Christians believe that the Bible contains the revelation of the Creator God to mankind, setting forth truths regarding God, the nature of humanity, humanity’s problems, and how God has worked to reconcile mankind to Himself through His Son Jesus the Christ (Hebrews 1:1-3, 2 Peter 1:21). Christians believe that God intended for people to hear the message of His Word as revealed in the Bible, either through hearing the words read or through reading those words themselves: they were spoken in the common languages of the people using illustrations and images familiar to them (cf. John 8:32). It is therefore natural that Christians would want to read the Bible themselves and also encourage other people to read the Bible as well. One way that well-intentioned Christians attempt to encourage each other and those in the world to read the Bible is to speak of it as an instruction manual. Some would turn “Bible” into an acronym: “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” In conversation and preaching this tendency is simplified so as to give the impression that the Bible is life’s instruction manual; the explicit answer to every question we might have will be found in its pages. In this way the Bible is portrayed to be the ultimate self-help guide to life. Is this characterization consistent with the message of God in Christ in the Bible?
Let none be deceived: the Bible contains many important instructions and provides many guidelines about how to live a life pleasing to God. The Israelites considered the first five books of the Bible to be their torah, or instruction, from God; Psalm 119, among many other passages, extols the value of God’s instruction and its observance. The book of Proverbs provides many useful and wise aphorisms about how one should live, contrasting the life of the wise, prudent, and righteous with the lives of the foolish, simple, and evil. In the New Testament much is made of the doctrines, or teachings or instruction, about Jesus and His Kingdom from the Apostles (1 Timothy 4:6, Titus 2:1, Hebrews 6:1). Therefore, the Bible is profitable for instruction in righteousness, as Paul declares (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Whereas the Bible most assuredly contains instruction, is it an instruction manual? While this metaphor is understandable it ultimately falls quite short of accurately explaining what God is attempting to accomplish through what He has revealed in Scripture.
What comes to mind when you think of an instruction manual? Generally an instruction manual features rather boring step-by-step guides to guide a person in building or using a product. It may contain some “troubleshooting” information, helping to correct certain problems that might develop. We hope it also contains a phone number or some other contact information in case we run into unexpected difficulties.
For that matter, what comes to mind when you think of a self-help book? Such books tend to focus on certain dimensions or relationships in life. They discuss various thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and the reasons behind them. They then attempt to provide some form of counsel as to how to think, feel, and act more effectively or positively in such dimensions or relationships in life.
Anyone who approaches the Bible expecting it to read or sound like an instruction manual or a self-help book will be quickly disappointed. Such a person will no doubt begin with Genesis; not only is the text not providing a point by point way to make life better, but plenty of the characters in the stories do not at all behave in ways in which Christians today would approve (Abraham taking Sarah’s servant Hagar as wife and having Ishmael, Genesis 16:1-16; Lot’s daughters having children through their father, Genesis 19:30-38; Jacob marrying two sisters and their handmaids, Genesis 29:16-30:25; Judah and Tamar, Genesis 38:1-30). Then comes Exodus through Deuteronomy and all sorts of laws; afterwards is essentially a history book, followed by wisdom literature, and then the prophets. If they persist into the New Testament, they hear the story of Jesus four times, the story of what some of the Apostles accomplished, a series of letters of Apostles to churches and individuals, and then a final apocalypse.
Anyone looking for a very explicit and specific step-by-step process to make life better in the pages of the Bible will find its presentation baffling and its exhortation frustrating. The problem is not with the text; the problem is with the expectations imposed upon it.
God has made known His Word in the pages of the Bible so that we may learn of Him, put our trust in Him in Christ, and to follow Him as our Lord and God (John 20:30-31, 1 John 2:3-6). The Bible is not written as an instruction manual but as the story of the way God made and worked with mankind throughout history, setting forth God’s eternal plan in Christ made manifest in the church (Ephesians 3:10-11). Instruction is embedded within that story (2 Timothy 3:15-17); systematic explication of that instruction can only be accomplished through interpreting what has been written.
The Bible, therefore, tells the story of God’s work with mankind and invites the hearer to participate in that story. It is designed to engender confidence in the One who made it known, ground our trust in Him, and turn to Him for wisdom and strength throughout our days. The Bible provides instruction, but is no instruction manual; the Scriptures can make one wise unto salvation and righteousness, but is no mere self-help guide. May we honor the revelation God has made in Scripture for what it is and serve Him through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Ethan R. Longhenry