The Bible is not an Encyclopedia of Life: Demise of a Bible Answer Man

In fifth grade I began to read the Bible voraciously. I continued reading through high school and into college, and I knew so much about the Bible that I could answer almost any question.

I was a teenage Bible Answer Man. I had an impressive grasp of Bible facts and could answer (or at least bluff an answer) on just about any topic. But then I began to discover that the Bible is not an encyclopedia of facts, information, and doctrinal statements. Instead, it is a story of people with different voices, over many centuries, interacting with their understandings of God.

Biblical authors provide a range of writings, but they do not give us authoritative answers to historical, scientific, or theological questions. Realizing this, I resigned my place as a Bible answer man forever.

The Bible

Pixabay

On Being a Bible Answer Person

There are many Bible answer people; I was not the only one. But their usefulness is very limited. A general grasp of Bible facts might qualify a Bible answer person in a shallow sense, but the expectation is that a ‘Bible Answer Person’ can tell us authoritatively not only what the Bible says but what it means—and no one is qualified to do that.

The Bible, particularly the New Testament, is a rich source of never-ending exploration, reflection, and inspiration, but it is not a unified, codified collection of revealed truth. Each author deals with issues important to them at the time, and we sometimes resonate with them; but they do not provide authoritative answers to our questions.

Indeed, the Bible often leads us to questions instead of giving us final answers. We must digest what the Bible says in order to determine its significance to us—just as Paul and other New Testament writers did. This requires study, thinking, and reflection; and by study I mean using all the outside resources we can to better understand the contexts.

The best I can do is find answers for myself for this particular time. Now I do feel I have discovered important answers—and I am happy to share them with you. But my ‘answer’ is never your ‘answer’ unless it makes sense to you. Otherwise you are just taking my word for it.

We can share discoveries with each other, but we still must study, think, and reflect on the Bible ourselves.

Misguided Examples of Bible Answer Approaches

Yet there are still many Bible answer people who claim to provide authoritative Bible answers to specific questions—but they cannot. To do so would depend on the Bible being a unified, consistent document. Such people can only catalog what they think the Bible says and means; and their answers depend heavily on personal perspective, assumptions, and interpretations about the Bible, which are often quite apparent.

The Bible just doesn’t work as an authoritative answer book. There are many things we want the Bible to tell us that it does not. The Bible does not tell us:

  • How the world was created or other scientific details
  • An accurate history of Abraham, Moses, and the Kingdom of Israel
  • What Jesus thought about theological questions

But some believers think the Bible is a Life Manual that guides us in specific aspects of ‘biblical living’ as though the Bible were an authoritative source of life applications.

Biblical Health. Dr. S.I. McMillen wrote the 1960s bestseller, None of These Diseases, to demonstrate how Levitical laws and other biblical passages on health are medically sound. His book continues to be reprinted. Other popular books on biblical health are What the Bible Says about Healthy Living and Miracle Food Cures from the Bible.

Biblical Finance. Bestselling author, Larry Burkett, wrote numerous books on biblical finance with titles like Christian Financial Concepts and How To Manage Your Money: An In-Depth Bible Study on Personal Finances.

Biblical (Nouthetic) Counseling. Jay Adams’ Competent to Counsel was very influential. Nouthetic counseling is based solely on the Bible and rejects secular psychology. He also wrote The Christian Counselor’s Manual and other books.

Biblical Child-Rearing. Perhaps the best known of those writing in this area are Michael and Debi Pearl. Their book To Train Up a Child has tremendous influence in some circles. Application of this book has produced great alienation and many horror stories—all based on ‘biblical principles’.

Biblical Family Structure. This hot topic among conservative believers claims that the Bible precisely describes God’s plan for family structure. Marriage is for one man and one woman (despite the widespread polygamy and use of concubines among biblical heroes such as Abraham, Jacob, and David), and the man must be head of the family and the wife submissive. There is no room for variation and LGBT relationships are forbidden.

These five appeals to an authoritative ‘biblical’ life-manual have affected millions of believers, but they are not the only ones as a search for ‘What the Bible says about’ reveals. This approach depends on the misguided idea that the Bible is a consistent, uniform document intended to answer these questions authoritatively.

The Bible has much to tell us, especially about Jesus, but it is not an answer book. It has a wealth of stories and reflections by writers from different times and cultures, and we can learn from them as we do from stories and reflections of people outside the Bible; but their words are not the authoritative, revealed word of God on how we should live.

We should not treat the Bible as detailed, authoritative answer book to all our questions.

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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22 Responses to The Bible is not an Encyclopedia of Life: Demise of a Bible Answer Man

  1. sheila0405 says:

    My dad bought “Competent To Counsel” and “None Of These Diseases”. My bipolar went undiagnosed until it wrecked my life. Bible verses and prayer were the only trusted “methods” to deal with mental illness. My mom, now 88, has never received decent medical care for her life-long depression. This post hit home for me. I see beauty in the Bible as literature, but nothing beyond that.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Sheila, I am so sorry for both you and your mom. Bible verses and prayer are no substitute for professional treatment of mental illness. Those who teach otherwise are doing great harm to their listeners. It is not that the Bible is ‘wrong’ on these issues; rather the Bible does not SPEAK to these issues in any authoritative way.

      Like

  2. tonycutty says:

    I once replied to someone on a Patheos forum, where she claimed that the Bible holds the answer to every question that could be asked by man, where it described the circumstances when it is permissible to infringe controlled airspace without first filing a flight plan.

    Needless to say, there was no reply…. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      “She claimed that the Bible holds the answer to every question that could be asked by man”? I have heard similar statements, but I think they are outrageous and an abuse of the Bible. This is not what the Bible is.

      Tony, how does this apply to entering controlled airspace without a flight plan? That sounds interesting.

      Like

    • Alan C says:

      This prompted me (just for kicks) to google “What does the Bible say about” and see the top queries beginning with each letter of the alphabet. Good example, “A”: abortion, aliens, anger, adultery.
      It’s hard to let go of the expectation that the Bible behaves like a work of systematic theology, but of course that’s not what it is. It’s the sometimes messy story of a big, often dysfunctional, extended family and its relationship with the greatest Mystery in the world.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Alan, I did the same thing while writing the article. The results were amazing, but I agree with you: It is misguided to think the Bible serves as a work of systematic theology–or even a systematic work of anything.

        Like

  3. Chas says:

    Tim, I agree with: ‘The best I can do is find answers for myself for this particular time. ……..but my ‘answer’ is never your ‘answer’ unless it makes sense to you.’ We can receive what we need at a particular time, from a particular passage, but that message is unique to you at that time. It might not be relevant to anyone else at that time, and it might no longer be relevant to you the next time you read that passage. When you do, you might receive a different message from that same text. That new message will be relevant to you when you read it. As we have suggested before, under an earlier post, God can show us anything that He wants us to understand through the Bible, if He chooses. (Or through any other book, or film, or other media).

    Like

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chas, I never think my answer is someone else’s answer just because I said it and I’m so ‘smart’ and ‘convincing’. This is a big problem with believers. They are so devoted to their spiritual teachers that they believe and do whatever they are told; they do not question whether their teacher might be wrong.

      I hope I help people who are struggling with question; and, based on responses, I think I do. But I would never want someone to replace someone else’s ‘authority’ with my ‘authority’.

      Like

      • Chas says:

        Tim, this is not really a response to your last reply, but this is as good a place to raise it as any. I have become aware of several people who became reliant on the Bible during childhood who seem to be unlikely to accept our views on inerrancy. Maybe we need to be sensitive to their needs and avoid pushing our views onto them. We might even need to use passages from the Bible to help them to address their current needs. Clearly this is a fine line to walk: on the one hand we do not want to push what we have gained from some passage that might only be relevant to us, yet we do want to help someone who is in need of help. What are your thoughts?

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Chas, I think it is very important to be sensitive to those who have harmful beliefs like inerrancy and its subsequent beliefs.

          I do not want to be insensitive to those who believe in inerrancy. But at the same time inerrancy, along with belief in angry God, is the foundation of most harmful baggage among conservative believers. On the blog, I try to be straightforward about harmful doctrines in order to assist those who are struggling with them–or even to raise questions in the minds of those who are ready. Those who are not ready and who vehemently disagree will most likely just dismiss what I say.

          Now, personal encounters with people is somewhat different. I try to engage them where they are, and sometimes I do use the Bible in a way they understand it in order to help them. It is good if I can move them forward a little bit, but in the need of the moment the person is more important than trying to change their beliefs.

          I think this is consistent with what you are saying. Did I understand you question correctly?

          Like

          • Chas says:

            Tim, yes, I think you have understood my concerns and what you have said is consistent with them. I suspect that my responses here would also usually be different from most of my face-to-face interactions. One or two people whom I know are stubbornly attached to inerrancy, despite my having discussions with them, and they seem unlikely (unwilling) to change. With others, I would not even raise the topic, but serve them as well as I could in other ways.

            Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Agreed.

            Like

  4. Pingback: The Bible is not a Magic Talisman: Biblical Power, Incantations, and Bibliomancy | Jesus Without Baggage

  5. michaeleeast says:

    I like your idea about the Bible being a story of a people.
    The Bible is a very human book.
    It is a Testament of humankind’s experience of the One God.
    As a series of human stories it develops as it goes along.
    But Jesus is the breakthrough.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Michael, you summed it up very nicely: The Bible is a story of people, but Jesus is the breakthrough.

      Excellent!

      Like

  6. Pingback: The Bible is not Open to Narcigesis: Thinking the Bible is Written to You | Jesus Without Baggage

  7. ReBecca says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: The Bible is not a Promise Book: Exploring a Misguided Approach to the Bible | Jesus Without Baggage

  9. Pingback: The Bible is not a Rule Book: Overcoming Legalism | Jesus Without Baggage

  10. Pingback: The Bible is not Magically Inerrant: Exposing Inerrancy Proof-Texts | Jesus Without Baggage

  11. Pingback: What the Bible Is–And Is Not | Jesus Without Baggage

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