Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Bible as Instruction Manual

The other day I heard someone I respect compare to the Bible to an instruction manual for humans.  This is not a new analogy, as a simple Google search of "Bible instruction manual" will demonstrate.

Yet, how does this analogy hold up?  Is the Bible an instruction manual?  Is it a guide to all our problems in life?

In my experience, here is how most people use instruction manuals.  They get a new product, open the product and throw the instruction manual in a drawer.  The manual is only used when something goes wrong with the product.  Then, they pull out the manual, flip to the index or troubleshooting section, flip to the relevant portion of the manual and try to fix the problem.

Unfortunately, I think this is how many Christians use their Bible.  When something goes wrong in life, or some difficult decision comes up, they go searching their Bible for some solution.  They flip to the index (called a concordance when used in reference to the Bible), look for key words, then flip to the relevant verses.  This can lead to the worst kind of proof texting, that is, taking a verse out of context in support of a specific position.  On proof texting, see this wonderful video from the West Wing, which illustrates the danger of taking verses of the Bible out of context.

Right now I am looking for a job.  Just out of curiosity I looked in one of my Bibles with a concordance and found the following entry under "job(s)."
Job(s): should you seek rewards in......... Lk 20:45-47
I then turned to Luke 20:45-47, which reads:
Luke 20:45  In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples,
Luke 20:46 “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.
Luke 20:47 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
 This is clearly a condemnation of seeking rewards from one's job, right?

My big problem with viewing the Bible as an instruction manual for life is that it does justice neither to the complexity and richness of humanity, nor to the complexity or richness of the Bible. Reading the Bible requires context, nuance, historical understanding, literary understanding.  In short, the Bible is not an instruction manual, it is a story, it is history, poetry, confession, memory, prophecy, visions.  It is all of the greatest of God's revelation to humanity and humanity's reaction to an experience of God.  It requires a little more care than merely looking in an index, finding a relevant verse, and doing what it says.  Human beings are also much more than pieces of equipment or technology.  We are living, breathing beings in relationship to God.  No book, however divinely inspired, can merely be mined for quick answers to problems that arise for any given human.  So, next time you pick up your Bible, take time to read it, not just exploit it.


  1. Dr. Reich, God led me straight to your blog for answers with my faith. I'm having problems convincing my parents that with the changing times, tattoos and piercings are becoming more accepted and the negative connotations associated with them are slowly diminishing. Their arguments come solely from going to the index, searching for something to help their case, and then applying it in our discussions. You said what I couldn't form in words, and I thank you for sharing your wisdom! :3

  2. Seek th holy spirit! Your body is a temple for th Holy Spirit to live in. How would u like to come home one day and see holes an graffiti all over Your home?? Right...I don't think th Holy Spirit would like that either.