As a Christian, I believe the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God, given to us for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). It is and should be the first place we look for guidance on how to know and relate to God and how to live a godly life. But we have to be careful how we handle it. Like any other book, it is open to misinterpretation and misuse.
Within the charismatic tradition in which I came to faith and have remained for many years, there are two particular ways in which I have often seen the Bible used.
First, I have often heard the Bible spoken of as a “divine instruction manual for living”. Of course, I can see how this perception has come about: if you want to know how an appliance is meant to work, the first place you look is the instruction manual. So seeing the Bible as a divine instruction manual is intended to set it in its rightful place as a primary source of information for practical, daily use. The problem is that the Bible is as different from an instruction manual as a classic English novel is from… an instruction manual. I see two main problems with the instruction manual paradigm:
1. An instruction manual is meant to tell you only how to use an appliance; it tells you nothing about the person who created it. By contrast, the Bible is primarily God’s revelation of Himself to His creation, the human race. Its primary purpose is not to provide technical instruction on how to navigate the many and varied challenges of life on this earth (though it contains a wealth of wisdom that can be profitably used to such an end); its primary purpose is to show us what God is like and, correspondingly, what it means to have our life in Him. The danger in seeing it purely as an instruction manual is that this can reinforce a view in which Christianity is simply a system for living and believing, rather than a way of being (namely, being redeemed children of the living God).
2. An instruction manual is written solely in the language of instruction, and is usually written at one time for one audience (users of the appliance). All it need do is tell you how to do A, B and C. Conversely, the Bible is a collection of ancient literature written and compiled by many authors over thousands of years and encompassing a wide range of literary genres including, to name but a few, historical narrative, prophecy, law, wisdom and apocalyptic. To read any of these genres as if it were an instruction manual is to fundamentally misunderstand the author’s intended purpose. When we approach the Bible in this way, there is a very great danger that we will seriously misinterpret what it is that God is seeking to reveal about Himself through the text.
Second, I have frequently heard preachers take short passages of scripture – even single verses – out of context and use them to support a particular opinion, interpretation or point of teaching. This practice, often referred to as proof-texting, once again does great damage to our understanding of the holy text. You simply cannot hope to understand the intended purpose or message of a passage of ancient literature without first having some grasp of the historical, political, religious and cultural context in which it was written. Now, clearly we cannot all be Biblical scholars; but we certainly can be encouraged and taught to handle scripture with the respect it needs and deserves. When we wrest passages from their contextual moorings, we will very likely superimpose our pre-existing worldviews and interpretations upon them, rather than allowing them to do their intended work of reshaping our thinking.
How then should we rightly handle scripture? Allow me to offer three suggestions:
1. We should handle scripture with respect. This means approaching the Bible as students of the text, with an open mind, seeking to be as aware as we can be of its context, as described above. Many modern editions of the Bible provide useful starting points in the form of introductions to books and historical, cultural and linguistic notes throughout the text. Reading a passage in more than one translation can help open our eyes to nuances and angles that we might otherwise miss. There is also a wealth of readily accessible commentaries that can help deepen our understanding. Needless to say, we should be particularly wary of proof-texting. Of course, reading the Bible in this way takes much more time and effort than simply dipping in and out as if it were no more than a divine lucky dip. But if we really want to hear what God would say to us through His word, we will consider the effort worthwhile.
2. We should see scripture primarily as a story. It is the story of God’s progressive revelation of Himself to His creation, and of His unceasing efforts to redeem and call out a people for Himself. My friend Randy, who blogs at Bible Study Geek, this morning posted the following overview of scripture as a great six-act drama (excerpted from Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story):
- Act 1 – God Establishes His Kingdom: Creation
- Act 2 – Rebellion in the Kingdom: Fall
- Act 3 – The King Chooses Israel: Redemption Initiated
- Scene 1 – A People for the King
- Scene 2 – A Land for His People
- Interlude – A Kingdom Story Waiting for an Ending: The Intertestamental Period
- Act 4 – The Coming of the King: Redemption Accomplished
- Act 5 – Spreading the News of the King: The Mission of the Church
- Scene 1 – From Jerusalem to Rome
- Scene 2 – And into All the World
- Act 6 – The Return of the King: Redemption Completed
Being aware of the narrative arc of scripture, as outlined above, creates a platform for understanding God’s great redemptive purposes in history, and helps us situate our own lives within the much larger cosmic story that is unfolding. This is particularly important in an age in which the governing paradigm is individualism.
3. We should remember that the Bible is the written word of God, but Jesus is the Eternal Word of God. In our enthusiasm to hold up the Bible as the final authority in matters of life and faith, we have often inadvertently elevated it to the status of a fourth member of the trinity. The purpose of the sacred text is to point to Jesus; it is only sacred because it does so. The full and final revelation of what God is like is not found in any historical text; it is found in the person of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-4). Bearing this in mind will do wonders for our biblical interpretation, particularly when it comes to some of the more troublesome depictions of God found in the Old Testament.
In conclusion, I encourage you to read this classic post by the late Michael Spencer (otherwise known as the Internet Monk), in which he winsomely lays out the pitfalls of biblical abuse as well as holding up the true beauty and value of scripture when handled rightly. Let me leave you with one of his final paragraphs:
Christians aren’t engineers, learning every mechanical aspect of the engine we call Christianity. We are those invited to glorify God by embracing and enjoying all that He is for us in Jesus. The message of the New Testament should inspire us to the poetry, song, celebration and sacrifice of that fact. We are not examining the engine manual of a BMW to see what’s wrong with us. We are looking at a newspaper with a banner headline: Jesus Christ is Lord!!