iDoubt: Questions about Faith. Is the Bible reliable?

idoubt-photo Today we continue our 7 week series iDoubt:Questions about Faith looking at 7 questions that were submitted by some of you. We’ve explored questions like: What does it mean to be a disciple? What is salvation and can you lose it? And Is Baptism mandatory for salvation or is it simply a public declaration?

Today we cover probably one of the harder questions that we will explore in this series and it revolves around the text that we gather around each and every week. It revolves around this book that we call the Bible. The question that was submitted was “Is the Bible reliable?” And so we are going to explore this question together. But know that there is no one that I will be able to answer all the questions that come from that question. I can’t explain everything in 20 minutes or so. That is why I have some books and a For Further reading sheet in case you’d like to do some more reading and research around this topic. If you take a book let me know which one you took.

To explore this deep, tough, but essential question we are going to break it down into several sections of the sermon. So we’ll explore what and how the Bible came to be. We’ll talk about why I believe it is reliable through discussion on things like manuscripts, archeology, and facts. We’ll talk about what it is and what it isn’t. We’ll talk about the purpose of the Bible. And lastly we’ll look at what the Scriptures say about itself.

So the Bible is a collection of 66 Books. 39 Old Testament books and 27 New Testament books. These 66 books were written over 1600 years, over 60 generations, by more than 40 authors on 3 different continents, in different circumstances and places, in different times, in 3 different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), concerning stories of controversial subjects but it speaks with one unified vision. The New Testament was all written within 2 generations of the time of Jesus which would be somewhere by the end of the 1st century at the latest. It means that many of those who would be reading the gospels could have been eyewitnesses to the accounts in the gospels. The 4 gospels, Acts and the 13 letters ascribed to Paul were regarded as authentic and authoritative from early on- as early as the early to mid end century. We possess literally hundreds of early manuscripts. There are dozen’s of NT manuscripts from the 3rd and 4th century and a few as early as the 2nd century. Let’s compare this to other ancient writings that people don’t normally question the accuracy and reliability of the manuscripts. Look at Plato. He wrote 427-327 BC, our earliest copy fragment is from 900 AD or a time span of 1200 years and only 7 copies. Aristotle was between 384-322 BC. Earliest fragment from 1100 AD or a timespan of 1400 years and there are 49 copies. What about Homer’s Iliad, one of histories best example of reliability, and accuracy. It was written in the 9th century BC. Our earliest fragment is from 400 BC or a time span of 500 years there are 643 copies and the accuracy of these copies is 95%. When we compare these to the Bible, and specifically the New Testament, we see the overwhelming evidence for the reliability and trustworthiness of our Bible that we have today. The NT was written between 40-100 AD, our earliest copy is from 125 AD or only a time span of 25 years. There are over 24,000 copies of the New Testament and the accuracy of the copy is 99%. In fact, when shepherds in Israel in 1946 found what we call the Dead Sea Scrolls, some 981 different texts (not all Biblical texts), researchers found that when they compared those ancient scrolls and texts to the texts that we have today in common use that our modern day texts were 98% similar to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Not only is the Bible reliable in that we have overwhelming historical evidence in relation to manuscripts, but we also can see the Bible’s reliability in relation to the idea that this work is not a work of mythology. Many of the places that are talked about in the Bible can be found today. When it mentions places like Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, etc.. these places can be found on a map and can be visited. Even more obscure places have been found through archeological digs. Many of the names that are in the Bible have also been uncovered through archeology. Almost no one disputes that fact that there was a historical person by the name of Jesus of Nazareth. They might dispute who he was, but almost all historical scholars believer there was a person named Jesus who lived 2,000 years ago.

So let’s turn the corner and talk then about what the Bible is and what it isn’t. The Bible is a place where, according to N.T. Wright, “heaven and earth overlap and interlock.” and “is part of God’s answer to the ancient human quest for justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty.” The Bible is full of different genres like narrative, poetry, song, law, history, letters and apocalyptic literature. But overall the Bible is a story, a grand epic narrative (think more like Lord of the Rings than like a science text book from school), and a love story. A story in which we are invited to take part and have a role to play. It is also the story of God’s redemptive work in and for the world. It is the story of God’s interaction with humanity and humanities experience with God. This epic narrative has a plot. There are many scholars and theologians who have their own ideas of the plot line of the Bible. You have some who see it as a four act play that starts with Creation, then Fall, then Redemption, then Consummation. Brian McLaren has a 7 chapter story all beginning with C…Creation, Crisis, Calling, Conversation, Christ, Community, Consummation. But probably my favorite is, (surprise) N.T. Wrights 5 act epic where Act 1 is God creating the world, Act 2 is Humanity Falls, Acts 3 is God calls and works through Israel, Act 4 is the climax in the person and ministry and life of Jesus. And then Act 5 is where you and I come in as the church, we are called to live out the story, and also the very ending of Act 5 we know the ending. The question for us then with this concept that the Scripture is story is what story are you a part of? What story are you living out in the world? And then there is a time in every Christians life when we must come to embrace the Bible as our own story and the story of the Kingdom of God.

So if the Bible is an epic narrative, a story of God’s encounter with humanity, and our encounter with God, then what isn’t the Bible? The Bible isn’t a Science textbook or a textbook at all for that matter. I believe we do a huge disservice to the Bible when we hoist our modern scientific worldview back onto the worldview that is found in the Bible. The original authors did not see what they were writing as meeting the critiques of a 21st century audience. And so discrepancies that are in the Bible that we make a huge deal over (like how people were counted) simply weren’t that big of a deal in those days. The Bible isn’t a divine rule book of what we are to do and even more so what we aren’t supposed to do. It isn’t a law book or a constitution. Are there guidelines for living in the Bible? Of course, but it is so much more than that. The Bible isn’t an instruction manual on how to live..or like some people say Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. It isn’t to be compared to an owner’s manual for your new car or your new vacuum cleaner. The Bible isn’t the fullest revelation of God. Yes it is one of the revelations from God which includes Scripture and the creation itself, but he fullest and best revelation of God is Jesus. And the Bible isn’t to be worshipped, that is called biblio-idolatry. Often Christians are called People of the book, but is that what we are called to be? People that are defied by “the book” or people defined by Jesus? Is the Bible important, of course it is. But we need to make sure that nothing comes in between us and Jesus, and that means the Bible as well. Let me ask you a question, when you hear “the word of God” what comes immediately to mind? The Bible or Jesus or both? Jesus is the ultimate Word of God (see John 1) and we come to know the ultimate Word of God through the Bible, the word of God. That is where the Bible points us to.

So now that we have talked about the Bible from the outside looking in, let’s open the Bible and see what the Bible says about itself. Let’s turn to probably the best known Scripture that refers to itself, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 which says, “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.” The Apostle Paul in these two verses lays out what Scripture is and what the purpose of it is. Basically what Paul is saying is that the Bible is inspired by God. God did not physically write the book, and the authors weren’t just being dictated through. Some really conservative people believe in what is called the dictation theory where the authors literally were just dictating. But this theory is more muslim than Christian. Paul is saying that Scripture is inspired by God, written through the authors. Personalities of the authors are definitely alive and well in the text of Scripture. The writers, compilers, editors and even collectors of Scripture were people who, with different personalities, styles, methods and intentions, were nonetheless caught up in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the purposes of God. And the Bible therefore is to then enable God’s people to be “equipped for every good work” or in other words, to do God’s work in God’s world. The Bible fashions us, and forms us, it, according to Paul, “teaches us, rebukes us, corrects us and trains us.” Trains us to be God’s people in the world seeking to be the hands and feet of Jesus and to be about his work in the world. We fall inline then with Christians down through the centuries who have said that the Bible was inspired by God or I like to say, as Paul does, God breathed. It was an act of his creativity. What else does this idea of God breathed bring up? It ties into the beginning where God formed mankind from the breath of his lungs and created us. God breathed again into mankind, gave mankind his creativity, and these authors wrote the Bible. N.T. Wright has this to say about the Bible, “The Christian Bible we know is a quite astonishingly complete story, from chaos to order, from first creation to new creation, from covenant to renewed covenant, and all firing together in a way that none of the authors could have seen but which we, standing back from the finished product, can only marvel at.”

So let’s look at another Scripture that the author makes reference to what Scripture actually is and what it isn’t. 1 Thessalonians 2:13 says, “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.” Paul writing to the church at Thessalonica calls the Scriptures what it is. It is the word of God. He also says what it isn’t. It isn’t just human words. Yes humans obviously wrote it but as I mentioned before these are the words of God, inspired by Him, and written by mankind. These believers in Thessalonica received the word of God as it actually was, the word of God. God breathed (which is what the word inspired actually means) into 40 different authors who then took up their writing instruments and wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We, as Christians living in the 21st century half a world away need to do the same thing that the believers in Thessalonica did….receive the Bible as the word of God and not just human words.

So even though we are talking about the Bible, and the Bible is definitely one of God’s revelation, if we make it strictly about the Bible, we are missing the point. We are missing the point of the Bible. Don’t look at the Bible, look through the Bible. Look where the Bible points. It points to and directs our gaze to Jesus. And then we should use the lens of Jesus to then go back into the text and read all of Scripture in the light of Jesus. The Bible somehow becomes an authoritative instrument of what God accomplished through Jesus- particularly his life, death and his resurrection.

So what is my prayer as we come to the discussion part of our time together? One that we would read the Bible more. We are become less and less Bible literate and that needs to be changed. We would spend time in it, reading it, meditating on it, applying it to our lives. Also that we would let it read us. Secondly, that we would begin to see it not just as a book for individuals but that it truly is a community book. It was written in community, to communities, and for communities. And that we as a community would engage the Scriptures together. We do that each Sunday as we gather but we also do that in 2 Community Groups that meet. We can do that by joining our Scripture reading group that reads the same Scriptures on the same day together. But that we could come up with other ways of engaging the Scriptures in community together. Thirdly, that hopefully we have seen that we can know that the Bible is reliable and we can trust it. (And again if you want to do further reading and research on this question, there are a few books that I have that you can borrow). And lastly that we would allow the Bible to point us to Jesus, His Kingdom, and the story that he is writing and wants to write in and through us. So what story are you living out and into? Your own or His?

So let’s talk about the Bible some more. What other questions do you want to unpack together regarding the reliability of the Bible? What are your thoughts on the Scriptures that we used? And lastly what is God saying to you and to us about his word and how we are to engage with it as individuals and as a community?

1. What other questions, thoughts, comments, insights, you have around our question “Is the Bible reliable?” that you’d like to share?

2. What are your thoughts, comments, insights, etc… around the Scriptures that we used (2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 1 Thessalonians 2:13)

3. What is God saying to you and to us about His word and how we can engage it as individuals and tougher as community?