What? What does the Bible tell you? That’s not a question that can be as easily answered as we think! All evangelical Christians accept the Bible as God’s Word, and we fully affirm the Divine inspiration and authority of the Bible. But if you think that means we all agree with what we believe the Bible to be saying to us, you’d be wrong.
The truth is that the Bible is God’s message to humanity, written by human beings who lived in specific places and times, and who wrote for specific purposes related to those places and times. That complicates things when it comes to deciphering the message for all of us in our time. Every part of the Bible was written by historical persons at particular places and times to meet specific needs and concerns of that time. The Bible is not a compilation of abstract propositions, principles and commands that outline ontological truth as some kind of eternal constitution for all people everywhere. Sorry, but it simply isn’t put together like that.
The Bible comes to us, written and preserved, by human beings who were faithfully responding to how the Spirit of God was leading them (that’s the Divine inspiration part). But there is no such thing as an objective author in the Bible. Not one contributor to Scriptures wrote outside of his own perspective or context. Not one. The Bible comes to us wrapped in the Spirit of Truth, as well as the skin of human history.
So the great evangelical challenge is how to move from the historical perspective to the present. That’s called interpretation, and everyone has to do it. New Testament scholar Gordon Fee (who wrote, “How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth”) says that there is no question that you will be an interpreter of Scripture, the only question is whether you will be a good one.
Here’s where Christians usually get into difficulties with each other. We don’t agree on how to interpret the Bible. That means we don’t all agree on what it actually says. That’s big! That’s why we have to study it together, wrestle with our differences in interpretation and try to find common ground on understanding its message to us. And that’s not an impossible task! On the basics, the Bible is really clear. God exists and He is loving. He is Creator of all things. Humanity is separated from Him because of our rebellion and sin. He sent Jesus to do something about that. Faith in Jesus leads to salvation and eternal life. Pretty straight-forward if you ask me.
One of the books in the Counterpoint Series outlines the four basic approaches to Biblical Interpretation common among evangelicals. I won’t go over them here (but you can borrow the book from me if you’re really interested). The book features articles explaining each approach by one of the leading scholars who is a proponent of that approach. Each article is then rebutted by the other three scholars. At the end, three more scholars (none of whom were among the original four) give their perspectives on how they think the debate went. And yes, you’re right, it is confusing. But the conclusion isn’t!
Mark Stauss, one of the final commenters, points out than none of the four approaches is without its flaws. The best approach is probably some combination of all four. But he zeroes in on something that hits the nail on the head in my view. He says,
“The ultimate application of Scripture is the imitation of Christ – to think God’s thoughts after Him, walk in the power of the Spirit, and live a transformed life where right actions flow naturally from righteous character.”
Why do we even have the Bible? The Scriptures were never intended to be an end in themselves. A.W. Tozer wrote, “The purpose of the Bible is not to replace God; the purpose of the Bible is to lead us to God. The Bible is never an end in itself. I pray that God will raise up somebody that is able to make the Orthodox Church, the Bible people, the fundamentalists, the evangelicals, see and understand this. Remember that God Himself said that He was a jealous God. We do not want anything or anybody to even remotely take His place” (in, The Crucified Life).
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation with Christians who simply refuse to accept this fact. In my mind, it’s akin to thinking the earth is flat (and I hear there’s recently been a resurgence of that group). Next to the Holy Spirit and the Church, the Bible is God’s greatest gift to us as human beings. So let’s embrace it fully for what it is – not for what it isn’t. Only then can it truly fulfill its God-given purpose; to help shape us into the likeness of Jesus.