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What Is the Bible? – Doctrine 401

An earlier article in this series focused on Bible study, and it briefly talked about what the Bible was. This article will look deeper into what the Bible is and why we should spend time with it.

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

A Library

Even though it is typically bound together in a single volume today, the Bible is not a single book. Instead, it is a collection of individual writings, a library. Actually, it is two distinct collections. What Christians call the Old Testament are the writings that the Jewish faith considers sacred. And what we call the New Testament are the writings that the early church considered most valuable.

The Old Testament

The Tanakh is the Bible of Judaism. While it is organized differently than our Old Testament, the contents are the same for both of them. That is at least true for Protestants. Roman Catholics and Orthodox include other writings in their Bibles that are not considered canon by the Jews.

For Christians, the Old Testament is generally organized into four parts. The first is the Torah or Pentateuch. These are the first five books. Genesis is a book of origins while the other four cover the establishment of Israel as a nation and covenant law that formed the basis for their relationship with God. The other three sections of our Old Testament are the historical writings, the writings of the prophets, and the wisdom literature.

The Old Testament was written over a long span of time by many different authors. There are traditional dates and authors for most of these writings. But many of these dates and authors are disputed today. The collection of these writings that form the Tanakh was a long process that extended until the later part of the first millennium of the Christian era.

The New Testament

The New Testament is a collection of writings that most agree were composed during the middle to later part of the first century. The twenty-seven books that compose the New Testament can be roughly divided into two sections. The first section includes the four gospels and the book of Acts. The second section contains letters written by the apostles to either individuals or churches.

The dates and authors of some of the New Testament writings are questioned by some scholars today. But most of them either identify their authors or have well-attested traditional authors. The dates of composition are mostly unknown, but likely within the lifetime of the first generation of believers.

There were more than twenty-seven writings that were produced by the first generation of the church. But these are the ones that most of the church has come to accept as inspired and authoritative. The development of the New Testament canon was a slow process that was not finalized until late in the fourth century. Most of the writings were widely accepted early on. But there were a few whose acceptance took much longer.

About Translations

The Bible was written primarily in Hebrew for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament. But few of us read those languages today. But, fortunately, there are many translations into a wide variety of languages spoken throughout the world. This allows us to be able to read the Bible in our native tongues rather than having to learn ancient versions of Hebrew and Greek.

It is not possible to make a word-for-word translation from the original languages to today’s languages, especially English, that make sense. The sentence structures are different and many of the expressions that were common 2-3000 years ago are no longer in use. So the translation process is one of rendering the original language into the translated language as faithfully as possible.

Another issue with translating is trying to obtain original documents to translate from. Documents that no longer exist. We have access to many old copies. But even they are copies of copies of copies. And as each copy is made the potential for copy errors increases. So a part of the translation process is to compare all of the old manuscripts we have available and try as best we can to determine what the original said.

There are many English translations available today. They vary based on the ancient manuscripts they used as well as some of the considerations they made in translating into English. There is debate as to which translation today is the best. The best translation is the one you will actually read and spend time with.

Inspired by God

The previous section talked about the physical nature of the Bible. But that is really secondary. Of greater importance is what it means for us as believers. The traditional view of the Bible is that it is inspired by God, is truthful, and is authoritative in matters of faith and practice. There are many today who would dispute this traditional understanding of the Bible. But I believe that to be a serious mistake that undercuts the foundation of our faith. We do not worship the Bible. But it is the source of our beliefs. And if its inspiration and truthfulness are dismissed, then we are free to believe whatever we want to.

Inspiration

There are several views on Biblical inspiration. But, at its heart, it is the claim that the inspiration behind the human authors of the Scripture was God. Whether God inspired every word or just the thoughts that are expressed, what the Bible contains is what God wanted it to have. Inspiration of the Scripture is different than inspiration in regards to merely human work.

A human artist will receive inspiration from a variety of sources. It could be another book or work of art. It could be the awe of nature or some manmade object. Or their inspiration might come from within themselves. But the inspiration of the Biblical authors came from God. These authors wrote as the Holy Spirit led them. And so we call the Scriptures God-breathed.

The human authors can be seen in their work. But they are relatively unimportant. We attribute the gospel of Matthew to one of Jesus’ disciples, Matthew the tax collector. But it does not really matter who the human author was, so long as it is inspired by God.

2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that all Scripture is inspired by God. Not just some of it. But all of it. And that inspiration includes both its writing and the understanding that God gives to his people as they read it.

Inerrancy

Inerrancy is a word that means the Bible is without error. Most people will acknowledge that minor scribal errors have been introduced over the years when it was reproduced by hand. So inerrancy generally implies that the Bible was without error when it was originally written. But even with that, there is some debate as to what the limits are with inerrancy.

Is every single topic that the Bible addresses factually accurate? Or are there limits to that? The biggest issue concerns the book of Genesis, especially the first eleven chapters. Are these accounts of creation, fall, and flood scientifically and historically accurate? Or do they have a more important truth to teach us than how long it took God to create and populate the world?

For most people inerrancy implies a literalness that I do not believe is warranted. Because of that, I prefer to say that the Bible is truthful in all that it teaches concerning our faith and how we live out our lives as believers. I do not personally depend on the Bible to teach science. But it is my authority in matters of faith and practice.

Authority

By claiming that the Bible is authoritative, we are saying that it has the final word concerning our doctrinal beliefs and how we live as children of God. 2 Timothy 2:16-17 not only claims that the Bible is inspired. It also tells us what it is useful for. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

The Bible is useful in all areas of the Christian life. It equips us for life and service within the kingdom. Teaching us what we need to know, rebuking and correcting us as need be, and training us in living a righteous life. But it is important to remember that the Holy Spirit who inspired these words is their best teacher. We should learn to depend on and trust him to teach us from the Bible.

There are many other books that seek to give guidance to us as believers. And many who teach and proclaim Christian truth. But none of them carry the authority of the Bible. If there is ever any disparity between what the Bible says and another book or teacher, remember that the Bible is the authority.

Correctly Handling the Word of God

2 Timothy 2:15 tells us to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” Included in this is the admonition to correctly handle the Bible, the word of truth. That does include understanding the Bible to be inspired, truthful, and authoritative. But it is more than that.

To correctly handle the word, I need to use it correctly. Too often we are guilty of using the Bible as a collection of proof-texts we pull out to defend a position we hold. Rather than look at isolated passages, we should look for what the Bible as a whole has to say on a subject.

It is important to recognize that while the Bible is inspired, my interpretation of it is not. Whenever I read the Bible, I do so with a certain understanding that I have developed over the years, my interpretative framework. This interpretative framework is made up of what I already believe the Bible teaches as well as my own personal experiences and personality. Having this framework is unavoidable, and is not itself bad. The danger in it though is when we assume that we are not interpreting and what we are reading is the plain message of the Bible. That can make us very resistant to correction.

What the Bible Is and Is Not

In order to most effectively read and understand the Bible, it is important to recognize what the Bible is and what it is not.

The Bible Is . . .

The Bible is composed of a variety of literary genres. It contains history, poetry, teaching, and proclamation or preaching. And it contains many metaphors and symbolism. But above everything else, it is the word of God. While it does not contain all we might like to know, it does contain what God wants us to have.

The Bible Is Not . . .

The Bible is not a systematic theology text that neatly lays out doctrine in an easy-to-digest format. While some parts of the Scripture do provide us with explicit doctrine, most of it does not. And even those parts that are teaching doctrine do not do so in a systematic fashion. The Bible tells us about God’s interaction with humanity in a way that is often messy and challenging for us.

Questions to Consider

  • Why is the inspiration of the Bible important?
  • How important is the human authorship of the Bible? Does it matter if Moses wrote Genesis, or if it was some other individual or group that composed it?
  • What is the practical implication of the Bible being authoritative for the believer?
  • What is the most challenging aspect (author, date of composition, inspiration, inerrancy, authoritative, interpretation) of the Bible for you?

You are welcome to respond to these questions in the comment section below. If you do, be sure to check the “Notify me” checkbox just above the Post Comment button so you can get any feedback. Note that all comments are moderated. Only respectful comments relevant to the topic will be posted.

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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