Most people who know me fairly well would agree that I’m somewhat of a bibliophile. My apartment is crammed full of books, and that’s not even counting the many tomes that are still back at my parent’s house in Alabama. Ever since I was small, I’ve always enjoyed spending time in libraries and bookstores, and I really credit my parents for instilling in me a love of reading as a child. I read in many different genres–novels, plays, biographies, memoirs, history, travelogues, cultural studies, art history, theology–the list goes on. But what constantly amazes me is how one book above all, The Bible, has exerted such an inordinate influence over almost every conceivable branch of Western letters. In fact, even if you’re not a Christian, if you grew up in the West, you have been somehow shaped by this book. Because Biblical themes, standards, and ideals have left an indelible impression not only on the literature, but on the art, laws, culture, and psyche of the Western world. However living as I do in a fairly secular place like Boulder, Colorado, I often hear people saying something along these lines—“yes we know that the Bible is an important book, from a literary, and cultural standpoint. But is it something that we can still consider reliable as a guide to life in 2016?” And that’s a very legitimate question to explore, which is want I want to do in the rest of this blog post. I want to endeavor to answer some of these questions: How can we trust that that Bible is the Word of God, which has been passed down faithfully through the ages, across so many different cultures and languages?? And furthermore, why specifically is it that Christians make the Bible into their guide for faith and practice? Even if we accept the authority of the Bible–how do we go about interpreting it? How can we study the Bible effectively, and begin to live out what it teaches? I’ll start by laying out some claims about why we can trust the Bible from a historical standpoint. Then we’ll get into why the Bible is our primary guide to the Christian life, how we can interpret Scripture, and finally some suggestions for further Biblical study.
Let me set the stage initially though by talking about the power of the Word. Our words—mine, yours, everyone’s, have power. Words have power to inspire. Where I live, here in Colorado, the Broncos are king, but personally I’ve always been more of a college football than NFL fan. Maybe it has something to do with coming from Alabama haha. But I love to study the history of the sport, and read about famous coaches. And even though I’m no fan of the team, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have produced some legendary sideline leaders over the years, and none greater than Knute Rockne. He coached them from 1918-1930, and during that span won 105 games and five national championships. Rockne, in addition to being a great tactician, was known for his rousing locker-room speeches. The most famous of them all was his “win one for the Gipper” speech, given during the half-time of the 1928 Notre Dame-Army game. George Gipp had been an All-American halfback for the Irish, but he caught pneumonia, and died an untimely death at the end of his last college season in 1920. So the story goes, before he passed away, Gipp made one last request to his coach, Knute Rockne: “I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.” Rockne apparently saved this inspirational story for nearly a decade before using it to fire up his Irish team to come out in the second half and defeat Army, 12-6.
Words, even just a few, if carefully selected, have the power to paint indelible images. One of my favorite poems is called “The Eagle” by 19th century British writer Alfred Lord Tennyson. I love it because in just a few lines, Tennyson paints an unforgettable visual portrait of this majestic bird: “He clasps the crag with crooked hands/Close to the sun in lonely lands/Ringed with the azure world, he stands/The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls/He watches from his mountain walls/And like a thunderbolt he falls.” Words have the power to convict. I did my undergrad at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and as at many universities, we had an Honor Code there. But while the Honor Code is certainly not unique to Vanderbilt, there is a special story attached to it that I love to recall. Dr. Madison Sarratt was a math professor, and later a vice-chancellor at Vanderbilt in the mid 20th century. And this is what he once announced to a class before he gave them a test, in order to get his students to take the idea of the Honor Code, and their academic integrity seriously: “Today I am going to give you two examinations—one in trigonometry and one in honesty. I hope you will pass them both, but if you must fail one, let it be trigonometry, for there are many good people in this world today who can’t pass an examination in trigonometry, but there are no good people in the world who cannot pass an examination in honesty.”
So indeed, words have power. And this is the principle at the heart of why Scripture, the written Word of God matters. Interestingly enough, at the Beginning of all things, there were words. According to the Book of Genesis, the Lord God did not fashion the universe and all creation through His hands, or by stirring up some cosmic mishmash together. No, He spoke everything into existence. The Power of the Word. Later, in John 1, Jesus is referred to as the “Word of God”, and then as the “Word made flesh”. So Words matter, Words have significance, and the Words of Scripture, as we will see, are reliable.
So let’s discuss that question now a little further—how is it that we know we can trust the Bible from a historical standpoint? I could really use the rest of this post just on this one topic, but I do want to give you just a few reasons as to why you can trust that the Bible is reliable, and has been faithfully preserved down through the ages. Most people are probably familiar with the Dead Sea Scrolls. These ancient Biblical manuscripts were first discovered by Bedouin shepherds in Caves near the Dead Sea in Israel starting in late 1946. Over the next decade a total of 981 manuscripts were found, and documented. What did they contain?? Well there were portions of every book in the Old Testament except for one, including a complete copy of the Book of Isaiah. The most remarkable thing about this discovery from an archaeological standpoint is that before this time, the oldest copies of the Hebrew Bible we had dated to about the 10 century AD. The oldest of the Dead Sea Scrolls go back to the 4th century, BC. So in other words, this discovery brought to light Biblical manuscripts that were over 1000 years older than any that had been previously found!! From a faith standpoint though, the most significant thing about the scrolls is that their appearance and subsequent translation has not significantly altered the Biblical manuscript. Except for a few grammatical differences and slight textual variants, what researchers and scholars found again and again was that the Jewish scribes had been extraordinarily faithful in copying and passing down their scrolls from one generation to the next, over a period of thousands of years! In fact even today, the Jewish people continue to treat the Word of God with extraordinary reverence. Specially trained scribes actually copy out the entire Torah, which is the first five books of the Old Testament, in longhand, for use as a scroll in synagogue worship. When the scribe is being copied, if any mistakes are made, the entire page must be torn out, and done over again. And once the scroll is completed, a process which can take as long as a year-and-a-half, its pages must never be touched directly by the human hand. Instead, a special pointer is used to follow along in the text when reading.
Now, some of you may be wondering just how it is that these Scriptures, which have been translated so faithfully and treated with such reverence across the ages, even came to be collected together in the first place? After all, some of the manuscripts discovered from among the Dead Sea Scrolls were fragments from texts that are not now found in Scripture. So how was it decided about which books to include in the Bible? Well it’s a fascinating process to study what is known the Canonization of the Bible—how the individual books were selected. In the case of both the Hebrew Old Testament, and the Greek New Testament, this process of Canonization was a lengthy one, rather than a single event. The first portion of the Hebrew Bible to be grated authoritative status was the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament—the books of the Law. By around 400 BC in the years following the Jewish exile in Babylon, the Torah was accepted as part of the Canon. Next to be accepted were the writings of the Prophets, by approximately 200 BC. Finally, towards the end of the 1st century AD, especially following a critical council held at Jamnia in 90 AD, the remaining books of the Old Testament gradually came into widespread acceptance in the various Jewish communities. But how did religious leaders and scholars decide which books to include, and which to exclude?? Well, there were several possible criteria—was the book written in the Hebrew language, was it believed to be Divinely-inspired, did it conform enough, in terms of teaching and content with other texts, and was it in widespread use amongst the various Jewish communities scattered around the Ancient Near East?? And what about the Canonization of the New Testament, written in Greek?? Well the first parts of the New Testament to be written were some of Paul’s letters, starting in the 50’s AD. These were followed by the Gospels, between roughly 70 and 100 AD, along with epistles from Paul and others. As for their inclusion in the eventual Bible, it’s widely accepted that by the end of the 2nd century AD, Paul’s letters and the four Gospels were all considered Canonical, while other books, such as Revelation and Hebrews, would take longer to be included. The earliest list we have of the 27 books of the New Testament comes from Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in 367 AD. Criteria for canonical inclusion of New Testament were fairly similar to those used to determine the Old Testament books. They included apostolicity, which is a book’s connection back to someone who either was an apostle or knew firsthand an Apostle of Jesus. Other criteria included that the book taught orthodoxy, or true doctrine, was considered to be Divinely-inspired, and finally that the work was widely accepted amongst the various churches and early Christian communities. I share this information so that you know the 66 books of the Bible were not assembled randomly, but with painstaking care, and according to a specific set of instructions.
It is interesting too, just for a moment, to look at the Gospels specifically. These four books really are the heart of the New Testament, and at the very center of the foundation of the Christian faith, since they recount the life of Christ. But sometimes critics will charge that the Gospels were written long after the time of Christ, thus allowing their message to become distorted and inaccurate. Bart Ehrman is a noted author, and scholar of the New Testament, but he is not a practicing Christian, and has made a name for himself as a religious skeptic. Now the great Christian writer and apologist C.S. Lewis is famous for arguing that you have only three options for considering who Jesus is, based on the Biblical evidence: He is a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. But Bart Ehrman adds a fourth possible option to this list—legend. In other words, Ehrman believes that Jesus could have been just an ordinary, moral teacher who was elevated to the status of a God by His later followers. And part of the strength of such an argument could plausibly lie in saying that the more time which passes between an individual’s death, and the records pertaining to their life and work, the more space there could be for a possible distortion of details, and even the invention of information. But if we take the widely accepted date for the death of Christ to be around 33 AD, we find that the first Gospel, Mark could have been written as early as 65 AD, just about thirty years later. The last Gospel, John, was probably written around 90 AD. Thus we are talking about a period of only about 60 years between the death of Christ and the last of the firsthand accounts of His life. Especially by the standards of antiquity, that is not a long time-lapse. Thus the Gospels were written within a timeframe that could easily have encompassed the lifespan of someone who knew Jesus and walked alongside Him. Therefore it makes it less likely that wild fabrications or outright legends would be concocted during a time when eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life still would have been living. Also, the chart I have posted above this paragraph provides a nice response to people who would try and cast doubt on the authenticity of the New Testament, while refraining from similar critiques on other widely accepted works of antiquity. As you can see, both in terms of the number of extant manuscripts and the gap between the creation of the original and the oldest surviving copies, the New Testament has much stronger evidence for its textual integrity and existence than the works of Homer, Caesar, Tacitus, and many other famous writers from antiquity.
Finally, as regards this whole matter of the historical reliability and accuracy of Scripture, I’d like to share a brief anecdote. Horizons International is a ministry located in Boulder, right across the street from the CU campus. As the name implies, they focus on reaching out to international students, specifically those coming from a Muslim background. The founder of Horizons is a man named Georges Houssney, from Lebanon, who grew up in the predominantly Muslim city of Tripoli, Lebanon before converting to Christianity. Now one thing that you might know about Islam is that they are very particular about the fact that the Koran can only be properly read and understood in Arabic. And so sometimes when you see translations of their holy book into other languages, they won’t even be called Korans, but something like “An interpretation of the meaning of the Holy Koran.” As a result of this feature of their religion, Muslims often accuse Christians of holding to a distorted, or garbled version of the Word of God, due to the many translations that have taken place over the years. Houssney’s response to this objection is quick and forceful. He accuses the person of having uttered a blasphemy, that is speaking in an offensive manner towards God. Then he asks them something like this: “Don’t you think that the Lord God, the Creator and ruler of this entire universe, whom you claim to believe in, is capable of keeping the meaning of His Word intact through some different translations? Is it beyond God’s ability to work in more than one language??” And that response usually answers the objection! As I’ve tried to show through a few historical examples, God’s Word has been preserved through the ages and is historically reliable.
But why as Christians, and maybe especially as Protestants, would we say that the Bible is the ultimate authority for Christian practice, and the final source we turn to in order to direct our life and faith as believers? Well to answer this question let’s go back in history a few centuries, to the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The man most associated with this movement to correct some of the major abuses in Catholicism was Martin Luther, that great German theologian and writer. Luther had actually trained originally to be a priest, and one of the things that troubled him about the Catholicism of his day was the extent to which it was endorsing practices which Luther did not feel had any real Scriptural basis. In 1521, Luther, whose writings attacking the church’s corruption were starting to garner increasing controversy and gather him a following of his own, was called before a council of the Holy Roman Empire, in what came to be known as the “Diet of Worms.” There, before the imperial council, Luther was asked to renounce all of his writings as heresy. His famous response was this: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.” Luther received the courage to stand against the imperial authorities and the assembled might of the Catholic hierarchy because it was his solid conviction that Christians should order their lives, first and foremost, according to the dictates of Scripture. This is why one of the primary truths that emerged from the Protestant Reformation is the term Sola Scriptura, which is Latin for “Scripture alone.”
And in various places, the Bible itself attests to its own authority as our guide for life. Psalm 119, the longest of all Psalms, is essentially a beautiful hymn to the glory of God’s Word, and all the ways in which it can aid and sustain us through life. God’s Word guards us from wrongdoing–Psalm 119:11—“Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” The Scriptures help us in times of difficulty and suffering–Psalm 119:28—“My soul melts from heaviness; strengthen me according to your word” Scripture and its truth are not just for one age, but for all time–Psalm 119:89—“Forever, O Lord, your word is settled in heaven.” The Bible will guide us in all areas where we would require advice and discernment–Psalm 119:105—“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Then we later have the testimony of Christ, which powerfully echoes Psalm 119 in attesting to the power and permanence of God’s Word. When Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness, He responds by quoting from God’s Word, and avowing our absolute need to be sustained by it daily. Matthew 4:4—“It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Here Jesus is actually quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3, thereby demonstrating His own knowledge and faithfulness to Scripture. Christ’s Twelve Apostles furthermore recognize that they can do no better than to be guided by the Divine Word. At one point, Jesus asks them if they wish to turn back from following Him, as some others have already. Peter’s response is perfect in its succinct truth. John 6:68—“Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And then like Psalm 119, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 reminds us that the Bible can guide us in all areas of our life: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
But how are we to go about understanding and interpreting the message of the Bible? Can’t Scripture often be challenging, complex, and hard to fully understand? After all, it was written thousands of years ago, in a time and culture very different from ours today. Now all of that is true, but at the same time, as Christians, we hold the Bible dear precisely because we believe that everyone, and not just the specially-trained person, can understand and apply Scriptural truth in their lives. Another one of the foundational principles that emerged during the Protestant Reformation from Luther and his followers is the idea of the “Priesthood of the Believer.” This is the concept that all Christians, and not just the clergy, have direct access to God through their prayers and the power of the Holy Spirit. This access also includes the ability to interpret Scripture. Now of course it can be helpful to have training to better understand the Bible, and in fact what I want to talk about now are some of the aids that we have at our disposal to better understand Scripture and its meaning. The most important one perhaps, is the power of the Holy Spirit, which is promised to us by Jesus in John 16:13—“When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will speak not on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will tell you things to come.”
John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist Church in England in the 1700s, and later, his followers compiled a methodology based on his ideas known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The idea is that there are four norms or sources for guiding our Christian theology and practice. They are Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. Scripture is the most important of these four, in keeping with the teaching of earlier theologians like Luther. But the other three categories can all aid us in the interpretation of Scripture. So our God-given reason and common sense can help us understand many Biblical passages, as can tradition—borrowing from the work and wisdom of the many great Christian thinkers and teachers down through the ages. Finally experience, that is our own personal relationship with God, and what we have learned from this, can be an aid in our better understanding the message of the Bible. Now obviously Biblical interpretation is not always so simple a matter. After all, that’s part of what I went to seminary to do—to learn how to better interpret Scripture. And if you wanted to, you could go and study Biblical Hebrew, and Koine Greek, so that you could read the Biblical texts in their original languages. All that would help.
But we should be careful of assuming that the Bible is so complex and mysterious in its interpretation, because very often, the message of Scripture is perfectly clear, but we simply don’t want to follow what it says. I love a quote from Soren Kierkegaard, the great 19th century Danish theologian, on Biblical interpretation. He said this: “The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?” To finish this thought—I want to return briefly to Martin Luther. His guiding rubric, and philosophy for his entire approach to Biblical interpretation was actually quite simple, and for me, pretty hard to improve upon: “What promotes Christ.”
Lastly, I want to talk just for a moment about how you can begin to apply Biblical truth and authority into your Christian life. A lot of people say they want to live their life according to Biblical principles, but doing this isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. Gary Player is one of the most famous and successful golfers in history. The South African, known as “The Black Knight”, won nine major championships over the course of his long career, and in total has won 165 tournaments. But what was the secret to his becoming successful and then maintaining that success over such a long period of time? Well one time, so the story goes Gary Player was hitting balls off the practice tee one morning, and the first ball he hit went 280 yards straight as a bullet. A man watching him in the gallery said, ‘Man, I’d give anything to be able to hit a golf ball like you.’ Gary walked over to the guy and said, ‘No, you wouldn’t.’ The guy said, ‘Yes, I would. I’d give anything to hit like that,’ Gary said, ‘No, you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t be willing to do what it takes. You have to rise early in the morning and hit five hundred balls until your hands bleed. Then you stop, tape your hands, and hit five hundred more balls. The next morning you’re out there again with hands so raw you can barely hold your club, but you do it all over again. If you do that through enough years of pain, then you can hit a ball like that.”
Well it’s really the same with your spiritual life. There are no shortcuts—you have to develop some good habits, and engage in some spiritual disciplines if you really want to learn and apply Biblical truth to your life. First, you have to commit yourself to reading the Bible on a regular basis, preferably every day, during a quiet time. And not just reading through casually, but really studying, and pondering the truths contained therein. Psalm 1 says “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he mediates day and night.” Then Psalm 46:10 commands: “Be still, and know that I am God.” So we all need to be able to find a time and space where if even for just a few minutes, we can devote ourselves to studying and meditating upon God’s Word. And then I would also encourage you to think about engaging in Scripture memory. I posted about this not too long ago. Over the last few months, I’ve been making more of an effort to pursue Scripture memory and it’s making a difference in my quiet time and in my spiritual life. There are many different systems to use for Scripture memory. A lot of the students at CU have a verse pack, where they keep index cards with their memory verses. I actually prefer to store my verses on my phone, just because it is always something I have with me. You might find another method you prefer. But I do strongly encourage you, even if it’s just one verse a month, or a few per semester, to start learning God’s Word and storing it into your heart. It will not only help you in your own walk with the Lord, but it will help you as you minister and witness to others. As Psalm 119:130 so eloquently states in regards to God’s Scriptures: “The entrance of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple”.
Let me close by saying this—for all of the evidence that I’ve tried to offer here, ultimately, accepting Biblical authority is going to come down to an individual act of faith on each person’s part. If someone is truly a skeptic about the claims and authority of Scripture, no amount of arguing by me or anyone else will persuade them. But I do believe that God can do amazing things, even to the heart of a skeptic, if they will begin to read and study the Scriptures with an open mind. But for those of you who are Christians, and who do accept the authority of the Bible, let me give you one final exhortation. If you are basing your Christian faith and practice on something besides the Bible, be careful! For almost any other source of authority you could find, including some of those we mentioned like church tradition, your own reason and experience, our culture, the influence of friends or others…all of these things are subjective and subject to change. Scripture however has stood the test of time, and it is a sure and certain guide that will never let you down! In Matthew 24:35, Jesus vows: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away.” The Word of God is historically reliable, true, and eternal, and so I urge you to base your faith and your walk with the Lord upon nothing more, and nothing less. Amen.