Archive: An Outstanding Overview of the Bible

a review by Diane Knippers, Assistant Editor of Good News

UNDERSTANDING THE BIBLE by John R. W. Stott. Regal Books (Gospel Light), Glendale,CA, 1972. 154 pp., $2.25, paperback.

Studying the Bible can be rewarding! But it can also be frustrating and discouraging. It’s easy to get lost in all the details and miss the more central points. Passages sometimes seem to contradict one another. Sometimes the Biblical messages seem shrouded in ancient customs and thought-patterns. What does THAT mean? the Bible reader puzzles. What in the world does it have to do with ME?

The Holy Spirit is, of course, the chief illuminator of Scripture. But I’d nominate John Stott’s book for second place as a guide into the Bible’s wonderful message. Stott, an Anglican, is Rector Emeritus of All Souls Church, London, England. A noted evangelical thinker, his books include Basic Christianity and Christ the Controversialist.

Understanding the Bible begins with a concise statement of the purpose of the Bible. The purpose is not scientific, nor is it literary-the Bible is a book of salvation. But Stott cautions:

Salvation is far more than the forgiveness of sins. It includes the whole sweep of God’s purpose to redeem and restore mankind, and indeed all creation. (p.15)

The Bible is, therefore, Christocentric. This centrality of Jesus Christ is evident throughout Understanding the Bible.

Having set the stage concerning God’s intention for Scripture, Stott goes on to set the stage geographically. His second chapter, “The Land of the Bible,” is not simply a dull catalog listing average annual rainfall or noted mountain peaks (although it does include such information). Using several helpful maps, Stott shows in an interesting way the importance of basic geographic and historic information. His explanation of various Biblical phrases, such as “from Dan to Beersheba” and “rose of Sharon,” help one appreciate Scripture more fully.

The following two chapters provide an excellent overview of the Old and New Testaments. Such a broad perspective is invaluable in comprehending the relationship between Biblical events and characters, and in understanding main Bible themes such as salvation.

In chapter five, Stott affirms, “The Bible is essentially a revelation of God. It is, in fact, a divine self-disclosure.” (p.161) The story of the Bible is the story of God’s covenant relationship with His people.

The most crucial element in understanding the nature of Scripture is in understanding its authority. Can we trust the Bible fully? Stott answers with a confident yes! He discusses the uniqueness of Scripture by defining three words: revelation, God has taken the initiative in making Himself known to us; inspiration, the mode by which He reveals Himself; and authority, God’s words carry God’s authority.

While there is no question about John Stott’s high view of Scripture, some conservatives have questioned his suggestion that the Genesis flood was a “comparatively local disaster.” He also leaves the authorship of Isaiah 40-55 open to question. This important passage prophecies the return of the Jewish exiles to Jerusalem under Cyrus. Isaiah’s authorship of this section means that he foretold this return perhaps 200 years in advance. If someone other than Isaiah wrote Isaiah 40-55, this would negate Scripture’s prophetic dimension-as liberals claim. The classic view of the church has been prophetic authorship of Isaiah (see “Our Master’s Mind” by John Oswalt, Good News, Mar/Apr 1977, pp. 21-28).

Stott does not push this question—he simply indicates that a different view exists. He personally is thoroughly sound concerning the prophetic notion of Scripture in its relationship to Jesus Christ.

On the whole, Stott’s balanced view of inspiration is refreshing. He is not threatened by critical theories, nor is he doggedly defensive of conservative theory for its own sake. His attitude in accepting the Bible as the Word of God is thoughtful, humble, and reverent.

The cornerstone of the authority of Scripture, according to Stott, is its endorsement by Jesus Himself. Christ affirmed the authority of the Old Testament by His submission to its teachings and prophecies. He endorsed the New Testament by providing for its apostolic authorship.

The Bible is the Christian’s primary avenue for discerning the will of God. So it is essential that we interpret Scripture carefully and accurately. How? Stott urges a combination of enlightenment by the Holy Spirit, disciplined study, and the teachings of the Church. He also offers several very practical principles for interpreting Scripture. For example, every passage should be considered in its setting, from surrounding verses and total Biblical revelation.

To wrench a text from its context is an inexcusable blunder …I was myself greatly disturbed that the World Council of Churches (which ought to have known better) should take as the text for their Fourth Assembly at Uppsala in 1967 God’s great words in Revelation 21:5, “Behold, I make all things new,” where the sentence applies to what He is going to do in the end when He makes a new heaven and a new earth, and should then proceed without any conceivable justification to apply it to the political, revolutionary movements of today. (p. 232)

Understanding the Bible does not conclude with a plea for Biblical understanding. Instead, it ends with challenge to apply Scripture. The Bible is to be used in our everyday living: ” … be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22)

A final word of caution—do not read this book if you want to remain comfortable with careless habits in Bible study:

Sometimes our growth in understanding is inhibited by a proud and prayerless self-confidence, but at other times by sheer laziness and indiscipline. He who would increase in the knowledge of God must both abase himself before the Spirit of truth and commit himself to a lifetime of study. (p. 213)


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