There’s an old joke about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson on a camping trip. After dinner and a bottle of wine, they lay down for the night, and promptly go to sleep.
Some hours later, Holmes wakes and nudges his faithful friend.
“Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”
Watson replied, “I see millions of stars.”
“What does that tell you?”
Watson pondered for a minute.
“Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets.”
“Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo.”
“Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three.”
“Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow.”
“What does it tell you, Holmes?”
Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke: “Watson, you idiot. Someone has stolen our tent!”
That story is a favorite of mine because it illustrates an important point. Sometimes we can be very profound in our explanations, but still miss what is right in front of us. Even the best and brightest of us all can, for all of our education, fail to explain or answer the deepest questions. When it comes to the Bible, our answers can be like that. We can ask a range of questions and give answers that would boggle even the greatest minds, but for all our perceptiveness we may completely fail to get to the heart of the question.
When we consider the question of “What is the Bible?” on a blog such as this, sticking to the basics will have to suffice. Many questions will be addressed here, but no doubt there will be plenty that could be asked. I only intend to start a conversation or pique your interest. Many of the names mentioned here were names that I became familiar with when I first began to look for answers. In fact, I still have sticky notes in both my Bible and many of the books I read during my freshmen year of college when I was exploring this issue.
One of the first names that deserves a mention is John Warwick Montgomery, who was a professor of Philosophy at Oxford, a highly acclaimed lawyer, and successful human rights advocate. As a lawyer, he notes that it is the lawyer’s job to distinguish between making claims (almost anyone can file a lawsuit) and proving the case (which is only done on the basis of good evidence). Lawyers, he notes, are in the business of investigating claims, and won’t accept any claim unless there is good reason. Montgomery also notes the importance of the defendants claim. In any trial, the accused must make a claim for himself, and the prosecutors must present evidence against that claim. It is no use attacking a claim that the defendant never makes for himself, and as always, the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. We take the testimony at face value until we have good evidence to the contrary.
Because of this, I will simply explore some of the chief claims that the Bible makes about itself. I hope that after reading you, whether Christian or not, will be challenged to think about and engage the book that has come to be known as the Bible.
The Bible as a book:
One thing that must be said at the outset is that the Bible is a book. It claims to be the Wordd of God, yes, but it was written down and collected in a single volume called the Bible. In this way, the Bible is a collection of writings, 66 in total. It is a testimony to men, and therefore is divided into the Old Testament and the New Testament, sometimes referred to as the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.
As world-renowned professor and scholar from the University of Manchester FF Bruce noted, The Bible was written during a period of over 1500 years, as a collection of 66 books containing 7 or more different genres of literature, in three different languages on 3 different continents, telling one cohesive story. In the first book alone it contains prophecies, history, poetry, allegory, parables, philosophy, laws, romance, and songs. In Genesis, it begins with a romance in a garden, and ends with a wedding feast in the last book known as Revelation.
Could God have revealed himself in another way? He could, and He has. He reveals his brilliance as creator in the exact calculative design of nature, his goodness in the conscience of every human spirit, and his purposes in the progression of history. These are just some of the ways that God has revealed himself outside of the Scriptures. All of these are sufficient to show that there is something to believe in, yet none of these will be so fool-proof that they override our own will to believe.
The Scriptures are a different kind of revelation from these. They are more exact and less abstract revelation. Yet they show the same humility as the author of nature, conscience and history. Once again, there is just enough evidence to make belief a reasonable thing, but not so much evidence that it forces our minds to accept what our hearts don’t want to believe. You can choose to ignore a book if you want nothing to do with the author of that book. All you have to do is never open it. Or if you do choose to open it, read only those parts in it that affirm what you already think is true. The Bible does affirm all the above sources of revealed truth for us, and interprets those revelations so that we can understand them. Considering that the Christian God reveals himself as a Bridegroom wooing his bride, and not as an totalitarian dictator, it makes sense that Word of God would be recorded in a book. If it is helpful, think of the Bible as a love letter, but be warned that all metaphors have their limits.
The Bible as the Word of God:
No matter how much experience you have with the Bible, take a step back and consider what you think the Bible is for a minute.
Christians say that the Bible is the word of God. Have you ever considered what is actually being claimed? Consider what it would mean if God spoke directly to you; what would you be thinking, or feeling? How would you respond? I often face this issue when discussing religion across cultures, when I am fully aware that my friends feel similarly about the books they hold to be sacred. We may have good intentions, but sometimes, like Dr. Watson, we don’t always think about what we are actually saying. Because of this, it is important to consider what the Bible actually says about itself.
Many books have several authors, and the Bible is no different. Yet, according the Bible, the Scriptures that make up the Bible do not originate with men, but with God (2Peter1:20-21). Over 3,000 times, the Bible writers claimed to have received their messages from God, and it is for this reason that 2Timothy3:16 says that “all scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness.” If we were to interpret this word for inspiration literally, it would mean that God breathed the text. In other words, throughout Scripture there is the assumption of its equivalency with the actual speech of God. If this is true, the logically the Bible, as the equivalent to God’s speech, is “authoritative.”
The Bible is authoritative because it tells the true story. It describes reality as it really is. However, we must not think of this authority as an austere, severe authoritarian. Jesus once said that wicked rulers lord their authority over their subjects, but that he was unlike the wicked rulers because he did not come to be served. Rather, he came to serve others, even to lay down his own life for many of them. In this way, Jesus used his authority for the benefit of others. Jesus quoted from the Bible, giving it the same authority as himself, and describes it as authoritative in the same way. Consider what N.T. Wright has to say, “The Bible is an authoritative instrument of what God accomplished through Jesus- particularly through his death and resurrection.” The books of the Bible are authoritative because they accurately record the Word of God. They are authoritative because they are true and good, and for this reason they were included in the Bible. Not the other way around.
The Bible and Coach Wooden
Many people find the idea of authority uncomfortable. Because of this, we sometimes confuse the Bible with a book of rules. But this is a gross oversimplification that both Christians and non-Christians often fall into for a variety of reasons. I like to make the analogy that the Bible is not so much like a rule book, but more like a good coach.
In basketball, the undisputed best of the best was Coach John Wooden of UCLA. When he died in 2010 at age 99, the New York Times described him as having built “An Incomparable Dynasty.” His winning record sits at 88 consecutive wins, and he led UCLA to 10 championship titles in 12 years, and he still holds those records. Yet his success was not attributed to the skill and knowledge the game, although he surely had more than most. Many players and sports commentators attribute his success to the wisdom and emphasis on character building that he imparted to each of his players. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of Wooden’s star players, said of him “It was his wisdom and the relationship that he built with his players. He considered himself a teacher, the kind that gets to know their players very well and shows them the best way to improve their talents to win the game.” Coach Wooden won the admiration of everyone, including other coaches, who gave him the name “The Wizard of Westwood.” He remained an influential figure on the sidelines long after his own retirement. Eventually, he was awarded the Reagan Distinguished American Reward in 1995 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003. Although he died of natural causes in 2010, he has a legacy as one of the most beloved coaches in basketball history, having also written several books filled with wisdom that inspire thousands of players for life both on and off the court.
The Bible is like that. It is not a list of do’s and don’ts, but more like a good coach. In basketball, the coach is not a player, but he is still a key factor in the game. No matter how talented the team may be, without the vision of a good coach, they will never achieve their true potential. The coach is the one who helps them improve their shot, instills in them passion for the game, giving them direction through the bad games and celebrating their good ones. He does this, not to restrict the player, but so that through his coaching all of the player’s talents and dedication might come to fruition. The coach is a part of the game, even though he is not on the court. He stands above the game, guiding and providing vision for the players on the court, and it is his one mission in life to guarantee that his players succeed not just in the game, but in life as well.
In the same way, anyone who spends much time in prayerful meditation, or opens the Bible regularly finds in it direction and vision for their life like a good coach. They find in it’s pages bits of wisdom that help them improve their internal character, while also shaping them for the game of life. Yet also like a coach, the Bible is not merely another book in the game, but stands above the game as authoritative. The Bible is comprehensive in the same way that the coach is comprehensive, it is the eternal word that stands above reality and is therefore able to guide us through it to the end. Everyone who takes the Bible as their coach, and puts its wisdom into practice, discovers a more compelling way of living. They will achieve a greater passion for life, a sense of purpose, and direction. To them, reading the Bible is like a warm conversation with a faithful friend.
The Bible as a Story:
The Bible doesn’t tell just any story, it tells the story. It both reports the facts, and it also interprets those facts. It is the story about God, man, Jesus, good, evil, justice, and ultimately the story of how God is working through mankind to set the world right. Jesus is at the center of the book, like a stone cast into a lake, the concentric ripples are the stories surrounding His birth, life, death, and resurrection. All the stories either point to how God is planning to bring about peace and joy to the world through Jesus. It is a story similar to the one told by J.R.R. Tolkien, when he writes,
“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”
“A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.”
The story of the Bible is like that. It is the story of God making a good world that ends up being ruined by us. Because we are all part of the problem, none of us can be the solution. So God, in the person of Jesus, comes to defeat evil by taking it head on. Jesus takes upon himself the death that was coming for us all, so that we may take up the life that He deserved. Now death is reversed. The very thing that was supposed to be our end, Christ uses for his ends. His death is our life, what was meant to kill him he turns to victory, and all those who bravely persevere in the story find true life.
C.S. Lewis, a literary professor at Oxford in the mid 20th century, notes that the stories in the Bible have much in common with the pagan myths, insofar as the pagan myths had something in common with reality itself. The inspirational myths of all mankind were a search for that great something to believe in, and in fact they do tell stories of dying and rising gods, of corn kings, acts of heroism, and great romances. They are the sum of all hopes and desires, and the Bible makes the staggering claim that Jesus is the fulfillment of the best of these stories. Jesus applies this logic to himself when he claims to be the fulfillment of the story of Jonah: “for as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and nights” (Matthew 12:39-40).
Jesus is the figure at the end of our philosophical search for truth, because He is the true myth, the real story. The ring of truth in all of the stories are ultimately shown to be echoes of the real thing, who is Jesus. The search for truth had to be a real, historical character as nobody had ever felt Adonis or Horus to be a real historical character. But as a historical character he had to be an ideal figure; and fulfill all those roles given to these other ideal figures, Jesus was and is that- the heavenly man, the Lord of the wine, the one that has come to save and not condemn, the son of God, the seed that must go down into the earth and rise again, the bridegroom rescuing his bride, the true vine, the real temple, the son of God, the victorious King. He was all of these things, and more.
As such, Jesus Christ is the embodiment of all those stories and legends that we had hoped could be true, but did not dare believe. When we tell great stories, we often tell them with a lack of seriousness. As if we don’t want to give away the fact that we really do wish there was an element of truth in them. We laugh them off because we wish them to be true and are uncomfortable with the creeping hope that they might be true. We don’t want to be disappointed, and so we call that feeling nostalgia or wishful thinking. We say, as if wonder and sophistication were mutually exclusive, “Oh, we are adults now, and we are sophistication, there’s no room for childlike wonder.” Yet Jesus stands between what is real and what we had hoped was real, and unites them together in himself. He meets our expectations, and then totally surpasses them. The Bible doesn’t just give us a story to believe in, it presents to us a person that is more real and compelling than anything our loftiest imaginations had ever dared to conceive, let alone believe. The story of the Bible is the story of God, in Jesus, making our wildest dreams come true.
The Bible and the Story of Us
It has become popular to talk about metanarratives and worldviews these days. A metanarrative being that grand, over-arching story that encompasses all of us. A worldview is how we see the world, and how we interpret history and our place in it. Each of us has a metanarrative that we believe in, and even if we differ on minor details, many metanarratives share common ground in key details. Each metanarrative has at least six parts, and each worldview answers a few basic questions:
- Setting – What is the world like?
- Character- Who am I?
- Plot – What is my purpose?
- Conflict – What prevents me from achieving my purpose?
- Crescendo – How do I overcome my conflict?
- Resolution – What happens at the end of my life?
A few common Metanarratives and Worldviews are known as Christianity, Islam, Atheism, Hinduism, or Buddhism, as well as a host of other “isms.” Many people narrow these down even further to the Theistic, Atheistic, and Eastern metanarratives. These worldviews do not make up their own facts. They are an interpretation of the same facts we all have.
The Bible obviously portrays the Christian metanarrative, or the Christian story of the world. This story is important, because it includes all of us. The Christian story claims to be a true account of the facts, and an interpretation of those facts (Luke 1:1-4). It may not claim to be written to those of us in 21st century America, but it does claim to be applicable to all of us. It includes Moses, David, Isaiah, Jesus, John, and Paul, but it claims to be about us all, both westerners and easterners, Americans, your neighbor, and even you. It is a story that is either true or false. It demands all of our loyalty and will have us entirely or not at all. The one thing we cannot be is indifferent to it. The kind of story the Bible tells isn’t the kind of thing to be met with indifference. It doesn’t give us that option. It doesn’t even try to.
People often complain that the Bible is complicated. Well, if the Bible is complicated, it is complicated in all the ways that life itself is complicated. Yet it is only complicated to those that leave it’s teachings untried. Those that put into practice what they do understand, soon make sense of those things that they can’t yet understand. The Bible only talks about complicated things to un-complicate them. Perhaps it could be easier if we had no facts to bother about, but thank God Christianity does deal with the facts. And it deals with them, by not hiding from them. The Biblical authors tell us the facts as they are, even if we don’t always like them. In this way, the Bible is exactly what we need, even when we don’t know of our need for it. Yet, this is good that the Bible deals with facts. It is good for the sake of progress.
Everyone knows that in order to make progress in anything, one must dedicate himself to a common goal and stick with it. No matter how enormous the task, it can be done, so long as we don’t change the goal. If a king were to tell his loyal subjects to paint all the grass on Grandfather Mountain blue because he was sad, they could do it given enough time and effort. Yet if he came back a week later and said he was feeling mad, therefore he wanted the mountain to be red, all progress made so far would have been for nothing. If we changed our minds as often as we changed our moods, no progress would ever be made.
Here is the marvelous truth about Christianity in general, and the Bile in particular. We don’t need a religion to be right as often as we agree with it. We need a guide that is right, especially when we are wrong. The Bible tells a story, a remarkably coherent story, as no genius author has ever told before. As Leo Tolstoy once said, “Without knowing what I am and why I am here, life is impossible.”
We love stories like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars because they draw us in to a story that is bigger than life. They tell us of galaxies far far away, only to remind us of the wonderful galaxy we call home. They talk about little boys becoming great wizards and fighting off dragons, not because dragons exist, but because some little boys do grow up to become heroes in their own way. We even delight in Elves and Dwarves because they remind us that what matters is our common goals, and not our individual differences. This last thing is what makes all stories wonderful. They provide a plot that makes human flourishing possible.
This is precisely the purpose of the Bible. When we pick it up, we must remember that it is not only the most famous book in the world, but one that has the power to change lives, build community, and ultimately shape the whole projection of human progress. It’s done it before, and it can do it again.
The Bible is living and active, Christians say. To borrow from N.T. Wright again, The Bible is a vital, central element in Christian living. We cannot do without it, even if many Christians aren’t quite sure what they are supposed to do with it. God has seen fit to delegate some of the plans he has in mind for this world to this book. It isn’t like God has written a will, but nearly. Perhaps it is more helpful to think of it like a composer writing a symphony for people to play, but that doesn’t quite cover it. It isn’t exactly like an author of a play, inviting characters to join in, although that is very close. It isn’t even that the Bible is “the story so far” in the beautiful cosmic narrative that God is still writing. It’s all of these things, and yet even more.
So friends, I’m curious, whether you are more like Watson or Sherlock, what does the Bible mean to you?
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These guys from Three Minute Theology answer some of your biggest questions quickly and creatively:
Finally, kick back and enjoy some cool quotes from John Wooden at addicted2success.com, this guy really was a legend.
Thanks for reading!