A good question: What is the Bible for?
Each month we ask one question, and get four answers. This month: What is the Bible for?
‘It’s for confronting our own comfort and discomfort’
Do we accept, in the words of the United Reformed Church Basis of Union, that the Word of God may be discerned in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament? If we do, what are those texts for?
Well, I believe they are for understanding ourselves, in relation to God, through all the Bible’s love and hate, its narratives, edicts, exhortations and poetry; the whole lot – not just the bits we like. In fact, the more we easily like certain bits, the warier we need to be.
Some Bible stories seem to speak to us very personally. The man who has suffered setbacks sufficient to threaten his faith will identify with Job. The woman who carries her own (or someone else’s) sexual shame may feel that she has been saved from a stoning. The insecure children in us all yearn to rest, without fear of later abuse, neglect or abandonment, on the lap of Jesus. But on which Jesus do we rest? Which stories of Jesus soothe you – and which alarm you? And on what valid basis do you choose which portrayals to ignore? …
Lucy Berry is a United Reformed Church minister
‘It’s about a loving God who encourages us to answer back’
The Bible is for people who want to know about God. It doesn’t argue for his existence: it just assumes it.
The Bible is not primarily about ancient society, though it is set there. It is not primarily about human wisdom and teaching, though it contains them. It is not primarily great stories to be enjoyed by both children and adults.
The Bible is about God; and those who want to learn about God find guidance of both a simple and highly sophisticated sort in its pages.
Most, if not all, world religions claim to teach us the truth about God or about “ultimate reality”. The Bible contains the foundation documents of the church, and Christians believe that in its stories and wise teaching God reveals himself for all time. In particular the New Testament describes the life and teaching of Jesus and discusses his significance as the final and perfect expression of who God is and what he is like. …
Robert Willoughby is lecturer in New Testament studies at the London School of Theology
The Bible communicates the real God – untamed and unfathomable’
It’s childish I know, but I can’t quite help myself. The question “what the Bible is for?” makes me want to suggest irreverent uses: to prop open a door? To gather dust on a shelf? To beat each other around the head with? Even if we take a more serious line it can be a little difficult to answer the question well. Asking what the Bible is for, suggests that someone at some point decided to write “a Bible” with a clear intention that it should “do” something. The problem of course is that no one person sat down to write the Bible with a clear intention about what it would achieve. Even if, as I would do, you identify the Bible as the Word of God, its purpose is much more subtle and hard to tie down.
The Bible communicates God to us: God’s words, God’s actions, God’s relationships and most of all God’s overwhelming love for the world, but it does this in different ways. At some points in the Bible its inspiring message bursts from its pages with vigour; at other points it is harder to discern what is immediately inspiring about what it has to say. It is this, however – its sheer diversity and variety – that begins to give us a clue about what that the Bible offers us, even if we can’t answer what it is for. …
Dr Paula Gooder is a writer, speaker and Bible scholar
PETER J LEITHART
‘God’s Word expands our imagination to grasp what’s really there and envision what might be’
“All Scripture is God-breathed,” says Paul, “and profitable”. He affirms that God is the author, and also stresses the usefulness of Scripture. When we look closely at the Bible though, things get dicey. It rarely lives up to our ordinary standards of practicality. Page after page is given over to genealogical lists of obscure people. Exodus is full of blueprints for building the tabernacle. Leviticus contains detailed regulations concerning sacrifice and skin diseases. Even when the Bible holds our interest, it doesn’t seem very useful: stories of plagues, exodus, and wars of utter destruction make for juicy reading, but how do they help one become virtuous? Why can’t the Bible be more relevant?
The Bible’s apparent lessons are difficult, and not infrequently troubling. Abraham goes to Egypt, deceives Pharaoh about his relationship to Sarah, and leaves Egypt richer than ever. What’s the lesson – that lying pays? What moral do we draw from Moses’ killing of the Egyptian, or Joshua’s slaughter of everything that breathed at Jericho? The more we read the Bible, the clearer it becomes that the book isn’t a Hebraic Aesop’s Fables.
Treating Scripture as a compendium of moral lessons or rules assumes a constricted view of morality. We don’t pursue virtue simply by applying general principles to particular situations, or obeying commandments. Practical morality requires the ability to assess situations accurately, memory of our own past patterns of action and of others’ inspiring examples, and enough moral imagination to see how a potential tragedy might become something better. …
Peter J Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church and is senior fellow of theology and literature at New St Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho
These are extracts from the September 2013 edition of Reform