What is the Bible?
The Bible is the story of God’s people and how God has related to them for thousands of years. It is a testament to the work of God in the world throughout time but especially of the people of Israel and we who are grafted into it. It is written by witnesses of God’s work. It is not directly God’s work. God took interest in how the Bible was compiled but the evidence of the complex process all of the texts we now consider sacred have been through is compelling enough for me to conclude that God was channeling a flash flood more than filling a pitcher of water.
The multitude of experiences and perspectives shared in the Bible splash together in a muddy roar. It is not neat. Oral traditions cross with historical revisions for consolidation of power. Theological points subvert chronology. Poetry paints in brush strokes later analyzed with magnifying glasses for new subtext. It’s a mess—but a beautiful mess. The Holy Spirit breaths through it all because those who wrote it were breathing with the Holy Spirit. I choose to trust that the Holy Spirit is satisfied with the finished product as we have codified it, but I have no reason to believe it is complete. It doesn’t need to be exhaustive because the Holy Spirit is still at work in us and we can gain new insight. I don’t think the Holy Spirit will contradict the Bible, however, because God is too invested in this book. It is too useful in binding us together and preserving the wisdom and action of God.
It is rich enough to return to for a lifetime of study and application. But it is a book—the Bible says nothing. God speaks and the Bible testifies. Jesus speaks, and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John record it. Paul writes. Peter writes. John writes. And so on and so on. The Holy Spirit makes these recorded words alive to us by speaking through them. We don’t have a a dead book that has all the answers. Our book is enlivened by the One who has written the universe. It does not stand alone but God stands by it.
The authorship and compilation of what we call the New Testament is much more reliable as a historical document than what we call the Old Testament, and in their class the New Testament writings are fairly trustworthy even historiographically. This is a nice little feather in our cap of faith because the stories of the New Testament inform our understanding of the Old–the central story being that of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Because the New Testament is written Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord, it carries extra weight for those of us who are reading it to gain insight into our life of discipleship to our Lord. Paul famously said in I Corinthians that we see through a glass darkly; the glass was even darker before Jesus.
This is so because Jesus is the full revelation of God. Anyone who has seen him has seen the Father (John 14). He redefines and re-centers the whole conversation about God’s action in the world. Behold he is the new thing! And so we read all of scripture with Jesus as our lens. The logic follows: if Jesus and the Old Testament seem to be at odds, then we need to redefine what’s going on in the Old Testament. The narrative needs to be re-interpreted. Terry Brensinger wrote a great analysis of violence in the Old Testament that demonstrates this sort of interpretation brilliantly.
But the interpretation of scripture as a project is important primarily for the personal and communal instruction of the Church. Reading scripture is not about knowing only in the cognitive sense, though that is useful, it is about knowing in the intimate sense. It is a way for us to commune with God and be transformed by the stories that God has helped preserve for us. The Holy Spirit uses scripture to form us into the agents we need to be to continue the story and to include others in the flood.