By David Timms
Relatively few people—even Christians—seem to trust the Bible anymore, if by trust we mean to take to heart and live according to. The rise of biblical disuse and biblical illiteracy, especially among Christians—in an age when we can access more Bible versions than ever for free—suggests that we may speak highly of it and even respect it, but we barely trust it. George Gallup famously noted, “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it.”
In 2007, a Time magazine cover story observed that only half of U.S. adults could name one of the four Gospels and fewer than half could identify Genesis as the Bible’s first book. According to data from the Barna Research Group, 60 percent of Americans can’t name even five of the Ten Commandments and 82 percent of Americans believe that “God helps those who help themselves” is a Bible verse. In a survey of graduating high school seniors, over 50 percent thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife, while a considerable number of respondents to another poll thought that the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Billy Graham.
Such biblical illiteracy reflects an increasing trend to see the Bible as outdated and raises a series of important questions: On what grounds can we claim the Bible is relevant and trustworthy? Why swim against the tide and trust it at all? What makes it unique as the authority for our lives?
Angels and Authors
Islam teaches that the Koran was dictated to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel gradually over a period of about 23 years (AD 609-632). Muhammad memorized the words and taught them to others but did not record them. Others recorded them later. An angel. Nice. Neat. Clean.
Mormonism teaches that the Book of Mormon originally appeared in a strange script (“reformed Egyptian”) engraved on gold plates, which Joseph Smith discovered. The angel Moroni guided him to the plates in New York, and Smith then translated them with divine help. A new sacred text was birthed. An angel. Nice. Neat. Clean.
Other major world religions have sacred texts with proclaimed dramatic and divine beginnings. But not the Bible. Yes, various biblical characters received direct words from the Lord—Moses, David, the Old Testament prophets, John’s revelation. But there’s a conspicuous lack of angelic interference throughout most of the Bible. Indeed, some books are the product of careful research efforts (see Luke 1:3). We’re not sure of the origin or authorship of other books. And most of the New Testament letters feel like we’re reading someone else’s mail.
The Bible does not make claims of a miraculous beginning. It emerged over time—more than a millennium in the making. This, of course, raises a question for many people concerning its trustworthiness. After all, angels and spectacular starts sound far more impressive.
Why, then, do Christians place their trust in this ancient collection of documents?
Infallibility and Inerrancy
It’s entirely understandable why many Christians feel passionately about the doctrines of infallibility and inerrancy. In the absence of angelic messengers, we may turn to philosophical arguments. We assert that the Bible is inspired (“God-breathed”) and if God cannot make mistakes (because he is perfect), then it stands to reason that his Word is also without mistake. Contradictions or inconsistencies within the Word are either illusions (they only appear to be contradictory because we don’t have enough information) or accretions (the result of gradual changes to the original, perfect text).
Thus many believers choose to trust the Bible because these doctrines of infallibility and inerrancy persuade them.
Interestingly, the Bible uses neither the word infallible nor the word inerrant. In fact, it only uses the word inspired in one place (2 Timothy 3:16) to refer to the Old Testament. Furthermore, as the early church debated which books should be in the Bible (and which they should omit), inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy did not seem to form the key criteria for their choices. Yet they had such confidence in the message of these documents that large numbers laid down their lives as martyrs. If they weren’t depending on infallibility and inerrancy, what should we be relying on?
A great many of us—perhaps unknowingly—trust the Bible above all other sacred texts because of church history.
The Protestant Reformation exploded onto the stage when Martin Luther posted his 95 statements (complaints) on the church door at Wittenberg nearly 500 years ago (1517). Luther had deep concerns about what should and should not be authoritative for Christian living. Disillusioned by the papal and clerical abuses he had witnessed, he and other reformers strongly advocated the doctrine of sola Scriptura (“by Scripture alone”). They concluded that while church writings and other documents have value, they must all be measured against the gold standard of Scripture. It alone is supremely trustworthy. Their convictions have shaped the Protestant world ever since.
Many of us who cannot clearly say why we trust the Bible above all other documents nevertheless give it priority because of this profound influence of the reformers on our church culture throughout the past five centuries. We affirm the Word and adhere to it, in part, because it has been woven deeply into the fabric of the church.
But there’s more.
Our Own Experience
Karl Barth, a renowned twentieth century Swiss theologian, suggested that arguing over whether or not a document is originally “God-inspired” is a fruitless endeavor. It’s not provable or repeatable. Instead, Barth preferred to speak of inspiration in terms of present experience. All that really matters, surely, is whether or not the text touches and transforms our lives here and now. To the extent that it does, it is infused with power (inspired). To the extent that it does not impact us directly, it is little more than another collection of words on a page. Many Christians may take issue with his conclusion, but it contains a kernel of truth.
We trust the Bible because God works through it to grip us and guide us. We trust the Bible because we experience it as “alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). We trust the Bible because, like Josiah of old (see 2 Kings 22), it melts our hearts, opens our eyes to truth, and liberates us from darkness, blindness, and ignorance. We trust the Bible because God, in his grace and mystery, chooses to shape us through it in deep and profound ways. We trust the Bible because, as we conform to its teaching, we feel set free. We trust the Bible because generations of Christ-followers have found life and hope through the one to whom it consistently points.
The early church made the Bible its canon—its rule of measurement—because the apostles had their fingerprints all over the New Testament and because these documents consistently pointed to Christ. The early believers, whom the Spirit of Christ had radically redeemed and transformed, had great confidence in the books and epistles that consistently pointed to him.
It took several hundred years—until the third council of Carthage in AD 397—to officially “close” the New Testament that we have. Generation after generation discussed and debated the possibilities, but they finally settled on the 27 books of the New Testament because, above all, those documents drew people to Jesus.
The wonder of Scripture lies not in the process of its production, though the process sets it apart from most other major religions. The wonder and authority of Scripture rests in the consistent way it points us to Jesus and the wonderful way that the Lord uses it, over and over, to touch and transform us.
Given its track record, what could we trust more than the Bible?
David Timms teaches at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California.
Interesting Facts About the Bible
1. There are 773,692 words in the Bible, 31,173 verses, and 1,189 chapters.
2. The shortest verse of the Old Testament is 1 Chronicles 1:25; the shortest verses in the New Testament are John 11:35 and 1 Thessalonians 5:16.
3. The longest verse in the Bible is Esther 8:9.
4. Ezra 7:21 contains every letter of the alphabet except J; Daniel 4:37 has every letter but Q.
5. Psalm 107:8, 15, 21, 31 are the most similar verses in the Bible; 2 Kings 19 and Isaiah 37 are the most similar chapters.
6. The longest word in the Bible is Maher-shalal-hash-baz (Isaiah 8:1).
7. These words only occur once in the Bible: eternity (Isaiah 57:15), grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5), and gnat (Matthew 23:24).
Based on the King James Version, compiled from www.bibleinfo.com/en/questions/facts-and-trivia