What is the Bible?
The Bible. The book has fascinated millions of people for generations; but what is it? Why on earth do we still read such an ancient text? Indeed, the question is even more pertinent when we hear stories of those who have abused the Bible, using it to justify wars, hatred, and legalism. Christians argue that the Bible has authority over our lives. But if we’re going to say that, we need to figure out what the Bible is first. Is it a love letter? A map for life? Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (B.I.B.L.E.)? A rulebook?
All of these are ways that people have described the Bible. However, there are severe difficulties with each of these views. Consider: It is surely difficult to view the book of Judges (what with all the stabbings, sexual immorality, betrayals, and idolatry it details) as a love letter. We don’t usually put those sorts of things in our love notes. What about a map? Does the Bible tell us where we should go with all the steps laid out to arrive at a happy and successful life? Not really. If it were, we would have expected for God to lay it out a lot more clearly. After all, the Bible doesn’t give us specific directions about which person we should marry or what job we should take.
If we view the Bible as an instruction manual before leaving earth, we are assuming that the primary goal is to leave earth and the Bible shows us how we can get by while we’re stuck here. Seeing the Bible as a rulebook fares no better. Consider how much of the Bible is composed of poetry or narrative. If it were a rulebook, it could have been a lot shorter.
So how do we describe the Bible? As Dr. Myers points out, a compass is perhaps the best illustration. A compass points us in the right direction. Like a compass, the Bible “doesn’t point to you . . . It shows you a fixed, unchanging truth.”1 The Bible is more like “a guide to wise living.”2 The Bible points to God and his work in this world. It helps us to know God and to be more like him, and learning to be like God ultimately helps us to live wisely in God’s world.
How Can We Understand the Bible?
However, even if we know this, some of us still get bored with the Bible. We’ve been told that we should read it every day. We’ve been shamed for spending more time watching TV then we spend reading our Bible. Many of us get frustrated and give up because the Bible can be difficult to understand. It can be hard to see the Bible as a guide when it seems so obscure. We know we need to read it; the problem is, many of us have never been taught how.
If we are going to properly understand Scripture and let it direct our lives, we need to pay attention to the historical context, the type literature we are reading, and how the passage of Scripture we are reading fits into the overall metanarrative of Scripture: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. That may sound like a lot, but reading Scripture is a lifetime pursuit and it will take time and discipline to develop the habits necessary to becoming a good interpreter of Scripture.
Fortunately, there are numerous resources out there to help us understand the Bible. Perhaps one of the best, and most accessible, is the highly creative series of videos done by The Bible Project. We’ve included the first episode here, but you can view the rest (as well as numerous other helpful videos) at The Bible Project website. In addition, we’ve included links below to several other helpful videos, books, and articles about this topic.
This article corresponds to:
- Understanding the Faith, chapter 2: “What the Bible is and Isn’t” and chapter 7: “How to Read the Bible”
- Understanding the Faith curriculum, units 2 and 7, pp. 31–43, 171–182
Possible Discussion Starters:
- What barriers keep you from reading Scripture?
- Why is it important that you understand what the Bible is?
- Why is it important to understand the context of a passage before you seek to apply it?
- “What is the Bible For?” — Peter Leithart
- “How To Read The Bible” — Michael Horton
- “Never Read A Bible Verse” — Greg Koukl
- “Studying the Word for life” — Kevin James Bywater
- How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth — Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart
- Grasping God’s Word — J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays
- Jeff Myers, Understanding the Faith: A Survey of Christian Apologetics (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2016), 40.