On the relevance of the Bible

ancient bible 1I remember once going to a hang-out of sorts for persons interested in matters of religion and philosophy. It was one of those meetings where persons with similar interests get together and ask questions, talk about important matters, and share their opinions on whatever subjects are raised in the course of the discussion. This particular meeting had the Christian Bible as its topic and one of the persons present, himself not a Christian from what I could gather, asked the question of the relevance of the Bible: Why should anyone care about the Bible, given the fact that it was written so long ago?

This is an interesting question for a number of reasons, not least of which is its implicitly hyper-atomic vision about the course of history: if some item of literature is removed from our time and place, it must not have anything to tell us; every period — in spite of the obvious difficulty of separating them from one another! — would seem to be an island.

Some persons present at the meeting gave answers like this: The Bible is relevant and I enjoy reading it because within its pages I find guidance, direction, comfort, and other such values. In other words, the relevance of the Bible would seem to be connected to its utility, to the fact that I can get something out of it which helps me in some way. This answer is not wrong, so far as it goes, but I would not want to start at the point of utility when constructing a more developed account of the relevance of the Bible.

The most important aspect of the Bible to be mentioned at this juncture is its truthfulness. The Bible is relevant because the things that it describes are true. But we have to specify this truth, too, because plenty of textbooks of different sorts are true without being relevant. On the contrary, in contradistinction to a biology or history textbook which is only relevant to a person who cares to study those topics, the Bible has a relevance that applies to every human whatsoever. The Bible is a book that every person should read, this “should” being understood categorically and not conditionally.

How then can the Bible enjoy this sort of categorical relevance, this universal oughtness? Not just because it is true, but because of the nature of the things that it describes. As Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae says, the Bible has a relevance that touches on the past, present, and future: it talks about what God did for us in Christ, what He is currently doing for us, and what He will do for us in the future. The Bible relates things that have to do with every human and that touch on the deepest, most important aspects of human life, and in this way always stays relevant.

Of course, the assumption behind such a vision is that beyond the particularities of any individual human or peculiar period of history, there is something of a universal substrate which is shared by all humans of every period everywhere. This perspective rejects the kind of extreme atomism of the gentleman’s question that one evening about the relevance of a book written so long ago. The Bible can be relevant because the things it discusses — humanity’s creative origins in God, the reality of sin and the necessity of forgiveness, the nature of righteousness and human beatitude, the destiny of humanity and of the whole world — are common to absolutely everyone.

Importantly, too, these things are common even if a person doesn’t realize it. The Bible doesn’t speak to interests of which all human beings are conscious, since, for instance, some persons do not believe in God, do not have a conception of the destiny humankind, or anything of the sort. Rather, in the Christian faith we have a Truth from beyond human consciousness and goals and interests, a Truth which discloses Itself and demands obedience from us. The Bible is not just one more book in the market for a person to read and consider at his own leisure, only if it pleases him. On the contrary, it is a reality which demands to be taken seriously precisely because it describes reality per se, and is not tied down to contingent human interests and concerns.

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About Steven

I study theology and philosophy without ceasing. I have a B.A. in Philosophy from Arizona State University (2013), and an M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary (2016). I am currently an adjunct professor of philosophy at Grand Canyon University and a Ph.D. student at Fuller Theological Seminary.
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