Is the Bible An Instruction Manual?

The Bible. Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth. Have you ever had a hard time being able to read it and understand how it applies to your life? I certainly have. I spent many years believing that I was not faithful enough, because I simply wasn’t getting anything out of Scripture outside of what a pastor, theologian, or commentary told me. I didn’t enjoy reading it (sometimes I still have this problem). Then it occured to me, could it be because of the way I was reading the Bible? Of course not! The Bible is God’s instruction manual to me, to teach me exactly how I am to live my life. Yet, I don’t see how I am supposed to be navigating things like the internet, social life in the middle of a pandemic, or what funds would be the best place for me to invest my money. If the Bible is and instruction manual, shouldn’t I be able to come to it with my problems and find the exact right answer? Of course I should, but of course this is not the way the Bible works. Maybe this is because the Bible is NOT and instruction manual.

When I say that the Bible is not an instruction manual, I am in no way claiming that you cannot learn anything from the Bible. What I mean is that this approach to reading Scripture is wrong and could be the very reason you may not be getting anything out of it. The instruction manual style of reading is that you will go to the text with a particular problem and expect that the text will give you the answer. Think of trying to assemble anything from IKEA. You are sitting there with a bunch of parts with no idea of how to construct your purchase. Opening up the instructions will guide you along the very process you must go through to get the desired result. Instruction manuals give us a path that must be followed with 100% accuracy if we have any hope of attaining the intended result. The Bible does not, and cannot, function in this way. Rather the Bible functions like many great pieces of literature, teaching us virtues and a morality that is intended for us, in order to be the kind of people we were created to be. It teaches concepts, not processes. Approaching the Bible like an instruction manual would lead many people to make the wrong choices, simply because it is in the Bible. I hope we can all recongize that if we are unable to have children, husbands still shouldn’t sleep with their wife’s servant in order to get one.

By focusing on the composition, structure, and style of a text, literary criticism enables us to see the “world of the text.”

John Hayes and Carl Holladay, Biblical Exegesis: A Beginner’s Handbook

Another problem with approaching Scripture this way, is that it completely negates what the intention of the writing was. There is an entire discipline in the field of Biblical Studies, called literary criticism, that is devoted to figureing out exactly how the text works. The goal is not diminish Scripture to being no more than reading the latest New York Bestseller, but rather a recognition that language has a particular form that it follows when in a particular genre. “By focusing on the composition, structure, and style of a text, literary criticism enables us to see the ‘world of the text,'” say John Hayes and Carl Holladay. “[N]othing is more important than our ability to read a text closely and sympathetically, with both an eye and an ear to the internal dynamics of a text.” I find that it would be difficult to adequately understand a passage like “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?'” (Psalm 42:3, NRSV) if my understanding is that the Bible is an instruction manual. This kind of thought may lead you to believe that if anyone questions the existence of God, you may not consume anything but your own tears. I think we can all agree that this is ridiculous, because that would mean Jews and Christians would have NEVER been aloud to actually eat food!

If we come to the Bible expecting something like a spiritual owner’s manual complete with handy index, a step-by-step field guide to the life of faith, and absolutely sure answer-book to unlock the mystery of God and the meaning of life, then conflict and stress follow right behind and, like a leech, find a place in your heart and soul to latch on.

Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So…: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It

I will most certainly concede that there are portions of Scripture that are instructional. Knowing the genre of the particular passage you are reading helps to understand the difference between when you can and when you cannot read instructionally. When Paul writes, “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another,” (Ephesians 5:25, NASB) he is clearly writing in a way that instructs Christians in how to interact with one another as it is from a letter that is informative in nature. We would be able to discern from this passage quite easily that we ought not to lie to one another, but someone with a focus of taking the entirety of the Bible as instructional, and a balance issue, has a deeper problem when Jesus says, “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you…” (Matthew 18:8, NASB).

Going Forward

The Bible is made up of 66 seperate pieces of literature. Each one has its own meaning and understanding behind it. That means that we have to approach each text differently, in order to understand what God is telling us through His Word. If you approach the Bible as an instruction manual, you will almost certainly miss the meaning entirely and end up with a very skewed view of God. PLEASE, do not try to read the Bible as an intruction manual. Yes, God is teaching us things through His Word, but it is not meant to be entirely prescriptive. It teaches us the morality of being a Christian, but it does not give us the instructions on putting that morality into place every day throughout all time. Reading the Bible in its intended context, provides for us a path to a deeper connection with God; to truly be people that seek after His heart. We have, sadly, had many people, with good intentions, all throughout history that have made it difficult for people to approach Scripture appropriately. I hope these ideas help you to have a different look at the Bible the next time you read it.

Please leave a comment below and we can continue this conversation as a body of believers, trying to find their way to a deeper connection with God.

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