My first three lectures in my introduction to the Christian scriptures class are dedicated to informing the students exactly how we got the bible we have and what it means to us. The first lecture is on the story of scripture, namely that the Bible is not an instruction manual for life, but a story of God's people and their journey on earth.
In my second lecture I talk about text criticism and how from thousands of manuscripts of the New and Old Testaments (none of which are original), scholars have labored to compare these to come up with the most original text which is then presented to translators who create a complete Bible in the vernacular language, and finally, these translated versions are printed and distributed to the public. But this was not always the case. For nearly 1500 years, mass printing was impossible. Books were hand copied and expensive. Most people could not read. The bible was not copied in the vernacular. So, before the invention of the printing press and the translations of the Bible that took place during the reformation, your average Christian had no means of reading the Bible for themselves.
In my third lecture I talk about the process of canonization. It is shocking that in addition to all I have mentioned above, there was not even a Bible, in any complete sense until the 4th century. There were only individual manuscripts distributed throughout the Roman Empire and in various use by the churches. Not until Constantine made Christianity legal could Christians even get together to discuss what books of the NT were in fact scripture. And then, they did not always agree. 367 AD, 330 years after the death of Jesus is the first time anyone listed the 27 books that make up our New Testament canon. Even after that date there was further debate about certain books. The book of Revelation was very late in its acceptance into the canon, and other works, unknown to most Christians (Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle of Barnabus) were considered scripture by some.
Therefore, knowing a little history can shed a lot of light on how central the Bible is to Christianity. If one claims that it is the most central aspect of faith, then what were Christians for the first 15 centuries of Christianity to do?
Now, I am not in any way denigrating the Bible. I have dedicated my life to its study. I think it was a great achievement that Martin Luther and other reformers fought so hard to bring the Bible to the common man and woman. Yet, before we elevate Luther as the prime advocate of placing the Bible at the center of the Christian life and lifting it almost to a place of worship, take a look at what he said about the Bible (Thanks to Steve at Undeception for compiling these quotes from his post "Mr. Sola Scriptura weighs in on Inerrancy").
"Take the great 16th century reformer Martin Luther, for instance. Most would argue that Luther — who argued for “scripture alone” — had a high regard for the Bible. Yet, he was quite critical of some of it.
For instance, Luther argued …"
(1) God’s prophets in the Old Testament were sometimes in error,
(2) the book of Kings is more reliable than the book of Chronicles,
(3) the book of Esther should have probably been left out of the Bible,
(4) not all the Gospels are of equal value,
(5) the writer of Hebrews erred when he said that there is no possibility of a second repentance,
(6) the author of James “mangles scripture” and the whole book should be burned like worthless straw,
(7) the book of Revelation reveals nothing.