The problem with a loving God is that while God is always reaching out to us to draw us into relationship, on our own we do not know how to respond, or even why we should. We don’t know how to return God’s love. Yes, we can learn things about God by observing the world around us. We might perceive, for example, that God is creative. The very existence of the universe testifies to this. We might see that God values order over chaos given the ordered nature of the world in which we live. We might conclude that God is good because of the beauty of the world, and because of such qualities of life as friendship, love, and joy. This kind of understanding is based on what is often called “natural revelation.” There are truths about God that we can grasp simply by observation of the natural world.
Natural revelation, however, only reveals a very general picture of God. It’s kind of like seeing a figure at a great distance. You can make out that the figure is that of a person, and maybe even some details about that person. You might judge, for example, that this person is a woman, and perhaps how tall she is. You can make out the color of her clothes. Apart from this, however, you know very little. You need to get to know her better. You need to have a conversation with her, spend time with her, and hear her story. And as you do, you will be drawn into her life, and she into yours. You will, in other words, form a relationship.
To form a relationship with God, we need to know not just the general things, but the particulars of the divine life. We can derive these particulars from what is often called “special revelation,” and the most important source of special revelation Christians have is the Bible. So, for example, by observing the world around you, you might know that there is a God who is creative and good. You would not, however, derive that this God acted powerfully through the people of Israel. You would not know that this same God came to us in Jesus Christ, or that this God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life (John 3:16). You might perceive that God values order over chaos, but you would not perceive that this same God gave Ten Commandments to Moses (Exodus 20:1–17), or that in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). We require the special divine revelation that is in Scripture in order to grasp these truths.
Why We Need to Know God
We need to know who the true God is and what this God has done for us. We need to know this because the divine gift of salvation is more important than anything else that people can receive, and our very eternal lives depend upon it. There is danger here because we are so easily led astray. John Calvin famously remarked that the human mind is an idol-making factory. Different views of the world generally bring with them different views of truth. For some, science holds the highest and most important truths we can grasp. For others, truth is a particular philosophical or religious system that they share with a community of like-minded people.
It is also quite common for people today to see truth as a primarily individualistic affair: “I decide my own truth.” Once we say this, however, we lose the very idea of a broader truth woven into the fabric of creation. This outlook is typical within what we call our present “postmodern” era. As Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry wrote in their book, Deep Church Rising, today “one is more likely to come across the idea that nobody is right or wrong” on questions of religious truth. There may be such truth, “but it is person-relative.” Each of us decides truth for ourselves. No one can judge us because “each individual has the right to make such decisions.” (Deep Church Rising: The Third Schism and the Recovery of Christian Orthodoxy [Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014], 42.)
Christians, however, can’t really believe this way. Jesus said that he came to testify to the truth (John 18:37). Pilate, who was interrogating him, asked a question people were asking long before him, and continue to ask today: “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Christians know that God is truth. Whatever else we say is true is somehow ultimately rooted in God. Science and math may tell us true things, but God is the source of the laws of science and math. As people of faith we make truth claims about right and wrong, knowing that God called into being the moral fabric of the universe. God is truth, and once we recognize this, all of the smaller quests for truth in our life are actually quests to understand the divine.
Left on our own, we cannot truly know God, but we are not on our own. God has revealed himself to us in history, and our primary resource for receiving God’s self-revelation is the Bible. Our faith, then, stands over against the idea that there is no truth, as well as truth claims incompatible with ours made by other religions and philosophies, such as Buddhism or atheism.
Two Words of Caution
Two words of caution are in order here. First, to claim that we can know true things about God is not to claim that we are immune to mistakes or that we know the whole truth about God. God is eternal, and we are finite. God is Spirit, and we spend most of our time in the this-world matters of everyday life. In some ways, our vision may be distorted by sin, by the limitations of our intellect, or by assumptions about God that we may not even be aware that we hold. As Paul said, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). In my own life as a Christian, there have been many times when I’ve come to see things differently than I did before. I’ve changed my mind or, perhaps, God changed my mind. I’ve realized I’ve been wrong about things, and I’m reasonably sure this will happen again in the future. It has therefore become ever more important for me to rely on other believers—past and present—for guidance.
Second, knowing the truth about God is not enough. As we read in James 2:19, even the demons believe (and tremble). Believing is necessary, but it is not sufficient. John Wesley once quipped that a person could be as “orthodox as the devil,” and “all the while be as great a stranger as he to the religion of the heart.” You can believe all the right things about God and still not know God. You can recite any creed you would like and yet not know the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Knowing the basic truths about God that Christians have confessed through the centuries is necessary, but not sufficient. It is crucial, but it is not enough. When we read the Bible, then, we should look not just for information about God, but for the transformation that comes from God. The Bible isn’t just a book of statements about God; it is a pathway into God’s very life.
This function of the Bible seems to have been lost in much of Christianity through North America and Western Europe. In the mainline Protestant traditions, and increasingly in evangelicalism, we have gotten very good at being critical of the Bible. We have become experts in defeating the bogeyman of biblical literalism, so much so that “critical” has become the primary posture by which we approach the text. Joel Green put the matter this way: “[M]odern persons who think of themselves as Christians and who identify themselves with the Christian church have often been enculturated to imagine not only that they can but indeed that they must approach the Scriptures dispassionately.” (Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture [Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007], 150). Thus we live our lives at a safe distance from those passages of the Bible that are most challenging to us, and perhaps those through which God can shape us most profoundly. Our abbreviated Bible becomes a reflection of our own perspectives, and the idea of God becomes an empty bucket that we fill up with the values of our culture.
Revelation for the Purpose of Salvation
We have little to say about the role of God in the writing of Scripture and selection of the books of the Bible (the canon). We are most often reticent to talk about the work of the Holy Spirit in guiding our readings. Put differently, we don’t have much to say about the Bible theologically. I was once part of a process of interviewing candidates for a professorial position in teaching the Bible. One of the other interviewers, a professor of theology, asked each candidate one simple question: “What is the Bible?” It surprised me that, despite the great learning and intelligence of each of these candidates, every one of them struggled to answer this question.
My guess is that many Christians in North America and Western Europe—including the best educated among them—would struggle with this question as well. They would have a hard time saying not only what the Bible is, but what it is supposed to do. Yes, they could probably muster some formula such as, “The Bible is the Word of God,” or, “The Bible teaches us how to live a Christian life.” Yet these common ways of describing the Bible don’t tell us much about it at all.
To put the matter differently, we have lost sight of the Bible as Scripture. What does it mean to think of the Bible as Scripture? Daniel Castello and Robert Wall put the matter this way: “‘Scripture’ signals a way of thinking theologically about the Bible as God’s Word for God’s people, one that supplies the theological goods that fund spiritual wisdom and provide moral direction.” (source) Another way of putting this is to say that, through the Bible, God has revealed sacred truth to a community of people committed to living in that truth. The traditional tools of biblical scholars, such as the biblical languages, historical study, and literary analysis, contribute in important ways to our understanding of the Bible. Nevertheless, one can achieve outstanding mastery of these tools and never read the Bible as Scripture.
It’s common to find academic biblical studies that approach the Bible in the same way they might approach, say, The Odyssey. They do not assume the reality of the God to whom the Bible attests, nor do they assume that God had any role in the writing or selection of the biblical texts. From this perspective, the Bible is simply one more example of ancient religious literature. There is a certain logic to approaching the Bible in this way in a secular context such as a state university classroom. In the Sunday school or seminary classroom, however, such an approach will inevitably be inadequate. We are not reading the Bible simply to learn about history. We are reading it to deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ, to enter more deeply into the divine life. As Christians, we should feel free and comfortable to approach the Bible with our core theological truths in hand. In fact, we should feel uncomfortable not doing so. Only then will we be able to receive the spiritual treasures that Scripture has to offer.
Here I want to argue a singular point: the Bible is a form of divine communication meant to lead us more fully into the life of God. Put in theological terms, we might say that through the Bible we receive divine revelation, the purpose of which is soteriological.
In other words, the purpose of God’s Word is salvation for the world. John Wesley believed that Scripture shows us “the way to heaven—how to land safe on that happy shore. . . . Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his Book; for this end, to find the way to heaven.” Or to put it in yet another way, God speaks to us through the Bible and leads us into salvation. God loves us and wishes us to return that love. When we do, we enter more fully into the divine life. The Bible is a “book of meeting.” (“The Bible as a Book of Meeting,” in Christopher Bryan, And God Spoke: The Authority of the Bible for the Church Today [Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 2002]). It draws us ever more deeply into a relationship with the God who came to us in Jesus Christ. In light of this, our first posture toward the Bible should be one of gratitude, not criticism.
If you enjoyed this entry, you’ll benefit from Scripture and the Life of God by David F. Watson. In these pages you’ll: (1) Gain spiritual appreciation for the Bible (2) Grapple with some of the difficult portions of Scripture (3) Learn to use the Bible as a means of grace an catalyst for personal growth. In Scripture and the Life of God, David Watson takes us on a journey through what it means to enter into the life of God through texts that God has inspired and made authoritative for the teaching of the Church.