I’d like to do things just a little differently today, if you don’t mind. Instead of reading the Scripture together, I’d like to read it to you, and after I read a little bit, I want you to guess what the Scripture is (book, chapter, verse). Don’t worry – it’s very easy! Ok, so here goes…
“In the beginning…” What Scripture is that? Are you sure? Ok, let me read a little more.
“In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)
Surprised? So were the people of Ephesus some 2000 odd years ago or so when they walked into the synagogue one morning and heard “en archei ein ho logos…” “That’s not how it goes!” they said. Many of them were probably thinking to themselves, “how dare this person corrupt, degrade, replace, or otherwise alter the sacred Scriptures!” I mean, one does not simply re-tell the creation story and get away with it. What if I got up here this morning and, instead of reading from the Gospel of John, read straight out of Douglas Adams’ popular series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “In the beginning the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move,” and I was completely serious about it? What if I treated it as Scripture? What if I preached a sermon from it?
This is, in effect, what John is doing when he writes, “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. It was with God in the beginning. Through it all things came into being, and without it nothing came into being that has come into being. In it was life, and that life was the light of all the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” This is a new way to tell the story of creation – it doesn’t negate or cancel out the story in Genesis. That story is still very much valid for John. But he says “I have something else to tell you. That in addition to “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, and the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, and the breath of God hovered over the face of the waters…” the Word – which in Greek is the logos – was also there, and it was through the logos that God created all things. And we know this now because of what I’m about to tell you… You see, there was this guy named Jesus…” And John continues his story from there.
The Gospel of John was written sometime around the end of the 1stcentury C.E., roughly 50-70 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is considered to be the last Gospel that was written, out of the four, and it is often set apart from the other three – what we call the “synoptic gospels” – because the way it tells the story of Jesus is just so different from the Synoptics. The author of the Gospel is actually anonymous, but beginning in the second century C.E. it was attributed to John the son of Zebedee, who is listed in the Synoptics as one of the Twelve main disciples of Jesus. But regardless of who actually authored it, early Christian communities recognized the authority of the Gospel, read it aloud in their homes and in the synagogue, and incorporated it as one of a number of important texts regarding the faith. The reason? It helped them understand who this Jesus character was that they were worshipping, and also who they were in light of that. Eventually, the Gospel of John was voted upon and included in the main Christian canon of sacred Scriptures, and it is now printed in every Christian Bible you might happen to pick up today.
John, along with every other book in the Bible that underwent a similar process at one time or another, became Scripture. Just like the creation story in Genesis, John’s “creation story” joined the ranks of those sacred combinations of words we hold up on a pedestal and resolutely declare, “This is the Word of God for the people of God; thanks be to God.” But that invites one giant beast of a question – and it’s a question I’m not going to answer outright, as though I have the definitive answer (full disclosure, I never do), but I am going to try and parse it out over the next few minutes, to try and help us get a better handle on what our own personal answers may be. Here’s the question: What is Scripture?
For me, growing up, Scripture was the Word of God. I believed that everything in the Bible was somehow there because God made it so – after all, surely God would not allow fallible human beings to create a book so unquestionably authoritative that millions upon millions of people would literally allow it to dictate their lives? Surely such a book must be entirely vetted by God? And what’s more, if one part of the Bible wasn’t somehow infallibly true, how then could I trust the rest of it? I’d been told that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God, and my faith was built on that. If it turned out that the Bible was not inerrant – if it had anything morally, scientifically, or historically questionable in it – then I couldn’t be a Christian anymore.
Well, this is one way that many people think about Scripture, and for a lot of people in this country, it is the only way to think about Scripture (otherwise, you can’t be a Christian!). You either believe it, and you’re a Christian, or you don’t, and you’re an atheist. I know both Christians and atheists who make this point – it’s an either-or; you can believe all of it or you believe none of it. There is no in-between. Well, I take issue with that, honestly. Because what nobody bothered to tell me, of course, is that this way of thinking about the Bible is only a few centuries old, and it is a distinctively Protestant thing. There have been plenty of Christians throughout time and space for whom the assertion “the universe was not created in 6 literal days” would not have been an issue. In fact, they might have responded, “Duh; that’s not what the story of creation is about!” Early Christians even recognized that there was more than one way of thinking about Scripture – Origen describes four levels of Scriptural interpretation – Literal: the translation of meaning of events for historical purposes with no underlying meaning; Anagogic: dealing with the future events of Christian history; Typological: connecting the events of the Old Testament with the New Testament; and Tropological (or moral): “the moral of the story”, how one should act in the present. Origen, along with other ancient Christian authors, recognized that Scripture contains a special revelation of God to the world. In other words, the words and stories in Scripture reveal something particular about God; in some way, shape, or form, they make God known.
Ok, you may be willing to grant me that – but how do they make God known? We could say that God reveals God’s own self in Scripture, that somehow or another God orchestrated the writing of Scripture by the various biblical authors, and the councils that voted on which books got to go in the Bible, and whether or not you would be a Protestant or a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, because they all have different books in their Bibles – if you open up a Catholic Bible, you will find quite a few extra books in it you’ve never heard of – we could say all that. Of course, we’d have to reconcile the fact that almost everything in the Bible was passed down orally at first, then written down, then copied thousands of times, and translated half a dozen more. I promised myself I was going to minimize the lecture portion of my message today, but I just find this incredibly interesting – did you know that when the scribes copied the manuscripts over and over, they often made notes, or even corrections – what they thought the Scripture should say – in the margins, and often times those notes/corrections got confused with the original text when it came time for the next scribe to copy the manuscript, and so it just got written write into our Scripture! Also, the original manuscripts of the New Testament books were in ancient Greek, which was written in all caps with no spaces or punctuation, and with no care for keeping all the letters in one word on the same line. There were no chapters or verse numbers. No capitalization. Just a string of Greek letters. So, we would have to say that God was involved in that long process of transmission, keeping the text the way God wanted to keep it. We could certainly say that. But, if we do, it becomes less of a revelation and more of a dictation. And is that really how it usually happens? More often than not, it seems to me, God speaks through agents of God’s creation, especially people, flawed people, and not by hijacking people’s minds for, say, an hour or so, so that they can give a God-dictated speech or write a God-dictated book. Instead it seems that God connects with people in such a way that they are able to know something about the truth of God, and communicate it in their own words. And, call me crazy, but I believe we all have the means to recognize when that happens. So, when David says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” we say, “yes, that’s true; that sounds like God.” When St. Augustine says, “our hearts are restless ‘til they rest in Thee,” we say, “wow… There is truly something God-like about that statement.” When Thomas Jefferson says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all people are created equal,” we cling to it because it is somehow incredibly true, as though it should come from the lips of the Creator Himself. And when we hear the voice of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. ring out across the square, “I have a dream…” we must see in King’s dream of a truly free society God’s dream as well.
This is what I see in Scripture. I see people trying to ascertain what they can of God, trying to know God, and then telling the story so that eventually, over two thousand years later, we also can catch a glimpse of who God might be. This is exactly what John does in his Gospel – he tells the story of Jesus, and he tries to make sense of it all in light of what he knows about God already. This is what the people of Israel are doing when they tell the history of their nation – God was right there from the start, they said. The technical term for it, in case you were wondering, is theology. The folks who are writing Scripture are doing theology, just as much as we do theology whenever we ask ourselves the question, “I wonder if God __________?” And if you read Scripture carefully enough, you’ll notice that different folks come up with different answers to the same question. And that, I believe, in and of itself, says something about God.
So when we get bogged down with trying to prove or disprove Scripture, we’re really missing the point – God is not the Bible. Neither is the Bible God’s instruction booklet for life. It is a collection of words from folks just like us trying to figure this whole God thing out. Many of them claim to have had a special relationship with God. Many claim that God spoke to them. Some even claim that God came and lived, walked, and talked among them. Scripture is the testimony of those people – it is their experiences of God mediated through words that reveal some part of who God is. What one believes about Scripture depends on how one takes their testimony.
Some people say that Scripture is the Word of God. I, personally, would no longer make that claim. But I would say that Scripture is the words of God’s people. I would say that Scripture is the collective attempt of God’s people to describe their relationship with God and to make God known. And if that is the case, then the category of Scripture includes a whole lot more than just the words in this book. And within those words, all of them, I do believe we are more than likely to find God speaking to us in a number of ways. Amen.