What are we reading when we’re reading the Bible?


A number of things that I have listened to and read recently have lead me to ask the question in the title. It’s a big question; one with profound implications for all Christians. So why do the most thoughtful answers seem to be addressed more in academia than in the church?

Why talk about about this now? For one thing, it’s never not relevant for Christians to talk about. But for another, it seems topical with Rob Bell’s new book What is the Bible? making waves and US Christian bookstore Lifeway threatening to pull the Message from its shelves after there was a suggestion (later denied) that Eugene Peterson might hold a view of homosexuality that they deemed unbiblical.

What does it mean to say that something is unbiblical? Why is Rob Bell’s book causing such a stir? I’m not here to wade in on whether or not I agree with Peterson’s views (whatever they may be) and I’m certainly not here to denounce Bell’s book along with what seems like most of the evangelical world. This is just my two cents that I think any Christian has a right to give (along with the obvious disclaimer that I’m no expert on this topic).

Let’s start with the basics. The Christian Bible is a collection of 66 books, letters and anthologies. It is made up of the Old Testament (OT), which is the same as the Jewish Tanakh (the law, the prophets and the writings) and the New Testament (NT), which is a collection of writings, mostly letters, from after Jesus’ death. The OT canon (i.e. set of texts generally accepted as sacred and authoritative by the faith community) was more or less established by the Jews prior to Jesus’ life, while the new was not established until a few centuries into Christian history, though it must be said that all of our present NT writings were seen as sacred and authoritative before the canon was finalised. In fact, to say that the canon is finalised is misleading, as some Christian groups, most notably the Catholic church, recognise some writings as canonical that others don’t – these books are known collectively as the Apocrypha.

In addition to this brief and sketchy history, I’ve heard several descriptions of what what the Bible is. It starts a big tongue in cheek and then gets more serious.

  1. B.I.B.L.E = Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (absolutely nothing wrong with this)
  2. God’s love letter to humanity.
  3. The Word of God.
  4. “Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.” Point 4 in the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy
  5. “The Bible looks the way it does because ‘God lets his children tell the story,’ so to speak.” The Bible Tells Me So, by Peter Enns
  6. “There are seventy faces to the Torah.” Jewish rabbinical saying
  7. “The events recorded in the Bible are there because God wanted them to be recorded, and he had them recorded with his people and their instruction in mind.” ESV Study Bible

Those 7 points highlight different ways of approaching the Bible. They are not all mutually exclusive, but they do cover a range of views points. There is a view that the Bible is factually true in everything it says, a view that the Bible is essentially a rulebook, that it is all about God’s love, that there are multiple different stories told throughout the Bible and so on.

To be candid about my own position, my core belief is that the Bible will never fail to achieve its purpose, which is showing us who God is and how we can come to faith in him if we are seeking. In this, I believe that the Bible is a core part of God’s revelation to humanity and that it actively becomes the word of God when he speaks to us through it.

My view of inerrancy, particularly as outlined in the Chicago statement mentioned above, is that it is not a helpful category for the Bible, whether you are affirming or denying it. I don’t think the Bible has to be factually accurate in everything in order to be authoritative and I don’t think that factual errors in the Bible make it less authoritative. This is simply because its authority does not come from a modern notion of factual precision, but from God’s use of it as a medium of revelation throughout time and thereby its key role in bringing people towards God.

I also believe that, while there is an overall narrative of sorts running through the Bible, there are also a multitude of viewpoints with different agendas (some of which conflict) that we would do well to respect. Why would there be four gospels if the last one didn’t think that the first three left something unsaid? Why two accounts of Israel’s monarchy in Samuel/Kings and Chronicles? Why different legal codes in Leviticus and Deuteronomy? And have you ever read the Psalms?!

Far from requiring a uniformity of belief and action I tend to agree with that Rabbinical saying – the Bible has many faces. These faces allow, perhaps even encourage, a diversity of interpretations and opinions to exist. That’s why I can respect what Rob Bell is saying even if I don’t agree with him and why the Eugene Peterson saga seems so baffling.

The Bible is, to me, a beautiful book. Through its stories and teachings I see centuries of humans working out who God is and passing their ideas down to us. I see it as a medium through which the Holy Spirit speaks in dynamic and exciting ways. I see in it a challenge to any assumption that I have God nailed down. I see in it a light for my path that somehow draws me ever closer to God.


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