This past week I saw a quote from someone (I don’t know who to attribute it to, sorry) who said the following about the Bible:
“The Bible isn’t a book of answers. It’s a book of wisdom.”
There is a distinct difference between the Bible being a book of answers and a book of wisdom – an important distinction and difference.
If the Bible is a book of answers first and foremost, then I think we have some serious issues to deal with. The Bible doesn’t have all the answers. Often it raises more questions than it answers. To claim that the Bible is a book of answers is to simplify the Bible into something that it is not. The Bible isn’t a Google search engine where you just want to find something in it, pull up what you want, and go on from there. If the Bible is first and foremost an answer book, then it contradicts the very nature of God. Yes, you read that correctly.
God is relational by nature. The Trinity is a prime example of that. Tell me what relationship you have that is first and foremost a question and answer relationship and I’ll show you a relationship that is not relational, that is distant, that is driven by fear, compliance, and order as the foundation. Loving relationships don’t work in that way. Hear what I am saying though – this is not an all or none statement. I’m arguing that the foundation of the Bible is not to be an answer book.
Instead, I would argue that the Bible is a book of wisdom. Wisdom is not the same as data or factoids. We are a society that is obsessed with data and information, but lack wisdom in so many regards.
Edwin Friedman, in his excellent book “A Failure of Nerve,” addresses the challenges of being addicted to data and information. This book was first published in 1999. And oh how timely it is still today.
Friedman talked about characteristics of gridlocked systems. Here are his three points:
- “The treadmill of trying harder is driven by the assumption that failure is due to the fact that one did not try hard enough, use the right technique, or get enough information.” (pg. 35)
- “The second attribute of imaginatively gridlocked relationship systems is a continual search for new answers to old questions rather than an effort to reframe the questions themselves. In the search for the solutions to any problem, questions are always more important than answers because the way one frames the question, or the problem, already predetermines the range of answers one can conceive in response.” (pg. 37)
- “The third characteristic of gridlocked relationship systems is either/or, black-or-white, all-or-nothing ways of thinking that eventually restrict the options of the mind.” (pg. 39).
Apply what Friedman wrote to how we too often approach the Bible – as an answer bank that is designed to provide us with the answers to questions we are asking. Guess who’s in the driver seat in that relationship? We are. We have determined what the appropriate questions are. And because we have done that, we are setting the frame of what the possible answers can be. And in doing so, we limit God, what God says, how God acts, and what God is up to. We make God align to us. We selectively decide which Scripture answers our questions while conveniently ignoring Scripture that contradicts what we are looking for or doesn’t sound like proof-text to be used as a weapon in whatever argument we are having.
Peter Enns, in his great book “The Sin of Certainty” stated the following about wisdom and the Bible:
“Wise words hurt – like a shepherd’s goad, a long staff with a nail at the end used to prod the sheep.” (Pg. 78)
This is in relation to what Enns is writing concerning the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is considered a book of wisdom, like Proverbs. It is not a book of answers. It has answers in it, no doubt, but it is far more concerned with wisdom than answers.
Or as Enns states: “Ecclesiastes is one of the true gems of the Bible. It paints for us a picture of what faith looks like when all you thought you knew about God and how the world works is ripped from you, when certainty vanishes like vapor.” (pg. 80).
If the Bible is primarily a book of answers, then we should think of ourselves merely as robots who need constant direction, who are incapable of growing and maturing. We are essentially forever children who have to be told to not play in the street.
But if the Bible is more a book of wisdom, then the situation changes. We can be seen as having the ability to grow in faith and understanding. Discernment has a role. We have the ability to grow in relationship with God and with others. Does this mean we will be perfect? By no means. But it does mean that we worship a God that isn’t interested in being a traffic cop ready to give us a citation every time we break the law. Instead, we worship a God who is like an ideal parent – our relationship with that parent grows and changes over time.
We see this in Jesus. Throughout the Gospels Jesus uses a specific teaching technique – parables. Parables are stories designed to teach the hearer something or many things. But a parable is an inefficient way of conveying answers to questions. Parables require thinking, examining, reflection – in a word, parables are wisdom stories.
Lastly, to see the Bible as a book of wisdom opens us to hear what the Bible at it’s core is really about – a saving message. Salvation not because we are trying to avoid breaking the rules, but rather salvation because we are embraced by God and given something so incredible – love, mercy, grace, forgiveness. We’re going to screw it up for sure. But God keeps coming after us anyway. When it comes down to it, the Bible is a message of hope that tells us that it’s not about us. It’s about God and God’s relationship with us and the rest of creation and how God is continually coming to us and restoring and transforming life to be in right relationship with God.