I think my use of the name The Bible to describe the Judeo-Christian canonical Scriptures somewhat begs the issue I intend to discuss. After all, the word bible is commonly used to describe any book containing necessary, useful and authoritative information on a given subject. And that is what the Bible does. The subject is, of course, our relationship to God.
The current American understandings of the Bible range from it being the writings of a few authors inspired by the Holy Spirit to it containing a mishmash of writings assembled, edited (redacted), copied, and rewritten for theological purposes. The first understanding has been severely criticized by the adherents of the second. The problem with the doctrine of the inspiration and inerrancy of the original writings is that these documents no longer exist. The problem with the second understanding is that it damages our trust in the reliability and authority of the Bible.
The error of the first understanding is that it assumes God could only have worked one way in creating the Bible. The second understanding thinks that if something is complex God is not in it. This thinking is the result of secular ideas that remove God from all the complexities we experience. Life is complex, history is complex, culture is complex, and nature is complex so they think that God cannot be in these things because what God is associated with has to be simple and have been done long ago.
It is better that, as the result of all the complexity we know, we expect the Bible also to be a complex object. Thus, if we trust that God is Creator of everything that exists, we should see the uncertainties and oddities surrounding the formation of the Bible as a positive thing. This is because the Bible fits into our world just like everything in the universe also fits together in complex ways, often in manners beyond our understanding. It is not necessary to know every step of how the Bible came to be as it is today to trust that this development serves God’s purpose that the Bible is as we know it.
What does the Bible do for us? The first, and most important, thing it does is authenticate the person of Jesus Christ. There have been people all over the world who have claimed to be gods. But they had nothing to validate their claims. It is different with Jesus, and far more complex. It took St. Thomas Aquinas five volumes to sum up the complexity of Christianity in his Summa Theologica. John Calvin also wrote a multivolume work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, to describe Christian beliefs. It is needless to say there are many, many other books on the subject.
A further thing the Bible does is to cut to the reality of what we are and then contrast that with what we should be. I think in reforming our understanding of the Bible we have to accept these two functions as necessary. We cannot show people, and ourselves, our need for faithful adherence to Jesus Christ until we recognize that we all have in us a spiritual defect that we cannot remedy on our own. If we are to be what we want ourselves to be, and what God would have us be, we must look to the Bible as God’s guide to the new spiritual life he will give us if we seek it. This new life comes from faith in his Son. With this new life we can learn how to relate as he would have us to the world we live in and the people we live with.
The Bible is not easy to understand and apply to our lives. Some of its instructions are for people in other times and places, some are beyond our ability to do without the gift of God’s grace, and others are for people in particular situations. That is part of its complexity. The good news is that the Bible speaks to us in our own personalities. There is biography, law, history, poetry, apocalypse, and many other genres. This means that we do not have to look at the Bible as a monolith and think that only one interpretive scheme will work. A reformed understanding of the Bible will celebrate the richness of God’s revelation and allow each of us to mine its wealth.
A reformed understanding of the Bible means that we cannot reject truths it tells us, as difficult as these may be for us. We will acknowledge, as someone said, “God is God and we are not” and recognize that the Bible is an expression of God’s love for us. We will also accept that the Bible is a unique communication from God to humanity so what it tells us cannot be found in any other document. We will also put away any ideas we may have that the Bible condemns the world because it tells us that Jesus was sent to save the world not to condemn it (John 3:17). Thus the Bible tells us God’s mercy is available to all those who seek him. This is the great comfort we have however we may come to find God’s love.