This page is awaiting update and edit (4 April 2011)
South Holland Community Church, introduced the fourth in the Lent Lecture series with guest speaker Revd Dr Sue Woan. The lecture was also made available as an audio download via the Spalding Baptist church website.
Opening her talk on How is the Bible the Word of God, Sue immediately asked the audience to briefly answer the questions themselves in pairs. The variety of answers across the room illustrated the many languages and interpretations the Bible has undergone - and even the richness of the text itself.
Sue noted that we have some questions to answer as we explain what we mean when we say that the Bible is the word of God. She adapted the title of this fourth lecture to help to illustrate the importance of the phrase “How is the Bible the word of God”, beginning with the literal meaning of the phrase.
There are things in the Bible that make our stomachs churn: slavery, discrimination. Sue explored some of the harder words and passages in the Bible, such as Joshua 8 26 (But Joshua did not draw back his hand with which he stretched out the javelin until he had devoted all the inhabitants of Ai to destruction) and asking how we feel about the Bible being the word of God with the last verse of Psalm 137 “happy shall they be those who take your little ones”?
In 2 Timothy 3 16 we read of the way the Bible is ‘God-breathed’ (theo-pneustos). What does this mean to us as Christians?
For a true Muslim, the true Qur’an can only be in Arabic – the very uttered words of God, his dictated words.
The phrase ‘the Bible IS the word of God’ dictates that the Bible is inerrant and infallible.
But this raises theological or ethical questions when texts reflect we now call racism, sexism, discrimination or violence.
Some bits are more inspiring than others; some have found new ‘life’ with different perspectives. Liberation theology illustrates how the Bible has a message for the downtrodden, for example.
Sue led the audience in the opening of St John’s gospel which sees Jesus as the ultimate expression of God’s revealed will, God’s logos. The thoughts and images in our minds as we recall the opening phrases are our expression of what we see in life; in the same way, Jesus is the ultimate expression of God.
In the first century Christian world – very different from 21st century England – then the literal interpretation of the Bible notes the many rules of the Pentateuch. Sue asked the audience how many followed the literal rules of the Bible: who was wearing two different types of clothing – or, perhaps, enjoyed a ham omelette, eating milk and meat together? There are differences between the world in which the Bible was written and the world today.
So how is God’s word in scripture revealed for the world today?
Sue went further by asking when we pick out a text and fire it as ammunition at others? Or do we see the whole of God’s word as our inspiration? As we do this together, we ask how God’s word is relevant to our lives. But is this a question of relevance, robbing God of his authority by our individual interpretations?
In summarising this variation to the lecture title “The Bible reveals the word of God”, Sue asked if another way might be to state:
“The Bible contains the word of God”
The sixth of the 39 Articles in the Church of England notes that: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation…”. It declares that the Bible is not exactly the worlds of God. The evening developed with an exploration of this view.
But if the Bible just contains the word of God, which are the ‘important bits’? Who says which bits are God’s word and which bits can be left out?
Sue described how the Jesus Seminar [Wikipedia article], a group of theologians, debated each of the sayings of Jesus concluding with four levels of authenticity of the sayings of Jesus using red, pink, grey and black balls.
She also noted how the Lectionary in the Anglican church omits the last two verses of Psalm 137 – and the story of the widow’s mite is left out. People make decisions about the important bits and the less important.
So, in exploring how the Bible is the Word of God, Sue had described the literalist view, those who interpret or reveal and those who miss bits out.
To take the lecture further, Sue asked if God could be heard outside of the Bible? She says ‘Yes’ – for three reasons:
Through Creation: the first three chapters of Romans show God as the creator of natural order
Through the church community: God continues to reveal himself through the church community, in traditions and forms of mission, and
Some might say that God speaks through other religions – albeit in a muffled way. In Acts 17 22, St Paul uses the listeners lack of understanding to explain who God is: “That which you proclaim as unknown I proclaim to you…”
Sue also asked if the audience considered the Old Testament as much the word of God as the New Testament? She noted how Jesus and New Testament writers regarded the OT as authoritative, but:
Jesus upheld the text but saw the need to redeem it: “You have heard it said, but I say to you…”
Sue noted how sometimes liberties were taken with the text: St Mark introduces his gospel with a quotation that is partly from Malachi but states that the quotation is from the book of Isaiah. Again, Matthew speaks of things written in the prophets (You Bethlehem are not least in the tribes of Judah, chapter 2 6), taken from Micah 5 – where it doesn’t say that at all, rather “You Are the least”.
When understanding how the Bible is the word of God, Sue asked the audience to recognise that the Bible was written by the Jewish community who think Jewish, with elements of Greek, for their own culture; we need to think like that. The Jewish mind is happy as long as the statements are true; ‘it doesn’t matter if you change it a bit’. Our western minds have a desire for accuracy and scrutiny. When they say a Psalm of David, they give honour to David - even if he didn’t write that particular Psalm.
Sue noted the inclusion of haggadah legends, as illustrated with a story in 1 Corinthians 10: “I do not want you to be unaware, dear brothers… for they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them and the rock was Christ.” ‘A rock that followed them’ is a Jewish legend which appears in other Jewish writings.
Just in the same way that the New Testament writers used the Old Testament, Jesus used the old texts and applied the Old Testament text for their own purposes.
Sue asked if the Bible is still the word of God in translation? She illustrated the point by reading a passage from 1408 in old English with characters ‘F’ for ‘S’: “the translation of the text from one tongue into another…is a dangerouf thing becaufe it is not eafy to keep the senfe the same” Even over a period of time, we need to translate Scripture into our own language.
The New Testament writers were using the Old Testament translated into Greek. The Hebrew scriptures needed to be translated into a language that others could understand and the New Testament writers were already aware that God’s word would stand in translation.
Even so, some things are lost in translation to English:
There are 4 Greek words for love: Eros (sexual intimacy) / Storge (family) / Philia (affection, regard, friendship) and Agape (an unemotional word describing the care of a nurse caring for a patient with no regard for their status.
John 21 15-17 [Amplified Bible link] notes Jesus’ three questions to Simon Peter “Do you love me?” On the first and second occasions, Jesus asks ‘Do you love?’ with the meaning of agape, to which Peter replies Yes, with the meaning philia. On the third occasion, Jesus recognised that Peter could not answer at this level and ask him “Do you love me?” with the meaning that Peter understood of philia.
Further, in 1 Corinthians 6 19 we read that “your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.” The Greek text notes the word ‘you’ plural, collectively: you (all) should know that your (singular) body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. It means that every criticism destroys the body; Sue urged the audience to ‘think corporate, not individual’.
Sue then noted the wide range of phrases can be drawn from a single word. In Romans 3 25 “sacrifice of atonement”: the Greek word ‘hilasterion’ translates into various phrases – expiation, propitiation, sacrifice of the atonement, lifting the ark of the covenant, the mercy seat. The translation of that one word changes the sense of the passage.
Wycliffe Bible translators, Sue reminded the audience of some of the difficulties which arise when translating passages into other languages:
“Your sins will be as white as snow” makes little to sense to those who haven’t seen any snow. Perhaps ‘as white as clouds’ would mean little if there were few clouds in that country – so a flock of egrets illustrates the speed at which sins are gone.
“Behold the lamb of God” is translated as the white seal pup to the Inuit peoples.
Mali people struggle to understand Luke 11:11 “If your son asks for a fish… give him a snake” since snake is a delicacy to them so ‘a scorpion’ is used instead.
For the Mataco Bible, the phrase “Follow me” in Matthew 10 38 could have four meanings. The audience took time over refreshments to discuss which of these meanings they preferred: where ‘follow’ means “two side by side, one knows the way, the other not”; or “Side by side, one of higher status, both knowing the way”; or where one is on the horizon is following the other; or fourthly where one is tracking another who is out of sight.
Sue offered a brief overview on hermeneutics - the many ways of legitimately interpreting the Bible. As each of us hears different inspirations from Psalm 23, so, too, are there are many valid ways of understanding scripture. In the Psalm, we may be influenced by where we’ve heard the verse before, our thoughts on the colour of the skin of the shepherd, the colour of the sheep, the green of the grass... Our own hermeneutical perspective drives the way we understand scripture, by the history we bring to the passage. Our perspective is governed by who we are, when and where we live and so on. For example, in apartheid South Africa, liberation readings spoke to the people in different ways to other nations. Sue said that any given woman reads a scripture slightly differently to a man, as do folk from different ethnic backgrounds.
But the ‘anything goes’ extreme of such interpretation asks are all interpretations valid? Who decides where the boundaries are valid?
Sue spoke of how she had responded to the vicar who described the parable of the Good Samaritan as being about the Holy Spirit - because of the moment when the Good Samaritan offers more money to the inn keeper if the first offering was insufficient.
Sue concluded by honouring the Bible as the work of the Holy Spirit; in John 16 13, Jesus says “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all truth”. It was the same Spirit who inspired the writers.
The questions over refreshments included:
Which of these statements is nearest to your view and why:
* The Bible is the Word of God
* The Bible reveals the Word of God
* The Bible contains the Word of God
How do we interpret the Bible? Are any interpretations OK?
Which translation of 'To Follow' [Matthew 10.38] would you use in the Mataco Bible?