What is the Bible?

I may have got myself into hot water. And you lovely people too, my revive friends, since we’re in this together.

I said that the Bible isn’t The Word of God. And I said it on Facebook. I was having a long and protracted debate with a conservative evangelical woman and everything came down to this: true Christians believe the Bible is The Word of God.

I don’t believe it is.

This doesn’t mean that I think the Bible isn’t inspired, or that it’s not THE central and defining text (well, collection of texts) for our faith. For goodness sake, it’s the only place we can go to find Jesus! It’s just that the phrase ‘The Word of God’ comes with a lot of baggage that I’m anxious to avoid.

In the Old Testament it is used quite literally to describe the stuff God says, particularly the law and the prophecies of the prophets. In the New Testament it means both of those, plus the message of the gospel, and of course Jesus himself in John 1. Nowhere does any text claim to BE the word, but many testify that they are quoting the word(s) of God. As Swiss theologian Karl Barth puts it, ‘The Bible contains the word of God,’ and ‘…becomes the word of God when we read it in the Spirit.’ A subtle difference.

‘Why is this even important Simon?’

If the Bible is THE Word of God, then it contains everything God wants to say to us. Everything God has ever said to you in prophecy, in the wisdom of a friend, or in the rustling of a tree is a counterfeit, possibly even demonic. It means that – the source of the original argument on Facebook – God has said everything he wants to say about men and women and what they should wear and what they can and can’t do in church, society and family. I just don’t go with that.

So I thought I should let you know what I said, because ‘Baptist Minister doesn’t believe the Bible is The Word of God’ is a great headline, but doesn’t get at the heart of the debate. Oh alright, argument. Or worse. :-/

It strikes me that we need a grown up conversation about the Bible, one that gets out of the box that my evangelical Facebook sister was trying to put me in. We need to be able to make a positive statement about the Bible, not just say that we don’t believe in the conservative evangelical doctrine of an inerrant, infallible, all-sufficient, historically and scientifically true, once-and-for-all and only one WORD OF GOD. I hate saying that, it makes me sound so negative and critical. I want to say something that shows how much I value this thing, how my life has been changed by God’s work in and through it. How much I love the Jesus I find within it. How much I hate other stuff; sometimes because I find it abhorrent, sometimes because it finds me abhorrent.

But what DO we want to say about the Bible?

14 thoughts on “What is the Bible?

  1. Tricky subject. I feel uncomfortable with calling the Bible, “The Word of God”, for fairly similar reasons, although I don’t think that phrase implies that God has nothing else to say, just that nothing else He says should conflict with or go off on too much of a tangent to what we already have.

    I was a little worried about this when I started at CAP, because joining meant implicitly signing up to their statement of faith, which says (among other things), “We believe that the Bible is God’s Word”. I was in two minds about whether to say something or keep quiet, but in the end I queried it and they were happy to accept my own, slightly different take on things.

    This was my slightly haphazard and rambling attempt to explain my beliefs (slightly abridged):

    * It’s clearly a gift from God, through which He speaks powerfully today and through which the gospel is revealed.
    * The New Testament is particularly important for Christians, in that it records the details of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection, as well as the beliefs and practices of the early church and those who founded it under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. I consider the New Testament to be trustworthy and reliable, although not necessarily factually perfect in every detail, given that the gospels + Acts were compiled from eye witness accounts, some time after the events occurred.
    * The Old Testament consists of the primary Jewish scriptures. It is the “Bible” as it was known to Jesus. It records (primarily) the history of God’s dealings with the people of Israel and is full of wisdom and insight into God’s nature and character, and his plan for the world and for humanity. [there’s a lot more I could add here about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments …]
    * There are some things about the Old Testament though, that I find a little difficult to swallow and to reconcile with the God of love who is portrayed by Jesus … the only conclusion I’ve so far been able to come to is that these events must have been remembered and retold through the lens of the authors’ own – as yet imperfect – understanding of the nature and character of God. I don’t dismiss the Old Testament for a moment, and I think that God speaks powerfully through it – even through some of those stories that I am so uncomfortable with – but I hold some parts of it a little more lightly than I do the New Testament, which is a lot more recent, historically much better supported, and resonates more completely with my own faith and experience of God.

    I didn’t get into the fact that there’s also some stuff in the New Testament that I really struggle with …

    I guess the only other thing I’d add right now is that the Bible is an anchor for Christians. Our identity is rooted in it – it tells us who we are. We may struggle with it sometimes but we have to hold that in tension, because the further we stray from it, the less we can really claim to be followers of the faith that it represents. The New Testament in particular is probably the closest thing we have to an original manifesto of the Christian faith, and we shouldn’t dismiss anything it says lightly. Just because we live in the “enlightened” 20th century, doesn’t mean we know everything. The writings of the people that walked with Jesus and founded his church deserve our close attention and our deepest admiration and respect.

  2. I approach the Bible as a collection of people’s experiences of God. Surely no one would say that it is THE only record of how people have experienced God? But then why would I pay more attention to it than, say, the Book of Mormon? Because it feels more authentic; a quality that derives from the its many contradictions and paradoxes. It is precisely this messiness that sets it apart. If you try and get rid of this and pretend that it is “inerrant, infallible, all-sufficient…” it becomes sterile and suspect. I reserve my right to examine any professed “experience of God” and only hold on to the good.

    “Don’t suppress the Spirit. Don’t brush off Spirit-inspired messages, but examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good. Avoid every kind of evil”.

  3. Cheers for that link Simon (?) – I thought that was a good post.

    I also found it quite encouraging to read comments by so many people who’ve had bad experiences of conservative/fundamentalist Christianity, but are not responding by throwing the baby out with the bath water and are still trying to engage with their faith in a positive way.

  4. Is the Bible the word of God?
    Hi everyone
    Gosh it’s a long time since I’ve ‘revived’!
    I hear and agree with the principle of what Simon is saying. If we’re being strictly correct – maybe even religious about it – then Jesus is clearly the Word of God (Jn 1: 1-2) not scripture and getting it the other way round could make us pharisaic (Jn 5:39-40). But I would always try and avoid using a provocative and potentially misleading statement like ‘the Bible isn’t the word of God’ especially in an open forum like Facebook. I’ll try and explain why it irks me.
    Everyone is on a spectrum of views about scripture. These range from one extreme, which I’ll call the left (diagrammatic, not political), where every verse in the Bible is the inerrant, holy word of God to be followed absolutely to the letter, to the other extreme (on the right of the continuum), where the Bible is simply the fallible word of man, misleading, deceptive, irrelevant and even dangerous. I consider that practicing committed Christians should be to the left on this spectrum, not at the extreme, but certainly well left of centre (remember the description is pictorial, not political). I believe from what Simon says that he sits over here. I do also and agree with much of what Dan says. I believe it’s vital that Christians have this high view of scripture because, although it’s Jesus that’s the Word of God, God’s unchangeable word comes to us through the thrust of the main themes of the Bible. In scripture God speaks and directs us individually on many topics and life issues. It’s historically reliable, full of wisdom and logic and, in my experience, has the ability to engage miraculously with our lives.
    However, and this is the important bit, most people in the UK dither towards the right view where the Bible is seen as irrelevant or even obnoxious. In this situation statements like ‘The Bible isn’t the word of God’, especially coming from Christians, simply reinforce their beliefs about its worthlessness. They’re not going to consider the niceties of the arguments. If your ship is sailing firmly to starboard, discussions that dispute whether we need to sail either directly to port or slightly off (Simon’s Facebook quarrel) simply leave you cold.
    I believe in our different ways, Christians are called by Jesus to encourage people towards the left; it’s where the Gospel is found. Unfortunately, debates between Christians, such as the one Simon has found himself engaged in, distract from this and just fuel the self-focussed views of fallen mankind rather than build the Kingdom of God. If at all possible we need to avoid them and concentrate on tackling the major challenges that we will encounter as we attempt to build God’s Kingdom in our largely agnostic and secular society.

  5. I think a lot of people in the UK think that in order to really take the Bible seriously you have to believe in things like a literal 6 day creation that happened a few thousand years ago and that God wants people to stone adulterers. For this sort of reason, many of them quite sensibly reject it out of hand.

    I think it’s helpful for non-believers to appreciate that many Christians have a high view of scripture and yet take a much more nuanced approach, even if they don’t understand (and why should they?) all the ins and outs of the arguments.

    If a non-Christian has actually read far enough through the debate to see Simon denying that the Bible is the word of God, then it seems to me that they probably have the patience to read the next sentence or two where he qualifies that and I think they’ve probably already appreciated that he isn’t trying to throw the baby out with the bath water.

    1. Don’t have a problem with any of your comments Dan but would still never use the words ‘the Bible isn’t the word of God’, or similar, for the reasons I’ve argued however developed, nuanced or otherwise my arguments were trying to be.

    2. Do you think that in a non-Christian’s mind, the phrase “the Bible isn’t the Word of God” equates to “the Bible is a load of rubbish”? Or do you think the phrase is more likely to be interpreted that way by Christians?

  6. Sorry to take so long in replying: Christmas etc got in the way.
    I don’t know exactly how non-Christians interpret the phrase but I believe the majority think that most, or a significant part, of the Bible ‘isn’t the word of God’ in a sort of passive unthought through sort of way, as do most Muslims. If they hear Christians apparently confirming it, it’s going to convince them in their doubts rather than lead them on.

  7. Mmm – interesting point about Muslims. It seems to me that they are probably the ones most likely to find such an assertion misleading.

    I guess everyone will interpret the phrase differently and you and I can probably only guess the majority view, but it seems to me that context is important and that an average western non-Christian hearing that, with some sensible qualification given, is more likely to think, “hmm – perhaps these Christians aren’t all so stupid after all”, than to disregard the Bible outright on that basis. But I guess we will just have to continue to disagree about that! 🙂

  8. It would appear that quite a few people read the original thread on Facebook, which is a warning in itself. I had an email from a missionary in Peru who was struggling with the aftermath of Southern Baptist Mission there a hundred years ago, including (she claimed) old textbooks that explained how the Bible taught slavery and racial segregation. I have now been invited to the Baptist Seminary in Iquito to teach! I heard from a friend that a theatre director in Leeds had read the entire thread and – having assumed from experience at university that all Christians demanded belief in the Bible as the literal word of God that must be obeyed literalistically – found my posts very helpful. Obviously people who found them unhelpful are unlikely to tell me that. But it backs up Dan’s point that responses might vary…

    I was more than sad that I had been backed into a corner and forced to make a negative statement about the Bible, and I hope that within the revive community there will be an opportunity to say something very positive. However, when people mistreat the Bible to do violence to others I feel that I must speak up. I felt very strongly that the woman I was dialoging with couldn’t be allowed to say the things she was saying without some comeback.

  9. Richard Rohr: ‘Even though the scriptures are extremely creative – and truly inspired – writings, they have not usually been interpreted in equally creative ways or by equally inspired people. So they have not guided much of human history, except by making people walk in the opposite direction.’


    1. That seems a little harsh, and I’m not sure it’s that well grounded either. Sure, the Bible often has been, and still is, abused, but I think there’s also plenty of evidence that it’s been a tremendous force for good in the world as well.

    2. Yep, agree that’s a bit harsh. The Bible has certainly helped to change my life. Although whether that’s been ‘a force for good’ or not only others can say.

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