I’ll be honest. The Bible is not always my favorite. Often, I’ll read it and end up with even more questions. Sometimes, it has even scandalized my faith. The text is complex, dated, and sometimes just plain archaic. It seems so human. How can this be the Word of God, I think. What makes it worse is that there are SO many approaches to the Bible, both inside and outside the church. This makes it hard to nail down the exact nature of the book, to begin with.
Some people say the Bible is the inspired Word of God, while others say it is the mere words of men. Some take the Bible absolutely literally, while others strain it for a purely spiritual reading. Again, some people make this book the center of their lives, while others regard it as a bunch of pre-scientific fiction that ought to be abandoned.
Fortunately, I have realized that much of my frustration comes from misunderstandings, much of which are actually rooted in the caricatures of both the most fundamentalist of Christians and the most skeptical of atheists. Our perception of the Bible has been greatly—if not consciously—influenced by the likes of American conservatives and bible thumpers on the one hand and popular atheists like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins on the other. But I would argue that both do not fully appreciate the historical origin of scripture, why it was collected into a single volume, and how Christians have traditionally approached the text.
While the Bible has often perplexed me, I now have a much better appreciation—and more nuanced understanding—of its role in the Christian faith. Here are eight points I have encountered that have helped me better realize what, exactly, the Bible is and how it ought to be approached:
1. The Bible is not one book: It is a collection of books. And even that is misleading, for some writings—such as 2 John—hardly make up a single page. As a collection of writings, the Bible does not have a single author.
It’s helpful to approach the Bible as one approaches the library. The library contains multiple genres: biographies, myths, poetry, histories, field guides, fiction, etc. Similarly, the Bible contains its own assortment of literary forms. There’s history, such as Acts of the Apostles, but also myth, such as the beginning of Genesis. The Bible contains letters, such as Paul’s epistles, and apocalypses, such as Daniel and Revelation. There are sections of dry legal codes, as in Leviticus, but also beautiful poetry, as in the Psalms. Just as one would be mistaken to read a book on World War II with the same glasses used to read Hamlet, so it would be wrong to read the Gospel of Luke with the same glasses used to read the creation account in Genesis. God may have something to say in every book of the Bible, but one will not correctly grasp its meaning unless one first unwraps the packaging—its literary genre.
2. Christians from the very beginning have understood the biblical texts to be sacred scripture and therefore divinely inspired. But this does not mean God dictated the individual words of the Bible. God did not “write” the Bible. While sacred scripture is “God-breathed,” traditional Christianity acknowledges the human element of the text. God chose to work with and through mere human beings to convey his message of salvation.
Traditionally, this has been understood to mean that the Bible contains no errors. It obviously does, at least on the surface level of historical reading. But the real question is whether or not these are errors in what God is choosing to say through scripture. A more nuanced view promotes that the Bible does not err in God’s message of salvation—but not necessarily matters of history or science.
3. When interpreting the Bible, one should accept its human limitations. Because God chose to communicate his Word through human writers, discerning its meaning is not always as straightforward as simply reading the biblical text word-for-word. Precisely because God communicates through human language, concepts, and cultures, careful attention must be given to what is being asserted by scripture and not just what is being said.
One implication of this is to say that just because something is in the Bible does not mean it is endorsed by the Bible. The human authors were conditioned by their surrounding cultures, and this conditioning affected how they communicated biblical truth. For example, slavery is mentioned a few times. Similarly, violent and distasteful events are recorded in the Old Testament—sometimes in connection to God. But it does not follow that the Bible teaches slavery is good or that God is violent. Rather, in order to determine what this or that passage is really teaching, one must seek what is being asserted—not merely assumed or being reported on.
4. One way of understanding the Bible is to consider the person of Jesus Christ, who himself was both fully human and fully divine. To the senses, Christ seemed like any other man: He had a mother, ate food, experienced real emotions, cried, endured pain, and even died. In actuality, though, Christ was much more—the Eternal Word of God made man. Despite being “the fullness of God,” Paul says that he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Col. 1:19; Phil. 2:7). In a similar way, the Word of God is “enfleshed” in human words in the writing of sacred scripture.
Consider the Eucharist as another parallel. During communion, what otherwise appears to be bread and wine actually contains the presence of Jesus Christ. So in the Eucharist, there is a “human” aspect as well as a divine one. With the eyes of faith, what only appears to the senses to be a mortal man, a piece of bread, and human writing is actually the Word of God—as inspired scripture, the incarnate Son of God, and sacramental presence of Jesus Christ.
5. No, the Bible did not fall out of the sky. Its writing spanned over one thousand years, and officially determining its “table of contents” took a few hundred years after the last book, Revelation, was written. Now, if one were to watch the History Channel or take Dan Brown books too seriously, one may think determining the Bible’s contents was a matter of political influence and arbitrary selection by church leaders. But that didn’t happen, either. Instead, determining the canon of the Bible was a natural process whereby writings deemed acceptable for the Eucharistic liturgy were eventually copied and distributed to other Christian communities. With this process in play, all local churches generally considered the same books to be inspired by the fourth century.
These lists were indeed officially promulgated by councils of bishops and approved by the Pope. Nevertheless, the canon was not arbitrarily decided. Much of the books were settled very early on. For instance, all four gospels—no less and no more—were universally agreed upon in the early 2nd century. The whole “lost gospels” and “missing books of the bible” hysteria is a bunch of bologna, as most of these writings came decades—even hundreds of years—after the official 27 books of the New Testament were written.
6. Biblical authority depends on the church’s authority. One may reasonably ask how we are able to determine—in an official capacity—which writings belong in the Bible, in the first place. The key is understanding the mission of the church in relation to the promise of Jesus Christ. If we consult New Testament documents as historical sources alone—disregarding any notion of divine inspiration—we are able to see the historical Christ, his teachings, and how he validated those teachings by rising from the dead (a pretty good sign he’s legit, after all).
One of the things Jesus did in these texts was found a church, giving it—especially through its overseers (the Apostles at first and the bishops later on)—his own authority (Matt. 16:18-19; 18:18). If the church was truly given authority to make binding decisions under divine guidance, then it makes since that it would have the power to determine the books of the Bible in an official manner. Therefore, the ability to canonize the books of the Bible ultimately resides with the authority given to the church by Christ, whose promises of divine guidance—along with his other claims and teachings—were vindicated by his resurrection. In other words, we trust the church’s decision on the biblical canon because we first trust Christ, who proved himself worthy of our trust.
7. The Bible only makes sense in the context of the Church. Nowadays, even if we’re not active believers, we’re still likely to have a Bible in our homes. Heck, if you have internet, then you do have a Bible. With this easy and universal access to the Bible, it becomes tempting to turn the Bible into a devotional book on the one hand or a mere object of study on the other. We spend time with it prayer, hold group bible studies, and resort to it in times of need. The problem is not that things are bad, but that they misplace the Bible’s proper context if they are the only way we use it.
The fact is, sacred scripture formed out of the Church. All of scripture was not written until the end of the first century, but the Church was kickin’ for those 70 years regardless. Indeed, much of the New Testament writings were occasional letters sent to already-established Christian communities. The writing, sharing, determination, and preaching of scripture was all done within the church. The formal celebration of scripture took place during the liturgy, especially the Eucharist. In fact, the term “New Testament” initially referred to the Eucharist, as Jesus used this expression in reference to his celebration of it at the Last Supper. Since Christian scripture was prayed, proclaimed, and preached during liturgical worship, it eventually became known as the writings of the New Testament. So if we want to celebrate and understand the Bible in the most adequate way possible, we must do so in the context of the larger Christian community. We ought to look to how the Church has always understood scripture, from the first century onward, and how it has used it, predominately at the celebration of the Eucharist (or Mass).
8. Lastly, the true meaning of the written Word of God is found in the incarnate Word of God. John’s Gospel declares Jesus Christ to be the “Word” that was present with God for all eternity. Indeed, he is the very reflection of God (John 12:45). He is the ultimate revelation of the Father (Heb. 1:1-2) and therefore declared himself to be the “way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). So before we acknowledge any writing to be God’s Word, we must first set our eyes on Christ, the eternal Word of God who culminated God’s revelation in his earthly ministry.
Therefore, when we encounter any difficulty in the Bible, we should relate it to Christ. He is God’s final revelation and truth itself. Take the Old Testament, for example. Often when there is some awkward law or teaching, many just dismiss it because “that’s Old Testament stuff.” Well, it is a mistake to say the Old Testament no longer applies, as is popularly conceived. It, too, is inspired scripture. But we ought to configure all biblical teachings to the person of Jesus Christ, who provides the interpretive key to everything else.