Christians hold a variety of views about the Bible. Some regard every biblical statement as factual and every instruction as universally applicable. Others view the Bible as a record of religious beliefs and practices, informative but not particularly relevant to people today. Between these extremes lie an array of nuanced understandings.
Scripture says about itself, “All Scripture is God-breathed and useful in teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Many Christians refer to the Bible as “the Word of God.” However, that descriptor doesn’t seem to be used in Scripture itself for the Bible as a whole. When Scripture itself speaks of the “word of God” (e.g. “the word of God is . . . sharper than any double-edged sword,” (Heb. 4:12), it refers to God’s messages filled with God’s presence. In the New Testament the “word of God” most often refers specifically to the Gospel message of Jesus Christ (e.g. Acts 12:24; Col. 1:25; 1 Thess. 2:13). Jesus spoke of the contents of Scripture as the authoritative words from God (e.g. John 10:34,35; Matt. 4:1-10), while interpreting it in non-literal and profoundly fresh ways.
Preeminently, however, the Word of God — God’s complete and definitive Presence-filled message — is not a matter of words as such, but rather is a person: Jesus Christ himself. The Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God; and the Word was God . . . And the Word became flesh and resided among us . . . ” (John 1:1). Hebrews begins, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Heb. 1:1). It is Jesus Christ who is fully and unconditionally the living Word of God to humankind.
Scripture points beyond itself to Jesus. “You study the Scriptures diligently,” says Jesus, “because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39). The heart and foundation of Scripture, and of Christian faith, is the Gospel –the Good News of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-4; Rom. 10:9-11). The Good News is that God has acted to redeem humankind and all creation by means climaxing in Jesus’ death and resurrection. God’s saving plan – implemented in Jesus Christ — is to renew creation, bring his reign in fullness and unite heaven and earth as one in Christ (Eph.1:10).
Some Christians think of the Bible as the foundation and basis of their faith. They believe that if the Scriptures contain any factual inaccuracies, we would not have a reliable basis for believing in Jesus. That is exactly backwards. It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is the bedrock message on which our faith rests. We don’t believe in the Good News of Jesus because we first believe the Bible. The Gospel message stands on its own as the basis of our faith: “Faith comes from hearing the message . . . of the word about Christ” (Rom. 10:17). The apostle Paul continues, “I want to remind you of the Gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this Gospel you are saved . . . For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance that Christ died for our sins . . . that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day . . . ” (1 Cor. 15:1-4).
Yet the entire Bible does have a vital place in Christian life. Drawn by the Holy Spirit to believe the Good News of Jesus Christ we then look to the Scriptures for further understanding and guidance. As read by the churches with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and interpreted in relationship to Jesus, Scripture communicates God’s active, reliable and authoritative message in every generation.
What the Bible Is Not
The Bible is not a book of science. As prominent evangelist Billy Graham has said, “I think that we have misinterpreted the Scriptures many times and we’ve tried to make the Scriptures say things they weren’t meant to say. I think that we have made a mistake by thinking the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption . . . ” The biblical writers proclaim God as the Creator and Redeemer and announce his saving work for the world. They were not making scientific claims about the physical nature of the universe or the development of biological life. They were speaking in very different terms.
Though it contains historical material, the Bible is not a book of history in our modern sense. Biblical accounts of the same incident often vary in their details. And some elements of the biblical narratives are inconsistent with the researches of historians and archeologists. These discrepancies can launch us into another faith vs. science debate, but they shouldn’t.
Consider for example how Matthew (8:5-13) and Luke (7:1-10) recount Jesus’ healing of the centurion’s servant. Though it’s clearly the same incident, the details are quite different. Matthew and Luke each take an event in Jesus’ life and tell its story in way to emphasize the Spirit-inspired lessons each wants to communicate. Key events, such as the accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection, are likewise told differently in order to emphasize specific points. The Evangelists are preachers of the Gospel, not historians in the modern sense, and it is anachronistic to treat their accounts as detailed records.
Likewise, in the Old Testament the details provided in Chronicles for the same time period differ from those in Samuel and Kings, shaped by the writers’ diverse purposes and historical contexts. Some Old Testament accounts intentionally revise earlier accounts of the same events in order to provide a new perspective for a new time. Some are traditional stories with origins in historical occurrences handed on orally and in writings through generations, the specifics evolving as they are carried forward, and taking final form much later as the “God-breathed” biblical text. Some Old Testament narratives were not intended as actual occurrences but as stories meant to help us understand who God is and his work of redemption. This is how the Bible communicates, not according to the rules of modern historiography. The biblical writers are creatively relating events and stories that advance God’s purposes of salvation – truthful in the most important sense.
While the revelation of a God who acts in real history is indispensable to Christian faith, the accuracy of every detail in the Bible isn’t. This doesn’t mean the Bible contains “errors,” because factual literalness wasn’t the intent. The Bible was not written to provide a detailed factual record as historians in our own time seek to establish, nor are its narratives always meant to be actual history, though certainly some biblical accounts are. The Catholic Church’s view of “inerrancy” reflects this understanding: “the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.”
The Bible is not a book of moral rules. Scripture includes some universally binding moral instructions. But we have to ask whether a particular instruction is trans-cultural (“timeless”) or context-specific. The Bible contains both kinds of teachings on Christian practice. Slavery, was upheld by such instructions as “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. . . Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord” (Eph. 6:5-7a). But it is now universally condemned as a great evil contrary to God’s will. Likewise, the requirement that women cover their heads in worship services – although grounded by Paul in both creational and heavenly realities (1 Cor. 11:1-16) — is today widely understood as a culture-specific instruction subject to revision.
Such revisions occur within the Bible itself. The Old Testament writers guided by the Holy Spirit present the same instructional material in different ways in order to emphasize different theological lessons or to recast moral instructions for changing circumstances. Deuteronomy, apparently written down much later than Exodus (Deut. 4:37-38; 34:6) makes revisions to the instructions in the Law of Moses as it was written in Exodus. For example, in Exodus only male Israelite slaves are to go free after 6 years (Ex. 21:1-11), whereas in Deuteronomy, both male and female slaves are to be set free (Deut. 15:12).
This kind of updating instructions — because of changed circumstances, fresh views of God’s work, and God’s new acts in the world — occur in the New Testament just as they did in the Old Testament. The Acts 15 council eliminated the “everlasting” requirement of male circumcision for membership in God’s covenant people for Gentiles. The Apostle Paul made sabbath-keeping optional (Rom. 14:5-8, Col. 2:16-17), even though its one of the Ten Commandments and grounded in creation.
Following Jesus in faithfulness may call for different actions in changing contexts. Accordingly, Jesus gave his church a process of Spirit-led biblical reflection and community moral discernment. Because we would encounter new and complex moral questions, Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit to “guide [us] into all the truth” (John 16:12-15). And he gave the churches the responsibility to “bind and loose” (Matt. 18:15 – 20), to discern God’s will in ever-changing circumstances.
How do we tell the difference?
How do tell whether a biblical account is historically factual? More importantly, how do we know when it matters? Did Jonah actually survive three days in the belly of a “big fish,” or was this an inspired story about faithfulness in loving our enemies? Is every detail in Kings and Chronicles historically accurate, even though they sometimes contradict each other? In Acts? Does it matter? Not always, and we don’t need to claim otherwise. But in some cases, yes, it very much matters. Some biblical narratives must be accepted as historical because of how they relate to the Gospel – to the core saving message of Jesus.
The claim of Jesus’ resurrection in an immortal body must be affirmed as authentic history because that is the very point of the Good News: Jesus’ resurrection is his vindication, our assurance of forgiveness, and the initial incidence and guarantee of the resurrection of all the redeemed and the ultimate renewal of creation — the very purpose of God’s plan of salvation.
Likewise, Scripture’s promise of Jesus’ eternal presence, love and salvation are the very heart of the Gospel of God’s grace. Without these assurances we would be without hope or encouragement through the hardships and uncertainties of life. “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.” There is no more essential Good News than that!
Similarly, the Old Testament proclaims the message that God has acted in history to call a covenant people to himself and work through them toward the salvation of the world. We affirm this as really happening because covenant is key to God’s saving plan, and because it is essential to the Good News that history itself – our physical existence in the actual world — is the arena of God’s saving acts.
But we will not always be able to tell whether a biblical narrative is actual history or an instructional story, or if a specific element of an historical account is accurate – though scholars can provide helpful information and reasoned opinions. In each case what’s important is to try to understand what the Holy Spirit is saying about God’s work of salvation.
Its relationship with the Gospel can also help us discern whether an ethical instruction is always and everywhere binding or if it can be revised. For example, a compelling case can be made that the biblical call to nonviolence and peacemaking is a timeless command. Not only are there explicit instructions — “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” “do not resist the evildoer,” “put away your sword,”– but nonviolence flows from the heart of the Gospel.
The Gospel is the good news of God’s sacrificial love for all humanity. God loves us even when we make ourselves his enemies (Rom. 5:10), taking the consequences of our sins and violence on himself on the cross. When Jesus told his followers to be like their heavenly Father by loving their enemies (Math. 5:43-48), he was instructing them to make their own lives a demonstration of this Gospel, returning good for evil. Killing enemies is the antithesis of the Gospel message and of faithful Christian witness.
On the other hand, instructions about slavery and women’s role subordination, among others, are not intrinsic to the Gospel message, which itself may over time compel their revision. While serving as inspired texts originally intended for the specific circumstances of their own time and place, biblical instructions can’t always be applied directly to issues of moral practice in very different historical contexts. Yet no Scripture is useless. Even context-specific instructions have something to say to us today when read with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And timeless instructions have to be applied with wisdom to our own complex lives.
Some Christians fear that if any detail of a Biblical narrative is seen as not factual, or any instruction is understood as not binding today, then the entire Scripture loses its reliability and authority. But this concern is not grounded in Scripture itself. The Scriptures are not intended to be read in this way.
It’s understandable and correct that believers want a rock-bottom, reliable basis for our faith. And God has provided that in the message the Gospel. While the Scriptures are vital to Christian life, it is the Gospel message that is our sure foundation. The Good News of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Lord and Savior, crucified for our sins, risen bodily, and coming again in glory to bring his kingdom in fulness and unite heaven and earth is historical, foundational, universal, salvific, eternal and unchangeable, delivered to God’s people once for all time.
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