How the Bible Became the Bible: Class 5

How the Bible Became the Bible

Class 5: But What is the Bible?

(This post is for my internship project at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Franklin, TN: a series of classes on the Christian biblical canon.)

 In this class I moved from talking about how the church decided which writings belonged in the Bible to talking about how the church has viewed the role of the Bible in our lives. What kind of authority does it have for our decisions? How does it guide us? How are we to interpret it?

Lutherans call the Bible the “source and norm” for our faith – but what does this mean in practice?

This class was a BRIEF survey of some of the ways Christians have answered these questions throughout our history.

  1. Issues in History
    1. Hard to apply what past generation said about the Bible directly to our own time, because they were talking about different issues. Examples:
    2. Today: How do we know what we know?
      1. Do we have to choose between science/history and religion?
      2. Do we have to read everything literally?
      3. What does it mean for the Bible to be “true”?
    3. Reformation: What is the supreme authority in matters of faith?
      1. Bible, church councils, tradition, pope?
      2. Should everyday people be allowed to read the Bible?
      3. Who has the authority to decide on the “right” interpretation?
    4. Medieval Christianity: Faith and Reason
      1. Natural theology: Can learn about God and God’s will from studying nature, using our reason
      2. If there seemed to be contradiction between science and Bible, use reason to figure it out.
    5. Early Church Issues: Which writings are scripture, anyway?
      1. Main context: arguments with different Christian sects (see Class 1) and Jewish groups.
      2. Main test: Does this writing agree with the generally-accepted faith? (Rule of Faith)
  2. The Bible’s messages aren’t always “obvious”
    1. Written long ago, for people in different cultures
    2. Translated
    3. Differences of opinion in different books
    4. We argue over meaning of passages
  3. Jesus and Scripture
    1. For Jesus, scriptures = Old Testament
    2. Jesus’s main principle of interpretation: “Love God, love neighbor” (Matt. 22:37-40; ex. Matt. 12:1-14)
    3. Jesus often added to “literal” meaning of scriptures: “You have heard that it was said…but I say….” (see Matt. 5)
  4. New Testament Writers and Scripture
    1. These early Jewish Christ-followers reinterpreted the Old Testament and their ideas about the messiah in light of their experience of God in Christ.
    2. Matt. 4:12-16: Isaiah passage about returning from exile also makes sense of what God is doing in Christ
    3. “Song of the Suffering Servant” (Is. 53) not thought of as about messiah, but early followers saw Christ’s life reflected there (see Matt. 8:17)
  5. Middle Ages
    1. Four ways to interpret scripture:
      1. Literal meaning
      2. Allegorical meaning
      3. Moral meaning
      4. Spiritual meaning
    2. Note: these practices used since early days of Church
  6. Luther and the Scriptures
    1. The main purpose of the Bible is to convey Christ and the gospel
      1. “the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies”
    2. Not all parts of scripture are messages for us.
      1. “we must look and see to whom it has been spoken, whether it fits us.”
  7. Some Thoughts from Today
    1. Marcus Borg
      1. The Bible is “a finger pointing to the moon”
        1. Image borrowed from Buddhist tradition
        2. Remember: Bible is only important for how it points us to God.
      2. Bible as a sacrament
        1. Bread and wine are not as important as connection to God
        2. Bible an especially important place to meet God, where God has promised to speak to us
        3. Holy Spirit works between word and the reader
    2. Luke Timothy Johnson
      1. The Bible has power to create our Christian identity
      2. Bible is a collection of authorities that we must take into account when we make decisions.
      3. Sometimes different parts of Bible convey different answers
        1. How to relate to government? 1 Peter vs. Romans vs. Revelation…and on and on
        2. When making choices, must revere Bible’s authority by explaining why rather than just doing what we want
    3. YOU – You can use worksheet (below) to help you think about how you read the Bible and what kind of authority you recognize


The Bible is holy because:

The Bible has authority because:

I believe in the Bible because:

I doubt the Bible because:

A part of the Bible that makes me happy is:

A part of the Bible that scares or confuses me is:

The “right” way to read the Bible is:

When I read the Bible, I

When I read the Bible, God

Reading the Bible matters because


Borg, Marcus J., Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001).

Jacobson, Diane, Mark Allan Powell, and Stanley N. Olson, Opening the Book of Faith: Lutheran Insights for Bible     Study, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008).

Johnson, Luke Timothy, Scripture & Discernment: Decision Making in the Church, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983).

Wengert, Timothy J., “Reflections on the ELCA Churchwide Assembly and the Bible,” The Journal of Lutheran Ethics, vol. 9, issue 9, September 2009.

With special thanks to Susan Hylen and her course, Teaching the Bible, at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Spring 2012. (She gave us the worksheet used in this class, as well as a lot of other wisdom.)


One thought on “How the Bible Became the Bible: Class 5

  1. Pingback: How the Bible Became the Bible: Class 4 | aladypreacher

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