Monday, October 18, 2004

Sermon - "A word about The Word"

2 Timothy 3:14-17 (MSG)
There's nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another--showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God's way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that this was the lectionary passage for today. I've been thinking a lot about this lately and I didn't realize I'd have a such a great excuse to talk about this when I agreed to preach today. But I've got to start off with some bad news - the title of the message in the bulletin is "A Word about The Word." I'm afraid I've got a lot more to say than just one word.

It might seem funny to you, but this particular passage has been a big issue for me in my journey of faith. It might seem innocuous, but it isn't for me. What you might not realize is that this passage is one of a handful in the New Testament that support an idea called the Divine Plenary Inspiration of the Bible. The idea is that God directly sent what we know as the Bible down to earth through human writers. It's like God faxed it down. An accompanying doctrine is that of inerrancy. The belief is that the Bible is inerrant in its original manuscripts. There is not a single error and every word is as God precisely intended it to be.

The problem for me is that many of the people I've met who believe this also feel perfectly comfortable telling me exactly what the Bible has to say on whatever the issue is at hand. But when I read the Bible, it's not nearly so unambiguous. For me, anyway, the Bible is complicated. So I started wondering, what was Paul saying when he wrote his second letter to Timothy?

One of the first things I learned is that Paul almost certainly didn't write the letter. The timeline in the letter conflicts with what scholars and historians know about Paul's life. It conflicts with Paul's other letters in the Bible and the accounts of Paul's life in Acts. Because the authorship is uncertain, it is difficult to date with any certainty. Scholars place its writing sometime between the year 64 CE (about thirty years after the death of Jesus) and the year 150.

The date is important because we know that the earliest gospel account (Mark) was written about the year 70. John, the latest, was written about the year 90. Scholars believe most of the other parts of the New Testament were written around that same time period - from about the year 40 or 50 until sometime in the early second century. What this means is that author of 2 Timothy was not referring to the New Testament when he or she said all Scripture is God-breathed because the New Testament didn't exist at that point. So what were they referring to?

Almost certainly not the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible as we know it. At that time Jews commonly used what was called the Septuagint. It contains the books we know as the Old Testament, but also several deuterocanonical books known as the Apocrypha, which Catholics include as part of the Old Testament. In fact, some scholars believe that early Christians considered the Apocrypha sacred long after Jews had excluded it from their canon. But the canonization of the Bible is a story for another day. My point is that the author of 2 Timothy was referring to something radically different than what we call Scripture today.

So what is Scripture? It is easy to say that the Bible is the Word of God. But which one? Is it the original texts? Then no translation is precisely the Word of God. If translations can be the Word of God - which one is it? They're all different. Right here I have four different versions.

I want to share a quote from a British theologian and Anglican Priest, Maggi Dawn. She has been publishing a series of short articles on the internet called Words and the Word. Here's part of what she has to say:

"The dilemma we face in calling the Bible "The Word of God" is that words, which remain our best means of communication, are fluid, unstable, shifting in meaning; thus the concept of a faithful and stable God communicating with us through his 'Word' is perilously woven in with the fickle and unstable medium of lanugage. To say that words are fluid doesn't necessarily mean that they don't mean anything. But to insist that these particular words - the words in the Bible - don't obey the same rules of fluidity that other words do, far from solving the problem actually creates another, worse one, in that it fixes and ossifies "The Word of God" into a legalistic and static document, which does not reflect the fact that God is alive and in relationship with himself and with humanity (and, incidentally, still doesn't render one clear and unambiguous meaning of the text!) Words with 'fixed meaning' become ossified; God is alive.

The release valve to the problem is the recognition that "The Word" and 'the words' are related but not the same thing. We may hear God speak THROUGH the words of the Bible more effectively if we do not insist that they are 'His Words'"

God is alive, indeed. And I think that is the insidious message of the doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. It tells us that if God doesn't make perfect sense to you now all the help you're going to get is in the Bible. Not only that, but God stopped speaking to world 2000 years ago. For some reason God is done with us. And the message of inspiration is that we should be able to get it. This collection of ancient writings should be able to give us perfect knowledge of God. Everything we need to know should be in the Bible. As Methodists we believe that all of the knowledge necessary for our salvation is contained in the Bible. But that is a very different thing than saying everything that we need to know is contained in the Bible.

This may not seem as ridiculous to you as it did to me, but I was reading a Christian magazine a couple of months ago. In the advice column, a woman had written in asking if it was un-Biblical to get breast implants. The author worked hard to try to convince her it was un-Biblical, but from my perspective, the biggest problem for the columnist is that the Bible doesn't say anything about breast implants.

I think it is a temptation to try to make the Bible God's encyclopedia. But the reality is that it doesn't have the answers to every question we might ask. In our darkest hours, in the midst of our brokenness, we might not find what we need there. But that doesn't mean that Bible is meaningless. Rather, I like how Marcus Borg views the Bible. He argues that the Bible is divinely inspired, but by that he means that he believes God was working in the lives of the authors. But the Bible is a human product that documents the story of our faith and its sacredness derives from its ability to help us experience the Risen Christ.

I think it is really tempting to believe that God has given us everything we need to know, if we could just read the Bible the right way. It is comforting to believe that God inspired the writers of the Bible by dictating the exact words. It brings certainty to an uncertain world. The problem for me is that the Bible does not even claim that sort of inspiration for itself, as we can see from studying 2 Timothy. I believe the Bible is unmistakably a human product, inspired by the work of God in the lives of those that came before us.

I don't believe that the sum of God is wrapped up in a few thousand pages of text written down a couple of thousand years ago. God is both bigger and more complex than can possibly be reflected in human writing. I believe that God is active and present in our lives and will work through us when we open ourselves to that possibility. I think that our legacy as Christians is that we try to understand and experience God using the Biblical witness of our ancestors as the beginning of the story, rather than the end.



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