Christians have always sought to get the best out of the Bible by holding two approaches together. The first approach is academic study – intelligent and thorough. The second approach recognises that God speaks through the Bible to each succeeding generation – personal and life-changing.
Academic study treats the Bible like any other historic document. It puts the documents in the context of the world in which they were written. Those who understand the culture and politics of those ages are able to reveal insights into the Bible’s meaning that are not immediately obvious. Scholars also explain subtleties of meaning in the original languages. They research the date and place in which the books were composed, and what might have happened to the stories as they were passed by word of mouth before they came to written down. They analyse what history and archaeology can reveal about the events described.
Academics bring their own assumptions to their study, which means that they disagree with each other. For instance, some scholars think that church leaders in the years after Jesus invented sayings and events, and then attributed them to Jesus in order to encourage their congregations. Other scholars start by assuming that the words of Jesus were so significant to those who first heard them that they preserved them with great care and reproduced them in the Bible that Christians now read.
The second approach recognises that people without any special training read the Bible and find that it seizes their imagination. It becomes one of the ways in which they find out what God wants of them as individuals and wants for the whole world. Christians describe the Bible as a book which ‘guides’ them. If they give it a place of authority in their thinking and behaviour, they begin to have a sense that God is communicating with them in a very personal way through it. Most Christians use the Bible in this devotional way, either reading it individually, discussing it in groups, or listening to it read and explained in church services.
This approach also has possible drawbacks. The concepts in the Bible are at least two thousand years old. An attempt to impose them on the twenty-first century without any thought about how their original significance needs to be reinterpreted for our vastly different culture can lead to wayward or damaging interpretations.
A devotional approach to the Bible needs the assistance of academic study so that Christians are helped to find its true meaning. An intellectual approach to the Bible needs to be liberated from dry study by a realisation that this is a book through which God is speaking to those who worship him with hope, heart and direction.
Holding these two together, Christians often find the Bible to be a book that is life-changing and inspirational, but not straightforward. Its words are not magical messages from God. They are reliable, and the Bible describes itself as inspired by God. But the Bible is communicated through the styles and imaginations of fallible human authors.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Where to find it:
About these words:
From a letter to Jews who had converted to Christianity, perhaps thirty years after the life of Jesus. ‘The word of God’ is used at various times to describe the Bible, Jesus himself, and the whole of God’s revelation to the world.
And they said…
Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890, artist:
It is a very good thing that you read the Bible. The Bible is Christ … principal certainty, eternal life, the infinity of time, the nothingness of death, the necessity and the raison d’être of serenity and devotion. He lived serenely, as a greater artist than all other artists, despising marble and clay as well as colour, working in living flesh … He made living men, immortals.
Euan Murray, Newcastle Falcons and Scotland rugby union player:
I believe the Bible is the Word of God, so who am I to ignore something from it? I might as well tear out that page, and then keep tearing out pages as and when it suits me. If I started out like that there would soon be nothing left.
Derek Draper, one-time high-flying adviser to the Labour government, then disgraced, who subsequently found faith:
I started to discover Jesus Christ, his life and teachings. I’m still learning, and there’s no doubt that as I read I struggle both with aspects of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, and with the actions, past and present, of the organised church. What I know, though, is that none of that matters too much. The core of my Christianity is a belief in the wisdom of Jesus’ words as told in the Gospels.