The Bible is not an Instruction Manual

Instruction Manual

Instruction Manual

Recently I began a new job. As part of my indoctrination, I was given a set of documents that were supposed to teach me how to do my job, but they were totally unhelpful. My predecessor had written them at a high level; they were simply a reminder for someone who already had done the job before. Part of my assigned duties are now to  develop actual step-by-step instructions for each of these processes so we can hand the processes off to our vendors. In one case I expanded a 3-page memory tickler into a 15-page set of instructions that covers nearly everything. And I’m not finished yet.

While I was working, I suddenly drew an analogy between what I was doing and the Scriptures. You see, the Scriptures are not what we often think they are. They are not an instruction manual for the Christian life. They contain no manual for church order or discipline. They describe no order of service. And they mostly hint around at doctrines which are central to the Christian faith.

Paul’s letters are, for the most part, corrective in nature. Apart from Romans and Hebrews (whose Pauline authorship is still a matter of debate), there are no theological treatises in any of Paul’s writings. Instead, he writes to churches in trouble, or churches with questions, and reminds them of what he taught them when he was with them. He guides them, he chastises them, he exhorts them, but in general he is being very coy, only hinting at in writing what he expounded to them orally.

The Old Testament is much the same way. Try as you will, you cannot reconstruct the temple liturgy from the Old Testament record. We can determine the basic shape of the liturgy, and we know its purpose, but the only record of any words spoken by the priest is the Aaronic benediction he gave at the end of the liturgy. There would have been an assortment of prayers said before and after each action of the liturgy (such as the ritual washing of the hands, or the burning of the incense before the altar, or the placing of the sacrificial lamb upon the altar), but the Scriptures don’t record them. Scripture records there were choirs and songs in the time of David and Solomon, but the Scriptures don’t tell us how they were integrated into the liturgy. Which songs were sung where, and for what purpose? What do the musical notations in the Book of Psalms mean? Why is it divided into five sections, and is there a liturgical significance to that division?

There are huge areas of knowledge essential for the Church that not available in the Bible. If you restrict yourself to the Biblical record, you are trying to figure out how do Church, and how to be a Christian, without a proper instruction manual. Instead, you are like a diviner of tea-leaves, or an astrologer looking for clues in the stars.

Let me give you some easy examples of this. First, Church governance: Episcopal, Presbyterian, or Congregational? These are the three basic forms people get from the Biblical record. Each of them is scripturally valid, but they can’t all three be correct. God is not the author of confusion, and does not allow Himself to be worshiped any way we like. (Nadab and Abihu come to mind.) Second, Church Worship: Liturgical or not? A case can be made from the scripture for any number of different types of church services. Protestants have a bewildering array of “worship styles”, which can be confusing even to Protestants. I once attended a church where the pastor intentionally rearranged the service each week to avoid any semblance of liturgy. I was young, and it was kind of exciting, but it was also confusing, putting the focus on the act of worship rather than the one being worshipped.

There are important doctrinal issues in the Bible that are not adequately and systematically explained. Take baptism, for example. Is baptism a sacrament, as the Orthodox, the Roman Catholics, and some Protestants maintain, or is it merely an ordinance – a symbolic gesture, if you will? The answer is not clear in the Bible, because the subject is not treated systematically. Next, what is the proper form of baptism? We do not have a single example of a baptismal ceremony in the bible; the closest we have is Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, but the story does not describe the baptism itself. Was the baptism administered by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion? If immersion, was it a single immersion, or a three-fold immersion? What were the word’s used when administering baptism? Moreover, we don’t know who was eligible for baptism. Was it believer’s baptism, as most Protestant’s claim, or could babies be baptized? There are biblical arguments that can be marshalled in support of each position, but the Bible is not particularly helpful in resolving the question.

Protestant theologians have turned biblical interpretation into a fine art, with a seemingly elegant set of rules that can be applied to a particular passage or series of passages to determine their meaning. But no matter how helpful each rule might be, as a system it is no more valid than astrology. Both have their own set of pseudo-scientific rules, yet each practitioner applies the rules differently, and comes up with entirely different answers.

The Bible is not what you think it is. It is not an instruction manual, it contains no systematic theology, and it does not constitute even a prologue to systematic theology. Therefore, if you approach Scripture alone, you are bringing your own baggage with you and interpreting Scripture through your own brokenness and sinfulness. You are viewing Scripture through a glass, darkly. You need something else — a guide, if you will. You need Holy Tradition.

The Salvation Story in Icons

These icons are highly instructive for us and for our salvation. They describe in pictorial form not only why our salvation was necessary, but the means by which it was accomplished.

Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

We see here our Lord gently going with Adam and Eve as they are expelled from Paradise. This is before he clothed them in animal skins to replace the glory with which they had been clothed in the Garden.

The Holy Theophany, also known as the Baptism of Our Lord

The Holy Theophany

We could have begun with the icon of the Nativity of our Lord, but instead we have here the icon of the Holy Theophany, otherwise known as the baptism of Our Lord. This is important for two reasons. First, because it was the first direct revelation of the Triune God, where the Holy Spirit descends upon the God-man, and the Father speaks from heaven. And second, because when John baptised Our Lord, Our Lord baptised all of creation. the two tiny figures mounted on the bottom represent the Jordan river and the Sea, both fleeing from one greater than themselves. The angels look on in amazement; meanwhile, we see the axe “laid unto the root of the trees”, spoken of by Jesus in Matt 3:10 and Luk 3:9.

Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica writes:

He Himself did not have the need either of Baptism, or Transfiguration, or of the Mystical Supper, or of Crucifixion, or of death and Burial, or of Resurrection on the third day, or Ascension! Thus, naturally, the question logically imposes itself: Why then does this whole Divine Economy (Dispensation) take place, this divine intervention among people in the world and time? The answer is the same as we read in the Creed: “For us and for our salvation”…! Out of love we are created, and out of love, after the fall, we are saved. (Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica (2013-02-22). NEITHER WILL I TELL YOU… (Kindle Locations 3022-3026). Monastery of the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos Eleusa. Kindle Edition.)

The Crucifixion of Christ

The Crucifixion of Christ

The icon of the Crucifixion of Christ is interesting for a number of reasons. First, Christ still has his halo; he is still God, even while dead on the cross. The heretics sometimes say that only the humanity of Christ suffered death, but for death to be defeated, it had to be by the God-man who could not be held by death. We see here the angels collecting in a chalice the blood and water that pours from his pierced side, by which we are to led to an understanding of the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist — the washing of regeneration, and the medicine of immortality. We also see a skull beneath the earth; this is Adam, the first man, upon whom Jesus own blood is flowing. By the death of Christ, we are all baptised into his death and raised to newness of life; death has no more dominion upon us.

Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica writes:


The consequences of the fall, in human nature, could not have been healed if it had not become the nature of the Son of God, too, and if in this manner it had not passed the entire human road of life— from birth, through suffering, up to death itself, and resurrection. Christ the Godman adopted even death itself in order to destroy it with His Resurrection. Nonetheless, Christ assumed only the incorruptible passions of human nature, consequences of Adam’s sin and fall: hunger, thirst, fatigue, effort, suffering, tears, fear prior to death and death itself, and all the others that by nature appertain to every human being. The Godman took on Him all except for sin, that is, susceptibility to sin.(Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica (2013-02-22). NEITHER WILL I TELL YOU… (Kindle Locations 3026-3031). Monastery of the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos Eleusa. Kindle Edition.)

We see this clearly in our last icon.

The Harrowing of Hades, fresco in the parecclesion of the Chora Church, Istanbul

The Harrowing of Hell. This representation of Christ’s descent into Hell shows Him breaking down the gates of hell and restoring Adam and Eve to Paradise.

In this icon we see Christ breaking down the gates of hell, and restoring the Old Testament saints to paradise. This is represented by Christ drawing Adam and Eve from their coffins, all the while trampling on death and the devil. In this icon we see not Christ as the suffering servant, but Christ the victor over sin, death, and the devil, for us and for our salvation.

The Harrowing of Hell is problematic for some Protestant Christians — not because it cannot be supported by the Sacred Scriptures, but because it doesn’t fit with their theology of salvation. That Christ descended to Hell is supported, but the meaning of leading captivity captive, and of preaching to the spirits in prison is unclear. Some believe that Christ descended to Hell to preach to the fallen angels, telling them they had been beaten. Some believe that Christ actually suffered in Hell until He was resurrected on the third day. They have difficulty seeing this for the victory it is.

The Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ on the clouds with the saints and  angels

The Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ on the clouds with the saints and angels

In this icon we see the risen and glorified Christ returning in glory with his saints and angels, and we see the praises of the saints on earth. What we don’t see is the so-called ‘secret rapture’ of the church, a doctrine which not only of recent origin, but of highly doubtful provenance. All those who died in the faith, as well as those who are prepared for and awaiting His coming, are all together rejoicing with the cherubim and seraphim. The already and the not yet of the kingdom are now one and the same. He who sits upon the throne will rule, and His kingdom shall have no end.

Maranatha. Even so come, Lord Jesus.