This past Sunday I had the pleasure of teaching a session at our church on the purpose and authority of Scripture. It is amazing to me to see the myriad ways in which people approach the questions of “What is the Bible?” and “What was the Bible designed to do?”
We don’t often think deliberately about these two questions. Instead, we tend to simply do with the Bible what we are taught or see modeled for us, whether by pastors, parents, or popular teachers. Or perhaps we neglect it altogether. But it is worthwhile to examine what it is we actually believe about the nature and purpose of Scripture, because our angle of approach has a great (but often unnoticed) impact on how we apply it.
Think of the incredible difference it makes for an airline pilot to shift his angle of flight by a single degree upon takeoff. It could mean the difference between landing in New York or ending up over the Atlantic. In much the same way, our preconceptions about how we ought to approach Scripture can mean the difference between faithful interpretation and positive spiritual growth on the one hand, or winding up a member of a legalistic, Bible-thumping cult on the other!
Consider how just two potential definitions of the Bible’s nature and purpose can each lead to very different outcomes:
- Is the Bible an instruction manual?
Perhaps you’ve heard the witty acronym that the Bible is “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” If it is a manual, then we will approach it rather woodenly, as a rule book telling us everything we are to do. And when people break its rules, we will seek to hammer home how stupid they are for not following these basic instructions.
But then what do we do with all those many and massive chunks of Scripture that are simply telling us stories? In what way is 1 Chronicles or Job a manual? And what do we do when we can’t seem to find a clear biblical directive for the day-to-day complexities of our twenty-first century lives? The Bible doesn’t tell me which house to buy, or what city to live in, or what kind of template I should use for my blog’s design. But these are things I need instructions for before leaving earth!
Perhaps this isn’t the nature of the Bible then after all.
- Is the Bible a storybook?
Is it a tale of people sharing their experiences of God or of spirituality? In a way, this is actually somewhat closer to the mark, because the majority of the Bible’s text is in narrative form (it is telling a story). Even those parts that aren’t narrative (like the poetic Psalms or the letters of Paul, for example) still serve a narrative purpose — they aren’t addressed directly to us, so we must read them as though we are listening in on someone else’s life-story.
The Bible was indeed written by and for ancient people seeking to make sense of their experiences and of their relationship to God. And if we read the Bible this way, we can be impacted by it in much the same way as we are by any great literature — we can be inspired by the heroes we read about, or we can ponder fresh ways of thinking about our own lives and our experience of the divine.
But (and this is crucial!) the Bible doesn’t let us stay at just this level of approach! If we take its own testimony about itself seriously, it simply won’t let us leave it on the level of just another piece of literature. Over and over it insists that it is doing something much more than simply telling a human story. Indeed, it makes the claim for itself that it is God-breathed scripture (2 Timothy 3:16); that it is a revelation from God through his prophets and scribes and apostles (2 Peter 1:20-21). And it is a witness or testimony to its readers of what their duties are before this God who has revealed himself (John 5:39; 20:31; Acts 18:28).
So the answer, ultimately, I think, lies somewhere between these two different approaches. The Bible is indeed a story — it is a book, after all; an anthology, really — and it demands to be read and interpreted much like all great literature (with careful attention to things like genre, context, audience, figures of speech, irony, etc.).
But it is a divinely-inspired story, and therefore (by extension) it bears God’s authority and has a purpose as testimony from God to his people. And as such, this story invites a response from its audience. It demands something from us — demands, indeed, to shape us in some way. Perhaps not precisely in the manner of a manual or rulebook, but even so it does instruct us. When God himself communicates, he obviously intends to accomplish something through his communication.
But what exactly does Scripture intend to accomplish? I’ll share my thoughts on that in the next post soon.
See you down the path.