There are two different perspectives we can use when examining the doctrine of the Bible. The first of these is the human perspective; who wrote it, why they wrote it, and when they write it. The second of these perspectives provides a more God-ward focused view; why did he give it to us, and what is its purpose.
The Human Perspective
The Bible is not a single book. Rather it is a collection of a number of writings produced over a long period of time; by a number of distinct individuals; with diverse cultural backgrounds. In the Bible used by most Protestants today there are 66 different books in the Bible; 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. But those, at least in the Old Testament, are not reflective of how they were originally written. The books of Samuel and Kings, for instance, probably had the same author and were written as a single account. But they were broken up because of the size limitations for scrolls.
The writings in the Bible are broken up into two distinct collections; the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament corresponds to, but is not identical with, the Jewish Scriptures. The Jewish Bible has a different ordering and divisions that the Protestant Old Testament. There are also other Jewish writings that are a part of the Roman Catholic Old Testament. These difference are mostly based on different document sources and traditions. We use the term Old Testament to refer to the writings focused on the covenant established between Israel and God on Mt. Sinai. It is worth noting that the term ‘Old Testament’ can be offensive to Jews who see there only being a single covenant.
The New Testament writings are those of the new covenant between Christ and his Church. This covenant was established by his atonement on the cross. These writings are distinctly Christian and are not accepted by Jewish readers as being from God.
Kinds of Writings
The Bible is a diverse collection of literature, from history to poetry to instruction to apocalyptic. Some of the books in the Bible contain only one type of literature while others contain multiple types, sometimes interwoven together. Complicating this for modern readers is that Hebrew poetry is different than what we are accustomed to. And their view of history is also very different.
While some of the writings in the Bible, especially the New Testament, have known authors, or at least traditional authors, many of them are anonymous. In the New Testament, the gospels are anonymous with traditional authors; Hebrews has an unknown author; and some others, like 2 Peter, have disputed authorship.
It is even worse in the Old Testament. Who wrote the first five books, the Torah? Traditional scholarship claims that Moses wrote the Torah. But more modern scholarship disputes that. They view the Torah as a collection of verbal and written traditions that were finally collected into their current form around 2500 years ago. In a similar fashion, nearly every book in the Old Testament has both traditional and modern theories as to the authors. Ultimately we do not know who wrote the vast majority of the Old Testament.
Dating the writings of the Bible is just as challenging. The New Testament is the easier of the two, with most scholars convinced it was completed in the second half of the first century. Many of these writings have fairly reliable and uncontested dates.
The Old Testament is the more challenging collection. When was the Torah written? It really depends on who the author or editor was. If it was written by Moses, then the date is during his lifetime, about 1400 B.C. give or take a hundred years. But if it is a collection of different traditions joined together by a later editor(s), then it is impossible to know. The traditions could go all the way back to, or before, Moses, reaching their final form 2500 years ago. Most of the rest of the Old Testament faces the same issue. But I believe we can safely say that it was completed prior to about 300 B.C.
This really relates to the historical sections of the Bible; is it an accurate portrayal of the actual events that it records. This is of primary concern to a modern audience that expects its history to be factually based and unbiased; although in reality it always has some bias. Unfortunately, at least from our perspective, ancient historians were less concerned with accuracy and bias and more concerned with telling a story. That is not to say they fabricated their accounts. It is just that telling a story was more important that dry sterile facts. That was something neither the authors nor their audience cared about until recent times. So, if you read the Bible’s historical accounts thinking they are like the history you read in school, you will be disappointed.
There were many more writings in both the Jewish and Christian communities than what we have in the Bible today. How did we come to accept the books in the Bible as being from God while rejecting others? For both testaments this was a long process without clearly defined rules. Ultimately it came down to what Jews, for the Old Testament, and Christians, for the New Testament, considered as being inspired by God; from reputable sources; widely accepted; and of value to their community. Standard collections, or canons, were eventually, and independently, accepted by both communities and today are what we call the Bible.
If you are interested in reading more about this topic you might look at a couple of my earlier blog posts. One concerns the Reliability of the New Testament. The other deals with the Canonization of the New Testament.
The Divine Perspective
Before looking at the Bible from the divine perspective, there are some assumptions that need to be expressed. The first of these is that God exists; if he does not then the Bible is nothing more than ancient writings of a religious nature. The second assumption is that God wanted us to know something about himself and his purpose in creation. If he wanted to inform us, then something like the Bible would be expected. If not, then the Bible is undoubtedly of human origin and of limited value.
At the heart of the divine perspective is inspiration. Is the Bible given to us by God? If so, how did he communicate it to the human authors who actually penned the words we have today? The Bible itself, in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, claims to be inspired, or God breathed. But it does not tell us in what way this inspiration occurred. There are a number of different theories as to what inspiration actually is. And how you understand inspiration will impact many, if not all, of the other doctrines you hold to.
One of the theories of inspiration is that God gave the specific words to the authors of the Bible. They were nothing more than a passive tool that God used. Every word, every expression, every stylistic inflection is all provided by God. If two different authors had been used to produce the same book, they would be identical. There are not many people who actually subscribe to this theory today.
This theory is very similar to the dictation theory. The Holy Spirit’s influence over the author extends to the words that are selected and used. The difference between the two is that in verbal inspiration the Holy Spirit limits himself to the vocabulary of the human author. So if two distinct authors, especially if separated by time, write a book, while it will be exactly what God wants, they will be different. This is likely the most popular theory among evangelicals today.
In the dynamic theory, the Holy Spirit and the human author work together to produce the writing. The Holy Spirit provides the thoughts or concepts while the human author provides the words to express those thoughts. In this theory the human author’s personality comes through very clearly. And it does so in a way that would be unique to them.
This theory limits the input of the Holy Spirit to influencing the human authors by heightening their spiritual sensitivity. The Holy Spirit gives the human author neither specific thoughts nor words. Rather it is similar to the influence of the Holy Spirit on any other believer. In this version of inspiration, the Bible is little different from any other ‘inspired’ work that Christians might use, like the writings of C. S. Lewis, John Calvin, or Augustine.
Questions about Inspiration
Given the variety of theories concerning inspiration, how do you know which is true of the Bible? One method is simply to choose based on popularity. And, if you are an evangelical, that would lead you either the verbal or dynamic theories; with the verbal most likely. But do we have to depend on popularity?
I believe an examination of the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, can be helpful here. These three are very similar, so much so that many believe that two of them (Matthew and Luke) use the third (Mark) as a source, adding other material as needed. It is clear when reading them that they are very closely related, and quite distinct from the gospel of John. Why do we have multiple gospels? Why not just one comprehensive gospel. One without the apparent inconsistencies among the Synoptics?
A Look at Luke
The introduction to the gospel attributed to Luke can help to answer those questions.
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.Luke 1:1-4 NIV
In this introduction Luke acknowledges that there are already in existence many other accounts of the life of Jesus. And Luke himself then chooses to produce yet another account, after a thorough research into the life of Jesus. So what can we learn from this:
- Luke himself chooses to write. He gives no indication that God directed him to do this. And Luke’s reason for writing is a personal one; so that an acquaintance of his would know the truth about Jesus life.
- Luke’s inspiration for writing did not preclude careful investigation. He does not just sit down and start writing. He is involved in what the final composition looks like.
- There are other ‘gospels’ already in circulation, likely including Mark. But Luke is not satisfied with them.
- From comparing Luke and Mark, it appears that Luke changes Mark’s account in some of its details; as well as adding a lot of content.
Comparing Luke and Mark
If the above conclusions are true, it is hard to see that both Mark and Luke are inspired by either the dictation or verbal theories. The difference in details, like the number of angels at the empty tomb, are hard to reconcile if the Holy Spirit gave them the words to say.
On the other hand, if the Holy Spirit is guiding their thoughts, ensuring that the story he wants told is actually told, then the little details are not a problem. And the other differences can be attributed to the purpose for the author’s writing (Luke and John both share their reason) as well as the sources they drew from. The dynamic theory seems to best account for what is seen in the gospel accounts.
Some Insight from Paul
One other passage that supports dynamic inspiration comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. In 1 Corinthians 7:10 Paul explicitly says that his instruction is from the Lord. But in both verse 12 and verse 25 he expresses that he is delivering to them, not the Lord’s command, but what Paul believes best. Paul would seem not to believe that his writing is either dictated to him from God or verbally inspired. Dynamic inspiration seems to cover this much better.
A topic that is closely related to inspiration is inerrancy. Inerrancy generally is considered to mean that the Bible, as originally written, is free from error of any type in the topics that it covers. The topic of inerrancy is one that generates a lot of discussion. And for some it is almost a test of the faith. Can I be sure that what the Bible says is true; or are the contents of the Bible of questionable validity?
Strict inerrancy goes hand in hand with both dictation and verbal inspiration. If the Holy Spirit is supplying the words to the human authors, then it follows that, since God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18), it must all be true. How could an omniscient and truthful God produce a Bible that was not completely true in all regards; even concerning things that would be completely unknown to the authors, like creation?
The debate over inerrancy is actually a relatively modern one. Historically it was assumed by most that the Bible was true, in its entirety. But with the advent of modern science and history many began to question the accuracy of at least some parts of the Bible. Coming out of this debate is a formal definition of inerrancy; a definition that is subscribed to by many, if not most, evangelicals. The Council on Biblical Inerrancy produced the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in 1979 which includes the following as a part of its definition of inerrancy.
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.
Science Interpreted by the Bible
What this means is that if the Bible speaks about any subject, then it is authoritative. If the Bible says that the earth was covered by the waters of a flood and only Noah and his family survived, then that is exactly what happened. Allowance is made for phenomenological language; describing things as they appear such as the rising of the sun. Also for symbolic language like much of Revelation. But Bible is exactly what God wanted us to have and is completely true.
With strict inerrancy, if questions are raised about creation, the flood, the exodus, the conquest of Canaan, or David’s kingdom; the Bible is always right, and any scientific or archeological findings that seem to contradict the Bible are inaccurate or incomplete. The plus side to strict inerrancy is that the conflict between science/history and the Bible is easy to resolve. God’s inspired and inerrant word cannot possibly be wrong.
There is a lessor form of inerrancy that is common among churches of the Wesleyan tradition such as the Methodists and Nazarenes. Soteriological inerrancy claims inerrancy for the Bible in matters that concern our salvation and relationship with God; but do not make that claim for matters of science or history. While strict inerrancy would insist that all of the Genesis stories about Abraham are correct and literal; soteriological inerrancy would accept that they could be legends, likely with a kernel of truth, that have come down to us from antiquity, and not historically accurate by today’s standards. But all of the accounts in the Bible, whether historically or scientifically accurate, contain truth that God wants us to have.
Soteriological inerrancy is most compatible with the dynamic theory of inspiration. If God is inspiring the message, but not the very words, then obviously what is important is the message. That it is not accurate in all of the details is not important, so long as God’s message to us is delivered in a way that we can learn from. The passage in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that declares the inspiration of the Bible, expresses that its inspiration is to enable us to grow in maturity and completeness as believers. The inspiration of the Bible is not to teach us how the earth was formed or details in the life of the early patriarchs.
A Danger to Soteriological Inerrancy
While there is some appeal to soteriological inerrancy because it removes much of the tension between the Bible and science/history, it does open its adherents to the Slippery Slope challenge. Once you allow for some inaccuracy in the Bible, where do you draw the line? If you admit to the possibility that Adam was not a historical person, could acknowledging the same for Jesus be far behind? This is clearly a real danger.
The extreme opposite position of strict inerrancy would be those who deny any form of inerrancy for the Bible. For them, the Bible may have some form of inspiration like illumination; and it may have value for knowing God and be useful for living a godly life; but it is only a human book and subject to error as well as revision. The Bible may be a special book, but it is treated little different than other books that offer perceived value to the readers. This is a position that is popular among liberal churches that want to proclaim a gospel that is different than that proclaimed in the Bible.
Questions about Inerrancy
How important is the question of inerrancy in the life of the believer? I do believe that at least to some extent it is an important issue. If one does not believe that the Bible is true, then why bother to read it or seek to follow its instructions. What makes it any different that the Koran or the Book of Mormon? What makes it any better a guide to truth than thousands of other books you might find in a bookstore or online?
Advantages to Strict Inerrancy
On the other hand, if strict inerrancy it true, then absolute truth is found in the pages of the Bible and any conflicting source is in error. There are several advantages to this approach.
- There is no need to evaluate any competing claims that appear to be at odds with the Bible. The Bible is always correct. I may not understand what it is saying on a particular topic, but I can rest assured that ultimately it will be proven correct and I just need to depend on it and invest the time in it to properly understand its message. It is actually much easier to simply believe the Bible is true than to have to evaluate the truthfulness of each of its claims.
- It can protect me from heresy. Many of the heretical ideas that are portrayed as truth are based on non-biblical sources.
- Accepting anything other than strict inerrancy can lead to doubts about God’s truthfulness. If God has given us a book that is not truthful in all its parts, can we really depend on his nature, that he is who the Bible declares him to be? And that he really is working for my good?
Concerns About How Inerrancy Is Used
I do have some concerns however about how many people understand inerrancy. They lose sight of the fact that it is the Bible that is inerrant, rather than their own understanding of what it says. Our human interpretations of the Bible are not inerrant.
The Bible is a product of a culture(s) that is long gone. It was written by men of that time for the people of that time. They had a different way of looking at the world around them and their place within it. A way that is foreign and often confusing to us today. But God used these men, inspiring them, to produce the Bible; a Bible that was meaningful and understandable to people of that culture. When we ignore their culture, interpreting the Bible according to our own cultural lens, we tend toward making the Bible say something that it was not intended to say.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening chapters of Genesis. The peoples of the nation’s surrounding Israel had a very different view of how the earth is shaped than we do today. Egypt in particular, a nation they had just spent 400 years in, would have been instrumental is framing how the Hebrews understood the earth.
Ancient Near Eastern Cosmogony
The peoples from Egypt to Mesopotamia understood the earth to be flat, floating on the waters of the deep, and resting on pillars that reached down to the foundation. Above them was a hard dome that held back the waters above, a dome with windows to allow the rain to come through. The dwelling of the gods was above the upper waters. And the sun, moon, and stars were deified bodies that were contained within the dome. That seems strange to us, but that is how it would appear to one with no science or ability to observe with anything beyond their 5 senses.
In the Egyptian creation myths, Atum self creates out of the infinite waters, forms a bubble of atmosphere, raises up land, creates the sun, moon and stars, as other deities, and populates the land, sea and air by his word. He forms humanity from the dust in his image, and breathes breath into them. If that sounds somewhat familiar to you, it’s because it is.
When God inspires Moses to produce the creation account in the first chapter of Genesis, he seems to start with what they already believed about how the universe was produced, with little correction. But he did correct the theology of the Egyptian myths. God is self existent and transcends the creation. He, and he alone, was responsible for creation. And humanity had a special place and purpose in the creation. I believe this is what the first chapter of Genesis has to teach us. Not that the creation took 6 days and occurred in some specific order.
Ultimately the most important question we can ask concerning the Bible is the authority it will have in our lives. Regardless how we view inspiration and inerrancy, its authority in the life of the believer and its usefulness as a guide to spiritual truth is key. I might view the Bible as verbally inspired and inerrant; but if I do not accept its authority, it will have little value for me, apart from an intellectual journey. But if the Bible is authoritative, then just how it was inspired and its level of inerrancy is not important.
And if I truly view the Bible as authoritative, then I should make every attempt to follow its instructions. I should invest time in learning and understanding its message for myself. And it should be my daily guide for life.
The Bible is a collection of writings produced by human authors who lived in a culture foreign to ours today, and written to that same culture. In many ways this makes the Bible challenging to understand. It was also not written to give us a systematic theology of God. Instead it contains historical narratives, laws to follow, corrective material, poetry, and apocalyptic writings. It requires effort for modern man to dig out the message of the Bible.
At the same time, the Bible is inspired by God, and is our authoritative source for faith and practice as believers. It contains what God wants us to have, including the parts that may make little sense to us today. While the context, or culture, that the Bible was written in has changed, the content of the message has not. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is just as true for 21st century American believers as it was for 1st century believers. “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.”
If the Bible is God’s revelation of himself to humanity, how come it is so often confusing and not more straightforward? Why does he not just tell us who he his; his purpose in creation; the significance of Jesus incarnation and atonement; and how the church should operate? I have no doubt that he could have produced that kind of a book. But he did not. Instead we have a collection of writings that theologians have debated and argued over for as long as we have had them. Could it be that he intentionally gave us something that would require some effort on our part to understand. And with that effort, helping us to grow in our faith? After all, the more we put into it, the more we are likely to derive from it.
The remainder of the posts in this series will assume that the Bible is an authoritative guide to knowing God; his purpose; humanity and our condition; and living as believers. This is an unprovable assumption; but one that has been held as true in the lives of untold numbers of people, including my own. I also will be assuming dynamic inspiration and soteriological inerrancy.
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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Other Posts in this Series
- An Introduction to Systematic Theology
- The God of General Revelation
- The Doctrine of the Bible
- The Nature of God
- The Work of God
- The Doctrine of Humanity
- The Doctrine of Sin
- The Person of Christ
- The Work of Christ
- The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
- The Doctrine of Salvation
- The Doctrine of the Church
- The Doctrine of Last Things
- Original Post: December 16, 2017
- Updated: December 6, 2019