January 17, 2021

iMonk: “What Is the Bible?”


Kitchen Conversation, Rau

From Michael Spencer’s classic post, A Conversation in God’s Kitchen

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What is the Bible?

When I was a senior in high school, I made it into an Advanced English Class taught by Mrs. Vista Morris. Mrs. Morris taught us to research, to write and to speak. Oddly, we never left her room, because all of our research and work was done in a little room adjacent to her classroom, full of several sets of books called “The Great Books of the Western World.” Britannica publishes this set, and I own the books today.

At the time, I had no idea who these 73 authors were or why they were significant. I recognized a few names- Shakespeare, Aristotle- but most were alien to me. They were, of course, what Harold Bloom calls, “The Western Canon” of intellectual life. These Great Books- which by the way included the Bible- were a “Scripture” of sorts for a true Western education.

There were three books in the set that were different. Two were monstrous index volumes, where the Great books were broken up into explorations of over a hundred topics vital to the Western intellectual tradition. These books allowed you to delve into the Great Books by themes, and to hear what all the authors had to say on God, government, angels, war or close to a hundred other topics. I treasure these two volumes today, and count minor water damage done to one of them while caring for a plant to be among the great criminal acts ever committed.

The other volume was the slim first volume in the set, a collection of short essays on the purpose and use of the Great Books. It was called “The Great Conversation.” The authors suggested we approach these books not as a single narrative, or as an education by installment, but as a great, roaring, unruly conversation across the ages. Greek dramatists debating with English scientists. Russian novelists sparring with German psychologists. Gibbon debating Homer. Augustine versus Tolstoy. It was a conversation that never occurred, but was allowed to occur by bringing all these writings together, and then studying them to hear what each writer had to say.

This idea, of a great conversation taking place over time and culture, and then selected and presented for my benefit, has become my dominant idea of what is the Bible. It has proven increasingly helpful in a number of ways.

Old_Fashioned_BakerThe great conversation model has allowed me to jettison any defense of the Bible as single book whose human origins and methodologies present significant difficulties that must be explained. For instance, I view the Bible as a selection of purely human literary creations. I may lay aside my faith, as many critics do, and study the Biblical material purely in their historical and cultural settings. This eliminates the need to force the Bible to be divine in origin, and gives me the freedom to hear each Biblical writer saying what he/she had to say in the way he/she chose to say it.

Or I may read the Bible with my eyes, mind and heart alive to the faith that is at the center of the Biblical conversation. The humanity of the conversation is not an obstacle, but an invitation to understand the Bible even as we understand ourselves and our histories, experiences and cultures.

The rich diversity of the Bible is frequently lost in our fear that seeing a book as exactly what it appears to be will ruin the inspiration and divine authority of the book. Is God so small that the humanity of a text matters to His use of it? Further, the particular “voice” or style the text uses to talk about God may come to us in ways that are strange and uncomfortable to modern ideas of reality and truth. But if we are listening to a conversation and not predetermining what it must be, these factors are almost meaningless.

In the Great Books, the conversation took place in those common categories that were universal, even if greek dramatists and nineteenth century historians actually looked at the world in very different ways. The Great Conversation method says that the editor hears this conversation in his selection of the texts, and the reader experiences it for himself as he reads and listens.

Genesis isn’t twentieth century science. Leviticus is primitive, brutal and middle eastern. The Old Testament histories are not scholarly documentaries, but religious and tribal understandings of God and events. Proverbs comes from a mongrel wisdom tradition throughout the middle east. Song of Solomon is erotic poetry, and not much else. The prophets spoke to their own times, and not to our own. The scholars who help me understand these books as they are, are not enemies of truth, but friends. Call it criticism, paint it as hostile, but I want to know what the texts in front of me are saying!

The Old Testament and New Testament Canon are the selection of those parts of our spiritual literary heritage that make up the Great Conversation about the Judeo-Christian God. The Bible itself is a human book, created and complied by human choices. There may be other writings that contribute to the conversation, but those who know and experience the God of Jesus Christ hear the conversation most plainly in these writings. Canon is that human choice of what to listen to. Inspiration- the next section- is the validation and expounding of that choice.

The conversational model allows for a number of helpful ways of approaching scripture. For instance, it allows a variety of viewpoints on a single subject, such as the problem of evil. Job argues with Proverbs. It encourages us to hear all sides of the conversation as contributing something, and doesn’t say only one voice can be heard as right. Leviticus has something important to say that Psalms may not say. This approach sees the development of understanding as a natural part of the conversation, and isn’t disturbed when a subject appears to evolve and change over time. This model allows some parts of the conversation to be wrong, so that others can be right, and the Bible isn’t diminished as a result.

Most importantly, this model says the Bible presents a conversation that continues until God himself speaks a final Word. In other words, I do not expect this conversation to go on endlessly. It has a point. A conclusion. And in that belief, the great Biblical conversation differs from the Great Books conversation. There is not an endless spiral of philosophical and experiential speculation. There is, as Hebrews 1 says, a final Word: Jesus.


  1. God’s Word, and our source on all matters of faith and life.

  2. I have often said that nearly everyone knows what the Bible means, but hardly anybody knows what the Bible says.

    Makes no difference if they’re atheists or evangelicals, all seem to be able to voice an opinion about the Bible and its significance, meaning, and the lesson it has for us today. However, if you ask anyone what the primary theme of Habakkuk is or who Zepheniah was writing about they have no clue.

    At least my high school English teacher expected us to read Shakespeare and Silas Marner and Great Expectations before we were allowed to have opinions about them….

  3. Excellent essay by Michael Spencer. I particularly like, “This approach sees the development of understanding as a natural part of the conversation, and isn’t disturbed when a subject appears to evolve and change over time. This model allows some parts of the conversation to be wrong, so that others can be right, and the Bible isn’t diminished as a result.” Amen.

  4. Love it – especially what it means about who Jesus is. How exciting to realise that He is the final word, the summation of all other words, ideas, principles, events, conversations, predictions and everything else that has ever been and will be.
    Also gives more freedom to read and research the bible with an open mind.

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