When I went off to college, a friend gifted me a book of quotes about “freedom.” It was one of those sentimental gifts that probably got picked up on sale from a Target en route to the graduation party itself, every page set with cursive script from some political leader, poet or prophet about liberty and actualizing good vibes and fighting for rights and all that.
It was pretty trite stuff, but the book somehow ended up being one of those things that sticks around even as you misplace far more important things. Every now and then, I’d mindlessly flip through it when I should have been studying. I can’t remember any of the quotes now, but the vaguely positive affirmations made me feel good.
“Freedom.” It’s such a nice thought. Flip through a few pages and let the quotes wash over you. Amazing vibes.
If you think about it, that’s probably how a lot of us end up using the Bible. We don’t ignore it exactly. We know it’s pretty important. But our engagement is limited to thumbing through the pages and looking for a few quotes that make us feel good. Or, if not feel good than at least feel something, before setting the Bible aside and continuing on with our day.
There are a lot of reasons for this, and one might be a little bit of unclarity about what the Bible actually is. This year, Gallup found that just 20 percent of Americans think the Bible is the “actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.”
That’s a record low, and a four percent drop from 2017. Meanwhile, a record high 29 percent of Americans say the Bible is an “ancient book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man.”
That leaves nearly half of Americans somewhere in the middle, saying the Bible “is the inspired word of God, but not everything in it should be taken literally.” For Christians, this opinion seems reasonable enough. We agree that there’s divine importance to the Bible but there are obvious elements that were intended to be taken as metaphor.
The tricky part is knowing which parts. Obviously, not every dragon in the Book of Revelation is literally waiting in the wings to attack the earth anymore than the hair of Solomon’s bride was literally a herd of goats.
But it’s not always quite that obvious, and that’s where things get tricky for us. We don’t always know what to do with ancient Levitical laws of questionable modern day relevance (why weren’t the Israelites allowed to wear mixed fabrics?) and even offensive contemporary application (Paul exhorting an escaped slave to return to his master).
Faced with such complications, many of us probably find it easier to think of the Bible as a big book of occasionally inspirational quotes. We sift through the stuff we don’t understand until we find something to highlight in yellow that feels suitably uplifting. But is this really the extent of the Bible’s usefulness for modern-day Christians?
A Crash Course
“Many read the Bible ‘in the flat’ as though any word or phrase, taken out of context, can and should ‘speak’ directly to us,” says N.T. Wright.
Wright is a New Testament scholar, one of today’s leading experts on the Bible. He says many well-meaning Christians go wrong by thinking of the Bible as strictly direct communication with the reader, full of bon mots for any curious Christian looking for a moment of inspiration.
“Now, God in his mercy can make that happen,” Wright says. “But loving God with our minds means that we should
be prepared to understand the book He has given us as it is — which will stretch our minds and understandings — rather than just expecting that a spoonful of ‘Bible verses’ at random will meet all of our needs.”
This way of thinking about the Bible has been handed down over a number of generations by well-meaning people who taught us to think of the Bible as “God’s love letter to you” or “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” implying direct, personal and immediate resonance to every stray verse that inevitably ends up disappointing when you come across a verse that doesn’t fit the bill.
“Many Christians, alas, remember rather inept Sunday School lessons or children’s talks, and now when they think of the Bible that’s all they can imagine,” Wright says. “Such people need a crash course in a more mature, adult approach.”
The Bible, as Christians know it today, developed over millennia — both in terms of the actual books being written and in terms of the Church determining which writings made the cut. Most of the Early Church was made up of Jewish people who already accepted the Hebrew Bible (what Christians now call the Old Testament) as direct wisdom from God. They began passing around copies of Paul’s letters and the “memoirs of the Apostles” — the Gospels — as early as the second century.
A first century theologian named Marcion of Sinope was the first to propose an actual canon — an accepted list of Christian writings accepted as divinely inspired. His proposal for such a canon was ultimately rejected and the man himself was excommunicated and branded as a heretic, but his idea stuck. In fact, the idea that the Church should have an accepted canon was at least partially a response to Marcion’s own rejected attempt.
Over the second and third centuries, the New Testament canon took shape. Early Church Father Irenaeus believed that four Gospels should be accepted as canon, to correspond with the “four quarters of the earth.”
By the third century, the 27 books that make up our New Testament canon were in wide circulation and acceptance among Christians. Though various councils declaring various canons sprung up throughout Christendom in this time, a meeting called the Synod of Hippo was likely the first group of Christians to canonize the New Testament more or less as we know it today — though a few books, like Revelation, weren’t accepted until later.
This arrangement was fairly well accepted among the Catholic Church for centuries, until a guy by the name of Martin Luther started to make a scene in the 16th century. The Protestant Reformation hinged on Luther’s sharp disagreement with the prevailing Catholic Church leaders on a lot of subjects, including the Bible. Luther put his own canon together, shuffling seven Old Testamentbooks into the Apocrypha (“not considered equal to the Holy Scriptures, but are useful and good to read,” he wrote).
In opposition to Luther, the Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent in 1546, which approved the present Catholic Bible. The many Early Church fathers bickered about the exact makeup of the canon. Luther wasn’t exactly a fan of the Book of James, claiming it focused too much on good works. Augustine liked the Book of Hebrews but wasn’t too sure about its anonymous authorship.
“The whole bible forms the multi-layered god-given vehicle through which we come to know Jesus.”
But over time, broad consensus settled in, and the Bible took shape.
The reason a little understanding of biblical history is important is because it can help correct us of the notion that the Bible is a single, simple, straightforward narrative. Its compilation was complex, and took place over time.
Instead of thinking of the Bible as a single unit, it’s helpful to think of it as a collection of books written across history by different authors with different degrees of education, income and cultural backgrounds. It’s not just an instruction manual, although certain books do have instructions. It’s not just a love letter, although some books blossom with romantic poetry. It’s not just a novel, although there are terrific stories. It’s not even just a theological textbook, although there are certainly reams of doctrinal instruction.
It is, as the late Rachel Held Evans once called it, a library. Or, as Wright puts it: “The Bible is the collection of books that emerged from the life of ancient Israel and then from the Early Church, the first being seen as the divinely warranted foundation and guiding document for Israel’s life and destiny, and the second being seen as the authoritative testimony to Jesus — seeing him precisely as the fulfillment of Israel’s life and destiny, as the launch of the creator God’s new covenant.”
He continues, “Christians have always believed that the whole Bible — Old and New Testaments — forms the multi-layered God-given vehicle through which we come to know who Jesus was and is and understand his achievement in overcoming evil and launching God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven.”
That all helps us understand what the Bible is, but what does the Bible do? Like, what is its actual function in our lives today?
“All believers should at least attempt to read through the Bible regularly, with their understanding and application being framed and energized by personal prayer, Church teaching and fellowship with other believers,” Wright says. “Ideally all should read some portion or portions of scripture daily, to foster the personal love of God with heart, mind, soul and strength.”
Doing this can be a lot more rewarding when we stop thinking of Bible reading like a scavenger hunt for the next verse to go on a sticky note on our bathroom mirror. When we start taking the Bible on its own terms instead of the ones we’d prefer, the Bible opens up.
Another understanding that can help us understand the Bible better is to accept an obvious but rarely stated fact: The Bible is often hard to read. It’s complex, requires a certain level of cultural familiarity and is talking about what is undoubtedly the most incomprehensible subject in all reality.
So it’s perfectly understandable if you’re not always clear what’s going on. People get PhDs to understand Shakespeare and Proust. You’re not simpleminded for needing a little extra guidance with certain parts of the Bible. Fortunately, there are several centuries’ worth of resources to help guide you through the reading of the Bible’s most complicated portions.
But what about parts of the Bible that just don’t line up or even seem to contradict each other? Wright says such verses do indeed exist, but cautions against getting too hung up on them.
“There are minor surface ‘contradictions’, for instance between some aspects of the story of Jesus in the four gospels (did Jesus cleanse the Temple at the start of his public career, as in John, or at the end, as in the other three?),” he says. “These can sometimes be resolved (perhaps Jesus did it twice? Or perhaps John was aiming for more of a literary rather than a historical effect?); but such puzzles seem to miss the main point of the texts, which is not to point to themselves but to point to Jesus himself.”
“All should read some portion or portions of scripture daily, to foster the personal love of God with heart, mind, soul and strength.”
In other words, part of taking the Bible on its own terms is focusing on its focus: who Jesus was and what that means for us. Hiccups in the narrative might raise our eyebrows, but they have little bearing on the Good News of Jesus.
So when we read the Bible, we should by all means be on the lookout for verses that especially move us or inspire us. There are plenty of them that have offered peace and strength, wisdom and guidance, direction and comfort to Christians over the course of history.
But we should free ourselves of the idea that that’s all we’re looking for. The Bible is much more than a book of inspirational quotes. It’s a history book, a book of poetry, a book of doctrine, a book of prophecy and dozens other things you’ll find if you, like Augustine, “take up and read.” You’ll never know how much the Bible can do for your life until you embrace all it has to offer.