The Bible Has No Instruction Manual

Because our Bibles don’t come with an instruction booklet, readers sometimes come up with unusual uses and applications. When I was in high school, the latest craze was a book called The Bible Code. In it, Michael Drosnin argued that the Hebrew Bible contained crossword puzzle–like codes that supposedly embedded terms like “Hitler” and “Pearl Harbor.”

For a brief time, The Bible Code was a sensation, but it was quickly forgotten for obvious reasons. God doesn’t want us to read behind the text for hidden codes. He wants us to read the Bible carefully and faithfully as a testimony to what God has done in the world and what role we play in his work of redemption. Few of us buy into outlandish code theories, but we often remain susceptible to smaller misunderstandings and interpretive misfires. Consider some of the more common mistakes, like thinking “I can do all things” (Phil. 4:13, ESV) is about winning the big football game or treating “judge not” (Matt. 7:1, ESV) as a restriction on questioning other people’s behavior.

In my home, we have lots of Ikea furniture products. I’ve tried building some of them without using the instructions, but it never goes well. The same goes for reading the Bible—even if it doesn’t come with a manual, we still need guidance to avoid mishandling it. We can be grateful, then, that New Testament scholar Michael F. Bird has written Seven Things I Wish Christians Knew about the Bible, a trusty primer on understanding God’s Word.

Fruitful and faithful reading

Bird, who teaches at Ridley College in his native Australia, covers a spectrum of key topics such as biblical authority, biblical inspiration, interpretation dos and don’ts, and reflections on the Bible’s essential role in shaping the church and the Christian life. He makes seven statements that constitute the book’s main chapters: The Bible didn’t fall out of the sky. The Bible is divinely given and humanly composed. Scripture is normative, not negotiable. The Bible is for our time, but not about our time. We should take the Bible seriously, but not always literally. The purpose of Scripture is knowledge, faith, love, and hope. And Christ is the center of the Christian Bible.

Bird’s opening chapter discusses the library of biblical books—where they came from and how they came together into one Bible. It wasn’t until college that I realized my Catholic friends had books in their Bibles that weren’t in mine, books like Sirach and Tobit. And their Bibles, in turn, were a bit different than Bibles used in the Greek Orthodox tradition. All these Bibles have slight variations not because God got confused, but because the biblical books were not hand-delivered by God to the church. A process of canonization took place in the period after the apostolic age; this involved discussion and discernment among early church leaders over what should count as Holy Scripture.

It is crucial for Christians to think through the Bible’s inspiration and authority, which Bird considers in consecutive chapters. Inspiration doesn’t mean that God deposited divine words into the brains of Matthew or Paul. As Bird helpfully argues, it probably involved “God’s guiding and leading human minds at the conceptual level.” In other words, while God influenced the biblical writers’ direction of thought, they expressed those thoughts in their own ways, yielding God’s Word in human words. This helps explain why the Bible includes so many genres: narrative, poetry, letters, apocalyptic literature. God did not invent these genres. Instead, he chose to reveal himself through written forms that already existed, though some of these undoubtedly took on new features.

Bird defends biblical authority by talking about how Scripture ought to shape what we think is important and how we establish the direction of our lives. Addressing Christians who might treat the Bible as “holy opinion,” he challenges them to see Scripture’s authority as grounded in the supremacy of God himself. We are his creatures, not his religious customers. The Bible is not simply another book, something to read alongside other “important” books. It is uniquely inspired.

Of course, there are many Christians who take the Bible seriously but make the error of reading and applying everything literally. It is dangerous to equate seriousness only with literal interpretation. When Jesus speaks of turning the other cheek (Matt. 5:39), he isn’t teaching us, in some narrow way, how to handle slaps to the face. The larger question concerns how we should love our enemies. An overly literal interpretation can sometimes blind us to the point the Bible is actually making.

How can we tell when and when not to stick with a literal reading of particular phrases and passages? Careful discernment is essential. Bird encourages all believers to better understand the ancient world in which the words of Jesus and the apostles came into being. Slavery then was different than slavery now. Political systems were different. And so were cultural conventions and expectations, like how to behave at a dinner party or be a good friend. If we neglect these basic distinctions, we are bound to misread and sometimes misapply Scripture.

Deeper love of God and neighbor

In seminary, I learned most of the lessons Bird offers in his book. I studied interpretive methods, the genres of the Bible, and various views on biblical inerrancy and trustworthiness. But Bird underscores something that wasn’t drilled into me back then: The purpose of reading Scripture is not (merely) to gain information, but to be conformed to the image of Jesus and spurred to deeper love of God and neighbor.

Bird rightly warns us against viewing the Bible like a rolled-up newspaper that’s used to whack you over the head for being naughty. It is not a book of religious rules, either. As Bird puts it, “The goal of our instruction in the Scriptures is to know God better so that we may grow in our love for God.” Well said. Scripture forms and shapes us into the people God has destined us to be, a people of faithful and generous love.

Nijay K. Gupta

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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