You may have heard that according to a Barna poll, 52% of practicing Christians strongly agree that the Bible teaches “God helps those who help themselves.” In Cameroon, there is an assumption that everyone should dress up for church. If you were to tell most church attendees here that there is no such command in the Bible, they would be shocked. It seems evident to me that our cultures often set us up to misunderstand the Scripture. And I have found that in churches all over the world, Christians accept certain principles as biblical truth, without examination. Today I would like to examine one misconception that I have come across in my own thinking and in my American culture. Specifically, it is the belief that the Scriptures teach that “the Bible is all that is needed for life and godliness.”
This misconception presents itself as a commitment to the Bible as the Word of God. The Bible is the Word of God, and does in fact speak into every aspect of our lives. But is it all that is needed for us to live a godly life?
One particular verse that leads Christians to claim that we only need the Bible is:
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.” 2 Peter 1:3
After reading this verse, this might seem like an open-and-shut case. However, I believe we should reject the claim that the Bible is all that is needed for life and godliness for two reasons:
1. This is not what the verse says.
At one point, I was going to verse bomb someone and looked up 2 Peter 1:3 to find that it does not say what I thought. This verse does not make a claim about the Bible at all. There are a couple of points of difficulty in understanding this particular verse. First, whose divine power is it referring to (Jesus’ or God the Father’s)? Also, who is the “us” in this passage, the apostles or all Christians? I think it is probably God the Father’s divine power which has been granted to all Christians. But either way, that is not what I want to focus on here. What is not ambiguous is that Peter did not have in mind the entire canon of Scripture when he said: “all things that pertain to life and godliness.” How can we know this is true? Because they did not have the entire canon of Scripture when this was written.
2 Peter was likely written around AD 67-68. This means that according to pretty conservative dating, Hebrews (AD 67-69), Jude (AD 68-70), John (AD 80-90), 1 John (AD 90-95), 2 John (AD 90-95), 3 John (AD 90-95), and Revelation (AD 94-96) most likely did not exist when these words were penned. Further, most of the church would not have had access to all the books of the canon until much later. Could it be that Peter was saying you only need the books of the Bible which had been written up to that point in order to be godly? No, of course not. That would render these other 7 books “unnecessary” for the Christian life.
No, this verse does not say that the Bible is all that is needed for life and godliness, and it could not mean that. So, what does it mean? I believe that really all this verse means is: “You have everything you need to be godly.” In other words, every time you are in a situation where you must choose between a godly thought/word/action and a sinful/ungodly thought/word/action, you have everything you need to be godly. You cannot at any moment claim that you sinned because you were lacking something.
The meaning of the verse is only part of the equation, though. Another reason to stop saying, “the Bible is all we need for life and godliness” is that it is not a true statement.
2. This is not true.
Is the Bible part of “all that is needed”? Of course. For every Christian who is able to read and has access to God’s Word, there is a wealth of resources which drive us to be holy. However, is it only God’s Word that we need to be godly? No.
We know that the Bible is not all that is needed because of the Bible! In the very beginning, God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). In Romans 12 Paul makes the argument that the church is like a body full of interdependent parts. The message is clear: we need one another. History has proven this principle true, as those who claim they only need the Bible tend to fall into heresy or heinous sin. God has given us a great gift in the Bible, but the Bible was never meant to be our only resource as we seek to live a godly life.
I believe that we all already know this to be true. Most people will not question the need that we have for medical advice, for example. A couple of years ago our sons were having a sword fight (with sticks), and one son struck the pinky finger of the other. Elias came to me with his pinky flayed out in an unnatural 70-degree angle. Panicked and slightly sickened by the sight, I did not bust out my Bible to figure out what to do. Rather, I called my friend Jenn who is a nurse. She came and looked at it and then we took a journey to the capital and found a doctor that could set the bone and put in a metal pin. I had a command in the Bible to care for my family (1 Timothy 5:8), but not the specific way to do it. The Bible spoke to the circumstance, not the specifics. I needed the Bible, but I needed more than the Bible.
What I am saying is not really anything profound or new. Many years ago, CS Lewis, in Mere Christianity, said the following,
“The second thing to get clear is that Christianity has not, and does not profess to have, a detailed political program for applying ‘Do as you would be done by’ to a particular society at a particular moment. It could not have. It is meant for all men at all times and the particular program which suited one place or time would not suit another. And, anyhow, that is not how Christianity works. When it tells you to feed the hungry it does not give you lessons in cookery. When it tells you to read the Scriptures, it does not give you lessons in Hebrew and Greek, or even in English grammar. It was never intended to replace or supersede the ordinary human arts and sciences: it is rather a director which will set them all to the right jobs, and a source of energy which will give them all new life, if only they will put themselves at its disposal.”
In other words, the Bible was never intended to be a lot of things: a cookbook, medical textbook, or economic policy guide, to name a few. When we try to force the Bible to play roles it was never intended to play, we fall into error. The way that I have seen this play out is that when we believe that “the Bible is all that is needed,” we come treat all of our opinions as biblical. We tend to miscategorize wisdom issues as right-or-wrong issues. We tend to dismiss others and condemn before we listen. This can happen with food (The Maker’s Diet), children’s education (homeschool or you are not a faithful Christian), and I have seen it often when dealing with Bible translation.
When we approach translation, what are some of the principles you consider to make a good translation of the Bible? Most Christians (if they have thought about it at all) would give some version of these three principles: 1) faithfulness, 2) clarity, and 3) understandability. The first of these is that good translation needs to be faithful to the original. We must not translate in a way that adds, removes, or changes concepts from the original text. Second, we also want the translation to be clear. We don’t want there to be more ambiguity in the translation than there is in the original. And finally, we want the translation to be understandable, so that even a plow boy could read it and apply it to their life.
Those are all awesome principles, and yet none of them come from the Bible. If you have never done it, you might take some time to look at the introductory material in your favorite translation of the Bible. There are usually principles and methodology laid out in these introductions which explain how the committee translated that version. If you read a few of these, you are going to find that most translation committees agree on the principles I listed above. However, you will find that they apply them in different ways. How can that be? Because neither these principles, nor how they are applied are directly taught in Scripture. That means these are not biblical issues, but wisdom issues.
In regards to translations of the Bible, I often hear people dismissing translations, or even condemning them. I hear things like, “Well, that is not really a translation, it’s a paraphrase!” or “The translators of that version put in too much interpretation.” I hear warnings, “Oh, you are reading a bad translation, here try this one.” I am by no means making the claim that all translations of the Bible are good. However, I am challenging you, my brothers and sisters, to take a beat, a deep breath, and examine your strongly held beliefs. Why do you think the KJV (or ESV, or NASB, or NIV) is the best translation? Why do you dismiss the others?
There is much more than the three principles above that go into a translation of the Bible. The translators have to consider their audience (I read, for instance, that the NIV was targeted at a 5th grade reading level). Translators consider how the target language (like English) has changed since the previous translations. They have to look at advances in manuscript evidence. And very few translation decisions are a black-and-white, the-Bible-says-it decisions. So, my appeal to you is for humility and charity in regards to Bible translations. Most people translating the Bible are your brothers/sisters in Christ. They love God’s Word as much as you do, and have a very hard task. Pray not that God would give translators a Bible-ordained methodology, but instead wisdom. And, if you would like to explore how the different English translations line up as far as methodology, I encourage you to pick up, One Bible, Many Versions, by Dave Brunn.