The Nature of Scripture

Scripture presents special problems to interpreters: The nature of scripture? Etymologically, nature is derived from the Latin noun natura, based on the participle natus, born. All things in nature are born, i.e. not supernatural. But isn’t scripture supernatural? Some religious people say it is. Others say no; it is like all language, a human creation, not Truth, but a human attempt to cope with Truth, limited by all the contingencies of our times and places, buffeted as we are by forces beyond our control. What could it possibly mean to say either that Scripture is supernatural, or that it has a nature?

When people think of Scripture as supernatural, or holy, or as the Word of God, they mean it is not a product of human wisdom, but of a Spirit that breaks into the world from outside. Now we’re deep into capital letters. “Word” and “Spirit” denote persons of the Trinity. If we treat Scripture similarly, we will have divinized it. But nowhere is it said that Scripture is a God or any part of God. We may say the Spirit of God speaks through the prophets, but that is about as far as we can safely go. The tablets given to Moses at Sinai are covered with words from God, but they can be smashed to bits if necessary to make a point.

Having said all that, we ask again, What is scripture? Not words of God, but a very peculiar kind of writing about the Word of God; not truth itself, but a record of human attempts to cope with Truth. Not all of the attempts have been markedly successful: the tower of Babel? the Temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem? the restored Second Temple? Churches as we know them? We probably ought to take chastisement from each of these examples. Nevertheless, God in his faithfulness has never been alienated permanently from his people.

•                •                •

The Holy Bible itself is a document with a history. The stories in it are vehicles, not tenor. The settings are those within range of the writers, bound to their times as much as we are to ours. Israel, like us, has always in a kind of exile, seeing through glasses darkly. Sometimes the prophets could speak tremendous truths whose sense they themselves could scarcely comprehend. Likewise, they could speak what seemed at times to be tremendous nonsense. The miracle, the inspiration of scripture if you like, is that even the nonsense comes to carry important meaning. The writers’ failures may be inspired failures, from which faith can take instruction.

The prophets formally preface their words with “Thus says the Lord.” Skeptics, people outside this discourse, will say that is just what an abusive tyrant would say, if he wanted to foist himself on a gullible public. Claim that God said it, and all opposition vanishes. We get the chicks and the beers, ho ho.

The unaccountable fact is, opposition does not vanish,  and the people’s relation with God endures. Another unaccountable fact is, the prophets—except false ones, who indeed appear in the Biblical narrative—don’t appear to be grasping after power. Some of them are distinctly unhappy with their roles, some of them court political suicide, but cannot help themselves. One cannot help respecting their claims.

•          •                •

Protestant notions about scripture are a special case. The principle of sola scriptura means the Bible contains all that is necessary for faith. We tend to think without thinking, that Bible explains every divine truth, and that its very existence is a miracle. It’s as if some primitive folks, maybe Bedouin shepherds, found some scrolls in a cave in the desert, read them, and followed the directions there to constitute themselves the people of God. But in sober fact is the reverse: the people of God existed already from time immemorial, and they created scripture. The oldest Hebrew writings are not as old as the events they tell. A significant fraction of them came into being in the intertestamental period after the Exile.

The community of faith that arose around the resurrected Christ soon scattered. Apostolic letters were written to meet emergent needs. Its scriptures included disparate accounts of Jesus’ life, some of which were rejected as unhelpful before much time had passed. The authority that gathered these writings together and constituted them a canon did not exist in the way most moderns imagine until at least the fourth century.

In sum: faith creates scripture, not vice versa. The word of God, if by that we mean a document, is an artifact which arises out of historical contingencies. If people want to argue that an oral tradition preserved the divine words inviolate through the first few generations they may, but that is an argument from silence. How could it be considered a stable source? The oral tradition is itself a datum of faith, no more authoritative than others.

Leave a Reply