We’re all familiar with the fire evacuation maps on the inside of a hotel room door. In a brief, succinct, and luminously clear manner, the map provides directions for evacuating the building in case of fire.
Growing up, I was taught to think of the Bible as like God’s hotel fire evacuation map for the human race. To be sure, I don’t ever recall that precise analogy being used. Nonetheless, it aptly describes the view of the Bible with which I was raised: a succinct (if not exactly brief) and luminously clear set of directions for evacuating earth and avoiding hellfire.
After spending the last fifteen years as a seminary professor, I can say without a doubt that the Bible is most certainly neither brief nor succinct. I can also say that this dizzyingly complex and diverse omnibus of ancient writings written over a span of a thousand years in three languages does not provide a luminously clear set of directions for evacuating earth and avoiding hellfire.
So where does this false picture of the Bible come from? And how was it maintained despite the evidence to the contrary? Looking back, it would seem that the evangelical subculture in which I was raised interpreted the Bible through a particular grid which included the Four Spiritual Laws and the so-called Romans Road to Salvation. Because the Four Spiritual Laws and the Romans Road were simple, we assumed that the Bible itself was simple, a straightforward evacuation map to get us to heaven. These brief statements captured the essential kernels of Scripture. The rest, if not quite chaff, was nonetheless of secondary import.
This picture of the Bible dominated my understanding for years, but as I recount in my book What’s So Confusing About Grace? over the years this picture began to erode. The fact is that we were, in essence, treating Bill Bright’s Four Spiritual Laws and that select list of verses dubbed the Romans Road as the keys to unlocking the Bible’s evacuation map.
But if that was really the case, then why didn’t God include the Four Spiritual Laws when he first inspired the Bible? Why did the church need to wait two thousand years for Bill Bright to summarize the entire book in a single tract? And if a particular set of verses in Romans provided the key to salvation, why didn’t the early Greek manuscripts of Romans underline or boldface those specific verses?
And what about all the material in the Bible which didn’t contribute to the four laws and Romans Road? To be blunt, from this perspective much of the Bible appeared to be unnecessary, perhaps even a distraction from the essential principles which relayed the salvific escape route.
Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the Bible is not an evacuation map. Neither, for that matter, is it an owner’s manual for the human life, or a love letter from God, or any number of other well-intentioned but woefully limited metaphors.
So what is the Bible? To begin with, it is a rich and complex collection of writings, one that ranks among the great literary collections of the world. This collection narrates the grand story of God’s action in history with his people through creation, fall, and redemption, culminating in the incarnation, atoning death, glorious resurrection, and anticipated second coming of God the Son.
But Christians believe this story is not simply a literary collection. We also believe it is divinely inspired (theopneustos). And in 2 Tim. 3:16-17 Paul explains that as a divinely inspired text, the Bible’s purpose is not simply to provide an escape route from planet earth. Rather, the Bible exists to transform the reader by teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.
And here’s the thing: transformation is not brief. Nor is it succinct or luminously clear. On the contrary, it is often messy and ambiguous. Far from being a straightforward map of escape from the world, the Bible is, as the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth once observed, an invitation to a strange new world. And it invites us into that world on a journey that will take a lifetime. So let’s set aside the simplistic, if well-intentioned summaries, open the book, and let the journey begin.