what is the purpose of the bible?
(N.B. This is an updated post which previously asked the question “What is the purpose of Scripture?” as an open discussion, hence the first few comments by others, which were responses to that original discussion question, might seem a bit out of context.)
Many discussions I have with people involve the Bible (not surprisingly). I am always interested to find out how people view Scripture; What is its purpose? What kind of authority does it have, and why? What kind of truth does it tell us? How do we interpret it? For today I am going to restrict my focus to the question of the Bible’s purpose.
It seems to me that most Christians I meet (generally Evangelicals and Pentecostals) view Scripture as a set of timeless truths. That is, they see the Bible as containing propositions of truth that are universally applicable, almost like a book of non-contextualised proverbs. This is not to personally attack people who hold such a view, for they usually do so unwittingly. Besides, I myself used to hold this kind of perspective in my younger years.
But I must say that I have distanced myself from such an opinion. I find that viewing Scripture as a set of propositions does at least two things; 1) It does an injustice to the way God and the original authors chose to communicate to us, which is primarily through narrative (there is only one book in the entire Bible made up of proverbs… no prize for guessing which one), and 2) It takes the beauty of Scripture and collapses it into an ugly utilitarian machine.
It seems that God purposely did not hand us a set of propositions. Instead he gave us a story. The story of his actions throughout history. The story of his people, their failings and their triumphs. The story of his restorative project for all creation in light of the tragedy of Genesis 3.
When we see the Bible as a narrative, its purpose changes. It is no longer seen to be merely a rulebook, or a legal constitution, or a set of instructions on how to live (does anyone remember that old acronym, Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth… I don’t know where to begin in deconstructing that…).
Instead, the Bible becomes the story that we find ourselves in, and we see that our mission is the continuation of the mission in the story. N.T. Wright uses the following analogy;
“Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost. The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.
Consider the result. The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted ‘authority’ for the task in hand. That is, anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that this or that character was now behaving inconsistently, or that this or that sub-plot or theme, adumbrated earlier, had not reached its proper resolution. This ‘authority’ of the first four acts would not consist in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier pans of the play over and over again. It would consist in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, which contained its own impetus, its own forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in the proper manner but which required of the actors a responsible entering in to the story as it stood, in order first to understand how the threads could appropriately be drawn together, and then to put that understanding into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency.” [N.T. Wright, “How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?”, Vox Evangelica 21 (1991): 7-32]
And so the drama recounted in the Scriptures is the model of God’s mission into the world that we emulate and continue in our contemporary contexts. The outworking of the mission will require innovation in that we try to communicate the reality of the kingdom of God in new settings with new challenges, but it will also require consistency with the message of the kingdom that Scripture proclaims.
Theological study is, as Franke claims, “…pursued not simply to secure right belief or to correct false teaching but to assist in the promotion and the accomplishment of the mission of God.” [John R. Franke, The Character Of Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 166]. This goes, equally I think, for our view and interpretation of the Bible. It was given not so we can hold the right doctrines, but to aid us in our kingdom mission of seeing God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. It might aid us in different ways, for example by helping to refute incorrect beliefs harmful to God’s mission, by helping us to understand God and his character, or by helping to reorientate us in the right narrative direction. Whatever the case, it is important to note that however it aids us, Scripture’s overarching purpose is to assist us in seeking first the kingdom and continuing the mission of God in the world.
Let us continue the story until the day when we will live happily ever after…