Today, we begin a new series on the character of the Bible. A number of topics will be on what the Bible is not, but this article is about What the Bible Is.
We must first realize that our perspective of the Bible heavily influences what we think the Bible is—and is not. Here are four such perspectives:
- The Bible is factual and true in everything it says
- The Bible claims to be factual in everything it says—but it is a fraud
- The Bible is not factual—it expresses symbolic truth
- The Bible contains both factual and symbolic truth—but not everything is true
My perspective is closer to #4—the Bible does contain some factual truth and some symbolic truth, however the symbolic truth is not some free-flowing interpretation but is tied solidly to the context. This perspective also acknowledges that some things in the Bible are not true at all.
What other perspectives can you think of?
If the Bible Isn’t Inerrant then Why Bother with It?
Millions of conservative believers claim the Bible is inerrant, which is a form of Perspective #1. They often view each verse, phrase, or snippet of a phrase as a revealed truth from God. Even though they may disagree with each other on what the truth is, the specific words of the Bible guide their beliefs, and all parts of the Bible are equally valid.
This certainty is based on the assumption that God revealed truth to the biblical writers or even directed the authors’ very words. That would give me great confidence, too, except that the assumption is misguided. The Bible was not written by God but by humans; and humans are not inerrant.
A reader once asked me a very good question: “If ‘inerrant’ is defined as literally true and perfect, and if the Bible isn’t an inerrant document, then what is its purpose for Christians today?”
I can’t speak for other believers, but I can say that the Bible is of great importance to me. First, the New Testament tells us of the teachings and actions of Jesus, written from the memories of his earliest followers; this in itself is sufficient reason for me. Secondly, the Old Testament helps us understand the culture and background within which Jesus lived and taught.
The Old Testament as a Collection of National Literature
The Old Testament is a collection of national literature like any other national literature. In an American Literature text, we read many inspiring stories of leaders, heroes, and thinkers. Along with that are the entertaining stories of Mark Twain and the wisdom sayings of Ben Franklin. The awesome Declaration of Independence is also included.
All these works are human and none is inerrant, and yet they are of great value. We might even disagree with some of them, but why would we reject the entire collection just because it is not inerrant?
The Old Testament national collection of literature was written by people who felt strongly about God and who wrote from the limitations of their era, culture, and understanding. However, even though much of the historical narrative is questionable, there is much real merit in parts of the Old Testament.
Some of the prophets are inspiring as they talk of God’s interest in the poor and marginalized. Some of the poetry of the Psalms warms the heart as good poetry often does. Then there is the deep philosophical reflection on why bad things happen to good people in Job. And there is much more.
The Old Testament also gives us insight into the Jewish thinking of Jesus’ day so that we can better understand his interactions with his contemporaries–it gives us conceptual background. I am glad we have the Old Testament, even though it is not an inerrant document to instruct us on details of correct doctrine and behavior.
The New Testament as a Response to the Message of Jesus
The New Testament is far more valuable to me. Jesus came to Judea preaching the good news of the kingdom of God. He impacted his listeners with both his teaching and his behavior. Yet he didn’t write down a single thing! But his earliest followers did share what they heard and observed from Jesus. They preached about Jesus’ words and actions.
The Gospels were written from the memories of Jesus’ earliest followers who were strongly impacted by him. They might not have quoted Jesus word-for-word or captured the exact details of his life, but the personality and character of Jesus in the four Gospels are remarkably consistent. We learn genuine information about Jesus from the Gospels—and it is compelling.
The rest of the New Testament gives us insight into how the teachings and example of Jesus played out among his followers after his resurrection and departure. We listen in as they share the good news with others, deal with the practical issues of the new community, and wrestle with the significance of who Jesus was and how it continued to impact them. This helps us immensely in our own issues and questions. We would be at a very sad loss without this information.
So while neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament is the inerrant message of truth from God, we would not have any grasp of Jesus or his culture without them. But we should not claim more for the Bible than is the case. We have discussed the basics of what the Bible is; next time we will discuss the first thing that the Bible is not.
Other articles in this series: What the Bible is Not
What the Bible Is–And Is Not
The Bible is not Magically Inerrant: Exposing Inerrancy Proof-Texts
The Bible is not a Rule Book: Overcoming Legalism
The Bible is not a Promise Book: Exploring a Misguided Approach to the Bible
The Bible is not an Encyclopedia of Life: Demise of a Bible Answer Man
The Bible is not a Magic Talisman: Biblical Power, Incantations, and Bibliomancy
The Bible is not Open to Narcigesis: Thinking the Bible is Written to You
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