The Bible is not a book

Mar 19, 2015 by

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

So often we hear, “The Bible says . . .” What exactly does that mean? Especially when topics are controversial, the conversation stopper is often something like, “The Bible is clear about that.”

book-610334_1280But what is the Bible? A book? In fact, it is a library of books. I often wish we would divide it into separate volumes to carry around for a few days. I guarantee we would stop thinking of the Bible as one book.

The Bible library is a history of God’s people over time, places, cultures and contexts. It tells the stories of tribes, patriarchs and matriarchs, kings, rulers, people groups and, eventually, Christian churches scattered over Asia. It is thoroughly interesting and genuinely exciting at places. It is inspired and inspiring. This library has prose and poetry, hymns and sermons, family histories and mystical revelations. It is sweeping in its ability to connect to human emotion as well as political events. It is amazingly contemporary and agonizingly contradictory.

Bible study is really the mining of 66 library books.

Once, a pastoral search committee posed a trick question to me: “How do you define the Word of God?” Well, I bit. I delved into a complicated explanation of the Bible, its relevance to the church and my own use of Scripture. The deacon calmly replied, “The Word of God is Jesus.” Oops.

No matter if we are pastors or congregational leaders, youth or elders, we are always connecting our daily lives to the Bible library. What does a certain story, parable or history section of the library say about our stories, our complicated lives, our contexts? I have found that a Psalm can help me cope with a loss or a painful situation through its hymnody or poetry. I also like to reread a Gospel section where Jesus tells a story when asked questions.

It seems that consulting (and listening to) the Bible library presents a perspective, an era, a voice, even counsel and truth for contemporary application. Understanding the varying Bible library books is important.

Today there are those who claim that by reading the Bible they can find the one “Christian” answer to every question of public policy or personal behavior. But sincere Christians disagree on most every topic and find a Bible text to underscore their point of view.

Christians should beware of slick, easy answers. The Bible library has enormous value and should be consulted at every point of spiritual decision. The Bible library has words of wisdom and words of correction. But it is neither a scientific textbook nor a cohesive philosophical treatise.

Bible study must be individual (personal) and corporate (group). Bible study in the church must be preached as well as practiced. Understanding the Bible must be informed by a Christocentric viewpoint.

In spite of nearly five centuries of Scripture exhortation by Anabaptists, modern Mennonites are woefully short on scriptural discernment and long on biblical osmosis. We hear about the Bible each Sunday, but we rarely do more than that. This “drive-by” study is, I suppose, better than nothing, but it hardly passes for delighting in the Scriptures.

We love the Scriptures and are admonished to go “back to the Bible” when faced with ethical, theological and daily living issues. However, we must stop with clichés and easy answers about biblical writing lest we forget the Bible is not a book but a library of wisdom inspired by the Holy Spirit that is alive today in the church.

Dorothy Nickel Friesen is a retired pastor and conference minister. She lives in Newton, Kan., and is a member of Bethel College Mennonite Church.


Comments Policy

Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.

  • Charles K. Wainwright III

    “The Word of God is Jesus.” That statement illustrates a very juvenile understanding of the word of God. Not only is it a misunderstanding of John, but it implies God’s word is stagnant and that he no longer speaks to us directly. God is not some distant thing which no longer speaks to us, or at least I don’t put those kind of limitations on God. The Bible is simply a collection of ancient and early Christian writings agreed upon by a group of bishops some 1700 years ago as being the most worthy of inclusion in a standardized format to maintain a consistency of Christian religious beliefs.

    • Stephen Johnson

      I wonder some times about the “most worthy” part. It seems to me that the early church lost it’s pacifist views at about the same time. I wonder if the political power structure of Rome may have played a role. While I believe the Bible is divinely inspired I do not believe that any document written, compiled and interpreted by man are without flaws.

      As to the scriptures Gary shares I would ask the question what scriptures he is referring to. As Charles pointed out the Bible was not compiled for hundreds of years after those scriptures were written.

      • Linda Rosenblum

        Do you not have enough faith in God to believe that he controlled the situation during the canonization of Scripture by humans of faith? Would God not ensure that the message he intended was consistent and continued in the version of the Bible that we have today? Yes, we all know that humans are fallible and that the Bible was written and rewritten through human hands. That doesn’t mean that God didn’t guide those hands. I trust that the words we read today are the ones that God intended for us to read. Linda Rosenblum

        • Stephen Johnson

          When I see the significant secularization and loss of pacifism that occurred at the time when the scriptures were compiled I do indeed question whether we have a complete and clear picture of God’s message. Do I believe that the Spirit continues to work through what we have then the answer is yes. I do not believe these views are mutually exclusive. I do think we need to use significant care in how we interpret any scripture. I believe the two greatest commandments should be our guide since ALL the Law is built on them.

          • Linda Rosenblum

            How can you be sure then, that the two greatest commandments were actually said by Jesus? Maybe some guy in the 11th century just added them in for flavor? Either we trust that God has preserved his word or we don’t. — Linda Rosenblum

  • Gary Hill

    These are Bible verses also that can help enlighten our understanding of what exactly the bible really is:

    2Ti 3:16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

    2Pe 1:20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.
    2Pe 1:21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

    • Charles K. Wainwright III

      You do realize Paul and Peter could only have been referring to the Torah and the greater and lesser prophets when they used the words scripture or prophecy. It would then be correct to say the New Testament is the writings of man only. I often wonder what Paul would have said if someone told him be careful what you write because someday some of your letters are going to be called scripture.

      • Gary Hill

        Thanks Charles,
        I’m sure God knew that when He inspired Paul to write.

  • Charles K. Wainwright III

    “The Word of God is Jesus.” That statement illustrates a very juvenile
    understanding of the word of God. Not only is it a misunderstanding of
    John, but it implies God’s word is stagnant and that he no longer speaks
    to us directly. God is not some distant thing which no longer speaks to
    us, or at least I don’t put those kind of limitations on God. The Bible
    is simply a collection of ancient and early Christian writings agreed
    upon by a group of bishops some 1700 years ago as being the most worthy
    of inclusion in a standardized format to maintain a consistency of
    Christian religious beliefs.

  • Berry Friesen

    What gives coherence to this library of 66 books? I don’t see an answer to that question in this essay.

    The hypothesis John K. Stoner and I work with in “If Not Empire, What? A Survey of the Bible” is that through much of the Bible runs an argument about how the people of YHWH should relate to the reigning empire. Nickel Friesen’s essay makes sense when I read it though such a lens, and so do Gary’s scripture references.

    But without some grasp on what is being talked about in the biblical collection, the variety in style and content is bewildering and it is all too easy to dismiss the Bible as imperfectly assembled and irrelevant to contemporary problems.