How do we approach and understand the Bible?
The story is told of a stranger who visits Ireland, and becoming somewhat lost he approaches a local man to ask for directions to Dublin. The local man pauses and considers the matter for several seconds before replying: “If I was going to go there, I wouldn’t start from here.” Of course the joke is intended to tell us more about Irishmen than it does about navigation, but there is a point to it: where you end up, in many cases does depend on where you start from. This of course is true of the Bible: you can come at it without any faith whatsoever and find it to be nothing more than a collection on ‘just so’ stories and fairy tales cobbled together by a variety of men who had ulterior motives in their production. On the other hand for many of us the Bible is more than a mere book, and more than the mere sum of its parts might indicate to the unbeliever. Even within the ranks of believing readers there is a broad range of opinion on exactly what the Bible is and still more to be said about how we understand and approach the Bible as believers.
It is a well understood phenomenon that we approach every piece of information, knowledge or instruction through the filter of our existing understandings and preconceptions. For the atheist this results in seeing the Bible as fiction; for the believer these preconceptions are often rather more vague, and little understood. If we do genuinely believe that the Bible is God’s Word to men and women then we have a responsibility to be sure that we not only understand those preconceptions, but that those preconceptions are valid and correct.
As Christians we are often involved in dialogue and discussion with those who disbelieve, and more often than not we tend to respond to attack rather than positively present the Bible from our own understanding. This being on the defensive, giving an apology for our faith is something that has been ever present since the times of the early Church. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Christian apologies or apologists – they are a right response in certain circumstances to what the world is saying about our faith. But before we begin to respond we must be sure that we are not using the Bible in the same way as our attackers. Let me give you an example to illustrate what I mean:
One major area of conflict with the world is the theory of evolution and the attacks both on our faith in a Creator God and on the veracity of the Bible. The latter is made on the basis that the Bible is scientifically inaccurate and therefore wrong. Our natural response is to maintain that the Bible is scientifically accurate and then to set out to prove it. Of course, assuming that the Bible is the Word of the omniscient God, the Maker of the universe, and more, then we would expect it to be true in every respect, including the scientific, and it is. But, the Bible is not a scientific textbook, and to make that its primary purpose, in refuting modern atheism driven science based arguments is to fail to use the Bible as God intended us to. Whilst being scientifically true, it is not a science textbook and science is not its primary purpose. Even the terminology that we use can affect our attitude to the Bible: the atheist scientist will ask ‘is it accurate’, the seeker will more likely as ‘is it true?’.
In 2011 there was a massive earthquake followed by a tsunami off the coast of Japan. The resultant devastation destroyed a vast swathe of coast along with a nuclear power station. If you were to ask a local geologist what happened you could expect to be told of tectonic plates and seismic events; if you were to ask a nuclear physicist what happened you could expect to be told of fuel rods and containment breaches and radioactive decay; if you were to ask a local fisherman what happened you would most likely hear a first hand account of the ground shaking under him, or under his boat, or waves higher than houses and of a force of nature that destroyed everything in its path. All these accounts would be true and accurate, but come from completely different perspectives. Science is not the only valid truth in this world.
When we come to the record of the Bible we need to fully understand the perspective that it is written from and given for. So, if it is not a science textbook, what is it?
Who do you think you are?
The Bible, in its entirety is God’s Word to us. It is His direct communication to the men and women of His creation. It’s our story from God’s perspective, things that we can’t see that God wants us to know. In a sense it’s a ‘Who do you think you are’ for every man, woman and child on the planet. It tells us where we came from, how we got here, what our ancestors did (both the good and the bad) and it tells us why we are how we are now and what we one day will be!
Whilst the Bible isn’t a science textbook it does give us a clear and unequivocal account of our origins, and that of the universe around us. We need to understand that the Bible gives us what God wants us to know about the universe in which He has placed us. It does not necessarily limit His activity to what we can see or feel – although this may be the extent of God’s work it isn’t explicitly stated – and the Bible is intended for us and therefore tells us our story, not an absolute full and final statement of all God’s activity.
The Bible makes it clear that the entire known universe was spoken into existence at God’s command, that we, although not necessarily physically central to the universe are the prime focus for God’s creation of the world and the creatures and plants on it. Mankind is placed as central to God’s plans for this world, and for the maintenance of it. Of course our walk on this earth is presented as one that includes an ongoing relationship with its Creator.
The opening chapters of Genesis present our family beginnings: creation, the family structure and our relationship with God, our disobedience to God and subsequent fall from that perfect state and relationship to our Creator. The story of the early history of mankind is presented as a perpetual drawing away from God in independence from Him. There are a series of major failings resulting in the Flood and the spread of the peoples after the Babel incident.
Subsequent to the spread of the nations after Babel the Bible narrative focuses on one family: Abram’s. God chooses one man from all the people on earth and makes a covenant with him. God promises to provide from and for Abram a nation of God followers, believers. The story of the Old Testament is the story of this covenant unfolding in the offspring of Abram, who is renamed to Abraham as confirmation of the covenant. As the covenant unfolds God guides and helps His people as they follow Him.
The covenant people, however, are not as faithful in their covenant obligations as their God is! Apostasy and disobedience are the hallmarks of God’s people, Israel. The covenant has positive and negative promises, and as Israel falls away from God the negative promises are fulfilled – God’s people are taken captive and dispossessed of their homeland, their covenant possession.
Yet in all their disobedience (that was explicitly foretold) there is also the promise of a heroic figure, God’s Anointed Person, one Man who will change their fortunes and restore their place with God. This Person is the Messiah of the Old Testament, the Christ of the New – both titles are a description of a role, not merely a name. ‘Jesus Christ’ is literally ‘Jesus, God’s Anointed Person’.
As the Old Covenant fails due to the disobedience of the human party to the covenant another, new covenant is promised. Not one of physical lands and possessions, but a spiritual one, that brings us back to God in that original personal relationship that so briefly flourished in Eden. The prophet Jeremiah, at the height of national Israel’s apostasy tells the people of God’s promise to give them a new heart for a new covenant – God’s law written on hearts, not on stones.
The New Testament present Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed Person promised by God to fulfill all His promises to give us a new heart and to restore our relationship with Him. The New Testament tells how Jesus did indeed fulfill the Old Covenant completely, living a sinless life, and in dying as the sacrificial Lamb paid the full atonement for the sins of the people – a once for all sacrifice. The New Testament presents those who believe in Jesus as the Christ to be a part of the original promises of God (the Old Testament is full of promises not just to Israel, but to all the nations of the world). Christians (those who believe in Jesus as Christ) are therefore part of God’s people, Abraham’s descendents and fully in the line of God’s covenant promises from the dawn of creation.
The New Testament doesn’t stop with inclusion in the covenant, but points to the ultimate consummation of that covenant. The promise is that this world, this universe isn’t all there is, but that the Creator of all that we see and more will some day replace all of this with a new universe, and new creation for us who believe to live in with our God and our Redeemer, Jesus Christ as God intends. One day, this universe will be rolled up like an old coat and disposed of, while God takes us to His new work, our permanent residence for all eternity!
That’s some story! And it is a story, a true story, even though some of it is future tense, it is nevertheless true and accurate. It is not a textbook, neither is it a list of theological principles or rules, it is a family history, the family history of God and His creation: what He has done, is doing, and will do – fact. But it is our story, whether we believe it or not it has happened, is happening and will happen!
As we approach the Bible, this is the starting point that we need to take, that God, the Creator of this universe and of us has graciously revealed His plans and purposes, what He is doing, how He is doing it and how we can have a part in it. He has communicated His plans, His covenant, specifically because He intends us to participate in His work – that is an incredible offer and one that we dare not reject! So, read the Bible as our story, your story, given by the Story Maker – He is in control of this entire universe and we will see His plans as revealed in the Bible come to pass as history unfolds. If we start reading now, then we will see this great story unfolding around us until that ultimate consummation when our Creator returns for His people, for His new creation.
Who do you think you are?