For Christians, the Bible is the “Word of God”—which obviously sets it apart, in a category all of its own, compared to any other book. What’s not immediately obvious from that phrase, though, is how exactly it’s the Word of God. In what way it’s the Word of God. What that actually means in practice. To believe that the Bible is the Word of God is only the start. What each of us, personally, thinks that means will determine the place that we give to it in our life.
If the Bible is the Word of God, featuring in some way the words of God, then presumably God has given it to us so that in some way he “speaks” to us through it. Notice already, the number of times I’m needing to say “in some way . . . .” Each of these statements needs to be explored, in terms of what we mean by it.
How God features in his Word, why and how he gave it to us, and, most importantly, how God speaks to us through it are really important questions for any Christian who starts from the perspective of being “Bible-believing” and sees the Bible as a vital part of their relationship with God. And that’s because, ultimately, our interest is not so much the Bible itself as what it tells us about the God behind the Bible and how it “works” in communicating the things of God to us.
We need to know what “believing” the Bible looks like in practice and what we believe the Bible to “be” is an important starting point. We can’t defend the Bible against its critics unless we know what we’re defending, so we can be sure that we’re defending the right things. The kinds of things that people have found difficult include:
- Whether Adam and Eve are to be taken literally;
- Whether, if the Bible wasn’t exactly “dictated” by God, it was “as good as” dictated;
- Whether the Bible is “inerrant” and “infallible”—as the “of God” bit of Word of God might imply—since, if God is those things and it’s “his” Word, then surely it must be too;
- What it’s saying about hell;
- What it’s telling us about science and biology;
- How we deal with some of the violence in the Old Testament for which God seems to get the credit; and
- How to deal with some of the (apparently) outdated things it appears to teach, such as women submitting to men and keeping quiet in church. Are these “timeless” truths or time-bound within that era? If the Bible contains a mixture, then why does it? How do we tell the difference?
All of these come under the broader question, “What do we mean by the Bible as the Word of God?”
How Is God Involved in His Word?
You will have noticed that I’ve been using the term “the Word of God” with a capital “W” and will continue to do so throughout. One reason for that is simply because it’s the most common title that Christians give to the Bible. But a more important reason is that it’s that very title that leads to many of the questions we’re aiming to address, so I want to keep it center stage. Specifically, this happens when by implication Christians grant to the Bible quasi-divine attributes that place it almost on a par with God himself. Non-charismatics may be criticized for turning the Trinity into God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Scriptures, but their charismatic brethren can be just as guilty of unwittingly deify ing the Bible, too. I think this happens through a combination of seeing a capital “W” (we tend to capitalize words referring to God, don’t we?), the slightly ambiguous tag “of God” (the meaning of which people interpret differently: “of ” in what sense?), and conservative evangelical tradition in which the Bible is very highly revered, not least when we feel the need to defend it against secular criticism.
The challenge is illustrated by something I came across on a website called biblestudytools.com, under the heading “Bible Verses about the Word of God,” where it says: “The Bible is referred to as the Word of God meaning it can be considered a direct line of communication from the Lord . . .” (italics added). The sentence then continues with the qualification “. . . interpreted by the authors of the respective books,” which adds to (rather than resolves) the problem of how those two statements are understood to come together in practice. How can a communication be both a “direct line of communication” and “interpreted by”? Strictly speaking, of course, the Bible does not talk about itself as the Word of God, not least because the Bible as we know it today had not yet come together. Within the Bible itself, that title is reserved solely for Jesus (John 1)—which perhaps adds to that “quasi-divine attributes” ambiguity for people. Christians’ naming of the Bible as “the Word of God” largely follows by inference from phrases such as “the word of the Lord” (which is talking of God speaking generally) and “the law of the Lord” (which is talking of Torah). I will continue to use the Word of God as a title, but wherever it appears I mean nothing different than if I’d said “the Bible” or (as I do occasionally) “Scripture” or “the Scriptures.”
God Likes Questions (Even If People Don’t Always)
Many Christians have been told by church leaders—or at least, it’s been strongly implied—that they shouldn’t ask difficult questions. They should just trust and believe; not over-intellectualize their faith, not let their head get in the way of their heart, and such like. If you’ve experienced that, and found it disappointing, then this book is for you.
Sadly there is a strain of anti-intellectualism in everyday Christianity, which is driven by a legitimate fear of intellectualizing faith away; and especially, heart-centered experiential faith. However, in God’s design, we were made to be inquisitive, thinking people. Jesus said that we should love the Lord our God with our minds as well as our hearts and souls—the “greatest commandment” embraces all three (Matthew 22:37). I actually think God likes questions! He certainly isn’t fazed by them. Christianity is never under threat from good people asking good questions with good attitudes (even though some Christian leaders may feel that they personally might be!). The famous motto of Anselm, the eleventh century Archbishop of Canterbury, was “faith seeking understanding.” Not, however, in the sense of replacing a living faith with intellectual head-knowledge. He was talking about people who start from a position of loving God but are equally passionate for a deeper understanding of God—who come at understanding from the direction of faith. Who want to add understanding to that faith. And of course, the Bible has a key role to play in the journey. There’s absolutely no need for us to put “faith” vs. “understanding” in competition with each other.
This book will not be one for those who are perfectly happy to start and finish with “the Bible says . . . .” That’s great as a starting point, but not if our interest ends there. What we should really want to know is what the Bible means by what it says—how we are to best understand what it says, and why it says it. If we’re going to properly respect the original writers, that means first wanting to know what it meant to them in their situation, in their day, rather than leaping straight to what it means for us in our situation, in our day. That’s important because a basic “rule” of good biblical interpretation is that it cannot mean something now that it did not mean then. Simply to “copy and paste” verses from “then” to “now,” as if there was no distance between the two, is to ignore the significance of those verses’ original contexts. At best, it’s disrespectful, and at worst, it will lead to poor interpretation. Flipped round the other way, the better we understand its original meaning, the richer and more profound will be our application of the text in our circumstances today.
Praise for How to Read the Bible Well
“Steve’s work has many virtues. First, its level of discourse is accessible to the average reader. Second, the topics covered help Christian readers deal with difficult questions not often addressed. For instance, I was impressed with his treatment of the violence texts in the Old Testament. Third, in dealing with difficult questions, Steve does not attempt to give neat answers. Rather, he sets out various options and allows for mystery, striking a suitably postmodern tone.”
—Derek Morphew, author of Biblical Interpretation 101
“Is the Bible human words or the word of God? Is there a Big Story to it? Perhaps, as Stephen Burnhope suggests, it is a Box Set. Do we need to read the Old Testament? Where does Jesus fit? This book is a gift from a theologian for those who need answers. Readers will return to the Bible with renewed passion and confidence to hear its message afresh.”
—Graham H. Twelftree, Academic Dean, London School of Theology
“This is an accessible, inspiring guide to reading the Bible which successfully reveals the reliability, relevance, and timeless power of the word of God. Steve offers guidance in the form of a useful ‘tool kit’ to a broad range of readers. Whether you are looking for mind-stretching insight or a practical guide, How to Read the Bible Well is a book which will help you to do just that.”
—David Graham, Lead Pastor, Southcourt Baptist Church, Aylesbury, UK
About the Author
Stephen Burnhope received his PhD from King’s College London having previously completed an MA in Hermeneutics with Distinction at The London School of Theology. He and his wife Lyn are Senior Pastors of the Vineyard Church in Aylesbury, UK.