#1. The Bible is not a diet book, a dating manual, nor a set of bullets in a PowerPoint brief “from the Lord.”
The quote above (taken from our introduction to this 10-part series on how not to read the Bible) is intended as illustrative of what I like to call the “manual” or “handbook” approach to scripture. In this method we do not read the Bible as if it were literature but rather we use the Bible as if it were Tech Manual or Handbook for life. Have you ever heard statements like this: “The Bible has the answer to every question” or “this book holds the solution to every problem.” The Bible certainly does not have the answer to every question (nor is it intended to). Where did the wives for Adam & Eve’s sons come from? Can God make a square circle? Which is the correct theory of the origin of the universe: the Big Bang or the Steady State theory? Should I take the job in Philadelphia or the one in New York? Should I marry the smart blonde or the pretty brunette with the great personality? Now the Bible may provide some insight, guidance, or principles which could be helpful, but it surely does not answer every one of these questions directly or unequivocally. The Bible does provide some very practical wisdom for daily living, in say, the book of Proverbs for example. And we can surely draw principles from it to guide our decisions and actions in areas like ethics, relationships, mission, theology, etc. But it simply does not provide an explicit answer to every problem we face in this life. If it did then what would be the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, or the role of faith for a follower of Jesus.
In his book The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture Christian Smith (a sociologist by trade) advocates a “need-to-know basis” approach to scripture:
“In his wisdom, God has chosen to reveal some of his will, plan, and work, but clearly not all of it.”
Smith also provides us with 2+ pages of a list of Book titles (presumably written from a Biblicist, “manual” approach to scripture viewpoint). I guarantee you that you won’t be able to read through the whole list without chuckling at least a couple times. Here’s a few highlights:
- Cooking with the Bible: Recipes for Biblical Meals
- The Bible Cure for Cancer
- Bible Answers for Every Need
- What Does the Bible Say about… The Ultimate A to Z Resource to Contemporary Topics One Would Not Expect to Find in the Bible
- Handbook for Christian Living: Biblical Answers to Life’s Tough Questions
- Business by the book: The Complete Guide to Biblical Principles for the Workplace
- The Biblical Connection to the Stars and Stripes: A Nation’s Godly Principles Embodied in Its Flag
- Gardening with Biblical Plants
- Success in School: Building on Biblical Principles
- Get the Skinny on Prosperity: Biblical Principles That Work for Everyone
- Incoming: Listening for God’s Messages – A Handbook for Life
- Scripture-Based Solutions for Handling Stress
- Body by God: The Owner’s Manual for Maximized Living
- Holding Hands, Holding Hearts: Recovering a Biblical View of Christian Dating
- Seven Secrets of Bible-Made Millionaires
- Weather and the Bible: 100 Questions and Answers
I think you get my point. Just imagine reading almost 2-1/2 pages worth of book titles like that. And if at this point you’re thinking I’m a Bible hating, flaming liberal don’t worry – almost all of the above titles are still in print! My point is this: that one does not arrive at the kind of conclusions that these book draw by reading through the Bible in the literary form in which God gave it to us (nor by focusing on the overarching story of God’s plan to reconcile a lost & broken humanity unto Himself), but rather by combing through it in search of nuggets on the desired topic, i.e. by picking and choosing “verses” which appear to address the subject of interest (Stand by: more on the topical approach in Week 6), or worse yet, in search of rules to be obeyed.
Which brings me to my final point for today: Reading the Bible like a bulletized list, i.e. the idea that a carriage return should be placed at the end of each verse (as if it were an independent thought or literary unit) is utterly preposterous! More on this when we talk about Bible format in week 7, but suffice to say that Bible publishers have begun to give us some hope of sanity on this issue.
Until next time, my friends, when we’ll flesh out the idea of reading the Bible as literature a little more. In the mean time, to wet your appetite, consider picking up a copy of Leland & Philip Ryken’s Literary Study Bible!