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November 22, 2014

The Bible: What we know, what we believe

The nature of the Bible is a cause for divisions among Christians. This is especially so among those who make large assumptions about the Bible without knowledge of its source and nature. It is helpful to consider what we know about the Bible before discussing what we believe about it. Knowledge about the Bible includes its sources, authors, genres, history, and translation. Incredibly, some treat the Bible as a unit, handed down complete, formatted, and in their own language. Such is not the case, of course. In contrast, the Bible is an anthology (compilation) of Hebrew and Christian writings, by various authors, in various literary forms. If we had “the Bible” in original form, it would consist of individual scrolls, letters, and at best booklets, all handwritten, and in Hebrew and Greek. The invention of the printing press, binding (codices), translations, and canonization led to the volume we now see as a unit, the Bible. A common factor in all of these developments is the human component; that might be significant. If we ascribe to the Bible things it is not, we deceive ourselves and diminish its power. Truth will bear away the victory.

There are several problems in validating the Bible. None of the original texts exist. Instead, there are numerous copies, usually partial, which reveal variations. We cannot be certain of the author in many cases, although scholarship is able to make reasonable confirmations. For example, tradition has Moses as the author of Genesis, but there is considerable suggestion of more than one author, and the earliest parts very likely come from oral traditions, including older traditions known from outside Israel. Clearly, humans wrote the Bible, translated the books, and decided what writings would be included in the Bible. The notorious Apocryphal books, for example were at first included with the King James Version, later removed, and remain in Catholic Bibles. Translation is less than perfect, particularly Hebrew to English. There are not equivalent words or expressions in many cases. At the very least, choices are made about how a text is to be translated. The literary forms in scripture are also important, among those recognized: history (and traditions), law, prophecy, gospel accounts, and letters. Each has its own characteristics and significance. These things are knowledge, therefore can be affirmed (or challenged) by anyone, believer or not.

We transition from knowledge to belief, sometimes imperceptibly. Among Christians, there is widespread belief that the scripture is inspired and that it is authoritative. These are beliefs, not knowledge, but that does not mean they are untrue. In fact, these beliefs might be considered foundational for Christians. These concepts come from many years of scholarship, tradition, and reasoning. They are affirmed spiritually. Of course, not everyone can accept that form of affirmation; not everyone can see or experience spiritually. Furthermore, inspiration is seen by some to be all-inclusive and absolute, by others to be more general. Other beliefs proceed from and are added to these foundational beliefs. They begin to diverge, and result in a range of practices and doctrines. Some of our beliefs about the Bible are more defensible than others.

If we begin with some common ground, we may be able to improve unity without sacrificing truth. We might agree that God is revealed and Christ promised in the Old Testament. God is described as creator. His nature as all-powerful, eternal, and just is also revealed. And then, Christ is revealed in New Testament writings and he is shown to be God come down to man. Therewith, the gospel is introduced, which is God’s plan for those who accept him. Understanding the nature of scripture is not necessary to accepting the gospel. God’s grace is discoverable in very simple terms, even to the very simple.

Despite the humanity involved in scripture, we trust and treasure scripture with reason: Jesus quoted extensively from the Old Testament and he affirmed the written law. In a sense, Jesus himself canonized most of the Old Testament. The gospels of the New Testament provide a strong apologetic for his messiahship; an unbroken chain of believers testifies to this; and (most importantly) the Holy Spirit continues to confirm him. From this line of reasoning you can see that, for Christians, all centers in Jesus Christ. If the Holy Spirit did not confirm him in the present, all the other suppositions and scriptures themselves would be very interesting, but suspect. This would be so because the claims of scripture itself could not be validated by experience. Bringing people into relationship with Jesus Christ is the critical point. The follower of Christ will experience the word of God from scripture because the Holy Spirit reveals those words, in real time. The believer will find the Bible authoritative for holy living, also revealed by the Spirit.

Others will make additional claims on the Bible, including opinions about infallibility, inerrancy, whether it is the “complete” word of God, and what inspiration means. There are difficulties in all these terms. I will leave those arguments to others, because they are not productive for the kingdom of God. The Bible works.

Alvin Perkins, Somerset, KY ©2014