In this blog we will be looking at the authority of the Bible. This is not trivial, and parts of it will be a little bit complex, so I ask your indulgence.
Let’s be honest: The Bible is not the most user-friendly book you can read. Here are some great reasons NOT to read the Bible:
• It’s long and intimidating, and it’s not put together like a novel or a “how-to” book or a textbook or most any other kind of book you can buy.
• Different Churches and traditions don’t even agree on which books belong in it and which ones don’t.
• There are many different translations, and advocates for one or the other often fight bitterly and publicly against translations other than their own favorite.
• Starting at the beginning and reading through to the end is often boring and really difficult.
• Really creepy people have used the Bible to (try to) justify everything from segregation to religious persecution to murder.
You have to wonder why anyone would even bother to begin to read it.
On the other hand, the Bible is obviously an extraordinary and profoundly important book.
This is true even if you don’t believe in God at all.
The Bible is something we ought to take seriously, but Christians have to ask the question: “What is its authority in our lives?” Secular opinions include:
• Who cares?
• It’s a bunch of fairy tales and outright lies.
• It’s just a book written by people in one ancient cultural context and with primitive superstitions about a god who created them. Nothing more.
• It may be interesting to cultural historians and may even contain some good ethical ideas, but as a book, it’s not much different than other religious texts, from other cultures, in other times. Just one of a bunch.
• It’s an instrument of oppression used by a patriarchal institution—the Church—to control women and other oppressed minorities. It’s all about domination and control.
Many versions of each of these views are common, and range from measured academic assessment to bitter disdain.
At the other end of the spectrum is the view that Scripture is the infallible and inerrant word of God written by men under the direct inspiration and control of the Holy Spirit—and that those who do not accept this view threaten the future of the Church and risk their immortal souls.
If you have not already had your view of the Bible demanded of you by those holding any of these points of view, just wait—your time will come.
As for me, I believe we can trust the Bible as God’s reliable and intentional revelation of Himself without being drawn into any of the partisan fighting. So, let’s unfold the history and the issues and see where it leads us.
The Original Manuscripts
First, do we really know what the original manuscripts said? We don’t have any of them, not one. We only have copies. This causes several problems:
Authors can make up conspiracy theories that excite and mislead their readers, and no one can prove they are wrong. One group believes the Church was in control of the Scriptures for centuries, so they could make it say whatever they wanted it to say—and did, in order to keep the people under their control. Various conspiracy theories imagine that it was “edited” by the group in power and so isn’t what was originally written.
But it turns out there are actually some pretty solid reasons for believing that what we have is, with few possible exceptions, what the authors originally wrote. We have quite-good evidence of this.
There is a method, now greatly aided by computers, called textual criticism. This is a technique intended to recover, as well as possible, the original text based on a multitude of copies. The technique is quite ancient (it was in use thousands of years ago) and consists of looking at how the copies we have differ from one another. Here’s a simple example to illustrate the principle. A teacher writes a sentence on the board, and three students copy it onto three pieces of paper. The papers read as follows:
1. I went to the corner store and bought ten peanuts.
2. I went to the general store and bought ten pennies.
3. I sent to the corner store and sought ten peanuts.
The teacher erases the board and leaves. We are given only the students’ copies of what was once written there. Which one is most likely to be accurate? Don’t go on to the next paragraph just yet. Look at these three and see if you can figure it out. Then read on.
What did you conclude? The correct answer is number one, because that sentence is more likely, sensible, and logical, but also because in those places where #2 and #3 differ, parts of them are the same as number one. So, “went,” “corner,” “bought” and “peanuts” were probably in the original.
When it comes to ancient documents, the more copies we have that are consistent with each other, and the more places they are from, the more likely that what we believe to be content of the original is actually so. This is a widely accepted principle in the study of many ancient texts, not just Scripture.
What is compelling about Scripture is how many copies we have that can be dated not far from when the original (now-missing) document was written.
Some might not agree with the content of the New Testament, but it is highly probable that what we read is what the authors wrote. So that deals with the issue of whether what we have is what the authors wrote. We have lots of evidence (see the book for a more thorough discussion of this).
How to See the Bible
Here is a simple three-step way for dealing with the authority of the Bible:
First, God was and is intentional and serious about restoring and maintaining a relationship with us. He was intentional and serious in causing all of Scripture to be written. He was intentional and serious in the historical process of many minds and hearts who discerned what was to be a part of the Canon of Scripture and what did not rise to that level.
This doesn’t mean that some of the other books written in New Testament times, or even in modern times, aren’t true or don’t contain valuable insights into God’s character. The Epistles of Clement, Augustine’s Confessions and Mere Christianity are shining examples … but the Bible stands alone in both form and content. There isn’t anything else like it even among the most profound scriptural texts.
Second, it does God and us a disservice to pick verses out of context and build belief systems on them. We need the whole counsel of God in Scripture, and we need it in order to understand any verse truly and fully. That means we need to take the whole of Scripture seriously. We should not read it with a razor blade.
Thomas Jefferson is an example of this. He made his own version of the Bible by cutting out every verse he didn’t like or agree with and then pasting together the ones that remained. As smart as Jefferson was, I don’t think that was his best idea.
God was serious in the creation of Scripture. We need to be serious in its absorption. If a particular verse or part of the Bible offends me, rather than skip it or declare loudly that I disagree, I should consider it instead a red flag indicating that there is something I don’t understand yet, that God wants me to understand. I should dig deeper rather than run away or cut it out. This may seem counterintuitive to some, but it will yield great rewards: Press in rather than flee.
Third, don’t be intimidated by either those who reject the Bible or those who insist you aren’t a Christian if you do not take it literally.
Rejecting the Bible completely, saying, “It’s just a creation of another culture; we don’t really need to pay attention to it,” is misguided.
Taking it literally makes nonsense out of its poetry, imagery, metaphor, and parables. It is equally misguided.
Take it seriously. It is reliable, and it contains all things necessary for salvation.
The Covering Authority
All of Scripture, and all of the councils and teachings of the Church, stand under the covering authority of two great commandments, and so must we. Those two great commandments come from the lips of Jesus, and He said this:
“‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40, NKJV)
That is, every word of Scripture, everything about our faith, belief, practice, doctrine, theology, church polity, teaching, authority, and our daily living in the world, stands under the force, command, and the covering authority of those two great commandments. Jesus said all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. They are the standard and touchstone for all that we believe and do.
Yet what is true of many of us as Christians is that while we may believe that all the Law and the Prophets stand under those two commandments, we don’t think we have to, particularly if we feel threatened by doctrine, practice, theology, people—or other religions. Then it is okay to behave with sarcasm, with bitterness, with anger towards our enemies, attacking them, belittling them, caricaturing them, putting them down, treating them as less than worthy of the love Jesus commanded.
But we are not exempt. We too, like the Law and the Prophets, must stand under those two great commandments. If we believe the Scriptures and the Church have authority in our lives, there is no other option.