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The Bible as a book and interpretation

colouredbookRegarding the Bible, the time it was written, what it is, what it's not, and the little sub-universe some people create around it when they forget that it is a created artefact - I thought it might be good to look at what the Bible is for a contemporary person. This leads to two questions modern man often has to consider:

1) Does the Bible contain enough content that, by itself, makes it sufficient for understanding one's sin and the need for salvation? In other words, can one find the path to Christianity with the Bible alone?

2) Does the Bible contain the maximum content that can most comprehensively explicate the Christian faith?

The answer to the first question seems to be an unequivocal yes (see 2 Timothy 3:16, for example). That is to say, the Bible is sufficient to lead someone to understand the Christian faith and the need to act upon that understanding. But to the second question, the answer is clearly no - otherwise no conversations, commentary, Christian literature or personal prose would add anything to the process of Christian thinking, learning and understanding - we would only need the Bible.

Now, clearly practicalities dictate that everything can't be contained in one book, and also that cultures change, minds evolve, perspectives alter, and values are augmented. This means that for me the best way to see the Bible is as a blueprint that contains all the necessary content for understanding one's sin and the need for salvation (and how to act upon that understanding), but also as a driving force that underpins and enriches all the other things necessary for our journey (conversations, commentary, Christian literature, personal prose, etc). It is the point at which the eternal and the temporal interlock through the Incarnation, where, along with the Holy Spirit, scripture is the surrounding power that conveys this interlocking.

So the Bible is not maximally informative, not can it ever be written at the optimum time in any one period in history - as it would inevitably be constrained by the limitations of the people that conveyed it at the time. Hence it seems to me that to make a sub-universe out of the Bible, and call it 'perfect' or 'flawless' or 'inerrant', is to miss the true power of it. To do so is rather like saying that a recipe is literally delicious or that it can literally feed the homeless. No, it only shows its power when seen as a created artefact that, as St Paul says, is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. In exalting it any higher one ends up limiting it by failing to invest in it the human ingredients that bring to bear the flavour and nourishment that the recipe is constructed to produce.

The Bible works under the principle that 'less is more', in that potentially annotated phrases would diminish the quality of scripture (see Revelation 22:18). We are told it also works under the principle that the removal of any part of it would also diminish scripture (see Revelation 22:19). So there is clear scriptural indication that the books of the Bible that we have amount to an optimum vehicle for our Christian development. But on top of this, we find that the majority of our Christian journey primes us to seek, learn, develop and grow under the maxim that 'more is more'. That is to say, our full personal development in Christ is inextricably linked to our being able to try to maximise our love, grace, kindness, wisdom, fruitful knowledge, humility, and overall spiritual excellence - basically as the book of Philippians describes, ‘imitating Christ’ and ‘pressing on towards the goal to which God has called us’.

Given the foregoing, it’s clear that the Bible is only going to be a small part of that - at least when juxtaposed alongside all the other extra-Biblical resources like other people, other writings, and the rich variety of daily experiences. So I’ve said that clearly this can’t justify creating a sub-universe out of the Bible, but to me it says something else as well. Not only is there no reason to create a sub-universe for considering the Bible, it is not difficult to conceive of at least the possibility that the best of all possible Christian handbooks (for whichever post-Biblical generation, or maybe even for any generation) would look like something different to the Bible if it were ever written.

On the surface this is trivially obvious, but once one delves deeper it brings us to an interesting enquiry about why God chose the Bible He did (and the consequent Revelation 22 warnings*), how we convey these ideas to those who make a sub-universe out of it and often miss out on so much more fullness of life because of it, and also what it means for scripture to be an optimal vehicle yet at the same time only a tiny fraction of the contents of a full life for each of us.

Clearly to even ask this question means protecting ourselves from fanciful departures from the scriptural rubric - after all, if we are to have a Divinely inspired book, there has to be some degree of faith in historical continuity that protects it from the whims of man - the kind of faith with which one can believe that the Holy Spirit has been part of that process. While I can accept that modifications and new translations aid the process, to me it is essential that the fundamental framework of the Bible stays close to the original - which is what I think we see. Hence, it would be fairly obvious that if one is to believe the Bible is Divinely inspired then there is an implicit instruction to not add anything or take anything away from the intention of the original authors.

But yet while it must have a status that precludes it as a candidate for too radical a departure, and while one might expect it to have some kind of Divine protection - the profound truth from these deliberations is that the Bible as we know it from that particular period in history has no especial significance in conveying a message that could have been expressed in any number of different handbooks in any number of eras.

In other words, when God decided to create a universe and give us a holy book from which we can learn about His Son and our salvation, I presume that an omniscient God could have chosen any time in any period to have done this. Hence, I think this lends weight to the argument that Christians mustn't make a god (small 'g') out of the Bible. As I said, whenever the Bible was created, and whichever era it spanned, it would inevitably be constrained by the limitations of the people that conveyed it at the time - which rather does show that the only way to get the most out of scripture is to use it as the framework for our journey.

I recently went on holiday to the North of England and saw some of the most beautiful lakes, mountains and waterfalls in Britain. It was truly wonderful to see so much of God's natural world left unsullied by human interference - but I required a map to find my way around the different places.  The reason the map works is because it is a representation of the territory one wishes to explore.  With the Bible, we find we have a map, but of a different kind - because in analogical terms, if the Bible is the map, the territory we are trying to explore more of is God Himself. To make a god out of the Bible is rather like confusing a map of The Lake District with the real experience of those beautiful lakes, mountains and waterfalls.  It's a temptation that should be resisted.

* I think it's true that John was certainly speaking specifically about Revelation here - but I think our forefathers were guided by the Spirit to set it as an application to the whole of scripture (there are echoes of it in Deuteronomy 4:2 for example). Jesus echoes some of this too with His warnings about false teachings.

JamesKnight300James Knight is a long term contributor to the Network Norwich & Norfolk website and a local government officer based in Norwich.  
The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. 

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