Babies, bathwater and the historical critical method

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

In What Way is the Bible God's Word?

II Timothy 3:14-17

 

            Most Christians agree that the Bible is God's Word.  What divides Christians is the question, "In what way is the Bible God's Word?"

 

            Some Christians use the term inerrant to describe how the Old and New Testaments are God's Word.  The picture they have in their minds is one of God dictating word for word to a human secretary beginning at Genesis 1:1 and ending at Revelation 22:21.  Every word, they believe, is literally true. 

 

            In their earnest attempt to defend the authority of the Bible, they run into problems right in the very first chapter of Genesis.  In Genesis 1:6 we read, "And God said, "Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters."  What do you make of that sentence?  Genesis 1 tells us that on the first day God created light and on the second day God created a dome in the middle of the waters.

 

            Here is what we've learned.  At the time the Bible was written, people in that part of the world thought that what we call outer space was filled with water.  It was, in other words, an environment in which no human could survive.

 

            Now, according to Genesis 1, God's ultimate goal was to create humans like us, but because we can't survive in an all water environment, God had to create a safe place for us to live, so God created a kind of huge Astrodome like the one in Houston where they stay dry playing baseball even when it's raining outside.

 

            So, what do you think of that version of how the world was created?  We educated people have to conclude that the story in Genesis 1 is very bad science.   We know it's not literally true, because we've seen pictures from outer space that prove that there's no water out there and no dome to protect us from it.  We have to conclude that some human author borrowed that picture of the universe from the culture in which he lived.

 

            Here's another problem.  In Genesis 1 we read that God created the land and plants and after that He created human beings, but in Genesis 2 it says that God created Adam first and then planted a garden for him.  There is an inconsistency here which leads scholars to conclude that the human author of Genesis 2 was different than the person who wrote Genesis 1.

 

            When I first read that way of analyzing the Bible, I felt confused and threatened.  "How can the Bible be God's Word if it was written by human beings. . .human beings who were flat out wrong about some things?"

GENESIS 1

 

1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. 3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And there was evening there was morning, the first day.

6 And God said, "Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters." 8 And God called the dome Sky.  And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. 

9 And God said, "Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear. 10 And God saw that it was good. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind.  And God saw that it was good.  13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. 

14 And God said, "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night. 18 And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

20 And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures and let birds fly above the earth.  21 And God saw that it was good.  23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24 And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind. . .and it was so. 25 And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according our likeness; . . .So God created humankind in his image. . .male and female he created them. 30 And it was so.

31 And God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.  And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

GENESIS 2

 

2:4 In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up. . .7 Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 

8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.

18 Then the Lord God said, "it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner." 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.  Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh;"

24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.  And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

 

3:1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.  He said to the woman, "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?"

2 The woman said to the serpent, "We may not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden. . . ." 4 But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die: for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food. . .she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband. . .7 Then the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked.

       To answer that question I want to draw an analogy between Jesus and the Bible.  Jesus, clearly, was human.  He got angry, like we do.  We saw that when he made a whip and drove the merchants out of the temple.  He cried when someone he loved died, like we do.  He felt like God had forsaken him, like we sometimes do.  He cried from the cross, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me."

 

            Jesus was clearly a human being, but throughout the centuries Christians have insisted that somehow Jesus was also a divine being.  Paul, writing about 30 years after Jesus' death and resurrection wrote in his Letter to the Philippians,

 

                        . . .Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count

                        equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking

                        the form of a servant. . . .

 

            A generation after Paul, John began his gospel by referring to Jesus as the Word and declaring,

 

                        In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,

                        and the Word was God.

 

            Christians believe that somehow Jesus was a human being and at the same time he was God.  Somehow he was both.  It is, of course, the somehow that often divides the church of Christ into different denominations even though we recite the same Apostles' Creed in worship.

 

            So let's go back to Genesis.  Clearly, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 were written by two different human beings, and clearly Genesis 1 teaches inaccurate science.  Clearly, the Bible is a very human document written by very human authors who don't agree word for word on everything.

 

            Yet, throughout the centuries, Christians have insisted that somehow the Bible is also the Word of God, that if you listen carefully God's voice can be discerned somewhere in the text  So, what do we do when one part of the Bible says one thing and another text says what seems to be totally different. 

 

            One answer to that question is that in my closet at home I have different kinds of clothing for different kinds of weather.  I have a warm coat for days when the temperature is below zero.  I have a rain coat for when there are thunder storms.  I have t-shirts and shorts for the middle of summer. 

 

            The same is true for the Bible.  Genesis 1, for example, was probably written at a time when everything seemed to be falling apart for the people of Israel, and the author was encouraging them by telling a story about a God who in the midst of chaos created a safe place for the first humans to live.  He kept repeating that in spite of the chaos, creation is good and humans have been created in God's image.

 

            Genesis one is terrible science, but it's wonderful theology, because it describes a Creator God whose ultimate goal was to create you. . .and me. . .and each unique person in the world, and to give us a safe place to live and thrive.

 

            Genesis 2, on the other hand, was written to remind people what happens when humans misuse the freedom God gave them and are tempted to live life on their own terms rather than God's, bad things will happen.

 

            The two stories are not inconsistent.  They are simple different, like the clothes in my closet.  Different texts have different authority in different contexts.  On those days when we are hurting and afraid, we need to pray, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."  But on other days when we choose to head down the wrong path which will lead to bad things, the last thing we need is to be comforted.  We need to hear the prophets challenge us to repent, to turn around and get headed in the direction that leads to blessing.

                       

            The Bible is God's Word.  What we need to understand in what ways it is authoritative and in what ways it is not.

 

           

 

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