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Must the Bible Remain 'Holy'?

By the Rev. Howard Bess
September 5, 2010

Editor’s Note: In the early 21st century, religious conflicts are threatening to become the new "cold war," with rivalries among ancient monotheistic faiths replacing competing economic systems as the chief rationale for violence and repression.

The neocons like to call this struggle the “clash of civilizations,” pitting the Judeo-Christian world against Islam. But the Rev. Howard Bess sees potential hope in Christians adopting a more critical understanding of the Bible:

Christianity is in a great state of flux, exceeding even the diversity that came out of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. Today’s upheaval is fostered by the Internet and its free flow of information and opinions.

But the center of these religious debates – particularly for Christians – remains the Bible, just as it was during the Reformation which redefined religious authority and replaced an all-knowing and all-powerful Papacy with an individual’s relationship to the Bible.

Through the turmoil of the ensuing 500 years, the Bible has remained the written authority that has guided the life of non-Roman Catholic church life and has been the constant in all theological discussions. Bishops, church leaders and theologians came and went, but the Bible endured.

The Bible was the link to the roots of the Christian Faith, the link to Jesus and his teachings. Thus, the generally held understanding of the Bible was that it was a Holy book containing inspired writings.

According to this understanding, the Bible was the word of God, a book without the possibility of error. Therefore, it was believed, the ancient councils that approved the Bible’s contents were special tools in the hands of God, also impervious to error.
However, in today’s Information Age, this understanding of the Bible as a Holy book is being seriously challenged, much as the theory of papal infallibility was contested by the Protestant Reformation.

Bible scholarship has moved out from under the umbrella of church and church-controlled institutions. In this new era, scholarly works about the Bible are very likely to be written by professors who teach at state universities and have no commitment to the Bible as a Holy book. 

Without the protection of creeds and churches, the Bible stands naked before seriously questioning minds.

I have no shortage of correspondence from thoughtful people who -- in despair over some of the Bible’s contents and the abuses that have been committed in its name -- have tossed the Bible out and have walked away from the practice of Christianity.

However, I continue to love the Bible. I grew up with it and spent years in college and seminary refining my understanding of its contents. As a minister, I have spent 50 years attempting to make the Bible messages relevant to parishioners. I do not easily cast aside any of its contents.
Still, I find myself in the midst of a chaotic Christianity in search for its soul in a modern world. It is a world that demands critical thinking and is increasingly well informed. Yet, I believe it is a world that needs the messages of the Bible, along with Christian churches and Christians who take their faith seriously.

So, instead of throwing the Bible aside or continuing to insist that the Bible is a uniquely Holy book that cannot be questioned, I am suggesting a third option.
I accept that the Bible is NOT a Holy book, nor is it free from error. Its contents also reflect more than one religious perspective since it was written by men in historical contexts, which can themselves be identified and studied.

Rather than a unified message from God, the Bible is the work of writers who vigorously argued with one another, promoting their own views as the right ones. Yet, right or wrong, the Bible writers were dealing with the right subjects.

They were arguing about what was Holy and what it meant to be the people of God. This is a conversation in which I want to participate. Further, the Bible’s issues are as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago.
In my view, the core question surrounding the Bible is not whether or not it is a Holy book, but whether it is a dead book or a living book. My conclusion is that it is a living book that demands our attention still to questions such as these:

Who was Jesus and how is he relevant in the 21st century?

What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?

What is the meaning of love of neighbor?

What is our role in the world?  Are we stewards or are we owners?

What does it mean to live in community?

How shall we live in a world of seemingly competing Gods?

Are there moral responsibilities that cannot be denied by responsible people?

These are all questions that are argued in the collection of writings that we call the Bible.

However, I am suggesting that the endless reading of the Bible devotionally be curtailed. Rather, churches and individuals in a variety of group settings should be entering into vigorous discussions about -- and even arguments with -- the Bible’s contents.

The Bible has survived for centuries because it talks about the right things. It is up to us to decide how to engage in these discussions in today’s world.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is             

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