Some thoughts from a talk I gave yesterday on that question:
· is not a complete systematic statement of the Christian faith: the early Catholic Church, in its battle against various ‘heretical’ groups, had to maintain that it had original documents from the apostles, and that they had been constantly in use in every part of the Church from earliest times. The resulting list of approved Scriptures consisted of the Jewish Bible, which was already a ‘given’, and all the Christian writings that happened to be there and satisfied these criteria.
· is not the source of Christian faith: the gospel of Jesus Christ was preached by word of mouth before there was a New Testament.
· is not a clear, consistent statement of doctrines and moral commandments, the so-called ‘Maker’s instructions’ for human life: it is a collection of writings of various types, each to be interpreted according to the type it belongs to. A story is not a rule. A hymn is not a doctrinal statement. A parable is not history.
· is not a book designed to be read devotionally: some parts of it are profound and inspiring, but many other parts had a very down-earth practical purpose at the time they were written. So don’t worry if the genealogies in Chronicles don’t turn you on!
· is back-up material used in the preaching of the Christian message. This is where some modern movements, e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses and some extreme fundamentalists, are mistaken. They see the Bible as a book sent by God for our instruction, which the majority of Christians have interpreted in the wrong way. But the Bible was never meant to be independent of Christian belief: it grew out of the faith and life of the Christian Church, and that is the context in which it is to be understood.
· is a check to keep us generally on the right lines: not infallible, but worthy of respect because it is the oldest witness to the events.
· is the Church’s ‘family album’: as with all families, there are some members we don’t like, some we rarely see, some we make allowances for, and some who are very precious to us, but they are all family. So, if we are Christians, every part of the Bible is somehow ours.
· is a collection of testimonies: many different people telling us about their experience of God, every one worth listening to even if we wouldn’t talk about God in the way they do.
· is a source of never-ending fresh inspiration. The joke is that the Bible was shaped by the established authorities to keep things in order, but in preserving these documents close to the original sources they preserved some of the original radical vision. For example, white slave masters taught their black slaves to read the Bible so that they would become well-behaved and obedient Christians, but it back-fired on them, because the slaves read about Moses and ‘Let my people go!’ Some people think the Bible is a load of old, unnecessary baggage. But watch out – there’s some high explosive in that baggage!