READ : 2 Timothy 3:14-17
Objection: Christianity is based on the Bible. But isn’t the Bible an unreliable book, filled with legendary material, including all sorts of errors and mistakes? No modern, well-educated person could possibly accept what it teaches as true.
How do Christians respond to criticism of the book whose contents provide us with all our basic beliefs? Is it true that we have staked our lives on the teachings of a book (the Bible) that is full of myths and legends, and contains errors and contradictions?
These are very important questions because they touch upon the issue of authority. Different religions teach different things about God. So how do you know which are true? How do you know that the things you believe are based on reality and not fantasy? For Christians questions of truth are settled by the Bible, which is our ultimate authority. Whether it is a matter of what we should believe or how we should live, we turn to the Bible for the answer because it is God’s Word in written form. This is what we mean when we say that the Bible is revelation. It is God disclosing the truth about himself in a way that we can understand. Do Christians have good reasons for thinking this way about the Bible?
The Book of God
In the first place, we should observe that believers have always recognized the Bible to be God’s Word. Everyone knows love songs that have been written to people. Well, one of the ancient Hebrew poets wrote a love song to the Bible, and it says things like this:
Your word, O Lord, is eternal;
it stands firm in the heavens.
To all perfection I see a limit;
but your commands are boundless.
Oh, how I love your law!
I meditate on it all day long.
Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light for my path.
The unfolding of your words gives light;
it gives understanding to the simple.
All your words are true;
all your righteous laws are eternal.
I hate and abhor falsehood
but I love your law.
May my tongue sing of your word,
for all your commands are righteous.
(Psalm 119, selected verses)
Whether the psalmist calls it God’s law, his word, or his commandments, he is talking in every instance about the scriptures, the book we call the Bible. To him the Bible was unlimited perfection, all its words were righteous and true, and it was more to be desired than anything else on earth.
The same understanding of the Bible is evident in the New Testament. The apostle Paul said that all scripture, even though it was written in human words and came from the pens of various authors, nevertheless was inspired by God:
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
(2 Timothy 3:16-17, nrsv)
Peter confirmed this view when he said that the Bible came to be written as “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
And Christians of all ages and places have agreed that the Bible, unlike any other book on earth, is uniquely the Word of God. John Wesley spoke for every believer when he wrote these words, which he called “the inmost thoughts of my heart”:
I want to know one thing, the way to heaven: how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book! Oh, give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me.”
(John Wesley, from the preface to his Collected Sermons, 1747)
So here is the issue, a fundamental one: Is the Bible “the book of God,” as Wesley calls it? Or is it merely a human book, a collection of interesting stories, perhaps, or of religious precepts, a book that might be useful or even inspiring, but one that shares the limitations and imperfections of every other human writing? If it is the latter, then we can take it or leave it as we please, or take parts of it that appeal to us and discard other parts of it that do not.
However, if the Bible is God’s Word in written form, then we must accept it, all of it, and believe and obey it. In the one case, we can judge the Bible. In the other case, it must judge us.
In order to consider the evidence for the Bible’s reliability, we need to know just what Christians do believe about this book. Here are three affirmations all Bible-believing (that is to say, authentic) Christians make.
- All scripture is inspired by God. This is what Paul affirms in 2 Timothy 3:16. We sometimes speak of great poets like Shakespeare or Milton being inspired, by which we mean that they wrote in an unusually beautiful or profound fashion. But Paul does not use the term inspiration in this sense. He doesn’t say the biblical writers were inspired, but that the very words they wrote were, to translate literally, “God-breathed.” The Bible offers us “the heart of God in the words of God,” as Pope Gregory the Great said. The words of scripture have God’s breath behind them just as surely as the words I speak have my breath behind them, and it is this that sets the Bible apart from all the other words that have ever been uttered or recorded on earth.
In 2 Peter 1:21, the apostle explains how the Bible actually came to be written: “Holy men spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” So the Bible was written both by human authors and by God. If we put the question this way: “Is the Bible a human book or a divine book?” the answer is “yes.” It is both.
Christians do not believe, as some religions do, that our holy book was physically written by God and then miraculously dropped to earth from heaven. No. It was written by real people, several dozen of them, who worked over a span of fourteen or fifteen centuries and spoke different languages, living in different places and under different circumstances. Moreover, the personalities of each of these individual writers come through in their work, so that their books have different perspectives, viewpoints, and emphases. The words they wrote were not dictated to them by God in the sense that the authors merely transcribed a message that was given to them verbatim. They wrote the Bible, they did not just copy it down.
But they also wrote “as they were moved by the Holy Spirit,” so Peter can say that they “spoke from God.” The whole process of writing – in their own words and with their own insights and characteristics – was superintended by God so that in every case the result could be accurately described as God’s Word. Here is how one biblical scholar explains it:
. . . we are to think of God as preparing his agents through the years in all their dealings with him and with their fellow men. The result is words that are the words of men. They express exactly what Paul or Peter or whoever wished to write. But there is more to it than that. They are the words of men, but they are also the words of God, the words that God has prepared his servants to write!
(Leon Morris, I Believe in Revelation)
- All scripture is true. Precisely because the Bible is God-breathed, because it comes from God, its words are true; that is, they always correspond accurately with reality. God cannot lie. “Your word is truth,” exclaimed Jesus (John 17:17). The Bible never misleads us or gives us false information. It is utterly reliable and trustworthy in everything it wants to teach.
“But how do you know it is true?” someone asks. I can think of at least three pieces of evidence that witness to the uniqueness and the absolute truthfulness of the Bible. One is its wide acceptance. Before the invention of the printing press some five hundred years ago, every book had to be copied by hand, a time-consuming and very expensive process. Because of this, almost every book that has survived from the ancient world has come down to us in only a handful of copies – at most a dozen or two. But there are five thousand manuscript copies of the New Testament alone. The first book ever printed was the Bible, and from Gutenberg’s day to ours, it remains the world’s perennial best seller. The whole Bible or portions of it have been translated into more than eighteen hundred languages, and the total keeps growing every year.
Now my question is this: Why have so many countless thousands of people dedicated their lives to the preservation and distribution and translation and proclamation of this one book? Remember the old saying, “You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Why do more people read the Bible every day than all the world’s newspapers put together? Either it is the biggest hoax in human history or it is the Word of God.
Secondly, there is the Bible’s remarkable accuracy. Despite the counterclaims and criticisms offered by those who generally are predisposed to reject it, I can honestly tell you that I know of no case where the Bible in its original form has been proven to have a substantive error. On the contrary, the more we learn from history and archeology, the more ancient manuscripts we discover, the more the Bible’s historical and technical accuracy is substantiated.
Of course The Bible’s words must be interpreted according to their author’s intended meaning, and according to the usage of the ancient pre-scientific world in which they were written. Obviously, minor discrepancies may have crept into Bible manuscripts as they have been copied and translated throughout the centuries. Yes, there are things in the Bible that are difficult to understand or explain and questions that have not yet been completely answered. But there is nothing that shows it to be anything other than God’s very own Word, completely truthful throughout.
A third piece of evidence that testifies to the truth of the Bible is the fulfilled prophecies it contains. I recall reading an article about the psychics’ predictions for the coming year. Not one of the specific things they prophesied actually happened that year. Of course they didn’t, because psychics who claim to have the ability to see the future are either lying or pretending. It’s all a scam. But the Bible is filled with detailed prophecies that subsequent events have shown to be accurate down to the letter.
The most remarkable of them have to do with Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament – in a variety of books written by different authors – numerous statements were made about Jesus, all of them at least four hundred years before he was born, and every one of them came true. The place and manner of his birth, specific details of his trial and torture, his execution and burial and subsequent resurrection, all of these things are there, written down centuries beforehand and perfectly fulfilled in the events of Christ’s life. How could that be? Was it a coincidence? Or was it because the Bible is the Word of God?
- All scripture has authority. The third basic affirmation about scripture follows from the first two. All scripture is inspired, therefore all scripture is true; all scripture is true, therefore all scripture is authoritative. The Bible is useful, writes the apostle Paul, “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” What this means in the first place is that we do not make up what we want to believe about God. As Christians, we are like the soldier who came to Jesus one day – people under authority. The Bible, not speculative philosophy, teaches us the truth about who God is and what he has done to save us.
Moreover, the Bible is our authority for our practice as well as for our faith. We do not decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong. We derive our moral standards and code of behavior from the Bible. The scriptures rebuke us when we have done wrong. It is the Bible that stirs our conscience and appeals to us and sets us straight, correcting us when we go astray. God’s Word is like a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. It always shows us the right way to go in our walk with him.
Can the Bible really do all this, you may be wondering? More basically: Can I trust it? If I accept it and believe it and do what it tells me to do, will the Bible lead me to God? Well, there is only one way to find that out. Why not try it?