God spoke. And not just the world, but the Bible too came into existence. Then again, Isaiah, Luke, and Paul also spoke, using human voices and tools to do the work we’ve come to expect words to do. It’s been an interesting partnership. Some of us have wanted to consider only one side or the other in this co-endeavor, preferring to think of the Bible as simply and clearly God’s Word, or else discounting the divine and focusing exclusively on varied expressions of ancient religious experiences of . . . something.
But the best and most interesting way to see the Bible has always been to embrace it as fully human and fully divine at the same time. These are our own words on some great godly errand. If we take seriously what the Bible says about itself (insofar as it talks about itself), then the Bible is a divine speech act—a collection of words meant to do things on God’s behalf, to effect change and inaugurate new realities. Yet God has chosen to do all this in and through regular people doing regular human things. Some angry prophet denounces the injustice he sees. A worried leader dictates some letters. Storytellers capture and hold audiences with their skillful narrations. A visionary somehow transcribes his fantastical dreams and nightmares into language, so others might catch a glimpse. Our words, God’s work.
For a long time now, human words have been more than bare symbols of basic meaning. Maybe that’s what they were when we first started using them. But we’ve learned how to shape those sounds and intonations in special ways to add depth and strength, crafting more powerful and moving expressions of things like pain and humor, beauty and pathos. With these new, more thoughtful combinations of the building blocks of language we created literary genres—unique ways of fashioning fresh structures for the delivery of more meaningful words. Thus we moved beyond flat and lifeless statements of facts to words that sing or mourn or drive home or surprise—words that do more than merely inform. We found ways to use these carriers of meaning to cross the empty spaces that arise between us. Rightly employed, words allow us to commune together in our yearning for that deeper understanding that just might enable transformation. Not merely to know, but to see and to feel and then to do.
It was not a happy moment, then, when modernity imposed a new form on the Bible, changing its songs and letters, stories and wisdom into a holy reference book with endless columns of numbered, neutered lists of propositions. Much of the literary power drained out of the Bible, its sacred words straight-jacketed into unnatural channels. This template changed what we thought the Bible was, and therefore what we thought we were supposed to do with it.
In theory, the modern critical study of the Bible was supposed to put more emphasis on its human origins, but this happened in a mostly sad and distorted kind of way. We became preoccupied with determining the originating sources of the Bible, resulting in not a little disdain for the church and its theology. The dark hope appeared to be that if some prehistory of the text could be discovered—some natural explanation of how these words got there—this would demonstrate that God wasn’t involved in the process.