What is the Bible?
In theological terms, the Bible is God’s inspired Word, his authoritative revelation of who he is, what he has done, and what he expects from his creatures. Yet, in terms of genre, what is the Bible?
Some speak of Scripture as God’s love letter to humanity; others describe it as God’s instruction manual—Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (B.I.B.L.E.). I am much more inclined to ground the Bible’s imperatives (read: laws) in the infinitives of what God has done (think: gospel). The Bible is not a human book for struggling humans. More fundamentally it is a book from God, about God, for God’s people to be reconciled to God. To say it differently: It is a word about the Living Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, the one in whom all creation is unified (Eph 1:10).
For this reason, the most appropriate designation for the Bible is that it is an Epic Comedy that effects Salvation and Judgment. Let me explain.
First, the Bible is an epic. In the Literary Study Bible, Leland Ryken defines an epic like this:
A long narrative having the following characteristics or ingredients: expansiveness and grandness; the story of a nation of group (nationalistic emphasis), not simply an individual; a unifying hero; motif of warfare, conquest, kingdom, rulership; presence of supernatural characters and events (what literary critics have traditionally called ‘the marvelous’); exalted style. Epics are very important to societies; in fact, they sum up what a whole culture wants to say about itself and about life. The story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt is the most obvious epic in the Bible, but there are epic like stories in abundance, and the life of David can be considered an epic. (Leland Ryken in The Literary Study Bible [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007], 1888)
In my estimation, an epic best describes the warp and woof of the Bible. It is grandest story ever told written down by the greatest story-teller—Yahweh, the Triune God. Once the Bible is seen as an epic and not just a collection of truths or ethical commands, it has tremendous explanatory power for suffering. It gives rise to hope. It enlarges our hearts and captivates our imagination. As an epic, the Bible invites readers to leave their own micro-narratives and to be swept up into God’s story, where they might become supporting actors and actresses in the drama of Jesus Christ, servant of humanity and king of glory.
Second, the Bible is a comedy, meaning that throughout all the twists and turns of history, and redeeming every peril and pitfall, God is writing a story with a happy ending—for those who come to trust in him. This is eschatological resolution is characteristic of a comedy. Again, Ryken’s description is helpful. A comedy is a “U-shaped plot in which the action begins in prosperity, descends into potentially tragic events, and rises to a happy ending” (ibid., 1885)
This literary description well-describes the four-fold pattern of Scripture: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation (or New Creation). Truly, when we understand the shape of Scripture, it helps us see how different instructions, requirements, and conditions are time-sensitive—the law is given to Moses with an expiration date; some of its stipulations only relate to Israel; the command of circumcision is typological and is now experienced in the baptism of the Spirit (Col 2:11-12), and so on.
Third, the Bible saves and judges. In short, the Bible does not simply exist as an inert collection of letters and words. Nor is it a text that comes to life when the Spirit of Christ speaks through its words (as with neo-orthodoxy). Rather, God’s inscripturated words are the living and active word of God, and in every instance they bring about the effect that God (super)intends. In some instances his purpose is salvation of the reader/hearer; at other times, the effect is hardening and judgment. In every moment, the word is having its effect. God’s word alone calls for and even creates faith, and at the same time, the word of God condemns those who read it without believing in the Son who is lifted up in its pages.
Altogether the word of God is first and foremost a story of God’s creative power, holy character, and loving plan to redeem a people for his own possession. In other words, it is an epic comedy that effects salvation and judgment.
It explains how the world was created good and how it will one day be perfectly restored. It recounts the turning points in the redemptive history, and prepares the reader to encounter the Jesus Christ, the Son of God who took on flesh to atone for sins and make all things new. In this way, the Bible is an epic comedy, but one that cannot simply entertain like a Saturday afternoon matinee. The Bible beckons all men made in God’s image to bow the knee to the king Jesus.
How do you read the Scriptures?
Let me urge you, the next time you take up the Bible, don’t just look for a daily nugget, a crumb, or a tip for living. Rather, approach the Bible the way you would prepare for a Lord of the Rings marathon. Get caught up in the scenery. Let the music tingle your spine. Cry at its horrors. Clap for its hero. Wait for the deliverance. And hold on for the destruction of the enemy! All of these things and more are taking place in the Bible, because all of these things are happening in our world.
God’s word is meant to explain your world, and whether you know it or not, the world in which we inhabit is the stage for God’s epic story.
Take up the Bible and read. Ask for God’s light to see his light. Trust in its message. Believe on its Messiah. And soon, you will learn how to live happily ever after.