“All Scripture is God-breathed”: An allusion to God breathing life into Adam?

In my last post, in response to a reader’s question, I gave my general “take” on Adam Hamilton’s book Making Sense of the Bible (New York: HarperOne, 2014).  While I found much to appreciate in the book, I respectfully disagreed with Hamilton’s view that that Bible is not “inspired” to any greater degree than sermons, devotional books, etc. might be today.

Hamilton actually believes that “the most important dimension of inspiration may be how God uses the words of scripture to speak to us” (p. 142).  “The biblical documents,” he says, “were written and edited by persons who were addressing the needs of the people of their time . . . in and through them, God continues to speak to us today” (p. 89).

These are Hamilton’s presuppositions.  They are theologically informed and they have a venerable pedigree.  As Hamilton himself acknowledges, “This view of inspiration is in some ways similar to that proposed by Karl Barth and the neoorthodox movement in the twentieth century” (p. 319 n. 5).  This view is specifically, as I understand it, that the Bible not so much is the word of God, as that it “contains” or “conveys” the word of God.  “We hear God’s voice,” Hamilton says, “as we listen to scripture’s words” (p. 131, emphasis added).

There is no debating another person’s presuppositions; you either share them or you don’t.  But Hamilton also advances some specific exegetical claims in support of his position, and these can be evaluated.  I’d like to look at several of his claims in my next few posts, starting in this one with Hamilton’s interpretation of Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy, “All Scripture is inspired by God.”

Hamilton observes that the phrase typically translated “inspired by God” in this statement “is just one word in the Greek: theopneustos. . . . Paul appears to have created this word himself.  It appears nowhere else in the Bible, and, to our knowledge, nowhere else in the Greek language until after Paul’s time (pp. 133-134).

So what does it mean?  Since it is a combination of the Greek words for “God” (theos) and “to breathe out” (pneō), Hamilton suggests it could mean “God-breathed” or “God-exhaled.”  (Compare NIV “God-breathed,” ESV “breathed out by God.”)  Then Hamilton asks, very intriguingly, “What if Paul, in using the word ‘God-breathed,’ is drawing upon the Genesis story of Creation?”  This story says, “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

Hamilton sees here an analogy for his paradigm for Scripture: “When God first forms man out of clay, he is not yet a living being. God breathes into him and he becomes animated–he is now alive.  Paul knew of scripture’s human authors.  Was he suggesting that God breathes upon the human words of scripture thereby animating them, making them ‘living and active’? The words come alive in the moment when God, by the Spirit, uses these human words to speak to us” (p. 134).

This is brilliant, original exegesis. (Hamilton does not note any sources for the idea of an analogy between theopneustos and the Genesis creation account, so I am assuming that the idea is original with him.)  I agree with almost all of it.

Paul is believed to have coined original words by allusion to the Greek Old Testament elsewhere in his letters, so there is every reason to believe he may be doing the same thing here.  (The Septuagint has the verb emphusaō, “breathe into,” instead of pneō, but we can still take theopneustos as a general allusion to this incident in the creation story.)

This is certainly the most memorable episode of God “breathing” anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. (About the only other one I can think of is God telling Ezekiel to call to the wind/breath to “breathe into these dead bodies so they may live again,” which is similarly a case of God animating a lifeless body, and it may be meant to echo the Genesis creation account itself.)  So if Paul was indeed trying to describe the nature of Scripture by coining the word theopneustos as an allusion to something in the Old Testament, I agree that the story of God breathing life into Adam is the likely reference.

So what don’t I agree with?  Look at how Hamilton summarizes the parallel he believes Paul is drawing between the creation of Adam and the nature of Scripture (pp. 134-135).  In Genesis, Hamilton says:

1. God forms the man.
2. God breathes into him.
3. He becomes a living being.

And “in the case of the scriptures,”

1. Authors write scriptures.
2. God breathes on them.
3. The words come to life.

This is not really a parallel.  While the second point in each case is a divine action, and the third point is a creature’s response, when it comes to the first point, Hamilton is trying to substitute a human action for a divine action in order to account for the origin of the Scriptures. For this to be a true parallel, the first point in the second case should say, “1. God forms the scriptures.”

And that makes perfect sense to me.  Just as God formed the man from the common elements of the earth, but then breathed life into him so that he became a living being, so God formed the Scriptures through the common process of human literary composition, and then breathed on them to make them “living and active.”  But God was the ultimate creator of the Scriptures even in that first step.  While it appears from our perspective that they came about through “people addressing the needs of their time,” Paul’s analogy to the Genesis creation account through the term theopneustos shows us that God was actually superintending and guiding this process, just as God formed the body of Adam from the dust of the ground, in order to bring us Scriptures that would truly be the word of God, from start to finish.

Orthodox Christian icon of God breathing life into Adam

 

 

Is it the readers, not the writers, of the Bible who are inspired? A review of Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible

Q. I’m reading quite an eye-opening book called Making Sense of the Bible by Adam Hamilton. I have some issues with it, but I am enjoying it! What is your take on this book?

Thanks for bringing Hamilton’s book to my attention.  When you asked about it, I checked into it, and I was so intrigued that I immediately got a copy and read right through it.  So let me now give you my “take” on the book.  (I will reference page numbers from the hardcover edition, New York: HarperOne, 2014.)

I have only one real disagreement with what Adam Hamilton writes in Making Sense of the Bible, although it is a significant disagreement, which I will discuss shortly.  Apart from this, I found the entire book valuable, useful, and quite cogently presented.

Hamilton’s goal is to help people who aren’t familiar with the Bible, or who are troubled by certain passages in it, to “make sense of it.”  To this end, he begins very helpfully with the crucial question, “What exactly is the Bible?” (p. 7). He explains that it is not what it is often considered to be:  an “owner’s manual,” a source of random guidance, a collection of data for systematic theology, a science and history textbook, or a treasury of “precious promises.”

Hamilton then provides historical, geographic, and literary overviews of the Bible to orient readers to its background and contents.  These will be valuable and helpful resources for the many today who don’t start out with a basic knowledge of the Bible.  Hamilton addresses some questions about the nature of Scripture and then devotes the last half of the book to “making sense of the Bible’s challenging passages.”

I found that over and over again I came out pretty much where Hamilton did on the interpretation of these “challenging passages.” Indeed, most of the things he says about them, and in the rest of his book, are things that I could have said myself, and actually have said, in my own books or in posts on this blog.  For example, he explains that many of Jesus’ most puzzling sayings are hyperbole or intentional “exaggeration designed to make a point” (p. 244).  After outlining the four major approaches to the book of Revelation (pp. 284–285), he advocates a preterist interpretation, one of whose implications is that Nero Caesar may be the name represented by 666.  Hamilton even takes up the subject of tattoos and concludes that these are fine for followers of Jesus today so long as they are not “permanently marking their bodies as a way of honoring a pagan god” (p. 263).

Indeed, as I read through the book, there were chapters that I found very meaningful personally.  Hamilton’s testimony in Chapter 24 of how he “came to love Jesus” by reading the gospels is poignant and beautiful.  And I would recommend his reflections on suffering in the preceding chapter to anyone who is going through difficult times:  “Suffering is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn. . . . Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened.  God does not depend on human suffering to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through suffering his purposes are achieved” (p. 226).

So if I like the book this much and find myself so closely in agreement with it at so many places, what’s my one disagreement?  It’s with Hamilton’s answer to the question of what the Bible actually is.  He says it is a collection of books “written by men seeking to express what they believed was God’s will.  They were writing in a given time and culture, and they were writing to address the needs of the people of their time” (p. 262; similar summary statements are offered on pp. 89 and 173).

Notice that in this formulation, the Bible is described as essentially a human product.  Is it also the inspired word of God?  Only in a qualified sense, according to Hamilton.  “The divine inspiration of scripture was . . . God working in the hearts of the biblical authors in a way not dissimilar to how God works in the hearts of modern-day preachers and prophets and laity . . . through a divine prompting felt in the heart, focused in the mind, and spoken with the lips or the pen” (p. 173).  In other words, “that divine influence on the writers was not qualitatively different from the way God inspires or influences by the Spirit today” (p. 143).

In fact, as Hamilton sees it, the divine inspiration of the Bible is actually something that occurs more in its readers than it did in its writers.  “The most important dimension of inspiration may be how God uses the words of scripture to speak to us today. . . . We may read a passage of scripture and hear nothing at all.  Then we read it again prayerfully, and we hear something we did not hear before.  We sense God speaking to us” (p. 142).

However, Hamilton says that he has experienced this same kind of “inspiration”—a seemingly divine prompting to say something or to do something—while reading a novel, listening to classical music, or “sitting in a Broadway musical.”  “These are all means by which God speaks to us” (p. 147).

So is there anything that makes the Bible itself a distinctive repository or vehicle of divine inspiration, so that its message to us is more authoritative than what we might hear from other sources?  Hamilton asks this very question: “What gives the biblical writings greater authority?” “Not a greater degree of inspiration,” he responds, “but closer proximity to the events described in the Bible.  Just as importantly, the scriptures are the foundational documents of the Christian faith and have been found faithful, helpful, inspirational, and useful to the community of faith over the nearly two-thousand-year history of the church” (pp. 173-174).

Hamilton offers the U.S. Constitution as an example of a similar “foundational” document, “written by the founding fathers of our country” (p. 174) that has “stood the test of time” and that has been “found to be useful and helpful” (p. 180).  But, he notes, while the framers of the Constitution “believed it was the best thing they could come up with at the time . . . they also knew that circumstances would change, and there needed to be a way to amend the Constitution.”  In the same way, he argues, “God knew that the problem with . . . laying down moral absolutes is that situations change.  While most of the absolutes might remain intact forever, at least some of them would need to be changed or dropped in the light of a changing world” (p. 181).

And so, Hamilton suggests, there must be a way to “amend” the Bible, just as we amend the Constitution. He writes that while “the bar should be very high for laying aside any clear command, practice, or teaching of scripture . . . I believe there must be a way for the church to continue to recognize that though God does not change, the needs of communities sometimes do” (p. 181).

Hamilton illustrates a method for “amending” the Bible this way at a couple of places in his book.  He considers the so-called imprecatory psalms, in which the psalmists pray for God’s vengeance on their enemies, and suggests that we should not think God wants us to do anything similar today because these passages “don’t sound like things we would expect the Holy Spirit to inspire,” since this is “the opposite of Jesus’ command to love our enemies” (p. 136).  Later in the book he argues that we can similarly set aside the “biblical condemnations of same-sex relationships” because they “seem out of sync with God’s will as we understand it today” (p. 271); they “do not seem to reflect the heart of God revealed in Jesus Christ” (p. 272).

I do agree with one aspect of Hamilton’s approach here.  As I’ve already said on several occasions on this blog (quoting my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth), “Jesus’ life and teachings provide, for his followers, the interpretive key to the entire Scriptural record of God’s dealings with humanity.  In light of them, believers identify what things are normative and what things are exceptional.”

Nevertheless, I still have a significant concern about Hamilton’s approach.  If “the most important dimension of inspiration” really is “how God uses the words of scripture to speak to us today,” then anything we find in the Bible that doesn’t square with what we think God is saying to us now in light of Jesus can be considered something that the human authors of the Bible believed was God’s will for their own place and time, but which is not necessarily God’s timeless will for all people (and may not actually have been God’s will even for the original audience).

And so if we are troubled, for example, by the places in the Old Testament where God supposedly tells his people to go out and completely destroy their enemies, we can conclude either that “the passage may reflect the culture, the worldview, or the perspectives of the human author of scripture” (p. 216)—who thought God was telling the Israelites to do this, though God really wasn’t—or that “these stories were written down long after their time to inspire others to courage and absolute commitment to God” (p. 215), but they didn’t really happen as described (a view I discuss in this post.)

And so, in Hamilton’s view, the Bible can be “wrong” in one of these two ways:  by interpreting actual events not according to the “timeless heart, character, and will of God” (p. 216), or by reporting events that did not actually occur. And this is where my concerns and objections really come in.

For one thing, this approach allows you to dismiss anything in the Bible that doesn’t square with “God’s will as we understand it today.”  As a result, the Bible no longer functions as an objective check on our limited human perspectives; it can no longer expose or critique our time-bound and culture-bound thinking.  This approach effectively condemns us to precisely the same fault that Hamilton finds with the biblical authors, whom he thinks sometimes reflected their own cultural biases rather than God’s timeless will.

For another thing—and this may be even more important—this approach ultimately prevents us from believing anything on the basis of the Bible’s teaching.  This difficulty makes itself felt in the very chapter in which Hamilton shares how he put his faith in Christ after reading the gospels, particularly after he realized that the resurrection had to be a reality, otherwise “darkness has overcome light, hate has overcome love, and death has overcome life” (pp. 240-241).

The problem is, as Hamilton himself acknowledges at the beginning of the chapter, some biblical scholars “believe the miraculous elements in the Gospels,” including the resurrection, “reflect the faith of the early church and not the actual Jesus of history.”  This is a perfectly valid option within Hamilton’s paradigm.  The stories of Jesus, like those of Joshua, may have been written down after their time to inspire others and they may include events that did not actually occur.  So how can we determine whether Jesus rose from the dead or not?

If we have accepted everything Hamilton has said to this point, we cannot simply trust the gospels about this, even though they were written by the people who lived closest to the time of the events they narrate, and even though they are the foundational documents of our faith and have been been found faithful, helpful, inspirational, and useful for so many centuries.  They could still be wrong.  So instead, as Hamilton acknowledges, “the question of the reliability of the New Testament witness to Jesus boils down to whether we can accept the idea that Jesus did things that other human beings are unable to” (p. 238).  Ultimately it is our presuppositions that determine what parts of the Bible we believe.

Now one might argue that it is actually the Holy Spirit, inspiring us as readers of the Bible, who leads us to accept such ideas.  But who can say whether the Holy Spirit did not instead inspire those of the opposite view to recognize and reject the resurrection as a well-intentioned superstition when they read the Bible?  It seems to me that once you let this genie out of the bottle, there’s no putting it back in.  So let me suggest an alternative.

Hamilton offers a helpful metaphor of three “buckets” that he believes biblical passages fit into.  Some “reflect the timeless will of God for human beings.”  Others “reflect God’s will in a particular time but not for all time.”  And still others “reflect the culture and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will”—the biblical authors were simply wrong when they thought this (pp. 273-273).

If you allow for this third “bucket,” anything can be put in it, as I’ve just observed, so that the Bible ceases to be an authoritative source of guidance, no matter how highly one values it (short of it being divinely inspired).  I personally do not feel that this third bucket is helpful or needed (as nice as it would be to be able to put some passages in it!).

Instead, I would argue that from within our own culture and our place in human history and redemptive history, we do not have access, when it comes to certain passages, to an understanding of how what was said to the people of that other place and time could have been God’s will for them, even within their own specific circumstances.  We need to confess frankly that we do not understand how the Bible could say what it does in these cases—that this troubles us and confuses us and embarrasses us, and we regret how this creates an obstacle to faith for many.  We avow that these passages do not express the timeless will of God for all people and that they certainly do not express God’s will for us today.

But even so, we do not claim to have such a comprehensive understanding of God and of redemptive history, even in light of God’s definitive self-revelation in Jesus, and even with the help that the Holy Spirit indeed gives us when we read the Bible, that we can say confidently that these things could never have expressed God’s will for anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances.

In other words, when it comes to “making sense of the Bible,” there are a few parts that I think we can’t quite make sense of (though we work very hard to do this, as I trust my posts about such passages on this blog demonstrate).  But that does not keep me from believing that the Bible is the inspired word of God and from relying on what it says, rather than on any inspiration I might receive when I read it, as my guide to life and faith.  Certainly the Bible taken as a whole—its “big ideas and key messages,” as Hamilton puts it (p. 132)—is something we can make sense of and recognize by faith as God’s authoritative and instructive word to us.  This is enough to allow us to trust it despite the few parts that force us to say humbly, “I just don’t understand that.”

This is my general “take” on Hamilton’s book.  But I found the whole book so engaging that I will return to it in some follow-up posts and address the specific exegetical claims he makes about the meaning of the phrases “God-breathed” and “word of God.”

How is it fair for God to “bring disaster on all people”?

Q. I recently had the opportunity to speak in my church. The theme of my message was, “God doesn’t do what is unjust.”  I talked about the great flood and how God rescued Noah from it because he was innocent, while the rest of the world was destroyed because they refused to believe and follow God’s words.  I also talked about the Sodom and Gomorrah episode and how those cities wouldn’t have been destroyed if there had been righteous people in them. I talked about Pharaoh, drawing on your blog post about why God hardens some people’s hearts. And finally I talked about Job, claiming that God Himself didn’t do those bad things to him, but Satan, with God’s permission.

But during the sermon some people stared at me as if I were an atheist, as if I didn’t know what I was talking about!  And I have to admit, I still haven’t found a completely satisfying answer to this question:  “Does God do what is unjust?” My doubts increased when I read the place in the book of Jeremiah where God says “I will bring disaster on all people.” That doesn’t sound fair or just. I’m really confused about this, despite everything I shared with my church and despite what you wrote in your post.  I hope you can clarify this for me and for all of those who have the same questions.  Thank you in advance!

I have to admit that I share your serious concerns about what is sometimes called “divine violence” in the Bible—episodes in which God wipes out entire cities (Sodom and Gomorrah) or nations (Egypt, through the plagues) or even the entire world (in the great flood).  In the post you mentioned in which I talk about Pharaoh, quoting my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, I call this issue “one of the greatest difficulties in the entire Bible for thoughtful, compassionate followers of Jesus.”

I won’t repeat here everything I say in that post, or in some of my similar posts (such as this one about the episodes of genocide in the Bible).  Instead, let me speak just to the passage you cited from Jeremiah, as a way of addressing a large subject by looking at a small aspect of it.

That passage comes at the end of one of the four major parts of the book of Jeremiah.  It was placed there because it contains a reference to Jeremiah’s words being recorded on a scroll, and this is how the book signals the conclusion of each its major parts.  But the passage also looks forward to the next part of the book, which contains the prophecies that Jeremiah announced against the surrounding nations over a period of many years.

In other words, even though God says in this passage that he is going to bring disaster on “all people” (in Hebrew, “all flesh”), the placement of this episode in the book shows that this phrase refers specifically to judgments that follow against various specific nations for their pride, injustice, and idolatry.  In this case we see that God is indeed doing what is just, by punishing these wrongs.

Moreover, as the passage also says, Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch (whom it addresses directly) will be spared from these judgments, in the same way that Noah was spared from the flood (as you observed in your sermon).  The passage is still something of a rebuke to Baruch, who has apparently been complaining about the sorrows and discomforts he has experienced because of his role as Jeremiah’s helper and scribe—particularly given the hostility Jeremiah has faced for his dire warnings to the Judeans.  God tells Baruch, in effect, “Don’t complain, what you’ve been going through is still a lot better than what the nations are in for when I finally judge them for their wrongs.”  Baruch, at least, will escape with his life, which is a lot more than many others will do.  So God will be fair and just to Baruch by sparing him from the judgment that’s about to come on these surrounding nations.

This is not a comprehensive solution to the problem of divine violence in the Bible—I think that thoughtful, careful readers will always be troubled about that—but I hope I’ve at least helped you with some of your concerns about that specific passage in Jeremiah.

d’Allamagna Giusto, “The Prophet Baruch,” from the Loggia d’Annunciazione

Why does God allow people to commit atrocities in His name?

Q. One thing I really struggle with is the horrible things that people have orchestrated in the name of God.  Offhand I can think of the Crusades and the Jonestown massacre, just to name two. I understand our sinful nature and free will, but why on earth does God, whom I believe is still in charge, allow tragedies to take place that claim to come from God but clearly aren’t? It occurs to me that this makes sharing the gospel a bigger challenge.  Does the Bible provide any clue as to why this occurs?

Your question makes me think of the incident recorded in the gospel of Luke in which, at least according to some early manuscripts, when a Samaritan village refuses its hospitality, James and John ask Jesus, “Do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them, as Elijah did?”  Jesus replies, according to these same manuscripts, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.”  (See the translators’ notes in versions such as the ESV.)

Apparently the most reliable ancient manuscripts don’t contain the reference to Elijah, or any specifics of Jesus’ reply to James and John (they just say that “he rebuked them”).  Bruce Metzger writes in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament that the longer version of the story likely incorporates “glosses derived from some extraneous source, written or oral.”  If that’s the case, they may actually preserve a genuine tradition coming down from Jesus that wasn’t included originally in the gospels.  Alternatively, they may express an early understanding of what Jesus likely said to James and John on this occasion, based on his undisputed statements that “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” and that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Either way, the point is that starting with Jesus’ very first disciples, people have mistakenly thought they could and should wreak destruction on others in the name of God.  Jesus’ answer to James and John, however it has come down to us, shows that such people have the wrong spirit; they don’t realize that the mission of Jesus, and thus of his followers, is not to destroy people’s lives, but to save them.

I believe that God doesn’t actively intervene to stop such people for the reason you cited—the free will He has given to us, which allows us to choose loving, gracious, life-giving actions, even as it also permits us, if we choose wrongly, to be destructive.

You’re right that this creates problems for what we might call God’s “image” in the world.  (In biblical terms, it robs him of His glory.)  Certainly if people evaluated God by the worst actions of those who claimed to follow Him, few others would choose to follow.  But I believe the proper response for sincerely concerned followers is to redouble their efforts to bring honor and praise to God through generous, loving actions towards others.  These will correct the misimpression that violent actions create and help people understand what God is truly like.

In other words, rather than expecting God to intervene from heaven to stop people from doing violent actions in His name, we should recognize that God is expecting us to do loving actions in His name that will preserve His reputation in the world and bring Him the glory and honor He deserves.

Should I worry about buying video equipment called Blackmagic Design?

Q.  I’m getting back into cinematography and for my new company I’m looking at some video equipment from a company called Blackmagic Design. Nothing about the company indicates that they are occult based, but the name is an odd one.  This seems to be really good equipment at affordable prices. Should I worry about the name?

Blackmagic Design logo, courtesy Wikipedia

No, I don’t think you need to worry about the name.

For one thing, as you suspect, this company has no involvement with the occult.  Blackmagic Design is the name that founder Grant Petty chose apparently to echo of the name of his former company, Digital Voodoo, after (in his own words) he “lost management control of the company and resigned.”  And no occult connections seem to have been intended for that earlier name, either.  Rather, the Internet was being described in its earlier days as “a kind of digital voodoo, a blur between technology and magic” (as this website for a different company of the same name explains), and the expression came to be used for any other advanced digital technology.  In other words, the references to “magic” and “voodoo” are simply metaphors, and such they are harmless, as I explain in my post entitled “Should Christians read books and watch movies that have magic in them?

Secondly, and more importantly, even if Blackmagic Design did have some occult connection–even if the founders, say, had sold their souls to the devil in order to become successful, or even if they put curses on every product on its way out the door–buying the equipment still couldn’t hurt you.  An analogous case in the Bible is the Corinthians’ question to Paul about food offered to idols that was then sold in the marketplace.  Citing the Scriptural principle that “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” Paul advises, “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience.” 

In other words, even though the meat had been offered to idols, it didn’t carry any spiritual power or effects with it.  An innocent purchaser would be unharmed by any of its previous associations.  In the same way, digital equipment, whatever its source, is simply a product of creation and culture by the time it comes into the hands of the end user, and it can be freely used by those who love and serve “God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

The one qualification, again on biblical grounds, would be not to use the equipment if this caused anyone to stumble.  A new follower of Jesus, for example, might trying to break free from past occult involvement, and using equipment with the name Blackmagic might cause them to violate their conscience by doing something they felt was wrong. Even though this would not be absolutely wrong, they shouldn’t violate their conscience, and no one else should encourage them to do this.

But that is only an unlikely hypothetical situation.  I think the only real concerns anyone should have when considering such equipment are quality and price.  I do not have the expertise to advise you on those issues.  But do I hope I’ve helped reassure you about the name.

 

Can a graphic novel presentation of Scripture still be the Bible? (In this case, yes.)

In this panel from the Word For Word Bible Comic, Samson repulses the Philistines using the jawbone of a donkey as his only weapon.
In this panel from Word For Word Bible Comics, Samson repulses the Philistines using the jawbone of a donkey as his only weapon.

In a recent post, taking up an example offered by Christianity Today, I asked, “If you put the Bible in a flow chart, is it still the Bible?”  I argued that the particular flow chart in question, which presented the biblical laws about oxen, was not the Bible because:
(1) It was not just the Bible—it added explanation and interpretation;
(2) It changed the literary form of the Bible into another form; and
(3) It isolated the laws from their original surroundings, so that the broader principles they taught were lost.

Based on these same criteria, I have to conclude that the remarkable presentation of the Scriptures now taking shape in graphic novel form as The Word for Word Bible Comic is indeed still the Bible.  Let me explain, with the help of some material that the artist behind this project, Simon Amadeus Pillario, sent me after we connected through the Bible Gateway Bloggers Grid

(1) As Pillario explains here on his site, W4W (as I will abbreviate the name) presents the entire verbal text of the Bible, with nothing omitted.  Even narrative explanations that are not essential when the story is presented visually are still included, though in gray at the bottom of the panel.  The only added “words” are sound effects, such as a lion’s roar.

By contrast, other illustrated presentations of the Bible typically add imagined events and dialogue.  For example, midway through the story of Samson (the story that W4W is starting with), one previous presentation reads this way:

Narrator: News of Samson’s escape from Gaza spreads through the country. Rulers of Philistine cities are worried and call a meeting.
First Ruler: Samson must be captured. Let’s put all our armies together.
Second Ruler: I’m not risking my army on Samson. We’ve got to find another way.
Third Ruler: I have an idea!

None of this, of course, is found anywhere in Scripture.  One great strength of W4W is that it will be “just the Bible,” but still the whole Bible, in terms of the words and events depicted.  (Because in places the Bible can present scenes that are violent and “adult-themed,” W4W comes with a parental advisory, explaining that “parents and guardians should be aware of the strong content of the Bible” and that “this comic will only be suitable for readers over the age of 15.”)

(2)  But what about not changing the literary form of the Bible?  How can a historical narrative reworked into a comic book still be the same thing?

We need to recognize that the original form of the Bible was not written, but oral.  And oral storytellers would inevitably add their own “illustrations” to the material they were reciting, in the form of gestures, facial expressions, changes in intonation, etc. W4W is, in effect, a recitation of the story of the Bible with corresponding “illustrations” that just happen to be drawn pictures instead of gestures.

I realize there’s a fine line here.  But I would argue that W4W is not really a “comic book” in genre, which would be the case if it portrayed Samson like a superhero (more about this below) and if it adopted conventional comic-book stereotypes when it came to characterization, dialogue, and even things like coloration.  What I see as I read it is an attempt to represent the Scriptures accurately and faithfully, so that they provide the governing conventions.

Indeed, one might argue that W4W is actually a more authentic presentation of the Bible than our bare printed texts, which invite us to fill a visual vacuum by supplying pictures in our own imagination of people and events. We tend to do this as if they happened in our own time and place, or else in a generic “Bible world” where nothing really changes culturally from Abraham to Paul. W4W instead brings the reader very authentically back into the specific cultural world in which each story originated, through careful archaeological research.

For example, as Pillario demonstrates on this page, the Samson story depicts the specific pottery, clothing, footwear, headgear, etc. of that story’s place and time.  Other material the artist has sent me shows how he has authentically reproduced the armor of the Philistines in this period, right down to documented colors, instead of dressing them like Roman soldiers, as other illustrated Bibles have done.  He even follows the shift from four-spoked wagon wheels to six-spoked wheels when that occurs historically!

(3)  Finally, what about not isolating biblical material from the larger themes it would teach if encountered in context?  For me, one of the greatest strengths of W4W is that it carefully brings out these themes.

For example, in other illustrated presentations, Samson is typically drawn as if he had the physique of a bodybuilder, as in this depiction in an older book of his fight with the lion:

But as Pillario observes, if this is what Samson really looked like, there would have been no need for the Philistine lords to try to discover the “secret of his great strength.”  That would have been obvious: he had great strength because he had huge muscles.  W4W instead depicts Samson as the ordinary looking man he was (compare his physique in the panel at the top of this post), showing that he had great strength only because the Spirit of the Lord came upon him.  This  is an essential theological theme of the book of Judges: ordinary, weak, even flawed people become instruments of God through the power of the Spirit.  In cases like this the artistic depiction in W4W supports, rather than undermines, the larger theological themes of the Bible.

However, in the end, the most important question here may not be, “Is this graphic novel still ‘the Bible’?”  That question could admittedly be answered in different ways, depending on the criteria chosen. Instead, the right question is simply, “Is this an approach worth checking out?”  And I’d say it definitely is.  I think it will set a new standard for accuracy and fidelity in illustrated presentations of the Bible.

Have a look for yourself and see.  The artist has just launched a campaign through Kickstarter to raise money for the next phase of the project, a full graphic novel of the book of Judges.  On this page you will find a video version of the Samson story along with detailed information about each of the design principles behind W4W, which I have described only briefly here. You may find that you want to help him along with a pledge, as I have.  But even if you don’t, what he’s doing is definitely worth seeing.  Check it out.

 

Can Christians ever take one another to court?

Q. How literally should we take Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians that Christians should settle their disputes out of court? If Christians do have to go to court (say, in a situation in which someone else brings a case against them and they don’t have a choice), how literally should they take Paul’s instruction to “rather be wronged or cheated”? For example, should a Christian be willing to be “wronged or cheated,” rather than engage in speaking harshly about another Christian, even when the stakes are high (such as in a child custody battle)?

If we are really going to take Paul’s counsel about this “literally,” we should recognize that the people he was addressing were members of the same local congregation, or at least members of the community of Jesus’ followers in the same city, so that they were under the spiritual authority of the same leaders.  Paul is saying that these leaders should have the wisdom to settle the dispute and so the aggrieved parties should submit it to them.  His point is not that we should never dispute about important things, but that our disputes should be settled under the authority of the Christian community.

The situation is quite different when the two parties are not part of the same community.  If there is no spiritual authority whom both respect and who knows them and understands their situations, it’s hard to follow Paul’s counsel as he intended it.

We should also recognize that Paul’s main concern was not simply the avoidance of conflict. (Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians he wrote, “There must be divisions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”). Rather, his concern was for the reputation of the gospel. As I explain in my study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, he tells the Corinthians that it is “an embarrassment to their community and to Jesus’ reputation in the city” for them to be publicly bickering and appealing to “unbelievers” to settle their differences.

It was only in this context that Paul said it was better to allow yourself to be wronged or cheated—better this than to put any stumbling block in the way of people believing the good news about Jesus.  As he wrote a little later in 1 Corinthians, “We put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.”

So if the weak and defenseless would otherwise be oppressed, if a child’s welfare were clearly at stake, if the cause of the gospel would actually suffer more if an injustice went unopposed, in all such cases I would not see Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians as a blanket prohibition against appealing to the law to settle a dispute, even among self-proclaimed Christians.

However, I would also caution that the law is a blunt instrument.  It can only declare a winner and a loser in a court case.  And most situations that lead to these cases are much more complex than that; there’s right and wrong on both sides.  I imagine that a case that made even followers of Jesus consider litigation against one another would be very complex and nuanced, so that no one should be satisfied with a simple “judgment” in favor of one party or the other.

There are Christian mediation services (a simple Google search for that phrase turns up many) that can help resolve matters out of court, and I would strongly recommend going to them before considering litigation against another believer.  Turning to these professionals is not quite the same thing as submitting a dispute to someone who is in local spiritual authority over both parties (I hope today’s church pastors and elders are up for that challenge when it does arise), but I think it’s a wise and well-advised course.

In summary, as I say at the end of the discussion of this topic in my study guide, “Followers of Jesus might see this question in two different ways. Some would be concerned that the demands of justice be honored, so that someone who says they follow Jesus shouldn’t be allowed to defraud another person flagrantly. Others might say that modeling Christlike sacrifice and non-resistance could help another person realize that they need to change their ways.”