Is the bible an instruction book?

biblefrontWe’ve probably all seen a pastor stand up with a bible and declare, “this is God’s instruction manual for life.” Or seen those bumper stickers which say, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” The idea is that we can just flip open the bible and find instructions, directions and formulas for living our lives. Which if your only encounter with scripture comes from sermons by pastors who are carefully choosing what to preach on, might seem reasonable.

However, if you are brave enough to venture into scriptures on your own, you’ll find bizarre stuff like Lot offering up his virgin daughters to an angry, lustful mob. Or a woman driving a stake through the temple of a man sleeping in her tent. Or how about Judah picking up what he thinks is a prostitute on the side of the road only to discover later that it’s his daughter in law! Or even Jesus telling us that we have to hate our family. And don’t even get started on all the laws; rules for handling skin conditions, accidental killing, weaving clothing, divination to discover adultery and more. If you venture into the bible thinking it’s an instruction manual, you’re going to come out one confused person! Lot and Judah were “heroes” of the bible; does that mean we can offer up our daughters to be raped so we can get some sleep or pick up prostitutes on the side of the road? Most of the patriarchs were polygamists. Does this mean polygamy is “biblical” and therefor acceptable? How about slavery? There are a lot of rules for slavery. Can we then conclude as early Americans did that slavery is biblical and allowable?

The simple fact is that the bible is not nearly as clear cut, and it’s heroes not nearly as unblemished as we’re often lead to believe. Yet it isn’t acceptable for the Christian to simply ignore it, take it all with a grain of salt or just pick out what makes sense to us. I think that a better approach is probably to view it as I was taught by a nun in my Catholic high school. There I was taught that the bible is the story of God’s involvement with His creation, particularly the Israelites, of humanity’s growing understanding of God and His ways, and ultimately of His redemptive work and revelation through Jesus. In this approach, there is no assumption that the stories we will find will be like pagan parables meant to offer clear morality lessons. Instead, the stories we encounter are unfailingly realistic in documenting the failings, foibles and boneheaded stupidity of humanity as it interacts with God.

What makes it so confounding for us is that there is much less editorial commentary than one would think. The “and God was pleased/displeased with so-and-so”s are few and far between. So if we’ve been told that the bible is an instruction manual filled with morality tales, we’re going to have a hard time figuring out how to handle the messy reality that is scriptures. Inevitably, we end up trying to figure out what to ignore, what we can wedge into our lives and how to explain what we find in acceptable terms. Which means we’re all going come to differing conclusions, all supposedly backed by the weight of scriptures. Which is a formula for division and further human stupidity.

I think that fundamentally, viewing the bible as some sort of instruction manual is a misuse of scriptures. God chose to intervene in human history at a particular point in time for His own reasons. However, I think it’s completely erroneous to think that that God ever intended to point to a period in time 2000-5000 years ago and say, “this right here is how people should live, what they should wear, how their laws should be written.” When we look to the bible for specific rules about how to live and manage ourselves, we are always going to wind up with conflicting interpretations, some of them leading us in completely the wrong direction.

Ultimately, this is a problem which traces back to what is at the center of most problems in the church: God is concerned with our hearts. There are no short cuts to getting our hearts right; it takes time and devotion and a willingness to submit to God radically over and over. However, we want to control the process, lay out maps for everyone and think that following the controlled, mapped process is the same thing as having a right heart. When we argue over biblical interpretations, we are arguing over these maps. Which is always a sign that we’re missing the point. We don’t need better maps. We need better hearts.

Our hearts aren’t often shaped by reading scriptures and asking, “how can I live this (slavery, killing of enemies, dietary laws, hairstyles, etc) in my life?” I think proper question needs to be, “what does God want me to know or understand through this?” And in my experience, often God has surprising answers. Sometimes it is through the wrestling with scriptures itself that God’s truth and heart are revealed.

Probably the greatest impediment to relying on God and his heart in order to learn and be shaped by scriptures is Christianity’s often dysfunctional relationship with freedom. One of the overarching themes of the NT seems to be freedom. We are given both much more freedom to make our own decisions and much more responsibility to make sure that both our heart and our actions are pure in the NT scheme. But we don’t like freedom as much as we pretend to. I think we’re like the Israelites who demanded that God give them a king to rule over them. (1 Samuel 8) We’ve done the same, only we’ve taken the bible as our ruler. However, the role of scriptures is not to be a ruler – that role belongs to the Living God alone. 1 Timothy 3:16 says “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.”  I am drawing a fine line here, but I would argue that this is different than saying that scripture is good for “imitating, modeling or direction.”  Instead, scripture is an interactive tool for us which also provides a ballast for our freedom in Christ.

If scriptures are good for teaching, the question is, teaching what?  I would argue that find out we need to turn to God in prayer and ask, “what do you want to teach me here?”  If the bible provides reproof and correction, the question is reproof and correction of what?  Of our tendency to follow the direction the world sets and our own tendency to go off course.  When we are told that scriptures provides training in righteousness, this means we must first know what counts as righteousness and then view our lives, our choices, and even the lives recorded in scriptures through that lens.  We will find that some stories in scriptures do offer models of righteousness, while others show things which fall far short of that goal.  Just because it has been recorded in scriptures does not mean it has God’s stamp of approval.

All in all, what I think is important to understand is that the study of scripture is not a one way street where information is poured into us and we just “put it on”.  Rather it is something which we interact with.  We meditate on it, pray over it, struggle with it.  This is exactly how the Jewish people from ancient days onward have understood their duty to scripture – as active rather than simply passively received.  It is in interacting with scriptures in this way that we develop discernment, wisdom, intimacy with God, discipline and an openness which is all but cut of if we approach the bible as a manual to simply read and follow.

10 thoughts on “Is the bible an instruction book?

  1. This really came home to me when I tried to read a translation of the Quran. It truly is what the preacher you describe claims the Bible to be. It’s tedious, boring, and, ultimately, annoying. After about the five hundredth time answered a moral question with “three things I say…” I gave up on it. The differences in the Bible are quite stark.

  2. As Naturalmom said well, “Well said.”

    There are, I’ve learned, two schools of thought on understanding the bible. (Or three, if you count those who say it’s all useless fairy tales.)

    One school says the bible consists of timeless truths, any of which can be used to guide us today. In my experience, the people that assert that don’t really mean it, because of the issues you raised. But they’ll continue to insist that the verses they like, tho, are timeless truths.

    The other school — the one your nun and, as I understand him, NT Wright attended — say the bible is an unfolding narrative. The (true) story starts with people having a certain awareness of God, and then more comes over time, and God enters into different relationships with different people over time.

    So it started with an intimate relationship, but Adam chose to violate that, and people were then pretty much on their own to work out their relationships with God. Some were successful, like Job, but most just did their own thing and got washed away (except for Noah and his family). Abrahm recognized God for Who He is, and they had a relationship that endured for generations, and this one was better than Job’s, because Abraham got to see better. Moses too had an intimate relationship, and he got laws for Abraham’s people. God had intended for them to simply live under Him and those laws, but they wanted a human king, so He acquiesced to their request despite His warning. As we know, none of this worked very well, because Abraham’s people kept ignoring God and focused on themselves. So God sent Himself in the form of one of them so they could see and hear. Even then, people remained self-centered enough that they needed God to open their ears enough to hear what He was saying. Some got it; some did not. But it led to hearing by more than Abraham’s ethnic descendants; it was opened to a much larger adopted group: us.

    So we can read about all that’s happened leading up to this, and here we are. It’s like a play. Adam was the first Act. He got replaced by others, who in turn were replaced by still others. But they all got to watch what had happened before, and their responsibility was to build their characters off of what they’d learned from the previous actors.

    As I say, here we are. We can study for our parts, but it’s time to perform in keeping with the characters we’ve been taught. Love God; love one another.

  3. I just found your blog this morning and really like this post. I agree with you that scripture is supposed to be interactive, that we should read it and ask God what He wants to tell us through it. But that can be a long process in a world where quick fixes are the order of the day. I think that is partly why so many people today just find a verse to support what they believe and leave it at that. Sometimes it can take a lot of time to thoroughly read, study, and meditate upon scripture to find what God wants it to tell us

    Another think that came to mind as I read your post is that in America we are constantly debating what the writers of our Constitution originally meant when they wrote it a little over 200 years ago. But I seldom hear people asking what the writers of the Bible originally meant when they wrote something over 2000 years ago. We seem to just take what we get, via our pastor and/or our particular translation (both of whom we pick and choose), and use it however we want.

  4. Ms. Trotter –
    You have done the same thing you accused pastors of doing (I am not one, but a trained chemist turned high school VP). Regardless of what fallible people may say, the Bible’s ultimate author makes some strong claims about the book. You have done what Hollywood does – it pickes the top 5% of weird and makes it appear as normal. If I did that with my top 5% of weird people at my high school, I could make a case for all humans to be severe criminals. But there is also great valiance, bravery, resilience and character that would put most of America’s morality to shame. You have picked out the 4 or 5 things that are most weird in the Bible (that most people would have to look very hard to find), and made it sound like the Bible is characteristically like that. I hope that you homeschool your children to think more intellectually honest than that! One thing about science is that it tries to go into things without bias. It should be truly curious, then try to find an explanation. Unfortunately, science has bought a naturalistic bill of goods and sold its soul of genuine inquiry. Is the Bible a history book? Indeed, but more. Is the Bible an instructive book? Yes, and more. Is the Bible an account? yes, but more. The Bible is an account of a living God’s interface with a people He has made. Those people He made (including you and I) have chosen to go a way they thought of as intelligent, but instead, ended up as gone weird, and so the Bible has some accounts of “weirdness” because it talks about people. God does not try to micromanage the universe. He has put it into motion with a finely tuned precision machine in His laws of gravity, matter, energy, and the like. Moreover, He is still intricately involved in it, much like a mechanic does not try to micromanage every moving part of an automobile, but puts the auto into motion. I hope I have chellenged you to think a little better about the Bible. I have spent 30 years researching it as I come out of an athiest background. It has changed my life and that of my family – every one else in my family either is or has been on drugs, alcoholic, or in in prison. Does that make my family weird? To me, it is normal!! 🙂

  5. Seriously Ms. Trotter,

    All of your examples you listed are all out of context. Just because there are stories about people in their sin. Judah seeking a prostitute, only shows we are ALL sinners, not that there is ‘weird’ stuff in the Bible. Lot offering his daughters to appease killers out of fear for God. God didn’t ask Lot to offer his daughters, Lot did that on his own. People do stupid stuff and just because its in the Bible doesn’t mean God is stupid. It just shows the writers were more concerned with writing truth and not appeasing the future readers. The woman that drove the stake ended up killing the leader of what would have been a massacre. She knew that if she attempted to arrest or kill him while he was awake, she would have gotten killed herself. The part about Jesus teaching hate, just another verse taken out of context. To can’t serve 2 masters completely. God says if you love me you will obey my commands, well if a family member doesn’t believe in God then you can’t obey both. I know I can’t convince you of anything you don’t want to be convinced, but unless you are 100% sure I wouldn’t run the risk of leading people away from God if I were you.

  6. please send me more information of copy about THE BIBLE A BOOK OF INSTRUCTION….

    God Bless and thank you very much

  7. Ms. Trotter:
    I am on my research about the Bible as a Book of Instruction but I don’t find your blog helpful. The Bible is not something to be confused about if you believe that it is the Word of God. It’s true I sometimes find it hard to understand what the scripture means but it’s not enough reason for me to be skeptic about the Word, rather I find ways to know more about the Word by reading, meditating it and attending fellowship services to hear the Word of God. You cannot understand what the Bible is telling you by being on your own. We need fellow Christians to fellowship with them. Mostly, we have the Holy Spirit to guide us and help us to understand the Word. A person is confused because of the wrong teachings about the Bible and how it was interpreted. The Bible is a Book of Instruction indeed that it teaches us how to live a holy life according to God’s will and it teaches us that there is ETERNAL LIFE through Christ Jesus. Others cannot absorb the correct teachings of what the Bible is saying because it contradicts on what they believe and how they live their life…the wordly life. The Bible is indeed a history. If you believe God is the creator of all things (including you and me), you can read from the very first book of the Bible the Book of Genesis that narrates the history how God created the earth. You can read a lot of peoples history in the Bible that includes the downfall of men because of their sins, and history of men of faith who won a victorious battles against the enemies. We have a lot of questions that we try to find the answer but we turn out to be grumbling, distress, upset, angry and we even curse. These things doesn’t help us to grow spiritually. We are not perfect and we don’t have all the knowledge of everything, but our God is. Why not just put our hope, trust and have faith on God and let Him in control of our lives. One more thing, it says in Matthew 12:35-37 ” the good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” God bless you.

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