This post continues a previous one on the authority of the Bible, examining two more ways of reading Scripture in addition to the first approach, viewing the Bible as the literal word of God.
Second, one can read the Bible as human words dictated by God. This does not equate God's words with the Bible. Instead, this approach emphasizes that the human words of Scripture were God's choice (i.e., the best available) for communicating God's will to people. Scholars can profitably study the original language (no original manuscripts exist), and then translate the text into other languages; commentaries and other resources can provide information about possible interpretations of the text, conjectures about the historical context of the text, etc.
Although this approach seems to value all Scripture, in fact the approach is rife with difficulties:
1. Because no original manuscripts exist and there are thousands of textual variations, who decides what God intended? Many of the variations are trivial but some are major, e.g., Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus argues that all of the passages that have Jesus attesting to his divinity are late additions or changes reflecting the emerging and increasingly normative theory that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, the only begotten son of God.
2. Similarly, written Hebrew originally had no vowels, punctuation, capitalization, or spacing. It consisted of an unbroken string of consonants. Who decides what God intended? Much of the time, deciphering the text is not too difficult. However, some key passages are unclear, e.g., the name of God is YHWH, but nobody knows the word or its meaning.
3. If God intended the totality of the Bible, what is the justification for valuing some of it as history or no longer requiring obedience? How does one reconcile God telling Israel to kill all of the Amalekites and Jesus telling his followers to love their enemies?
Over the last thousand years, Christians (except evangelical Protestants in the U.S.) have generally moved away from this approach to Scripture. Similarly, Christians have almost completely abandoned what we now see as the obviously antiquated and failed attempts of prior generations to preserve this understanding of Scripture, e.g., allegorizing difficult passages to harmonize prima facie conflicting teachings in different parts of Scripture.
Third, one can read the Bible as a human text and study the text with all of the literary, linguistic, and historical tools with which humans study other human texts. This approach, known as the historical-critical approach to the Bible, gained momentum beginning in the late 1700s and by the 1970s when I was in seminary dominated Christian Scripture scholarship among all but literalists. Even many evangelicals, to some degree, relied upon this approach until the late twentieth century revolt against the moderates in the Southern Baptist Convention occurred.
But this approach also has a huge shortcoming: if the text is a human product, how can one hear or experience God's revelation in or through the text? Not having a good answer to that challenge led many clergy to develop a bifurcated approach to the Bible: they read the Bible devotionally to hear God speak (see the fourth approach discussed in my next post) and studied the Bible using the historical-critical methods. This bifurcation explains why generations of Christians remained almost completely ignorant of the historical-critical method, a phenomenon that prominent biblical scholar James Smart commented upon in his mid-twentieth century book, The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church.