The Harvard Divinity School professor, Dr. Harvey Cox, wrote a marvelous book called: How to Read the Bible, in which he differentiates between those who read it for spiritual edification and those who study it academically. I do both.
We have a few readers who wish I’d just forget the academics. But I can’t do that. I have spent my life as a Bible-loving Christian scholar, and I want to be able to discuss this book with Muslims as well as with other Christians, and that means I’ve got to be honest. I can’t gloss over mistakes and errors, and pretend that mythological stories are historical. That would not be honest. And speaking of honesty: my columns are not about spiritual edification. You can find that in the letters to the Editor of the Macon Telegraph.
Ahmed Shendy Yousef, a member of our Macon Mosque, wrote a fascinating book last year, Islam within Judaism and Christianity, in which he claims the Quran was the last book inspired by God. That would make a total of three. (or four, if you include the Book of Mormon.)
2 Tim. 3:16 says: “All Scripture (pasa graphe) is inspired (breathed out) by God, and profitable…” And 2Pet. 1:20 seems to back that up: “no prophesy (of Scripture) ever came by the will of man; instead, borne along by the Holy Spirit, men spoke from God.”
So how do we read these Holy Books? The writers of 2Timothy and 2 Peter (not Peter and Paul, it seems) were doing two things:
When the followers of Judaism and Christianity and Islam talk about their “Holy Book” they talk about it being inspired somehow by their God. What does this mean? For many, it means God leaned over his heavens and whispered into the ears of the writers. For others, it means that God simply prevented the writers from jotting down “un-God-like” words.
But neither one of these two explanations solve the “Jihad texts” (Holy Quran. 2:190-191) and the “Samuel Murdering Texts” (1Sam. 15:3) and the “Pauline anti-feminine texts.” (1Cor. 14:34) and the Johanine exclusion texts (Jn. 14:6). In my opinion, none of these words are “God-like” words. Therefore, this kind of “inspiration” does not tell me how to read the Holy Books.
Harvey Cox ends his book by saying: “When we consider the question: ‘How should we read the Bible?’ there is no single answer.” But I think Harvey gives us a clue.
He says: “Even though the Bible is a witness to the unvarnished violence of which we have been capable as a species, it is also a chronicle of sporadic and usually unsuccessful attempts to limit that brutality.” In other words, it has both the “sins” of mankind (as Bishop Spong pointed out in his book, The Sins of Scripture) and the virtues we need for forgiveness and rehabilitation. There’s no need to try to change the sins into virtues and call them “God-like.” No matter how we want to define “inspiration” the fact remains: all these words were written by men – not God.
I think we can still believe in “God-inspired” Scriptures, in the same way we believe that God allows bad things to happen to good people. It’s not a big jump to believe that this same God allows errors and mistakes to seep into the Book we all believe is holy.
Harvey concludes by saying: “Plumbing into the Bible may be a bit like psychoanalysis. One begins with what is on the surface of the mind but then peels back layer after layer to expose what lurks beneath.”
70 years ago I started learning how to “peel this biblical onion;” but let me be honest—like every onion, this one can bring lots of frustrating tears.