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Heart in the Bible

What is the Bible?

Heart in the Bible

Some discussions, on this site and elsewhere, are different variants of reflecting on what the Bible is for Christians.

In the midst of some people’s tub-thumping of the term sola scriptura (belief in the Bible alone) some people can

  • give the impression that those who do not use the term sola scriptura somehow do not accept the Bible as the Word of God
  • not acknowledge the variety of understandings and usages of the term sola scriptura itself

For Christians the Bible is God’s Word written; it is inspired; it has authority. This is just as true for Orthodox, Catholics, and others who do not use the term sola scriptura.

For Orthodox, the Bible has authority within the Church, within the Tradition.

Roman Catholics don’t accept sola scriptura. They form half the Christian faith. For them “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church.” (Dei Verbum 10)

Here is one of the formal Roman Catholic statements about the Bible:

Like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture. For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life. Consequently these words are perfectly applicable to Sacred Scripture: “For the word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12) and “it has power to build you up and give you your heritage among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32; see 1 Thess. 2:13).

The accusations of many sola-scriptura declarers against those who do not use this language give the impression that those who do not hold to sola scriptura somehow use scripture less, or reverence it less, or do not accept its authority. Nothing is further from the truth.

Staying with Roman Catholics as the most obvious example of those who do not refer to sola scriptura, they proclaim the heart of the Bible every three years at Sunday Mass. Weekday Mass-goers reflect on more scripture together over a two year cycle. The liturgy is replete with scripture and scriptural allusions. The Daily Office, a requirement for clergy and religious, is essentially wholly praying and reflecting on scripture. Many laity share in this. Lectio Divina, the prayerful reading of scripture to encounter God’s Word, is a growing practice. Formal teaching documents brim with scriptural quotes and allusions.

Many wanting to (needing to?) argue for sola scriptura from the Bible turn to 2 Timothy 3:16 “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”*. As if that settles it. As if sola scriptura is identical with accepting the Bible is inspired; and useful. Those who do not accept sola scriptura have no difficulty with the Timothy text. In fact they relish it at least as much as the sola-scriptura factions.

Those who harangue about sola-scriptura cannot agree amongst themselves even what the term means, thereby draining the term of any usefulness.

There are those who use the term sola-scriptura

  • simply to mean the belief that the Bible is inspired and has authority for Christians
  • as shorthand for Article 6 of the 39 Articles of Religion that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation”
  • as limiting what can be believed and practised by Christians (all is allowed unless explicitly forbidden by the Bible)
  • as determining what can be believed and practised by Christians (only what the Bible teaches can be believed and practised) [The inability of ever-fragmenting groupings to agree what the Bible actually teaches makes these last two positions blatantly untenable – yet an ever-increasing number of groups continue to tout this foolishness]
  • to refer to using the Bible as the primary evidential material about God (what others would now, possibly more fairly, refer to as prima scriptura – see here and here and here)
  • to diferentiate it from the apparently “Revisionist Doctrine” of solo scriptura. And then there are those who argue passionately that there is no difference.

Reverence for the Bible, using it to hear what God is saying to us, turning to it as an authority – all these things are not dependent on holding to sola scriptura.

All appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture. The only real question is: whose interpretation?

I want to conclude this post positively. I do so by quoting a section about Sacred Scripture from the Catechism of the Catholic Church

In order to reveal himself to [us], in the condescension of his goodness God speaks to [us] in human words: “Indeed the words of God, expressed in [human] words, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like [us].”

Through all the words of Sacred Scripture, God speaks only one single Word, his one Utterance in whom he expresses himself completely:

“You recall that one and the same Word of God extends throughout Scripture, that it is one and the same Utterance that resounds in the mouths of all the sacred writers, since he who was in the beginning God with God has no need of separate syllables; for he is not subject to time.” (Augustine)

For this reason, the Church has always venerated the Scriptures as she venerates the Lord’s Body. She never ceases to present to the faithful the bread of life, taken from the one table of God’s Word and Christ’s Body.

In Sacred Scripture, the Church constantly finds her nourishment and her strength, for she welcomes it not as a human word, “but as what it really is, the word of God”. “In the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them.”…

“And such is the force and power of the Word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigor, and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting fount of spiritual life.” Hence “access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful.”

“Therefore, the study of the sacred page should be the very soul of sacred theology. The ministry of the Word, too – pastoral preaching, catechetics and all forms of Christian instruction, among which the liturgical homily should hold pride of place – is healthily nourished and thrives in holiness through the Word of Scripture.”

The Church “forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful. . . to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.


Rob Bell has been running a series: What is the Bible?

*Let’s leave to one side the ambiguity in the Greek of 2 Tim 3:16 (“All inspired scripture…”)


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14 thoughts on “What is the Bible?”

  1. Thank you Bosco for a nuanced post bringing much wisdom to a tricky issue. A few thoughts, in no particular order of importance.

    – if I were only to read what you post above I would be quite puzzled as to how the ‘high’ Roman view of Scripture also permits a high view of Tradition. As cited above, the Roman view (specially our citation from the Catechism) sounds quite ‘sola scriptural’!

    – I would give prominence to the distinctions Mathison (linked above) makes between Tradition 0, 1, 2, 3 [http://www.modernreformation.org/default.php?page=articledisplay&var2=19 ] as I find them helpful in distinguishing variations in the meaning of ‘tradition’ and thus in the meaning of ‘sola scriptura.’

    – The overall thrust of the post points to the ‘foolishness’ of sola scriptura and to confusion in the use of the term. Ok. But that can make it sound like in the Christian worlds not subscribing to sola scriptura all is well. But Mathison’s point is that all is not well in those worlds: ‘tradition’, for instance, could equally be posted about in analogous terms as ‘foolishness’ and involving confusion as to what it means. Similarly, it is easy to highlight the lack of solutions to authority in the church which sola scriptura has led to in fissiparous Protestantism, but are alternative proposals for authority in regard to Christian truth much better? On that score RC and EO remain divided. Non sola scriptural Anglicans presumably are not satisfied with RC or EO proposals regarding authority. Ergo, a deep question for all Christians subscribing to the Bible as God’s Word written, is the question of authority in discernment of the truth.

    1. Thanks, Peter. And essentially agreeing with your points [I’ve written previously about RC authority issues].

      A word about your feeling about the “overal thrust of the post”. My intention started by wanting to write a post highlighting the (agreed) positive value of the Bible. A post (as you know, as a fellow blogger) takes on a bit of a life of its own – and feeling the need to clarify a point… this post evolved.


  2. Thanks, Bosco, for your post, which clearly refutes the assertion of those who might claim the title ‘Sola scriptura’ that others are mistaken in their reliance upon sources other than the scriptures for their faith journey.

    Clearly, the words in The Book needed to put on flesh – in order to fully communicate with those addressed by those words. It was thus that God decided, unilaterally, to give life to the written word by producing, through the Third Person of the Trinity, and with the agreement of one of God’s human children, Mary of Nazareth, the Incarnate Word.

    Since that time, creation has taken on a new an vibrant understanding of God’s Word, as a living and life-giving icon of God’s Self: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. The teaching of Jesus became the new paradigm of what the words of Scripture were meant to convey. Without Jesus, the Bible would just have been another piece of literature, beautiful but without the fullness of the Life of God.

  3. Thankyou Bosco again for your balanced approach in your post. Would all however agree that this is scripture: He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin-offering. In doing this he acted very well and honourably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead (2 Macabees 12:43-44) Or what is the interpretation of Revelation 12:1-6 (the woman clothed with the sun). Christainity disputively has another branch, the Restoration Christianity, represented in NZ by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In their articles of faith the LDS believe that: We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated ccorrectly… Might we also want to add interpreted correctly. As it is said: so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:11). Do we empty God’s word by agreeing to disagree?

  4. Here, in the Deep South of the United States, one often hears from a particular stripe of Christian: “We believe in the Bible. We follow the Bible.” I would argue that makes one a Biblian, but not necessarily a Christian. Christians believe in and follow Christ Jesus, not the Bible. After all, he didn’t say “Come, follow the Bible,” but rather “Come, follow me” (Mark 1:17). The Bible is only useful insofar as it points to Christ Jesus. As he told the Biblians of his day: “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” (John 5:39). Christ Jesus is Lord of everything, the Bible included, and as such, it must be read through the prism of him and the basics of his gospel: “Love God. Love neighbor. Love enemy. Treat others the same way you want to be treated.” When not read through that prism, the Bible can lead people into committing sinful and un-Christlike behavior, such as advocating the death sentence for some human beings from a single-verse reading of Leviticus 20:13, when Christ Jesus in fact commands us to do the contrary: love all, show mercy to all and bring harm to none.

  5. Thanks for this Bosco. I come from an Evangelical background with a poor approach to scripture. Too often the stereotypical view of Sola Scriptura drove my understanding. Needless to say my perspective has changed significantly over the years. Recently I spent some time grappling with how to communicate what the Bible is to a young Evangelical audience in a way that might unshackle it from the chains of strictness it’s too often placed within. Without trying to be opportunistic in adding a link to my own thoughts, here’s what I came up with using an analogy relating to one of my daughter’s favourite routines. It’s very low church, but I think it works 🙂


    1. I don’t think it is low church at all, Francis. But then I don’t find all those categories all that useful. And often preventing real conversations. Your image of photos is another way of expressing the idea that the Bible is the memory of the church. The model of memory can be applied very usefully. Blessings.

      1. Thanks, Bosco. I love the idea of the Bible as memory, especially where memory is understood as more than just a recollection of the past, but as the embedded story that underpins our sense of identity.

        1. Yes, Francis. Memory is integral to our identity. Memory also focuses (not everything is randomly remembered), sorts, conflates, confuses… We do the same with photos – we sometimes sort chronologically, other times by place, or by people… Blessings.

  6. thanks Bosco for this post and pointing out the differences between Prima- and Sola-. That was the issue I was wrestling with in earlier comments – so will read those links with care and interest.

    (So I will now state on record that my limited reading of NT Wright suggests he argues Prima Scriptura).

    Father Ron Smith makes a very important point that we cannot draw simplistic conclusions about the nature of the “word” of God. Even as referenced in Hebrews 4;12 (in the RC quote) it has layered meanings, of which canonical scripture is only one.

    And Timothy needs to be read in its full context, not just as a proof text – along with contemplating the question of what exactly was “scripture” for the author of the letter. It certainly would not have included the epistles at that stage, which we put so much stock in now.

    By the way, can anyone recommend a good, accessible, comparative historical-critical work on the practice of scripture?

  7. It’s strange Bosco how often these days I agree with wording coming from Catholicism…if only that church could reform the anachronistic warped attitudes to women and sex I am sure I would return to my original faith!

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