John Pavlovitz is a pastor/blogger from Wake Forest, North Carolina. An 18-year veteran of local church ministry, he currently writes a blog called Stuff That Needs To Be Said, and in 2015 is launching an online Christian community called The Table. John has been married for 17 years to Jennifer, and has two children; Noah (9) and Selah (5).
Christians talk about it all the time, though what they mean by “The Bible” isn’t always clear. That is to say, other than the catch phrase “God’s Word” I’m not sure what the Bible is to many who claim it as the sacred text that guides their life. I’m positive we’re not all on the same page, so to speak.
Some Christians want to make the Bible something it isn’t, and it makes for some disastrous conversations and dangerous assumptions, especially in interactions with other Christians.
Here are 5 things about the Bible I wish more believers would consider:
1. The Bible Isn’t a Magic Book.
The Bible isn’t The Good Book. It isn’t really a book at all. It’s a lot of books. It’s a library.
Its 66 individual books run the diverse gamut of writing styles, (poetry, history, biography, church teachings, letters), and those books have dozens of authors; from shepherds, to prophets, to doctors, to fishermen, to kings. These diverse writers each had very different target audiences, disparate life circumstances and specific agendas for their work; so we don’t approach each book the same way—for the same reason you wouldn’t read a poem about leaves the same way you read a botany textbook. Some are for inspiration and some for information; we receive and see them differently.
If we can see the Scriptures this way; as many diverse works telling one story in one collection, Christians can free themselves from the confusion about what they mean when they say “literal.” We don’t have to equate history with allegory with poetry, or read them in the same way. We can also see the Bible as a record not just of God, but of God’s people, and we can find ourselves within it.
2. The Bible Isn’t as Clear as We’d Like It To Be.
Often, (especially when arguing), Christians like to begin with the phrase, “The Bible clearly says…” followed by their Scripture soundbite of choice.
If we’re honest, the Bible contains a great deal of tension and a whole lot of gray on all types of subjects.
Those people aren’t always taking the entire Bible into account.
If we’re honest, the Bible contains a great deal of tension and a whole lot of gray on all types of subjects. For example, we can read the clear Old Testament commandment from God not to murder, and later see Jesus telling His disciples that violence isn’t the path His people are to take.
But we also see God telling the Israelites to destroy every living thing in enemy villages, (women and children included), and we read of Moses murdering an Egyptian soldier without recourse from God.
That’s why some Christians believe all violence is sinful, while others think shooting someone in self-defense is OK. Some find war justifiable in some cases, while some believe all war is inherently immoral.
Same Bible. One subject. Several perspectives.
That’s not to say that truth is relative, that God doesn’t have an opinion on violence or that He hasn’t given us His opinion in the Bible. It’s just that the answer may not be as clear and straightforward as we like to pretend it is.
Many times, when Christians say the phrase “The Bible clearly says…”, what they really mean is, “The way I interpret this one verse allows me to feel justified in having this perspective.”
When you read and study this library in its totality, there are certainly themes and continuities and things that connect exquisitely, but if we’re honest we can also admit there are ambiguities. It doesn’t diminish the Scriptures to admit that they are complex. On the contrary, most great works throughout history are.
3. The Bible Was Inspired by God, Not Dictated by God.
Christians will often rightly say that the Bible was “inspired by God,” and I completely agree. However, that idea often gets twisted in translation.
The Bible is “God’s Word,” but we need to be careful about what we mean when we say it was “written” by God. These are the words of men who were compelled by God to tell, not only what they claim to have heard God say, but things happening in and around them—their struggles, personal reasons for writing and specific experience of God. Of course they were inspired by God, but they remained inspired human beings, not God-manipulated puppets who checked their free will at the door and transcribed God’s monologues like zombies.
The book of Timothy says the Scriptures are “God-breathed,” that they originate from God, but it doesn’t claim they are God-dictated.
4. We All Pick and Choose the Bible We Believe, Preach and Defend.
Christians often accuse believers with differing opinions of “cherry picking” from the Bible; holding tightly to verses they agree with, while conveniently jettisoning ones they are uncomfortable with.
The only problem is, each time this assertion is made, the one making the accusation conveniently claims objectivity; as if they somehow have a firm, dispassionate understanding of the entirety of Scripture, without bias or prejudice, and that the other is violating that.
As we mature in our faith, some of us may be able to shake off some of our personal biases and get closer to the true meaning of Scripture. But until then, most of us have our own Bible, made somewhat in our image. There are as many specific individual interpretations of Scripture in history as there have been readers of it. Our understanding and belief about the Bible is a product of our upbringing, the amount of study we’ve had, the friends we’ve lived alongside, the area of the world we live in, the experiences we have and much more.
Is it really fair to accuse someone else of selectively using Scripture, unless we’re prepared to admit to the same crime in the process?
The words in the Bible point to someone for whom words simply fail. The words give us some frame of reference, but ultimately, God is far too big to be contained in those words.
5. God Is Bigger Than The Bible.
This past week, I took a walk along the beach, taking in the ocean. For those who’ve ever done so, you understand the vastness; the staggering beauty and power; the relentless force of the tides. You know the smallness you feel; the overwhelming scale of creation you find yourself face-to-face with.
Billions of words have been written about the ocean. I could gather up every single one of them; the most beautiful, vivid, accurate descriptions from fisherman, marine biologists and poets. I could read every last word about the ocean to someone who has never been there—and it would never do it justice.
There’s simply no way to adequately describe the ocean in words. You have to experience it.
I wish more Christians would admit that the Bible, at its most perfect and inspired, is a collection of words about the ocean. They are not the ocean itself.
God is the ocean.
The words in the Bible point to someone for whom words simply fail. The words are filled with good and lovely things that give us some frame of reference, but ultimately, God is far too big to be contained in those words.
The Bible is not God. The Bible is a library filled with inspired words about God. We can discover and explore and find comfort there. We can seek the character of God, and the message of Christ and the path we’re to walk in its pages.
We can even love the Bible. I certainly do.
But we should worship the God who inspired the Bible.