How reliable is the Bible?
Christianity derives its authority from the Word of God. Christ and His apostles regarded the Scriptures as a revelation of God, with an undergirding unity among its various teachings (see Matthew 5:17-20; Luke 24:27, 44, 45-48; John 5:39). Many church fathers and the great Protestant reformers of the 16th century upheld the unity and reliability of the Scriptures.
However, under the strong influence of historical criticism of the 18th century Enlightenment, a considerable number of theologians and Christians consider that the Bible is a mere product of ancient cultures in which it was conceived. Consequently, the Bible is no longer seen as consistent and harmonious in its various teachings, but rather as a collection from different sources with internal contradictions. An additional blow to the authority and the unity of the Scripture came in the second half of the 20th century through the onslaught of postmodernism. The new trend is to emphasize not the actual meaning of Scripture, but the various meanings attributed to it by its readers.
Seventh-day Adventists, by contrast, have continued to emphasize the unity, authority, and reliability of the Scriptures. In order to maintain such a conviction, however, one has to find honest answers to the following four questions: Upon what basis can we speak of agreement within the Scriptures? How do we deal with some major problem areas in which that agreement is not always evident? How did the miracle of inspiration safeguard the unity of the Word of God? And, finally, what is the role of the Holy Spirit in helping us recognize that unity?
Internal agreement in the Scriptures
In this area, we need to address at least two foundational issues. First, the relationship between the Word of God and the contemporary cultures in which that Word was originally delivered. In the Scriptures one can easily perceive a constant dialogue between universal principles and specific applications of those principles within a particular cultural setting. Such a perception cannot be considered as cultural conditionings that distort the underlying unity of the Word of God, but precisely the opposite: universal principles that transcend any specific culture.
For example, the Bible shows several instances in which God tolerated some kind of human departure from His original plans, as in the cases of polygamy (see Genesis 16:1-15; 29:15-30:24; etc.) and divorce (see Matthew 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12). There are other cases in which early Christians were counseled to respect some specific cultural elements, as in regard to women wearing a veil while praying or prophesying (1 Corinthians 11:2-16), and remaining silent in the church (1 Corinthians 14:34, 35). But the overall tenor of the Scriptures is that its religion is to transcend and transform its environment.
G. Ernest Wright explains that “the Old Testament bears eloquent witness to the fact that Canaanite religion was the most dangerous and disintegrative factor which the faith of Israel had to face” (see Deuteronomy 7:1-6).1 Floyd V. Filson adds that, in the first century A.D., the Jews and later the Judaizers “sensed the fact that the Gospel was a different thing from the religious messages which they had known” and that “it was breaking the limits of current Judaism” (see Matthew 5:20).2
The second issue that has to be addressed by those interested in understanding the unity of the Scriptures is the methodological perspective from which one looks into the Scriptures. From the self-testimony of the Scriptures, one can see that the Bible is much closer to the Eastern world, with a more systemic and integrative view of reality, than to the Western, with a more analytical and compartmentalized perspective. This is an important hint to be taken into consideration in the process of defining our methodological approach to the Scriptures.
If one starts looking inductively for discrepancies within the Scriptures, one will end up “finding differences rather than agreement and unity.” But, on the other hand, if one starts looking deductively, one might end up discovering an underlying unity binding together various parts of the Scripture.3 Many apparent inconsistencies might be harmonized by moving from the broad thematic frameworks of the Scriptures into their smaller details, rather than by starting with those details without understanding the basic frameworks to which they belong.
There are, however, some major areas of alleged internal “inconsistencies” of the Bible that people often use to undermine the concept of biblical unity. Consider briefly five such areas and see how these problems might be solved.
Tensions between the Old and the New Testaments. Some people speak of several dichotomous tensions between the Old and the New Testaments by referring to such topics as God’s justice versus His love, and obedience to the law versus salvation by grace. Those tensions can be solved if we recognize clearly the typological relationship between both Testaments, and if we acknowledge that justice and love, and law and grace are concepts developed throughout both Testaments.
Imprecatory Psalms. Some see the imprecatory psalms, with their prayers of vengeance and curse for the wicked (see Psalms 35; 58; 69; 109; 137; etc.), as directly opposed to the lovely prayers of Christ and Stephen in favor of their enemies (Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60). In trying to solve this problem, we should not forget that the New Testament quotes the imprecatory psalms as inspired and authoritative, and that in the Old Testament the enemies of God’s covenant people were considered as enemies of God Himself. It seems, therefore, quite evident that those psalms have to be understood within the theological framework of theocracy of the Old Testament.
Synoptic problem. Probably no other area has posed so much controversy with regard to the unity of God’s Word than the so-called synoptic problem. We will never be able to fully explain how the first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were written, what has really been their indebtedness to one another, and how to harmonize some minor discrepancies in parallel accounts. Robert K. McIver states in The Four Faces of Jesus that “there is no reason to suppose that the data brought out by a careful investigation of the synoptic problem provides any basis for doubting the basic historicity of the events reported by the Gospels. In fact, it probably does quite the opposite. Rather, it is evidence of their reliability.”4
Paul and James on justification. Another problem area that has not always been clearly understood by some people is the classic tension between Paul’s statement that “a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Romans 3:28, NRSV) and James’s words that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24, NRSV). But this tension can be solved if one keeps in mind that while Paul is responding to the legalistic use of the “works of the law” as a means to be saved (Romans 3:20, RSV; cf. 3:31; 7:12), James is criticizing the antinomian profession of a “dead” faith as fruitless as the uncommitted faith of the demons (James 2:17, 19).
Factual errors. There are those who deny the underlying unity of the Word of God because it allegedly contains a large amount of so-called “factual errors.” Many of those alleged “errors” are not actual errors but only misunderstandings of the real issues involved. An example of this is the way Edwin R. Thiele has demonstrated that many of the alleged gaps and discrepancies in biblical chronology of the kings of Israel and Judah could be well synchronized.5 At the same time, we have to realize that we cannot solve all the difficulties of the Scriptures.6
Despite the existence of some inaccuracies in minor details, sufficient evidence exists to show that those inaccuracies do not distort the basic concept conveyed by the text in which they appear, and they do not break the underlying unity of the Word of God.
Yet, some may ask: Why did God allow these problems to remain in the Scriptures? Could He not have straightened some of them out so that our understanding would be much easier? These are not easy questions to answer, but I believe there are some important reasons why God did not take care of these problem areas.
We have to realize that God has entrusted His message to human beings—”earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7, KJV)—and they in turn communicated it in their imperfect language. Besides this, the Word of God was intended to serve as a “light” for the path (Psalm 119:105) of all human beings of all ages and of all places. As the spiritual “bread” (Matthew 4:4) that testifies of “the living bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:51, KJV), the Bible had to speak to both rich and poor, learned and unlearned, in the context in which they lived.
If the Bible was a “monotonously uniform” book, people would read it once or twice and then put it aside as we do with old newspapers. But the Bible has a deep and “rich and colorful diversity of harmonious testimonies of rare and distinct beauty” that makes it so attractive.7 Although its basic message is perfectly understandable even for common people, the Bible has such a depth of thought that all those scholars and simple people who studied it throughout the ages have not been able to exhaust its meaning and solve all its difficulties.
The miracle of inspiration
But how did the miracle of inspiration safeguard the unity of the Word of God? Up to what extent can we expect agreement within the Scriptures? Should we assume, as some people do, that the Bible is trustworthy only in matters of salvation? Can we isolate the chronological, historical, and scientific portions of Scripture from its overall salvific purpose?
As I argued in another article, the Bible claims for itself that it is wholistic in nature, forming an indivisible unity (Matthew 4:4; Revelation 22:18, 19) and pointing to salvation as its objective (John 20:31; 1 Corinthians 10:11). Furthermore, Scripture portrays “salvation” as a broad historical reality, related to all other biblical themes. And it is precisely this overall thematic interrelationship that makes it almost impossible for someone to speak of the Bible in dichotomous terms as being reliable in some topics and not in others. “Because the primary purpose of the Bible is to build up faith for salvation (John 20:31), its historical, biographical, and scientific sections often provide only the specific information needed to achieve this goal (John 20:30; 21:25). In spite of its selectiveness in some areas of human knowledge, it does not mean that the Scriptures are untrustworthy in those areas. ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God’ (2 Timothy 3:16) and our understanding of inspiration should always uphold this wholistic, all-encompassing scope.”8
Without subscribing to Calvinistic inerrancy, we have enough reasons to believe that the Bible is both infallible in its salvific purpose and trustworthy in its whole thematic interrelationship. According to T. H. Jemison, in the Scriptures “there is unity in its theme—Jesus Christ, His cross and His crown. There is complete harmony of teaching—the doctrines of the Old Testament and those of the New are the same. There is unity of development—a steady progression from the creation to the Fall and on to the redemption and the final restoration. There is unity in the co-ordination of the prophecies.”9
Role of the Holy Spirit
The underlying unity of the Word of God was brought about by the direct role of the Holy Spirit in the production of the Scriptures. Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16 (NRSV) that “all Scripture is inspired by God.” Peter adds that “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20, 21, NKJV).
Since it was the Holy Spirit who generated the unity of the Word of God, only He can enlighten our minds so that we might perceive the unity that undergirds the Bible. Christ promised His disciples that the Holy Spirit would come to guide them “into all the truth” (John 16:13, NRSV). Paul explains that “the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:13, NKJV).
Today, unfortunately, many Christians have lost their confidence in the Scriptures, and are rereading it from the perspective of their own traditions (traditionalists), reason (rationalists), personal experience (existentialists), even modern culture (culturalists). Tired of the dryness of such human ideologies, many others are looking for a safer ground on which to anchor their faith.
But if our anchor is grounded in the Word itself, believing its testimony that it is not a result of human invention, but a divine gift to humanity to reveal God and His redeeming love, we have nothing to fear or lose. The Holy Spirit who generated the origin, unity, and authority of the Word can also enlighten our minds to recognize it as such. Human theories may come and go (see Eph-esians 4:14), but “the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8, NRSV).
Alberto R. Timm (Ph.D., Andrews University) teaches historical theology at Brazil University Center - Engenheiro Coelho Campus, and directs the Brazilian Ellen G. White Research Center. His address: Caixa Postal 11; Engenheiro Coelho, SP 13.165-970; Brazil. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes and references
- Ernest Wright, The Old Testament Against Its Environment (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1950), p. 13.
- Floyd V. Filson, The New Testament Against Its Environment (London: SCM Press, 1950), p. 96.
- Ekkehardt Mueller, “The Revelation, Inspiration, and Authority of Scripture,” Ministry (April 2000) pp. 22, 23.
- Robert K. McIver, The Four Faces of Jesus: Four Gospel Writers, Four Unique Perspectives, Four Personal Encounters, One Complete Picture (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 2000), p. 220.
- See Siegfried H. Horn, “From Bishop Ussher to Edwin R. Thiele,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 18 (Spring 1980):37-49; Edwin R. Thiele, “The Chronology of the Hebrew Kings,” Adventist Review (May 17, 1984), pp. 3-5.
- See Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1948), p. 312.
- Seventh-day Adventists Believe: A Biblical Exposition of 27 Fundamental Doctrines (Washington, D.C.: Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1988), p. 14.
- Alberto R. Timm, “Understanding Inspiration: The Symphonic and Wholistic Nature of Scripture,” Ministry (August 1999), p. 14.
- T. H. Jemison, Christian Beliefs: Fundamental Biblical Teachings for Seventh-day Adventist College Classes (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1959), p. 17.