What is “the Bible?”

All right.  We left off on an ambiguous note.  I threw you some errors and contradictions in the Bible, and then said it doesn’t matter.  I talked about how we are all on pursuits of truth, and we use the Bible as part of our pursuit.  The issues, however, are what sort of truth are we looking for, what sort of truth do we need, and what does the Bible actually give us?  So, what then is the Bible? How would I define it?

In an elusive way (which is always a pursuit I enjoy), I want to first talk about what it is not.  

A quiz on the Bible is not due Friday.

First (and the last post began to illustrate this), I don’t think the Bible is a science or history book. I don’t think it is a textbook like the ones used in education – a book of facts. However, I do believe the stories of the Bible were constructed in real time and in real places, and so refer to real times and real places.  This does not mean, though, that the purpose of the Bible is to be an historical record of events or used to educate its readers on scientific facts.  True, the Bible is very useful, and should be used in teaching, among other things (2 Timothy 3:16 for those who want more Bible verses).  However, I don’t think what the authors (or God) intended with Scripture is for it to be studied, memorized, and tested on.  Western education, in all of its forms, from pragmatism to reconstructionism, is absolutely foreign to the minds of the original authors of the books of the Bible.  When we read the Bible, we ought not read it outside of its context; we ought not to read it as a tome of knowledge universally accessible from every location and time.  Rather, we need to step into the worlds conceived and constructed by the authors.  These worlds are radically different from our own, and the people are radically different from ourselves.

The Bible is not the Necronomicon.

Second (and this point should be interesting), I don’t think the Bible is a spell book. “Well, certainly John,” you say, “the Bible forbids against witchcraft and the like.”  Astute observation sir or ma’am, but let me pose this question to you: “Are you guilty of using it as a spell tome, as a way to get what you want?”  Have you taken the promises to Israel out of their context and applied them to your own?  Have you prayed Biblical prayers in order to get a special blessing from God out of them? (Bonus points to whoever guesses what Scriptural scenarios I have in mind)   What I mean by all this taunting is that I don’t think the Bible is meant to be something that we get things out of; I don’t think it is a “how-to” step-by-step guide in how to live (and live awesomely!). Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe the Bible is absolutely necessary in the spiritual formation of its readers. I do believe that we learn about life and how to live from the Bible, but we don’t do it by adhering to laws, prohibitions, and how-to guides that we draw out from the Bible.  Does not the Bible itself warn against that, against the legalism that plagued the religious communities that held and hold these writings sacred (look it up, it’s there)? It’s astounding to me how we take the Bible, which talks about what life with God looks like, and systematize it into a list of how to please God. The Bible does not teach us incantations used to win God’s favor. Full stop.

Well, compared to the other two examples, the Bible is more like this.

So, what is the Bible? Ultimately, it is a story book. In many ways, it is like any other story in that it is a work that invites its reader into the world it has created.  It has characters that inspire us, plots that capture us up in their cadence, and themes that speak to our very existence. Thus, we can experience the story of the Bible in the same ways as we experience other stories: as portals into imaginations.  And yet, I do acknowledge that there is something special about the Bible (after all, I wouldn’t be a Christian without it), but it’s not a something special that automatically makes it better or superior or more authoritative because of how it’s a fact book or a spell book. The Bible is a story  (are stories) about God. It’s God’s story, as human authors have come to witness God’s revelation of Godself throughout history. The Bible is also a story (are stories) about people, and how they have encountered and related to God throughout history.  It’s messy, it’s scary, it’s confusing, it’s elusive, but the encounter we have with God (and ourselves) in God’s story is beautiful, intimate, inviting, and special. In fact, the Bible is stories of God and humanity together, in concert with one another and in crisis with one another.  The Bible invites us into its stories as we live our stories in real time and with the stories of others, especially God’s stories.

1 Comment

Filed under Questions from my Sister

One response to “What is “the Bible?”

  1. Hey John,

    I definitely agree with most of this in principle. I would, however, suggest that perhaps you rethink the notion that the authors (or God) didn’t intend the Scriptures to be “studied or memorized.” Perhaps not tested on, I would grant, but I don’t think I need to get out the concordance and quote all the verses that instruct people to commit these words to memory, to bind them on their foreheads and put them around their houses, etc. In fact, as you well know, the Scriptures were memorized long before they were written down. God wanted it to be written “on our hearts,” and the incredibly long Psalm 119 talks all over the place about how important it is to know God’s word. So, I think I understand what you meant by this, but you might want to think about how to phrase it differently.

    Also, while I definitely agree with the warning against the spiritually empty legalism that can arise from your second example, I think we also have to remind ourselves of the danger of going too far in that direction, to the point where we dismiss the commands of God as mere suggestions, or nothing more than cultural reflections. Yes, we need to understand the teachings of the Bible in their historical contexts (without doubt), but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some things we are told very clearly to do or not do. We don’t get life by adhering to laws, true; but failing to adhere to them when God has said to do so does lead to death. It’s about the heart behind it, of course. Are we merely living for the rules? If so, we have missed the point. I presume this is what you were saying, but I think there was some room in your words that would allow them to be understood as saying the rules don’t matter. Because I do think they are there for a reason–ultimately, because God knows better than we do what is good for us and what will give us life. Obedience–with the right intention–is still important.


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