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:
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 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 https://redeeminggod.com/bible-is-not-a-magic-book
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.