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"Why Trust the Bible?"

May 4, 2014 2Tim 3:8-17


There's a war on out there. And I'm not talking about any of the geographical hot-spots currently on the news. There's a war of worldviews - culture wars. And if the church isn't careful, the Panzer tanks of media messages are going to roll right over and crush the traditional churchgoers who, if hard-pressed, can quote a verse or two of the Bible from memory but don't really appreciate how essential its message is for faith.

Well-known New York author and Presbyterian pastor Timothy Keller was hosting a one-hour "AskTK" session on Twitter this past Wednesday, where people could ask him various questions. @retroshu asked, "What is in your opinion, the biggest issue the church is facing today?" Keller replied with 4 things: "Apologetics in a more hostile culture; need for a theology of suffering; reach cities; maintain belief in biblical authority." It's that last item I'd like to focus on today - "Maintain belief in Biblical authority." Why trust the Bible? A student pastor of a small rural church summarized the concern of his congregation: "My people ask me, 'If the Bible says it, can I believe it?"

Skeptics can be harsh in expressing doubt as to whether the Bible is reliable. John Piper cites a "Letter from Minnesota Atheists" which appeared in a local newspaper in (Oct.17) 1992: they said - "One of the few worthwhile statements in the Bible is, 'You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.'...Knowledge of the Bible is hindered by the informal censorship imposed by religious leaders who would rather their followers didn't know what's in it - the innumerable contradictions, historical errors, plagiarism, absurdities, meaningless prophecies, myths presented as historical fact, and countless instances of divinely ordered or approved atrocities...It is true that the Bible has some worthwhile material, including entertaining stories, inspirational sentiments and astute observations about human behavior.However, those worthwhile parts could probably be contained in a pamphlet."

How do respond to statements like that? Are we just here to recount so many fairy tales? Unless we can vouch for and defend the trustworthiness of our basic religious text, we might as well pack up and go home.


A philosophical problem immediately arises - how do you establish the authority of your most basic authority? What can you compare the thing you hold most ultimately "true" to in order to prove it's true? Systematic theologian Millard Erickson puts the problem this way: "There is a dilemma which any theology (or any other system of thought for that matter) faces when dealing with its basic authority. Either it bases its starting point upon itself, in which case it is guilty of circularity, OR it bases itself upon some foundation other than that upon which it bases all its other articles, in which case it is guilty of inconsistency."

You have to start somewhere in your faith-system, start with certain "givens" / axioms (we'd call them in math) / basic assumptions. The problem is that, if the Bible is your supreme authority, you can't appeal to any higher authority by which to "prove" it. So the tendency is to end up quoting Scripture verses to prove that Scripture has divine origin: hence the circularity, that's unconvincing to a skeptic since it appears you're ASSUMING what you're trying to establish logically.

It doesn't help that the theologians of the Reformation maintained full conviction of Scripture's authority could only come from the Holy Spirit. The fourth question of the Westminster Larger Catechism asks, "How doth it appear that the Scriptures are the word of God?" To which this answer is supplied: "The Scriptures manifest themselves to be the word of God, by their majesty and purity; by the consent of all the parts, and the scope of the whole, which is to give all glory to God; by their light and power to convince and convert sinners, to comfort and build up believers unto salvation.But the Spirit of God, bearing witness by and with the Scriptures in the heart of man, is alone able fully to persuade it that they are the very word of God."

Isn't that just great!? - we have to rely upon (what might seem to a skeptic) a holy "fudge factor". John Calvin wrote, "The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason.For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his word, the Word will not find acceptance in men's hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit.The same Spirit therefore who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded..."

So the reformers held that the Bible is self-authenticating, that any real conviction of its trustworthiness HAS to come from the Holy Spirit.


So are we stranded in a circular argument, without any support for the Bible's veracity other than its own self-witness? Is it simply a matter of spouting, "The Bible tells me so"? Not altogether. God has gifted us with other sources which do attest to the Bible's worthiness, while (granted) final conviction of its truth is a matter of divine influence.

For one thing, there is the science of literary textual criticism. There is such a high number of ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, for example - over 5,200 (as of 1967) - that we can reconstruct the original text with a high degree of probability. Contrast that with only 10 manuscripts of Caesar's Gallic Wars, 2 manuscripts of the Roman historian Tacitus' Histories and Annals, and just 8 of Thucydides' History. Yet secular scholars don't doubt the authenticity of these writings despite the fact that there are so few manuscripts, some no earlier than 1300 years after the originals.

Now, a risk with so much copying going on is that errors get introduced in the process of transmission. But the advantage is that scholars can sort through the many manuscripts and spot the corrections needed. FF Bruce writes: "Fortunately, if the great number of MSS increases the number of scribal errors, it increases proportionately the means of correcting such errors, so that the margin of doubt left in the process of recovering the exact original wording is not so large as might be feared; it is in truth remarkably small...The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affects no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice."

So, even from a secular point of view, scientists are convinced that the Bible you have in your hands represents accurately what the human authors, divinely-guided, penned back in their time.

There's also evidence from archeology. The Bible presents itself, not as a made-up or mythical tale, but as an historical account. For example, Luke (author of both the gospel by that name and the book of Acts) claims to "have carefully investigated everything from the beginning" in order to "write an orderly account" (Lk 1:3). So we have names of places and historical rulers and events that can be checked out. Archeologically the Bible "fits" with its context.

There is evidence from what's called "natural law" and our inner sense of morality. As the Bible puts it in Psalm 19, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands...Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world." God communicates truth about Himself by our mere observation of the created order, what's known as "general revelation". Romans 1:19f, "...what may be known about God is plain to them...For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities-- his eternal power and divine nature-- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." When we read the Bible, it points outside itself to this fact of our experience of the majesty and beauty that can be found in nature - factors pointing to a powerful Supreme Being.

Cultures through history have developed moral codes summed up in 'natural law' - see CS Lewis' summary of what he calls "The Tao" in the appendix of The Abolition of Man. So Paul in Romans 2:14f points to Gentiles who, "do not have the [Jewish] law" yet "show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness..." The ethical teachings of the Bible commend themselves to a reader's inner moral compass; an unbiased reader might find themselves thinking, "If everybody behaved according to these principles, the world would be a lot better place." The Bible's message resonates with the moral categories with which the Creator has hard-wired people's consciences.

The Bible is realistic, not like some other-worldly fairy tale. Even its heroes are presented with their flaws and shortcomings. As we read it, the Bible's description of our earthly situation accords with our experience of both the beauty and brokenness of our world. It presents a plausible answer to the four questions ANY significant worldview has to address: origin (where do we come from), meaning (why are we here), morality (what's right and wrong), and destiny (where are we going).


In a court case, the judge doesn't SOLELY rely on the basis of the defendant's explanation - other witnesses are called for, external evidence is examined - but the legal proceedings DO attempt to provide a fair hearing for the accused: at some point, we give them a chance to make their case. "So just what do you have to say for yourself, to explain why you were erratically driving 10 children on that school bus after drinking alcohol?!" (Not that I suppose the excuse would make a whole lot of difference in that case!) Give it a hearing - what DOES the Bible have to say for itself?

Scripture maintains it is "inspired", out-breathed by God. 2Tim 3:16A "All Scripture is God-breathed..." 2Peter 1:20-21 "...no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation.For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." Like a ship being 'borne along' by the wind. Not mechanistic dictation, but God superintending the writing and styles of the authors (with all their richness of individual background and temperament) so that the words penned were the message God wanted relayed to the audience. In the Old Testament, prophets could declare "Thus says the Lord" 416 times [NASB] with full conviction because God had shown them what to say - they weren't just making it up from their own imagination.

The Bible also presents itself as an ultimate yardstick; in the words of the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, "without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice." Second half of 2Tim 3:16: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness..." Luke describes the people of Berea as of "more noble character" because "they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." (Ac 17:11) Jesus criticized the Sadducees, "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God." (Mt 22:29) When Jesus countered Satan's tempations in the wilderness, each time He responded by quoting Scripture - and He regularly used Scripture to answer His critics (Mt 4:4,7,10).

The Bible implies it is reliable. Jesus said as an aside in John 10:35 "the Scripture cannot be broken". Jn 17:17 (praying to the Father) "Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth." And that oft-quoted saying about "The truth will set you free"? It's truth in the context of God's communication, His 'special revelation'. Jesus says to Jews who had believed him in Jn 8:31f, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." Truth is rooted in Biblical teaching.

The Bible also points to the permanence of its communication. Jesus declared a most significant statement in Mt 24:35, if you're curious as to what's "really real": He said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away."


What about problems we come across when reading the Bible, like the miraculous or apparent discrepancies? Modernists had a definite prejudice against miracles, despite the fact that many great scientists such as Blaise Pascal and men of learning like CS Lewis had no problem with the miraculous. But postmodernists in this century seem less bothered by the miraculous. Perhaps the mysteries of science such as quantum physics and black holes have left them more open to wonder.

Admit it: Christianity is based on a miracle - the resurrection (1Cor 15:3-4), not to mention the many miracles recorded from Jesus' earthly ministry. Once one accepts the possibility of a resurrection, other miracles (or even Creation itself!) don't seem so improbable.

As for apparent discrepancies, often there can be resolution through moderate harmonization of the Biblical passages involved. Why couldn't Jesus have cleared the temple both at the outset (as in John) and the end (as in Matthew-Mark-Luke) of His ministry? Why couldn't there have been 2 anointings near the end of His life? Can we not allow Matthew some liberty to tell a story of an event in Jesus' life earlier in his account in order to make a literary point? Still other problematic passages may be beyond our ability to resolve with the limited information we have available.

Minor variances between accounts can actually strengthen their overall court-worthiness; for instance, just how many angels were there at the tomb? A detective investigating might start to suspect witnesses were "coached" and their responses "scripted" if they all agreed word-for-word. In this sense, differences in minor details can actually reinforce the case that these were actual eye-witness accounts.

Also, it's significant that the New Testament compilers and editors left IN the apostles' gaffs, the parts that were embarrassing - one can imagine Peter wishing Mark had left OUT the part about his denial! But the fact the characters from Adam and Abraham on down are presented so RAW, warts-and-all, testifies to the truthfulness of the transmission - the documents weren't "tampered with" to make the heroes look better.


Our key values at LWCF are: "Christ-centred, Bible-believing, Fellowship-friendly, Growth-geared." There's a reason "Bible-believing" doesn't come first. We don't worship the Bible, but the Person we meet in its pages - Jesus. He claimed to be "Lord of the Sabbath" (Mt 12:8), and in debate with the Pharisees showed Himself to also be Lord of the Scriptures - stumping them on a passage where David "speaking by the Spirit" addresses the Messiah as "my Lord" (Mt 22:43ff). At the end of Matthew's gospel, the Risen Christ proclaims, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." (Mt 28:18) There's no authority contest between Jesus and the Bible - Jesus wins hands-down! Yet as we read His life (with the help of Scripture) we also see how He consciously and deliberately submitted Himself to the plan Scripture mapped out for Him before He was born: Mark 8/9/10 - 3 predictions about His upcoming death and resurrection; Mark 14:49 at His arrest, "But the Scriptures must be fulfilled" - whereupon the disciples fled, they just didn't get it! And in His risen appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:25ff, ""How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself."

Bottom line - a follower of Jesus trusts the Bible because we acknowledge, as written by the apostles, "Jesus is Lord" - I'm sold out to Him, I submit to Jesus' authority, and Christ Himself operated with a total respect for and compliance with Scripture's trustworthiness. In doing that, we begin to discover the power and real effectiveness of God's word written. It's true that the Holy Spirit DOES confirm the truth of God's word in Scripture as the reformers describe; we experience Hebrews 4:12, "For the word of God is living and active.Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." Or as Paul recalled to the Thessalonians, "when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe." (1Th 2:13) Take it for a test-drive: don't let it be the book you "dust and trust"! Let's pray.