The Bible – Puzzle or Telescope (Part 2)


Bible as a Telescope

At the back of all this is this question—what is a relationship with God about? There is a continuum, with “love” and “knowledge” at opposite poles. A ditch lies at either end—God is either Jello or an iceman. Both poles are important (it is kind of important to know about God, after all!), but you will likely tend towards one over the other—Carl Henry certainly did.

So, let me declare this—love must be the foundation for your relationship with God. Moses said it. Jesus affirmed it. I think that is pretty definitive! On this continuum, trend towards love.

If you think faith is about love and trust in Jesus, you will look through the bible to connect to God. But, if you think faith is about information about Jesus, then you may look at the bible as an end in and of itself. This last approach misses the point.16

Let me give you a few examples:

  1. You love espresso. You have an expensive espresso machine. Which is more important—the machine or the espresso it produces? The espresso, of course! Suppose someone objects, “Well, without the machine, we wouldn’t have espresso!” This is missing the point—the goal is to drink espresso! The machine is only valuable insofar as it makes the coffee.
  2. You have a telescope. It is a great telescope—the best! You set it up in your backyard, ready to go. Someone keeps gushing about the telescope; its the features and its general awesomeness. “Isn’t it great?” he asks. It might be a wonderful telescope, but the goal is to look through the scope to see the heavens! The telescope is not the point—it is simply a means to a greater end. It is a tool. To obsess over the telescope is to miss the point.

What I am suggesting is that the bible is a telescope. It lets us see, know, and experience God. It channels God, by the power of the Spirit. It does not exist for its own sake—its only job is to provide a scope to look through to see God and experience Him. We do not look at a telescope—we look through it to see the heavens. In the same way, you look through the Scriptures to see God—you do not look at it!

We saw from our text that as God’s revelation unfolds to us, it brings “light” to our eyes, giving understanding to the simple (Ps 119:130). The Scriptures (God’s truthful record of His revelation) are a telescope which bring God into focus, make Him present, confront us with Him for teaching, rebuking, correction, for training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16)—“direct my footsteps according to your word” (Ps 119:133).

In another place, the psalmist says, “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path,” (Ps 119:105). God’s revelation lights our path so we can find our way to Him, so Jesus—the true light (Jn 1:9)—can shine upon we who are in darkness and guide our feet into the way of peace (Lk 1:79). Elsewhere, Solomon says our spirit is “the lamp of the Lord, that sheds light on one’s inmost being,” (Prov 20:27). We are lamps waiting to be lit by Yahweh—“light and life to all He brings!” (cp. Jn 1:4). His revelation—ultimately Jesus as the light of the world—illuminates us from the inside out. The Scriptures are a witness to that revelation (Jn 5:46)—they connect us to Jesus.

Read the Scriptures with Love!

This is what I’m saying, in the end:

  1. Read the bible to know God, not to know about God. This is not a call to toss doctrine to the winds—it is not a “we don’t need no theology in this here church!” attitude. It is a plea to keep warmth, love, and personal encounter with Christ via the Spirit at the forefront. Carl Henry was right to acknowledge that personal faith is a gift of the Spirit,17 but I fear some who follow in his theological train unwittingly make the same acknowledgments in a pro forma manner.
  2. Read the bible to love God, not to love facts about God. The demons know true doctrine and it does them no good (Jas 2:19)! “The purpose of theology [and bible reading!] is to clarify the propositions involved in faith, but we must never mistake belief in propositions for the faith.”18
  3. Read the bible to grow closer to Him in relationship, not to pick at Scriptures with tweezers.

I have one more example to give. Many years ago, I spoke to an individual who did not believe spiritual illumination helped us understand the bible. Instead, she said the Spirit “allows me to receive the text as it is.” I asked her to explain. She said the Spirit never helped people agree on what a text means. She said she had people in her church who were more spiritual than she, but worse bible interpreters—thus a person’s spirituality was irrelevant. The matter would always be settled by grammar, syntax, rules of interpretation.

I interrupted and asked her flat out, “Are you saying you never pray and ask to understand the bible?” She grimaced, then stammered a bit. “I don’t want to say the word ‘understand’ …” She then rallied, and repeated that interpretation was always settled by grammar and interpretative rules, and that the Spirit simply “enables me to accept the text as it is.”

Basically, she followed Carl Henry. She looked at the Scriptures to discover truth from the ink on the page or the pixels on the screen—she did not look through them to see, know, experience, and love God. If we are not careful, our faith may grow cold and rational. Emil Brunner remarked that “[t]his confusion, this replacing of personal understanding of faith by the intellectual, is probably the most fatal occurrence within the entire history of the church.”19

We need to read our bibles, but in the right way!

  1. I like my espresso machine, but only because through it I see my espresso—the machine is a means to an end.
  2. We love our bibles, but only because it is a telescope we look through to see, know, and love God.
  3. The bible in your hand is God’s divine means to an end, and that end is a relationship with Him.
  4. It is not a puzzle we look at—it is a telescope we look through.

So, when you read your bibles, read them with an attitude of love—not the attitude of a mortician—so that through the Scriptures you can see, experience, and love God. Read for formation, not simply for information.20


16 For the position I am advocating, see especially (1) Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason, pp. 3-57, 118-136, and (2) William Hordern, A New Reformation Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), pp. 31-76. My telescope analogy is from Hordern (p. 70). For a helpful cautionary note hitting the brakes on Brunner (et al) while disagreeing with Henry’s more rationalistic perspective, see Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), pp. 157-163. See also James L. Garrett, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), pp. 168-182 for a solid, helpful discussion on the bible and authority in Christianity.

17 Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, p. 1:228.

18 Hordern, New Reformation Theology, p. 72.

19 Emil Brunner, Truth as Encounter: A New Edition, Much Enlarged, of ‘The Divine-Human Encounter’ (London: SCM Press, 1964), p. 165.

20 Justo Gonzalez, Knowing Our Faith: A Guide for Believers, Seekers, and Christian Communities (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019), p. 27. “… our main purpose in reading the Bible must not be information, but rather formation. When we read, for instance, the story of Abraham, what is important is not that we learn by heart the entire route of his pilgrimage, but rather that somehow we come to share that faith which guided him throughout his journey.”


[TylerR] At the back of all this is this question—what is a relationship with God about? There is a continuum, with “love” and “knowledge” at opposite poles.

Why is love and knowledge at opposite poles? Where do we see love and knowledge juxtaposed like this in Scripture?

I fully accept that we are supposed to read Scripture to know God.

What I can’t get past is the false disjunction: there is no way to know God without adequate attention to information about God—which He has gone to some trouble to provide for us. Knowledge and love are only at opposite poles in certain special circumstances, namely when people have adopted the same false disjunction, but opted for knowledge instead of love. But choosing either one instead of the other doesn’t work.

We’re talking about two indespensible things, neither of which can replace the other.

So we find…

1 Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. (1 Co 8:1)

But we also find…

6 My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children. (Ho 4:6)

Brunner, et. al., had a defective view of truth and revelation due to being strongly influenced by a) existentialism and b) theological liberalism (which they critiqued, but didn’t really leave).

I don’t know if this helps, but the setting of love and knowledge against each other reminds me of the way many evangelicals set love and duty against each other. These are things that are supposed to go together and ultimately crumble without each other.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

FWIW, juxtaposing love and knowledge like this is what leads to the anti-intellectualism of fundamentalism and general evangelicalism.

I do not believe it is a matter of one or the other. Rather, I say we can overemphasize one or the other, and that is bad. I said there was a continuum, with extreme ends at either pole. My paragraph:

At the back of all this is this question—what is a relationship with God about? There is a continuum, with “love” and “knowledge” at opposite poles. A ditch lies at either end—God is either Jello or an iceman. Both poles are important (it is kind of important to know about God, after all!), but you will likely tend towards one over the other—Carl Henry certainly did.

Carl Henry is an example of someone who trended towards “knowledge” at the expense of “love,” at least in his GRA. The burden of this piece is to ask those of us who trend towards “knowledge” to come back and add some love.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

That helps, Tyler. I’m getting hung up a bit on the Brunner factor, which, I’ll be honest, sets off all sorts of red flags for me. But as far as these two articles are concerned, it’s partly one of the challenges of communication: how do you make what you want to say simple enough to be accessible but not oversimplify and cause some some confusion? I often don’t feel like I’ve threaded that needle successfully. (It’s of some comfort to me that Jesus also often spoke in “either or” language for the purpose of clarity with a particular audience, where we know from other things He said that the underlying reality is more complex…. Some of His statements on prayer, for example.)

So in places you’re saying continuum, look for balance, and in other places you’re saying it’s one or the other, and it should be B, not A.

I don’t know CFH Henry’s work very well, so I can’t disagree with the claim that he erred in the cold intellectualism/analysis direction. My exposure to Brunner is second hand but pretty meaty and diverse (I’m excluding all the raving I heard in college days from guys who didn’t do their homework).

So, on the continuum, I’m a lot more confident that Brunner erred toward ‘telescope’ than I am that Henry erred the other way. Henry at least seems to have held firmly to the idea that the Scriptures themselves are revelation and offer us objective, infallible truth. Maybe he didn’t adequately emphasize purpose… i.e., knowing God, loving God and neighbor.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

I appreciate the point you are making with these articles, Tyler. I’ve been coming to the same conclusions myself over the last 10 years. I think this hit home for me as I was raising my kids and teaching them about God and the Bible, realizing that their Christian faith needed to consist of more than mere Bible knowledge.

Your espresso machine and telescope illustrations are good and are in the same vein as the illustration I used to use with my kids. We discussed the Bible as a treasure map which leads us to the ultimate treasure - Jesus. The map is important and necessary as a guide, but the value of the map is not in the map itself. It’s in the treasure to which it leads.