The Bible as a guide
The Bible is pivotal to Christian faith -particularly the New Testament- because it contains the Gospel accounts of Jesus and letters of guidance written by the early Church. It therefore takes a central position in the church, both literally, often placed on a lectern at the front of the church, and metaphorically, by being a major focus within the community worship. In nearly all church services readings are taken from it, and sermons are prepared from these readings. Many Christians will also have Bibles in their homes and read portions from it on a daily basis.
The Bible however is a complex collection of written texts. It has sixty-six books (39 in the OT, and 27 in the NT), written over a period of thousands of years. The Old Testament consists of the five books of Moses, including accounts of creation and God’s dealings with His ‘chosen’ people, stories and writings about the Hebrew kings and prophets, and various other wisdom writings, including the book of songs (Psalms), and Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, two books of wise sayings. The New Testament has four Gospels (about the life of Jesus), a history of the early church (Acts) and then a collection of letters to various churches, most of which are written by St Paul. The New Testament finishes with the book of the Revelations of St John, outlining a vision of the end of this world and the beginnings of a new heaven and earth.
Making sense of this collection is not easy- even for scholars, firstly, because it comes from a totally different era of time, but also because it requires translation from its original Hebrew and Greek. Subsequently there are libraries of books about what it says (commentaries) and about how to apply this to modern everyday life (hermeneutics). Some of these Biblical scholars are linguistic experts, some explore findings from history and archaeology to understand the context of the Bible world, and others offer theological insights, trying to piece together insights from across the Bible to make sense of what is the ‘grand narrative’ of these scriptures.
As a result, how Christians use and interpret the Bible today is varied. Some might read particular biblical passages as literal or historical truth, while others might take allegorical or symbolic meaning from the same verses. The account of creation in Genesis is a good example, with a literalist reading understanding the world to have been created in six days, and an allegorical or symbolic reading understanding creation as willed by God, but the mechanism adequately described by Big Bang and evolutionary theory.
Those who read the bible literally can also be called Fundamentalists, referring to a desire to hold on to the ‘fundamentals’ of faith. Fundamentalism, of which Creationism is a type, is a modern reaction to liberal and critical readings of the bible which developed from the 19th Century. In between the liberal and literal positions are a wide range, both traditionalist and progressive.
It was for these reasons, particularly before universal education, that the Church was reluctant to let ordinary Christians read the Bible for themselves, preferring instead that it be read and explained to congregations by trained and qualified clergy. This was one of the major tensions underlying the Reformation: protestants became convinced that the Catholic church had strayed away from the true message and meaning of the Bible and they wished to restore things to what they felt Jesus and the apostles had originally believed and practiced. On the whole therefore, Protestants give much more emphasis to the Bible in their worship and in their rationale for their distinctiveness.