Like a thunderous crash upon the “scientific” theology of 1920s Germany, came Karl Barth—a visionary for his neo-orthodoxy, and one for whom the Bible was more than just a cavalcade of sundry human texts. Through Scripture, he said, came God.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about my own view of the Bible and how it exemplifies Bonhoeffer’s “costly grace.” There is, indeed, some of that cost incurred in the journey the Holy Bible has taken.
For Barth, the Bible was more than just an opportunity for academic study: it reflected the will and voice of God, manifesting in narrative after narrative and letter after letter. But this is not to say the Bible is also infallible; it reeks of contradiction and error. The brilliance of it is not in its purity or perfection, but in the grace of God shining through all the muddied waters of human bias and emotion designed by its authors. For there was never a point at which those authors wrote objectively, leaving their human condition behind.
How does this remind me of costly grace? Think of the journey of the Bible. However much some may extol its inviolable purity, it has nonetheless been the subject of much debate through the centuries: Were the creation stories fabricated for a particular culture and ancient audience? Why the discrepancies in some of the Jesus narratives? How literally can we take John’s Revelation? Etc.
In the process of educating ourselves, and trying to answer these often unanswerable questions, we stumble upon a truth: that engaging the Holy Word is costly. And why do we engage it? Because through it comes a manifestation of grace. That is to say, through it comes the wisdom and will of God. We know that though it has been written by human hands, it is inspired by relationship with God. And in that, God is present.
But the cost: If we ally ourselves with those who think it utterly true in its totality, we lose the friendship of those whose journey with the same texts is different. We are not open to conversation and new perspective; we are literalists. And though we must often be frank and clear in order to move forward with our understanding of God, it does the divine and ourselves both a disservice to pretend that feeble human words can, in any number or permutation, exact the entirety of God’s will. It would not be out of line to say that literal fundamentalism is the act of taking God under our control.
No, the Bible demands that we think, discern, and reflect. It is not perfect for a reason: that we may come to know God through its narratives, not in one way only, but as God is for us personally and God is for us in sum. And though we have some understanding of these, we must always know that others’ will be different. Together, these visions bring us a genuine image of Christ.
Though the grace which is ours in honest meditation on the Holy Word comes not from something within us, as though it were inspired by humannness; it is entirely of God. Which is why Bonhoeffer and Barth were Lutherans: they did not believe grace was attainable by the work of human hands, but by God alone. Open our hearts to God, and we will find God there. However simple that directive may seem, it is both complicated and costly; we will lose ourselves in the process, and stand at the other side more ignorant than we began.
I take comfort in that. For as the epistles tell us, “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,” and in another place, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” What is it about holding fast to the Holy Bible that is at once costly and full of grace? Because it is dangerous—it is uncertain. But it is only in giving up our lust for control that we find its true meaning and message: that we surrender our souls to the possibility of Scripture, not that we command its meaning and thorough understanding of its lessons.
The Bible is no more linear than God—and a beautiful thing she is, too! For just as we are marked by human flaw and divine inspiration in the same breath and mind, so too is the existence of the Holy Bible. There is much more to know—always. Let us have it speak to us with ears wide open.
For Jesus the Christ wills it so: “Those who have ears, let them hear.”