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The Bible Is More Like a Library Than a Book

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(Part 2 of a Four-Part Series)

It has often been said that the Bible is more like a library than a book. This is an important point. It was written over twelve centuries with many writers, under many kings of Israel, as well as during exile under three pagan empires. Differences in style and even in the evolution of different languages can be detected by scholars as one moves from book to book. There are also different emphases in each book. There are many reasons for this.

First, each was written from a different perspective. Even the historical books of the Old Testament or the Gospels of the New Testament reveal different standpoints and interests. At first, that might startle us. If there is one message—one gospel— how can there be different versions?

It may help to use a courtroom analogy. While serving on a jury, you may hear discrepancies between various testimonies. Yet, as the judge will tell you, discrepancies do not mean contradictions. Each witness saw the event described from a particular angle and at a particular time in the unfolding of the scene.

Second, the diversity of standpoints is compounded by the diversity of emphases. Even the Gospels—as eyewitness reports—are evangelistic tracts. All witnesses bring their own biases and interests with them to the stand. However, the apostles make no effort to conceal their bias. They were convinced by what they saw and heard that God had acted in history for the redemption of the world.

The Gospels are therefore not simply chronologies or records. Each writer wove the details of what they and others saw and heard into a pattern that proclaimed Jesus Christ as the only hope of salvation. Each writer emphasized particular facets of Christ’s multifaceted person and work, reflecting their own backgrounds, interests, and styles as authors. Yet it was the Spirit who prepared each writer’s ordinary life for this extraordinary calling.

One Message, Many Genres

One of the ways we can downplay the humanity of Scripture is by thinking that it transcends normal rules of interpreting different genres. Because we understandably privilege the historical narratives and Gospel reports, we can easily assume that everything in the Bible is a straightforward assertion or proposition, a true statement.

The danger is apparent when poetry is read as prose, apocalyptic is read as historical narrative, and figures of speech are treated as literal descriptions—or when the relation is reversed, as when a historical report is interpreted as allegory or poetry. People used to reading different genres in secular literature are in a good position to read the Bible.

Part 1: How to Read the Book

Part 3: The Bible Is a Ruling Constitution

Part 4: The Bible Is Not a Code Book

Adapted from Michael Horton, “How to Read the Book,” Modern Reformation, November/December 2013. Used by permission.

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Michael Horton

Michael Horton (@MichaelHorton_) is the Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. The author of many books, including Core Christianity. He lives with his wife Lisa and four children in Escondido, California. He lives with his wife Lisa and four children in Escondido, California.