Fundamentals—What about the Bible?

What we believe about the Bible is important because it is the basis of the Christian faith. It is the record of encounters between God and humankind. The Bible records words from God and man about who God is and what it means to put one’s trust in God.

I reached out again on Facebook, since last week brought such a good response. This time, the questions came from entirely different people, which is super.

Here is what they wanted to know:

Facebook Responses Questions about the Bible
What great questions. This week the questions came from those dedicated to following Jesus. Their questions reflect their knowledge of scripture, and their honest wrestling with how we apply a book written over the span of a thousand years and finished nearly two thousand years ago.

A lot changes over the course of three thousand years. There is a huge difference between the culture and daily lives of people leaving Egypt and those driving SUV’s down the freeway to the directions of their GPS-enabled smart phones. We can’t answer all of these questions in one sitting. What we can do is take a basic look at what the Bible is and what the Bible is not, and what the Bible’s purpose is in our lives.
Here is what the EFC-MAYM Faith and Practice has to say about the Bible:

The Bible.
The Holy Bible was given by the direct inspiration of God. It is sufficient to inform people of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible is the written authority by which all guidance should be measured for truth. God’s Holy Spirit, who inspired the Scriptures, also interprets them, working through those yielded to Him within His Church. Genuine guidance from God is in accord with the Holy Scriptures.

Practically speaking, the Bible is made up of 66 Books, written by about 40 authors, all telling us One Message about One God. Like a mosaic, the bible writers all give us a different angle, different point of view in history, but all coming together to show us a glimpse of our God interacting with human beings.

Not a magic book.

The Bible does not exist to give us magic formulas for making life what we want it to be. There is no magic prayer or special verse that we can say to get what we want instantly.

It is not a book of magical words. It is not a book of secret power. It is not a book by which the full might and power of God is placed at our disposal. It is not a book where the ability to quote a few verses will help you defeat all temptations, persevere under every trial, and break down every stronghold.
–Jeremy Myers

There is power at our disposal, but it is not in the words of the Bible, rather in the Spirit who inspired the words of the Bible. God inspired the scriptures and enlightens our minds to understand the scriptures, and God uses the scriptures today in many ways to continue communicating his message to the world. The Bible is important, but it is not magic.

Not a mere book of fairy tales. The pictures we are given of people in the pages of the Bible are very real. They are flawed human beings who have extraordinarily difficult lives. But they also have real divine encounters that change their lives, and their communities.

Not a history book or a science book. The Bible was not primarily written to give us what we would consider in our modern mindset to be scientific or historic information. Instead, everything in the Bible was written to point us to God.

A book with a purpose. The Bible has a singular purpose, to reveal the heart of God to mankind and invite a response. From creation to revelation, there is a great arcing story of God creating, reaching out for fellowship, forming a covenant, providing redemption, and drawing people to himself.

A book with a past. Some of the most common questions I encounter about the Bible have to do with what is included and what is not included in our Bible. The Old Testament and New Testament were assembled differently.
The early Church leaders in the third century came together to put in place a canon—a measuring rod for what they accepted as true about Jesus and the Church. In this process, they examined many writings and used some basic criteria to determine whether they should be included in the new collection of books that would become the New Testament.

1. Apostolic – The book must be written by an apostle, or a ministry partner of one.
2. Orthodox – The book must agree with the the accepted and approved teachings of the church.
3. Christocentric – The book must focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ, especially in relation to His redemptive work on the cross for the world.
4. Inspiration – The book must have the qualities and characteristics of the divinely inspired Word of God.
5. Testimony of the Holy Spirit – The church authorities felt the inner witness of the Holy Spirit in helping them select certain books.
6. Acceptance by the Church – The book must already be widely accepted and used by the majority of churches.

Lawrence H. Schiffman writes a good article on the formation of the Jewish canon at MyJewishLearning. The Old Testament was formed in parts, and with much less formal deliberation, rather the texts that were found to be valuable were kept and others were allowed to fall away. A canon of the Old Testament among Jewish communities was basically in place by 70 AD, and more formally by about 150 AD. When Jesus walked the earth, most Jewish scholars would have agreed on the books that were most important for teaching about God.

Knowing how the books of the Bible were put together takes away some of the mystery. This is ok. It helps us remember that while the Bible is inspired by God, it does not contain God. God does not live in this book. God is not limited to this book. God is active and alive and moving in our lives today. It can be tempting to make an idol of the Bible.

Not an idol. The Bible is not to be worshipped, rather it is to be studied. Not to gain knowledge that puffs up, but as a path that leads to greater understanding of the true Word of God, Jesus. Jesus offers this rebuke in John, and I think it is all too valid today, John 5:39-40 “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” The scriptures, both Old and New Testaments are only beneficial to us if they lead us to God.

Not defined by cherry-picked verses. The Bible is not primarily something for us to pick and stitch together proof-texts for theological arguments. There is no commandment “Thou shalt be right.” We find instructions to read and study, but we are never told that we must or even can have all the right answers. Admission to the Kingdom is never dependent on a quiz, rather on our relationship with God and our faithfulness to follow the example of Christ.

Reveals God’s identity. The Bible shows us God’s character so that we may become ever more “children of our Father in Heaven” as Jesus put it. The stories we read by what people did right and what they did really badly, they teach us how to live our lives to honor our connection with God.

Trustworthy guide to living a good life. The Bible offers us principles by which we can live in whole and healthy ways. These principles show us a path to shalom, a peace with God, with ourselves, and with others. Not every command is valid for every person in every generation, but the themes we find again and again give us a path to peace. Welcoming the stranger. Generosity to the poor. Making time to rest. Honoring our family. Speaking the truth. Living with integrity. Loving God. Loving others.

Measuring rod. The canon gives us a tool to measure our experience. If what we hear is not consistent with what we find in the whole counsel of scripture, we need to question its validity. If we believe God is directing us and the directions do not align with what we read of God’s character and heart in the Bible, we need to ask again.

In order to have a complete picture of who God is and what God desires of us, we cannot depend on a verse or two.  We must study the whole Bible and learn from the whole council of scripture. What we read in the Old Testament can help us understand what is going on in the New Testament. What we know about God through the person of Jesus, who we see in the Gospels, can help shed light on God’s actions in the Old Testament. When we study the whole of scripture, we find consistently that God is continually reaching out toward imperfect human beings to draw them to himself. Themes of redemption, forgiveness, and love blanket the pages of scripture. You may not find all of them on every page, but when you put them all together the picture comes together.


Fundamentals—Who is God?

I don’t typically post my sermons on this blog. This series is going to be an exception. Six weeks of the basics of belief for me and many of those who follow Jesus calling ourselves Friends or Quakers. This will not represent everyone, or even a majority view, but I believe these messages bring a valuable perspective to the table.

When I planned this series a few months ago, it all seemed so simple to cover what we believe about the basics in a short summer series. 6 weeks is what I have allowed for the fundamentals of our faith. It looks great on a calendar and the topics divide easily enough, but as I was preparing to cover everything we believe about who God is in one 25 minute sermon I felt a bit foolish. How do I cover Father, Son, and Holy Spirit– in 8 minutes each? An impossible goal when we have been pondering, debating and seeking for millennia to describe God. Maybe I was just a little bit optimistic in my planning. But here we are, and we are going to do our best, knowing that there is simply no way that we will cover it all.

In my research, I came across this amazing video from The Work of the People. The first half seeks to answer our question, “Who is God?” the second half deals with our response as believers. (If you don’t have time, for our purposes you can stop it around 4:00, but I would recommend the entire video, about 8minutes.)


In preparation this message, I reached out on Facebook and Twitter to see what questions people had about God. I don’t want to just give you the Faith and Practice definition of our faith in God, I will do that in a moment, but I want to make sure the information I am giving answers actual questions from real people. (Much of our teachings and preaching in the Church over the years have presented answers pretend questions from hypothetical people.)

Here are some of the questions I received in response: (Some serious, some obviously tongue in cheek.)
I find it interesting that when I asked for questions about who God is, the responses came in the form of questions about creation, about sickness, about belief, atonement, the trinity, and the Church. At first, I wanted to respond by clarifying that these are supposed to be questions about GOD, but then I realized that they are! These are questions about whether God is good, loving, trustworthy, or greedy, uncaring, and cruel, and whether that has any bearing on the way believers live their lives. They are questions not about the theological definitions, but about the practical reality of life on this earth.

We believe a lot of things about God, that God existed before all things, and that God will exist forever–the alpha and omega, beginning and the end. We believe that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and existing everywhere, all the time. These are important, and we profess them, but it all comes down to how this affects us where we live. Don’t tell me about God in high-sounding language, tell me how God affects my daily life!

The EFC-MAYM Faith and Practice says this about God:
There is one sovereign God who is revealed through the Bible in the person of His son, Jesus Christ. God is the Maker and Preserver of all things; He alone is worthy of worship. In the unity of the Godhead exist three equal and distinct, yet inseparable, persons: the Father, the Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

The Christian Church generally accepts the doctrine of the Trinity and many other theological descriptions of God which are such great mysteries that no one has yet given a good explanation of how and why they work. We have all kinds of analogies to describe the Trinity from shamrocks to Oreo cookies, and they move in the right direction but they all fall short. What we do know and accept and approve and believe is the “who.”

We believe that God reveals himself to the world most clearly and personally through Jesus. We believe the Holy Spirit moved in the Old Testament to empower the prophets and leaders of God’s people, anointed and infused Christ’s ministry on earth, and is freely given to all who will choose to become followers of Jesus Christ in order to direct, equip and empower them to live as citizens of God’s kingdom. We don’t know how it all works, but we trust that it is true. We trust that Jesus is God’s only begotten or uniquely begotten son, but about how that came to be our scriptures are less than forthcoming. Like the process of creation, the trinity and the conception of Christ are left as mysteries.

God is credited with the creation of all things, John tells us the Word-Jesus- was the means of Creation. In him all things were made, without him, nothing was made that has been made. Genesis tells us that before the start of creation on earth, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. Creation is God’s masterpiece, and every part of the God-head took part in crafting something beautiful, so why is it so broken and painful? We will talk about sin in a future message, but it needs to be said here that God is not the only one influencing things on earth.

There are other forces at play, physical and spiritual ones. God created the earth, and God is the rightful owner, but God gives his creations the ability to make choices. Every part of creation, from angelic beings to the smallest microbe, all have freedom within their scope. God does not control everything like a cosmic puppet master. If he did, that god would be cruel indeed with all of the wars, oppression, injustice, sickness, and death. If the god of the universe was the cause of all those things, we should despair of ever seeing goodness because not even heaven would be safe. But our God is not that. Our God is all-powerful, and all-loving which means our God allows for free choices to be made, freedom is a prerequisite of love relationships. It is rare for God to exercise his power over creation, taking control from his created beings. That is why miracles are so miraculous.

What it boils down to is this, God is not the only one influencing what we see around us. Other spiritual forces are at play in our world, as well. The Bible refers to them in many ways, but one I have always found intriguing is “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” There are Spiritual forces working diligently to cause destruction and to incite rebellion. These spiritual forces are real, and they are active, but they may not be the biggest threat to creation.

Our God seeks to draw our hearts to himself so that we make the right choices, but God does not force us to choose what is good, or right, or healthy for ourselves and others.

Humanity was given dominion over the earth, God entrusted the stewardship of creation to us. That means we can destroy creation if we want to. We can hunt animals to extinction. We can bomb the cities of our neighbor. We can enslave the children across the street and around the world to cater to our whims. We can do these things, and we do every day. These things can happen because God is not a dictator.

We want God to give us freedom, he has. We want to do whatever we please, we can.

But we are not free from the consequences. If I kill you, you are dead. The end.

Here is how God describes himself in Exodus 34 as he reveals himself to Moses on the mountain:
Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”
Exodus 34:6-7

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that God continues to sustain creation through his loving grace. God continues to pour forth creative power to breathe life into the next generation and the next. “In him we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:28

Here is what other Bible-writers say about God:
One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard: ‘Power belongs to you, God, and with you, Lord, is unfailing love.'” Psalm 62:11 
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” Hebrews 1:3
The Son is the image of the invisible God.” Colossians 1:15
God is Love.” 1 John 4:20
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” 1 John 4:9

God’s attitude towards creation, all he has made, including you and me, is love. God looked at creation and declared it to be very good. God’s love continues to reach towards us even when we are not following God, believing God, or even when we are actively running from God. God’s love is not dependent on our response.

God’s love and mercy abound as much as God’s truth. That does not mean that we don’t face the consequences of our actions, or even that we are the only ones who suffer when we choose poorly. God’s love does not mean that we will not face trouble or persecution or hardship or poverty or even a violent death at the hands of violent people. But we are promised again and again that when we walk through difficulty, God walks with us. God walked the most painful and sacrificial of roads to demonstrate his love for us. Why do we think he will shrink back from our pain and brokenness today?

“He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honor him.”
Psalm 91:15
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,
neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us
from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Romans 8:38-39
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.
In this world you will have trouble.
But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
John 16:33

God is love, God is good, God is with us, and we can trust him. God loves us and wants to be in fellowship with us. God has revealed himself in the person of Jesus, the exact representation of his likeness and possessing God’s full character. If you have images or definitions in your mind and heart that do not look like Jesus, it is time to let them go. If you have been told that God isn’t loving, or that God only loves some people—the good and perfect ones—it is time to let that go.

God demonstrated his love for us in this, while we were still at war with God, he stepped out of Heaven into the flesh to live and teach and walk among us, to show us who he is and to demonstrate the lengths to which he would go to seek reconciliation with this broken humanity. I hope this prompts in you a desire for a renewed sense of God’s heart, and maybe also to challenge old and inaccurate pictures that seek to take the place of the truth that God is the creator and sustainer and healer of all things because of his unfailing love.

Perceiving God’s heart,