Enjoying the Bible
by Paul Walker
That the Bible has a divine stamp of approval is accepted at
some level by most Christians. We can gently smile at those whose literal
interpretations lead them to deny virtually any findings of modern
science. Yet some sort of divine authority is attributed to the Scriptures
by Catholics, Orthodox Christians and those who call themselves liberal
In current debates about sexuality for example, Christians differ on
how they interpret the Scriptures. But they all accept that the Bible has
some degree of authority in the debate.
In Abrahamic religions, such authority tends to be given to books.
Hence the Koran and the Book of Mormon, among others, are also given
authority to settle questions of meaning and morality. The question is
why? Strangely, only one book in the entire Bible, Christian or Hebrew,
makes such a claim that the Bible itself has divine authority (1 Timothy
3.16). If this is the only justification for the authority of the
scriptures, it turns out to be a circular argument: the Bible is the
divine word of God because the Bible says it is.
If the Bible is accepted as God�s word to humanity it immediately
creates problems. I have already touched on the whole science/creation
dilemma. But the issues run much deeper than that. How are we to decide
which moral teachings to accept? Why for example, do "biblical Christians"
take teaching about homosexuality literally, while at the same time
accepting only metaphorically the teaching that we should give away all
I don�t need to further rehearse the arguments against taking the Bible
literally here. What I wish to argue is that we should give the Bible no
divine authority at all. Only then might it be taken seriously.
Think of other influential books. A good example is On the Origin of
Species by Charles Darwin. The influence of Darwin�s work rests not on
the fact that it was given some kind of imprimatur, nor on the fact
that it is perfect in every detail. We know that much of its argument is
factually incorrect. The genius of Darwin's book is that it looks at the
world in a new way, and that way helps us make sense of the world. The
same could be said of the works of Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Leonardo
da Vinci and Sigmund Freud.
So the authority of books, and of ideas and teachings relies nowadays
not on an external stamp of approval, but on whether or not they make
sense and influence for good the way we act and think.
On this matter certain books of the Bible have been instrumental. The
book of Exodus has given us the Ten Commandments. The book of the Psalms
has played a key role in understanding human psychology. Isaiah has helped
us see through religious hypocrisy. Luke's Gospel shows the costliness of
being a neighbour. And in Paul�s first letter to the Corinthians is the
best definition I have ever seen of love (1 Corinthians 13.4-7). These
books have authority because they make sense, and because they still have
a tremendous influence for good on those who read them.
At the same time there are other books which have become rather dated.
Leviticus� description of how exactly an ancient tribe chose to slaughter
its animals seems rather past it. Kings and Chronicles are interesting
history but mainly irrelevant as moral guides. Daniel and Revelation seem
positively harmful in the way they are still reinterpreted. And have you
ever read the letter of Jude?
The Bible contains some wonderful literature and teaching, much of
which was probably distilled over centuries. Yet it is not enhanced by
being protected as some kind of divine life-manual. It is certainly not
helpful as the final arbiter of any argument.
I suspect that it is little read outside the Church precisely because
it has been given such a role. If the Bible is to be rediscovered as one
of the great treasures of human history it needs to be freed from the
shackles of divine authority which prevent mere mortals from enjoying it.