I’ll give you four choices:
The Bible is…
A. A supernatural book that fell from heaven and is different from every other book.
B. A seriously weird rule book for the stark and somber among us.
C. A divine reference book with the answers to all of life’s problems.
D. A little too much like your grandmother’s scrapbook for comfort.
And the answer is…well, believe it or not, D! But we’ll get to that. The great – and tricky – thing about multiple choice tests is that even the “wrong” answers often have something “right” about them. So let’s see what’s “partly right” about each of the alternatives.
Given the way we treat the Bible – swearing in elected officials with it, passing favorite ones down through the generations, putting big leather-bound copies in our churches, etc. – you might be tempted to think the Bible is, well, if not supernatural at least, well, unique. And you’d be right…to a point. The Bible is unique. But it did not fall from heaven nor was it the end-result of some form of divine dictation. The Bible nowhere claims that kind of status. It is different from other books, but that difference rests not in its nature but in its content: it witnesses to God’s commitment to Israel – and through Israel to the world – and to God’s decisive activity on behalf of the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is this distinct witness – and the impact that witness has had through the centuries to shape and guide the Christian church – that makes the Bible unique.
The Bible does have a lot of rules in it…and a whole lot of other stuff to boot. From histories, parables, and poetry to genealogies, letters, and legal codes, the Bible presents us with all kinds of writing that we don’t often encounter anymore, which is why it can be a challenge to read. But it originally wasn’t meant to be confusing, and it certainly wasn’t meant to make everyone stark, somber, and serious. Instead, through all these different kinds of writing the Bible tries to tell us a story of the people of ancient Israel and the early Church…and about their God. And that’s pretty important. Because while many of the people who wrote various parts of the Bible lived at very different times from each other, spoke different languages, came from different cultures, and sometimes believed different things, they all had one thing in common: each had been so gripped by an experience of God that he or she had to share that experience with others. This testimony – whether expressed through story, sermon, or song – was eventually written down and accepted by the community as authoritative, that is, as valuable to shaping the ongoing self-understanding and identity of the community.
Divine Reference Book
The Bible definitely wants to help us make sense of life. But it’s not some kind of divine reference book waiting for you to take it off the bookshelf and discover God’s answers to all of today’s questions. As a matter of fact, the Bible says precious little about many of the specific questions we may have about nuclear energy, the swine flu, or the struggles of raising children in a home with two working parents. Instead, the Bible draws us into its story about God and the people of God, in this way grants us an identity that helps us make decisions about these and many other issues that confront us.
Okay, so maybe not the neat and tidy scrapbook that the professionals do on weekend retreats, but the Bible really is something like the scrapbook your great grandmother started and passed down to your grandmother, who added to it and passed it to your mother, who added some more and then gave it to you. Those kinds of scrapbooks also contain all manner of things – from the letters of an immigrant to his family in the homeland to the movie tickets your parents saw on their first date to the program from your second grade play. And from all these bits and pieces emerges the story of your family, a story that continues to shape your own sense of who you are and maybe even of where you’re going. Like that kind of a scrapbook, the Bible also tells us about our spiritual family, teaching us about who we are and where we’ve come from, and in this way it helps us sort out the present and find hope and guidance as we peer into the future.
What About “Inerrancy”?
Claims that the Bible is “inerrant” or “infallible” probably say more about the need of the persons making those claims to try to prove their faith than they do about the Bible itself. The Bible, keep in mind, is fundamentally a collection of the confessions of faith of people over the centuries who have experienced God in a particular way and seek to give voice to their faith. But faith, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). You can confess your faith, you can give good reasons for your faith, and you can allow your faith to shape your life. But you cannot prove your faith (or it is no longer faith!). When we try to prove that the Bible is true by ascribing to it a divine status that it doesn’t claim itself, we risk fundamentally misunderstanding the nature and purpose of the Bible.
So the Bible is a book that gathers the testimonies and confessions of the ancient Israelites and early Christians who are our ancestors in the faith. The Bible is a book that, like a family scrapbook, roots us in our spiritual family and grants us an identity that helps us make sense of the present and guides us into the future. The Bible is book that tells the story of God and God’s love and has changed millions of lives.
But maybe more than anything else, the Bible is a book that seeks not only to tell about the faith of others but actually to create faith in those who read it today. Make no mistake on this count: the Bible doesn’t even begin to pretend to tell a neutral account. It wants you, after you’ve read it, to confess just like all these other people did. So look out! The Bible seeks not just to be a book, but to be your book, to be our book, drawing us into its story so that we might look at everything, including our own lives, differently.
Okay, you’ve been warned. Now…get reading.