No Christian gurus: Let’s not turn good teachers and resources into idols

bhagwan-shree-rajneeshI’ve had the privilege of helping train young leaders and teachers. It can be a little dizzying for these new leaders as they begin to access all the myriad books and resources we have available to us today. I’m often asked who is my “go-to” writer. Who is the one source on whom I can always rely? Or which is the one commentary series that is unfailingly solid and reliable? What they’re looking for—even if they haven’t really thought this through—is a recommendation for an authoritative standard. They want the simplicity of having one source for accurate biblical interpretation, and the ability to measure everything else by this one flawlessly reliable standard.

It’s not hard to find examples of believers who make one pastor or leader their primary teacher and subtly (or not so subtly!) evaluate everything else based on this leader’s views. It might be “Piper cubs” who view John Piper as the obvious standard for right doctrine and practice in the church today, or those who look to John MacArthur, or Jack Hayford, Wayne Grudem, Charles Stanley, RC Sproul, NT Wright, Mark Driscoll (until recently), etc., etc. Or it might be those who favor a teacher with the sheen of a century or two (or at least decades) of being quoted and referenced, like John Calvin, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, AW Tozer, Charles Spurgeon, CS Lewis, etc. But regardless of the specific writer/teacher to whom they look, the pattern is strangely similar. Whenever theology or ministry is discussed, this person invariably appeals to the views of their teacher. They look to him (or her) as a standard of what is right and healthy for the church.

Now, I’m not at all accusing these teachers and leaders of seeking this kind of devotee. I’m not blaming the leaders themselves for this phenomenon. But, sadly, this often happens to those who strive to be faithful teachers and leaders. What they intend to be helpful thoughts and insights for the church, others misuse to place these teachers and their works on a pedestal. I can almost see these overly revered teachers responding as Paul and Barnabas did in Acts 14, pleading with the people not to do this.

The Christians doing this aren’t intending to misuse or misappropriate anyone’s ministry; they’re usually seeking to be conscientious, faithful disciples of Jesus. So, just to be clear: What exactly is wrong with looking exclusively or primarily to one human teacher? There are two big problems I see:

Human teachers are not infallible.

Of course, Christ is an exception to this because he isn’t merely human but also divine. And his specially-appointed apostles were able, under divine inspiration, to speak and write the teaching of Christ with his authority. But we don’t accord teachers today this same level of authority (or at least we shouldn’t).

UnknownEven the apostle Paul didn’t expect the people to automatically accept anything he taught simply because he was an apostle. He strongly warned the Galatian churches against receiving any other gospel, even if it was proclaimed to them by Paul and his associates or even an angel from heaven (Galatians 1:8). The Bereans didn’t automatically accept Paul’s teachings, but first checked them out to make sure they were scriptural. And they were commended for this (Acts 17:11). The people were given the responsibility to scripturally evaluate what they were taught.

The fist time it happens can shock and disturb us. We’re reading or listening to the teaching of a parent, a pastor or favorite teacher and we suddenly realize, ‘. . . I just can’t agree with that!’ Of course, we shouldn’t arrogantly look for details to pick apart, but it shouldn’t surprise us if we occasionally, humbly disagree with even a noted writer (that is, unless we expect them to be completely without error). I think God mercifully allows these infrequently different viewpoints so we won’t rely exclusively on one lone teacher. This kind of over-reliance can be dangerous.

But when we, in our opinion, have found an error, this isn’t necessarily cause for us to reject a teacher or commentary either. We can’t expect inerrancy anywhere but in God’s Word itself. We must all endeavor to accurately interpret and teach the Bible, but we must also be patient with each other when we don’t do this perfectly every time. Some of us are far too eager to put someone on a pedestal, and then when they show any imperfection we gleefully knock them back down! This leads to our second problem:

We can put a teacher or leader in the place of God in our lives.

Now, this might sound too strongly worded. Sure, maybe we’re sometimes guilty of relying too much on a particular pastor or teacher, but is this really idolatry?! ‘I mean, I may be listening to only one guy, but he is teaching the Bible after all.’ But let’s think about this. If I evaluate everything by one pastor’s teaching of Scripture, am I really trusting the Bible or am I trusting this one individual’s interpretation of the Bible? Am I seeking God’s instructions in Scripture, or Charles Stanley’s (or John MacArthur’s, etc.) instructions about God’s instructions? Am I committed to the historic, biblical Christian faith or to the historic, biblical Christian faith as explained and clarified by NT Wright?

It’s not hard to see how this can become idolatrous. It can also be quite divisive, as I pit my favored teacher against that of another. And, if these merely human teachers really are fallible, the implication of relying on only one teacher is alarming. I would be binding myself to one teacher’s errors, and blinding myself to anything this teacher hasn’t seen.

So how do we avoid this? Let’s resist the false security of an authoritative standard other than Scripture itself. And let’s fight the inclination in ourselves toward hero-worship and exalting certain leaders. Let’s not identify ourselves with a particular teacher or group in opposition to other teachers or groups. Let’s be willing to learn from any mature Christian leader or teacher, even if we disagree with them on some issues. And when you encounter a teacher or leader who refuses criticism or evaluation, but seeks to draw disciples after themselves (Acts 20:30)—run!

studygroupOne final reminder to those who are teachers and leaders: Don’t be surprised when people want to look to you as their authoritative standard. We need to be vigilant, ready to put a quick and decisive stop to this. Years ago in a Bible study, the discussion turned to a controversial issue. A young man looked to me and asked, “What do we believe about that, Curt?” I smiled and responded, “I know what I believe about that, but I don’t have a clue what you believe about it!” I went on to explain that he needed to know what he believed and why. We don’t want to make the people dependent on us, but on Christ. We need to take every opportunity to point them back to the Scriptures, to not just give them answers but teach them how to find the answers in God’s Word for themselves. Let’s not make any teacher or leader into some little tin god, and let’s not allow anyone to make us into one. Let’s be, and make, disciples of Christ and Christ alone.

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?

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?