What Was the Bible Designed to Do?

We are exploring two related questions: what is the Bible, and what is it for?

In my previous post (which you’ll want to read before continuing, if you missed it), I suggested that two common answers fall short of the mark: the Bible as merely a manual or rulebook, and the Bible as merely literature. The Bible is far more than these, even though it does contain many rules and even though it is literature.

The Bible’s own internal witness about itself is that it is divinely-inspired revelation written in human words (see 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21). It is sacred literature — God’s Word. And it serves as a testimony of God’s identity, actions, and intentions for people. The Bible bears witness about who God is, what he has done, and what he expects from his creations.

There’s a lot to unpack there, but I think it’s a good start when it comes to understanding what the Bible actually is. We Christians accept that the Bible is the word of God, and we (ought to) mean that in the sense that it is comprised of words from God and words about God. We might say that the Bible is the God-authorized story of God!

It is a story — we read about what God did and what he said through his spokespeople long ago. But because it comes from the God of the universe, it is a story that has authority to shape our perception of the world. That’s where some rules come into play, so long as we understand the rules in their context and in light of the role they play in the story.

I love the way N. T. Wright phrases the issue:

“We must recognize the vital importance of genre, setting, literary style, and so on, and the all-important differences these things make to how we read the relevant texts. Still more important, we must understand the crucial distinction between the Old and the New Testaments, why this distinction is there, and what it means and does not mean. If these various issues are ignored, we run once more into the sterile debate between people who say, ‘The Bible says . . .’ and those who answer, ‘Yes, and the Bible also says you should stone adulterers, and you shouldn’t wear clothes made of two types of cloth.’ We urgently need to get past this unnecessary roadblock and on to more serious engagement.” [1]

Elsewhere Wright helpfully compares our reading of the Bible to being like someone getting caught up on their community’s story so they can be more aware of the role they need to play in their own time and place in that community. [2]

The Bible gets the people of God (the church) up to speed on the story of their mission (and of the Lord who gives us that mission). It serves as our founding documents, and should shape our identity, values, and practices as God’s people. But it also needs to be interpreted in light of its nature as a set of historic documents.

This is a balance the church has always wrestled with, trying our best to determine just how to read and apply this authoritative story in new and ever-changing contexts. Even the collection of these particular books and their recognition as divinely-inspired Scripture took place over a very long period of time — longer than most Protestant Christians tend to be aware of!

The history of the Bible is the history of the people of God. In a real sense, at the same time that the Bible is God’s book, it is also the church’s book. One of the reasons these books were collected and used is because they were found to have the most ongoing value in shaping the life and mission of the church. Of course, there were other, immensely important reasons as well, such as their actually having some claim to prophetic or apostolic authority behind their composition.

I hope to talk more soon about the history behind all that process of collecting the Scripture together. But for now, that brings us to another term we should make use of in our definition of what the Bible is, and that’s the word “canon” (not to be confused with cannons that explode, although the Bible has certainly been used in explosive ways!).

A “canon” is simply a standard or rule — something people use to measure other things. In this case, Christianity historically has held the biblical writings up as an authoritative standard by which to measure doctrines and behaviors.

Because the Bible as a whole serves as a canon for Christians, we read it as something greater than the sum of its parts. That is to say, even though each individual book of the Bible was written with its own unique purpose for its original audiences at the time it was written, the Bible as a whole was collected together for a purpose — to be the charter story that shapes the identity of God’s people, and that allows them to have knowledge of the God who reveals himself.

Which is why, as Wright says, we must read each part of the story in light of how the story as a whole plays out. We must be careful not to yank something from an early part of the story and pit it against those parts of the story that have already moved beyond it. And we must take care to note our own place in the story, and where God might be calling us to contribute to where the story is heading.

[1] N. T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (HarperCollins, 2013), 122.

[2] Ibid., 23-25.

Categories: Bible study, biblical interpretation, General

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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