What is the Bible? It is divine revelation. It is God's inspired Word. Certainly these statements separate me from all liberal theologies that reject from the outset the possibility of divine revelation and focus instead on the subjective religious experiences of humans. However, my aim in these posts will be to draw out how one can be faithful to these statements, faithful to the divine authority of Scripture, without being a fundamentalist.
A fundamentalist approaches the Bible in basically the same way a Muslim approaches the Qu'ran. Christian fundamentalism and Islam have essentially the same notion of divine revelation: God bestowing facts about himself and his will to human beings. Both of these religious movements claim that God has bestowed these facts, and thus revealed himself, through a book. My contention is that this notion of revelation is radically unbiblical.
It is unbiblical because it is impersonal. Revelation in Scripture begins with God's covenant with Israel, a relationship God establishes with a particular people that is to be one of love and trust (their trust in Him). God gives Israel the Law (Torah) not as a set of universal facts about his will but as the terms of their relationship, much like marriage vows, giving concrete expression of what it ought to look like for Israel to live a life of love and trust in Yahweh. But the New Testament goes further in the personal direction of revelation; we could even say that the New Testament radically personalizes the Jewish understanding of divine revelation.
Two classic texts help us to see how radical the New Testament notion of revelation is. The first is John 1:1-3, 14: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made...The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." In Christ, the Word of God that is eternally with God and is God, God has not just given us facts about himself which could be contained in a book, but given us his very Self. God thus reveals himself to us through himself, himself made one of us, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. He took on a human existence and revealed himself as God in that form to his apostles ("We have seen his glory"). This kind of revelation cannot be understood simply as the giving of facts, but as fellowship, personal and intimate communion in which God reveals himself to us through his personal presence, much as a newly wed couple reveal themselves to each other through time spent in intimate personal encounter (we are the bride of Christ after all, Rev 19:7).
Second is Hebrews 1:1-3: "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word." This gives us much the same picture as the one we saw in John, but here we see an emphasis on the superiority of the personal revelation of Christ as the Son over the previous "many ways" God had spoke to Israel through the prophets. I might be so bold as to paraphrase, "In the past God sent messengers to give us messages from him, but now he has personally come among us himself in the person of God the Son, making his glory known to us directly."
Taking these two passages together, what emerges is an understanding of revelation that is firmly tied to Christ as the Word and Son of God, the exact representation of God's being. So how is the Bible the Word of God if only Christ reveals God and thus only Christ is the Word? This is where fundamentalism gets off track. It basically believes in two Words of God, Christ and the Bible. By understanding the Bible itself as the Word of God in a direct and unqualified way, fundamentalism treats every word in the Bible as God's direct speech. It that understanding, no differentiation can made between any two parts of the Bible; no part of it stands over the rest as the having more importance because every word is God's Word. In effect, its authority is flattened out so that all of its historical narrative must be taken strictly literally. Questioning whether or not there really was a talking serpent in a literal garden of Eden or whether or not Samson's power was contained in his hair impugns the Christian faith exactly as much as questioning the deity of Christ or his resurrection from the dead. In fact, for fundamentalism, and this is its most serious crime, the reliability of Scripture replaces the Lordship of Christ as the foundation of Christian faith.
To illustrate, when a fundamentalist sings "Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so", when he/she ought to mean by that something like "Jesus loves me this I know because He tells me so through the Bible", what he/she actually means is "Jesus loves me, and the reason I know that is because the Bible tells me so, and anything the Bible says has to be true because its God wrote it." In other words, God has revealed everything we need to know about him and his will in a book, and that book happens to tell me that God wants me to believe in Jesus.
No, our faith is not in the Bible as such but in Christ, the incarnate Word of God. The Bible, however, is the Word of God to us because that is where Christ makes himself known to us. As we saw above, when we take the prologues of John and Hebrews together, we see that Christ, as the Word and Son of God, is the revelation of God. As such, he is both the promise of the Old Testament ("Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms" Luke 24:44) and the content of the New Testament, as he commits himself and his gospel to apostles who are its source ("He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me" Luke 10:16). Thus, the Bible has a definite center, a definite focus on Jesus Christ as its true content. The Bible can never be understood as God's Word apart from that central content; it is that content, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, that makes the Bible the Word of God. When we read the Bible, our faith does not stop at the words we read; those words point past themselves to the incarnate, crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. It is he who reveals God to us and he does this as we encounter him in Scripture. Christ stands behind the Bible as its essential message; we hear him when we hear its message. Christ is thus the Lord over Scripture and it is submissive to him; as he speaks through it to us, his church, we submit to Scripture because in it we hear the voice of our Lord. This is what my theological hero T. F. Torrance calls the "depth dimension of Scripture".
More to come.