What is the Bible?

by Mark M. Mattison

The word "Bible" comes from the Greek word Biblion, which means "book." The Bible, then, is the "book" of the church. This is an excellent description of its place and function in the Christian community. However, the Bible never uses this term to describe itself.

Many Christians refer to the Bible as "the word of God." The intent is to affirm and reinforce the divine inspiration of the Bible. However, the Bible never calls itself "the word of God" either. Why not? Because "the word" cannot be distilled to written words on a page. "For the word of God is living and active" (Heb. 4:12a, NIV). God sends forth His word, and it does not return to Him until it has accomplished its purpose (Isa. 55:10,11). The word of God spreads on earth (Acts 6:7a). We are "born again...through the living and enduring word of God" (1 Pet. 1:23,NIV). The word of God lives in us (1 John 2:14). Through God's word all things were made (John 1:1-3). Jesus' name is the word of God (Rev. 19:13). The word of God, the revealed truth of God, is not a book, even though our book reveals many things about God. But the two are not synonymous.

What, then, does the Bible call itself? The Biblical term for the Bible is "the holy Scriptures" (2 Tim. 3:15, NIV) or simply "the Scriptures" (John 5:39, NIV). The term "Scriptures" or (literally, "writings") emphasizes the character of the Bible as a library. The Scriptures of this library are "holy" or set apart from others. They are the books recognized by the Church (by Christians) as inspired and normative.

Does the subtle distinction between "word of God" and "holy Scriptures" matter? It may. Why? Referring to the Bible collectively as "the word of God" may help to emphasize its divine inspiration and authority, but it may also tempt us to homogenize the distinctive testimonies of the Bible's multifarious parts. This may prevent us from developing a more well rounded appreciation of its message and limit our understanding of what God's Word is.

The list of recognized Scriptures in the Church is known as "the canon." The Protestant canon includes the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible and the 27 books referred to as "the New Testament." The Catholic canon includes these books as well as a dozen others that are found in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. Though many other Jewish and Christian books have been written over the last few millennia, only these 66 or so are considered authoritative. Why?

Many theories have been proposed to explain and define the canon. One proposed criterion to determine the canonicity of a New Testament writing is authorship. If a book was written by an apostle or an associate of the apostles, it is considered canonical. Hence apostolic authority is the basis of the canon. This criterion, however, is flawed since the authorship of all the books cannot be established with certainty. For example, no one knows who wrote the book of Hebrews. And what would that do to our canon if archaeologists discovered another letter of Paul (say, his letter to the Laodiceans, Col. 4:16)?

The best explanation for the canon is "God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15, NIV). The canon of Scripture as it has been preserved has shaped and defined the community of faith. We know it to be normative because it continues to confront and correct us. We know it to be inspired because we have been unable to tame or obscure its uncomfortable and radical witness. The Scriptures surprise us, embarrass us, call us to repentance, and instruct us in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).

The canon of Scripture is important because it represents the acceptable limits of diversity and enables us to pinpoint the basis of our unity. It enables us to appreciate each Christian's canon "within" the canon. The Catholic's vision is shaped by the emphasis on tradition and order in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus; the Protestant's vision is shaped by Paul's powerful gospel in Galatians and Romans; the charismatic's vision is shaped by Acts and 1 Corinthians; the Adventist's vision is shaped by Daniel, 2 Thessalonians, and Revelation; and so on. This appreciation of each Christian's "piece" of the truth prepares us to transcend the barriers that divide us and to grow up into "the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13, NIV).

What is this library we call the Bible? It is the book of the Church, and each of us represents a chapter. In tying all the chapters together we begin to glimpse the glory of Christ and to discern the direction we should travel as a collective people of God (see 2 Cor. 3). The nonsectarian ministries of True Grace Ministries and open house churches are conducive to this mission.


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