Bart Ehrman, a prolific agnostic author and professor poses a question to his students each semester he begins his course over the Bible at the secular university at which he teaches. Ehrman has summarized the routine as follows:
“So, part of the deal of teaching in the Bible Belt is that lots of my students – most of them? – have very conservative views about the Bible as the Word of God. A few years ago I used to start my class on the New Testament, with something like 300 students in it, by asking the students a series of questions, just for information. I would ask:
How many of you in here would agree with the proposition that the Bible is the inspired Word of God (PHOOM! Almost everyone raises their hands)
OK, great: Now, how many of you have read the Harry Potter series? (PHOOM! Again, almost everyone raises their hand).
And now, how many of you have read the entire Bible? (This time: scattered hands, here and there, throughout the auditorium)
Then I’d laugh for a minute and say, “OK, so I’m not telling *you* that *I* think the Bible is the inspired Word of God; you’re telling *me* that *you* think it is. I can see why you might want to read a book by J. K. Rowling. But if God wrote a book – wouldn’t you want to see what he had to say???”
What I have found over the years, consistently, is that my students have a much higher reverence for the Bible than knowledge about it. Most of them would say, at the beginning of the course, that there can be no mistakes in the Bible. But of course they haven’t actually read the Bible in order to *see* if there are any mistakes in it. They’ve just learned, from childhood, that it’s a perfect, flawless book.”
What Ehrman is calling out is the problem known as biblical illiteracy that is rampant among evangelical Christians today. As an agnostic, he understands that as Christians have not even read the Bible, they cannot even know if what they claim to be true is true because they haven’t even read it themselves!
Of this biblical illiteracy, Al Mohler calls it a “scandal.” Biola University calls it a “crisis.” R.C. Sproul called it a “great crisis.” Ed Stetzer goes so far as to call the growing biblical illiteracy an “epidemic.” Whatever it is called, it is a problem that needs to be addressed!
In early 2014, a Christian firm surveyed British children and adults to find the current climate of biblical literacy, or more so illiteracy. The survey revealed these discoveries of young British parents:
- 27% thought Superman is a biblical story
- Over 33% believe Harry Potter is a biblical story
- 54% believe the Hunger Games is a biblical story
How we respond to these truths is a matter of crucial importance. If I am honest, my initial response is that of a shaking head, condemning them for their lack of devotion. I am ashamed to admit this. Yet, my heart is truly broken for their lip service they pay to God, but the life service is yet to be found.
The goal of answering the question of biblical theology is to answer the question, “What is the Bible? To answer that, we will first, briefly cover what the Bible is not.
What the Bible is Not
The Bible is not a collection of random stories for morals to be extracted from. The story of David and Goliath is not about finding your inner David? What if you sling your stone and miss? The giant is bearing down on you with a force you cannot overcome. Samson is not about finding strength to overcome your enemies.
Further, if Noah and Lot were considered to be righteous, does that mean we should follow their example? They both got drunk and committed some shameful acts. That’s just the beginning of the example of the “heros” of the Bible. Don’t even mention Samson, Saul, David, or Peter.
Lastly, if the Bible was a bunch of random stories about morals, then we would need no Savior. If everything was for morals alone, then we would be expected to be our own Savior. But, the Bible is better than that!
What the Bible Is
God’s word is used to edify and point us to Him (Deut 29:29; 2 Tim 3:15–17). It reveals sin in order to show our depravity, but reveals a Savior to remedy that depravity. Without sin, we don’t understand the Savior; without the Savior, sin is despairing.
The Bible—as we will examine—is two things:
You have probably heard it said that where there is no diversity, there can be no unity. And also that unity is different than uniformity. The Bible is not a uniform collection of 66 books of Exodus. The Bible is a diverse collection of 66 books from all circumstances, coming together in unity.
Arrangement of the Bible (Diversity)
The Bible is:
- One book
- Two testaments
- Around 40 authors
- Written over many years
- Many genres
- Many reasons
- With one purpose
The word “Bible” comes from the Greek word for “book,” which is biblos. The two testaments are more accurately referred to as covenants. Our word for “testament” comes from the Latin word testamentum, meaning “covenant.” As Augustine says, “the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed. The New Testament is the Old Testament revealed.”
When Paul wrote Romans, he did not write sixteen separate chapters containing a varying number of units called verses. He wrote one book with one purpose. Chapter and verse divisions did not enter the scene until hundreds and even over 1,000 years after the writing of Scripture. Chapter divisions came about around AD 1200. Verse divisions in the Old Testament came about around AD 900 and for the New Testament came about around 1551.
The Bible is wonderfully and beautifully diverse, which makes it even more possible to be unified. If all were the same, then there would be no unity. Diversity is what makes unity possible. Diversity is what makes unity beautiful.
Story of the Bible (Unity)
Though the Bible is a very diverse book, it is unified by telling one overarching story. This is the story of redemption. It is a story of the main character, Jesus.
All Scripture points to Jesus. Jesus himself claimed this. Consider these verses:
- “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21, ESV).
- “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39, ESV; c.f. 2 Tim 3:15).
- “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27, ESV).
- “There are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44, ESV).
- “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor 1:20, ESV).
From these few verses, it is clear that all Scripture points to Jesus. Every story is about Jesus. Every commandment, is somehow about Jesus. Every action by God is somehow about Jesus. I think you get the point!
To fully understand how it all points to Jesus, we must understand the entire story. To understand the entire story, we must know the entire story.
Imagine you picked up The Hunger Games Series (3 books) and opened the third book and began to read. The story would make no sense! You would be left wondering why there is a war and why this character named Katniss is so bitter. Yet, this is what we do with the Bible and expect it to come together.
If we only look at redemption, we are left wondering, “Why do I need to be redeemed?”
If we only look at sin, we are left in despair, wondering, “What can I do to be saved?”
If we look at the entire Bible, we are propelled into joy, proclaiming, “I am redeemed from my sin through the salvation offered by Christ’s blood, spilled on the cross for sinners!”
We don’t want to end up like Marcion & Thomas Jefferson who took scissors to their Bible because they found the Old Testament God to be morally reprehensible. They ended up with a God of love, but denied the God of justice and wrath.
But, the reality is that there is no good news without bad news. “Without the Bible’s bad news, its good news will have no meaning,” says James Hamilton. Hamilton continues, “If a man does not perceive that God is holy, righteous, just, and personally offended by transgressions, he will sense no need for Jesus.” The goal is not to revel nor relish in the justice and wrath of God, but to see these attributes alongside his mercy and grace. For if God is not wrathful and just, then mercy and grace have no context to play out. When we look at God’s wrath and justice, his grace, mercy, and love are magnified all the more!
To use another example, a picture is only understood from the parts to the whole. When Van Gogh painted “Starry Night,” he had in mind the entire picture, but communicated that through the nuances of the individual parts. When one looks at the entire painting, he can see that Van Gogh used yellow throughout the entire thing. Yet, there is one location where yellow is nowhere to be found: the church. Van Gogh used yellow in this painting to represent God. He was communicating that God was present everywhere, but had been lost in the church. If one were to look at the church alone, he would not understand Van Gogh’s message. If one were to look at any other section alone, he would not understand Van Gogh’s message. Much like the message of the Bible, Van Gogh’s message is only understood in relation from the parts to the whole. There is much diversity to Van Gogh’s painting, but there is one message. There is much diversity to the Bible, but there is one message.
Enough about emphasizing the importance of taking in the entirety of the Bible. Let’s now take a brief look at the story of the Bible.
An easy—and common—method of compiling the story of the Bible into a few sentences is the four-step method of Creation, Fall, Redemption, Re-Creation.
1) Creation: In Genesis 1, God created everything and called it “good” at the end of each day (Gen 1:3, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). At the end of creating, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31, ESV). Everything was good in the eyes of God, meeting His ultimate standard!
2) Fall: The “good” as defined by God was short lived. Mankind sinned, and the “good” as defined by God is seldom see in the rest of Scripture. Adam and Eve sin, committing “cosmic treason” against God, earning death for their actions (Rom 6:23). Every man and woman sin as a result of this one sin (Rom 5) and all creation is under the bondage of sin (Rom 8:20–22).
In the midst of the first sin in Genesis 3, God punishes man and curses the serpent. Yet, a glimmer of hope appears.
3) Redemption: The glimmer of hope in the midst of the genesis of sin and evil, is a plan by God and for God. He says to the serpent, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen 3:15, NIV). I’m not sure about you, but a crushed head sounds a whole lot worse than a struck heel. Some have said that “The rest of the Bible can be seen as a ‘search for the serpent-crusher.’” Paul seems to catch on as he writes, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (Rom 16:20, ESV).
From Genesis 3:15, God begins to work redemption. This is most evident from Genesis 12 onward. It is fulfilled in Christ Jesus, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, ESV). This redemption is through the blood of Christ being spilled on our account in order to give us forgiveness of sins (2 Cor 5:21; Eph 1:7; Col 1:14).
4) Re-Creation: Though we may currently be redeemed from sin, we still live in a sin-rampant world. The day in which all tears, pain, sadness, death, and evil all will be gone is the day that all long for. It is a day that is coming. It is a day promised in Revelation 21. These former things will pass away, and the good things of God will remain. He is “making all things new” (Rev 21:5, ESV). He is restoring the original order of “good” to the world that has been cosmically corrupted with “bad.”
This four-step gospel story is an easy way to see the overarching story of Scripture. We need the full story to make sense of it all.
I remember a student asking me what sins were when we were done with a Wednesday night service. Apparently, I had preached both sin and grace, but he did not understand sin in the context of creation. He wondered if mankind has always been evil. Without the context of the “good” in Genesis 1, this student did not understand the goal of redemption to bring the “good” of original creation back to its proper place in God’s created order. The entire story is crucial to understanding what is going on!
How We Should Read the Bible
According to wise counsel, “The way you read a book depends on the kind of book you think it is.” You may casually read a school textbook for homework, but you will read it more urgently for a test. The health information your wife sent you to read may seem irrelevant until your doctor warns of an impending heart attack if you don’t change your eating habits. Reading the manual on how to put together a tent you recently purchased may be handled with less care than if you were installing electrical outlets or tampering with the gas in your house. The Bible seems unimportant/irrelevant until we realize that eternity is in the balance.