I wrote this piece nine years ago (on my 48th birthday, as it happens). There are things about it that I’d change, were I to write it today, but broadly speaking, I’m happy with it.
This is the first in a series (probably two) articles I’d like to write on the purpose of the Bible. Ifirst started reflecting on this when preparing a session for the Learning to Serve discipleship training course in Southampton. Articles by Lingamish and N.T. Wright are the main inspirations for the actual content of what I’ll be saying, though I also found some ideas in John Stott’s bookUnderstanding the Bible.
In order to think about the purpose of the Bible, we have to start off considering the sort of literature it is. One way to explore this is to reflect on two simple questions:
- Who was the Bible written to?
- Who was the Bible written for?
The answer to the first question is fairly complex: the Bible was written for all sorts of people. Most of the Old Testament was written to the Nation of Israel, Matthew wrote his Gospel for a Jewish audience and Luke for a Greek one, the Epistle to Philemon was written to one individual… On the other hand, the second question is much simpler. The Bible was written for the whole of humanity.
In personal terms; the Bible wasn’t written to you, but it was written for you. This is a key principle in understanding what the Bible is for. What it means, is that the Bible is not a book of wise sayings for you to turn to when you need inspiration or wisdom for daily living. Don’t get me wrong, the Bible can and does provide inspiration and wisdom, but it isn’t simply a book of aphorisms that we can turn to when we want some help.
The Bible is a story; a narrative. It records for us a conversation between God and his creation down through the years from creation and on to the final judgement and the new heaven and new earth. When we read the Bible we are effectively listening in to this conversation. We are not a part of the conversation, but we have the privilege of listening in to it as God engages with mankind. As we overhear (as it were) God’s conversation we are get a huge picture of the nature of this world we live in, insights into human nature and an understading of how God works in the life of people. We often turn to the Bible looking for answers to specific questions (and God, graciously, sometimes answers them) but the Bible can do much more than that for us. Repeated exposure to the Bible, we can develop a world view which is shaped by God’s thoughts – not our own. This allows us to see things the way that God would see them, and so we can answer the questions ourselves. The Bible doesn’t simply give us the answers – the Bible gives us the tools to know the answers for ourselves – this is much more powerful.
Just a few reflections on the concept of the Bible as a narrative:
Stories are intrinsically interesting. However, much Bible teaching moves away from the story format and can become somewhat less than interesting (to put it politely). God gave us stories because that’s the sort of Bible He wanted us to have. Those of us who teach the Scriptures need to respect the underlying character of God’s inspiration – we need to tell stories too. Preaching which analyses Bible stories to death, getting every last detail out of them, misses the point. We need creative, interesting Bible teaching which tells God’s story. The Mark Experiment is one suggestion of a way of doing this – I’m sure that there are many others. I do, of course, realise that the whole Bible isn’t narrative and can’t be taught this way – but most of it is.
God gave us the Bible he wants us to have. God didn’t choose to give us a theology text book, a book of devotions or an evangelistic tract. NT Wright says:
And we have thereby made the Bible into something which it basically is not. I remember a well-known Preacher saying that he thought a lot of Christians used the Bible as an unsorted edition of Daily Light. It really ought to be arranged into neat little devotional chunks, but it happens to have got all muddled up. The same phenomenon occurs, at a rather different level, when People treat it as an unsorted edition of Calvin’s Institutes, the Westminster Confession, the UCCF Basis of Faith, or the so-called ‘Four Spiritual Laws’. But to treat the Bible like that is, in fact, simply to take your place in a very long tradition of Christians who have tried to make the Bible into a set of abstract truths and rules—abstract devotional doctrinal, or evangelistic snippets here and there.
We have to read the Bible as it was written. The Bible was written over a long period of history and in diverse cultural contexts. We need to understand it in its context. This means that understanding parts of the Bible can be quite hard work. On the other hand, because we have a text which is rooted in history and in the real lives of real people we know that it works and has application for us now.
The next post in this series will take an overview of God’s story and will show how it gives provides us with the context we need in order to understand our lives.