I haven’t written an article on the nature of the bible for over a decade, although I have included sections on this subject in two of my books (Truth is the Word and Prayer, Power, and Proclamation). This is not because it is not a very important subject, because it is; it is just that I have been preoccupied with the other two of my three doctrinal foundations – the centrality of Jesus, and dependence on the Holy Spirit.
The nature of the bible is an important subject because it is so little understood by many of today’s Christians.
My third doctrinal foundation is the authority of the bible, but its authority can only be properly understood and appreciated if its nature is not misunderstood. So, let me start with what the bible isn’t.
What the Bible is Not
You have probably noticed that when I use the word bible, I do not usually capitalize the ‘B’. This is contradictory to convention, but I currently do this after considerable thought over a long period. To me, capitals signify personal names, places, types or category names, or they are used for special emphasis. There is a quaint English word ‘Capitonym’ which means ‘a word that changes its meaning when it is capitalized’: a lighthearted and contrived example is, ‘A turkey may march in Turkey in May or March!’ understand the word ‘bible’ as a Capitonym. The word itself simply means ‘book’ from the Greek ‘biblos’, but the Christian sacred scriptures are really a collection of books bound together in one cover. I believe that the scriptures are inspired, authoritative, and trustworthy and so my use of a lower-case b in bible does not indicate that I hold it in anything but the highest esteem. However, the bible is not a person, let alone God. Most of us, myself included, use expressions like ‘the bible says…’ but we know full well that the bible does not speak, hear, or have any degree of ‘self’. What we mean by such expressions is that the Holy Spirit illuminates passages of the bible in a way that communicate with us and often ‘speak’ to our current situations. There are numerous uses of the phrase ‘word of God’ in the bible, but these were penned way before the bible, as we know it, was formed, and so they cannot be referring to ‘The Bible’. Hebrews 4:12 states that ‘the word of God is living and active’, but the context makes it clear that the author is referring to God’s directly spoken word and not a collection of books that would in the distant future be called the bible. The bible is also not the source of truth, Jesus is, and it is not revelation, but the means that God uses to reveal truth and indeed himself to us. These are the reasons that I use a lowercase b for bible.
The bible is also not inerrant (free of all error), and it does not claim this of itself. However, many Reformed and Evangelical theologians have made inerrancy the litmus test of true faith – this is just wrong! Inerrancy is a word used to describe the concept of the error-free nature of the bible, and if by ‘error’ we mean that God made a mistake in allowing the human authors to present certain things in irregular ways, then clearly, the bible is without error. If it were in error in this sense, then we could hardly regard it as inspired in all its parts. However, if we concede that the bible contains elements that are factually inconsistent, historically disprovable, or scientifically untenable, this does not mean that we hold parts of the bible to be uninspired. It simply means that God purposed, or at least allowed, it to be recorded in this way. We might not fully understand why he did, but the concepts of inaccuracy or inconsistency do not necessarily contradict a belief in divine inspiration. Seen in this light, we could legitimately say that God chose to allow the authors to express their humanity in the scriptural record.
The bible is a record of the perfect Word of God in the imperfect words of human beings.
Moreover, people who lived in a particular age and who thought in terms of prevailing world-views recorded these imperfect words. It should be no surprise then, that the authors used pre-scientific concepts and flawed referencing and reporting methods. Scholars refer to this as cultural conditioning, but it goes beyond that to human frailty and limitation. This would constitute a real problem for those who believe that God dictated the scriptures, or directly impressed the thought on the minds of the scribes. These anomalies and apparent contradictions could, if admitted to, constitute a crisis of faith for those who hold such a narrow view of biblical inerrancy. By ‘narrow’ I mean a definition of inerrancy requiring absolute factual accuracy, numeric or chronological precision, and rigorous theological consistency.
These are some descriptions of what the bible is not, but what then is it?
What the bible is
The books of the bible are a holy collaboration between God and the people he chose to work with.
Just as Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, is both man and God, so the scriptures are both a human and divine production, the written Word of God.
The bible is a compendium of many styles and genres, ranging from stories, through poetry, to teachings. Included in the mix are also histories, prophecies, wise sayings, and apocalyptic visions. Some books, like Job and Song of Songs, defy classification. Some of the biblical characters are wicked, others are simply flawed, while yet others are saints. There are both positive and negative examples of character and behaviour and only sometimes does the author explain which aspects can be taken as models and which are warnings.
Measurements, times, periods, and so on are not necessarily accurate. For instance the genealogies do not all contain an exact chronological timeline. Sometimes they are arranged into groups for effect, or leave out generations in order to make some point or other. So, we cannot add back through the genealogies and conclude that Adam was created 6,000 years ago.
Some descriptions in the bible are symbolic and not an accurate presentation of physical reality. For example the devil probably does not look like a huge red dragon confined in the end times for exactly 1,000 years (Revelation 20:2-3). My understanding is that an enormous red dragon is an excellent symbolic depiction of the devil and the 1,000 years represent the entire church age, starting when Jesus restrained Satan at the crucifixion and resurrection.
It is obvious from the above that the bible cannot be read and understood primarily as a theological dictionary, chronological story, or collection of promises and magical mantras (Lord preserve us).
It is equally obvious from what I have written that we can only properly understand this marvellous book if we apply the principles of context, exhaustive reference, and Christocentricity. Context involves the interpretation of a biblical passage with reference to the history, geography, and culture of its original time of writing, and also with reference to its literary style and the logical flow of thought contained in the passages that both precede and follow it. Christocentricity means the interpretation of a passage with reference to what Jesus said, did and revealed of the nature and character of the Godhead.
Lastly, let me deal with some practical applications.
Given the importance of the bible to faith and life, and its nature and purpose, we should, at least, consider the way we handle and use it. Here are some suggestions:
- Reflect on how you regard the bible. Do you think of it as the source of truth, or the primary means by which God reveals truth, human nature, and himself?
- Ask yourself how you approach it. Is it an article to be hallowed and treated physically as if it is divine? Or on the contrary, do you regard it as less than the Written Word of God and as relatively peripheral to your lived reality?
- Do you quote isolated texts as if they were little truth capsules in themselves, or speak out what you perceive as promises that apply to yourself and claim them?
- Do you believe that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original manuscript form and properly interpreted, will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences?
- Do you truly believe that the bible can only be truly understood when viewed through the lens of what Jesus said, did, and revealed of the character and nature of the Godhead?
There are, of course, other questions we could consider, but these five are a good start. The first question concerns the fundamental nature of the bible. The second concerns biblioidolatory or its opposite of biblioagnosticism. (Long words that simply mean idolising the bible on the one hand or treating it with indifference on the other). The third question probes whether you, deep down, treat the bible as a magical sourcebook, which is something that Word of Faith Christians are apt to do. The fourth has to do with the misguided doctrine of biblical inerrancy (I would need another article to explain this adequately). Finally, the fifth question tests your commitment to Jesus-centred bible interpretation.
If you think through this article and the five questions at the end, then you will have an idea of what you need to change in your own life or, if you are an Elder, in the church that you lead. I know that the Holy Spirit will guide you in this process, as he always does for those who ask.