Instruction manual? Really?

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Instruction manual? Really?

By | 2011-08-09T09:07:43+00:00 August 9th, 2011|

Yesterday, I posted the following on Facebook, and within a few hours, had 28 replies:  “Quick–without editing yourself, give me the first three words you think of when I say “describe the Bible.” Three words in three seconds. ready? Go!”

I got a lot of interesting responses, which you can scroll through at your leisure on my Facebook page, but several named a common descriptor I have heard applied to the Bible all my life: “instruction manual.”

Okay, here’s where in a loving way I want to ask–instruction manual, really?

I know I limited you to three words, and told me to give your first thought. And that’s been a sort of cliché’d way to describe the Scriptures for a few decades—I think it probably started in the 1950s, when the scientific age gave us, among other things, complicated toys and gadgets that needed an instruction manual.

Which I really think does the Bible a disservice. Why do Christians use this phrase to describe the Bible? Some of Paul’s letters, the book of proverbs, bits and snippets, yes, they are instructive, offer wisdom. But if I were to tell you–hey, I really recommend this book–it’s like an instruction manual–would you want to read it? Um, how many “instruction manual” books do you have on that pile of “to be read books” on your nightstand?

But if I told you I had a true story of a great adventure/romance, you have to read it–wouldn’t you be more interested? I think Scripture is an adventure/romance (God pursuing us) with some key moral instruction along the way. Take the story of our faith’s founder, Abraham. What in that story is like an instruction manual? He argues with God, lies about his wife being his sister, makes plenty of mistakes. But he’s radically obedient when it counts. None of this is presented in “instruction manual” format. The Bible is wild and strange, a narrative interrupted with lists of laws, interrupted with stories of odd things like a talking donkey (see Numbers 22) and lion carcass filled with honey (see Judges 14).

Yes, the Old Testament contains the law, but if you read the whole bible, you find out that many of these “instructions” no longer apply—we no longer have to sacrifice bulls and goats, for example, or wear tassels on each corner of our clothing. So what sort of instruction manual is that—that spends pages and pages telling you instructions, but then (in the book of Hebrews and elsewhere) says the rules have changed, evolved into grace. So why does the Bible devote so much space to these laws? Because in the story of “God pursuing us” (the three words my wise friend Dawn chose), the law demonstrates how God set his people apart, made them holy, taught them about himself.

The New Testament has some instructions, for sure. But Paul’s letters, captured as the second half of the New Testament, are really correspondence with churches. They offer us guidance but they are a part of a story of the building of the church. And the parables of Jesus—again, they are instructive but are nothing like a manual. They’re stories! I think the reason a lot of unbelievers are not interested in scripture is because we’ve sold it as an “instruction manual” when it is SO MUCH MORE.

How would you answer the question, and why?


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  1. Gay Idle August 9, 2011 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    I agree wholeheartedly. Maybe if I had thought longer about the original question I would have written, God with us! If you were to ask me to describe the Bible in one word I would say, relationship! The Bible,from the beginning to the end, is about how God is making a way for us to be in relationship with Him. God created this world, placed man and woman in it and had an ongoing relationship with them. Only they broke that when they believed the lie of the enemy. Ever since then, from the Garden on God has been providing a way back into a relationship with Him…a way into His presence and man just kept messing up!! He provided a way once and for all when He sent Jesus His only son, Emmanuel, God with us…God in the flesh…there again we see the continuing theme of God in relationship with man. When we turn from Him and seek our own way we lose the greatest gift we could ever imagine…His presence!!


  2. Margot Starbuck August 9, 2011 at 12:42 pm - Reply

    This idea really GRIPS me!!!!! Asking questions about “instruction manual” feel fantastic. My gears are turning…

  3. Dianne August 9, 2011 at 12:43 pm - Reply

    Hey Keri, great question. 10 years ago, my response would have been the same, or maybe “answer book.” Today I would probably respond with “God’s story.” I wonder if the “instruction manual” response is related to our penchant, our need for answers? Now I tend to think more that it’s in the questions, the relationship, the wrestling, etc. that the Bible offers us real meaning and hope for living.

    Just my quick and dirty thoughts!

  4. Lisa Colon DeLay August 9, 2011 at 1:54 pm - Reply

    I would probably answer…

    The Bible is the Story of God, and his interaction with humans…but more than anything, (and unlike an instruction book, or rule book, etc) it tells us who God is, which is summed up in one word: GRACIOUS.

    I like the Narrative theology vein for explaining the Bible too. (Kevin Van Hoozer) Life is God’s Story, which we are invited into. He is the Writer, Director, AND Star of the show. We are actors who can ad lib…at least to a certain point. This proposal basically says that God’s Story is seen in 4 parts. (Throughout the bible, within its stories, and within our story.)


    (More on the specifics are at my blog, and can be found doing a search “story”)

  5. Keri Wyatt Kent August 9, 2011 at 2:55 pm - Reply

    Love your thoughtful replies. I really do think the prevailing culture has a huge influence on the way we frame our faith. I’m pretty sure no one in the 17th Century ever referred to the bible as an instruction manual, because there was no such thing. Today, our culture is much more comfortable with ambiguity, but also in framing everything we experience as “story.” I love Donald Miller’s musings on story, his idea that a story happens when someone wants something and overcomes obstacles to get it. The Bible is God’s story, and what he wants (and is willing to overcome obstacles to get) is a relationship with us!
    I do think it was interesting that no one used words like “odd, strange, confusing, violent” or anything the least bit negative. the bible can still be true but be complex or even hard to understand. Maybe because we’ve grown up in an environment that did not allow us to question or doubt?? what do you think? Read Judges 14 and tell me you don’t think the Bible has some odd stories!!

  6. Christopher Maricle August 10, 2011 at 6:30 pm - Reply

    1. Testament
    The bible is so many things, but primarily it is account of a relationship between God and humans proposed for belief. It is MORE than just a story to be heard, remembered and retold.

    2. Collection
    The bible containts history, songs, poems, parables, detailed instructions (Book of Numbers), metaphors and more. A vareity of literary forms from many authors, each using using different literatry techniques, all trying to contribute to the understanding of faith across many centuries.

    3. Lens
    The bible is not the last word for me – it’s the first. It creates a faith framework through which I see the world and interact with others. Through this lens, hopefully, we see others as God sees them, and treats them as Jesus would have us treat them.

  7. Melissa Pasos September 19, 2011 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    My thoughts in three words “so many answers”. Im starting to find so many answers to life when I go back to the bible. Ive been questioning faith for a few years now, and it really comes from so much confusion we can be influenced by. It truly seems the bible has the instruction manual for everytyhing! Recently we found an amazing church that emphasizes relationship over religion along with the wisdom of Gods word as an answer to all our questioning. I think this is the important thing to remember with all the confusion today.

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