When it comes to a good book, Stephen King’s résumé just can’t compare. Thirty-nine plus twenty-seven equals sixty-six books. And if you’re Catholic, there’s even more.
So goes the absurd rap parody, “Baby Got Book.” And it is correct. The Bible is actually 66 books. But from the way many people, both Christians and skeptics, handle the Bible you’d never know it. Instead, you’d probably get the impression that the Bible is only one book, maybe a theological encyclopedia or something. At first glance this might not seem to make a difference, but behind the scenes the way you interpret the Bible can be and often is affected by whether you treat the Bible like one single book or a collection of many books brought together in unity for God’s people.
One of the biggest ways this comes to matter is when people debate interpreting the Bible “literally.” People on all sides tend to insist on one thing: however you interpret the Bible, you have to do it the same way for the whole thing. You must not interpret one part differently than another, or else you’re being inconsistent. Conservatives will say that if you don’t take Genesis 1 as literal history, then you shouldn’t take Jesus’ death and resurrection as such either. Skeptics scold us for interpreting references to the corners of the earth as metaphorical while maintaining other stuff as literal truth.
All of this back-and-forth commits the grave mistake of acting like the Bible is a single, homogenous book. But it’s not. Scripture is many books, most of which were written very independently of all the rest. They are all different genres. Some are songs or poems. Others are biographies. Many are letters, historical records, or prophecies. None of these genres should be or even can be treated like all the others.
What we have to remember, then, is that we have to let each book be and do its own thing. More than that, we have to do that to each part of each book. We should not and cannot treat Jesus’ parables the way we treat a vision from Daniel. A psalm shouldn’t be read like a census.
This continues to apply even to narratives in different parts of the Bible. For example, when we read Jesus speaking in the Gospels we must take the words we read as basically what He said, give or take a few words or phrases. But in Job, we would be silly to think that Job and his friends all actually took turns giving long, poetic discourses. These are different books of different kinds with different purposes. Wisdom literature is not the same thing as a theological biography.
The point of all this is that the Bible doesn’t have to be forced into all or nothing on every question. The inconsistent person is not the one who treats different parts of the Bible differently, but who insists that all the Bible be treated the same but not every book in a library. Really, this even applies to inspiration. While I am pretty certain that all the Bible is inspired equally, it doesn’t have to be. Some books could theoretically be more or less inspired, or inspired in different ways. Again, these are 66 books written by dozens of people over thousands of years, united by God for the purpose of bringing people to know His Son.
On one hand, I say this all to dispel silly arguments that demand we treat the whole Bible the same in every way. But there is a more practical, helpful point to all this, too. Since Scripture is made of such variety, we don’t need all of the books to say the same things in the same ways. It’s okay that Paul talks about faith and works from a different angle than James does. Words don’t always have to be used the same way in the Old and New Testaments. Authors can use explanations and analogies for things that wouldn’t work together because they are making different points to different cultures under different circumstances with different backgrounds. The diversity of Scripture, when allowed to do its own thing, keeps us from having to scramble to explain what would be contradictions if it was really one homogenous book. This helps us respond to silly skeptics and even can settle some of our own nagging questions with a dose of perspective. So just remember: God may be one, but the Bible is not.