The Bible is Not a Guide Book

Holy_bible_bookThis week I took the time to read Peter Enns fantastic little book, The Bible Tells Me SoIt has been a book on my reading list for some time, but it was recently discounted to $1.99, so I had to snatch it up. (As of my writing this, the book is still on sale. I highly recommend it!)

Today I wanted to discuss one of the main ideas of this book, one that Peter Enns kept returning to time and time again: the bible is not a Christian guide book, it is a story—it is the story of God’s people.

The B.I.B.L.E.

I’ve often heard this cheesy Christian phrase, that the bible is: “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”.

I couldn’t have come up with a more inaccurate definition of the bible even if I tried. There are several issues here. First of all, the bible never says its a guide book. It doesn’t present a step-by-step solution to all your problems. And second, who says we’re leaving earth anytime soon? Won’t the Kingdom of Heaven be established here on this earth? It will be made new, but we can’t be too quick at leaving it behind. 1

And let’s be honest. The bible isn’t really a very good guide book, if it is one at all. It contradicts itself quite often, it tells a lopsided version of history, and sometimes even promotes murder, genocide, or slavery.

This phrase is an attempt to try and force a misbehaving bible to behave.

But what do we do when the bible just doesn’t behave like we want it to? When we’re honest with ourselves, it’s hard to ignore this fact. The bible doesn’t behave like a rule book, or even like a Christian guide book. It simply does not contain all the answers to life. The bible will not tell you who you should marry, if you should take that job or not, what city you should live in, if the carpet on your new home should be grey or beige, what investments you should make in the stock market, or what you should do with your life! As much as we pretend the bible can do all these things, it simply cannot. It is not the end all answer book for Christian living. We are living an illusion if we think it is.

But why do we continue to speak of the bible in this way? As if the bible actually contains our step-by-step guide for our lives?

In some ways, we probably do this out of fear. We don’t want to be uncomfortable in our faith. We want easy answers, simple truths, and incontestable voices of reason. And most of all, we certainly don’t want to trust in the Holy Spirit! Please God anything but that! So instead of trusting the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, to be our guide, we would much rather have a book answer all our burning questions. Because God forbid we learn how to think for ourselves or learn to lean on the wisdom of the Spirit in us!

We have tried to make God the Father, Son, and Holy Bible! But what a horrific disgrace to the God who loves us and has given us the gift of His Spirit. We have tried to replace our brains and the Holy Spirit in us with a non-thinking bible of simple facts and easy guides. But it simply will not behave as we would hoped it would.

Biblical realism

Rather than trying to fit the bible into what we think it should be, we should let the bible be what it actually is. The bible is a story. It is the story of the people of God, and the people of God are never without their flaws. Yes, the bible is inspiring, it is moving, and it is certainly inspired. However, the bible sometimes is really unsettling (like when God commanded the genocide of the Canaanites), or just plan difficult to reconcile with our modern world (like believing that a fruit is the cause of all our problems). But when we let the bible be what it is, we will learn far more from it than we ever imagined.

When you read the Bible on its own terms, you discover that it doesn’t behave itself like a holy rulebook should. It is definitely inspiring and uplifting— it wouldn’t have the shelf life it does otherwise. But just as often it’s a challenging book that leaves you with more questions than answers. 2

So here’s my not so radical thought: What if the Bible is just fine the way it is? What if it doesn’t need to be protected from itself? What if it doesn’t need to be bathed and perfumed before going out in public? 3

We should adopt this biblical realism in our approach to scriptures. We can certainly see that this book is inspired and God breathed, but that doesn’t mean we also can’t say that it has its difficulties. It is a historical book and we can’t pretend it isn’t by treating it otherwise. It tells of a people from a long time ago, and we have to let it be what it is without trying to tame it or force it to meet our expectations.

What if the Bible is just fine?

The bible is a challenging book, and the writers of the bible didn’t have all the answer. They, like you and me, are on a journey. This journey is just as much our story as it is God’s story, but this does not mean it is a perfectly accurate story. Peter Enns has a great little chapter heading called, “God Lets His Children Tell the Story”.  And this is exactly what the bible is about, especially its narrative. God has let his children tell the story of their journey with Him, and I think it’s because God knows that sometimes our journey can be more powerful than even the most accurate of facts (historical or otherwise).

Therefore, the bible has gone through this filter, the filter of God’s people telling the story. Accordingly, their culture, history, and personal experiences all come into view.

Is God always exactly as He appears to be in the Old Testament? Did God actually command genocide and murder? Not necessarily. Sometimes the bible has more to tell us about what the Israelites believed about God than what God is actually like. In Enns’ words:

These ancient writers had an adequate understanding of God for them in their time, but not for all time— and if we take that to heart, we will actually be in a better position to respect these ancient voices and see what they have to say rather than whitewashing the details and making up “explanations” to ease our stress. And for Christians, the gospel has always been the lens through which Israel’s stories are read— which means, for Christians, Jesus, not the Bible, has the final word. 4

The scriptures are like a good period piece. They sometimes say more about the people involved than the accuracy of their beliefs. The Israelites had a good understanding of God for their time period, and it was actually fairly progressive with their insistence upon monotheism. But their understanding of God is not a universal, be-all end-all truth about what God is like.

Only Jesus is the universal, be-all, end-all image of God.

Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Which implies that before Jesus, God was invisible to human beings. So even though the Old Testament claims at times to speak of God, it speaks only in shadows about God. The only concrete knowledge of God is found in Jesus.

The ultimate context of the scriptures is Jesus Christ. Christ is the controlling center of the scriptures. This idea was echoed in another recent article on Thomas F Torrance, where he writes: “Strictly speaking, Christ himself is the scope of the Scriptures, so that it is only through focusing constantly upon him, dwelling in his Word and assimilating his Mind, that the interpreter can discern the real meaning of the Scriptures.”

Jesus Christ alone is the scope of the scriptures, the controlling center of our thought about what God is like. Which means the bible is not this center. The center of the Christian faith is not the bible, it’s Jesus. Jesus alone is the revelation of God, the bible gives witness to this revelation, but in itself it is not this revelation. 5

So what then?

So what is the conclusion we should make from this? If we are to take up a realist relationship with the scriptures, emphasizing the person of Christ as our controlling center of thinking about God, then how do we now relate to the bible itself? In Enns’ own words:

This is the Bible we have, the Bible where God meets us. Not a book kept at a safe distance from the human drama. Not a fragile Bible that has to be handled with care lest it crumble in our hands. Not a book that has to be defended 24/ 7 to make sure our faith doesn’t dissolve. 6

The bible is where God meets us. It is where we read the story of God and of His people. It isn’t always perfect, or accurate, and often it can be difficult and challenging, but it is what we have. It is where God meets us. We don’t have to defend it, or wage war with it, or look to it and it alone as our source of guidance. We should examine the bible carefully, with reverence and appreciation, but also with realism. We cannot continue to place unrealistic expectations upon the bible, supposing it to be something it isn’t.

And when we do this, when we take the bible realistically, the bible will challenge us. It may not always comfort us, and it may very well unsettle us from time to time—but that’s okay. Christianity never came with the promise of simple answers or a step-by-step guide to life. It has promised to change our lives, to radically reshape our worldview, and most importantly, to bring us into relationship with God Himself. But none of these things are normal. So we have to be willing to let the bible bring a little discomfort from time to time, as we are faced with challenging stories about God and mankind. In these pages we hear the echo of our personal story, and on these pages through all the difficulties, we still met Jesus Christ the Son of the Father, our savior, our brother.

Why else would the Holy Spirit be called the Comforter, if we shouldn’t expect to be uncomfortable from time to time? Even, and especially, in the book about God’s interaction with sinful man?

The bible is not a guidebook full of easy answers. The bible recounts the story of God and human beings—fallible, sinful human beings. And as such, the bible is an amazing book. One we can appreciate even more when it’s understood correctly.

(I highly recommend Peter Enns book to you, and I think you should take advantage of this great deal before its gone.)

And on an unrelated note: my favorite book I’ve written, so far, We Belong: Trinitarian Good News, is available now for a discounted price: $4.99 for an eBook or $12.99 for a paperback copy. Get yours here.

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  1. More on this from my (free!) book 10 Reasons Why the Rapture Must be Left Behind
  2. Enns, Peter (2014-09-09). The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (p. 4). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
  3. Ibid. p. 9. Bold mine.
  4. Ibid. p. 65.
  5. This is the purpose of my article The Bible is Inadequate (& That’s Why It’s True)
  6. Ibid. p. 232

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