Core commitment 1: Graciously and uncompromisingly evangelical

tax-refund-advanceWe will remain graciously and uncompromisingly evangelical:

  • Everything we are and everything we do must be rooted in, centered on and permeated by the evangel, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
  • Before anything else, we are worshipers of God, disciples of Jesus Christ, and are to love him with all of our hearts, souls, strength and minds.
  • The Scriptures must remain the continual, ultimate authority and standard for our faith and lives as individual believers and as a church.
  • We must not allow ourselves to be co-opted by any other identity. While remaining absolutely committed to the biblical Christian faith, we will seek to be intentionally diverse racially, culturally, politically, generationally and socioeconomically.
  • We must speak the truth in love. We should strive to be loving and gracious in interacting with our community; we don’t expect a non-Christian world to live like Christ. But we also must not compromise or lay aside biblical truth to seek to be more acceptable to the world around us. Real love and truth are inseparable. To over-emphasize either love or truth at the expense of the other is to risk losing both.
  • We will strive for complete unity regarding the essential truths of the gospel, and provide as much freedom as possible concerning secondary issues. We’ll only take a definitive position on debated, secondary issues when it’s necessary for mutual fellowship and ministry as a church.

Using study Bibles: Two dangers to avoid

MSC1401AI’m a big fan of study Bibles. I’ve written about them before and shared many of the benefits of using a study Bible. These resources are especially helpful for those just beginning to study the Bible for themselves. It’s like having a teacher right there with you helping you understand more of the background and the context for biblical books and passages. Study Bibles can be invaluable when beginning to more deeply understand the meaning of Scripture.

But, as with many other useful tools, there are potential dangers when using study Bibles. It’s good for people to know how to use study Bibles in a proper, healthy way—and how not to use them. Here are two danger we want to avoid:

Referring to the study notes every time we read the Bible.
The notes in study Bibles can be incredibly helpful. When we’re having trouble understanding what a certain passage is saying, we can turn to the corresponding note and get more insight into its meaning. But these notes are so helpful, we can begin to automatically stop after each verse and read its note. That’s not a bad thing if we’re studying a certain section in depth, but we need to remember that the Bible is meant to be read. We’re supposed to get a feel for the whole book, to follow the author’s flow of thought. This is really hard to do if we get bogged down reading each study note.

I was recently reading Don Quixote. This classic book was written in the early 17th century, and it refers to things that would have been meaningful to people living in the same time and place as the author, but didn’t mean anything to me now. The edition I was reading included a lot of footnotes. These footnotes were helpful in explaining the historical meaning and significance of these references. The problem was the more I checked the notes, the more I fell out of the rhythm of the story and language of the author. I began to lose the “forest” of the author’s story for the “trees” of the historical references.

So what do we do? Fortunately, this isn’t an either/or choice. We need to do both! Let’s say you’re going to read Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Here’s one way to approach it: Read the introductory information in your study Bible so you have a good, basic understanding of who is writing, to whom they’re writing, the historical and spiritual context of the letter, etc. After that, read through the actual letter without stopping to read the study notes. There will probably be much you don’t understand, but you’ll begin to get a feel for the whole letter and how it fits together.

Dense-forestAfter this, go back and read the letter bit by bit, especially digging into the passages you don’t understand. The study notes can now help you clarify what these passages mean and what they don’t mean. Once you have a fairly solid comprehension of the shorter passages in the book, read the whole letter again in one sitting. You’ll then see even more clearly how it all flows togethers. But remember, we don’t learn everything about a passage of Scripture by studying it once (or a hundred times!). Studying the Bible is a lifelong process of gaining understanding and wisdom. The Scriptures continually draw us closer to God and help us grow more like him.

Using a study Bible as our authoritative standard for what is right and true.
[This builds on my previous post.] Have you ever been part of a Bible study, and every time a question was asked someone in the study simply read the note in their study Bible? (Or maybe you’ve been the person doing this!) Sometimes we assume that the notes in our study Bible should settle the discussion. After all, they were written by experts, right?

I said above that a study Bible was like having a teacher right there with you helping you understand the context and meaning of the Scriptures. And this is true. But remember, no human teacher is infallible and free from error. The Bible itself is divinely inspired and inerrant—but the study notes are not! They’re very helpful, but they’re not part of the inspired text of Scripture. We need to keep this distinction clear.

Once we know this, it won’t throw us for a loop when people have two different study Bibles with two different views on a particular passage! The study Bible notes are written by people, and sometimes people disagree about what a biblical passage means. Even more importantly, sometimes people can be wrong.  Study Bible notes are there to help us understand the meaning of Scripture; they’re not there to determine for us the meaning of Scripture. We shouldn’t arrogantly think we can study the Bible in isolation and just ignore what all other Christians have studied in the Scriptures for the last 2000 years. But we do still need to do some thinking for ourselves!

The more experienced we become in studying the Bible, the more we’ll be skilled in comparing and sorting out the different views on certain passages. We need to be like the Bereans in Acts 17:11:

And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.

Notice these people listened eagerly to the message, but then did the work of studying to confirm the truth of what they’d been taught. This is how we can find balance when we’re taught or when we read things like the notes in our study Bibles. We need to ‘listen eagerly,’ but then ‘search the Scriptures to see if what we’re taught is the truth.’ Study Bibles provide many wonderful resources, but be careful not to turn them into some kind of idol or absolute authority. A note in a study Bible is a helpful tool for studying the Word of God, but it’s not itself the Word of God.

And, once again, this ‘listening eagerly and searching the Scriptures’ is an ongoing, lifelong process for the believer. Learning how to use a study Bible is really just the beginning. Welcome to the adventure!

Arguments against inerrancy that don’t work: “But we don’t have the original manuscripts”

woman-shrugging-shoulders-oMost evangelical Christians believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. By this we mean the Bible is completely without error in everything it affirms as true, including details of history or science. It’s not uncommon to hear some of us stipulate that it’s the original manuscripts (or what we call the ‘autographs’) that are inerrant. And it’s just as common to hear the challenge of those who reject inerrancy: “Yeah, but we no longer have these supposedly inerrant original manuscripts. So what good does that do us now?” Is this as devastating a problem for inerrancy as they seem to think? Let’s take a closer look at this challenge.

(I should first point out that we don’t have the original manuscript of any piece of literature from antiquity. All we have are copies. I don’t want anyone to think that the manuscript evidence for the Bible is somehow deficient. Actually the New Testament is the most well-attested literature we have from antiquity. For more on this, see here.)

Underlying this challenge is a bit of confusion that is actually quite easy to clarify. Is it the physical materials constituting the original manuscripts (which we no longer have) that are inerrant? No, of course not. It’s not as if we’re seeking to venerate the physical manuscripts as some kind of holy relics. So, what are we claiming is inerrant? The text of the original manuscripts. It’s what was written on these autographs that is inerrant, not the manuscripts themselves. Do we still have the text that was written on the original manuscripts?

Before answering that, let’s make sure we understand the implications. This is another case where the evangelical critics of inerrancy are arguing too much. According to their view, Scripture does not need to be inerrant, but it is divinely inspired and theologically infallible. But what exactly are they claiming is inspired and infallible? The written Scriptures. (Note that I’m referring to evangelical critics of inerrancy, who would still hold to an authoritative text of Scripture.) And what do we need today if we are to read the inspired, infallible Scriptures? We need translations that faithfully relay the inspired and infallible message of Scripture as originally written.

Do you see the problem here? If, as these critics claim, we no longer have the original inerrant text—because we don’t have the autographs—then we also no longer have the original inspired text or the original infallible text! You can’t have it both ways. Both sides are just as dependent on a faithfully preserved text that conveys the original reading of Scripture. I don’t know any evangelical critic of inerrancy who would accept the idea of an unreliable Bible that isn’t divinely inspired or infallible. Once again, we see them trying to saw off the branch on which we both sit—even if they don’t realize it.

Thankfully, we can be very secure in our reading of Scripture. For instance, less than 1% of the New Testament is in any doubt as to its original reading. And most of these uncertain passages involve very minor differences in wording. There are no Christian teachings that rely on this minuscule group of passages.

Then why do inerrantists make this caveat? This is simply to remind all of us: It is the original text that is inspired, infallible and inerrant. This keeps us from designating one translation (such as the Latin Vulgate or the King James Version) as the standard. It keeps us doing the hard work of faithfully translating the original text so that we can read the inspired, infallible and inerrant Scriptures.

So is the lack of original manuscripts a problem for an inerrant text? No more so than it’s a problem for an inspired or infallible text. To the extent our Bibles faithfully translate the original text of Scripture, to that same extent we confidently read today the inspired, infallible and inerrant message that was written down by the biblical authors.

A Bible that’s infallible but not inerrant: A credible option?

magnifying-glass-162886_640Is the Bible completely without error, or is it sometimes mistaken about historical or cosmological details? And just how significant is this question? If you do much reading or discussing with other Christians, you’ve probably encountered the growing controversy regarding the nature of Scripture. Part of the divide between evangelical Christians and liberal Protestants in the early 20th century involved their respective views of Scripture. Increasingly today, though, this is a debate taking place between evangelicals.

The primary views have coalesced around two identifying terms: inerrancy and infallibility. The way these words are used can be confusing to those new to this debate because they’re usually defined as synonyms. But among evangelicals the words have taken on differing nuances. The traditional (many would say historical) view is that Scripture is both infallible and inerrant—meaning that it is both trustworthy in accomplishing God’s purpose and also completely free from error in everything it affirms, including details of history and science. Most who hold this view believe it follows naturally and necessarily from the divine inspiration of the Bible; if all Scripture is God-breathed it must be both infallibly trustworthy and free from error.

The differing view is that the Bible is completely trustworthy and infallible as far as its theological message is concerned, but that it was never intended to be free from incidental and mistaken details of history or science (and that it does indeed include such errors). Some label this view as “partial inerrancy,” the difference being how much of Scripture is error-free, and from what kinds of error the Bible was preserved.

The purpose of this post is not to argue for or against inerrancy (so please resist doing so in the comments). Discussions about the infallibility view tend to become focused entirely on disproving or defending inerrancy. But my interest here is to explore the question (regardless of whether the Bible actually contains error): Is the infallibility view even a plausible option? Here are a few reasons why I haven’t found this view to be credible:

Special pleading
You’ve heard the old saying: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” It means the rules for you should be the same as the rules for me. If I’m allowed a certain leeway, so should you be. To apply a different set of rules for me than is generally applied for everyone else is called “special pleading.” The proponents of the infallibility view are asking for a level of trustful acceptance I don’t think they would ordinarily accord other religions. Let’s be clear, we’re being asked to accept writings that allegedly contain blatant factual errors as divinely-inspired and infallible Scripture. But would any of us so easily dismiss errors in the Book of Mormon, or inconsistencies in the Qur’an?

Imagine a group of people claiming that Gandhi was God incarnate, that he rose from the dead and that all people must be saved through faith in him. They further claim that his closest followers wrote accounts of his death and resurrection, and these accounts tell of his teachings, of the nature of salvation, and give instructions regarding how his followers should corporately live out this faith. But—they say—these aren’t just the fallible, human writings of these people, they constitute the divinely-inspired Scriptures that infallibly explain and define spiritual truth and that authoritatively determine the community life of Gandhi’s followers. So you check out these writings, but you begin to notice far too many blatant mistakes and contradictions regarding pertinent historical details and matters of science. Now, you might still consider these accounts as historically significant, and you may even regard them as containing spiritual insights—but would you accept them as the infallible words of God himself? I think that’s doubtful. If you truly believe these writings contain errors, it’s unlikely you’ll accept them as completely divine. (Witness both the challenges to the Book of Mormon and its defense.)

Not long ago a prominent scholar was asked why he believes in an infallible, but not inerrant, Bible. He answered that he believes this about Scripture because of the internal witness he’s received from the Spirit. Others challenged him that this sounds disturbingly similar to the Mormon “burning in the bosom” (which is supposed to confirm to skeptics that Mormonism is true). They asked how the two are different. His response? “One is from God and the other isn’t[!]” This puts us in the untenable position of telling the Mormon ‘my subjective inner feeling is valid but yours is not.’ And what of those who have an inner testimony from the Spirit that the Scriptures are inerrant? This is special pleading, applying different standards to one’s own view. To use a different old expression, it’s “trying to have one’s cake and eat it too.” In my days as a skeptic, I would never have accepted this idea of a factually errant but divinely infallible Scripture, from either a Latter-day Saint or an evangelical Christian. I would not have found either remotely credible.

A “lesser to greater” problem
When Jesus was taking with Nicodemus, he asked him (in John 3:12):

If you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things,
how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things?

That’s a good question. Some protest that we trust textbooks and the constitution without them necessarily being 100% error-free. But these people are missing the point. No one accepts our constitution or a textbook as divinely inspired Scripture. We don’t grant them the same kind of authority in our lives as the Bible. If a textbook is wrong, we correct it. If the constitution is inadequate, we amend it. It’s not the origin of these documents that gives them even their limited authority—it’s our acceptance and affirmation of them as a society. Unless we’re to accept the Bible as merely a majority-ratified authority that can be amended and modified when we feel the need, the comparison is not valid. And this leaves us with a similar question to the one above:

If the Bible can’t be trusted to tell us about earthly things without error,
how can we possibly trust it to tell us about heavenly things without error?

Can I get a witness?
As I mentioned above, the case for infallibility seems to be all about the case against inerrancy. Every time I’ve asked why someone holds this view I get an earful about why inerrancy is all wrong. Maybe they’re right. Maybe the Bible contains undeniable error. The problem is that disproving inerrancy does absolutely nothing to establish infallibility. Yet these discussions inexorably lead to attacking inerrancy (often using very poor reasoning, but that’s another post).

The only reason I’ve heard for accepting this view is the claim of some subjective inner feeling (as I mentioned above), or the indignant reminder that the Bible is both divine and human. I guess this is meant to prove that Scripture necessarily contains error because of its human aspect. But Jesus was both divine and human, yet he never sinned. Why is this not similar with the written Word of God? Why can Scripture not be both divine and human, yet without error? We still await a case to be made, and simply saying that Scripture is also human doesn’t establish anything. Why would God supernaturally preserve the human writing of Scripture from any theological error but not bother to preserve it from factual error (especially when factual error would call into question the veracity of the theological content)? Assuming, for the sake of discussion, that the Bible does contain these historical and/or cosmological errors—we still need answers to these questions:

Why should we accept factually erroneous writing as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture?

How can you have God-breathed error?

I’m still waiting for a positive case for this idea.

h-armstrong-roberts-1960s-man-in-tree-sawing-off-the-branch-he-is-sitting-onMay be arguing too much
If the inerrancy of Scripture follows naturally from divinely inspired Scripture, and if there’s no plausible reason to accept erroneous writings as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture, then errantists may be unintentionally undermining the foundation of their own beliefs. They may be trying to saw off the branch on which we both sit. That would be ironic and sad.

Where do you draw the line?
To what extent is a factually erroneous Bible authoritative? Who decides what is sufficiently theological and therefore infallible? It’s interesting that some (please note the “some”) egalitarians have concluded that Paul was simply wrong about his views on gender-distinctive roles. I assume Peter was wrong too. They were apparently basing their teachings on their cultural understandings rather than divine inspiration. Of course, this isn’t just historical minutiae we’re talking about now, but the life of the church. Given Paul’s theological defense of these distinctive roles, do we now have theological error in the Bible? And if they were wrong about this, why not homosexuality? If we aren’t tied to the explicit content of the written text, who determines just how far some “progressive” trajectory flows beyond it? If the apostles could be bound to their cultural understandings of these issues, why not the concept of hell, or the exclusivity of Christ, or penal substitutionary atonement, or justification by faith? If we know the Bible affirms things as true that are not, then how do we determine what is true and what is not? Where do you draw the line, and on what basis do you draw it there?

I’m not saying that anyone who denies inerrancy cannot be a sincere evangelical Christian. I’m also not saying there’s an unavoidable slippery slope from a rejection of inerrancy into liberalism. There are many wonderful Christians who do not accept the idea of inerrancy. Thankfully, many of these brothers and sisters continue to view the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, and they seek to draw their theology and practices from Scripture. I appreciate their dependence on Scripture, but I believe it to be inconsistent with their rejection of inerrancy. I think to the extent they are thinking and living biblically it is despite their rejection of inerrancy. Actually, many of these believers live as functional inerrantists even though they dismiss inerrancy. They enjoy the residual security of the very doctrine they deny.

Sadly though, we have example after example of individuals, schools and denominations that began by questioning the inerrancy of Scripture and eventually came to question the very tenants of the faith. This slip may not be inevitable, but I don’t think any can deny it has happened, and happened far too many times. You may be able to reject the idea of an inerrant Bible and remain orthodox in your beliefs, but what of those who follow you and adopt your views of Scripture? What if they reject more than you do? What if they “correct” more of Scripture than you do? Within the parameters of your view, how can you defend against a slip into liberalism? (And who’s to say you even should?)

Please don’t misunderstand the last paragraph. I’m not arguing that because of some danger to our precious evangelicalism we must circle the wagons and defend inerrancy to the death. What I am saying is that we need to be completely honest about the options available to us. If the Bible is errant, then we need to be forthright about the consequences. Consider these propositions:

1. Because the Bible is divinely inspired it is infallible and inerrant Scripture.

2. Because the Bible is divinely inspired it is infallible Scripture even though it contains undeniable error.

3. The Bible contains undeniable error and so is not divinely inspired Scripture (although it may still be of historical and spiritual value).

Scripture that is divinely inspired, and therefore infallible and inerrant, makes perfect sense. This view is consistent and logical. On the other hand, a Bible that is simply the writings of well-intentioned followers of Jesus could also make sense. These writings could still be of great historical value and they could contain profound spiritual insights—but they would be no more “inspired” than the writings of AW Tozer or DA Carson. They wouldn’t be factually inerrant or theologically infallible. They would only be authoritative to the extent we accept them as authoritative.

I don’t believe the third option, but it’s consistent and plausible. Either option 1 or 3 would make sense depending on the actual errancy or inerrancy of the Bible. But a claim that factually erroneous writing can somehow be God-breathed and theologically infallible seems irrational. This is the completely subjective blind leap, plugging our ears and closing our eyes against the evidence and yelling, ‘But it’s still infallible.’ I don’t reject the second iStock_000016462169XSmallproposition simply because I don’t like it or don’t believe it, but because it’s incredible (i.e. unbelievable). If you truly believe the Bible to contain factual error, then I challenge you to have the intellectual consistency and courage to follow your belief to its logical conclusion.

Notice again that disproving inerrancy doesn’t establish the second option over the third. Those who hold to the second proposition are alone in denying any connection between inerrancy and divine inspiration. Everyone else would see this as special pleading and irrational. Merely scoffing at the idea of such a connection is inadequate. If you hold this view you need to present a positive case why any one should accept it. I invite you to answer this simple question:

Why should we accept factually erroneous writing as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture?

What do we do with difficult Scripture passages?

I could tell he was reluctant to ask his question, but I encouraged him that any sincere question was welcome. He seemed shocked at himself for actually expressing his doubt aloud, but he blurted out anyway: “I just don’t understand how this kind of verse can be the Word of God!” The passage that was troubling him was Psalm 137:8-9:

O Babylon, you will be destroyed.
Happy is the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who takes your babies
and smashes them against the rocks!

The first thing I said in response was that I would be troubled by anyone who didn’t find this passage disturbing! I could immediately see the relief on his face. He later explained that he was afraid we would think he was some kind of heretic or atheist because he dared to even wonder about a particular verse of Scripture. We went on to discuss this passage in its context. But before I share more with you about this specific case, I want to step back and look at this more general question: What do we do when we run across a passage of Scripture that really troubles us or even makes us doubt? How do we handle it when it seems the Bible might be wrong?

When facing such a problem, it’s easy to fall into one of two extremes. We can just rely on blind, irrational faith, insisting that if the Bible says it—no matter how illogical or silly it sounds—then it’s true. The problem with this approach is that we may be holding sacred our own mistaken idea of what the Scriptures are saying, not what the Bible actually communicates. (We’ll see some examples of this below.)

But then, at the slightest hint the Scriptures might be in error, we could also simply reject the Bible as inspired or infallible. We can assume that all the critics are right and the Bible is a merely human book, describing the beliefs of people in the distant past. The problem with doing this is that the Bible has a long track record of refuting its critics. (We’ll see some examples of this below also.) If we too easily reject the Scriptures, we might find ourselves rejecting the very Word of God.

So what do we do? It’s interesting that even Christians in the relatively early history of the church had to face difficult passages of Scripture. Sixteen hundred years ago, the pastor and scholar Augustine described how he approached these kinds of challenges. His methods are still sound for us today, and we’re going to look at each of his three suggestions. But we begin with a fourth step I’ve added (with which I’m sure Augustine would agree):

1. Pray
It often goes without saying, but the first step in studying the Bible—especially when struggling with something difficult to understand—should always be to pray. If the Bible was written through the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then we need the illumination of the Spirit to properly interpret the Scriptures. We need to humbly ask God to help us understand the heart of what he’s telling us in his Word.

2. Check the translation
It’s easy for us to get the wrong understanding of a Scripture passage because of an unclear translation. This is especially true of older translations that use more archaic English. I love the King James Version. I grew up with it; it was the only Bible I knew for years. But I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me with a passage they don’t understand in the KJV. When I show them the passage in another, more clear translation, the response is usually, “Ohhhhhh, that’s what this means.”

For instance, many people are confused by Jesus’ desire to “suffer the little children [Matthew 19:14],” not realizing that today this would be expressed as “allow the little children” or “don’t prevent the little children.” So if you’re reading something that doesn’t make sense, try reading it in a different translation. Many times, reading the same passage in different words can help you better understand the passage.

3. Check the notes
Augustine would say ‘check the manuscripts.’ This sounds overly technical and even intimidating to many ordinary Christians today. Thankfully, we can all check the manuscripts; all it takes is reading the notes in our Bibles. If you check the little footnotes in your Bible, you’ll see a few of them that say something like: “The oldest and most reliable manuscripts do not contain this passage.” These notes refer to verses that the vast majority of biblical scholars agree were accidentally added to the text centuries after it was originally written. We know these passages shouldn’t be included as Scripture. Here’s an example from John 5:4 (from the KJV):

For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

This was apparently someone’s attempt to explain why the people were trying so hard to get into the pool. At first, this explanation was written in the margin, but it eventually was incorporated into the text itself. But—by comparing all the thousands of manuscripts we have available—textual scholars can ascertain the original reading and the spurious addition (and even determine the general timeframe when it was added). So we don’t have to accept this odd and superstitious reading as part of John’s Gospel.

Another example is the reference to handling snakes in Mark 16:18. Here again, practically all biblical scholars agree that this section of Mark was not part of the original. So after making sure you understand the translation of a difficult passage, check for notes to make sure it was genuinely part of the original text. (Anything that was added is likely to be problematic [like snake-handling], but be careful; just because a text is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not part of the original!)

4. Work to truly understand the passage
If you’ve verified that the translation actually means what it seems to mean, and there are no notes in your Bible indicating the passage isn’t authentic, then it’s time to push up your sleeves and do the work necessary to properly understand the passage. While the essentials of the gospel are crystal clear in Scripture, not everything is as easy to immediately grasp. Speaking of Paul’s letters to the churches, Peter wrote that “some of his comments are hard to understand [2 Peter 3:16].”

In passages such as John 6, we see Jesus teaching things to the people that were difficult to hear and accept. He knew that many of them were following him for superficial reasons, not because they understood the spiritual significance of what he said and did. So he would occasionally teach hard truths, to distinguish between those who had “ears to hear,” and those who weren’t willing to truly hear. We need to not reject a passage right away just because it disturbs or confuses us. We first need to make sure we accurately understand the passage.

In the passage we began with, Psalm 137:8-9, who is speaking? It’s not God. The author is one of the refugees from conquered, destroyed Jerusalem. He’s a Jew who now lives in the land of his conquerors: Babylon. He is overwrought with what has befallen his people and his homeland, and he longs for vengeance against the people of Babylon. He cries out for them to experience the same horrific fate they’ve perpetrated upon his people. The psalm is very expressive and even moving in places, but it doesn’t express the heart of God; it dramatically expresses the heart of these devastated Jewish refugees. Once we’ve done the work to understand the passage in context, it still disturbs us, but we don’t have to accept it as the will of God. [For more on this, see The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us.]

An earned benefit of the doubt
We don’t want to fall back on a blind, subjective faith in Scripture. On the other hand, we need to realize how often the Bible has proven itself accurate against the attacks of the critics. A classic example concerns the existence of the Hittites. The Old Testament refers many times to these people, portraying them as a major power and sometimes foe of Israel. Not long ago, if you had suggested in a secular university that this biblical portrayal was historically relevant, you would have been laughed out of class. Everyone knew the Hittites were a biblical myth, at most a minor, insignificant local tribe. That is until a few decades ago, when archaeologists began uncovering confirmation of the Hittite empire. As it turns out, these Hittites had a rich, longstanding culture, they were dominant over a widespread territory, the other major powers of the region considered them a threat, and they existed during the same timeframe the Bible describes. Score one for Scripture.

This same kind of scenario has played out again and again. Many times the Bible has proven itself to be far more accurate than the supposed “experts.” This doesn’t mean we should just assume it can never be wrong, especially in our interaction with skeptics and unbelievers. But it does mean that none of us should too quickly dismiss the claims of Scripture because of the current consensus of skeptical critics. We need to resist the temptation of a knee-jerk reaction, either in support of a particular reading of the Bible or in opposition to it. Especially for those who are followers of Christ, we must:

Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:15

Believing the Bible series:

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible

The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote?

Why we can trust the Bible

What do we do with difficult Scripture passages? [see above]

Why we can trust the Bible

If I asked you, “Why do you believe the Bible?” some of you might respond by sharing your personal experiences, how the Holy Spirit confirmed the truth of God’s Word within your spirit. You might describe how he helped you to just know that the Scriptures are the infallible Word of God. I have no interest in challenging this kind of assurance because I know the Spirit does work like this in our hearts and minds. But is this the only reason for trusting the Bible?

Imagine if you were talking with a Mormon. He asks you why you believe the Bible is the Word of God, and so you share your Spirit-given assurance. He responds by telling you about how he prayed to God to let him know if the Book of Mormon was really true, and how he felt a “burning in his bosom” from God that assured him the Book of Mormon was indeed the Word of God. What now? Do your spiritual experiences cancel out each other? Are both conclusions true (even though they contradict each other)? It seems we need some objective criteria in seeking to determine the validity of the Bible.

Start with Jesus
In establishing the authority of Scripture in the life of the believer, I don’t begin with the Bible itself, but with Jesus. The historic Christian faith is based on the person of Jesus Christ. And even without an inerrant Bible, we can have complete faith in Christ. For instance, we have very convincing historical evidence confirming not only the existence of Jesus, but the historical events of his ministry, crucifixion, burial and physical resurrection. [For more on this, you can see my series on the historical Jesus, beginning with In search of Jesus. I’ve neglected this series for too long, but hope to add to it soon.]

Many scholars who study Jesus and early Christianity don’t believe the New Testament is divinely inspired or infallible, but most of them still accept the New Testament Gospels as generally reliable historical sources. Not only do we know historically that the earliest Christians worshiped Jesus as God, but we’re also challenged by Jesus’ own teachings as recorded by people who heard him. These statements are so striking they’ve caused people such as CS Lewis to make observations like this one:

I am trying here to prevent the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else He would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Lewis later concluded: “Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

[I realize I’ve just barely scratched the surface regarding the historical evidence for Jesus, and that I haven’t addressed here any of the counter arguments. This is why I’m devoting an entire series to this topic. I would encourage you to be clear about what you believe about Jesus before tackling the exact nature of Scripture. I believe in the Bible because I believe in Jesus, not the other way around.]

I believe in the Bible because I believe in Jesus.

But how is this emphasis on Jesus relevant to our current questions regarding the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture? Well, if we accept the New Testament Gospels as generally historically reliable (as most scholars do), and if we’re convinced by the historical evidence concerning who Jesus was and what he did, and if we want to follow Jesus and pattern our lives after him, then what Jesus believed and taught about the Scriptures becomes incredibly important. And we get a clear picture of his views on the pages of the New Testament Gospels.

Jesus’ view of Scripture
It doesn’t take long in our reading of the Gospels before we see how Jesus consistently relied on and appealed to the Scriptures. When he is tempted repeatedly by Satan in the wilderness, each time he responds with the words of Scripture (Matthew 4:1-11).  We see this appeal to the authority of Scripture in his frequent challenge “Have you not read . . . [e.g. Matthew 12:3; 22:31; Mark 12:10].”

When Jesus is challenged by the Sadducees, he responds by telling them, “Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures [Matthew 12:29].” He goes on to quote a specific passage of Scripture and use this passage to teach definitively about the resurrection from the dead and the nature of God. In Matthew 15:1-9, Jesus challenges an unbiblical practice of the Pharisees, saying, “You cancel the Word of God for the sake of your own tradition.” In other words, he uses the Scriptures to determine the validity of someone else’s spiritual practice. In John 10:22-42, Jesus quotes a certain passage of Scripture, emphasizes a single, specific word, and then insists that “the Scriptures cannot be altered.”

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, he spoke to two disciples who didn’t realize who he was. Finally, Jesus lovingly rebuked their hopelessness:

“You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Luke 24:25-27 

Over and over again, we see the place of absolute trustworthiness and authority the Scriptures held in the life and ministry of Jesus. One could be excused for describing Jesus’ view of the Scriptures as “evangelical.” It seems apparent that we should follow him in his devotion to the Scriptures.

Jesus’ apostles
In Matthew 10:1 (and parallel passages), Jesus chooses 12 of his followers to be his apostles. Later, Paul and James are also described as apostles of Christ. What does it mean to be an apostle? One aspect of their ministry is fairly common to us today. We’re very familiar with someone representing and speaking for another person or group, and even exercising authority in their name. If a US ambassador or the Secretary of State speaks to a foreign government in an official capacity, everyone understands they speak with the authority of the US president.

This is what the apostles were; they were official, personally-commissioned represent-atives of Jesus Christ. They taught and wrote his words with his authority. This is intrinsic to the role of the apostle, and it was universally understood in the 1st century church. This is why, in their letters, both Paul and Peter identify themselves as apostles of Christ. This is why they write with authority, instructing the believers regarding salvation and the Christian life.

This is why Paul could remind the Corinthians that what he wrote was a command from the Lord himself (1 Corinthians 14:37). This is why he explains how God was revealing his eternal plan through his apostles and prophets (Ephesians 3:1-5). This is why they could make demands in the name of Christ (1 Thessalonians 2:6; Philemon 1:8). This is why, though Paul sought to lead in humility and gentleness, he makes clear that he will exercise his apostolic authority for the sake of the flock (2 Corinthians 13:2-10). This is why they could decisively and authoritatively correct false teaching (for a clear example of this, see the entire letter to the Galatians). And this why they could praise the Thessalonians with these words:

Therefore, we never stop thanking God that when you received his message from us, you didn’t think of our words as mere human ideas. You accepted what we said as the very word of God—which, of course, it is. And this word continues to work in you who believe.

1 Thessalonians 1:13

And the Thessalonians weren’t alone in this. From the very beginning, the followers of Jesus “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [Acts 2:42].” Years later, Peter would write this about the letters of Paul:

This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture.

2 Peter 3:15-16

Did you notice how Peter includes Paul’s letters with “other parts of Scripture”? The earliest believers universally followed this devotion to, and adherence of, these apostolic writings, viewing them as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture.

The Bible’s claims about itself
The Old Testament is filled with strong claims about its own authority. But let’s look at two claims from the New Testament:

Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, these prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God.

2 Peter 1:20-21

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

Now, don’t misunderstand. We’re not saying we have to believe the Bible is the Word of God because it says it’s the Word of God. We don’t want to return to the circular reasoning we discussed a few weeks ago. But the Bible does make some very strong claims about itself. These claims challenge us just as the statements of Jesus challenge us. These claims demand that we make a tough choice: Is the Bible what it claims to be, or not?

If these claims are wrong, they’re either the diabolical rantings of 1st century charlatans, or the grandiose fantasies of well-intentioned, but self-deluded, fanatics. The idea that the Scriptures are not truly the inspired, inerrant Word of God, but that they’re still somehow spiritually beneficial to us and even authoritative for the church is ultimately incoherent and nonsensical. To paraphrase Lewis, the biblical authors have not left that open to us. They did not intend to.

If the Scriptures are neither evil spiritual manipulation
nor wide-eyed fairy tales,
then they must be what they claim to be—the Word of God.

The internal consistency of the Scriptures
Imagine trying to compile writings on a single theological subject from a 100-year span, all by authors who were native English-speakers and who were educated at Oxford. Would anyone mistake these writings for the work of a single author? Would these works even fit well within a single compilation?

The Bible was written in three different languages; on three different continents; by more than 40 authors of incredibly varying educational, social and cultural backgrounds; over a period of 1,500 years. And yet it uncannily seems to be the product of a single, unifying mind. And this perception isn’t diminished by in-depth study. No, the more one digs below the surface in the Scriptural texts, the more the cohesive nature of Scripture is hard to deny. Though there were many human authors responsible for the biblical books, it’s difficult to escape the guiding hand of a divine Author who stands behind the whole. The more one studies, the more unavoidable the conclusion that the Author of Genesis is also the Author of Revelation.

But what about things in Scripture that do seem inconsistent? What about passages that appear to be problematic? We’ll look at some of these issues next week.

Believing the Bible series:

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible

The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote?

Why we can trust the Bible [see above]

What do we do with difficult Scripture passages?

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible

Our church’s study time is interactive. I often ask for a response from the people, and they can raise their hands and ask questions during the teaching. This past Sunday, the interaction got a little more intense than usual. There was some question as to the interpretation of a particular passage, but the underlying tension seemed to be more about how we view the authority of Scripture. Since this is a vital issue for us as believers, we’re going to explore this topic for the next three weeks.

We begin by making clear our position on the Bible. While we have people attending our church who hold differing viewpoints (whom we love very much), our church is an evangelical Christian church. We believe the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God, and that it is without error. We accept Scripture as the final authority for the Christian faith, for our church life and ministry, and for our individual Christian lives. We measure every idea, tradition and action according to the standard of the Scriptures.

So the question for most of us isn’t whether we believe the Bible. We do. We have faith in the Scriptures as God’s Word to his people. But a question we should explore is: What kind of faith do we have in the Bible?

What kind of faith do you have?
There are two different kinds of faith, and we need to know which kind we have:

objective faith

This kind of faith is focused on the object of our faith—who or what we believe in. It’s faith that is justified because the object of our faith is trustworthy. It’s a surprise to many non-Christians that they use faith all the time. When you go to work every morning, you do this because you have faith in your employer. You believe they’ll keep the business operating and pay you at the appropriate time. If you had good reasons to not believe this, you probably wouldn’t keep going to work. This is objective faith. You go outside of town and climb up into a hollow, metal tube, which is controlled by someone you don’t even see, and expect this contraption to take you hundreds or even thousands of miles over sea and land—and even get you to your destination in time to catch another metal tube! Why do we do this? Because we have a sufficient faith in the airlines to transport us from one point to another.

The Christian faith is an historical faith. It’s based on a real, historical person and event. At the heart of our faith is the person of Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead. We make this truth claim and put it out there for anyone to examine and either verify or refute. [For more on this, see In search of Jesus.] If someone suggests it really doesn’t matter whether Jesus rose from the dead or not, we’re quick to point out that the actual, literal truth of the resurrection is the basis for our faith. As the apostle Paul said, if Christ has not been raised from the dead then our faith is useless, we are still guilty of our sins and we are to be pitied more than anyone in the world (1 Corinthians 15:17-19). If the resurrection is not true, then at best we’re just playing church, believing in a myth. The Christian faith is an objective faith; it’s focused on the truth we believe (not on the mere fact we believe something).

subjective faith

Have you ever heard someone say, “It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, just whether you sincerely believe”? This is subjective faith. The emphasis isn’t on the trustworthiness of what we’re placing our faith in. It’s really a faith in faith itself. When a friend or family member patronizingly pats you on the hand and says, “I’m glad your faith works for you,” their understanding of faith is a subjective one. When people speak of a blind leap of faith, they’re referring to this kind of faith.

The problem with subjective faith is clear. If the emphasis is on the faith itself, and if it doesn’t matter if the object of one’s faith is trustworthy or not, then we can just believe any ridiculous thing we want. You want to believe that UFOs are coming to pick you up, or that the rock in your backyard is your god? Go right ahead! As long as you sincerely believe! Subjective faith is irrational faith. People who have this kind of faith aren’t willing for the object of their faith to be examined and verified or refuted. Because the issue for them isn’t whether the object of their faith is trustworthy or not, it’s just that they believe.

What kind of faith do you have in the Bible?
Read the following dialogue and tell me what kind of faith this is:

“Why do you believe the Bible?”

“Because it’s the Word of God.”

“But how do you know it’s the Word of God?”

“Because it says it is.”

“But how can you be certain about what it says?”

“Because it’s the Word of God.”

Do you see how this ends up going round and round in circles? (That’s why it’s called “circular reasoning.”) In this case, the believer isn’t really giving an answer. Their answer is essentially that they believe the Bible because they believe the Bible. It’s a non-answer. What kind of faith is this? This is subjective faith, isn’t it? The focus isn’t really on the trustworthy nature of the Scriptures, but on the individual’s faith. I believe because I believe. Is this the kind of faith we find modeled in Scripture itself? Let’s see:

Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught.

Luke 1:1-4

This is the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel account of Jesus. Notice that others had already written Gospels. But Luke still takes the time to investigate everything carefully. Why? Why not simply believe? Why not believe the Gospel accounts just because they’re Gospel accounts? Why not tell his friend to believe what he was taught because that’s what he was taught? No, Luke takes the time to be certain of the truth he believes and that he presents to others. He’s actually so bold as to examine the Gospel accounts and verify whether they are indeed trustworthy. Is this a good thing? Absolutely.

That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas to Berea. When they arrived there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. The people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.

Acts 17:10-11

“Aha!” someone might be thinking, “See, they searched the Scriptures.” But let’s think about this. Who were these people? They were Jews. So what Scriptures would they have been searching? The Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. As Jews, they already accepted the Old Testament as God’s Word. But what was Paul presenting to them? The New Testament gospel of Jesus Christ. And did he insist they believe this gospel based on what the New Testament witness said? No, that would be circular reasoning. It would be irrational. He allowed them to examine his message using the truth they already had.

We see something similar in the way Paul addressed Gentiles in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). He begins by relating to their worship of an unknown God, offering to explain this unknown God to them. He speaks of how there is one God who created everything and everyone, and how this God desires for all people to come into relationship with him. Along the way he quotes from their own writings. He ends by telling them of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead. But notice he never once expects the people to believe what he’s telling them because “the Bible says.” Everything he says is very biblical, but he doesn’t appeal to the Scriptures as authoritative. Why not? Because these people have no reason yet to accept the Bible as authoritative!

We need to remember the instructions we receive in 1 Peter 3:15-16:

And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way.

A big part of our Christian hope is what the Scriptures tell us, and we need to be prepared to explain to people why we can draw this hope from the Bible, why it’s trustworthy. And we need to offer more than just that it’s the Word of God.

A test case
Imagine you’re having a discussion with a Mormon and a Muslim. Each of you has a different faith and you use different books as your highest, most authoritative guides. So you gently and respectfully challenge your friends as to why they believe in the Book of Mormon or the Qur’an. They each say they believe in their Scriptures because they’re the Word of God. Do you accept their claims? Why not? If you disagree with them only because you believe the Bible is the Word of God, you’re at a stalemate, aren’t you? Each of you believes in your holy book simply because you believe in your holy book.

But let’s say you’re familiar with both religions’ books, and you know of serious problems with these books that would cause a person to doubt whether they are, in fact, God’s Word. So you share your concerns with your friends, right? What are you expecting of them? You want them to listen to your challenge of their holy books. But to really listen to you they must be willing to consider the possibility their holy book is not actually the Word of God. They must be so committed to the truth they’re willing to reexamine their beliefs to make sure they’re truly sound.

Are we willing to do the same thing? Are we willing to not only respect another person enough to hear out their challenge of our Scriptures, are we willing to respect the Bible enough to see whether it stands up to the challenge? If not, what are we afraid of? If the Bible is the Word of God, won’t it be able to withstand any challenge?

In the study of logic, there’s a fallacy known as ‘invincible ignorance.’ This is the attitude that “I already have my mind made up, and I’m not going to listen to anything different.” It’s an adult’s way of plugging their ears and yelling so they can’t hear what you’re saying. Some may act like they’re listening politely to you, but eventually you find they’re not willing to truly hear anything different than what they already believe. This is an irrational, subjective faith. It’s not healthy and it’s not the faith the Bible teaches. We must be prepared to put the Bible through the same rigorous tests we require of the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an, or any other supposed holy book.

But are we now judging Scripture?
We often emphasize that Scripture tells us when we’re right or wrong; we don’t judge when Scripture is right or wrong. And this is true of the Bible in the same way it’s true of other standards on which we rely. I’ve often compared Scripture to a level, or a scale, or the instruments in an airplane. But do we place automatic, blind faith in these standards just because they’re supposed to be reliable? My father introduced me to the idea of a level. My first trust of a level was as much a trust of him as it was the level. But then he demonstrated the level for me, and I saw for myself how it could show whether a surface was truly level or whether it was slightly off. After using it a few times, I trusted it absolutely. But I was convinced of its trustworthiness.

We may think we trust the Bible just because it’s the Bible, but if we think back to when we came to faith in Christ (or came back to faith in Christ), most of us had some reasons why we began to believe the Scriptures. Now we may have had different reasons. Maybe you believed the Bible is the Word of God because your parents told you this, or a pastor or church leader. Maybe you felt God speaking to you through the words of Scripture. Maybe you were like Luke and the Bereans and you examined the claims of the Bible carefully before placing your faith in the Scriptures. But we all had some reason for our initial belief.

Now, do we ever reevaluate our trust of a standard? What if you stepped on a scale and it said you weighed 43 pounds? Would you start celebrating because your diet is going a lot better than you imagined?! Or would you suspect something is wrong with the scale? If you just filled your car with gas and then the indicator still reads empty, do you go back and fill up all over again out of blind faith in the gas gauge?

Fine, but should we ever reevaluate our beliefs? Yes, if want to have confidence in what we believe. Should such an idea scare us? Only if we’re more committed to our beliefs than we are to the truth. Some Christians have the mistaken idea that if we really have faith we’ll never feel doubt. But faith isn’t never having doubt; it’s being convinced despite our doubts. We don’t want to be wishy-washy, constantly switching back and forth between believing and not believing. But there are times when Christians reexamine what they believe—and this is healthy. Facing our doubts strengthens our faith.

When a believer experiences doubts about the truth of the resurrection, we don’t rebuke them for their doubts or blithely dismiss the challenges they’re facing. No, we help them work through the questions and issues; we show where the truth of the resurrection is so sound it can withstand any of these challenges. Many scholars who are now highly effective at studying the historical evidences for the resurrection began as Christians with serious doubts.

What about the Bible? If we read a passage in Scripture that is deeply troubling to us, is it sinful for us to reconsider our belief in Scripture as the inerrant Word of God? No, it’s simply being intellectually honest. Of course, we shouldn’t immediately reject the Bible as infallible just because we’re struggling with a certain passage. But by reevaluating the nature of Scripture, we’re demonstrating that our faith in the Bible is not a blind, irrational faith, but one based on the trustworthiness of the Bible itself. If this trustworthiness is challenged, we must reevaluate it. We are people of faith, not fanatics who arrogantly refuse to consider the possibility we’re wrong. And by reexamining the trustworthiness of Scripture, we gain a stronger, more mature faith in the divine nature of the Bible.

There once was a man who believed he was dead. His doctor had tried everything to convince him that he was actually alive, but to no avail. Finally, he had the man read books all about blood, and how it works in the human body. The man finally conceded the fact that dead people don’t bleed. So the doctor pricked the man with a needle and showed him the blood trickling down his thumb. To which the man exclaimed, “Oh my goodness—dead people do bleed!”

This is invincible ignorance. It’s the irrational faith of a person who will not even consider the possibility that what they believe may not be true. This is the faith of the cultist, not of the Christian. We seek a mature faith in Christ and the Scriptures, not a childish faith of sticking our fingers in our ears and outshouting any opponents.

Should a Christian ever reevaluate their faith in the Bible as the infallible Word of God?

If there is absolutely nothing that could cause you to reconsider whether the Bible is the Word of God then you’re probably more committed to your own personal beliefs than you are to what is actually true. As shocking as it might sound, if the Bible isn’t true, we shouldn’t want to believe in it. Our first commitment must be to truth itself. This helps ensure we’re worshiping the true God rather than our own preferred beliefs.

Thankfully, we have very convincing evidence that the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God, without error and trustworthy as an infallible, authoritative standard for our faith and lives, leading us to the one true God. What is this evidence? Why do we believe the Bible? We’ll begin exploring this next week.

Believing the Bible series:

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible [see above]

The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote?

Why we can trust the Bible

What do we do with difficult Scripture passages?