I like nice neat answers that sit in a nice neat little box, preferably with a bow on. This is not, however, a question that lends itself to such an answer.
In talking to others, my favourite response to this question was ‘because I am a Christian’. That was it. There is a point here, why are we Christians? Because we believe what the Bible tells us – which leads naturally into believing that it is God’s word.
A better question may be, what does it mean that the Bible is the word of God? There are many different beliefs within Christianity. There are those who believe that every word is God-given, but, as was very kindly pointed out to me today, does this mean that when we read 2 Timothy 4:13 we need to go out and start looking for Paul’s cloak and scrolls? I am yet to encounter someone who actually takes things that far.
However, if we do not believe that every word is God-given by dictation, then what is it that makes the Bible God’s word and not words through which God speaks? Or, just to throw a little more confusion in, is it all the same thing?
I find the Bible the most comforting, encouraging, challenging and interesting book in the world. It contains love, hate, war, wisdom and drama. It has adultery, idolatry, executions, suffering, poetry, sacrifice and adventure. Some of it I find remarkably dry (Leviticus) while other parts I will go back to again and again and again and always find something new.
It is full of contradictions and questions that cause huge debate all around the world, and yet Christians everywhere will refer back to the Bible to hear what God has to say. It is in the reading of the Bible that we find God’s word, and yet it seems that we often think God is saying something different to what our neighbour thinks God is saying.
How then do we read it, and understand what it means to be reading God’s word? Are some of us right and others wrong? I think it would be a struggle to find two people who read the whole Bible and heard the exact same thing. Which means either there is one person in the history of the world who actually gets what God was saying or it is a more complex read than a matter of ‘right and wrong’.
God will speak to us individually, and as a community and sometimes it is the individual lesson we may need – often it will be as a group that we will need to learn. There are many passages in the Bible which address how we behave towards each other, how we behave towards the disadvantaged and how we love. If we applied these in all situations we would still not necessarily agree on different theological standpoints but we would find it easier to disagree well.
Reading as a community does much more than teach us how to disagree, it helps us share learning and understanding and grow in our relationship with God both individually and together. The letters written to individuals (Timothy, Titus) were shared with the many. Our individual learning can help us as a community in the same way that community learning can help us individually.
The thing I love the most about the Bible though, is it does not just pose questions. It is practical. It doesn’t just offer endless questions to theorise over (although there is that), it also offers us help, guidance, comfort and peace. It teaches us how to behave well towards others, how to love ourselves. It tells us how God sees us, it guides us through suffering with shared experience and vast wisdom.What it means to me that the Bible is God’s word, is that I am not alone. I have help and guidance in the Bible, and the Spirit to help me understand it.