Should We Approach the Bible as a Compilation of Short Stories to Inspire Moral Living?

19 Sep

In many Sunday school classes for many decades, well-meaning teachers have presented the Bible as stories. And, of course, in one sense much of the Bible does consist of stories. From Adam to Noah, from Abraham to Joseph, from Moses to David, from Jesus to Paul, the Bible is rich in fascinating glimpses of the lives and activities of important and interesting people. Such stories are attractive to children, as well as to adults. Telling and learning those stories is a useful way of acquiring a knowledge of the content of the Bible.
Such an approach, however, has serious limitations. One is that many parts of the Bible are left out. Large sections of the Scriptures are not stories. Stories are a good approach to the historical sections of the Bible. But they do not work for the laws of the Pentateuch, the poetry of the Psalms and Proverbs, the visions of the prophets, or the instruction of the epistles. Treating the Bible as stories means that we know only parts of the Bible.
A second limitation results from the uses made of the stories in the Bible. We can identify this evangelical methodology by the title of the children’s hymn “Dare to Be a Daniel.” When presented in this way, the Bible’s stories are treated not just as interesting and inspiring bits of history; they are turned into examples of the way we are to live. Teachers eagerly tell the story of Daniel—how as a young man in the court of the king of Babylon he abstained from eating foods forbidden by the Law and refused to worship false idols. After telling this heroic tale, many teachers then say to their classes: “So you too should be faithful and courageous. You too should live for God without compromise with this world. Dare to be a Daniel!”
Such advice is no doubt good and useful. But is it what God means the story of Daniel to teach us? The story is really a part of the great account of the ways in which God preserves a people for His name. The book of Daniel shows us how God protects His own even when He is punishing them in the exile. The Lord delivers them from many dangers in order to bring forth from them His Christ, the one who will save His people from their sins.
The motive of many evangelicals in using the Bible in this way is laudable in many ways. They want to inspire God’s people to holy living through moral examples and imperatives. But this approach has prepared the way for what we see in many churches today. If the recurring message found in the Scriptures is a word of moral exhortation, then it is a small step from “dare to be a Daniel” to “don’t get burned out the way Elijah did” or “learn five ways to manage your money from Solomon.”
Concerns about stress, money, and children are understandable in a society that is falling apart. Those using the Bible to address such themes believe that they are making Christianity relevant to the needs of our time. They believe that they are making the faith seem attractive and practical to me unchurched. In other words, they are trying to save our culture, our families, and our souls. But the irony is that the evangelicals—whose very name derives from “the evangel,” the Gospel—are in danger of losing the Gospel in the process. They are allowing the needs that the unchurched feel to shape the message of the church.
Such uses of the Scriptures may be very understandable in the context of our world. But these evangelicals miss the real meaning of the Word of God. They also miss the real need of the unchurched, namely, the grace of Jesus Christ. To find that true meaning, we must turn from stories to a system.
(2001). Tabletalk Magazine, August 2001: Sola Scriptura, 11–13.


Posted by on September 19, 2013 in Church Issues


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2 responses to “Should We Approach the Bible as a Compilation of Short Stories to Inspire Moral Living?

  1. Baal Shem Ra

    September 19, 2013 at 3:40 am

    I hope not. There are some stories (Joshua, for example) that focus entirely on genocide. The justification for genocide is “Well, the Canaanites were evil themselves” or “Well, God commanded it, therefore it is good.” Biblical morality has little to contribute in 2013.

    • Joel and Deanna Porcher

      September 19, 2013 at 4:25 am

      I understand your point, but does God have the right to judge evil, and who defines evil?


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