What is the Bible?


2 Timothy 3:14-17

Tonight I am beginning a short series on the Bible. It should not be difficult to persuade any Christian of the importance of the subject. Everything we Christians believe, everything we hope for, our very way of life, the answer to every genuinely important question is found, we believe, in the Bible. It is not only found there, it is found nowhere else. John Wesley said of himself that he was homo unius libri, a man of one book. But surely every Christian should say the same thing about himself or herself. Such is the place of the Bible in a Christian’s life. We have an absolute dependence upon the Bible. In a very real sense it is our connection to God himself. And so we are at our best when we are living according to the teaching and the commandments of the Bible; we are at our worst when we are not. A book that matters that much, that determines that much, and is that important surely is a book we ought to have very clear views of. We ought to know what it is, precisely why we rest so much on its teaching, and how we are to make the best use of it. But this is all the more the case in our particular historical moment. There is nowadays another religion with another holy book that has forced itself upon our consciousness. We Americans have heard more about the Koran in the last several years than we heard about it in the previous century. Muslims in a certain way think about the Koran the way we think about the Bible. Both Christians and Muslims have been described as “people of the Book.” That is all the more reason for Christians to have definite and intelligent convictions about the Bible and to be able to articulate why we revere Holy Scripture as we do and why our trust in the Bible is not the same thing as a Muslim’s reverence for the Koran.

So in this short series I propose to cover such questions as: 1) what is the Bible? 2) Why do we believe it to be the Word of God? 3) What does the Bible contain and how do we know what books rightly belong to it? 4) And how are we to read and interpret the Bible? We will consider a variety of issues along the way, but that is the broad outline of this series.

So, let’s launch away. What is the Bible? Well we start by reminding ourselves that “Bible” is not a biblical term. You will never find the word anywhere in the Bible. “Bible” simply means “book.” It came to be attached to Holy Scripture because it is the book of all books and so most deserves the name “book.” Actually the term “Bible” comes to us through Greek and Latin from Byblos, an ancient Phoenician city from which papyrus was exported. In the ancient world, as you may remember, writing was done on either clay tablets or papyrus. In any case, when we speak of “the Bible” we are speaking of “the Book.” But that is not the Bible’s own name for itself.

Text: 2 Timothy 3:14-17

Now there are several important assertions made in our text by the Apostle Paul.

First, he describes the Bible – or that part of it that was in existence at the time 2 Timothy was written – as “the holy Scriptures.” As Benjamin Warfield pointed out the use of the term “scripture” in the New Testament “was an inheritance, not an invention.” [Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, 229] The idea of a body of sacred writings was handed down to Christianity from Judaism. The “holy scriptures” Paul is referring to here are, of course, primarily what we today would call the Old Testament, as the New Testament writings were not yet circulating as a collection and some of them had not yet been written. The word “scripture”means simply something that has been written, a writing. That is much clearer in Paul’s Greek than in our English translation. We don’t use “scripture” in English very often for anything other than the Bible. But Paul uses one term for “scriptures” in v. 15 and a different term for “Scripture” in v. 16 and each was a word widely used in the language of that time for all kinds of writings and documents. But “holy scriptures” obviously refers to a particular body of writings and ones that are sacred. We might say that a simple definition of the Bible is then “sacred or holy writings.”

Second, Paul says that “All Scripture is God-breathed….” In the Vulgate Latin and in the KJV Paul’s word, theopneustos – a combination of the noun “God” and the participle or adjective “breathed” – was translated as “inspired.” It is from that translation that we get the term “inspiration” as applied to the Bible and the name of the doctrine of the Bible’s nature and character as an inspired writing. The problem with that translation is that “inspired” literally means “breathe in” or “breathe into” and so might suggest that the writings that make up the Bible existed already and God then breathed into them some special vitality or authority, something like when he breathed into Adam’s lifeless body the breath of life. The great Princeton scholar, B.B. Warfield, changed everyone’s mind about the meaning of this word, a word that occurs but once in the New Testament and is never found in any Greek writing earlier than 2 Timothy. While it cannot be said to be likely, for all anyone knows for sure, Paul himself coined the term. Without going into all the detail Warfield proved that the form of the word means not “inspired” but “God-breathed,” the difference being that God didn’t breathe into the Scriptures but that he breathed the Scriptures out of his mouth. The Scriptures came out of God’s mouth; that is the burden of the term. It is interesting to note that the most authoritative lexicon or dictionary of New Testament Greek, the one that all students of the New Testament use [BAGD], lists only Warfield’s article on the word in the bibliography it provides in its article on this word, theopneustos. This comports very well with the literally thousands of times in which the Bible purports to record what the Lord says, or to be a record of the word of the Lord, or to be itself the oracles of God – that is the very words of God – or to describe its origin as “men speaking from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

In other words, we might say that a simple definition of the Bible is then “the Word of God written.” A particularly powerful verification of that definition is the striking practice that we find in a number of places in the Bible when God himself and Holy Scripture are represented as interchangeable, that is, as if God were the Bible and as if the Bible were God. Take for example Galatians 3:8. There we read:

“The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’”

Now it wasn’t the Scripture that made that great promise to Abraham; the Scripture had not yet been written. It was God himself as anyone can prove by simply reading the opening verses of Genesis 12. But to say that God said something and that the Scripture says something is to say the same thing. Why? Because it is God who speaks in the Scripture; those writings, as it were, come out of his mouth. He is identified with the Bible as his own speech, his own mind, his own declarations.

Another example of this phenomenon is found in Romans 9:17:

“For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’”

Obviously it wasn’t the Scripture that said that to Pharaoh – the Scripture did not exist at that time – but it was the Lord speaking through Moses. These statements could be attributed to Scripture only because of an entirely natural and habitual identification of the text of Scripture with God himself as speaking. One would say, “Scripture says…” when what was meant precisely was “God, as recorded in Scripture, says…” [Warfield, 299-300]

This view of the Bible as the very word or speech of God is confirmed in another way: in a large set of texts God is said to have spoken when, in fact, it was a man who spoke and who is recorded as having spoken in the Bible. Take, for example, such a text as Hebrews 3:7.

“So as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…” and there follows a citation from Psalm 95.”

But, of course, it wasn’t God who wrote Psalm 95; it was David. In fact, in Hebrew 4:7 we read:

“Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before, ‘Today, if you hear his voice…”

God is said to have spoken the words David wrote. David’s words were God’s words first. Or, as we read in Jeremiah 1:9, the Lord, in commissioning Jeremiah as his prophet, says, “Now, I have put my words in your mouth.” In other words, in the former set of texts “what Scripture says” is understood to mean “what God says;” here in this other sort of text, and there are a number of them, “what God says” is understood to mean “what the Scripture says.” Again, there is here an artless linguistic identification of God and the Bible. It matters not whether you say “God says something” or “the Scripture says something;” whether you say “Jeremiah said” or “David said” or “God said,” the meaning is the same in every case in which the prophet was speaking for God. Don’t take that for granted. Any number of theologians in the twentieth century have, in one way or another, for one reason or another, warned Christians not to think that when they hold their Bible in their hands that they hold the word of God in their hands. But that is precisely what you are to think. It is precisely what the Bible says you hold in your hand: the very word, the speech of God himself. And you have only to think for a few moments to realize what an astonishing thing it is to say that and what a priceless gift you have been given. What would you think, for example, if I were to tell you that I had been to heaven and had come back with a CD of God himself speaking and telling his people what he felt was of first importance for them to know? What if I performed several miracles – such as Moses and Peter and Paul performed – by which to prove that I had in fact been to heaven and back. Would you not think it an extraordinary thing to be able to hear the voice of God? Would you not think it important beyond words to hear what he had to say? Well, you have the voice of God in your hand and you can learn precisely what the Maker of heaven and earth thinks it most important for you to know.

Or take the remark of Cornelius Van Til, longtime professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary. “I have never seen my Lord Jesus Christ, but he has written me a letter.” [B15] Would you not cherish a letter that came from God in heaven? Would that letter not became worn and tattered for all of your holding it, folding and unfolding it, showing it to others, pondering over every word, knowing who it was who wrote that letter and for what purpose he wrote it, that I might be saved and that I might live the life I should live, the life of true happiness and goodness while I am in this world? But is that not precisely what the Bible is: God himself writing to us.

So we have so far “holy writings” and “the word or speech of God written” as working definitions of the Bible.

But there is more here in 2 Tim. 3:15-17. Third, there is a statement as to the purpose of these holy writings and this written word of God. They are for making people “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” In other words, the great purposes of these holy writings, of the word of God written are, first, to make people Christians and, second, to guide them in living as Christians. Most books are written with a particular purpose in mind. A book might be written to entertain as are many novels or books of humor. Or it may be intended to inform or instruct or inspire. Or a book may be a sustained argument, setting forth a point of view on some subject. But usually the purpose of a writing is at least relatively obvious. In the Bible the purpose is immediately obvious: it is a book about salvation and about the life of faith.

So we have as a working definition of the Bible, the word of God written to reveal the way of salvation and the way of life. The Bible was not written to satisfy your curiosity – how many questions we would like to have answered that the Bible does not address – or to entertain you. It was written for your salvation and to guide you into a good and worthy life pleasing to God and useful to man. That is not to say, of course, that along the way we do not get a good bit of reliable information about the ancient world, about its political history, about many things. The Bible is, in fact, a major source, and sometimes the only source of information about this or that feature of the ancient world. But its purpose is not strictly historical. We learn a great deal about 17th century English war-making in John Bunyan’s allegory The Holy War. It is an unparalleled source of information on equipment and tactics because Bunyan was acquainted with these things and employed the information in his allegory. But The Holy War is not about 17th century war-making; it is about salvation. And in a similar way, we can learn a great deal about many things in the Bible but such knowledge is incidental to its true purpose as a book of salvation.

What is more, the Bible is great literature. It has left its mark as no other book in the world upon the language of man and upon his literary life. But the Bible was not written for the purpose of showing us how exalted literature can be, how moving poetry, how ennobling preaching, and so on. In fact, the New Testament is written in koine Greek, the language of the market and the street and the office. No educated Greek in those days would have thought of the books of the New Testament as great literature. It lacks polish, even in some cases grammatical accuracy. But its purpose was not to be great literature but to address mankind in a direct and absolutely understandable way concerning salvation and the way of life.

Now, I could continue the demonstration of this fact – that the Bible is the Word of God written with these specific purposes – to wearying effect, but let me assure you that not only is this what the Bible teaches itself to be, virtually everyone accepts that this is the Bible’s view of itself. If someone dissents from that conclusion it is not usually because he or she doesn’t think this is what the Bible teaches about itself. They agree that it is; they simply don’t believe what the Bible says about the Bible. But that is another matter for another study in our series.

But we are still not finished with Paul here in 2 Tim. 3:15-17. There is one thing more to notice. In the fourth place Paul says that all Scripture is the written word of God to reveal the way of salvation and the way of life. Paul does not seem to think, as many have who came after him, that some of the Bible was God-breathed, or that parts of the Bible were the very word of God written down, but that not all of it was. To him every part of the Bible came out of God’s mouth. This is the doctrine that in our circles is referred to as the plenary inspiration of Scripture. “Plenary” is simply a fancy word for “complete,” “absolute,” or “unqualified.”

This is also a commonplace of biblical teaching, that every part of the Bible is the Word of God. Indeed, Jesus makes a point of saying in John 10:34 that every single word of the Bible is God-breathed. You remember that remark of the Lord’s. He was in a debate with the religious leaders and they had accused him of blasphemy because he, a mere man, claimed to be God. He deftly replied by citing Psalm 82: 6 where the word “gods” [in this case the Hebrew word elohim] is used either of prominent and powerful men or perhaps of demons. I think it more likely that the reference is to great men and the psalm is about the fact that their greatness will mean nothing in the judgment of God. However, the Lord’s simple point is that the word itself, “gods,” is used of others more than God himself. Well if it can be used for lesser creatures, he goes on, how much more appropriate is it to use the term of someone whom the Father has himself set apart as his very own and sent into the world. What is interesting for our purposes tonight is what the Lord says in making that point. He cites the sentence in the 82nd Psalm as the Word of God and then, as a minor premise adds, “and the Scripture cannot be broken.” In other words, down to its individual words, a single word in a single psalm, that is the word of God and that very word has come out of God’s mouth.

The Bible, in its entirety, is the word of God written to show men the way to eternal life and, once they are saved, to guide them in living as they should. That is what the Bible is. That is its definition. But there is so much more to say about the Bible. What is this word of God written? Well it is a collection of some 66 different books, written by many different authors, over a period of a millennium and a half. For that reason some have spoken of the Bible not as a book but as a library, a collection of books. There is some truth to that, though the unity of the Bible as a single book is also a commonplace of the Bible’s teaching about itself. The use of the title Bible in the singular is a reflection of that unity. But think of this. A book that began to be written fourteen hundred years before Christ and was not finished until the end of the first century following his birth. A collection of books that somehow, in some way were gathered into one through those many centuries. That would be the equivalent of someone beginning to write in A.D. 500 and someone finally finishing the work only this year! The Koran is very different in this respect. It is a record of what Muhammad said while in different trances or ecstatic seizures. He used secretaries to write down what had been revealed to him, one of whom boasted that he had persuaded the prophet to alter the wording of several revelations. Some of the Koran dates from after the prophet’s death, but it is all thought to come from him.

Not only was the Bible written over an enormous stretch of time, it contains vastly different writings. It contains a great deal of history, but it also contains poems – some short, some long; some hymns to be sung in worship, but other poems celebrating romantic love, victory in battle, friendship, lament for the dead, and on and on. The Bible contains many sermons, or at least précis of sermons preached by various prophets, it contains reports of visions and it contains a number of letters, some addressed to groups of people, others to individuals. It also contains law codes and collections of parables. It is, in other words, a repository of almost every kind of human writing. It is written in three separate languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. But, it is, nevertheless, a single book, and the word of God written, no matter in widely different parts and pieces. In these ways the Bible is a book apart; there is nothing like it in the world. There is nothing remotely like it in all the writings of man. We take far too much for granted the utterly remarkable, the unparalleled thing that is the Bible.

It is this Bible, this written word of God about salvation and about life, that has changed our world, that has cast its spell over the hearts of both the most intellectually gifted of men and women and the most simple and unlearned peasant. It is this book that has transformed culture, inspired the world’s greatest art, set up and brought down kings, and brought the news of Jesus Christ and eternal life to the four corners of the earth. It has comforted the sick and dying through long hours of darkness, it has brought hope to the desolate and lonely, it has nerved those who were afraid, and it has filled countless empty hearts with joy.

I have a well-worn copy of the Bible that belonged to my grandfather, a Presbyterian evangelist of the first half of the 20th century. I have a much-marked copy of my father’s Bible. One of the reasons why we have not moved as quickly as we might have to the ESV, the English Standard translation of the Bible, which I certainly prefer to the NIV, is because I cannot bear not to have always with me my now richly annotated NIV Bible. It contains far too many valuable notes to copy again into another Bible. My children are always asking me who will get my Bible when I die and I always tell them that it is going with me into the coffin! You understand: we identify with the Bible; it is a very important part of who we are. It is precious to us as few things are.

Here is Amy Carmichael:

“The amazing thing is that everyone who reads the Bible has the same joyful thing to say about it. In every land, in every language, it is the same tale: where that Book is read, not with the eyes only, but with the mind and heart, the life is changed. Sorrowful people are comforted, sinful people are transformed, people who were in the dark walk in the light. Is it not wonderful to think that this Book, which is such a mighty power if it gets a chance to work in an honest heart, is in our hands today? And we can read it freely, no man making us afraid.” [Thou Givest…They Gather, 7]

We have done little more than to define the Bible this evening. But that that definition carries with it an entire world! I don’t believe miracles are happening in the world today. I don’t think Holy Scripture gives us to believe that they would. But the Bible itself is virtually a miracle: the word of God in a book that we can read. The very voice of the Almighty in our hands to take into our hearts. God present in the words that he has spoken and seen to commit to writing. This is miraculous and wonderful beyond words. And what a treasure then the Bible ought to be to us all.

Think of it carefully,
Study it prayerfully,
Deep in your heart
Let its oracles dwell.
Ponder its mystery,
Slight not its history,
For none ever loved it
Too fondly or well.