Recently in a BYU New Testament class, a somewhat progressive religion teacher was introducing the students to modern Bible historical criticism. The kind of research that leads scholars to believe that the gospels were written decades after Jesus was crucified, and that they were not written by who we assume, ie Mark didn’t write Mark, John didn’t write John, etc. And further, that this research suggests that some New Testament verses are more reliable than others, meaning they are more likely to originate from Jesus vs being more likely to have been added later and possibly dubious in what some would call a “pious fraud” kind of way.
A question from a class member to the BYU professor: “If scripture is not the literal word of God conveyed directly through prophets, then what is scripture to you?”
The answer: “We are called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Scripture to us is our understanding as a church of Christ and who he is and what he meant.”
Great answer. I think this implies some much needed humility in our view of scripture and authority.
What is scripture?
Peter Enns on scripture:
The Bible is what it looks like when God lets his children tell the story. They tell the story of God, from their point of view, with God there, with them and next to them, but they’re explaining God as best as they can within the culture that provides their language and their concepts.
Blake Ostler calls it: “a synthesis of human creativity responding to divine persuasion.”
The Bible is seen as a human product. It’s man’s description of its relationship with God. It is not God’s witness to man, but man’s witness to God. This is not to deny the reality and power of God. But to acknowledge that scripture, even though we declare it to be sacred and treat it as such, is human in its origin and full of the possibility of human weakness and error.
Just as this view of the Bible does not deny the reality of God, it does not deny that the Bible is “inspired by God.” But it understands inspiration differently. In recent centuries, some Christians have understood it to mean “plenary inspiration”: that every word is inspired by God, and thus has the truth and authority of God standing behind it. For them, inspiration effectively means that the Bible is a divine product. Within the emerging paradigm, inspiration refers to the movement of the Spirit in the lives of the people who produced the Bible. The emphasis is not upon words inspired by God, but on people moved by their experience of the Spirit, namely, these ancient communities and the individuals who wrote for them.
By a sacramental approach, I mean seeing the Bible as sacrament. Indeed, this is one of its primary functions as sacred scripture. A sacrament is a finite, physical, visible mediator of the sacred, a means whereby the sacred becomes present to us. A sacrament is a vehicle or vessel of the sacred. In Christian language, a sacrament is an “outward and visible sign” that functions as “a means of grace.” Sacraments are “doors to the sacred” as well as bridges to the sacred. Something finite, something of this world, becomes a means whereby the sacred becomes present to us.
I’m working on my own definition, but this is my best so far.
Scripture is sacred history. It is the history of how our spiritual ancestors have understood God and how God relates to the human family. As the LDS Body of Christ, we define scripture canon which we as a community of worshipers engage together in an effort to access the Spirit of God, understand the nature and will of God, and be inspired in our efforts to build the Kingdom of God. We believe scriptures are inspired in that God’s Spirit is involved in the creation of scripture and decision to canonize certain works. Therefore, they are elevated in status above any other literary works or teachings. We don’t view scripture as inerrant or infallible. Scriptures should be considered human’s best guess more than God’s directly breathed instructions. We don’t view it as one pure, monolithic, uniform voice. It is sometimes contradictory and sometimes overruled. But through it a composite picture of God is revealed. We rely on the Holy Ghost and our individual experience to interpret the meaning for us individually but defer to the prophet and general authorities as stewards of the Church to provide official interpretations.
Could we come around to this more humble concept of scripture and revelation?