Book Review: How the Bible Actually Works

A lifelong student of the Bible, I am always looking to read the Bible better.

Reading the Bible better. That is an interesting…odd thing to say about a book. Because of my background, training, and career, how I read the Bible was an issue of faith, integrity, intelligence, and success.

In high school, I was an avid Bible reader. A missionary visited our small ethnic Russian Baptist church in East Los Angeles and challenged our Sunday school class to read our Bible cover to cover in a year’s time. He set the gauntlet by committing to read 1 book of the Bible every day, finishing in 66 days. I tried to keep up, but wasn’t successful. Nonetheless, I read the Bible for the first time that year, a practice that I continued for a few decades.

In college, I was introduced to “ways” of reading the Bible. Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis was fascinating to me. This man demonstrating an extraordinary attention to the details of the Bible and I was inspired by this level of study. The implications were lost on me. All I could see was a love and attention, a way of reading the Bible that drew me further in to the amazing collection of books that the Bible is.

In seminary, I witness a fundamentalism that obviously and repeatedly did a disservice to the respect that I felt the Bible deserved and “taught” me to read the book in a way that was, worse.

In seminary & ministry, my context was that same fundamentalist/evangelical context that was committed not to understanding the Bible but in understanding the Bible as an inerrant document. What that meant for me was I would continue to learn the system and try to figure out how to live with a view of the Bible that was not according to Hoyle. Avoiding the word “inerrancy,” I chose to describe the Bible as “true.”

Today, I have a more complete, better view of reading the Bible. I finally admitted to myself that I was not an Evangelical (using the ETS standard defining statement of Evangelical),1 because I don’t hold to Biblical Inerrancy. I don’t hold to inerrancy because it is an unhelpful paradigm that imposes modern philosophical categories on an ancient catalog of books and because it doesn’t help me read the Bible better – it actually makes it harder to understand, maybe impossible.

All of that to say, I wish I would have had How the Bible Actually Works as a guide way back when.

As a Pastor I told people all the time: “The Bible is a big book.” What I meant was that there are large barriers to reading the book well. The bigness included gaps of time, culture, geography, economics, government. Everything about the Bible’s context is different from our context. This bigness is what makes the work of reading the Bible difficult. This is not a unique perspective, it is the heart of understanding the Bible – it is the heart of any good hermeneutic.

Here are some summary quotes:

When we come to the Bible expecting it to be an instructional manual intended by God to give us unwavering, cement-hard certainty about our faith, we are actually creating problems for ourselves, because—as I’ve come to see—the Bible wasn’t designed to meet that expectation. In other words, the “problems” we encounter when reading the Bible are really problems we create for ourselves when we harbor the misguided expectation that the Bible is designed primarily to provide clear answers.

…the Bible is ancient, ambiguous, and diverse…But these three characteristics—ancient, ambiguous, and diverse—are not rough patches along the way that we need to “deal with,” so we can get on with the important matter of reading the Bible properly. They are, rather, what make the Bible worth reading at all.

This diversity exists for one simple reason: the Bible was written by various writers who lived at different times, in different places, and under different circumstances and who wrote for different purposes. Their writings demonstrate to us with blinding clarity that they were human beings like us whose perceptions of God and their world were shaped by who they were and when they lived. People of faith have walked this same spiritual path ever since.

Rather than providing us with information to be downloaded, the Bible holds out for us an invitation to join an ancient, well-traveled, and sacred quest to know God, the world we live in, and our place in it. Not abstractly, but intimately and experientially.

The Bible, it seems to me, was never intended to work as a step-by-step instructional manual. Rather, it presents us with an invitation to explore. Or better, the Bible, simply by being its ancient, ambiguous, and diverse self, blocks us from the simple path of seeking from it clear answers and rather herds us toward a more subtle, interesting, and above all sacred quest.

What we’ve seen in chapters 1–13 is a normal part of Christianity, past and present. Christians, just like their Jewish ancestors, have always been reimagining God, adapting the sacred past to discern God’s presence here and now. And we can never simply appeal to the Bible as an unchanging standard, for the Bible itself—Old and New Testaments alike—never sits still. Its authors have already accepted their sacred responsibility to employ wisdom.
As should we—always respectful of the past, but never assuming that we are meant to recreate it and live in it; always tied to this ancient tradition, but without expecting it to do the heavy lifting for us.

If you want to read the Bible better this is one of the books you should read to help you do that.

Here are a few others:

Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

  1. The Evangelical Theological Society, ETS, has two planks their doctrinal statement: Inerrancy and the Trinity https://www.etsjets.org/about/constitution#A3

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