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?