How NOT to Read the Bible Part 2: Book or Library?

(if you’d like to see the other articles in this series, click here.)

Normally when I write, I prefer to use the term “the scriptures” rather than “the Bible.” Both are appropriate, but they emphasize different things. “Bible” comes from the Greek word that means “book.” “The scriptures” just means writings. To be sure, God’s written word is both these things. It is one united witness of God’s revelation to lost humanity. However, it is also a diverse series of writings that were written by different people from different cultures, over thousands of years, in different genres and in incredibly different contexts. If we want to read the scriptures faithfully, we have to understand their unity and their diversity. However, this is not always easy.

I find that most Christians usually understand the unity of the scriptures. At the very least they understand that the whole Bible is God’s word, all of it. However, the fact that we are used to having the whole Bible bound together in one volume has tricked us into treating the Bible like it is one continuous book rather than a library or anthology. For the longest time, the different writings of the scriptures were recorded on many scrolls, not bound together in a single book. The Bible truly is a library. Thus, we do violence to the God’s word when we ignore the different characteristics of the various writings in the Bible.

Genre and Differences within Genre

One of the most obvious differences is the variety of genre. Many are poetry of some form or another: Psalms, Lamentations, the prophets, etc. Others are narratives set in history: Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra/Nehemiah, Esther, the Gospels, Acts, etc. Others are letters: 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, 1-3 John, Hebrews, James, etc. Yet, while these genre labels are helpful, they do not give a full picture of the style and approach of each writing. Sure Galatians, Romans, and Hebrews are all letters, but Galatians is responding to a very specific situation affecting the churches in the region of Galatia, while Romans and Hebrews do not seem to be responding to as specific of issues. They are far more general. They are all still letters, but one has to read Galatians with much more of an awareness of the issues that Paul is responding to than is necessarily the case in Romans or Hebrews.

Additionally, Chronicles and Judges are both historical narratives, but both present their events in radically different ways. Chronicles, as well as Samuel and Kings, presents events with a clear explanation of whether the events and people contained within them are godly or not. Each king is labeled as good, bad, or somewhere in between. However, Judges does no such thing. The writer simply presents each of the judges and their actions with little ethical commentary, despite the heinous nature of much of what they do. The writer seems to expect the reader to understand that these actions are ungodly and not to be admired or imitated. Thus, even the judges, even though they are servants of God, are themselves guilty of doing “what is right in their own eyes.” However, a failure to understand these subtle nuances will severely hamper one’s reading of these writings.

Author and Context

We also have to be aware of the author and how they use words in their own context. For example, Paul and James are often pitted against each other because Paul is well known for his teaching that God’s people are justified through faith (e.g. Galatians 2:16), while James says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). It seems that Paul and James directly contradict each other. Some have decided to throw out James’ letter; others have tried to reread Paul in light of James. However, if we recognize the diversity of the scriptures this apparent contradiction should not bother us at all.

Granted, the tension between James and Paul deserves a greater treatment than can be given here, but it is a helpful example of what I am writing about. In short, the difference can be understood by recognizing that James and Paul are responding to different problems and mean different things even when they use the same words, “faith” and “works.” Paul is responding to people who think that their status before God is at least in some way dependent on what they do, namely by doing the “works of the Law,” i.e. the works of the Old Testament law, the law of Moses. Instead, faith trusts in the promises of God. This is how someone is justified or declared righteous before God: faith in the promises of God. On the other hand, James is responding to people who think that Christian faith does not also contain a call to serve their neighbor in need. James defines “faith” as mere knowledge about God, rather than trust in his promises. This is the faith that even the demons have (2:19). The works that James has in mind are not works of the Old Testament law, but works of love and charity that flow out of faith. Paul wants to emphasize that we are saved through faith alone apart from works, but James emphasizes that this saving faith is never alone, it is always accompanied by works. To be sure, there is still a tension between these emphases, but there is not really any contradiction.

If we treated the entire Bible as a single continuous book, we would not be able to recognize the difference between James’ and Paul’s thought and their usage of words. We would expect a single book to be fairly consistent in its usage of words, but that is simply not the case with the scriptures, because it is not one single writing, but multiple writings. It is a library. But it is not just any library. The library of the Bible might not always articulate its message in the same way, but it does have the same message. That’s because it is God’s message to his people that he promises to deliver them from their suffering through the suffering of his Son. We can read these diverse documents together because they all testify to Christ, but that does not mean that they all speak with the same voice. Once we can tune our ears to the different voices in the scriptures, we will be able to hear each of them more clearly than ever before.

2 thoughts on “How NOT to Read the Bible Part 2: Book or Library?

  1. […] It almost goes without saying that there is much that is consistent in the scriptures. Similar themes come up in various writings by various authors. There’s a pretty consistent message about who God is, who Jesus is, how we should live, etc. But there’s also a lot of diversity. There’s merely stylistic diversity, say the difference between poetry, history, and letters. But there’s also what seems to be diversity of content or teaching. Some parts of the scriptures, like Leviticus talk about the importance of animal sacrifice, but other parts talk about how God does not desire sacrifices (Micah 6:6-8 and Hosea 6:6) or that sacrifices are incapable of doing anything in themselves (Hebrews 10:4). Or there’s the famous difference between Paul and James on whether faith alone justifies or whether it is faith and works that justifies. (I address this specific issue here.) […]

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