Rob Sturdy: What is the Bible?

20 12 2011

This was originally prepared for our new believers class

The great Baptist preacher from England, Charles Spurgeon, once remarked:

 “I was thoughtless like others; I laughed religion to scorn, and those who attended to it; my language was, Let us eat, drink and enjoy the sunshine of life, but now through Christ Jesus I find the Bible a honeycomb, which hardly needs to be pressed to let the drops of honey run out; it is so sweet and precious to my taste that I wish I could sit down and feast on my Bible forever.”[1]

Our topic is what is the Bible, and to that end Spurgeon’s quote helps us significantly as we seek to understand more fully what it is.  To put it quit simply, it is a feast for the soul, it is food that endures and satisfies.But in order to be truly helpful we need to pull the Bible out of the abstraction of Spurgeon, no matter how beautiful and speak more concretely as to what the Bible is.  So first we must pick up our Bible!  The Bible you have in your hands is an English translation of two primary languages, Hebrew in the Old Testament and Greek in the New Testament.  If you open your Bible to the Table of Contents you will notice that the Bible is broken up into two major sections.  These sections are the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament.  And though your Table of Contents will not make these divisions, you can further divide both Testaments further if you wish.  Perhaps you might want to take a pen or highlighter and make these divisions yourself.

The Old Testament

The Pentateuch, The Torah, The Books of Moses






The Books of History




1 & 2 Samuel

1 & 2 Kings

1 & 2 Chronicles




Wisdom Literature





Song of Solomon

The Major Prophets






The Minor Prophets













The New Testament

They Synoptic Gospels




John’s Gospel


Paul’s Letters to the Churches


1 & 2 Corinthians





1 & 2 Thessalonians

Paul’s Letters to Individuals

1 & 2 Timothy




The Catholic Epistles

1 & 2 Peter

1, 2, 3, John




The above list does, in a bare bones way answer the question “what is the Bible?” However, we as Christians would like to say that the Bible is more than this.  As Anglicans, we agree that at the bare minimum the Bible “contains all things necessary for salvation” and “whatever is not read in the Bible or can be proven by the Bible is not required to be believed by any man” (Article VI).  What does this mean?  It means as Anglicans we believe that God has revealed enough of His truth within the pages of the Bible to lead a man or woman to saving knowledge of God.  Furthermore, as Anglicans we believe that the Church is not free to lay requirements (whether beliefs, morality, or actions) upon individuals that cannot be explicitly or implicitly proven by Scripture.  The presupposition behind these assertions is that God has spoken authoritatively in the pages of Scripture on salvation, faith, history, morality, and life.  This is not all that one can say about Scripture.  In fact the clergy of this church believe far more about Scripture than this.  But we believe this is a good starting point.

One thing we must say before we go further is our commitment to the Scriptures as ademocratizing force in the congregation.  By this we mean everyone has a Bible, everyone can read along with us in the Bible as we preach, and each and everyone person who reads along is free to confirm our interpretation or challenge it.  The pastors of a church are set apart to preach the word, but they are not above the word.  Their actions must be consistent with the word.  Therefore, this doctrine of scripturekeeps pastors from becoming dictators by holding them accountable to God by his word and the collective interpretation of the church (past and present). 

These are some large truths that the Anglicans are making about Scripture.  How are they justified?  To go back to our theme for this confirmation course, “what is the reason for the hope you have in…” to believe in the authority of the Bible?

Four Reasonable Arguments for the Authority of the Bible:

  • Jesus is the Son of God.  Jesus treated the Old Testament as authoritative.  Therefore the Old Testament is an authoritative word of God.  What about the New Testament?  The Apostles were charged to “teach everything that Jesus taught them”.  They claim to have done so.  Their teachings are consistent with the meaning of the Old Testament as explained by Jesus.
  • Internal Consistency: Within the 15,000 manuscripts we have of the Old and New Testaments the level of contradiction within them is slender and inconsequential (number of angels at the tomb for instance).  As opposed to the level of variation within Aristotle which is literally in the thousands, and on major philosophical points.  Consider the mann in which we received Aristotle.  For example, Felix Grayeff’s article “The Problem of the Genesis of Aristotle’s Text” published inPhronesisA Journal for Ancient Philosophy outlines the process by which we have received Aristotle’s works.  Aristotle died, his library (including his writings) go to Theoprhastus who bequeathed them to Neleus who took them to his native Corsica.  Neleus’ relatives in inherited Aristotle and greatly neglected the books and journals.  They were hidden for a time to escape the King of Pergamon and were buried under ground where the suffered irreparable damage due to moth and moisture.  150 years later the only surviving copies, greatly damaged, were gathered and edited by Tyrannion who wrote the missing paragraphs himself.  Desiring to publish the works, he contracted the copying work out to copyists, who were recognized even by Tyrannion to be inferior and their job.  Finally these works were given to booksellers who edited them once again producing myriad faulty editions.  All this to say one simple point.  You will, without thinking, pick up Aristotle and believe you are reading Aristotle, but you have far better reason to trust the manuscript of the Bible than you do Aristotle on those grounds.  This leads Purtil, in his book Thinking About Religion to write:

“If the biblical narratives did not contain accounts of miraculous events…biblical history would probably be regarded as much more firmly established than most of the history of say, classical Greece and Rome.”

  • Well preserved manuscripts:  “It is indeed a great relief against the inconvenience of corrupt translations, to consider that although some of them be bad enough, yet, if all the errors and mistakes that are to be found in all the rest should be added to the worst of all, every necessary, saving, fundamental truth, would be found sufficiently testified therein.”[2]  The manuscripts are remarkably well preserved, however there are some variants and inconsistencies.  What shall we say about these things?  Do the variants and the inconsistencies actually change the narrative?  In other words, if we removed those instances with variants and inconsistencies would we lose the story that God became flesh, lived as Jesus of Nazareth, died on a cross and rose again three days later?  This story stays intact.

One Persuasive Argument for the authority of the Bible

We live in an age of rationalism, which is something quite different than simply being rational.  Rationalism for the purposes of this discussion, believes that human beings come to knowledge strictly through intellectual and deductive reasoning in a closed system, that is without the aid of divine assistance.  In our time, this has manifested itself with an overdependence upon logic and what can be proven by the scientific method.  This method works quite well when we want to understand cellular biology, analytical physics, or geometry.  However, rationalism does not do us much good when we want to discuss the deeper experiences of being human.  By this we mean concepts such as justice, love, mercy, compassion, anger, the desire for purpose, the concept of the divine.  To this we must look for something beyond rationalism, because at this very point where we need something most rationalism fails to account for the deep needs of our humanity.  This of course does not prove that the Bible is the book to meet those deep needs, nevertheless the Bible acknowledges those deep needs and provides answers.  It is now up to you to see if the answers it provides are persuasive.  But in order to that, you must pick it up and read it!

If the Bible is authoritative, what does it say? 

The Bible says a lot!  And the best way to determine what it says is to jump right in and learn it for yourself.  Unfortunately, many people are intimidated by the Bible and not certain how to read it.  For one, the Bible ought to be read as a whole.  One must not pick up Paul’s letter to the Romans and let that letter stand on its own.  Rather, the Romans should be placed within the larger framework of the unified story that the Bible is telling.  The essential story of the Bible is about God, his creation, its fall and subsequent redemption through act of Jesus, and final restoration.  The Bible has many different ways of expressing that story, with themes such as substitution, forgiveness, restoration, release, healing, and many others.  We will pick one theme that is demonstrated well throughout the whole Bible so that we might become familiar with reading the Bible as a unified whole.  I have chosen the theme of Ransom.  Ransom is a good theme for our purposes because it literally runs from the first book of the Bible to the very last.  Below are texts that we will read together.  See if you can piece the story together for yourself with the scripture listed below.

Salvation History (for the perspective of the theme of Ransom):

Gen 1.27

Gen 3.1-20

Gen 5.3

Gen 15

Exodus 6.6

Leviticus 25.25

Ruth ch. 3

Job 33.24

Isa 53

Psalm 22

Hos 13.14

Zech 12.10

Mark 10.45

1 Peter 1.18

Rev 5.9

[1] Spurgeon, “Confirming the Witness of Christ”  vol II pg 226


[2] John Owen, Of the Divine Original of the Scriptures, Owen’s Works vol 16



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