There are many commonplaces and phrases we use in talking about the Bible. For instance, “Bible” can be said to be an acronym for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth” or we can talk about the Bible as a set of rules, laws, or as evidence. Beyond the poor “leaving earth” theology of the first one, what each of these ways of speaking about the Bible all convey is the manner in which we are to relate to the Bible, whether it be instructions, laws, evidence, etc. Without us realizing it, each of these words have their own implicit hermeneutic and epistemology related to them. If the Bible is instructions, it is some behavior I have to put into place, so I look for the specific action being prescribed. If it is a set of laws, it is something that people are bound to do so I find the principles to apply across the board and begin pay attention to how well other people adhere to the laws. If it is evidence, I can be inclined to read the Bible as a set of data about certain topics and expect others to accept as true.
Now, the Bible certainly contains instructions, laws, and evidence. But none of these three terms describe all the Bible. The Torah commandments were laws, although they could also be understood as instructions, that were to be generally applied across Israelite society. The New Testament, particularly the Gospel of John, conveys evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount takes on the form of instruction while warning against treating it as laws by not judging others. There are other ways to talk about parts of the Bible. The Psalms are confessions of one’s life with God. The Wisdom Literature contain insights and exhortation. And on it goes.
But here comes the important premise behind this: when we use each of these terms to talk about the Bible, we are subtly encouraging people to read from and reason about the Bible is different ways. This is closely related to the notion of genre, where the different books of the Bible have different genres that should impact how we interpret the texts. We don’t read the Psalms the same what we read the narratives and commandments of the Pentateuch; the Psalms are highly laced with figurative language, the narratives are episodes, and the commandments are descriptive of particular actions and in many cases responses to those actions. You wouldn’t read a love letter from a secret admirer the way you would read a decision from the Supreme Court. The genre impacts how we read.
However, the problem comes in that we talk about the Bible as a singular entity. This is due to our manner of publishing the Bible together as a single book, therefore we treat the whole book as being fundamentally the same. Even those of us who know that the Bible is a collection of different literary creations, we are still inclined to the automatic behavior of thinking about the Bible as one thing, rather than a collection of different things. As a result, we will commonly use the language that is consistent with the way we tend to read the Bible, no matter what part of the Bible we may be referring to.
This is an unavoidable habit we will have so far as we have Bibles; it may change with the rise of the electronic medium for the Bible where programs like Logos or Bibleworks where you don’t have a singular but a list of documents you go to in a text box or go to from a drop-down menu. But until that change comes, if it were to occur, we as Christians who are concerned about evangelism and discipleship need to think carefully about how we talk about the Bible when we do talk about the Bible as a single thing. Specificity in talking about the various texts will be helpful, but so far as we either revert back to Bible language or try to read the different texts of the Biblical canons into a singular set of coherent ideas, it will be helpful to determine what our language will be.
My preference is the word “witnesses.” Witnesses are considered evidence, but it doesn’t have the baggage that evidence has in our current science driven age; by default “evidence” sounds more like I am sifting through a series of data that I then put together to get to some right theory or proposition. However, the word witnesses firstly echoes the New Testament way of spreading the news about Jesus and the language that is used. Secondly, it is also coherent with the Old Testament ways of passing down a tradition to each generation of God’s works, in that the traditions can taken as important witnesses. For instance, we can understand the Pentateuch provides witnesses of God’s instructions to Israel. Thirdly, witnesses allow a personal involvement on the part of hearers or readers who can determine the trustworthiness of what is said; other people can make the decision from reason, experience, etc. that confirms the reliability of the witnesses. This is similar to Paul’s pedagogy in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 read in light of 1 Corinthians 15:2-8, where he testified to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ that is then made clear by the demonstration of the Spirit can lead people to trust in the power of God that caused both the resurrection and the powerful demonstrations. Fourthly, witnesses humanizes the texts of the Bible, recognizing they had authors/producers who conveyed their own thoughts for specific purposes. In the end, the word of “witness” leads people into a set of assumed hermeneutic and epistemic practices that is consistent with much of the New Testament and can be taken to be coherent with the rest of the Biblical texts.
The downside for some will be that such language provides ambiguity about the truthfulness of the Biblical texts; if you leave it open for others to decide, they might make a wrong evaluation. Another downside for some is that it doesn’t convey decisive authority they think fitting for God; it lets people come to a decision on their own end. Without realizing it, these can be pretty strong concerns in Christian contexts. The ambiguity leading to the wrong decisions can run counter to those who emphasize the role of human choice in coming to faith; we must persuade them to believe and think rightly. The lack of decisive authority might be seen as promoting chaos in strongly authoritarian contexts who use the ascribed authority of the Bible as a means to control people. However, if we place the appropriate emphasis upon God’s action and truly believe that God is working in other people, the ambiguity and lack of decisive claims of authority should not be concerns for us. The Bible witnesses to the power and love of God in both the created order and in dramatic new actions and people can come to discover the truth of these witnesses in accordance to the way in which God’s power and love and demonstration in the regular ordering of providence and dramatic power in Christ and the Spirit. The Bible as witnesses would make more space for faith to spring forth as a result of apprehending God’s actions, and thus making the center of faith in God’s power, rather than coming from some subtle hermeneutic and epistemic way of controlling people’s thinking based upon other social influences and factors such as our desires for clarity and decisive authority. In talking about the Bible as witnesses, we fight against our desires to avoid uncertainty and to have a powerful means of control and thus put ourselves and our interests more in the background.
It is important the way we talk about the Bible, because it can be the difference between putting ourselves and our interests into the center or allowing the space for people’s faith to be placed God Himself as disclosed in Jesus Christ and through the Spirit.