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The Bible is Not a Dogmatic Handbook


What is the Bible?


This seems like an obvious question and yet it is one that can easily fly under the radar. A lot of people operate on various assumptions of what the Bible is. Some, following in the spirit of critical scholar Adolf Von Harnack, treat the Bible as an ethical handbook. That is, the Bible at its essence is a moral how-to. Certainly the Bible makes ethical implications at every turn (also see the second half of WLC 5). And yet, this does not describe what the Bible is at the most basic level of its organism. Still, I've heard my fair share of sermons that operate on this assumption and there is a lot to be said against it (but that is for a future post).


Another assumption that is often made is that the Bible is a dogmatic handbook. What does that mean and why is it wrong to say that?


Dogmatic Handbook?

In Geerhardus Vos' Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, he has a section in his introduction titled Practical Uses of Biblical Theology. In that section, he discusses how biblical theology (the study of the history of special revelation) helps us see the truths of the Bible within the thrust of the Bible's history, that is, within the thrust of its storyline. It is out of this point that he comments "the Bible is not a dogmatic handbook but a historical book full of dramatic interest."


What does it mean to say that the Bible isn't a dogmatic handbook? It is to acknowledge two primary things. The first is that the Bible didn't descend from the sky as one completed book. If it were, it would present its content in an atemporal sense as the discipline dogmatic (or systematic) theology does. The second is that the Bible is not presented by way of logical categories and propositions. If it were, we would expect it to be organized like a dogmatic theology with various chapters designated by doctrinal categories. Rather the Bible, itself God's inspired and inerrant special revelation inscripturated, is the record of the historical unfolding of special revelation.


This is not to say that dogmatic theology is an unnecessary discipline. It is a crucial one. And yet, we can't read the Bible in the same way that we read Bavinck, Berkhof, and Grudem. If we do, then we have begun to treat the Bible merely as a dogmatic handbook and have begun to ignore the historical unfolding of God's special revelation.


There is much more to be said about this as this post can't even be said to have scratched the surface as it were. I'll be exploring this idea further in forthcoming posts starting with an analysis of WLC 5 alongside this idea.

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