“Understanding the Bible” – Book Review 6

A friend recently lent me “Understanding the Bible” by John Stott.

(Please note this is a review of the 1972 edition.  I’m sure there must be a later one.  This has nice illustrations by Annie Vallotton, who did the gorgeous drawings in the Good News Bible.)

I am very grateful for the loan of this helpful and readable (and not too long) book, which I have enjoyed.  It sets out to be an introduction to the Bible for Christians who are not sure how to read and understand it.

It does seem rather impertinent and patronising of me to be critiquing a book by John Stott

He describes the land of Israel in Bible times, gives a careful summary of the contents of Old and New Testaments, and then addresses in the final chapters the Bible’s Message, Authority, Interpretation and Use.  And this being John Stott, I assume his views are sound.

(On Use, I was intrigued by his suggestion that during Quiet Times, one should read the Bible before worshipping, so the worship is informed by the Word.  This hadn’t occurred to me before.)

I remembered soon after starting that I had in fact read it before, in the early 80s, and I was impressed that such an apparently simple and straightforward book had stuck in my mind for 30 years, implying considerable impact and readability.  The author sets a lower premium on entertaining prose than some of the other books I have recently reviewed… but then you may recall that I found some of their prose irritating.  It is not a book to make you laugh often, but it is not dry.

Even if you don’t want to go all the way with John Stott, I recommend this introduction to the Bible.  In particular, his summaries of the narrative sweep of both Testaments, showing how the prophets and histories fit together, and (more theologically) how Christ can be found in the OT, are excellent.  He also provides a considerable further reading list, although this by now is presumably out of date.  I think I would have liked a bit more on the putting together of the canon, and how the Bible came to be the Bible, admittedly.

In his chapter on the Bible’s authority, he states his position thus: “God has revealed Himself by speaking; that this divine (or God-breathed) speech has been written down and preserved in Scripture; and that Scripture is, in fact, God’s Word written, which therefore is true and reliable and has divine authority over men.”

He is at pains to say that this does not necessarily mean that every single word needs to be taken literally – the sun is not a bridegroom etc (Psalm 19), and he tentatively supports the possibility of evolution as not being incompatible with Genesis.  But all of it is true, and contradictions are only “apparent”.  He gives various reasons for believing this, which I noted down for future reference, and the fundamental one (with reference to the Old Testament) is that Jesus believed it and Jesus is Lord.

Which is good and strong and challenging.

I’m not absolutely convinced of the logical step from “Jesus as testified to by Scripture and elsewhere is Lord” to “Therefore everything the Scripture says He (and others) said and did is word-for-word accurate.”

Also, I was a bit taken aback to note in his comments on Genesis that “the flood seems to have been a comparatively local disaster.”

Surely this is the thin end of the wedge!

If the flood was purely local, then we are entitled to ignore the plain meaning of Genesis 7: 19-23 (“all the high mountains under the whole heaven… all flesh died that moved upon the earth… He blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the ground…” etc) presumably on the grounds that it seems contrary to archaeology and science…

And St Paul is entitled to ignore the plain meaning of Jesus’ words “till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law till all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18) on the grounds that it seems contrary to his inspired thesis about Jesus rendering the law unnecessary…

Then why can’t I ignore the plain meaning of, say, “Is there injustice on God’s part?  By no means!. .. So then He has mercy upon whomever He wills, and He hardens the heart of whomever He wills” (Romans 11: 14 and 18), on the grounds that it seems contrary to common sense, and to the behaviour of anyone deserving of worship?

(The Bible as a whole has a robust regard for common sense.  Over and over again one can almost hear Jesus and Paul saying, “Why can’t you see this?  It’s obvious!”)

I should probably stop here… but this is a good book.

There will be no blog post on 2nd or 9th September, due to holiday.

Love from the PPI Blogger

1 Comment
  • Malachi Malagowther

    26th August 2016 at 6:04 pm Reply

    I would have thought that going on holiday should be a particularly inspiring time for writing a blog. Or is being forced to spend a lot of time with close family in the surroundings enjoyed by people of the Minoan civilization going to be so stressful and dull that you will develop a temporary writer’s block?

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