What is the Bible? Six Views on Reading Scripture

what is the Bible?Introduction

For most of church history, the idea of a personal Bible was unheard of. The phrase “Turn in your Bible to…” would have made no sense. That’s because people didn’t have their own Bible.

But now we do. Since the Gutenberg press revolutionized the way mankind makes books, the Bible has rightly become the most accessible book in the world. If you live in America, you are lucky enough to have access to several Bibles—in libraries, hotel rooms, and even given to you on a street corner. And if you have been a Christian for a while, you are likely one of the 88% of Americans who own a Bible; you might even have a few on your shelves.

Because of the ubiquitous nature of the printed and bound Bible in our culture today, it is easy to assume that the Bible has always been like this. We can take for granted that, for most of the church’s history, copies of the Bible were handwritten. We can also take for granted the very nature of the Bible, viewing it in a very narrow light.

So what is the Bible?

  • A library?
  • A book?
  • A reference work?
  • A historical document?

It is all of these… and more.

In this post, we will take a look of each more closely to see how we should be viewing the Bible.

A Library

First of all, the Bible is a library of works. Written by at least 40 different authors and numerous editors over 1500 years, the 66 books of the Bible form a library of religious texts. Even the word “bible” comes from the Greek and can be translated as “little books”.

In the early years, these writings were combined into a canon, or a standardized grouping. While the order of this list may change, the canon has remained relatively stable.

Viewing the Bible as individual books and letters allows the reader to note the diversity found within the text. Stories, laws, poetry, personal letters, and apocalyptic writing are all part of Scripture.

A Book

For all the diversity in the Bible, it is not merely an anthology of religious texts; instead, it tell one complete story. There is a unity to the text, a storyline woven throughout the pages. The Bible is not a The Bible is the story of God’s relationship with his people, and the lengths he would go to redeem them.

There has been a recent resurgence in resources to help readers see this greater storyline of the Bible. Books like The Heart of the Story and The God Who Is There show how each part of the Bible fits in God’s greater story. And curricula like The Gospel Project guides a small group through finding their part in this greater story.

A Reference Work

Another view of the Bible is that it serves as a reference work. Instead of learning, internalizing, and memorizing Scripture, one could cite the chapter and verse of a particular passage.

The division of the Bible into chapters and verses was done in the 13th century by Stephen Langton, the future Archbishop of Canterbury. Before Langton, people would refer to the book a quote was in, but could not point to a specific part. Several of the New Testament authors cite the Old Testament by saying “as it is written” (Mark 1:2; Romans 4:17).

While the development of chapters and verses has aided pastors, authors, and readers alike in remembering the text, it has also had some negative effects. Chapter and verse divisions are not perfect, at times interrupting the original flow and argument of the author. They have also made reading the Bible fragmented, with people reading only the portion they need to, say for a reading plan or whatever verses the pastor told them to read. This lends itself to people citing a verse outside of the context of the surrounding verses and chapters. Proof-texting like this is good for boosting your own argument, but it does not help you understand the truths God may be communicating through the greater passage.

While I am not proposing abolishing the chapter/verse divisions, reading the Bible without them is greatly beneficial. Logos readers can do this with a click of a button, while readers looking for a physical edition can turn to the ESV Reader’s Bible.

A Historical Document

Within popular culture, the Bible is often viewed as a historical document. In this view, the Bible’s value is merely that of cultural artifact, useful primarily to describe the life, culture, and belief of an ancient people. This makes the Bible something worthy of scholarly study, but of no value to modern day readers.

For Christian readers, there is great value to be found in learning more about the culture and context of the Bible’s authors and original audience. But we cannot stop there; for Christians, the Bible is much more than a cultural artifact.

Revelation of God’s Story

For Christians, the Bible is God’s revelation to mankind. Through Scripture, God reveals truths about Himself, the nature of mankind, and the redemption plan God has for His people. And it is through Scripture that we learn about Jesus Christ, the very Word of God (John 1).

This makes reading the Bible more than just something we study; when we read the Bible, God uses that to change and shape and mold us more into His image. Reading the Bible, combined with the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, we are able to learn and experience more of the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.


Unfortunately, for millions of people on the planet, the Bible means nothing to them. This is because they either do not have access to the Bible, or the Bible has not yet been translated into their heart language. Over half of the world’s languages do not have a complete Bible, while 26% of the world’s languages have no translation works started (source).

Fortunately there are some great organizations looking to remedy this drought in biblical translations. Here at North Baptist Church we are partnered with Wycliffe and New Tribes Mission, both of which are committed to reaching the unreached people groups with a translation of the Bible. I encourage you to pray for and support missionaries and organizations that are pursing translation projects throughout the world.

Brandon Schmidt

I am Brandon Schmidt: writer, husband, father, brother, reader, and laugher.

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