being devotees to truth. Their jobs depend on their Wizardof Oz like status, standing behind the pulpit, pulling textual levers and setting off theological fireworks to maintain their image as the Great and Powerful Ozian Pastor. Many ministers have chosen a monthly paycheck, insurance benefits and a parsonage over the rigorous pursuit of Truth to wherever it leads.

Just which theological system is correct? Augustine's? Aquinas'? Luther's? Calvin's? Wesley's? Falwell's? Joseph Smith's? Mine? Yours?

For years, as a dedicated and studious Evangelical, I tried to reconcile an inerrant Bible with so many diverse theological systems and institutional interpretations. Most often I just ignored the problem of theological contradictions within Christianity, thinking I was probably close enough to the truth to be alright. But as time went on, I realized that I was incapable of discerning the blurry line between Orthodoxy and heresy.

THE UNPARDONABLE SIN: Condeming the Works of Spirit

I recall becoming very confused when I read the story found in Matthew's Gospel where the Jewish religious scholars accused Jesus of healing and helping people by the power of Satan. Jesus's response to these professional clerics was troubling, "Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit shall not be forgiven unto men." It hit me like a bucket of wet cement that Jesus's comment was directed at people attributing evil to someone doing spiritual good, even if they were not 'theologically correct'. As an Evangelical, I was making those sorts of accusations all of the time, judging the Mormons and Buddhists as doctrinally wrong, even though they were doing many good works for people.

I don't know the literal meaning or cosmic consequences, but the statement was clear: The Holy Spirit often worked outside of the boundaries of traditonal Orthodoxy, and human religious systems have a propensity to limit God's sphere of influence to their little sectarian circle. When good is being done, God is present, in spite of doctrinal correctness or following biblical principles.

EVANGELICAL SUBJECTIVISM: We're All Subjective Ultimately

Divergent biblical interpretations are literally as numerous as the people who read the Bible. Each interpreter claims to be revealing God's Absolute and Perfect mind; the more interpreters, the more perfect interpretations. That’s why the early Roman Catholics kept the Bible solely in the hands of the Bishops and ultimately The Pope. They knew that in order to keep the doctrines singular and objective, they had to limit the number of interpreters. Monotheism means mono-theologicalism; One God, one interpreter, one doctrine.

When I hear Evangelicals call me subjective for having my own view of the Bible, I shake my head at the irony. Each denomination, each theological system, each Bible student reads the same Bible and ends up with different interpretations; of course, each thinks their's is correct.

The Bible is not like math where 2+2=4 always and in every culture. The Bible is always interpreted subjectively because each reader filters it through his or her own uniquely developed mind and life. But in fundamentalist Bible interpretation, each group or person thinks he/she is the only one who got the equation right!


Jesus reverses modern Evangelical biblical theology. He suggests that humans are inspired, not the Bible. Spirit breathes into us, then we can see Truth almost anywhere. The Hebrew Psalms teach that the only requirement to hear the Word of God is a broken and humble heart. Let's admit what we know in our hearts and minds to be true, namely that God speaks to each of us through many means - the natural world, meditation, poetry, scripture and every experience in life. All of life is infused with the possibility of revelation because God’s Presence and Wisdom is not limited to one arena. Even the writer of Proverbs said, "Wisdom (Sophia) calls aloud from the streets and from every high wall." (Proverbs 8)

Jesus said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." Jesus was implying that revelation is everywhere in God's world, in the growing lilies of the field, the nesting birds, the farmer sowing seeds and the widow sweeping her house. You don't need a Bible, you need ears! Too bad publishing houses can't print and sell hearing ears.

Who then has the right Word from God when each interpreter claims to be using the original Hebrew and Greek? Each alleges to have the perfect Word of God. Why then is God's "Pure Word" so ambiguous?!


God's Voice fills the heavens and the earth, It can be perceived in a dream, an ordinary conversation, the birth of a child, a near death experience, the act of sex, an alcoholic hangover, a book on science, the Sunday sermon, a fight with your partner, or your personal reflection on a sacred text.

Is this Infinite Voice limited to the educated and literate? Is God so small that He must be relegated to limit His/Her best teaching sessions to biblically intelligent folks, especially those fortunate enough to know Greek and Hebrew? Hardly. God speaks primarily to and through the humble and broken heart - with a Bible or without a Bible!

King David once stole another man's wife and ordered the heartless assasination of her husband to cover the smarmy affair. When the prophet Nathan exposed David for being a selfish adulterer and murderer, David didn't repent because he read the inerrant Bible or knew the doctrine of Jesus' substitutionary atonement; David repented because the Word of God was written on the Kings broken and contrite spirit (Psalm 51).

Neither Adam nor Abraham spoke Hebrew or Greek, and they understood God just fine. Some of the most spiritually astute and spiritually fruitful people I know are biblically illiterate. Conversely, some of the most ego centered, arrogant, self absorbed Narcissists I know are ministers, theologians and apologists.

The early Christians saw every symbol, ritual and every sacred book as a means to the Living WORD, but never an idol or substitute for the Living WORD. It is a short step from loving the written word to worshiping the written word. It is a short step from reading about Saint Paul's experience WITH the Christ, to making Paul's words a substitute for THE Christ.


So then, with this third choice, I can love the 'word of God', but not mistake it for the 'Word of God' that became flesh. The Bible is a mirror reflecting God's Presence, but it is not to be mistaken for God's Presence. The Word dwells among us, in our hearts and minds. Jeremiah said the Word would be written on the heart, not on stone or paper. (Jeremiah 31)

Jeremiah also said, "No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the LORD.

All will know! Jeremiah was a futurist. He saw beyond the narrow sectarian religion of his countrymen. He saw what most Christians cannot see today, namely that God was powerful enough to speak to each person without a priest, a Bible or a doctrinal statement. Jeremiah's God is wild, untameable and free. He is not trapped in a book.

This notion of a wild, subjective Spirit that is alive and fluid terrifies theological control freaks that want to tell people what God teaches on every subject. But remember what Jesus told Nicodemis, that the Spirit is like the wind, and It "blows where it will." You will never limit or capture the wind with a bag, nor will you ever limit or capture the Spirit of The Infinite Mystery in a set of books or doctrinal formulations. The way and means that God 'saves', 'calls', 'destines' and 'guides' us is unfathomable to the puny human brain.

My third biblical option allows me to love the Bible as a series of fascinating spiritual accounts, a set of books that can build a bridge to the Divine - but not a literalistic recipe book that freezes God in theological concrete poured during the first four centuries after Christ.


When the second century Bishop, Tertullian, saw his fellow Bishops moving closer and closer to a standard canon of Scripture to be enforced upon all believers, he said, "Brothers, I fear we are chasing the Spirit of God into a book." He was prophetic.

With Thomas Jefferson I say, "I will fight to the death any system that aims to bring human hearts under human tyranny." With the Apostle Paul I say, "The letter kills, the Spirit makes us alive."

Copyright Michael Bogar, MDiv, ThM

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While I am in general agreement with the idea that God is not contained within a book....

Jeremiah did not say that God's "Word would be written on our heart," but His law. I would see a distinction between God's word to us and His law for us.

You say:
All will know! Jeremiah was a futurist. He saw beyond the narrow sectarian religion of his countrymen.

The "all" in the verses you are quoting are only speaking of those of the "house of Judah and of the house of Israel." At least potentially, is not this still sectarian in nature?

I cannot find the quote by Tertullian. Can you tell me where I might find it?