3 Core Concepts to Help You Understand the Bible in Today’s Culture

  • Dr. James Emery White Serioustimes.org
  • Published May 24, 2024
3 Core Concepts to Help You Understand the Bible in Today’s Culture

There is much about the Bible that our post-Christian culture does not understand, which is not its fault. It is, after all, post-Christian. But when talking with people about the Christian faith, it is helpful to quickly and concisely convey the significance of the Bible to the Christian faith and overcome some common misconceptions about it.

Specifically, three: the nature of the Bible, the particular books it comprises (and why not others), and the dynamic of translations and interpretation. These can be explained in short order and should be when someone does not seem to understand them.

1. The Nature of the Bible

The Bible is a library of 66 books written by more than 40 authors over a period of approximately 1,500 years. This library of books falls into two parts, usually called “testaments”—the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament comprises 39 of the 66 books, and the New Testament comprises the remaining 27.  

The word testament simply means “agreement” or “covenant.” The Bible is a record of God’s great covenants, His promises, with us in regard to our relationship with Him. The Old Testament is a record of God’s covenants and dealings with people before the time of Jesus. The New Testament covers everything that happened when Jesus came and what happened after His resurrection. The Old Testament looks forward to the coming of Jesus, and the New Testament looks back on His coming. So, while it’s 66 books in two parts, it’s still one story.  

That’s why it’s called the Bible. The English word Bible comes from the name of the papyrus or “Byblos" reed that was used for making scrolls and books. Because they were made from Byblos reeds, books came to be known as Bibles. But the writings of the Old Testament and the New Testament were so sacred, so special, and so revered that they came to be known simply as the book or the Bible.

For Christians, we are also talking about a book that has been inspired by God. Sometimes, we use the word inspired to mean that something was wonderfully creative, such as a painting by Rembrandt, music by Bach, or a play by Shakespeare. Sometimes we use the word to refer to something we feel–how we find a beautiful sunset or a powerful speech inspiring. Inspiration, as it relates to the Bible, is much more profound. Inspired to the Christian means “God-breathed”—breathed out by God, exhaled by God, produced by God.  

It’s not a human book.  

It was written by humans, but they were moved by God. It reflects their personality, vocabulary and writing style, but the act of writing itself was stirred by God. The idea of inspiration is that God used people to write the books of the Bible but was so involved in the process that they wrote exactly what He wanted.  

2. Why These Books?

Christians take the writings of the Bible as the Word of God for our lives for one reason: Jesus. If you believe Jesus was who He said He was – God Himself in human form – then what He said is what matters more than anything. If He said something was Scripture (that is, sacred and authoritative), or He set in motion the writing of something meant to be Scripture, then it is Scripture. If He was who He said He was, then it’s not about what books I think ought to be set apart as sacred or inspired, or what books you think should make the cut, but rather what He said about it.

The Bible we have is the one He set apart.

For example, we accept the Old Testament as Scripture because Jesus did. When Jesus referred to the “Scriptures,” He referred to the Old Testament we have today.    

When we come to the New Testament, we look to Jesus for its establishment. First, because much of it records what He actually said and taught. But He also laid the foundation for the writings of the rest of the New Testament to be accepted as Scripture through the apostles. The word apostle means “those who have been sent,” and the mission Jesus sent them on was that of preaching and teaching. The apostles received a unique commission from Jesus Himself to assume a prophetic role and speak God’s word to the people.    

The apostles carried the very authority of Jesus Himself as they taught. Jesus even said these words to them: “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me” (Matthew 10:40, NIV). Jesus promised the apostles a special ministry of the Holy Spirit in regard to their teaching and writing, being guided into all truth.  

This is why the teachings of the apostles were considered Scripture, and the mark of what would be included in the New Testament was simple: it had to be written by, or based on, the teaching of Jesus or one of His apostles. 

3. About Translations and Interpretations

The Bible was written in two languages: Hebrew and Greek. The Old Testament was written in the language of its writers—Hebrew—and the New Testament was written in the most-used language of its day—Koine Greek.  

That means that all our Bibles today are translations of those original languages. Translations are the product of a team of scholars who have studied those languages and have translated the text into English.

So why are there so many?

It’s not because we don’t know what the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts contain – we do. It’s because modern language is a moving target. The way we talk, the words we use, and even the meanings of those words keep changing.

When the Bible was translated in the 1600s, the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts were translated into the language of that day, which was King James English. That means there were lots of thees, thous, and heretofores, and other words we don’t use today or that don’t even make sense to us. That’s why the King James Bible is called the King James Bible.

We don’t talk in King James English today, which is why there have been translations since then, and there will need to be more in the future.

So why so many interpretations?

When someone points out something the Bible teaches, someone else will say, “Well, that’s just your interpretation,” as if when it comes to what the Bible says, there’s nothing more than personal opinion.

That is a cultural myth.  

There’s an actual field of study for interpretation – it’s called hermeneutics. Hermeneutics means “the science of interpretation,” and it is a science—a series of steps, practices, disciplines, and rules that apply to interpretation. But make no mistake—99% of the Bible doesn’t take any heavy lifting in regard to interpretation. Just some reading.  

So why do so many claim that the Bible is difficult to understand? For some, it’s not in trying to grasp the most obvious reading, but in accepting the implications of that reading.  

Undoubtedly, some parts of the Bible are hard to understand. It reflects the places, histories, cultures, and languages of places long ago and far away. Sometimes, you need to have some background information on those issues to make sense of them, and there are some passages that people might disagree about.  

But the Bible leaves little room for confusion on the essential teachings and issues. As Mark Twain was known to quip, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that disturb me, rather it’s the parts of the Bible that I do understand that disturb me.”

So that’s the Bible and three things about it we should all be able to convey to a post-Christian world. Once those three things are understood, hopefully, we can introduce them to a hugely important fourth aspect:

Its message.

Photo Courtesy: ©GettyImages/artisteer

Published Date: May 27th, 2024

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on XFacebook, and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.