God is certainly bigger than the Bible. However, this soundbyte can, and have been, abused – so here I draw a sketch on what the phrase may mean and doesn’t mean.
First, then, the positive sketch. God is bigger than the Bible in the sense that he exists prior to it and is ontologically independent of it. He was from the very beginning, and will continue to be so. Each Person of the Trinitarian Godhead has always enjoyed interpersonal communion in a manner unfathomable to us. They communicate without human language in an eternal, but dynamic, way. As the Westminster Confession 7.1 notes, the distance (a distance not of space but of being) between God and man is so great that man would have no fruition of this God were it not for God’s own free choice to condescend.
This “voluntary condescension” is crucial. What does it imply? At least two things. First, God is so transcendent, so fundamentally different from man that man cannot come to know this God without God’s prior initiative. Knowing God is not like, say, finding out what date it is, or whether coffee is good for you, where the answer is a search engine away. Knowing God is much more like coming to know the President of one’s country: you may want to know the President, but you have no innate ability to do so. Instead, access to the President is available only with the President’s consent. So it is with knowing God, but of course in a much higher way: God is not only inaccessible prior to his initiative; he is also unknowable unless he were to condescend. This means, at least in part, that God must take creaturely forms of media to communicate to us. He speaks, as Calvin says, as nurses lisp to newborn babies: divine babbling. God speaks to us in human language, which itself implies two further things: (1) that God sanctions human language as a reliable and stable form of communication, capable of transmitting solid truth (contrary to our post-modern philosophers) and (2) that God’s verbal revelation is analogical in character.
The second thing God’s condescension implies is that God is unlike man: man is made in the image of God and not God in the image of man. Man is theomorphic rather than God being anthropomorphic (though, of course, as God condescends he must describe himself, at times, in human terms). This means that man must consult God to understand himself first and foremost rather than understanding himself to understand God. Theology must be done, in other words, from the top-down rather than the bottom-up. Man is finite, and God is infinite. Not only so, man is now sinful, while God is holy. Theological speculation from the bottom-up will thus always create a god much less than the true God; a god that represents the deification of our own sinful character rather than the holy God who is.
So far so good. God does exist as one bigger than the Bible. But here is the catch; he is so much greater than us, and we are so limited by our own sin (the effects of sin on our intellect, especially), that God cannot be known apart from the Bible. The God who is great has chosen to communicate himself in Scripture; want to know the God who is bigger than the Bible? Go to the Bible. Want to know what God is really like in his transcendence, grandeur, and awesomeness? Go to the Bible. In other words, the fact that God is bigger than the Bible does not mean that we ought to go away from the Bible, or look for other ways apart from the Bible, to know God. Precisely the opposite: God is bigger than the Bible and thus cannot be known apart from the Bible – any other means of trying to access God independent of Scripture is access not to the God of the Bible but to a finite deity, more reflective of the world and of sinful man rather than the transcendent God of Christianity.
So, here is what the phrase does not mean:
1. It does not mean that we ought to set aside the Bible at times to know God better. We may be stimulated by the world to reflect upon God, but the moment we do this we must always have in reference the God that we know from the Bible.
2. It does not mean that our feelings can tell us something about God that contradicts what the Word has said. The Bible can tell us something of God that can make us emotional in a certain way, but our emotions are fickle and often inclined towards sinful things. God has told us all that he needs to say in His word, and that word must norm the way we understand our affections.
3. It does not mean that God can contradict the Bible. I’ve heard it once said to me that we cannot put God in the Box of the Bible, because God can still speak today. Well no Christian wants to put God in any box, and this is not what we are doing. Rather, we are accepting that God himself has said all which he needs to say in his word, and just as God cannot break a promise, neither could he break his holy word: didn’t Jesus say that not an iota of the law would pass until heaven and earth pass away (Matt. 5:18)? (Lest any of the more left bloggers are reading this, Jesus does not change or contradict the Old Testament, he fulfills it as he is inaugurating the kingdom of God and the New Covenant, to which the Old Testament law points.) Christians are known to be people of the book throughout history for good reason: God’s word always remains the same, and God’s word is the means by which God makes himself known.
4. To repeat point 1 again, it does not mean that we can set aside our Bibles to understand him better. This is worth hammering again: while going to the ocean or to the mountaintop may have therapeutic value, doing it while setting aside the words of Scripture will bear no theological fruition. To know God, both relationally (and not just intellectually) involves the discipline of simply eating his word, and chewing on it, again, and again, and again. It is biblical reflection and application which brings about Christian maturity. (The Word is the Sword of the Spirit; so those who pit the Spirit against the Word have a faulty understanding of the Spirit’s work).
Run away from those who say that biblical reflection may be detrimental for your Christian life.