Any systematic look at a topic as large as Christianity will have to start somewhere basic. It is customary, for this topic, to start with who God is, and for good reason. He is the center of all we are and do, He is the source of all creation, His will guides all things. Knowing who God is must be the foundation of any study into His church and, if He is who He says He is, it must be the foundation into the study of anything He has done and made and spoken. For the Christian, it could ultimately be said, all study is theology, for we are at all times learning about something that leads inevitably back to God.
But this series is not starting with the nature of God, and may it be considered that this is also for good reason. Instead, let us begin by examining the means by which we know anything that we say about God. Throughout this series, and indeed all throughout this column, it is taken as understood that we can look to scripture to learn about these topics, and it can be trusted to deliver truth and proper revelation on them. But, as this series is meant to be an introduction to Christianity, it must be accessible to those who do not hold that view of scripture, and may not grasp why it is used in this way. There is not here room to argue how we can know the Bible to be true, so for our current purposes, this is simply a look at what it is and how it is to be used in our discussion. So, then, let this be where we begin.
There is a tale within Jainism that has become very popular in the modern Western world. It tells of six blind men attempting to come to agreement on the nature of an elephant. Each one is touching a different part of the elephant, and therefore describes it in vastly different terms. As they are arguing over their conclusions, a wise man points out to them that they are all correct, so far as they can be, and that it is when they accept the truth in each others' descriptions that they will come to a true knowledge of the elephant. This is an analogy, in which we are to understand ourselves as blind to the truth of spirituality, and must therefore accept the truth that can be described by others if we are to truly understand it. Luckily for the Jainists, this story is largely used in the manner it was intended today, as an endorsement for pluralism and the dismissal of any exclusive or concrete claims by any religious group.
But is this a valid description of our situation? Are we, in fact, blind men, groping at something that we can only grasp in part? Well, yes and no. After all, the story sounds good partially because there is, in fact, something resembling truth in it. But it grossly misrepresents our actual condition.
It is true that, left to our own devices, we would be unable to truly know God. This is true even of each other - one may learn as much as they want about the background, physical state, and location of another, but no one can truly know another person without the other consenting to let themselves be known. How much more so is it true of God, who is not a physical being and has a nature so far above us? Of course, this is not the same as knowing about God. If we can come to an understanding that there is a being who has made the universe, then we can know about that being by looking at what it has made. We can look at the universe and know that any creator must be vast, powerful, orderly, meticulous, and appreciative of beauty. Because, if these traits did not exist in the creator, then they cannot be so fundamental to the creation. We would also know that it must have had some reason to create the universe at all, because the amount of detail and work involved in the universe in which we live, if there is intervention, must have been done through careful and purposeful intervention. This makes the creator a willful being, and therefore a person, of some sort or another. So, like the blind man, we are limited in what we can feel out - and, to truly know this creator, as with truly knowing any person, we must rely on revelation.
Therefore, the correct statement isn't "we cannot truly know God," or even, "we have but this limited information by which to know God, and must trust the limited revelations of others as equally valid," but rather, "we cannot truly know God unless He chooses to reveal Himself, and then we can know with certainty all that He chooses to reveal." Because, if He chooses to enter into a relationship with us and reveal Himself and explain Himself, we are capable of knowing Him, if only we will participate.
Which brings us back to scripture. If God will speak to us, He must either do so individually, or manifest physically, or leave some record of His revelation. Christianity makes the bold claim that He has done all three. Christ, who will be addressed in His own article in this series, is the physical manifestation, the incarnation of God. He speaks to us today individually by the Holy Spirit, who will also have His own article. And He has left a record of His revelation, compiled into books by the humans to whom the revelation was given and combined into the Bible.
This is, then, the role of the Bible. It is the recorded revelation of God through messengers, friends, servants, and His incarnate Word. It is the written means by which we can know God as a person, rather than simply knowing a few things about Him and trying to work from there. It records the eyewitness accounts of those who met and spoke with and walked with Christ in His physical manifestation, as well as the lessons they learned from Him and the events and words that pointed to His coming. It works with the Spirit to beckon us closer to God and to sanctify us, that is, make us clean and more in line with the original design God has for us. We can know God through His words, and we can make claims with certainty about the things He has revealed concerning Himself. As such, we can use it as our grounds for this study into the basics of Christianity, as it records what we need to know about God and the proper response we should have to Him. Unlike the blind men in the parable, we have the elephant explained to us as we are led around to feel more than just one part of it.