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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Can the Bible be trusted?

We constantly place our trust in things that fail us. Companies want to be productive so they buy PCs. Parents want the best for their kids but rob them of the highest level of security -- staying married and in love. People recycle but continue to buy bottled water and the world crumbles. First time home owners get mortgages they can't afford just so they can live the dream. We get the latest gadget only to find it's obsolete in a few weeks. Sound familiar? We think we are smart but we make dumb decisions all the time.

We make all our decisions based on what our desire is for -- nothing controversial there. But, are you smart about the amount of trust you've placed in your views? Have you considered the validity of the conclusions you draw about life? What have you placed your trust in? What we spend our money, time and resources on normally reveals what our hope is in "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" Luke 12:34. Do you believe this statement? If you do, then you have some faith in the words of Jesus already.

In tackling this subject it is my desire to give the guy on the street a cross section of nuggets to draw from in handling biblical trustworthiness, the fancy term is "inerrancy" (without errors). This means the Bible contains no historical, moral, scientific, spiritual, cultural or any other type of mistake or contradiction. It is the very words of God himself, divinely communicated through some men throughout history and preserved as a record of his grace towards us prideful humans.

This is an important issue for all Christians but especially for those in the church planting scene wishing to engage doubters in a relevant and well thought out way. After all, church planting is all about reaching people who doubt Jesus and the Bible. These arguments are really a means to disarm hostility and engage with genuine doubt, not as an end to themselves. The end is to show people the real Jesus!

The exclusivity

It is highly suspicious, but very telling, that a society full of religious relativists would so disdain Christians and the Bible. But that is where we are. Diversity is celebrated, Jesus is rejected. Plurality is prized, the Bible is scorned. The rejection of the Bible is really a rejection of diversity. The suppression of Jesus is the denial of religious relativism itself -- it is strangely selective!

The high standard our culture places on religious relativism, that all paths lead to the same God, is a cover up for something else. Someone who TRULY embodies universal inclusiveness would never single out the Bible or Jesus for exclusion. So, what really is spiritual pluralism then? It can only be one thing: an exclusive belief system. To embrace all beliefs naturally excludes those that rely on exclusivity to be true. Uh? (read it again if you need to)

The faith

What then is non-belief? It is by definition a set of alternative views in which one places their absolute trust. It is a collection of faith-filled assumptions and conclusions. Therefore, all viewpoints, even doubts, are leaps of faith. In fact, to say that the Bible is untrustworthy and cannot be from God is an expression of faith. You cannot empirically prove it either way and it is not universally accepted. For example, the most venomous atheists have more faith and belief in their doubts than some Christians have in the Bible. Now that takes a lot of faith especially if you became an atheist at the age of 6 like someone I recently met.

The uniqueness

The Bible is a very unique book. It is made up of 66 individual books with 40 authors spanning thousands of years. You may be surprised to know that it contains one coherent and timeless message. The message is that God made everything, we broke it and Jesus came to fix it. Ultimately the Bible is about the person of Jesus. The theme is something that a bunch of guys over the last few thousand years, who mainly didn't know each other because they lived at different times, could never have created in their wildest dreams.

No other authors have been able to right anything like it. In fact, the very things Jesus said could really not have been thought up by anyone. The original authors were killed for writing it and none of them recanted their faith in it.

There is really no book like it. It has served as the pinnacle of inspiration for human creativity:
"More poems have been written, more stories told, more pictures painted, and more songs sung about Christ than any other person in human history, because through such avenues as these the deepest appreciation of the human heart can be more adequately expressed."
Cynthia Pearl Maus
The probability

There are 300+ prophecies from the Old Testament which were fulfilled in the person of Jesus hundreds and thousands of year later. Peter Stoner, a mathematician and scientist, applied the rules of probability to these prophecies. The chances of just 8 of them being fulfilled are 1 in 10 to the 17th power (1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000)! The chances of 48 being fulfilled are 1 in 10 to the 157th power which is 1 in 10 with 157 zeros1. So, the fact that they were fulfilled in Jesus makes the Bible the most astonishing and accurate book ever written.

Compare that to the mathematical probability of a single celled organism coming about by chance 1/10340,000,000, the fraction 1 divided by 1 followed by 340 million zeros2. By the laws of science the Bible is more probable than evolution.

The quantity

The New Testament documents are better preserved and more numerous than any other ancient writing. There are presently over 24,000 total supporting New Testament manuscripts in existence6. Most scholars agree that these were written before the close of the first century and some just a few years after the actual events. The manuscripts affirm one-another in recording the truth about Jesus.

In comparison we only have 7 copies of writings that Plato authored from between 427-347 B.C., of which the earliest copy we have is 900 A.D., almost 1200 yrs after it was penned7. Yet no one doubts Plato existed? That takes real faith when you consider the quantity of New Testament manuscripts.

The claims

In these sections the Bible claims that it is trustworthy; Psalm 119:24, Psalm 119:130, Proverbs 1:4 & 2 Timothy 3:15. The authors of the Bible also claim that God is speaking to them; Deut 18:17-19, Jeremiah 1:9, 2 Timothy 3:16 & 2 Peter 1:21. It is important to recognize that nearly all other literature does not claim this of itself. Plus the magnitude of Jesus' claims of divinity are too great to be ignored especially considering the quality of his life.

Some might object that this is a circular argument. Surely we need an outside source to verify this? However, any search for a higher authority makes the new source an absolute authority. Absolute truth can therefore only be claimed by itself. This does not mean that all claims are true. For example, David Koresh self claimed that he was the final prophet. His life is not worth studying at all because the guy committed sexual crimes against minors amongst other atrocities.

The contradictions

Some claim that the Bible contains many contradictions which therefore must prove it to be untrustworthy. Wayne Grudem writes "it is surprising how often it turns out that a careful reading just of the English text of the passage in question will bring to light one or more possible solutions to the difficulty"3. Most people who claim these types of mistakes do not know the sections of scripture, nor the context, and are not claiming contradictions because they have honestly explored it, but because their faith in their doubts is stronger.

I'll deal with one common misconception about the time Jesus was crucified. Mark 15:25 states that it was at "the third hour" but John 19:14 states that Jesus trial was still going on at "about the sixth hour". Firstly, you'd think that scribes throughout the centuries or the early church would have changed this apparent error to cover it up, I mean it is so obvious! Unless of course there is a simple explanation. John likely wrote his book in Ephesus, a Roman city, around A.D 90 and therefore likely used the official numbering system of the Roman civil day which would make the time signatures the same4.

The mistakes

In Bart D. Ehrman's book Misquoting Jesus he claims that scribes changed the Bible as they copied it over time. On page 10 he also affirms that "Most differences [between manuscripts] are completely immaterial and insignificant". They apparently amount to a difference in spelling. The claims of discrepancy only affect 1-2% of the total Bible5, and it's a big book if you haven't seen it recently! No need to throw the baby out -- many other scholars find plausible explanations for these.

On page 175 Ehrman writes "Christian scribes of the second and third centuries were involved with the debates and disputes of their day, and occasionally these disputes affected the reproduction of the texts over which debates raged". This assumption cannot be empirically proven. This is unfortunately a leap of faith and the theory does not fit. For example, one of the earliest controversies was over circumcision for the Gentile Christians. In light of the great conflict it is remarkable that Jesus says nothing in the Bible about circumcision. Therefore, the early church felt no need to fabricate the text to win an argument as Ehrman claims.

The eyewitnesses

The amount of coherence and testimonials in the Bible concerning Jesus is staggering. Many of his followers were persecuted so strongly for their faith and tortured to death -- yet without denouncing it! It is amazing when we consider how strong and vast the evidence is for people who literally witnessed the events and recorded them. Checkout this amazing resource for a compressive list of eyewitness to Jesus.

The errancy

If Christians claim that some parts of the Bible or all of it are open to claims of error then what is the result of this? In The Battle for the Bible Harold Lindsell points out that groups who claim errancy do not usually survive. As one example he says that the overseas missionary work of the United Presbyterian Church has shrunk by more than 50% and its Sunday school enrollment and membership is in decline. Lindsell explains on page 159:
"But the weight of history and all the evidence it supplies leads me to no other conclusion than that even if these friends [Christian groups who have abandoned inerrancy] are able to stop at this point, those who follow after them will not stop where they have stopped. The second generation will follow through on the implications contained in the abandonment of inerrancy and will make concessions on the questions that pertain to matters of faith and practice as well as to matters of history, science, and chronology."
It's either all true, or all false. Christianity after all is a fundamental belief system. When you take away the earthy dynamic faith in God's divine communication then you become wishy washy and effectively never recover.

The Spirit

Finally it is important to recognize that without the help of the Holy Spirit we cannot fathom the deep wisdom of the Bible. Heck, some people were surprised when Jesus showed up and the prophecies had been staring them in the face for centuries! If you read the Bible and do not understand it in a spiritual way pray and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal it to you.
"But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you." -- John 14:26
I firmly believe in the trustworthiness of the Bible not because I have studied all the material concerning it, just as the doubters haven't studied it all. But I believe in it's truthfulness in all regards because when I read it I know it is true. When I drink it in my heart is refreshed. The person of scripture is alive and therefore his words are alive -- Jesus!

  3. p98 of Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology
  4. p363 -364 of Gleason L. Archer's Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties
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