Paul Woolley is Interim Chief Executive of the British and Foreign Bible Society.
Bible advocacy, simply expressed, involves speaking up on behalf of the Scriptures. The role of the advocate is to represent their chosen cause (usually a person or a group of people) and persuade others to take it (or them) seriously.
The question is: How does this relate to the Scriptures? Does the Bible need people to defend it or demonstrate its credibility? Is the Bible not capable of speaking for itself? It is, after all, the Word of God. Is it not an authority in its own right?
In order to answer these questions, it is important to begin by defining what the Bible is, although this is a trickier task than might be imagined. On one level, the Bible comprises a collection of books (the exact number is debatable, but there are certainly 66) that, in some way, tell the story of God and the world. The books of the Bible are diverse, not only in terms of authors, primary readership, and historical setting, but in regard to genres and even theology. In the Bible, we are presented with a progressive revelation of who God is. For example, Jesus represents the fulfilment of the Old Testament law, which foreshadows his coming (Matthew 5). The apostle Paul (Colossians 1.15) writes that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. In Jesus, the Word is made flesh, the invisible, visible (John 1.14). In Jesus, we see not only who God truly is, but what it is, in the words of Irenaeus, to be ‘a human being truly alive’.
Bible advocacy involves speaking up on behalf of the Scriptures.
The impact of the Bible on culture has been immense. The collection of books that emerge out of God's action in history have not only helped transform the lives of individuals, but have profoundly shaped language, literature and music, and have inspired great works of visual art. In the words of Richard Dawkins, ‘not to know the King James Bible, is to be in some small way, barbarian.’
On the basis of all of this, does the Bible not speak for itself? Does it need advocacy?
The answer is an emphatic yes, and for two principle reasons:
Firstly, the Bible, without people engaging with it, does not transform anyone, sociologically or theologically. Indeed, it could be argued that the Bible only becomes the Word of God, as we encounter God through its pages. It becomes the place where people can meet God, as we engage with the Scriptures, because God has chosen to meet them there. Karl Barth said that the Scriptures are the Word of God written. The written word bears witness to the living Word of God made manifest in Jesus. Ultimately, we can experience Scripture as a place of divine encounter. The challenge in contemporary societies, especially in the west, is that people need encouragement to open the pages of Scripture. In the UK, for example, one could argue that a process of secularisation has all but eradicated any shared cultural understanding or sympathy for the Scriptures.
Does it need advocacy? The answer is an emphatic yes!
Secondly, advocacy is required because the translation of the Bible that is of primary importance is the transformation of people’s lives. If we didn’t translate the Bible, it would be a closed book. If we do not translate the Bible into our lives, it remains a closed book that lacks any credibility. It was Gandhi who said ‘I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.’
Certainly, the Bible speaks for itself, but our responsibility is to encourage and enable people to encounter its voice.
So, what is the conclusion of the matter? Just this: Bible advocacy is not only desirable but an essential part of our work to offer the Bible to the world. Certainly, the Bible speaks for itself, but our responsibility is to encourage and enable people to encounter its voice.
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