What is the Bible? An Introduction to the Theology of ScriptureA God who speaks
Imagine a world in which God is silent, and the grand questions of life go unanswered.
Why are we here? Is there any design or meaning to this world? Does my life have purpose? How do I make sense of a world that is filled with so much beauty yet so much horror? How can I begin to deal with the guilt and shame of my failures and broken relationships? How do I navigate unseen spiritual forces so that life can go well for me? When something good happens to me, whom do I thank? When I really need a change of fortune or deliverance from my troubles, to whom do I pray? What will happen when I die? Is there any hope for me after my life is but a distant memory?
But praise God – he is not silent, and he has not left us alone. He has revealed himself throughout history to his people and has graciously made himself known to us.
God is a relational God
God reveals himself to his people as part of his loving, covenantal relationship with them. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel received God’s revelation within the generous and faithful relationship he forged with them through his covenants to Abraham, Moses, and David. God revealed himself to Israel as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6, ESV). He proclaimed his promised blessings to the Israelites and gave them his law, wisdom, and prophetic words.
In the New Testament, God’s revelation culminates in his Son, Jesus, as is highlighted in Hebrews 1:1-2 (ESV): “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son.” God inaugurates his new covenant relationship with us through the person and work of Christ. Within this new covenant relationship, God discloses his heart, plans, and promises to us in Jesus Christ, and he specifies how we are to relate to him in return through Spirit-filled living.
God nourishes our relationship with him by revealing himself to us through the Bible. Through the Scriptures we encounter the God of the universe, who is committed to knowing us and loving us through Jesus and by the Spirit. We engage with the Scriptures so that we can engage with the God of the Scriptures. Scripture engagement is all about striving to know God more intimately.
There is no more valuable pursuit than knowing our God: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice, and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 9:23-24, NIV). Jesus states, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3, NIV). The Bible gives us access to this infallible and life-changing knowledge of God.
The Bible is written with Father, Son, and Spirit at the center of the overall story and the individual passages. In Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s influential book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, the authors remind us, “In any biblical narrative, God is the ultimate character, the supreme hero of the story. . . . To miss this dimension of the narrative is to miss the perspective of the narrative altogether” (page 98). When our attention is focused on the love, power, justice, and wisdom of God throughout Biblical storyline, a grand vision of God’s greatness and beauty is cultivated, fueling our relationship with him.
God reveals himself truthfully in Scriptures
The Bible is God’s disclosure of his heart, his saving actions, and his plans for us and for this world. The Bible is not merely a record of thoughts about God. God speaks to us through the prophets and apostles who wrote the books of the Bible. God’s own trustworthy character attests to the value of his revelation. And throughout the Bible, God reminds us his truthfulness and trustworthiness (2 Samuel 7:28; Psalm 119:160; John 17:17; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18). In the Scriptures God reveals by his Spirit everything we need to know to have a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ (2 Timothy 3:15; 2 Peter 1:3).
God reveals himself truthfully though not exhaustively in the Scriptures. God’s glory and majesty surpass what we can comprehend in this life (Isaiah 55:8-9; Romans 11:33-36). But when we “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8) in our engagement with God through Scripture, we commune with the God we will enjoy fully in the world to come: “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV; see also 1 John 3:2).
God’s revelation throughout the Scriptures
God reveals himself in different ways in different sections of the Scriptures. The covenantal contexts, literary genres, and divine purpose of various discourse sections all shape the distinct nature of that revelation.
For instance, the historical narrative of the Old Testament opens a window into God’s perspective of historical events, centered on his chosen people, the Israelites. As the Israelites look back on their experiences and heritage, God shows them what he has been doing in the midst of that history.
God’s Law to Israel, given directly by God to Moses, records the way God’s chosen people were to worship God and relate to him in his holiness, justice, and mercy. God’s Law was a great gift given to Israel, since it was part of what marked Israel as his holy and blessed people (Deuteronomy 4:5-8; Romans 3:1-2).
The prophets deliver God’s authoritative word to Israel and the nations when they exclaim, “Thus says the Lord!” Deuteronomy 18:15-19 expresses God’s identification with the words of his prophets – “I will put my words in his mouth, and he will speak to them (the people)” (ESV).
The Old Testament Writings consist of Spirit-inspired prayers and wisdom about life with God. For example, Jesus and the apostles note that David, speaking by the Spirit as prophet, was revealing God’s character and plans (Mark 12:36; Acts 1:16; 2:25-31; 4:25).
In the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles treat the Old Testament as God’s inspired Word (Matthew 4:1-10; Matthew 5:17-18; 1 Timothy 3:15-16, 2 Peter 1:21; Romans 15:4). All Old Testament Scripture is fulfilled in Jesus (Matthew 5:17-18), and the Scriptures testify to him (John 5:39).
God’s revelation of himself continues with Jesus, who was anointed by the Spirit to reveal the Father through his words and works (Matthew 10:27; John 1:18). Jesus and the New Testament writers are recognized to speak with the same authority as the prophets of the Old Testament (1 Timothy 5:18; 2 Peter 3:15-16).
Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would enable the apostles to be faithful witnesses after his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension (John 14:26; 16:13). The apostles and other eyewitnesses of Jesus fulfilled this calling in their preaching ministries and the written accounts and letters that are found in the New Testament (1 John 1:1-3, 2 Peter 3:2). Even at the very end, in Revelation, the Spirit unveils visionary knowledge that John receives and records (Revelation 1:10; 2:7; 4:2; etc.).
God’s speaks with a purpose
God does not waste his words, but speaks in order to accomplish his purpose in our lives. In Isaiah 55:10-11 God says, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (ESV). The words of God that are recorded in the Bible have the power to strengthen and nurture the relationship God desires with us. God’s Holy Spirit, who spoke through the prophets and apostles (2 Peter 1:20-21; John 14:26), is the same Spirit who makes his message effective in our lives (1 Corinthians 2:14; see also 2 Timothy 2:7).
Revelation and Scripture engagement
God wants us to experience life-change when we hear his words, to be the fertile soil of Mark 4:1-9, the wise builders of Matthew 7:24-27, the observant mirror-gazers of James 1:22-25, or the emotionally responsive crowds of Nehemiah 8:8-12. Reading and studying the Bible can be a transformative and enriching practice, as the Spirit implants God’s truth in our hearts according to God’s design for our lives. Scripture engagement is a portal to knowing God and enjoying an eternal relationship with him. When we read the Scripture with an eye towards drawing near to God, that relationship thrives, and the ultimate purpose of God’s revelation is fulfilled.
Greg MaGee, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Biblical Studies