What the Bible means (to me) – part 2

The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.

I have spent a lot of my life with the Bible, first growing up in a Christadelphian family, then from late teenage years as a more orthodox Christian in an evangelical Anglican environment. However, in both those environments, the attitude towards the Bible and Christian belief could be summed up in the words of the legendary American bumper sticker quoted above. [I have unsuccessfully tried to track down the original source of this statement – if anyone knows, I’d be interested to hear].

But this no longer works for me. So I want in this post to take an apophatic approach and begin by looking at what the Bible is not. For some this will be Biblical Studies 101, but it might get more controversial (to some) further down the line.

The Bible is not a book.

This is in two senses. Firstly, it is a library, anthology or compilation of writings by a number of authors and written at different times, in different places and in different settings and circumstances. And some of these writings appear themselves to be compilations of earlier material, some of which show signs of their origins in an oral tradition.

Secondly, there are differing views of the composition and structure of this library. Jewish tradition, of course, regards the Bible as being only what Christians would describe as the Old Testament. But the arrangement of the books into Torah (teaching), Prophets and Writings is different from any Christian Bible. But Christians also do not agree on what constitutes the Bible. Some Christians include only the 39 books of the Jewish Tanakh plus the 27 books of the New Testament. Others include a further 11 books that appear in the Septuagint (a pre-Christian Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures). My own (Anglican) tradition regards these additional books in a kind of half-way house way as being profitable for reading but not for the derivation of doctrine. And within the overall canons of the Bible individual groups and churches tend to have their own “canon within the canon” – writings that are considered more, or less, important than others. For example, Luther famously referred to the epistle of James as “right strawy” because he thought it contradicted his understanding of salvation by grace. But listen to the preaching over a period in any church and you get the impression that certain parts of scripture provide the key by which others are understood and judged. I may return to the question of canon in a later post.

The Bible was not dictated by God.

Whereas the Qur’an is understood by Muslims to be a single entity given by direct divine revelation to Muhammed, Jews and Christians recognise the human element in the writing of scripture. Although parts of scripture do claim to give the words of God (the ten commandments, parts of some prophetic writing) they are given in a wider context and narrative. So they are given as reported speech rather than as direct dictation.

The Bible is not inerrant or infallible

It never claims to be! In spite of the claims of many evangelicals (and their Statements of Faith which define who is to be trusted or not, who is “in” or “out”), there is nowhere within the canonical writings where such a claim is made. The closest it comes is in Paul’s famous verses:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
(2 Timothy 3:16-17, New Revised Standard Version)

So scripture (or is that simply “writing”?) is “inspired by God” or “God-breathed” (NIV), but inspiration as we commonly understand it hardly means infallible or inerrant. This is but one case of an attempt to read back into scripture the solution to a problem in the later church (the issue of where authority in the church is to be located). And incidentally, the NIV’s choice of translation here is a highly selective one.

This absence is hardly surprising, though, given that at the time the last original manuscript of the NT was penned, the church was still at least 200 years away from finalising what counted as “scripture” and what did not. But the claim to inerrancy or infallibility is extra-scriptural.

Here endeth the second part. Part three will continue the apophatic theme, and in later posts we will begin to think in a more positive frame of mind.

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5 thoughts on “What the Bible means (to me) – part 2

  1. Thanks – I’m amused by the sign. Like you, I have no idea what the origin of this saying is, though I have a sneaking suspicion it might be Dwight Moody. (Or else that’s how I’ve heard someone attribute it, rightly or wrongly.)

    I pondered the irony of a Baptist Church in Priest Creek.

  2. Thank you for these reflections; it’s really good and helpful to read perspectives on this. I’ve been doing a lot of questioning of my view on the Bible over the last few years too. So many Christians seem to refuse to even ask these questions or sift through their faith, as if God’s not big enough to still be there on the other side. It’s so hard to come to a working understanding of the Bible when some things that were part of what I previously thought of (or was taught) as assumptions don’t seem to hold water. Learning how God has worked and spoken is something that I suppose we’ll never get a final definitive answer to, but at the same time we need to have substance to our faith. I suppose part of this process is having ultimate faith in God rather than our own intellect – I find that a slightly scary place to be!
    Working out how to interpret, understand and communicate faith and the Bible in our culture and mindset is not easy. Or consistent.

    • Thank you for your comment, Fran. I agree that in many churches there is a reluctance, as you say, even to recognise that there are questions to be asked. I decided to post this series partly to summarise where I have got to (so far) in my understanding after many years of living with questions about the Bible. I don’t pretend it is the last word, and I don’t expect you or anyone else to agree with every word. But the discussion is important. And ultimately it is the grace of God and our faith in Christ, rather than the Bible or our intellect, that saves us. I pray God’s blessing as you find your own way through this issue.

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