I am a country boy who loves school. I love paper, pencils and ink pens. I love books, reading them, seeing them on shelves and carrying them around. I was a kid in elementary school who ached to go to middle school, then high school and then college. Every level of education fascinated me, the challenge of it, until I became an English major in college and enrolled in English 304.
My parents raised me as a church-going kid. We lived twelve miles from our church but we got up on Sunday and made the trip. Dad, Mom and my two brothers. My church [like most] was not heavy on doctrine. Theology was not the subject of Sunday school. I grew up thinking the Bible was a “super-important” book that was written by God.
That idea was eventually replaced by the more realistic idea that men actually wrote the Bible but God directed their minds and their pens, until English 304.
English 304 was required of all English majors at my college. It was called simply “The History of English.” When I enrolled in it, I did not know what I was getting into other than the woman professor who taught it had a reputation for making it very hard. It was a meticulous study, focusing on the process of how we have the works of literature that we have today. It was obvious to me that my professor considered the Bible a “work of literature” not God’s “super-important” book.
She delved into what happens to books as they are written and printed. Each work of literature has its own history [as did the Bible].
Peter Gomes discusses this in less detail in the section of The Good Book entitled “The Construction of Scripture.” The Bible is not a book but a collection of books, a library of books. The Bible has come together over a period of centuries by a long editorial process. My professor emphasized the human element of this process. The writers were human, the publishers human, the printers human and of course readers of The Book are human. Many Christians like to think of the process of the writing of the Bible as divine. My professor loved to emphasize the printing of books quite a lot, pointing out the many errors made in printing which may have changed the meaning of the author [e.g. The Odyssey by Homer].
This country boy began to consider that this may have happened to God’s Book. My doubts were a long way from my upbringing, where an older lady in my church declared of her Bible that she believed every word; all the words came from God. “The Bible says what it means and means what it says!” That was her view of 2nd Timothy 3: 16-17 “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
This was the first time I recall having doubts about the infallibility of God’s word [a horrible heresy at the time, I thought]. Gomes and other writers have no problem with the “messy” way the Bible has come about. I am reading a book by the more “liberal” pastor [Adam Hamilton*] who points to the Christian idea that there are thirty five books in the Old Testament, the Catholic idea that there are forty-six, the Eastern Orthodox idea that there are fifty and the Jewish idea that there are twenty-four. Who is right? How can different faiths disagree so much about the number of books in the Old Testament?
All this disagreement about the “canon” is really about which books made it into the Bible and which books did not. Obviously [as we see above] various faiths cannot agree upon what books should be included. Hamilton points to the Jewish need for books that are better for reading aloud in the synagogue. Gomes feels that the Old Testament used by the Jews is a collection of books “of proven worth, self-consciously composed, collected and preserved as the repository of wisdom both human and divine…reveal[ing] the nature of the people who wrote and collected them, and the nature of their god” [Gomes, 15].
When it comes to the “Christian’s Book” (The New Testament) the story is a bit different. The New Testament was written mostly by Jews who drew upon the Old Testament heavily as they penned their thoughts about Jesus and their faith. In His ministry, Jesus drew upon Old Testament Scripture as well because He knew it.
The history of The Bible is not as simple as many Christians would imagine. It is my hope that this information does not destroy someone’s faith. As Hamilton reports, the books of the New Testament may have been written in the First Century but that does not mean that the New Testament emerged organically at that point in time. If wealthy church leaders like Marcion [around 140 AD] had not had an interest in creating a collection of documents, we might not have the New Testament. With his wealth and his motivation, New Testament documents were gathered. Christian leaders like Justin Martyr had a tremendous impact as he defended the Christian faith when it was under attack in the middle of the 2nd Century. A student of Martyr named Tatian created a document called the Diatessaron which means made of four, combining the four Gospels. By the end of the fourth century there was still no book called the New Testament but theologians were getting interested in making a Testament the “official” word of the Christian faith. They began the process with a series of councils devoted to developing the canon of the New Testament. The first council was the Council of Carthage in 397. Several councils have convened over the years to bring the New Testament to where it is today. According to Hamilton, several criteria were uppermost in leaders’ minds as they considered the canon: usefulness, [helpful to the churches who needed the New Testament], consistency [the document created must be consistent with the faith that was being expounded in church], association [given books of the New Testament needed to be associated with first-generation church leaders] and finally acceptance [books that were circulated widely and found widespread acceptance were deemed more acceptable].
Now we get to the criterion that is uppermost in the minds of believers who tend toward Biblical inerrancy [i.e. all is true in the bible or all is false]. Many believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God and in the minds of the “conservative” believers**, this idea is uppermost. The New Testament may not have been written by Jesus’ followers right after He went to heaven, but as believers, theologians and church leaders who worked with the available texts, were all inspired by God. Could we say that inspiration can be objectively identified? The answer is no. We can’t say exactly what inspiration is. But could inspiration from God be subjectively experienced? Yes it could and that experience could have guided the construction of the New Testament. Many believe it did.
English 304 did have an impact on me. It made we wonder if the Bible was the “super-important” book that was written by God. Maybe I was being naïve as I considered the Bible being written in a simple way. The construction of Scripture was not simple; it was very complicated but that does not mean that God did not manifest Himself in the process; indeed, maybe God even controlled or influenced the process every step of the way.
Even though humans touched the Biblical text (in my mind) that does not devalue the Bible. We can hear Him speaking through the words. God can guide our Holy Spirit and inspire us with His words, His teaching, His reproving, His correcting and His training of us in righteousness.
Instead of focusing on the human element of Scripture construction, I prefer to attend to the first part of 2nd Timothy 3: 16-17: “All Scripture is inspired by God.” We may not actually know what Paul meant when he used the word “inspired” but when I think of the word, I think of times when I transcend my limitations, I find the power to shake off a lax lifestyle and do better than I ever thought possible. Yes there have been times when God’s word inspired me to live a better life.
I can only speak for myself; I really do credit God’s word, His Bible.
*I hate to label a pastor as “liberal” but maybe it helps to orient the reader to the pastor’s attitude regarding doctrine. Hamilton’s book is entitled Making Sense of the Bible.
**Again, I hate to label believers as “conservative” but maybe it helps with orientation.