It is quite common to hear sensible people discarding the Bible as “a load of fairy stories”, or “just an out-dated list of rules and regulations”, or “beautiful language, but irrelevant”, or simply a human record of ancient history”.
However, the more we investigate the more we discover three things: That the Bible is
• Reliable as a Witness
• Reliable as Wisdom … and
• Reliable as Word
Let’s look at each of these areas in turn:
Reliable as a Witness
What we are asking here is: Can we trust the Bible to really contain the words of Jesus, Moses or Paul? Can we believe the stories to be true? How can we handle apparent discrepancies?
The first point we can be quite sure of is the extreme accuracy with which the Scriptures were first remembered, and then copied. People in the ancient world trained their minds to memorise enormous chunks of narrative, history, poetry and law. Some Rabbis were known as “walking libraries.” Comparison of the Dead Sea Scrolls (c.50BC) with the next oldest Old Testament manuscripts available (c1000 AD), demonstrates just how faithfully the scrolls must have been copied. Likewise, comparison across literally thousands of New Testament manuscripts, all generated by hand within a few years of each other but across a wide geographical area, shows the astonishing care that was taken.
Of course even fairy stories can be passed down accurately. Are there ways of verifying the historicity of the Biblical accounts? Indeed there are. Again and again archaeologists and other researchers find that where the Bible purports to give an eye-witness their discoveries support its reliability.
Sometimes, of course, we have to bring interpretation into the equation. There are many kinds of literature in the Bible, and we should not confuse parable or poetry, for example, with history or testimony. Misinterpretation of the kind of writing we are dealing with easily leads to charges of “unreliability”. But poetry isn’t unreliable just because it isn’t science. It tells the truth in a different way.
But even if the Bible is reliable as a witness, does it makes sense in today’s world? Is it reliable wisdom?
Reliable as Wisdom
What we are asking here is whether the Bible is still useful, or whether it is simply out-dated and redundant. Let’s consider just three key areas of contemporary life to which the Bible speaks powerfully.
We often see the Bible as one great big rule book telling us how to behave. In fact, while there is much in the form of command, the real vision is one of building honest, caring, respectful, truthful relationships. Many of our most basic relational proverbs, such as “Do to others what you would have them do to you” actually come straight from Biblical teaching.
The Bible has a lot to say about ambition, and most importantly it puts it in the context of serving God and others. The Bible warns us realistically about the destructive nature of selfish ambition. It teaches us honesty, to trust God, and to care for others.
The bookshops and newsstands of our world are crammed full of personal development plans. The Bible is frighteningly honest. Its most celebrated heroes are filled with weakness, failure, and sin – yet by God’s grace, they grow as people. Time and again we find our own lives reflected in the Bible, and the accuracy of that reflection is a benchmark of the reliability of biblical wisdom. This honest appraisal, rooted in the creatorly love of God and his desire to bring each of us to complete wholeness, gives us a solid basis for self-understanding. It tells us we have value and worth; It tells us that how ever prone we are to self deception, we have actually been created for joy and goodness. As wisdom for personal growth the Bible is very reliable: it is realistic and rooted, yet warm, loving and supportive.
But there are many other wise and ancient texts. Can we really take the Bible as God’s Word?
Reliable as Word
“Scripture” means “Writings” – writings from God. Joseph Smith was the founder of the Mormons, who claimed to have found on a hill near his home, written on Golden Tablets. He said he could only interpret it by putting on special glasses handed him by an angel. Mohammed believed the Koran to be so intrinsically the word of God that it could never be faithfully translated from the original Arabic. Both of these religions view their scriptures as documents which have been dictated.
The Bible is completely different. It was written over a 1600 year span, and by at least 40 authors from all walks of life. It was composed in a host of locations, and in at least three languages. The Bible never speaks of itself as God’s dictation, but rather we read that, ‘men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.’
The Bible reveals God as one who relates. He is not a monolith, and therefore it would be completely inappropriate for him to convey his self-revelation by an autocratic dictation. The most likely way in which this kind of a God would speak his word to humans is actually in partnership – inspiring the writers by his Spirit.
Thus the way in which the Bible itself speaks about the process of divine inspiration is both consistent and coherent with what it teaches about the character of God, and with what we know historically of how the Bible came to be.
There will always be sceptics, and the Christian life is ultimately a life of faith rather than proof. But in this life we find that in all the key areas the Bible is reliable, over and over again.
Part of the material contained within this page is copyright © 2003 Richard Dormandy