My bookshelf is a particular concern for me. The books on my shelf are there not only because they might be useful in the future, but because they represent in some way who I am. I don’t know if anyone else has this experience, but I imagine that people make some sort of judgment about me based on the books sitting on in my bookcase. I know that I always look at other preachers’ bookshelves to get an idea of who they are. So, when I sort through my books, it is an exercise in self-identification and not just a matter of utility. Which of the books sitting on my shelf accurately portray who I am, and which would be misleading to someone wanting to know me.
At some point, it occurred to me that this is also a useful approach to understanding the Bible as the word of God.
My father’s father died before I was born, but I frequently visited his house while I was growing up. My dad had been reared in that house, and my grandmother still lived there. During my lifetime, the attic of the house was closed off and unheated; during my father’s childhood, the attic had been living and sleeping space for the family. At the top of the stairs was my grandfather’s bookshelf. Throughout my childhood, I ignored the dusty bookshelf in favor of the attic’s other treasures. It was only when I started my own book collection that I realized what I had been missing. The books on those shelves could tell me a lot about the grandfather I never knew. I knew that he was born in the Cumberland mountains of rural Tennessee, went to the Great War, and returned to become an accountant in Chicago where he met and married my grandmother. I have since learned that he was part of a much larger Scots-Irish migration of out of Appalachia to the industrial north after World War I. His books, however, could give me an insight into his mind that the story of his travels never could.
My assumption is that my grandfather’s choices in buying and keeping books was something like mine. I hold on to the books that represent who I am and ditch the rest. This has been a process that I have repeated time after time ever since my childhood, when I first learned to love and value books – a value shared by my parents and their kin. My father’s sister gave me my first set of “ex libris” bookplates. Over time, the books on my shelf have changed. I no longer have the entire “Hardy Boys” collection. The books that are there now would tell you a great deal about who I have become.
The Bible as God’s Bookshelf
The Christian Bible is a library of 66 books. The word “bible” is an English form of the Greek “ta biblia” – the books – plural. The Greek word entered Romance languages in the French word “bibliothèque,” which means “library.” When you hold the Bible in your hand, you are holding a library. You are holding God’s bookshelf.
Just as my book collection can tell you about who I am, so God’s bookshelf is God’s chosen means of self-disclosure to the post-apostolic generations. If you want to know me, God says, read these books. My doctrine of revelation does not focus on the “how” of God’s inspiration of the Biblical authors, but on the fact of the canon.
This approach to scriptures impacts how I read them as the word of God. These books – these pieces of literature – are God’s definitive self-revelation to our generation. Our first job is not to draw little isolated spiritual lessons from disconnected verses. Neither is our first job is not to get behind the literature to distinguish historical fact from narrative form. Our first job is to read the literature and hear what the authors have to say. However else one approaches the Bible, unless one recognizes at some point the literary integrity of the individual books as they now exist, one has missed something of God’s intent in giving us the scriptures.
Our second job is just as important: to understand the glue that ties the books together in the mind of the collector. How do the books complement each other or reinforce each other as a collection? The collection itself expresses the mind of the collector. Taken together, the books of the collection express a unified thought pattern that is distinct from the ideas expressed in the the individual volumes.
Finding these connections provide feedback and guidance for job one. It is understanding the connections between the volumes that provides further clues about what the collector thinks is most important in the literature itself. Admittedly, this is a circular process.
Notice what I am not saying. I am not denying God’s involvement in the creation of the individual texts themselves. Neither am I denying the usefulness of historical studies or other approaches to the scripture.
It is in the canon itself, however, that God has chosen to step out from behind the veil for our generation. We can use many of the same tools to understand the books on God’s bookshelf that we use to understand any other piece of literature. Taken together, though, this collection of books reveals not just the mind of its human authors, but the mind of the creator and redeemer of the universe who has given us this library as an expression of himself.