By Joshua Penduck
Last time we looked at how the Bible was inspired by God, God’s word in human words. We looked out how the Bible was edited by different editors, each of whom God could inspire. Why did God choose to do things this way? Christians believe that God became a real human being in Jesus. Not that Jesus was only hiding behind his humanity and would soon discard it when he didn’t need it any more. Nor was his humanity only an appearance. Nor was it the case that calling Jesus ‘God’ was simply a metaphor for his divine life. Nor was it the case that God became human by discarding what it means to be God. Jesus was a real, true human being, and really, truly God at the same time. It’s a paradox, but paradoxes are things that often happen when we talk about the source of the universe. God spoke to us through Jesus and in Jesus and as Jesus, because Jesus was fully God without stopping being a man.
The same is the case with the Bible: it is, to the last jot a human work, but it is also, to the last jot, God’s divine Word. The 19th Century preacher Andrew Jukes gives an analogy in his wonderful book, The Names of God. Imagine that before Jesus was raised from the dead at Easter a group of scientists got hold of his body. They dissect it and analyse it, even to the atomic level. And then they make a conclusion to their studies: by analysing his physical body, they find no evidence of Jesus being fully divine. But, as Andrew Jukes points out, this would be to misunderstand what and who ‘God’ is. God is not physical, but ‘spiritual’, or to say it in a different way, prior to all physicality (and non-physicality as well!). It’s only through the eye of faith, given by the Holy Spirit – the Holy Spirit who raises Jesus from the dead to have an imperishable body – that we realise the true identity of Jesus: God. In the same way, a historian or literary critic might pull apart the Bible, analysing it in its various historical parts and demonstrating it to be a book of its time without any evidence of it being ‘divine’. Yet when the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of the Bible’s readers, suddenly or gradually the divine Word opens up.
God became human in Jesus and entered into our context: he spoke a human language, thought human thoughts, felt human feelings, and in doing so transformed humanity from ‘within’ (i.e. through the Spirit our humanity is joined with Jesus’, and we are saved through him). Jesus isn’t trying to hide his divinity. His divinity is spoken through his humanity. In the same way, when God speaks through the human authors, he doesn’t override their characteristics, nor does he blow their minds with facts that they couldn’t understand. He speaks through them in ways they can understand. Back in Old Testament times, people didn’t write histories in the way we do today. In many ways, their histories are closer to what we call historical fiction – as opposed to fictional history. Whereas fictional history simply invents the past, historical fiction will use figures from the past and try to reimagine them. Take, for instance, the story of the Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. This is based on actual history, and real historical people are characters. Yet Dumas isn’t writing a history book, even though it is a very historically accurate novel. A good historical fiction is very historical, even though many elements of it are not as grounded as a modern historical book would be and maybe even imagined up by the author.
God, being a God who speaks through writers and doesn’t just override their personalities, would not get the Biblical writers to compose a modern history simply to please us more historically rigorous 21st Century Christians. This is where so many problems have emerged in modern times: when 19th Century historians and literary critics dissected the Bible, and discovered that things weren’t always as historically accurate as modern standards would have, many people either lost faith (because they expected the Bible to be a modern book of history), or they simply ignored these many historians and critics and said the Bible must be absolutely historically accurate or it is false. Admittedly, many of these 19th Century historians did have an agenda – and not always a good one. This can be seen especially with their reconstructions of the life of Jesus which conveniently (and foolishly) tried to ignore the fact that Jesus caused miracles to happen. Yet if both these historians – and their conservative enemies – had recognised that God speaks to us through these ancient authors’ ways of thinking, and not through modern ways of thinking, a lot of damage could have been averted. It takes the eyes of faith, given by the regenerating Holy Spirit, to see that the Bible is God’s Word as well as a human one.
This is not to say that everything in the Bible is false because it is not a modern history. Far from it. Remember, a good historical novel is rigorously based on the past. It’s just not always exactly as the Bible records it. So, unlike many modern theologians, I believe that the Red (or Reed) Sea parted in two before Moses and the Israelites. I’m less convinced that Miriam sang her perfectly composed song immediately after the crossing of the Red (or Reed) Sea in the way the Bible has recorded it. Yet the song that we receive today in the Bible is the one that God wanted us to receive – down to the last jot.
Knowing that the Bible wasn’t written according to our modern standards helps us understand Genesis, and the old (historically false) conflicts between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ break down. I will argue next week that Genesis I is not a scientific account of creation because the modern scientific method simply wasn’t invented yet, and God speaks through the writers and their ways of thinking, not our ways of thinking.