The man is on an elevated platform, behind a pulpit; he’s wearing a suit, and everything about him indicates authority and truth. You can draw a straight line from the light of God’s presence, through the open Bible, through his open mouth, through his pointing finger, through the pulpit of proclamation, to a weary, struggling seeker hoping to hear a word from God.
The Bible is God’s Word — that’s what we’ve been taught. But, what does that mean? A lot of us trust that man behind the pulpit to tell us what it means. Others of us, however, have to find out for ourselves. That was my journey: going away from sermons or Sunday School lessons with more questions than answers (My mother said my favorite word as a kid was “Why?”), getting involved in personal and group Bible study during college, continuing on to seminary, where I learned to read and analyze Biblical passages in their original languages and to study great scholars who had given their lives for an even deeper understanding of the Bible. I’m still not done with my personal adventure, since every week’s sermon preparation involves a fresh analysis of some portion of the Bible and, often, some new discoveries about its meaning.
Not everyone can be expected to make the Bible exploration journey I have, so I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned along the way:
- The Bible was written by more than forty individuals over a period of nearly 1,000 years. Therefore, it’s more like a library than a book.
- The Bible with its current list of books was not completed accepted by the Church as God’s Word until 300 to 400 years after Jesus.
- During the Dark and Middle Ages (AD 500 to AD 1500), most believers had no personal access to the Bible because of the lack of vernacular translations, the fact that the printing press had not yet been invented and the fact that most average people were illiterate. They had to depend on what religious leaders told them the Bible said.
- The Protestant Reformation unlocked the Bible to average people. The new leaders, in rejecting Roman Catholic authority, claimed that the Bible was their only authority. The printing press made it possible to put Bibles in the hands of common people, who more and more were learning to read. Translations into vernacular languages regularly emerged, and this made understanding the Bible message easier.
- However, this greater accessibility to the Bible resulted in some negatives as well. It meant that every person could decide for her/himself what the Bible was saying. This led to the development of the many Protestant denominations, as well as a proliferation of cults that emphasized bizarre or obscure Biblical themes.
- Over time, Protestant leaders tried to control ways in which the Bible could be misused by coming up with a clear definition of Biblical authority. By using terms such as verbal inspiration (every word is inspired), plenary inspiration (all parts of the Bible are equally inspired), infallible and inerrant, they tried to tether and harness Biblical truth to keep it within prescribed bounds.
There’s a lot more to the story of the Bible for our day, and I’ll continue this discussion in next week’s Messenger. I’ll be emphasizing some common ways in which the Bible is misused and how that can be harmful to believers and churches. I’ll also suggest some ways that you can make the Bible’s message more meaningful in your life.
Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a verse that is frequently quoted in praise of the Bible, but really isn’t about the Bible itself:
The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:13)
This was written toward the end of the New Testament period. By that time, some of Paul’s letters were being circulated, and possibly one or two of the Gospels, but there was no such thing as the Bible. If you read the verses before, you’ll see that the author is referring to two occasions when God actually spoke, first in judgment to his disobedient people (verse 3) and then in an invitation to forgiveness and restored fellowship with him (verse 7).
But I find here an important clue as to what the Bible actually is. It’s not a dusty old book; it’s alive and it’s sharp. That’s why it cuts through many of the verbal tethers and harnesses leaders use in attempts to restrain and tame it. It’s alive and sharp precisely because it conveys to us moments in human history when people a lot like us had personal and group encounters with the alive, sharp God of the Universe.
— Pastor George Van Alstine