The Bible is the most important text in the world. Beyond it being the bestselling book every single year (save one) since we have been tracking sales, beyond its incredible impact on countless artists, politicians, and philanthropists, I believe it is the Word of God. Or, to quote second Timothy, “God-breathed.” It is because of this high view of the Bible that I say it is not an instruction book.
I have recently received several emails Facebook messages and conversations asking me questions that circle back to this key question: what is the Bible? That’s what this article is about.
When you look at the contents of the Bible you find a brilliant rainbow of material from ancient history (which often has quiet different values from modern history), law, poetry, allegory, prophecy, apocalyptic literature, lecture, and philosophy among other things. That’s why it can be hard to pin down a solid answer as to what the Bible is. Depending on which part you are reading it can appear to be everything from poetry to law.
However, when we take the Bible as a whole we can say definitively that this collection of ancient literature is scripture. And scripture has a single goal: to form us spiritually. That is important because understanding that every page shares a single category means that whether you are reading a passage of history or allegory, the words are ultimately seeking to do the same thing: form you spiritually.
That is why boiling down the Bible to a divine VCR manual is a bad idea. I don’t know many people whose spiritual lives have been affected by a manual of any kind. When we read the Bible like that we miss out on much of its power. Approaching the Bible as anything other than scripture can distract us causing us to focus on all the wrong things ultimately missing the biggest points of powerful passages.
Don’t get me wrong, there are clearly times when the Bible is giving us very specific commands that we are supposed to take literally and follow strictly (like when it tells us not to lie and murder). But then you come to scriptures that are simple and direct and tell you to kill your child if they are rebellious. If we read it like an instruction manual at that point we would have very few people make it to adulthood. Luckily there is more to the Bible than an ifixit repair guide.
That’s why when we open the Bible, it is imperative that we approach it with the reverence and awe that it demands because it it not a manual. It is scripture. It is the word of God.
Now, let me take a turn and argue with myself. Though the Bible is not an instruction book, it clearly is meant to be put to use in our lives. In fact, that scripture from 2 Timothy says that it is not only “God-breathed,” but it is also “useful.” That’s where the “forming” part comes in. The Bible is not meant to just inform us of interesting information or dazzle us with beautiful metaphor. The Bible is meant to be lived out. It is to be used by us to change ourselves and our world to be more like the vision of creation it reveals.
That passage from 2 Timothy brings us even more clarity about the Bible. Here’s the whole passage: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Each one of those words reveals a different way that we put the scripture to “use.”
Teaching: the Bible conveys new information to us. It shows us who God is, who we are, who Jesus is, and how God desires creation to be. It tells us about the Exodus and the Crucifixion and where the whole world is headed in the future. In short, it conveys information.
Rebuking: the Bible tells us when we are wrong. Because we are born into a sinful world it is easy to live a life of sin and not fully understand when and where we are wrong. Luckily, when we listen to the Bible as it forms us, we hear it saying, “Don’t do that!” Like a parent showing us when we have stepped over the line, the Bible offers a rebuke when we begin to engage in evil, injustice and oppression in one form or another.
Correcting: it’s nice to know when you are wrong, but that doesn’t really help. That is why the Bible calls us to repentance. It asks us not just to stop doing bad things, but turn away from our sinful ways and walk in the ways of God that lead to life. the Bible doesn’t just tell us we are wrong. It guides us in the paths of righteousness.
Training in righteousness: We need more than being told where we are wrong and shown the right way. We need to be trained in how to know where God is calling us and follow him. Like it or not, the Bible doesn’t give specific instructions on everything. Like, there is literally no reference to Facebook! But we don’t need that. We need training in a new way of thinking and being in the world. A way that works to bring the kingdom of God more fully here on earth as it is in heaven. And the Bible is full of that.
I say all of that to say this: the Bible is not an instruction book (except for when it is). So, let’s find bigger, more accurate language to use when we talk about it so that we call people to engage with it in the most expansive way possible. And, if I may be so bold, I’d like to suggest that language: scripture.
Before I go, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give you a better, more theological description, and I really like this one from my denomination’s founding documents. I hope it gives you a lot to think about:
We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.