What is the Bible?
The first thing to know about the Bible is that it's not a book, it’s a library. Ta Biblia. The Books. There’s history, government policy, biography, correspondence, philosophy, poetry, music, devotional writing and a directory. The Bible is all of those things, and more. There’s biography – you could say that the Gospels fall somewhat into this genre. There’s social policy – think the book of Judges, or Deuteronomy. There’s poetry and music – the Psalms, there’s correspondence – reams of it – in the New Testament. There's statutory legal codes, like Leviticus. There’s history, there’s philosophy, there’s accounts of mystical visions. There’s even romance. Yes, people put a scholarly allegorical spin on the Song of Songs. But, really. Read it. It’s a love poem and plenty of it doesn’t leave all that much to the imagination!
We hopefully wouldn’t read a directory in the same way as book of poems. So, the first and perhaps rather obvious point is that it is impossible to have a methodology for reading the Bible that does justice to the many genre of writing contained therein. Although at an intellectual level we know that the Bible is really a Library of diverse volumes, the way we are taught to regard Holy Scripture and the reverence that we are quite rightly taught to have for it, can sometimes obscure the fact that it is a collection of stuff written by fallible human beings with all of the opining, spin, error, hubris, excitement, forgetfulness, pomposity, doubts, reluctance, sadness, joy that any writing is subject to.
Our culture has been so hijacked by the notion that ‘Biblical faithfulness’ means literalism and fundamentalism that we as an Episcopal Church have a real calling to let society know that this is not what is meant by ‘biblical faithfulness’.
Being faithful to the Bible is to treat it as one of the legs of the famous Anglican three-legged stool analogy. A three-legged stool is about the most stable piece of furniture you can have, but only if all three legs are equally deployed. And the other legs of ‘reason’ and ‘tradition’, if we are using them properly, both have a huge bearing on the way we read and understand the Bible.
Over the course of the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, what we have today as the definitive Bible began to gel. By the end of the 4th century most of the building blocks were in place. Some books that were in before were rejected. Others were included. Then, to all intents and purposes the Old Testament and the New Testament were closed. That was what they were and to most people it would be unthinkable – even sacrilegious – to mess with them anymore.
What were the criteria for inclusion and exclusion in the Canon? The French biblical scholar Etienne Charpentier suggests that at the time if a book was apostolic in origin and accepted in all the churches, it could be considered for inclusion. But the ultimate criterion is that ‘because the church is animated by the Holy Spirit, it has felt that certain books ‘edify’ it, build it up, and others do not’ and furthermore that this particular collection of inspired books laid the all the foundation we need for a life of faith in Christ. Indeed, the Anglican tradition's 'Thirty-Nine Article of Religion' say that Holy Scriptures ‘contain all things necessary to salvation’.