Scripture and Creeds: Fight the urge to fit in (part 7)
The Genres of Les Misérables
I want to refer again to Victor Hugo’s literary masterpiece, Les Misérables, because there is an interesting similarity between it and the Bible.
Les Misérables is a long and dense book. It examines the nature of law and grace, elaborates on the history of France, the architecture and urban design of Paris, politics, moral philosophy, antimonarchism, justice, religion, and the types and nature of romantic and familial love. To accomplish such a feat, the novel mixes genres.
Obviously, the novel is mostly comprised of narrative-story. The main thread of that story is ex-convict Jean Valjean, who becomes a force for good in the world but cannot escape his criminal past. To tell his story, and make what happens to him and around him more palpable, more than a quarter of the book consists of digressions, being essays with great detail.
The novel opens with the story of the Bishop of Digne, and takes 14 chapters to describe how he is a saintly man. When he finally forgives Valjean, the reader really appreciates the sacred moment, but then the character no longer features in the novel.
The author devotes 19 chapters to an account of the Battle of Waterloo. If a reader can get through it, this long and somewhat boring digression introduces Thénardier, a thoroughly villainous character, who is looting the dead and dying on the battlefield when the reader meets him.
The novel contains narrative and extensively detailed prose, but it also includes poetry. In fact, the romantic poetry of Marius, which he secretly leaves for Cosette during their courtship, helped me be all romantic when I proposed to my now wife.
If one were to take out the poetry and the prose, which some argue do not advance the plot, then we would be left with a much shorter book, which would no longer be the masterpiece it is. It is this carefully constructed mixing of genres that has made it, according to American writer and political activist Upton Sinclair, "one of the half-dozen greatest novels of the world".
As we will see, The Bible too is a carefully constructed, mixed genre, masterpiece of literature. There are many sections that are boring and questionable for their inclusion, but for those with eyes to see and ears that hear (Jer 5:21; Ezk 12:2; Mk 8:18), they will find within it riches beyond compare.
Trigger warning: I have been encouraged to give a trigger warning when I am going to say something especially challenging in any of my sermons. This is one of those times. I know how dearly you all hold the Bible and I need you to believe I do too.
If you can trust I have a high view of scripture and actually listen, then you will be encouraged to read The Bible carefully and deeply, and better understand how it is an inspired book of books.
What Is Essential About Scripture and Creeds?
The seventh section of the statement of essential beliefs we have been exploring together pertains to what is essential to believe about scripture and creeds:
We believe that the sixty-six books of Holy Scripture are inspired by God’s Spirit and are the sole supreme authority under God for Christian believing and living; Jesus Christ is the norm by which we interpret Scripture. Creeds and confessional statements are not instruments of doctrinal accountability but expressions of common faith under the authority of Christ and Scripture.
This belief, like that of Jesus Christ, is a pillar of Christian faith and practice. It ‘holds up’ the other beliefs.
We can express this pillar this way: because of Jesus (the first pillar) we know our Creator is real and by The Bible (our second pillar) we know Jesus is real. To put it another way, without The Bible we would not know anything about Jesus, and without Jesus we would not know anything worth knowing about our Creator, it would all be mere speculation. Because of what we know to be true about Jesus and our creator God, we respond to him with faith and live a Christian lifestyle.
So far so good? ?
What Is the Bible?
Before I get into the core of this statement, I need to clarify a few words, beginning with “Bible”.
The word “Bible” is an English word derived from Latin and Greek words, and simply means “book” or “books”. What we call The Bible —in caps because we treat it as a proper name— The Bible is a collection of sacred books.
What makes this collection of books so special?
The books of The Bible are special because they are scripture —they are ”sacred”, in other words.
Scriptures, for Christianity as much as for any religion, are those writings acknowledged and revered as issuing from God and having his authority.
Therefore, The Bible is special for Christians because it consists of our scriptures. These words, “Bible” and “scripture”, can then be used interchangeably because they mean, basically, the same thing.
At this point, it is probably helpful for me to add a quick comment on why the first 39 books of The Bible are called the “Old Testament” (OT) and the remaining 27 are called the “New Testament” (NT).
During the time of Jesus there was only “the scriptures” (Mt 21:42; Rom 1:2) —without getting too far ‘into the weeds’, for Jesus, this meant the OT. After Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, the apostles and their associates eventually produced another body of literature that came to be treated as scripture as well —what we call the NT.
The word “testament” is an English translation of a Greek word which is really better rendered as “covenant”. In time, the Church began referring to the older books as the “Old Testament” —as in they refer to the old covenant— and the “New Testament” —as in they refer to the covenant prophesied by Jeremiah, who declared,
“Look, the days are coming”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. (Jeremiah 31:31)
Bringing this all together, The Bible contains our scriptures and is divided into two sections, the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament”. Capiche?
How Do We Have a Bible?
Christian faith and lifestyle is based on the faith and lifestyle of ancient Judaism. Writing was expensive, so ancient Judaism and early Christianity relied on oral tradition.
Essentially, oral tradition is the passing on of verbal information from one generation to the next. In this sense, it is a typical feature of human culture, observable in highly literate societies, as well as in societies where literacy is not widespread. Oral tradition involves a wide variety of social processes and types of verbal expression.
For example, a tribal group might gather around a campfire and have an elder share a story which has been a foundation of their culture from time immemorial. If the elder were to deviate from the ‘authorised’ telling of the story, he would be chided back in line, which is why we should not make the mistake of dismissing oral tradition as inaccurate! Historians concur the processes of transmitting oral tradition were rigorous and trustworthy.
This is exactly the kind of scenario we should have in mind when we read The First Book of Kings, where Elijah complained he alone was left among God’s people and that all of ancient Israel had forsaken Him (1 Kgs 18:22; 19:14). The Lord God told Elijah that He had reserved “seven thousand, all of the knees that have not bowed down to Baal,” who will be spared a final judgment on Israel (1 Kgs 19:18).
So, in a time when the king Ahab and his priests, under the direction of Queen Jezebel, were unfaithful to God, there were a people continuing the oral tradition and by it maintaining their faith and lifestyle.
Oral tradition was a feature of ancient Judaism, as well as early Christianity. Some stories and instructions, prophecy and wisdom, was written down, but most was passed from person to person, family to family, church to church.
In a sad twist of fate, during the reign of King Josiah, the high priest told the king’s secretary that he had ‘found’ “the book of the law in the Lord’s temple” (2 Kgs 22:3,8). At this news, the king “tore his clothes”, which was a sign of great remorse, and began introducing reforms into the religious practices and culture of ancient Israel, to bring them back in line with faithfulness to the Lord God (2 Kgs 23:1-25).
Unfortunately, King Josiah’s reforms were too little too late and could not avert the disaster of Israel being sent into exile in Babylon.
What was written down was lost to elite of ancient Israel, but the oral tradition kept the faith of the OT alive among the people.
In the time of the exile, the religious leaders began to be concerned at the faithfulness of the people, that the nation remain in favour with God. As a result, the oral tradition began to be compiled into what we now know as the OT.
Similarly for the NT, it was only after the first generation of apostles and Christian believers began dying, that the community felt it important to begin seriously collecting the oral tradition and writings of the apostles into a new set of scriptures, alongside the OT.
That then is a quick summary of how we got The Bible.
The Bible Is Inspired by God’s Spirit
Turning back to this statement, it teaches 4 things about Scripture and creeds, the first being the Bible is inspired by God’s Spirit.
The term “inspired” is found only once in the English translations of the Bible:
All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16–17)
The term “inspired” is translated from a Greek term that means “breathed out by God”. Most Christians take this to mean all scripture then has been spoken by God. That is certainly true for those parts of the Bible that clearly and obviously contain divine utterances, whether from God directly or from human speakers —this includes the Ten Commandments, the words of the true prophets, the speech of Jesus, and most of the preaching and teaching of the apostles.
But what about those parts that are clearly not divine utterances, by God or by anyone else? For example,
Judge for yourselves … If anyone wants to argue about this, we have no other custom, nor do the churches of God. (1 Corinthians 11:13–16)
To the married I give this command—not I, but the Lord … But I (not the Lord) say to the rest… (1 Corinthians 7:10–12)
We see in these examples the author —in this case, the apostle Paul— made no claim his words, in these cases, are the words of God, in fact, he admitted the opposite. His words here are NOT the words of God.
Hear me out: I am not trying to diminish our view of scripture nor demean the words of scripture. I can only acknowledge what is blatantly written. As a result, I am just not convinced our use of the word “inspiration”, as meaning “spoken by God”, is the best way to describe what is going on in The Bible.
There is a better, and still faithful, way to understand the inspiration of The Bible.
“Inspired” means “breathed out by God”. Where else do we find this expression?
Then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust from the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)
The scriptures here tell us God breathed his breath, his life, into the dust of the ground to form the first human.
God breathed his life into the dust to form you and I. Could he not also have breathed his life into these words and so, through them, give us new life? I contend this distinction helps us to deal with the difficult passages of The Bible much better than does believing every word was directly spoken by God.
Our statement declares The Bible is inspired by God’s Spirit, and that nuance leaves open the work of the Holy Spirit, who, according to Christ Jesus,
When he comes, he will convict the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8)
The Holy Spirit inspires all the words of the Bible, breathes God’s very life into them, that they may convict us, teach us, rebuke us, correct us, train us in righteousness, complete us and equip us for every good work.
Understanding the inspiration of the Bible in this way helps us to make sense of the different genres in the Bible.
For a book to be useful for convicting, teaching, rebuking, correcting, training, completing and equipping, one would think it to be made up of a list of dos and don’ts. In fact, almost 1/2 of the Bible is narrative/story, 1/3 is poetry (esp. song lyrics) and 1/4 is prose-discourse. Each genre serves a different purpose and must be read differently.
Let me give you an example.
In The Book of Exodus, there are two chapters that describe the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian pharoah’s armies. Exodus 14 describes the event in story-form and right next to it is Exodus 15, which is poetry describing the same event. That poem is, in fact, the first worship song of the Bible.
The story sounds like this:
So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea returned to its normal depth. While the Egyptians were trying to escape from it, the Lord threw them into the sea. (Exodus 14:27)
The poem sounds like this:
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord. They said: I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted; he has thrown the horse and its rider into the sea. (Exodus 15:1)
The same event told differently.
Stories tells us who did what, when and how; poems evoke an experience. They both want to facilitate a response in their reader, but do so with details and interactions on one hand or emotion and experience on the other.
Which is more inspired, Exodus 14 or Exodus 15? They both describe the same event, but they seek different ends through different means. They are both inspired but differently inspired, yet from them both we are guided to the next thing this statement teaches us…
The Bible Is the Authority for Believing and Living
What can this story of the parting of a sea teach us about our lives, where we are, right here and now?
At first glance, nothing. Neither the story or poem were written to us, but they were written for us.
If you look more closely, you will notice Moses is a necessary partner in this project of rescuing God’s people from the Egyptians:
As for you, lift up your staff, stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground. As for me, I am going to harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them, and I will receive glory by means of Pharaoh, all his army, and his chariots and horsemen. (Exodus 14:16–17)
Moses and God worked together to rescue the Israelites from the Egyptians. Similarly, the friends of Jesus are partners with God in building our lives because God is glorified in us; so too, we are partners with God in his Purpose to build a people of power that will glorify him and extend his Kingdom throughout the Earth.
We learn this lesson because we can see ourselves in this ancient story. The context may not be ours but our imagination makes the connections between this story and our own lives, so that we too can respond is song:
Lord, who is like you among the gods? Who is like you, glorious in holiness, revered with praises, performing wonders? You stretched out your right hand, and the earth swallowed them. With your faithful love, you will lead the people you have redeemed; you will guide them to your holy dwelling with your strength. (Exodus 15:11–13)
Imagining ourselves as being somewhat like the ancient Israelites, sometimes, we are encouraged by their story to give thanks to God for his rescue of our own lives, for the manifold ways he exerts his power on our behalf, to free us from our oppressions, to rescue us from our enemies. We can sing to the Lord a new song because we have many reasons to be joyful and be glad! Am I right?
To say the Bible is our sole and supreme authority for believing and living is not to say it is a book of rules. The OT has lots of rules … for an ancient people in a different time and place. Jesus summarised all the wisdom of the OT into two principles: Love God and love your neighbour, and I dare you to find a circumstance in your life where either of those two principles does not apply.
The rest of the NT contains examples and wisdom applying those principles in different times and different places, in the face of many challenges to the early Church. In the middle of such challenges, the apostle Peter wrote to his communities, and through them to us:
His divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. (2 Peter 1:3)
While the Bible was not written to us, it was certainly written for us, and within the scriptures we find everything we need for faithful Christian living for it provides us the knowledge of God and his Plan and his Purpose. In the stories, poetry and prose of the scriptures the breath of God is evident and available to those who will read it with eyes, ears and hearts open to receive that life, for as the apostle John wrote,
But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)
The Bible Is Interpreted in the Light of Christ Jesus
Appreciating that the breath of God permeates the words of our scriptures, and that they alone have the authority to shape what we believe and how we live, and appreciating that the different genres carry that authority differently, the third thing this statement teaches is The Bible is interpreted in the light of Christ Jesus.
Jesus said to him, “Have I been among you all this time and you do not know me, Philip? The one who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who lives in me does his works. (John 14:9–10)
Jesus is the perfect revelation of the triune God. While we first come to know of Jesus through The Bible, we then interpret The Bible by Jesus. His life, teaching and sacrifice is the norm by which we live, his light shines throughout the pages we read.
Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted for them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures. (Luke 24:27)
Unfortunately for us, The Gospel of Luke does not provide the exact breakdown provided in Jesus’ conversation with those disciples, on the road to Emmaus, a fact which invites us to read deeply and often ourselves. For while it may not seem like it, to the casual reader, all of the scriptures point to Jesus and prepare us for him.
Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light on my path…
The revelation of your words brings light and gives understanding to the inexperienced. (Psalm 119:105, 130)
Therefore, when we read, we always have the example and words of Jesus in the forefront of our mind.
Creeds Are Helpful for Teaching Christ From the Bible
Which then brings us to the final thing this statement teaches us, that creeds are helpful for teaching Christ from the Bible.
It should go without saying, but when we read, we want to remember what we read and we want to synthesise what we read so that we understand better what the narrative, poetry and prose convict us, teach us, rebuke us, correct us, train us in righteousness, complete us and equip us for every good work.
One way we do this as a community of faith is we compose a “statement of essential beliefs”, what is traditionally known as a creed. It a very fair and true sayings that every community of faith, from the beginning of the Church, has either composed some sort of statement, whether written or oral tradition, that unites them.
Denominations and groups of denominations do the same. These statements do not nullify any other statements, but unify.
The Apostles’ Creed is one of the oldest, most famous, and most regarded creed:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
This creed was used, originally, to teach and prepare those wanting to be baptised.
Creeds then are helpful tools for teaching and for uniting people in faith, but they are not a replacement for the words of scripture.
How happy is the one who does not walk in the advice of the wicked or stand in the pathway with sinners or sit in the company of mockers! Instead, his delight is in the Lord’s instruction, and he meditates on it day and night. He is like a tree planted beside flowing streams that bears its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. (Psalm 1:1–3)
There is so much more that could be said about The Bible, our scriptures, and their unmatched usefulness for belief and living. For those with ‘eyes to see and ears that hear’, they will find within it riches beyond compare. By these words may we live, for in them we discover the Way of Love of our Saviour and Lord.
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from The Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN, USA: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017).
T. M. Derico, “Oral Tradition,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry et al. (Bellingham, WA, USA: Lexham Press, 2016).
Paul A. Nierengarten, “Remnant”, ibid.
For example, consider the apostle Paul’s retelling of the Words of Institution, which is the preamble to the sacrament of Communion: "For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, broke it, and said, 'This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, and said, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes." (1 Co 11:23–26).