What is the Bible? Many people have differing opinions about the Bible. On one extreme are those who see it as simply a collection of fairy tales with little relevance to life today. On the other extreme are those who see it as a God-given book. A book dropped down out of heaven in its finished form. A book designed to answer any questions that might be put to it. And many more fall somewhere in between these two extremes. The intent of this post is not to support or attack any particular position. Rather, it is to describe what the Bible is to me; divinely inspired and authoritative. And to express its role in my own life.
The Inspired Word of God
The Bible claims that it is the inspired word of God (2 Tim. 3:16). Not just in part, but in whole. Of course, when that was written, all of what we today consider to be Scripture may not yet have been produced. But I do believe that God inspired the whole Bible, composed in the form we have today.
I also believe that the Bible was a product of the culture and the human authors that produced it. I believe that God gave the message he wanted to be delivered to the human authors (2 Sam. 23:2). But also that the personalities of the human authors, and their culture, are reflected in the writings (Ecc. 12:10). Western 21st century seminary graduates did not produce the Bible. Instead, it was written by godly men with varying amounts of education from cultures that are quite foreign to us today.
By no means is that intended as a negative reflection on the inspiration of the Bible. Rather it is to point out that to fully understand the Bible, we need to first understand it in the cultural setting that produced it. If we do not, we will fail to correctly understand it. Some parts of the Scripture are not affected much by the cultural differences between today and that of the original audience. But in other places, understanding the original culture is essential to understanding the passage. Understanding the pagan practice of idol worship, for instance, makes Paul’s discussion of eating meat sacrificed to idols more meaningful.
The Ongoing Work of the Holy Spirit
I believe that the Holy Spirit is behind the inspiration of the Scripture. But I do not stop there. I believe the Holy Spirit has also been instrumental in the transmission of the Scriptures, in both oral and written form over the millennium. And that he has guided its translation into a multitude of languages. Yes, some errors have been introduced over the years. And others have been corrected. However, throughout the process, the message of the Bible has remained unchanged and reliable. I do not believe that any of the introduced changes have had any impact on faith or practice.
I also believe that the Holy Spirit was involved in the canonization process of the Scriptures. It was not through human effort alone that we have the Bible we do today, although that was certainly involved. The Holy Spirit was the primary mover in the development of the canon, ensuring we have a complete Bible.
And, finally, I believe that the Holy Spirit is involved in teaching us from the words of Scripture. Apart from his help, I would be unable to correctly understand the Bible. We bring to our study of the Bible our own experiences, traditions, and presuppositions. In spite of that, the Holy Spirit ensures that the truth of the Scripture is made known to those who earnestly seek it. We may differ on some points, but the core of our faith is the same.
The Purpose of the Bible
Given that God has inspired the Bible and given it to us, what was his reason for doing so? Some of the Bible very clearly gives instructions for how to live as a Christian. Other parts of the Bible give us information about who God is as well as why the world is the way it is and what he is doing about it. But some parts of it are much more challenging. What value is there in knowing about David’s family tree? Or why do we have so many of these long prophetic books that are filled with seemingly endless, and repetitive, pronouncements of judgment against Israel and her neighbors?
I believe that 2 Timothy 3:16-17 provides us with the answer to this question as well.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV
The purpose of the Bible is to teach, rebuke, correct, and train in righteousness. The end result is that, as God’s servant, I will be fully prepared to do the work that he has called me to. I believe that when we try and make the Bible something other than our guide for faith and practice as believers, we are attempting to make it into something that it was never intended to be.
The Authority of the Bible
I consider God to be the supreme authority in my life. It is to him that I owe my life and my allegiance. He is my creator, my redeemer, and my future. Other people may have a certain amount of authority in my life. But none of them come close to the authority of God.
The Bible, being given by God, has a derived authority from him. The authority of the Bible, at least in matters of faith and practice, exceeds that of any other writing, or any human authority figure. Other people and writings can provide me with insight into what the Bible says. And they can help in understanding its message. But they are only secondary authorities.
Many people have a tendency to elevate creeds, doctrinal statements, or specific interpretations of the Scripture into position as their highest authority. And while I might agree with the creed or doctrinal statement, I see them as having lesser authority than the Bible itself. I believe that the Bible is the supreme authority for the believer in all matters of faith and practice.
I try to keep that in mind as I read and study. It is not my specific understanding of the Scripture that is inspired and authoritative. Nor is the interpretation of any other person. That claim belongs to the Bible alone. I am prone to misunderstanding and presuppositions that can lead me astray. And so I try not to confuse my understanding with the authority of the Scripture itself.
Inerrancy is a relatively new term in Christianity, although the thought behind it is not. Inerrancy refers to the truthfulness of the Scriptures. An inerrant Bible is one that is without error. Inerrancy is typically only applied to the original writings, acknowledging that some error has crept in over the years during transmission.
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is one attempt to define inerrancy. This is probably the most widely accepted definition among evangelicals today. The introductory ‘Short Statement’ in this document includes the following affirmations.
2. Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy
4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.
I believe that I understand the intent of these two statements. God’s word is trustworthy; I can count on the truthfulness of what it teaches me, and of what it affirms. I do not have to be concerned with separating truth from error. A task that none of us are really qualified to perform. It stands to reason that if the Bible is divinely inspired, then it must be truthful, and free from error. And I accept that.
The Problem with Inerrancy
But I dislike the term ‘inerrancy’, and generally decline to use it. Why? Because all too often, in my experience at least, it is applied, not to the Scripture itself. Instead, a specific interpretation of the Scripture is deemed “to be what the Bible teaches” and therefore inerrant. This is particularly true in regard to the first few chapters of Genesis. For many people, although not all, their understanding of inerrancy demands a belief that the earth is 6000 years old and was created in 6 literal days. Any deviation from that interpretation is branded as an attack on biblical truthfulness. Yet, is that what the Bible itself actually teaches?
The belief that the earth is relatively young is in conflict with modern science. A science which holds to a very old creation; a slowly developing creation, rather than one springing into being full grown. I would be the first to say that the findings of science should not supplant the teachings of Scripture. And yet science can demonstrate to us that our understanding of the Bible may be faulty.
This happened with the Copernican Revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Roman Catholic Church held the earth to be at the center of the universe. They understood the Bible to teach that the Sun, stars, and planets revolved around the earth. And they fiercely opposed as heretical any attempt to argue otherwise. But they eventually accepted the truth that the earth was not at the center of the universe. It was not the Bible that was deemed to be in error. Rather it was their ‘literal’ understanding of it that was at fault.
Ancient Near Eastern Science
It was an ancient prescientific culture that produced the Bible. A culture that believed the earth was flat. An earth that was covered by a solid dome that held back the waters above. A dome that provided a home for the sun, moon, and stars. Today we do not accept any of that as describing reality. But it was how the ancients understood reality. This was true of Israel as well as all of her neighbors in Egypt and Mesopotamia.
This ancient understanding of the structure of the heavens and the earth is not taught as truth in the Bible. But it is everywhere assumed. In the Genesis 1 creation account, you find the dome (firmament or vault) created on day 2 and populated with sun, moon, and stars on day 4. In Genesis 7:11, the floodgates of heaven (windows allowing the rain to come through the dome) are opened. And in Genesis 8:2, the floodgates of heaven are closed. Amongst other references, you find the vaulted heavens mentioned in Job 22:14 and a reference to the skies as hard as a mirror of cast bronze in Job 37:18.
What the Bible Teaches About the Earth
But I do not believe the Bible teaches that the earth is flat, or that it is covered with a dome. Nor do I believe it was created in 6 literal days just a few thousand years ago. Instead, I believe that God accommodated their understanding of how the earth was structured to teach them some important lessons. Rather than seeing Genesis 1-3 as a material and scientific description of creation and the fall. I believe it was an account of origins that used their understanding to affirm some important lessons. That God is their creator. That he is responsible for everything. That they were created as God’s image bearers and with a special purpose. And that their sin has separated them from their creator.
I believe that it is a mistake to try and fit the creation accounts into a modern scientific framework. Instead, we should view it from the perspective of those it was originally written to. When we do, it is not in error, and we do not need to try and reconcile it with today’s science.
I do believe that the Bible is without fault in all of its teachings and is to be believed in all that it affirms. In that, I agree with the Chicago statement on inerrancy. But I do not believe that the Bible is attempting to teach that the earth is 6000 years old, the earth is flat, and that it is under a dome that holds back the waters above and that contains the heavenly bodies.
What the Bible is to Me
I fully believe that the Bible is divinely inspired by God. And I accept it as having supreme authority in my life in all matters of faith and practice. I believe that when understood in the context of the culture that produced it, it is without error in all that it affirms. There is much in the Bible that I do not yet understand, and likely never will. But I daily seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance in properly understanding the Scriptures and applying them to my life.