|SERMONS-Get it in Writing!|
A Sermon Preached by Dr. Ralph Blair at City Church, August 26, 2001
Last Sunday’s Style section of The Times featured a report on lavishly crass crosses as statements of fashion if not statements of faith. We’re told that trendsetters disavow Christianity but wear the cross as "a badge of status," "the latest in hip," "a testament to chic," and even for "shock." As always, in this world, nothing truly Christian is sacred.
There’s a new, glossy Bible due with the fall fashion season. The publishers had first teased that it would picture supermodels as Adam and Eve in the nude. Instead, it’ll show a not-so-famous bi-racial Adam and Eve. Along with other Bible characters, they’ll be shot by famous high fashion photographers. The publishers are still promising "nudity because [as they say] the Bible is very sensual and we are going to exploit that. We want to take the Bible off the dusty back shelf and put it on coffee tables." But these self-appointed pacesetters are bringing up the rear when it comes to X-rating and banning the Bible. The Bible’s been an X-rated and banned book for a long, long time.
In 1828 a Bible published by Quakers footnoted passages that were thought to be unsuitable for mixed company. In 1833, Noah Webster published his own revision of the King James Version because, in his opinion, "many words and phrases [in that Bible] are very offensive to delicacy, and even to decency." He argued that "Language which cannot be uttered in company without a violation of decency, or the rules of good breeding, exposes the Scriptures to the scoffs of unbelievers, impairs their authority, and multiplies or confirms the enemies of our holy religion." Well perhaps it wasn’t the "unbelievers" who would have been so offended.
The Bible is enough of an offense in the best sense – words that split and divide like two-edged swords [Hebrews 4:12]. So I’m not going to give examples of these allegedly "offensive" verses. Someone would surely complain that I’d violated "decency [and] the rules of good breeding." Of course, even if I read these passages from the pulpit, I don’t think I’d be burned at the stake. As you know, though, for years – and even these days – it’s a capital crime for people to have a Bible or to read even the judicious parts, let alone those "juicy" parts. And translating, publishing, or distributing the Bible to others was and is forbidden under pain of death. For almost three centuries, English Bibles in England were banned and burned – as were some of their translators. The ecclesiastically powerful did not want the Bible read by "all manner of persons." In the 16th century, no less a churchman than Sir Thomas More ranted that an English Bible translator had produced a "filthy foam of blasphemies out of his brutish beastly mouth."
The Revised Standard Version was dubbed the "Reversed Stranded Perversion" when it was first published in the mid-20th century. Fundamentalists called it the "vilest, boldest, most deliberately devilish attack upon the holy Word of God" in all of history, mainly because it changed the term "virgin" to "young woman" in the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah. Not to be outdone in the censorship department, Fundamentalists themselves produced a paraphrase called The Living Bible. It cleaned up the embarrassing report of David’s fathering Solomon "by the wife of Uriah." The Living Bible says he fathered Solomon "by the widow of Uriah." But how did she become a widow? The liberal Jesus Seminar now counters with a censored version of its own, denying the deity of Jesus. And the Unitarians have lately reprinted Thomas Jefferson’s cut-and-past Bible that also turns Jesus into a mere mortal. As an historian notes, Jefferson "composed [his condensed version] for his more restful sleep at night." [Edwin S. Gaustad]
In the 19th century, it was forbidden to teach slaves to read – lest they read the Bible and get the "wrong" ideas. In our day, the ACLU wants Bibles banned from public schools, lest kids get the "wrong" ideas.
Well, maybe Bibles should come sealed inside plain brown wrappers with a big, bold "WARNING! Adult material enclosed. Open at your own risk!" That would put both Christians with their domesticated dogmas and non-Christians with their domesticated doubts on notice that there are real shockers inside. Watch out!
Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Dillard, in An American Childhood, remembers the adults who pushed the Bible at her and her adolescent friends and she wonders: "Why did they spread this scandalous document before our eyes? If they had read it, I thought, they would have hid it. They didn’t recognize the vivid danger that we would, through repeated exposure, catch a case of its wild opposition to their world. Instead they bade us study great chunks of it, and think about those chunks, and commit them to memory, and ignore them. By dipping us children in the Bible so often, they hoped, I think, to give our lives a serious tint, and to provide us with quaintly magnificent snatches of prayer to produce as charms while, say, being mugged for our cash or jewels."
The Bible’s called "The Holy Bible" for a reason. "Holy" signifies "set apart" or "different." The Bible is truly different, not only from other books, but from many of the common misconceptions about the Bible.
The Bible isn’t what most people think it is. It’s stranger than what’s expected – not only by non-Christians but by Christians as well. But for too many Christians, as one theologian says, "the Bible offers no surprises [because] … Too often it is used to support [their own familiar] dogmatic system … instead of being treated as a vehicle of the Holy Spirit who uproots our man-made systems and confounds the vanity of our reason." [Donald Bloesch] The same can be said of non-Christians who make loud pronouncements against the Bible without having any notion of what’s really in it. I’ve seen this in teaching the Bible to secular New Yorkers for over a quarter century. Poet George Herbert said it well, way back in 1633: "Bibles laid open, millions of surprises."
It was on this very day, exactly 100 years ago, that the American Standard Version of the Bible was published. It was not the first American Bible. That was the 1663 Bible for which John Eliot transformed the unwritten language of the Algonquian Indians into symbols. And it wouldn’t be the last American Bible. The most recent American Bible is the English Standard Version due out next month. It’ll be based in the Revised Standard Version of the 1950s.
The 1901 Bible was the American revision of the Authorized or King James Bible. Its aim, according to the American Revision Committee, was "to adapt King James’ version to the present state of the English language without changing the idiom and vocabulary" and to adapt to "the present standard of Biblical scholarship." To that end, biblical scholars from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, NYU, the University of Pennsylvania, Haverford and Union Seminary worked on this side of the Atlantic while, across the ocean, other scholars worked on a British revision. Historian Philip Schaff, president of the general revision committee, remarked that "There never has been such a truly providential combination of favorable circumstances, and of able and sound Biblical scholars from all the evangelical Churches of the two great nations speaking the English language, for such a holy work of our common Christianity." Sadly, Schaff himself did not live to see the completion of the work.
You wouldn’t know it from the secular media, but these days, there’s a boom in Bible buying. The all-time No. 1 bestseller is selling in record numbers – up about 7 percent over the past year. And surveys show that the typical Bible buyer already has 9 Bibles.
So on this 100th anniversary of the Bible that got the 20th century Bible boom going, it’s fitting to take a closer look at three basic questions about the Bible. Who wrote it? How did we get it? And what’s it all about?
WHO WROTE THE BIBLE?
At the Tony Awards a few years back, Lily Tomlin stepped onto the Minskoff stage to announce the award for Best Play. Before reciting the nominees, she said: "The Bible says: ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ Just think," she said, "someone wrote that!" Well yes. And there’s no question that this Prologue to John’s gospel is powerful prose. But who’s the author? Some would say John. Others would say God. Serious Christians reject such either/ors and understand biblical authorship as both/and – both John and the Spirit of God. Contrary to the assumptions that skeptics have of serious Christians, even evangelical theologians affirm the human authorship of the Bible. Here’s what four modern evangelical scholars say: "God’s revelation must not be seen as a timeless and suprahistorical event but as a manifestation in history." [G. C. Berkouwer] "From first to last, the entire Bible is a human book and can only be understood and rightly interpreted as a thoroughly human book" [Kenneth Kantzer] "The Bible contains a fallible element in the sense that it reflects the cultural limitations of the writers." [Donald Bloesch] "The writers of the Bible were not mere copyists or secretaries, but flesh-and-blood people like ourselves, giving us the fruit of their efforts to hear God speak to them in the context of their special places in history." [Clark Pinnock]
The Holy Book is, of course, a whole library of books. And as King James English puts it in the first verse of Hebrews: "God, … at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets." It took some fifteen centuries of such "sundry times" to write the Bible, though the New Testament was written within half a century. Among the "divers manners" are poetry, prayers, prophesy, wisdom, history, law, letters, and a unique genre known as "gospel." Among the Bible’s half a hundred authors were murderers and adulterers and one man who kept hundreds of women for his sexual pleasure. There were, as well, priests, prophets, poets, shepherds, story tellers, kings and a doctor. All were Jews except maybe the doctor and perhaps two or three of the Wisdom authors.
Virtually all the Bible was written by men. But maybe there’s at least one passage by a woman in the book of Exodus. It’s the "Song of the Sea" from the ecstatic prophet Miriam, Moses’ sister. [Exodus 15:1a-18 and/or 15:21] And it’s been suggested that Priscilla may have written the Letter to the Hebrews. She was Paul’s co-worker at Corinth and Athens and was Apollos’ teacher. Many of the writers remain unknown to us.
But of course, Christians also speak of the Bible as "the word of God." We speak of the Bible as "God-breathed." What does that mean?
One of William Blake’s poetically-challenged friends once asked him: "When the sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a guinea?" "O no, no," Blake replied. "I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.’" That was the Bible-inspired Blake, recalling the seraphim’s antiphonal song above the throne of the Lord. [Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:6] The mystic poet saw the sun, but because of the Bible, he also saw beyond the sun. The light of even the rising sun was now not bright enough, now too blinding bright, to see beyond it without the light of the Bible. As the Psalmist sang: "In Thy Light we see light." [Psalm 36:9] And just as the blazing sun is not the revelation itself – much less an idol – but points beyond to the Creator, so "Scripture is … not the revelation itself, [much less an idol] but the description, the record, from which the revelation [of God] can be known." [Herman Bavinck] Wrote Isaac Watts: "The heavens declare thy glory, Lord; / In every star thy wisdom shines; / But when our eyes behold thy word, / We read thy name in fairer lines."
Everyone – from scientists and journalists to poets, priests and paupers – can describe the what of the world. And they can all have their opinions about the why of everything. But unless God has spoken, all their talk and theorizing is nothing but opinion – even if it’s what Joseph Parker called "gossip in polysyllables." True meaning must come from outside this world, from a point of view that transcends all the relativity and contingency of this world. As Stephen Hawking recognized at the end of his book, A Brief History of Time, the why of life can be supplied only by the mind of God. That’s divine revelation. And if God has spoken, then all opinions must give way to God’s word. Is it a matter of faith and trust? Yes, of course. Is it a matter of presupposition? Yes, of course – in either direction. And it’s a matter of authority. The most basic question of any statement of faith or trust is this: On what authority do you rely? Who says so? Either we mumble to ourselves or we receive revelation.
For millennia, God’s people have been confirmed in their reliance that God is and that He is not silent. For millennia, as civilizations have come and gone, as philosophical fads have flourished and faded, as times have changed, the Bible has stood the test of time as God’s revelation from generation to generation. Nothing has changed that.
So who wrote the Bible? God’s people did, inspired by God.
HOW DID WE GET THE BIBLE?
Naïve skeptics imagine ancient "smoke-filled rooms" in which deals were cut, good books burned behind locked doors and bad books dressed up by a bureaucratic screening committee of rich and powerful dogmatists. But it didn’t happen that way. In fact, it was precisely a 2nd-century attempt to do it that way that utterly failed.
So how did we wind up with the Bible we have today? Princeton Bible scholar Bruce Metzger asks it this way: Is the Bible "a collection of authoritative books or an authoritative collection of books?" As with all "chicken or egg" puzzles, we can say safely that the Bible produced the church and that the church produced the Bible.
The use of the Hebrew Bible and certain more recent writings by early Christians determined the standard, the list or canon of authoritative books rather than did any official pronouncement by church leaders in convention. This is because the use of these writings served as powerful witness, to all of these faithers, to that to which they looked in eager faith: the coming of the Kingdom of God in Jesus the Christ or Messiah.
As the original apostles began to die off, either in old age or by martyrdom, there was a growing need to get into writing, or to preserve what was already in writing, that which witnessed to the faith the early Christians were living. It was in view of the experience of events – especially the resurrection of Jesus Christ – that the early people of Jesus’ "Way" began to find divine fulfillment of Hebrew scripture in what they witnessed in Jesus. They then had to withstand opposition from non-Christian Jews. Thus, the sayings of Jesus and written accounts based on eyewitness reports by Peter and other disciples as well as letters of Paul and others were collected and put into books.
Both the letters of Paul and the later individual Gospels circulated for a time by themselves and from congregation to congregation before being assembled as The Epistles and The Gospels. A saying of Jesus quoted in Luke’s Gospel is cited as scripture along with a passage from the Torah in the mid-60s [I Timothy 5:18]. Paul’s letters were collected and published in Ephesus about AD 90 and II Peter [3:16] regards them as "scripture" sometime in the 2nd century. According to Justin Martyr in the first half of the 2nd century, the Christians read "the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets" in their Sunday assemblies just as we did once again this Sunday. According to a Cambridge Bible scholar: "The living community was indeed constantly subject to check and correction by the authentic evidence – by the basic witness, first of accredited eyewitness apostles and later of the written deposit of that witness; yet also the documents which soon began to circulate in considerable numbers were themselves in some measure subject to check and correction, whatever their origin, by the living community." [C. F. D. Moule]
The good news that the first Christians received and some even practiced by faith became, with that use, what Paul was already by the beginning of the 50s calling "the tradition." [II Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6; I Corinthians 11:2] The collection was thus an organic expression of its own production. According to Metzger, "It’s as though the eyewitness tradition was so firmly believed and incorporated in all proclamation of the first Christians that the collecting of the tradition in writing was simply confirmation of what had been accepted by word of mouth and common practice."
It’s clear that what was accepted did not have to come from apostles as such, for neither Mark nor Luke was an apostle. On the other hand, real or supposed apostolicity did not insure inclusion in the canon, as is evident in the cases of the so-called Gospel of Peter and the Apocalypse of Peter, both claiming the authority of the primary apostle. And even when a work was orthodox and written in the name of Paul, such as some fiction called The Acts of Paul and Thecla, it was not included.
By the end of the 2nd century, there was little doubt about the accepted content of the New Testament. Christians had taken over the Greek version of Hebrew scripture now known as the Old Testament. Meanwhile, the Sadducees accepted only the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. The Pharisees’ larger Bible, including the Prophets and the Writings, was not finally formalized until AD 90, while Christians were publishing Paul’s letters.
How did we get the Bible? The church produced the Bible as the Bible produced the church.
SO WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?
Much of the Bible’s diversity stems from the fact that the Bible reveals a two-way conversation. It’s not God’s lecture or rulebook. "The Bible is a dialogue. God and man are partners in a conversation which is meant to be overheard," as one theologian puts it. "But," he reminds us, "the reader of the Bible does not always, or only, hear God speaking." [Marcus Barth]
The Bible’s diversity is also due to the progressive nature of the revelation (Cf. e.g. Hebrews 1:1-4; Exodus 3:6; Daniel 9:2). "Revelation having been mediated through history has of necessity been progressive." [W. H. Griffith Thomas]
There is obvious development within the Old Testament, between the Old and New Testaments, and within the New Testament. As one scholar notes: "There is a progressive unfolding on God’s part, and there is a deepening response on the part of certain segments of the community … to a divine initiative." [John N. Oswalt] Another explains that "Revelation … unfolds as an organic whole with a measure of progressive development. … What is meant in saying that revelation is progressive is that in its main sweep, in its broad outlines, it moves on to clearer expression and higher notions of God and more refined ethical teachings." [Bernard Ramm]
So, you see, we have within the Bible’s developing diversity what emerges as an undeniable unity. In the words of a Jewish Bible scholar, we have, in the Hebrew Bible, "an example of [the] very activity that, over all, the university is meant to nurture, seeing things whole, all together, and within a single, unifying field-theory of explanations." [Jacob Neusner] The much-heralded Harvard University Press Literary Guide to the Bible had as its primary editorial principle: the search for unity, both within the books and between the books, from Genesis all the way to Revelation. Such unity between the Testaments should not be unexpected since, as another Jewish biblical scholar reminds us: "Earliest Christianity was a movement in Judea, of and by Jews, for a Jewish purpose." [Samuel Sandmel]
Well, what’s the Bible’s big idea?
Remember, the Bible’s the Holy Bible. That is, it’s the different book, the strange book. And it’s as strange a book as the God it reveals is a strange god. Unlike all other writings of all other religions, the Bible in its unity does not present a call to search out or earn salvation through self-seeking morality, enlightenment, asceticism, or liturgical and cultic religiosity. The Bible is no rulebook. The Bible is a love letter. It’s God’s love letter – all the way from the creation we read about in the book of Genesis through the calling of Abraham and the coming of Jesus to the re-creation we read about in the book of Revelation. That Love theme is encapsulated in the simplicity of the childlike faith of Anna Bartlett Warner’s hymn: "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so." Karl Barth was the 20th century’s most prolific and profound theologian. Yet when it came to his own personal response to the God he met in the Bible he’d quote Ms. Warner’s hymn and add: "I am told and let my self be told that my creator is gracious, that he is on my side – I do not really know why, but he tells me so and I believe it." Barth’s son Marcus said: "The Bible is an invitation to learn of God’s love, to enjoy it, and to respond to it."
"The Bible’s central message is the story of salvation." [F. F. Bruce] And that story of salvation is presented as salvation history. As someone said: That history is His story. It’s one that is, from beginning to end, from promise to fulfillment, the story of God’s acts of free grace, mercy, love and peace to us. And that is most dramatically revealed in God’s Self-sacrifice at the cross. And because of that enfleshed Love of God, nailed to the cross, Christ is risen. And because Christ is risen, we too shall rise from death to eternal life. This is the very good news of The Good Book. This is the one word that makes the Bible one book. The unifying word of the written Word of God is that, in spite of all else, the Almighty God, and especially in the Word made flesh, proves His love. And because God loves us so much, we are free to love God and to live out God’s command that we, in our own turn, love each other as Christ loves us and love even our enemies as we love ourselves.
God’s Self-sacrificing love is revealed throughout the Bible. But it’s nowhere more familiarly summed than in the third chapter of John’s Gospel, the Bible in miniature. Here we read: "God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, that whoever trusts in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." [John 3:16]
Any English Bible you’ve ever read is rooted in the work of William Tyndale. In 1536, he was executed for those labors. Ten years before, in his New Testament Prologue, he’d rejoiced in the Bible’s best of all good news. In his words, the Bible "signyfyth good, mery, glad and joyful tydings, that maketh a mannes hart glad, and maketh hymn synge, daunce and leepe for joye." Is that our response to the same Good News which we may read without any fear of being burned at the stake?
What’s the bible all about? God’s love – most poignantly proved at the cross.
When Gypsy Rose Lee was told that "God is Love," she said: "Get it in writing!" Thank God, we’ve got it in writing. That’s what the Bible is.