key terms to describe the Bible

Words To Measure By

When used about the Bible, what's the meaning of:

Scripture Words of Measure and Reference

The Bible is the norm or yardstick.

What Measures Up?

The words described here deal with matters of authority and measure. Christians read the Bible to learn what it says about God, ourselves, and our world. It does this through the story of the history of the Israelites, of the earliest Christians, and most of all, through the reports about Jesus of Nazareth's life, death, and return to the living. We look to the Bible to tell us what it is to be a follower of Jesus the Christ, and sort out our own lives and deeds, as persons and as a gathered fellowship of followers of Jesus, based on what it tells us about that. For building the house of your life, it's more of a conceptual drawing than the technical engineering specification plan. As you regulate your way of living, the Bible's more of a constitution than a code law. (Indeed, we are instructed by the apostles not to live as if it were code law.) Even so, those who read the Bible need to read it as the expression of love that it is. It's fired up with a full measure of love for a God who first loved us. We can trust that, even if a particular thing in it is amiss, we can pledge ourselves to live and learn in the covenant with God which no other source can quite express.

The Bible as the Authority

Authority [ < Latin auctoritas, < auctor (the one who created it) < augere (to create < to grow something)]. Who/what we turn to in order to settle questions. We turn to the one(s) who made it to find out what was really said or intended.

Authority figures have wide influence in their field, sometimes using it to bring order to otherwise-chaotic situations. The Bible is held by most churches to be the sole authority for most matters of faith and Christian living. Christians can argue, but they turn to the Authority to make their case. Christians in developed countries are becoming ever more restless with the idea of an 'authority'. They fear any 'authority over' them, religious or otherwise.

But the Bible is not that. It is not a rule book. Its authors did not have many of our own questions of today in mind when they wrote it, and even where the questions were the same, the situation and the effect were at least somewhat different. They were faithfully dealing with the world as it was then, and that leads us as we faithfully deal with the world as it is now. The Bible is firstly an 'authority to' or 'authority for' rather than an 'authority over'; it has a purpose for which it and it alone is well suited. Also, there's One who is 'authority over' us (unless we are foolish and egotistical enough to think of ourselves as if we are God), and this One communicates to us firstly through the Bible. It is authoritative because of the One who stands behind it and its authors - the Author of all, the only true authority. And it is authoritative because of the report it makes, the story it tells, the truth it shares, about a loving God's dealings with our wayward species, especially about Jesus the Christ. God is re-making and redeeming this created world, through God's own love, intent, and deep involvement. The Spirit, through Scripture, tells this story and shows how God literally fleshes out what that means, by working among us and through us. The God of the Bible, through the gospel message in the Bible, gives us the 'authority to' live freely in a manner fitting to God's purposes.

There are many terms used for saying what the Bible has authority for. The most common words which describe what over the years it's the authority for are these:

Not all Christians accept the Bible's role of authority on some of these, and those that do often mean different things by it. But when they start to step away from Scripture, their answers become less rooted in the Christ of Scripture. That Christ is the one who ultimately defines the Christian faith on all these matters.


Norm [Latin norma (a carpenter's square); < assumed Indo-European gnō-. Akin to 'know', 'gnosis'] An adjective for a norm's effect is the word 'normative'. Definition: A 'norm' is something by which other things are measured and judged. When building something, a norm is used to make sure that the joints are at the proper angle, so the structure holds up. When the Bible is called the 'norm', it means that the structure of what we think, teach, and do are to measure up to the standards of Scripture. A norm helps stop us from getting carried away with ourselves and our supposed new-found wisdom. Norms have the practical effect of being something even a novice can at least start to follow, expanding on it as their wisdom grows. Many theological traditions speak in terms of the 'norming norm' or 'norm within the norm': the Gospel message of God's forgiving love in Jesus Christ. This means that all the rest of the Bible is measured according to (or is 'normed' by) Christ and the Gospel message. The Bible is the norm because of who stands behind it and whose story it tells. This puts the main focus where it belongs -- Christ, not Moses or David or Paul or John, or even the Bible itself.

A word like it is 'basis' (a basic foundational principle; an underlying state of affairs).

The term 'normal' originally meant 'according to the measure', or 'fitting the established pattern'. But in typical daily talk, it means 'average', 'typical', 'usual', 'everyday', and 'common'....(yawn).... The Bible is not 'normal' in this sense. It's quite unique and unusual, even though it takes place in the rough-and-tumble world we live in. What it tells us is in many ways different than what we take in from our 'normal' world. The world and the Bible operate under different norms, and it is the world that's askew.
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You can also check out how the defines 'norm'.


Standard [ < Old French estandard (a place to make a stand or rally the troops; a stronghold), < assumed Frankish standhard- (stand firm, hold fast)] To make something conform to a standard is to 'standardize' it. Definition: something used for measuring, or for evaluating how good other things are. A standard is chosen because its quality is already known and highly esteemed. When there is a need to have things of the same size, shape, or content, the product is made according to the chosen standard, and is called 'standardized'. Because we know that the parts in a design meet the standard, we can trust that each part will fit right and make for a better whole. The Bible's quality has been established as a standard by thousands of years of use, and by its ability to surprise us and prompt us to change even today. As with the other terms about the Bible's quality level, its being a 'standard' comes not so much by the work itself, or by the church leaders who first called it the standard, but by the One who stands behind it. Other terms with a meaning like 'standard' are 'benchmark', 'yardstick', 'norm', 'gauge', 'criterion', 'specification', and 'scale'.

The Bible's effect on a believer's behavior is sometimes described as a 'pattern'. That works if by 'pattern' they do not mean a precise or exact form. A pattern can intentionally look nearly the same at a distance yet may have many differences when seen up close. There are many different ways to make the same overall pattern.

There are three similar words to 'standard' worthy of note: model, canon, and touchstone.


A related word is 'canon', which is Greek for 'measuring rod', probably from Greek kanna ('stiff reed'). In our times, the term usually refers to the books of the Bible. The books as collected together are called "canonical Scripture", or "canon", for short. The list of measuring-stick books are different with different believers: the Catholics and Orthodox have more books in the First Covenant (OT), often called the Apocrypha. Jews have several 'layers' of their Scriptural tradition: the five books of Moses come first, then the prophets, the histories, and the writings (such as Job, Psalms and Proverbs). The common factor is that in the first few centuries of the Church, these were the materials they discovered to be for building the mind of faith and the community which lives it. That is, the Spirit did its most definitive work through these writings. Then, the Church faced major challenges on matters of faith, and officially recognized the role of the written witnesses that led them through it. This is the Bible we now have today.

This selection or 'canon' bears witness to the work of God among humans, as well as the work of humans who do not regard God. The witness is born through different writings, stories, songs, reports. Each has its own part of the message, and each has a track record of their impact on the believing community. What is most helpful now may well be less helpful a generation or a century from now - and then be central again to the next one. That means if we just get rid of or ignore the parts we don't favor now, we do so at the peril of those who come after us. Those witnesses may be needed for what is to come, as God so chooses. That is why they are kept in the canon.

There are also some writings which aren't part of a formal canon and aren't intended to be canon, but are sometimes used as a 'second-order' tool to measure things up. The Talmud is not a 'canon', but a resource of continuous discussion of matters of living the life of Jewish faith; even so, the Mishnah has some measuring-stick effects. For Muslims, their canon is the Quran, but they have very distinctive interpretive traditions in which certain early interpreters of the Quran, and their schools of thought, hold much sway on today's Muslim practice. For creedal Christians, the ecumenical creeds have some measuring-stick uses, but the use is derivative. The creeds are norms only by being a short version of the key truths taught by the canonical Scriptures. Roman Catholics use the term 'Canon' to describe how official dogma serves in a measuring-stick role.

Whenever you hear things about what the Bible says about canonical Scripture, remember that the Scriptures Jesus, John, James and Paul referred to are "the Law and the Prophets", not the Gospels, Acts, or Paul's letters, and may or may not have included some of the later First Testament 'Writings'.
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the Bible as a Model

model [Latin modulus (small measure), from modus (mode, measure, manner); from assumed Indo-European mod-o- < med- (to measure, to take appropriate measures)]

  1. an example for purposes of imitation or emulation, or proposed as being worthy of such. The Bible contains in it the lives of Jewish holy men, most notably Jesus. If nothing tells us how Jesus lived, we could not know, we'd be left with emulating our lives based on poor guesses. Jesus Himself was in a sense, a model of God - he was what God is like in a way humans can grasp and be touched by. Also, the writings themselves model for us an element that marks the Christian community: many authors, over many centuries, with many different points of view, all pointing to the same thing. So it is with the Christian community today, sometimes in spite of itself.
  2. a description or analogy used to help visualize something (such as an electron) that is not directly observed. The truth is, we don't live when Jesus did. So the New Testament leads us to envision how it was, to picture God in terms of body and clothes and dirt and strain and blood, a human model of God. And it gives us many ways to envision God's Kingdom.

The Bible as Touchstone

Touchstone: a dark stone (like basalt or jasper) used as a standard or norm for figuring out the quality of precious metals. The metal would be drawn across the stone, and the streak would be compared with the streak of a standardized alloy to see if it was at least as good. A Greek word, básanos has this meaning, but Luke 16 uses only its folk-meaning of 'tormented' or 'tortured'. In the *Formula of Concord* (Epitome, Rule & Norm, 7), Lutherans described the Scriptures as the touchstone by which all teaching must be recognized and judged. This leads to the question, how does my life and thinking streak out on the Bible touchstone?
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