Christians hold a variety of views about the Bible. Some regard every biblical statement as factual and every instruction as universally applicable. Some view the Bible as a record of ancient religious beliefs and practices, informative but not directly relevant to people today. Between these extremes more nuanced views exist. But how does the Bible view itself? What does Scripture show us about how it communicates God’s message?
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 for the Bible as a whole. When Scripture 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 carrying out God’s purpose. In the New Testament the “word of God” most often refers to the Gospel (Good News) message of Jesus Christ (e.g. Acts 12:24; Col. 1:25; 1 Thess. 2:13). Jesus was steeped in Scripture and spoke of the contents of Scripture as authoritative words from God (e.g. John 10:34,35; Matt. 4:1-10), while often interpreting them 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 (Messiah, God’s Anointed) 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 God’s saving work in history, of Christian faith, and of Scripture is proclaimed in 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 in Jesus. God’s saving plan – implemented in Jesus Christ — is to repair and renew creation, bring his Reign in fullness and unite heaven and earth as one in Christ (Eph.1:10).
The Gospel sums up the entire Biblical story. It is the heart of the Old Testament as well as the New. The Hebrew Scriptures tell the Gospel story in their own way of God’s love and faithful outworking of his sovereign plan to redeem creation and bring his Reign through the calling of a covenant people by grace. This is the Good News, revealed clearly, fully and efficaciously in Jesus.
Some Christians talk as if the Bible is the foundation of their faith, thinking 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 Jesus because we first believe the Bible. The Gospel message — authenticated by the Holy Spirit — stands on its own as the ground 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: see also Rom. 1:1-16).
While the Gospel is the essential heart of God’s saving message, the entire Bible has a vital place in Christian life. Drawn by the Holy Spirit to believe the Good News of Jesus we look to the Scriptures for further understanding, direction and empowerment. Scripture helps fill out our knowledge of Jesus. It helps us to know God, ourselves and the world. It challenges our preconceptions and cultural givens. As read by the churches with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and interpreted in relationship to Jesus, Scripture communicates God’s fresh, reliable and dynamic message, propelling God’s mission, in every generation. Reading, studying and meditating on Scripture with the guidance of God’s Spirit nurtures our faith, aids our worship and empowers our journey with Jesus. But we must embrace the Bible’s own understanding of what it is and how it speaks.
What the Bible Is Not
The Bible is not a book of science. By misreading Genesis as a factual account, many Christians believe that God created Adam as the first human directly from dust around 10,000 years ago. But as evangelist Billy Graham said, “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 . . . I believe that God created man and whether it came by an evolutionary process . . . or not, does not change the fact that God did create man.” The Genesis creation stories reflect the cosmology of the writers’ own time and place, but their enduring message isn’t about the process through with the universe and human life came to exist. Rather, they dramatically portray the fundamental truth that God is Creator and Redeemer, who acts in love to save humankind, created to shine forth with the divine character, from our sins.
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 best researches of historians and archeologists.
For example, details given in the book of Chronicles differ from and sometimes contradict those in Samuel and Kings, shaped by the writers’ historical contexts and diverse purposes. Some Old Testament passages 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 actual events handed on orally and in writings through generations, the specifics evolving as they are carried forward, and taking final form much later as the biblical text. Some Old Testament narratives were not actual occurrences but are sacred stories meant to help us understand who God is and his work of redemption. This is how the Bible communicates. The biblical writers are creatively relating events and stories that advance God’s purposes of salvation – truthful in the most important sense.
Consider 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, and on a purely literal level contradictory. Matthew and Luke each take an event in Jesus’ life and tell its story in a way to emphasize the Spirit-inspired lessons each wants to communicate. Key events, such as Jesus’ birth and resurrection, are likewise told differently in order to emphasize specific points. The Four Evangelists are preachers of the Gospel, not historians in the modern sense, and it is anachronistic to treat their accounts as detailed records.
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 isn’t always the point. The Catholic Church’s view of “inerrancy” – in contrast to the fundamentalist Protestant version — 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 limited to a specific context. 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. . .” (Eph. 6:5-7a). But it is now condemned as a great evil contrary to God’s will, and the “Underground Railroad” through which U.S. enslaved people escaped, usually conducted by committed Christians, is greatly admired. The requirement that women cover their heads in worship services, although grounded in both creational and heavenly realities (1 Cor. 11:1-16), is today widely understood as a culture-specific directive subject to revision; and many churches have revised biblical instructions about women’s roles (e.g. 1 Tim. 2:12). In contrast to literal biblical teaching (Matt. 19:1-12), divorced and remarried couples are now accepted as full members in many Protestant churches across the theological spectrum.
Updating instructions — because of changed circumstances, fresh views of God’s work, and God’s new acts in the world – occurs within Scripture itself. In Exodus’ recounting of the Law of Moses only male Israelite slaves were to go free after 6 years (Ex. 21:1-11), whereas in Deuteronomy, apparently given final form much later (Deut. 4:37-38, 34:6), both male and female slaves are to be set free (Deut. 15:12). The Acts 15 Jerusalem Council eliminated for Gentiles the “everlasting” requirement of male circumcision for membership in God’s covenant people. Paul made Sabbath-keeping optional (Rom. 14:5-8, Col. 2:16-17), even though it’s grounded in creation and is one of the Ten Commandments. Paul also unilaterally reinterpreted the rule agreed upon at the Council that Gentiles should never eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:29 w/ Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 10:25).
Following Jesus in faithfulness may call for different actions in changing contexts. Some practices prohibited in the particular circumstances in Scripture may now be affirmed and some affirmed activities may now require prohibition. (For example, though permitted in Scripture, churches in some places and times have taught abstinence from alcoholic beverages, especially where there is widespread drunkenness and alcohol-induced abuse). Accordingly, Jesus called his church to community moral discernment, as we see displayed in Acts 15. 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). He gave the churches the collective responsibility to “bind and loose”(Matt. 18:15 – 20) — to discern God’s will in ever-changing circumstances. Many controversial questions today such as same-sex marriage, are appropriately addressed through such a discernment process.
How do we tell the difference? Jesus Christ is key.
How do we tell if a biblical account is historically factual? Did Jonah actually survive three days in the belly of a big fish or was this an inspired story about faithfulness and loving enemies? We will not always be able to tell whether a biblical narrative or a specific element of an account is actual history – though scholars can provide reasoned opinions. What’s important is to try to understand what the Holy Spirit is saying about God’s work of salvation. But in some cases, historicity matters very much. Some biblical events 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 is to 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 renewal of creation — the very purpose of God’s plan of salvation. And although we should not regard every detail as factual, and scholars argue about the authenticity of some of Jesus’ sayings, we can believe that the four Gospel accounts give us an essentially reliable picture of who Jesus is, and what he taught and did — and therefore what God is like — because Jesus himself is the Good News.
Similarly, Scripture’s promise of God’s faithful presence and love, revealed in Jesus, is at the very heart of the Gospel. Without these assurances we would be without encouragement and hope 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!
Prioritizing the Gospel can help us distinguish between essential biblical truths and the secondary arguments made to support them. For example, Paul backs up his assertion that Jesus is humankind’s sole redeemer by writing that sin came into the world through the disobedience of “the one man, Adam” (Rom. 5). But Paul’s claim about Jesus doesn’t depend on the existence of an historical Adam (which may or may not in some sense be the case). The Good News is that Jesus is our Redeemer. In him alone our sins are forgiven. This redemption doesn’t depend on Adam’s literal existence, but on the historical reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
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 nonparticipation in war is a timeless command for followers of Jesus. Not only are there explicit instructions — “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” “do not resist the evildoer,” “put away your sword”– but nonviolence was exemplified by Jesus himself and 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 have made ourselves his enemies (Rom. 5:10), bringing us peace by taking the consequences of our sins and violence on himself in Jesus on the cross. When Jesus tells us to be like our heavenly Father by loving our enemies (Math. 5:43-48), he is instructing his followers to make our 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, directives about slavery and women’s subordinate roles, among others, are not intrinsic to the Gospel message, which itself may compel their revision. While intended for some specific circumstances of their own time and place, biblical instructions can’t always be applied directly to issues of Christian 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.
Hearing, reading and immersing ourselves in Scripture is essential for a healthy Christian life. The Scriptures are a lamp to our feet and living water to our soul — an indispensable encouragement and guide in faithful living. Understood and interpreted through the cross-shaped lens of the Good News of God’s immeasurable love revealed in Jesus, Scripture becomes a powerful instrument animating God’s movement to repair the world and bring new creation. By meditating on the Scriptures, we absorb the values, virtues and practices that express the unselfish love and faithful character of Christ in our own lives, propel us in mission, and mold us into God’s forever family. The Scriptures are a wonderful gift from God.
We should recognize, however, that not every biblical narrative is factual, and that some instructions on Christian practice must be revised for our own time and place. Reading the Bible this way doesn’t undermine its reliability. Rather, it enhances Scripture’s authority because this is how Scripture is intended to be understood.
It is appropriate that believers want a rock-bottom, reliable basis for our faith, and God has provided that in the message of the Gospel. While the Bible as a whole is vital to Christian faith, the Gospel message is our sure foundation. The Good News of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Lord and Savior, crucified for our sins, risen immortal, calling us to follow him, and coming again in glory to repair the world and bring his gracious Reign is historical, foundational, universal, salvific, eternal and unchangeable, delivered to God’s children once for all time.
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