What are the most common mistakes Christians make when approaching the Bible? Seasoned biblical scholar Michael Bird takes on seven of the biggest ones, including how the Bible was put together, how to interpret the Bible, and how we know it is true. This episode offers helpful background information, but also some practical steps for engaging and applying the Bible to life.
About our Guest
Dr. Michael Bird is a lecturer in Theology at Ridley College (Melbourne). He is also a visiting professor at Houston Baptist University, and Anglican Priest, and is the author of numerous books including 7 Things I Wish Christians Knew about the Bible.
Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. A podcast from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian ethics.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host Sean McDowell, Professor of Apologetics.
Scott Rae: We're here with our special guest, Dr. Michael Bird from, as I would say, the deep deep south, or the way way down under, coming to us from Australia today. Michael is the Academic Dean and Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. And he's come out with a fascinating new book that we want our listeners to be aware of called seven Things I Wish Christians Knew About The Bible. It's a terrific introduction not only for people who are not super familiar with the Bible, but also it digs deeply into some really significant areas that have, I think it, the possibility of much more advanced study for people who want to go there. So Mike, happy to have you with us. Welcome, and great to have you on with us.
Michael Bird: That's great to be with you, Scott and Sean,
Scott Rae: Mike, what have you seen in churches and among students that moved you to write this book? Because you've written on a ton of subjects in biblical studies in theology. Why this, and why now?
Michael Bird: Several reasons. I found that you get some recurring misconceptions, you get some recurring anxieties, and you get some repeated, how can I put it, conspiracy theories about the Bible. And these things keep coming up year after year. And so I wanted to write something that addressed frequent questions, frequent misunderstandings, and the frequent weird accusations that people make about the Bible.
Scott Rae: Now I suspect there are a lot more than seven of those things that you've come up with. How did you decide on the seven that you did?
Michael Bird: Yeah, I picked the seven based on the ones that I thought were the most common misconceptions, or the most common questions about the Bible. I also picked them on the basis for finding the topics that I think will help Christians get the most out of their Bible, to have a better Bible reading experience, a better Bible study experience, avoid making category mistakes in how they handle and use the Bible, and also will help them to be more equipped to talk about reading the Bible with their non-Christian friends in a way that will be persuasive and convincing. So they'll be able to talk with more confidence and more knowledge about some of the questions, or objections people have about the Bible.
Sean McDowell: Michael, this first question that we're going to tackle is one I get a lot from students. Because there's concern, like who put the Bible together? How do we know we got the right books? So how did the Old Testament and New Testament come to be in their present form?
Michael Bird: Yeah, that's a good question. And that's a common one I get as well. And here, you've got almost like two extremes. People just assume that the Bible floated down from heaven, bound in leather, complete with Scofield footnotes and the words of Jesus in red [crosstalk 00:03:23] Elizabethan English. Whether it's your NIV, or your King James, it just sort of magically appeared, delivered by angels down at your LifeWay bookstore. Then you get this other extreme of people who says the Bible was invented as a conspiracy by the emperor Constantine who cooperated with a [sherry 00:03:47] of malevolent bishops who wanted to impose their narrow and diabolical vision of faith on a generally inclusive, pluralistic, and tolerant church. And that's how they created Christendom.
So you get those two weird extremes out there. Now they're both completely and utterly wrong. That's what I have to tell you. Now I'm not an expert in the Jewish Canon, or the Hebrew Bible. But generally coming up to about 70 A.D. you seem to get a developing consensus, certainly about the Torah, the first five books of Moses, then about the Prophets, the major and the minor Prophets. Around the edges of that it's a little bit unclear. But you get people including, obviously, the wisdom books like the Psalms, and Proverbs, Daniel. Some people may have had some questions about Esther and the Song of Songs. But certainly as you get into the second century then for Jewish communities, their Hebrew Bible pretty much includes the books we would put in our Old Testament today, although they do order it slightly differently. And you can see some of that through the sort of writings the Jewish authors site like Josephus, and the list of books mentioned by the rabbis in the second and third centuries.
Concerning the New Testament, it seems very clear that the early church, I'm thinking here like the second and third centuries, they clearly valued anything about Jesus and the testimony of the Apostles. That was their primary sort of go-to. So very quickly the four Gospels seemed to have been widely circulated, widely used, and widely venerated. Paul's letters, usually including Hebrews, because some people thought, "Oh, sounds Paul enough. I guess we'll throw that in there with Paul." And then 1 Peter and 1 John is definitely included as well. So by the end of the second century, basically the four Gospels, Paul 1, John 1, Peter, probably Acts as well are considered, I won't say canonical, but authoritative for Christian faith. And then you've also got a few other writings like James, and Jude, which people are, "More likely than not should be included."
But the Church had to think about which books it believed. Because Christians were writing other books. People were writing stuff like the Gospel of Thomas, or the Gospel of Judas. And people had to think, "Oh, what do we think about these books? Do they line up with these other books that we know? Do they come from the Apostles? Do they line up with the faith?" Majority of those sorts of books people said, "Well, it's a little bit interesting. But no, I don't think we should read that in our worship service."
And then there were these other books that people thought, "Now these sound pretty good, but maybe they don't make the quite cut in being on our official register of books." And that would be books like The Shepherd of Hermas, The Apocalypse of Peter, which many Christians liked and enjoyed, but they didn't give them canonical status. And various councils, both local and regional, often gave lists of books they think people should be reading. And you get Athenasius' famous 39th Festal Letter written in the fourth century. And so by a slow process of what I would call developing consensus, you end up with our 27 books of the New Testament Canon.
Scott Rae: So it wasn't like somebody actually sat down and decided, but a developing consensus over time that these are the books that ought to be included. Something like that?
Michael Bird: Exactly. Yeah. You see that core consensus developing, I think, by the end of the second century where you've got the four Gospels, Paul's letters plus Hebrews, 1 John, 1 Peter. Probably acts as well. They seem to be the core. And then it's around the edges people are thinking, "Okay, what about James? What about 2 Peter? What about the Shepherd of Hermas? What about the Apocalypse of Peter?" Some of those writings did make their way into the Canon, the official register of Christian books, but other people said, "Okay, I like it, but it's probably not going to be canonical," as we would call it.
Scott Rae: One other thing related to this, you've got a fascinating account of how the Bible got into English. Can you recount that briefly for our listeners?
Michael Bird: Yeah. The English Church, because it's part of the Latin West, is mostly using the Vulgate of Jerome. You do get a little bit, a few snippets of the Bible in sort of middle English, as it were, going around. And then you've got the Lollards associated with John Wycliffe who are trying to put the Bible into English, but they, of course, are persecuted by the establishment. But then it's with the advent of the English Reformation, where you get people like William Tyndale, and Miles Coverdale that the Bible really comes into English. Then it gets sponsored by the Crown, and by the official Church. And they begin making their own official translations of the Bible, which then climaxes, of course, in the famous King James Bible of 1611.
Sean McDowell: You maintain that the Bible is divinely given, and yet humanly composed. What do you mean by that? Or better yet, what do you not mean by that?
Michael Bird: Yeah. That's talking about the idea of inspiration. How does God give His Word through human authors? And Christians have normally used this language of God inspiring authors. Now that word inspiration is a good word, but it can be taken in different directions. Do we think Matthew was sitting by a lovely stream somewhere in Galilee, enjoying the peace and the serenity. He says, "I feel really inspired. Jesus wants us to love our enemies. So I'm going to write down, "Jesus said love your enemies.' Because I'm inspired by this lovely stream. Or I saw a butterfly, and it reminded me of Jesus." There's that of kind of inspiration.
Then some people have a view of inspiration where basically Matthew went into his study with a pen and quill. The eyes rolled back in the back of his head. He went into some ecstatic trance. He began unconsciously writing his Gospel. And then he calmly woke up, and had the Gospel of Matthew right in front of him. So again, you can have these somewhat peculiar extreme views about what biblical inspiration means. What inspiration means is God's Spirit moves, or fills an author to write an account using their own knowledge, their own personality, their own vocabulary to come up with a narrative, or a story, or a text that represents God's purpose, God's message to humans, but as conveyed through this particular human author.
Sean McDowell: You describe the Bible as being normative, but not negotiable. What's the distinction you're getting at there?
Michael Bird: Yeah, for me, I think this is the big issue today. The number one issue today, is the Bible in any sense normative? Should it be an authority for the way you live your life? Now I'll never forget reading some tweets from a particular seminary in New York City where this representative of the seminary was basically saying, "Thanks to the advent of Critical Theory,"... And there's a whole bunch of different views of Critical Theory. "Thanks to the advent of Critical Theory we know that some parts of the Bible come from God, and some parts come from men. And we need to follow the bits of the Bible that are from God, and not the bits that are from men. So thanks to Critical Theory, we can remove the progressive organs from the Bible, and we can salvage the Bible that way."
Now that is based on the idea that the only bits of the Bible that are authoritative are the bits that agree with your politics, your view of culture, your own view of being a human being. And it means you can pretty much pick and choose which parts of the Bible are from God, and which parts you want to dump in that trash basket called heteronormative patriarchal white men. That is where I think a lot of the conversation is. Can we use the Bible authoritatively when it's got some really weird stuff in it? Like going into Canaan and dominating the environment there militarily, using warfare. It doesn't represent the highest virtues of fourth wave feminism when you're reading the Old Testament or the New Testament. So what's the good of it then? If this is not fourth wave feminism, obviously it's a malicious text, or something along those lines. And because it doesn't reflect the values of our day, the idea then is that it's not something that should be prescriptive for us.
Scott Rae: Mike, let me pursue that a little bit further, if I might. You make the claim in the book that the Bible's authoritative, but not all of it is authoritative for us today. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Michael Bird: Yeah, exactly. The way we use the Bible... I believe in the entire Council of God. But there are certain parts of the Bible that have been superseded by a new element of redemptive history. So let's take example, the Law. There is a lot in the Law that is relevant for Christians today, and it's directly applied to followers of Jesus by Jesus Himself, and by the Apostles. The best example I can give you is Leviticus 19:18, which is the love command. "Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself." That is the Law, and that is relevant for us today. So not just the 10 Commandments, a whole bunch of other things. And Paul can use the Torah, the Law, as part of his ethical reasoning in 1 Corinthians.
However, we are not under the constitution of the Law as it was, say for ancient Israel. So we don't live and order our lives according to the totality of the Torah. Once upon a time Protestants thought that the Old Testament gave you the moral law for personal ethics, and then it told you how to run a theocratic Protestant kingdom. So if you're living in somewhere like Geneva or Scotland, the Old Testament was a manifesto for how a king should govern a Christian nation. I don't think that's a good idea. I think we've got to recognize that we live in a different world, culturally, historically. And Jesus and the Apostles affirm a lot of the Old Testament, but it doesn't always carry over into the New Testament. The basis of Christian ethics is the teaching of Jesus, the example of Jesus, and life in the Spirit.
And the Law then functions more as a consultant than an absolute norm for Christians. This is getting to a big debate about Law, and Gospel, and continuity, and discontinuity. That type of a thing. But we've got to recognize that some of the laws, like how you treat prisoners of war today. I would not be basing that essentially on the Old Testament, because that was about ancient Near Eastern warfare, inter tribal warfare in the ancient Near East, which is probably not going to apply directly or all that well to, God forbid, the modern day battlefield, where we fight everywhere from cyberspace to under the ocean, to all sorts of things like that. Which means the application of things from the Old Testament to the New Testament into the present always requires a lot of discernment, and trying to figure out how we take things from back then, and if, and how we can apply it in the present time.
Sean McDowell: Are there any simple principles that you would use if something from the Old Testament applies? Like, obviously if it's mentioned in the New Testament and repeated, it applies. Arguably something that's rooted in Creation like marriage, which also is repeated. Jesus says, "Have you not read," in Matthew 19. Are there any other simpler principles that people could apply to the Old Testament to just know if it's still applicable today, directly in practice?
Michael Bird: Yeah, I wish there was a simple kind of like you had an app, and you just ran it over [crosstalk 00:16:53] text. And if it went green, it means apply it today. If it was red, it means it's not applicable today. I wish it was that simple, but it's not. Let me think of a good example. Of the off the top of my head, let's take like some of the food laws in the Old Testament. Now the purpose of the food laws was largely operating with what they knew of ancient standards of food hygiene. But also it was a way of marking out Israel to be distinct from the other nations. "So this is what's going to make you stand out." That type of thing.
But we know in the New Testament that those food laws are certainly no longer relevant for Gentiles, for non-Jewish followers of Christ. While Jewish followers of Jesus can still feel free to obey the food laws, they're no longer prescriptive. Because our distinctness from the world is no longer rooted in that ancient near Eastern context. But it's largely now based on the way we follow Christ in our own cities, our own towns, our own villages around the world. So there's no hard and fast rule you can give. You simply need to discern how relevant, how applicable is a given text. And that could be about divorce. It could be about warfare. It could be about sacrifices in the Temple. You just have to discern within in the precincts of your own conscience, use your own wisdom, and think about what is transferable today.
Now that can be quite hard. Because a lot of the stuff in the Old Testament will appear particularly weird. And I have to say, there is nothing more terrifying than asking even seminary students, "What is the purpose of the Old Testament food laws." Like not able to eat shellfish, or pork. And my students often give answers like, "Well, the food laws are pretty weird, but I guess God can just do whatever the heck He likes because He's God." Which is, I find, a very unsatisfactory answer.
I try to get students thinking along the lines that the purpose of the Law was to effectively create a sort of lifeboat, which God's people could survive in as they were in the tumultuous world of the Bronze Age, with all the various empires, and the inter tribal violence, and all the intrigues between kings and families, and the agrarian society they were living. It was a way of keeping them alive, keeping them holy, and able to be human beings acting kind of like Adam. What Adam was to eat, and Israel was to be to Canaan, and being God's people in that context. It wasn't a once for all, and this is how it should ever more be, because that element comes later in Christ and the Apostles.
Scott Rae: So Mike, you make the distinction between taking the Bible seriously, and taking it literally. And first, I guess what's the difference between those? And then second, I think we've probably got a lot of folks out there who assume that to take the Bible seriously means to take it literally. But you're making that distinction.
Michael Bird: Yeah. There's a difference between taking the Bible literally and taking it seriously. So when it says in the Gospels, "Jesus and his Disciples came to Capernaum." I take that literally. Jesus and his Disciples walked into a town in the north of Galilee called Capernaum. But Jesus can say things like, "I am the door." I don't think you can take that literally, except in the most crass, unrealistic way. We need to read at the literary level, and the literal level. But the literal and the literary are not always the same thing. And this is going to be very important when you're reading anything that is symbolic and poetic. And certainly when you also get into some of the more, as we could call them, apocalyptic sections.
Now, when I say apocalyptic, imagine me doing the inverted commas thing with my finger, since that's a term that needs to be described. But you have to remember that God communicates to us in ideas and concepts that we can understand. And often these transcend culture. Or let's say looking at the book of Revelation, where you've got a lot of strange peculiar imagery. If you take this in a literal sense, it can be problematic, particularly when John tells us that certain things, like the two witnesses, are meant to be taken symbolically, or figuratively as we're told. Or even when you get into Galatians 4 when Paul says about the two covenants, the two mountains, the two women, he says, "These things can be taken allegorically." If you're operating with a purely nothing but strictly literal, you're going to find a few problems of interpretation from Genesis to Revelation.
Sean McDowell: Michael, last question for you that I think is going to be really helpful for those, especially who've grown up in the Church, and are familiar with the Scriptures. But maybe that familiarity prevents them from understanding its depth. You said readers of the Bible must de familiarize themselves with it in order to understand it. What do you mean by that?
Michael Bird: We develop our own traditions, or our assumptions about what the Bible means, and how it works out in practice. Now. And at one level, I guess that's good. Because it means the Bible is regularly part of your life. But we've also got to remember that the Bible is there to challenge us in our assumptions, and to make us feel a little bit uncomfortable. So just assuming that this part applies in the way that we think it always does may not always be helpful. We've got to be willing to listen to the experience of other people who have lived another context, and see how the Bible is familiar to them in a way that's it's not familiar to us.
And let me let give you an example. It's one thing to read Romans 13, that passage is about obey the government in all things, and give respect, and taxes. So if you're a Christian living in California, or Indiana, or maybe South Carolina, you can see how that text would be familiar with you and make sense. But imagine if you're a Christian somewhere like Iran, or if you're a Christian somewhere like China. The text takes on a different kind of meaning, or presents different challenges to you. And I guess what we need to make sure is we can't assume the way we relate to Romans 13 in our Western liberal democracy context in a fairly Christianized environment is going to be the same for everyone else, whether they're in Africa, South America, or in certain parts of the Middle East and Asia. And sometimes making the Bible weird, realizing how different it is from our own world can certainly give us new insights into how it can apply.
To use the example of Romans 30. And again, we often read it like, "Oh, obviously this is just a text that's about Christians should obey government, and give honor and respect, and follow all the COVID guidelines." That type of thing. But if you remember that Paul is writing about a pagan government, a Roman government, that's part of this monstrous machine of war, and puts God's people into slavery, and to the sword. And you notice that Paul frequently mentions Rome as the servant of God. There's a little bit of pushback. "Okay, fine. Rome is an authority given by God, but only because it's a servant of God." And what you may miss out on in Romans 13 is Paul emphasizes that Rome, its emperor, and all its greatness and majesty, and prestige, all of that is meant to kneel before the one God of Israel, the God of Creation, the God who raised Jesus from the dead.
So when you de familiarize your text, you can begin to notice that different things can be emphasized. So if you're in California, you think, "Yeah, it's right. They need to obey the government, and follow the COVID guidelines." But if you're a Christian in China, you are taking solace from the fact that God is sovereign over the government that's here. And this government ultimately owes its allegiance to God. So de familiarizing yourself with the text can lead you to emphasize different things you may have not noticed before.
Scott Rae: Mike, that's really a helpful phrase too, to de familiarize yourself. Because I suspect if we did that more often, we would appreciate with greater depth how counter cultural a lot of the biblical teaching was in the first century. So the teachings on sexuality, for example, and on marriage. Those were very counter cultural. Now, one other thing, and then we'll wrap up here. You talk about how the Bible finds its coherence in Christ. Can you just explain really briefly what you mean by that? Because I think that's the thing to which everything points. And I think an appropriate place for us to end our conversation today.
Michael Bird: Yeah. And that's exactly right. The New Testament overwhelmingly gives the impression... No actually not the impression, the explicit teaching that Christ is the fulfillment, and He's also the goal of the Old Testament. So we could talk about reading the Old Testament Christologically. Or Peter Enns, I think, developed the excellent term. He said, "Christotelically." That's like Christ as the goal. And this is something that Jesus himself taught. Like I was reading, I think it was John 5 with my I son last night. And where Jesus says to the Pharisees, "You study the Scriptures because you think that through them you have life. But you will not come to Me. The one to whom the Scriptures point."
Or at the end of Luke's Gospel, you've got these two somewhat mopey, depressed disciples on the road to Emmaus lamenting the fact that they thought Jesus was the Messiah, but he got crucified. So they're thinking that they backed the wrong horse of the apocalypse. And the whole thing is kind of fallen and failed. And they meet this stranger on the way. And He's a little bit perplexed. He doesn't know what they're sad about. He doesn't even know what's happened. And then He begins to talk to them, and beginning with Moses and all the Scriptures. The risen Jesus explains to them all the things concerning Himself. And there's one particular text I get my students to memorize here at Ridley. And that's Acts 13:33- 34, where Paul is in a synagogue in Antioch. And he preaches to them. He says, "What God promised our ancestors is fulfilled for us their children by raising Jesus from the dead."
So the Old Testament can be read Christologically. So when you read Psalm 110, we think of Jesus. Even when we read something like Psalm 23 we can think of Jesus. Now you might identify Jesus as, "The Lord is my Shepherd." He's your Shepherd, but we can also imagine Jesus as the one himself who prays that Psalm. The one who has to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. And he exemplifies faith in God, His Father as he does that for our redemption to make atonement for our sins.
Now, there is a danger of reading Christologically, Christocentrically. You can have this really cheesy temptation to Jesify everything. Okay.
Scott Rae: That's a good term for it.
Michael Bird: Now, let me give you an example. You know the story of David and Bathsheba. Now you can read that Christologically and you can say, "Look, David was a man who failed, but thankfully we have a new David, a new Davidic King, the Davidic King who has promised to come in Jesus. And that is good news because we have a new David who's a better King of a better Kingdom." Now that's all true and good. But when I'm reading the story of Bathsheba, I also want to be very explicit about what the text is concerned about, which is murder and sexual violence. Those things are very, very bad.
So even as we read Christologically, we don't want to forget as well the other aspects of Scripture. Like the ethical horizons. Old Testament, New Testament there's a lot of the ethical stuff you can read as well. And also, a Church centered element. A lot of the lessons for Israel also apply to the Church today. You see New Testament authors doing that when they talk about how Israel sent in the wilderness. And they say, "And don't be like Israel in the wilderness." Don't go around mumbling and grumbling against God, or that type of thing. So we really do need a Christological way of reading the old Testament. Because Jesus teaches that, Paul teaches that, and the other Apostles. But we've got to do that without this real clunky, awkward, strange Jesusfying of the Old Testament. So we don't forget, and we don't enjoy, and we don't benefit from the wider wisdom and message that it has for us.
Scott Rae: Thank you, Mike. That's very helpful. This whole discussion has been really insightful. And we so appreciate your time with us, and particularly for your book. And I want to commend your book again to our listeners. Michael Bird, Seven Things I wish Christians Knew About The Bible. So we look forward to having our listeners get exposed to that. It's just a wonderful introduction to the Bible, but it also enables people to dig a lot more deeply into some other areas that may be of interest to them. So, Mike, thanks so much for being with us. Just delighted to have you on with us.
Michael Bird: Well Sean and Scott, it's a pleasure to talk with you. And a big hello to all of your listeners.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our new fully online Bachelor's program in Bible Theology and Apologetics. Be sure and visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app, and be sure and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember think biblically about everything.