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The Bible and the Word of God

by the Reverend Philip Bradford

Growing up and attending a Baptist Sunday School, one of the choruses we often sang had the words, 'The best Book to read is the Bible, X2, if you read it every day it will help you on your way, O the best book to read is the Bible.'

I came from a home where the Bible was read often—my Dad started every day reading the Bible and praying before he left for work at 6.30am. (A practice he continued his whole life.) My sister and brother and I were given our own Bibles as soon as we could read and also Scripture Union notes which gave us a passage to read each day with a brief commentary.

We were taught to read the Bible and to trust what it said. So we believed the world was created in six days and that Adam and Eve were real people who encountered a snake that could talk and discuss theology. People who said that the Bible might contain myth or allegory were dismissed as dangerous liberals and unbelievers.

It wasn't until I was in senior High School years that I met Christians who didn't read the Bible as literally as I had been taught. At University I attended the Evangelical Union and started to study the Bible with a slightly more sophisticated approach but was still afraid to question anything the Bible appeared to teach.

The Reverend Philip Bradford

The Reverend Philip Bradford

How we read and interpret the Scriptures is one of the great questions of our age. The debates within the Church on issues such as the ordination of women or same sex marriage often come down to differences in the way the Bible is to be read. I remember hearing my Rector, the late Laurie Pullen, whom I greatly admired, saying: 'I have no problem with the view that the Scriptures are inspired, it's the interpretation of Scripture that troubles me.' I suspect most of us can relate to that!

It is important to remember that the first few generations of Christians had no Bible. Jewish Christians knew the Hebrew Scriptures, though they did not have access to the written word—scrolls were held only in the synagogue or temple. Most of the books of our New Testament were in circulation by early in the Second Century but there was no attempt to make an authoritative list of books until much later in that century. The faith of the early Christians was grounded in a person, not in a book. The expression, 'The Word of God' was not a description of the Bible but always a reference to Jesus or the oral witness about Jesus.

So in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke uses the expression 'the word of God' 12 times, and 'the word of the Lord' 6 times. In every instance it is a reference to the message about Jesus. It was not until the 3rd Century at the earliest that 'the Word of God' was referenced to the Bible. It is always good to remember that we worship a person, not a book. Having said that, the Book is important because in the book we meet Jesus, and that is the first reason that we read the Bible.

The early Christians accepted and continued to revere the Hebrew Scriptures because they kept seeing signs in them which pointed to Jesus. The passage from Isaiah that Jesus quoted in the synagogue in Nazareth being a case in point. (Luke 4:18–19)

The Bible as we know it is remarkable because it is both a human and a divine book. It is a collection of sixty six books, containing history, poetry, narrative, law, songs, parables, and allegory.

We believe that those who wrote the books of the Bible, did so moved by God's spirit but they also expressed something of their own personality and experience of life. Take one small example. It is interesting to compare the Greek of the Gospel writers. Mark's Greek is clumsy and sometimes difficult to follow. Luke's is polished and learned, so beginners find it difficult to read because his vocabulary is so large. John by contrast is much easier because his vocabulary is smaller and he uses many of the same words over and over again.

Take another example. It is interesting to compare Mark's and Luke's accounts of 'the healing of the woman with the bleeding disorder'. Mark declares: 'She had endured much under many physicians and had spent all that she had and she was no better but rather grew worse.' (Mark 5:26) Luke, the physician, is more measured and protective of his profession writing: '(she) had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her.' (Luke 8:43)

Clearly God did not dictate the words of Scripture but he used fallible human beings to convey his message and that in my view is one of the amazing things about the Bible. So the Bible is God's gift and we should read it often. I no longer read the first chapters of Genesis as a literally true story, but I am immensely grateful that my parents taught me to read the Bible (in the AV) from an early age.

And each time we open the Bible to read it we should ask the Holy Spirit to reveal more of himself to us. As the hymn writer put it: 'beyond the sacred page, I seek you Lord, my spirit longs for you, O living Word.' It is the Holy Spirit who takes the words of Scripture and brings them to life. Without the Holy Spirit the Bible becomes just another book.

Karl Bath wrote that 'The Bible is God's word to the extent that God causes it to be his Word, to the extent that He speaks through it...the Statement that the Bible is God's Word is a confession of faith, a statement of the faith which hears God himself speak through the biblical word of man.'