The first sees it as a divine product. The second sees it as a human product. The first is affirmed by fundamentalists and conservative Christians who say that the divine origin of the Bible is the basis of its authority. Unlike any other book, the Bible is the uniquely revealed word of God; and that's what matters. Why should we take the Bible seriously? Because it comes from God. It is easy to understand why the Bible is seen this way. In the Christian tradition we have consistently spoken of it as "the Word of God" and "inspired by God," : language which suggests that the Bible is a divine product as no other book is.
The second way of seeing the Bible views it as the human product of two ancient communities. The Old Testament is the product of ancient Israel while the New Testament is the product of the early Christian movement. As the product of these two communities, the Bible tells us about how they saw things, how they thought about God and told their stories. This view reflects modern biblical scholarship over the last three centuries. Though known mostly in scholarly circles until recently, this second approach is now being embraced by many mainline Christians." Indeed a strong grass-roots desire for a new way of seeing the Bible is one of the most remarkable features of the contemporary church. Much is at stake in these two ways of viewing the Bible.
Here are two illustrations. The first concerns the Genesis story of creation. If the Bible is a divine product, then these are God's own stories of creation; as such they cannot be wrong. That leads to belief that the earth was created by God in six literal days. Going far down this road leads to scientific creationism and school-board conflicts about whether Genesis should be taught alongside evolution in high-school biology courses.
But if the Bible is a human product, then these stories are ancient Israel's stories of creation, not God's stories of creation. Like most cultures, ancient Israel had its own creation stories; but there is no reason to think that they contain scientifically factual information. If they did, it would be sheer coincidence. Let me add that as a Christian believer, I think Israel's creation stories are profoundly true : but only as metaphorical or symbolic narratives, not as literally factual accounts.
The second illustration involves the prohibitive laws of the Bible. To use one of the current hot-button issues as an example, consider the single law in the Hebrew Bible prohibiting homosexual behavior (Leviticus 18.12) with the death penalty specified two chapters later (Leviticus 20.13). If we see the Bible as a divine product, then this is one of God's laws; then the ethical question arises: "How can one justify setting aside a law of God? But if we see the Bible as a human product, then the laws of the Hebrew Bible are ancient Israel's laws; and the prohibition of homosexual behavior tells us that such behavior was considered unacceptable in ancient Israel. Then the ethical question becomes, "What is the justification for continuing to view this issue as ancient Israel did?"
The question becomes even more acute when we realize that this law is embedded within a collection of laws that (among other things) prohibits planting two kinds of seed in the same field and wearing garments made of two kinds of cloth. My point here is that we readily recognize some of these laws as the laws of an ancient culture that we are not bound to follow. Why then single out some as "the laws of God"?
From these illustrations my own point of view becomes clear: I see the Bible as a human product. But if so, what then is the Bible's relation to God? Is it in any sense "the Word of God"? I see that relation as twofold. On the one hand I see the Bible as a response of these two ancient communities to their experience of God.
On the other hand, I see the Bible as a "sacrament." A sacrament is a mediator of the sacred, a means whereby the Spirit of God continues to speak to us even today. The sacramental function of Scripture occurs especially in its use in Christian devotion and worship. The Bible is the Word of God in this sense: in its function, not in its origin.
I am sometimes asked, "Do you believe in the Bible?" My response is, "It depends upon what you mean." If you mean, "Do I think it is a divine product and everything in it comes from God," then "No!" If you mean, "Do I take it seriously as ancient Israel's and early Christianity's witness to their life with God," then "Yes!"
One can take the Bible seriously without taking it literally as the words of God.