What is the Bible? Your answer to this seemingly innocuous question depends on who you are. If you’re a Christian, you probably view it as a guide for how to live. If you aren’t a Christian, you may consider it one of many books of wise teachings, alongside the Koran, Bhagavad Gita, or the dharma
(teachings of the Buddha). If your attitude toward the Bible is less than charitable, you might consider it to be a series of fairy tales designed to make people behave well—or at least to maintain the appearance of good behavior.
I realize that for most Christians, this last approach is unacceptable. If you’re a conservative Christian, you consider the Bible to be God’s divinely inspired Word, His method of communicating with human beings.
Or maybe you think of the Bible as a theological textbook, a series of spiritual nuggets designed to be interpreted and collated into orthodox doctrinal statements. Or maybe, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit that the Bible is your ticket to get to heaven and avoid “that other place” we call “hell.”
Another uncomfortable fact Christians need to grapple with is that the Bible has often been used as a tool to justify oppression and injustice. Take, for example, the Episcopal bishop Stephen Elliott, who presided over the Confederate states during the American Civil War. In the book The Great Stain: Witnessing American Slavery, author Noel Rae records Bishop Elliott saying, “At this very moment there are from three to four millions of Africans, educating for earth and for Heaven in the so vilified Southern States—learning the very best lessons for a semi-barbarous people. . . . These considerations satisfy me with their condition, and assure me that it is the best relation they can, for the present, be made to occupy.”
It would be easy to point the finger at the Bible as the source for the bishop’s deeply reprehensible stance, but the reality is much more complex. Inasmuch as the Bible served as the moral framework for Elliott’s views on slavery, so, too, has it been the inspiration for his ideological opponents. In an 1859 letter, Abraham Lincoln penned the following: “He who would be no slave must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God, cannot long retain it” (emphasis added).
In Lincoln’s mind, the justice of God would not abide one human owning another. Upon being presented with a Bible by black residents of Baltimore several years later, he is recorded in volume 7 of the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln as saying: “In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it.”
At this point, we must consider an uncomfortable paradox: the Bible as a holy text has been the inspiration for both oppressor and oppressed alike, for though it has been a tool for immense good, it has also been quoted in justification of terrible evil. It has so easily been misused throughout history.
In my experience, when confronted with such a paradox, people usually do one of two things: either abandon any notion of the Bible as a source of divine authority or double down on their traditional viewpoint, ignoring anything to the contrary. Neither response is particularly helpful. Instead of these two limited views, we need to adopt a new description of the Bible: a miraculously assembled library that deserves to be treated with caution and humility and that ultimately leads us to Jesus.
Consider for a moment how long it takes to write a book. The average novel has about 100,000 words, and most authors take between three and six years to complete one. Now consider the Bible. The oldest portions of the Hebrew Bible date back as far as the ninth century before Christ, with the writings of the apostles first appearing somewhere in the first 50 years after Christ. Then consider that while the Muslim Koran was written by a single author, today’s Bible has some 40 contributors. From Moses to Paul, we’re talking about a wide variety of authors from a wide variety of cultures, ethnicities, and time settings. The fact that we do not have a confused, contradictory series of texts but, rather, a cohesive, connected volume that leads in a single direction is nothing short of miraculous!
caution and humility
Have you ever heard the word pantomath? In more familiar terms, we call such a person a know-it-all. Not to be confused with a polymath (someone who has a vast amount of knowledge over many disciplines), a pantomath is someone who, through some great fortune, apparently knows everything—or at least thinks he does. Of course, the great irony is that the more we learn, the more we realize how very little we truly do know. However, that has never stopped those who think they know everything from sharing their opinions.
Such people can easily become self-professed spiritual gatekeepers of the Bible. Ambiguity and mystery are swept under the rug, and instead, they lean heavily on their own confidence and certainty.
Instead, we should approach this miraculously assembled Book with caution and humility. To reduce its vastness to well-manicured theological statements is to overlook its great power and mystery. We should never be so sure that we have plumbed the depths of the Bible any more than we can look through a telescope in our backyard and be certain to have observed the far reaches of the universe.
leads us to Jesus
It’s sad to say, but many people are passionate about side issues, whether prophecy, health, or justice. However, when the topic of Jesus is raised, it’s just another doctrine more suited to a children’s group than real adult discussion. It seems Jesus Himself understood this. In John’s Gospel, Jesus accused the religious leaders of missing the point: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39, 40).
The Pharisees were far more dedicated Bible students than most of us ever will be. Their reverence for the Hebrew Bible was unmatched, and yet in the midst of their study, they missed its crowning truth when Jesus presented Himself to them.
The entire Bible is about Jesus. From Genesis to Revelation, it all testifies of Him. As Paul insists in his letter to the Colossians, when we place Jesus where He belongs, He becomes more than just an afterthought; He becomes the most important figure in the entire story—“the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15). As we study the Bible, may we not miss Him as the Pharisees did. Instead, in discovering Him, may we find life.
Jesse Herford is a Seventh-day Adventist pastor who lives in Palmerston North, New Zealand.