What is the Bible?

The Bible is the written record of God’s Word. It is divided into two sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament, which together tell the history of God’s relationship with the Hebrew people. It consists of sixty-six individual books. Through the Bible, we learn how God has guided and directed humanity throughout time, and we understand how God is still with us today.

The Old Testament consists of thirty-nine books which were originally written in Hebrew. These books tell the story of God’s people from the beginning of time and of God’s promises to the people of Israel. The Old Testament is considered sacred Scripture by both Christians and Jews.

The New Testament contains twenty-seven books and is the written record of the coming of the Messiah—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as remembered by four of His apostles. It tells of God’s sending of the Holy Spirit to the church. It also contains an account of the development of the very earliest churches from several early Christian writers. Written primarily in Greek, the New Testament is considered to be sacred Scripture by Christians.

Do Presbyterians also believe in the Old Testament?

Presbyterians believe that both the Old and New Testaments are sacred Scripture. In the words of The Confession of 1967, the Old Testament is indispensable to understanding the New Testament, and is not itself fully understood without the New Testament.

We believe that the writings of the Old Testament tell of God’s promises and how God kept those promises. It talks about how God’s purpose will be fulfilled in the Messiah. The New Testament added to the story of God’s work among the people, but did not replace the older writings.

How do Presbyterians use the Bible?

One of our early theologians, John Calvin, said that the Scriptures are the lenses through which we see the Word of God, illuminated by the Holy Spirit.

Reading, hearing, preaching, and confessing the Word is an integral part of worship. It is central to our form of worshiping God.

All people who are ordained to serve in the Presbyterian Church, whether as minister, elder, or deacon, are asked the following:

Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the church universal, and God’s Word to you?   (Book of Order, G—14.0207b)

Do Presbyterians believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible?

We believe that the original Scriptures were written with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We also believe that the same Spirit guided those who translated and edited the Scriptures and that the Bible is true and reliable to the extent that human language permits. While we believe Scripture to be the Word of God and guided by the Holy Spirit, we recognize that our languages (ancient and modern) are, nevertheless, human words.

Therefore, we have a responsibility to read Scripture, not literally, but with the understanding that the Holy Spirit will guide us in discerning the meaning of God’s Word through our human words.

So, how do Presbyterians interpret the Bible?

To interpret the Scriptures responsibly, Presbyterians have always stressed the importance of scholarship; and this means that, before we use any particular statements of Scripture as a guide in life, more is required than simply the ability to read. All the way back to John Calvin, Presbyterians have maintains that an understanding of the Bible should not rest on the words of novices whose Biblical knowledge is only surface deep, but on the most thorough and scholarly search for truth of which we are capable.

In seeking to address any issue from a Biblical perspective, Presbyterians believe that, guided by the Holy Spirit, we are to return to the original languages of Hebrew and Greek, and to ask penetrating questions. To whom was a Scriptural injunction directed? Who wrote it, and why? What is the context? For what time period is it applicable? Are there Scripturally justifiable exceptions to the rule? How was the statement understood in its own time?

Do Presbyterians always agree on Biblical interpretation?

Disagreement about Biblical interpretation is not a new issue. For two thousand years of Church history, Christians have held different ways of interpreting Scripture.

The apostles themselves actually differed over the interpretation of key Scriptural passages. James and Paul held opposing viewpoints on the issue of circumcision; and both strongly defended their respective positions from Scripture. Eventually, at a conference in Jerusalem (not unlike our General Assembly today), they decided to tolerate each other's viewpoint, remaining in fellowship while agreeing on some points and disagreeing on others.

Today, Presbyterians who differ in their interpretations of the Bible often worship alongside one another in the same congregation. We believe in the importance of listening to each other when it comes to interpreting the Bible. No matter how alien a viewpoint may be to us on first exposure to it, we have a responsibility to hear it fully and not reject it out-of-hand.

The great strength of Presbyterianism is its uncanny knack of fostering a fellowship in which people of different viewpoints continue to dialogue.