There are two different perspectives we can use when examining the Bible. The first of these is from a 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 broken up because of size limitations for scrolls.
Two Collections: 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 Testaments. 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, 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 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.
Authors: 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.
Dates: 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 the final form 2500 years ago. Most of the rest of the Old Testament faces the same issue but we can safely say that it was completed prior to about 300 B.C.
Accuracy: 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, 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.
Canonization: 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. Standard collections, or canons, are eventually, and independently, accepted by both communities and today are what we call the Bible.
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, and 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.
Theories of Inspiration
Dictation: 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.
Verbal: 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.
Dynamic: 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 in a way that would be unique to them.
Illumination: This theory limits the input of the Holy Spirit to influencing them 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 does one go about determining what inspiration really means in the case 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 one, one without the apparent inconsistencies among the Synoptics?
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.
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 like Luke changes Marks’s account in some of its details, as well as adding a lot of content.
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 with the Holy Spirit giving them both 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.
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, 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.
Models of Inerrancy?
Strict Inerrancy: 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.
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, and 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.
Soteriological Inerrancy: 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.
While there is an 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.
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.
Not Inerrant: 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?
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?
There are however, at least in my mind, some issues with the strict inerrancy approach. It does make the assumption that God is unable to provide us with a book that is anything less than 100% true in every way. I believe that is an unwarranted assumption. I hesitate to put that kind of limit on what God can or cannot do.
The Bible is oftentimes challenging to understand. Why didn’t God give us a book that was more straight forward and easy to consume. What is the reason for the endless genealogies, Psalms about smiting enemies and Song of Solomon? Why is the history in the Bible so uneven; some events covered in great detail and others virtually ignored? Why does the Bible reflect the culture that produced it?
The Bible is a product of a culture(s) that is long gone. It was written by men of that time for men of that time. They had a different way of looking at the world and oftentimes a different understanding of who God is. God worked through them to reveal himself to his people in ways that were meaningful to them. They recorded their history and their world in ways that was meaningful to them and reflected how they perceived God to be working. God used these men, inspiring them, to produce the Bible.
I believe it is helpful to keep in mind the purpose of the Scriptures. As mentioned before, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is key to understanding this purpose.
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.
God has given us the Bible to teach us, rebuke us as necessary, to provide correction and to train us in righteous living. The goal is that we may be fully equipped for the life he has called us to. And the Bible can do that quite nicely without the standards of accuracy that we are accustomed to today. Trying to defend the historicity of the Old Testament accounts, or the scientific accuracy of the Genesis creation accounts detracts us from the goal of living thoroughly equipped lives that honor Christ.
Demanding strict inerrancy can also reduce our ability to bear witness to the love of God to a world that is quite different from the one that produced the Bible. When all of the scientific evidence points to an earth that is billions of years old, proclaiming a belief in an earth that is only thousands of years old will mark us as fools not worth listening to. Being thought a fool for Christ is not a bad thing. But being foolish concerning God’s revelation of himself in the creation, a revelation that is so clear to the rest of the world, is a problem when it keeps people from listening to the truth that we do have.
Soteriological inerrancy accepts that the message of the Bible for us is true. And it recognizes that the Bible was written by and for a culture that is different than ours today. It does not reject the history and science of the Bible; but it calls on us to see it in a different light, a light that is hard for us today and takes a lot of work.
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.
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 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 proven true in the lives of untold numbers of people, including my own. I also will be assuming dynamic inspiration and soteriological inerrancy.
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