The Bible is the most important book in Christianity and perhaps also the most misunderstood. It has had some of its passages ripped out of context and used as justification for all sorts of abuses and atrocities. Slavery, racism, misogyny, various political causes, etc. have been attempted to be justified on the basis of various Bible passages. In fact, I’m willing to bet that with enough creativity you can find a Biblical justification for almost anything that you want to do. So there is a lot of clarification that needs to be done in regards to what Christians believe about the Bible, even among Christians.
The purpose of this article will be to hopefully bring that clarification. I will begin with discussing and clarifying some common misconceptions and misunderstandings. Then I will move on to describing what the Bible is for Christians.
Misconceptions and Misunderstandings
A divine book that fell down out of heaven
The Bible was not written with the finger of God and dropped down from heaven for humans to copy and distribute and use to accomplish whatever means they want. Yes, God is the ultimate author of Scripture (more on this later), but it was also written by a community in a certain time and place. So in order to understand what the Bible is saying in a passage it is imperative that we understand the historical and cultural context in which a particular book or passage was written.
This means that you cannot just read Ephesians 5.22, which tells wives to submit to their husbands, and then use it to justify your belief that your wife should serve you and do everything you say while you do nothing to help her. First, this ignores the preceding verse as well as the following verses. The preceding verse tells everyone to submit to one another. The verses which follow are really telling husbands how they submit to their wives: by loving them. Second, this also ignores the cultural context of the Roman world at the time, specifically how legal authority functioned. At that time in the Roman Empire it was the man of the house that basically had absolute legal authority over everything that happened in his house, including his daughters. He had so much authority that he could even initiate divorces on behalf of his daughters without their consent. This poses a serious problem for a community that believes divorce is not permissible (generally speaking, this is kind of a complex topic to be fair and I just don’t have the time to get into all the details right now) and that they are all equal and united. So what Paul is really telling the Christian community here in Ephesians 5.22 is that when a Christian woman marries a Christian man, then that woman should come under the legal authority of her husband and her husband only; her father should no longer exercise legal authority over her. Or in other words Paul is instructing the Christian community on how the husband-wife relationship should function within the confines of the legal system of the Roman Empire of that time.
It is important to note that in giving this instruction it does not mean that Paul is endorsing the legal system of the Roman Empire and saying that it should be followed by everyone for all time. By giving this instruction Paul is simply recognizing what the legal system was at the time and is telling the Christian community how to function within that system (so that they don’t cause trouble that will draw the ire of the government). In present day America our legal system is vastly different from that of the Roman Empire. Generally speaking we do not consider one person to have legal authority over another person; everyone has certain rights and you are not allowed to violate those rights. So in our system if you tell someone to come under the legal authority of someone else you are really demeaning them. However, our current legal system is light years closer to Paul’s idea of mutual submission to one another than the Roman system ever was. So there is really no need to in our legal system (I think) to even tell a wife to submit to her husband because our legal system effectively enforces mutual submission by giving her legal protections and essentially forcing her husband to, at the very least, treat her respectfully or else he will be facing legal consequences.
In any case, hopefully this illustrates the importance of recognizing that the human authors of the Bible wrote in a particular time and place and accounting for that context before drawing an application from the text.
A science or history book
The books of the Bible were completed well before our current age and its established scientific and historical standards. The first few chapters of Genesis are commonly interpreted by some (e.g. Ken Ham from Answers in Genesis) as being scientific and historical accounts of creation (which is why they believe the earth was created in 7 literal 24-hour days and is only about 6,000 years old). The problem with this entire line of reasoning is that it is essentially anachronistic; it is interpreting the Bible in light of our current scientific and historical standards and coming to conclusions based on those standards. These standards were completely foreign to those who lived when the books of the Bible were being written and neither the authors nor the books themselves are concerned with adhering to those standards. The Bible is not concerned with communicating scientific or historical truth.
What the Bible is concerned about is communicating spiritual truth. The first chapters of Genesis are not giving us an account of physical origins, but spiritual origins. They are telling us that the world in which we live was created by God and we were designed to live in harmony and communion with God. This ideal was soon broken at the instigation of “the Serpent” (which is a spiritual power, not a literal talking snake) and those who followed him. From then on there has been this constant spiritual battle going on between those who follow God and those who oppose him and follow the Serpent. Now, this battle does take place in our world and so there are indeed historical facts in the Bible that must be true in order for Christianity to be true (e.g. Jesus being a real person and rising from the dead). However, the primary message of the Bible is spiritual in nature, not historical or scientific.
I will likely have more to say about Genesis in future posts since it is such an important and controversial area.
A book of prescriptions
Just because the Bible says something doesn’t mean you should do it. Nor does it mean that it is endorsing it just because it said that it happened. For example, just because the Bible records some men as having multiple wives doesn’t mean that men today should have multiple wives. In this particular case the Bible neither endorses nor condemns having multiple wives; it simply recognizes the fact that some men had multiple wives. Overall though I do believe that the Bible lays out the pattern of marriage being between one man and one woman.
Also, sometimes certain things might be commanded to certain people to do at certain times; they are not intended to be commands for everyone to do at all times when they are in the same circumstances (or think they are in the same circumstances). Jeff Sessions (former Attorney General for President Trump) for instance was recorded as using Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of the Jerusalem in order to restore Israel after they were allowed to return from exile as rationale for building a border wall with Mexico. God’s command to Nehemiah was to Nehemiah at that particular time and place for that particular situation. It does not mean that you should build a border wall in order to keep out illegal immigrants because you think you need to restore and rebuild your own country. For one thing, walls were essential and effective defenses in Nehemiah’s day; a city without walls was vulnerable to attacks and was neither safe nor secure. So building a wall for Nehemiah was actually a very good and useful thing to do to help Israel reestablish itself. Walls are not very effective defenses today when people can (and do) possess the means to easily destroy them and/or just simply fly themselves or explosive ordinance over them.
A guide on establishing a Christian society
You shouldn’t be looking to the Bible to tell you how to vote on a certain issues. For example, Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself could be interpreted in regards to immigration policy to mean either 1) that we should accept all the immigrants that come to America so they can have a better life, thus following Jesus’ command, or 2) we should not endanger our neighbors by accepting anyone that comes to America because they could be dangerous and harm our neighbors, thus following Jesus’ command. So the Bible might give you a general principle on how to approach an issue, but it will not tell you exactly how you should vote on various policy measures. The Bible is not concerned much with the relationship between the government and the people. It is, to be sure, a little bit concerned with this relationship (e.g. Romans 13), but it is mostly concerned with the relationships between individual people. It is not a blueprint on how to vote or how to establish a Christian society. Christianity has never at any point in time required government favoritism or endorsement or support in order to function properly. We can function and thrive under any form of government, even one that hates us and wants to exterminate us. In fact, historically, when Christianity has either controlled or been favored by the government it has actually done more harm than good in the long term for the faith.
Equally applicable and binding
Not everything in the Bible is viewed as being equally applicable and binding. It seems that the primary area where this confusion occurs is how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament. Christians do not believe that the Old Testament law is binding on them. The various ceremonial, food, and even moral laws are not considered to be valid nor to be followed anymore by Christians. The primary reason for this belief is that when Jesus died and rose again he inaugurated a new covenant that replaced the old one, so the things that are in old covenant (i.e. the Mosaic Law in the Old Testament) are no longer in effect. Another reason is that Israel was established as a theocracy and in order to do this it was necessary that certain laws be established. Christianity is not a theocracy and so does not need many of the laws in the Old Testament.
Finally, it should be noted that: 1) all of the Ten Commandments, except keeping the Sabbath, are repeated in the New Testament, and 2) the food laws were literally overturned in Acts 10.15 by God himself. So we are not picking and choosing which Old Testament laws we follow and which ones we don’t. We are following what was commanded in the New Testament, some of which overlaps with the Old Testament law.
What the Bible is
What follows here are summaries and synopses of what Christians believe about the Bible and the qualities that we believe it has. To be sure they are not exhaustive treatments nor do they cover or even mention every subject related to these beliefs. Doing so would require writing several books, which others have already written and continue to write. They are intended to be brief overviews that give the essentials and then move on. It is very likely that more extensive treatment of some of these beliefs will come in future posts.
It should also be noted that for Christians the Bible is not a simply a book that we use to derive doctrines and theology from; Christianity is not solely an intellectual exercise. It is also a book that we believe reveals God and his love, concern, and provision for humanity. For Christians reading, studying, and meditating on the words of the Bible are spiritual exercises with spiritual goals in mind. This does not mean that you cannot study the Bible from an academic or systematic perspective because you certainly can. Moreover, an academic and scholarly approach to the Bible is necessary, especially in our present times. This is just to say that when Christians read the Bible our primary goals are spiritual, not intellectual or academic.
A witness to the truth that God has revealed
The Bible is not God. The Bible points to God and witnesses to God and what he has done. The primary truth that the Bible reveals is that the communion and unity that humanity originally had with God is once again possible because of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. This is the foundation of Christianity and it must be true in order for Christianity to be true. You could in fact destroy all the Bibles on the planet and this foundation would still stand and be true. Not to mention that we could reconstruct the entire New Testament and most of the Old Testament from the writing of the Church Fathers.
Now there are a couple of aspects to this foundation that I would like to point out. First, is that Jesus must have been a real person who really died, rose, and ascended into heaven; these must be true historical events. Second, what the Bible teaches about these events must be accepted as true. It is not enough to simply believe that Jesus really lived, died, rose, and ascended. Accepting historical facts is not enough to make someone a Christian. What makes someone a Christian is when they believe what the Bible says about those historical events and what they mean. So when someone says that the resurrection is the foundation of Christianity what they are really saying (hopefully) is that the actual historical events that are related to the resurrection AND how those events are interpreted in the Bible is the foundation of Christianity.
When Christians call the Bible inspired we do not mean the type of inspiration that an artist might receive before creating a work. That type of inspiration would be fallible and subject to error. The type of inspiration that Christians attribute to the Bible is infallible and not subject to errors. I think perhaps that best way to think about inspiration of the Bible is to think about it as being “God-breathed.” This is the literal meaning of the Greek word used in 2 Timothy 3.16 which is commonly translated “inspired.” The idea is that God worked through human authors so that the final product is what God wanted it to be, which means it also without errors (unless you want to believe that God can make mistakes, in which case you will have some very large theological issues very quickly). Strictly speaking inspiration only applies to the original manuscripts. However, there is enough textual evidence to say that we are 99% certain of what the original manuscripts said. So what the text actually says is not in doubt. Other verses related to the inspiration of the Bible:
- 2 Peter 1.20-21
- 1 Corinthians 2.13
- 2 Peter 3.15-16
- Acts 1.16
- Romans 1.1-2
In the end Christians believe in a Divine-human authorship of a text that does not have errors. This area gets very complicated very quickly, but these are the basics of what Christians believe concerning the inspiration of the Bible.
What about inerrant?
For now I’m omitting a discussion on whether or not the Bible is inerrant. On the one hand inerrancy is simply a logical consequence of inspiration. On the other hand it is frequently used as a club by some in order to enforce their particular interpretation of a passage. It will take some time to discuss both of these sides. In my view it is best to simply view inspiration as I have just described it and then let the logical consequences of that belief work themselves out.
Part of this follows logically from Inspiration: if God worked through human authors to produce the text that he wanted, then that text carries God’s authority. However, in recognizing the Bible as authoritative you are also recognizing the authority of the men who wrote the Bible because it was not God nor Jesus that wrote the printed words of the Bible, but men. Now to be sure their authority only extends to their teachings, which have been preserved in the Bible, not to everything they did. The Apostle Peter for example is recorded as being led astray by Judaizers (those who said it was necessary for Christians to follow Jewish law) in Galatians. However, Peter was not right in following the Judaizers and Paul rebuked him for his actions. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 formally decided that Gentile believers (those who are not Jewish) do not need to keep Jewish laws and customs except for refraining from meat which has been sacrificed to idols, refraining from eating that which has not first had its blood drained, and from sexual immorality.
The Apostles themselves also had direct contact with Jesus and were directly commissioned by him to go out and preach the message that he gave to them. This is recorded at the end of Matthew’s Gospel and in Acts 1. Most of the Apostles were disciples of Jesus, so they had extended direct contact with him for several years while Jesus went preaching and teaching throughout Israel and the surrounding areas. Paul is a notable exception to this because he was not a disciple of Jesus, but rather had an encounter with Jesus after his ascension while he was on the road to Damascus which led to a dramatic change of heart and to him spreading the faith throughout the Roman Empire. So for Christians the writings of the Apostles are authoritative because the Apostles are the ones who had direct contact with Jesus and were discipled by him and know firsthand what Jesus taught.
Additionally, it may be said that the Bible is authoritative because it is the rule by which everything else is judged. The books of the Bible were never selected or voted on because they adhered to some standard. They are the standard because they are God-inspired. This is what is meant when the Bible is referred to as the “canon of Scripture.” It is itself the rule and standard by which everything else is evaluated.
Finally, for clarity’s sake, the Bible is only considered authoritative in what it teaches. If it does not teach something then it is not authoritative on that issue. So the Bible will not tell you how to be a dentist or software developer.
Christians believe that the Bible is God-inspired and authoritative. It witnesses to the foundational truth of Christianity: the communion and unity that humanity originally had with God is once again possible because of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. The Bible is not itself God, nor was it sent down from heaven to inform Christians how to behave everywhere and always, so being aware of the cultural and historical context in which it was written is vital to understanding what is being said. It reveals and teaches spiritual truth and must be interpreted and read with that goal in mind.