How the Bible was Written
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How the Bible was written, emphasizing the issue of trusting the Bible, harmonization, and what is called the "Synoptic Problem."
A. Passing on Information During Jesus’ Life
B. Period of Oral transmission
C. Period of Writing: Authorship and Authority
D. Writing of the Synoptics
E. The Importance of Trusting the Bible
Lecture: How the Bible was Written
Passing on Information During Jesus’s Life
The topic of this class is how we got our Bible. Let me historically walk through the process. During Jesus’s life, there probably was not a lot of note taking. We know from rabbinic sources that the teaching was all oral, it was by word of mouth, and the rabbis got into the habit of repeating themselves over and over again.
It was also a culture that valued memory a lot more than our culture. People were expected to remember things exactly and precisely. I’m told that you can still go to the Middle East to two different locations where there has simply never been any physical contact between the peoples for generations, and you can hear word for word exactly the same story being told. These people were taught to repeat these old folk tales precisely. That’s just part of Middle Eastern culture, part of the biblical mindset.
Papyrus was expensive; you couldn’t carry around leather or other writing tools very easily, so all of the teaching was oral. The church also believed (not because they were taught it, but because they made an assumption from their Judaism) that Jesus, after he left, was coming back again pretty quickly. In Acts 1:6 they ask, “Is it now that you’re going to return the kingdom to Israel?” They didn’t yet understand that Jesus was going to be gone or gone very long, so there wasn’t a need to take notes. Jesus’s teaching ministry lasted three and a half years.
Period of Oral Transmission
When Jesus died, we entered into a period of what’s technically called the period of oral transmission. That means that people told the stories of Jesus by word of mouth. (If I use the word “stories” or “traditions,” it doesn’t mean that these things are not true; that’s just the technical language.) There was this period of oral transmission where the things that Jesus did and the things that Jesus taught were passed on orally from person to person. And not all of those stories made it eventually into the Gospels. John says precisely the opposite, “If I told you everything that Jesus did the world couldn’t hold all the books.” But even in a passage like Acts 20, Paul is saying, “Remember, Jesus said it’s more blessed to give than to receive.” You look in vain in the Gospels, but it’s not there. So there were a lot of stories about what Jesus did and said that were floating around.
It appears that at this time, the church started formulating its theology as well. For example, it appears at times that Paul is quoting someone. In the Pastoral Epistles he calls them “Faithful Sayings.” They are hymns—sayings that were memorized and recited in the church.
Some people, for example, think Philippians 2 was something that was said in the church as a teaching tool. “Jesus was in the form of God, but did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”—you probably know the passage. It’s rhythmical; it reads like poetry. So the church had not only all the stories of what Jesus did and said, but it also started to formulate its own understanding and using its own words, and that’s fine to do.
You also had the Apostles who had more information. Paul tells the Corinthian church, “now I don’t have any traditions from Jesus about what to do in this situation, but here’s what I say you should do.”
In other words, you had this whole mix of information. Stories of Jesus, stuff the church is formulating, new information from the Apostles, and one of the questions that comes at this point is, how accurate is all of this. This is one of those questions that everybody needs to think through, and for most Christians, at least evangelical Christians, our answer is, of course it’s accurate. But it’s really important that you think through why it’s accurate. People are telling stories, it’s not written down, there’s no central database for all this information. How do you know they got it right? How do you know they didn’t change it? So there’s this whole question of accuracy.
Was the Early Church Accurate? (Jesus Seminar)
How many of you have heard of the Jesus Seminar? I think it’s done now; I think they have finished all their voting with all their colored cards. The Jesus Seminar is a good example of why this is an important question. The Jesus Seminar is composed of a bunch of scholars, (so of course that means they’re right…. No). There are some pretty amazing technical scholars who got together with all their different colored cards. It’s headed by a man named Robert Funk, and they voted their way through the Gospels. Could Jesus have said this or could he not have said this? And so, for example, they threw out most of the Lord’s Prayer although they said a few pieces probably were from Jesus. But they say things like, “Since Jesus never wanted to create the church, anything he says about living in community can’t be original because he didn’t want to create a following.” Or, “Jesus obviously wasn’t a supernatural being because there are no such things as supernatural beings, and so when the New Testament talks about Jesus being the Son of Man coming to judge, oh no, Jesus would never do anything like that; the church must have made that up.” what they’re saying is that during this period of oral transmission, the church made up a whole bunch of stuff and changed the message of Jesus. And in many of these people’s minds, Paul is really the bad guy because Paul came in and he changed everything.
Let me give you a few answers to the Jesus Seminar, the kinds of answers that perhaps you could use in talking to someone. If you want more information on any of this, ask me after class, and if I don’t know of a book I’ll dig one up for you.
One of the reasons that I believe that the New Testament Church got it right is because of the presence of eyewitnesses. You had a lot of people who watched Jesus; it wasn’t just the twelve. There were many more people that followed Jesus they just weren’t part of the inner circle and they are all still around.
You remember that passage in 1 Corinthians 15 that refers to Jesus appearing to different people after the resurrection? It says that on one occasion, he appeared to more than five hundred people at one time. An eyewitness encounter of Jesus was important: After Judas killed himself and they are going to get a new twelfth apostle, one of the requirements was he has to have been with us from the beginning and been a witness to the resurrection. So there’s this large group of people, not just the twelve that followed him around, who have seen Jesus. And those people would have exerted real control. If somebody said, “Well, Jesus said…” and then made up something, there were enough people around that had been with Jesus the whole time that would have said, “no, he never said that, no, no.” If someone says, “Well, Jesus says, you don’t forgive someone unless they beg for forgiveness.” Someone else would say, “No, he didn’t say that at all, he said ‘Father forgive us our debts as we forgive those who have sinned against us,’” from the Lord’s prayer. So you had the presence of eyewitnesses as a controlling factor.
Second, you have the promise of the Holy Spirit. It comes up several times in John, once in John 14:26. Jesus says, “the helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” Sometimes that verse is used that somehow the Holy Spirit is going to illumine me today, and that’s not what it’s saying. It’s a promise to the eleven disciples in the Upper Room that God is going to supernaturally watch over their memories, and that the Holy Spirit is going to help them to remember things correctly, what Jesus did and what Jesus taught. Now you’re probably not going to convince an atheist by this argument, but this argument is good to know in case you wonder: “Did they really get this right?” Jesus promised that God, the Holy Spirit, was going to work in the lives of the Apostles, making them remember exactly what Jesus did and what Jesus taught. Is that reasonable? Sure it is reasonable. So I think (more for a believer) that’s a very valid argument that we can trust it.
Thirdly, these people were getting persecuted for their faith. At first, people received them and liked them, but pretty quickly you have the leaders being killed, the church being dispersed. Not many people die for a lie. I remember when I was a kid, Joshua McDowell used to make this point all the time. A lot of people in history have died for things that are not true, but rarely will you find someone who is willing to die for something they know to be a lie. The fact that the church was being persecuted and would not change direction, but continued to assert that this is what Jesus said, this is what Jesus did, I’m going to hang in there until death, suggests that they were not willing to make up stories about Jesus. As faithfully as they could, as they were inspired by the Spirit, they recounted what Jesus actually did and said.
Fourth, a lot of this just has to do with presuppositions. The people in the Jesus Seminar are not smarter nor dumber than you or me. They just have a whole different set of presuppositions than you and I have. We have presuppositions; they have presuppositions. We have filters, we have ideas that we push things through. One of their main presuppositions is that there is no such thing as the supernatural; there’s no such thing as the miraculous. So obviously when you hit the Gospels, and you push it through those presuppositions, you can’t have Jesus waking on water and calming the sea because that stuff just doesn’t happen. And it is their presuppositions that lead them to the conclusion that the Bible isn’t accurate. The text itself doesn’t lead them there (that’s a very important point)—it’s presuppositions about the text.
Now there are some problems in the Bible, there are some places that look like they contradict each other. We’ll talk about that the next time we’re together. But in terms of presuppositions, it’s their presuppositions that drive them to these wild and crazy conclusions, sometimes.
Period of Writing: Authorship and Authority
We’ve talked about the period of oral transmission. I don’t think the church created stories; I think it had every reason to be as truthful as it could be, persecution being a big part. Eventually, the church decided that they had to start writing these things down. We don’t know how early the Gospels were written, certainly by the 50’s Mark was written, so the oral recounting of Jesus did not go on for too long before being written down.
The focal point is that when the Gospels and the New Testament were written, the authority of the documents was all bound up in the authority of the writers. In other words, when Paul writes his letter to the Roman church, it’s received instantly as fully authoritative, because Paul is an Apostle. We all know he’s an Apostle. He does the work of the Apostle. The church has recognized it. So Romans was accepted right away.
There are other writings by other Apostles that would have been accepted instantly by the church. For example, the Gospel of Mark is the memoirs of Peter. According to church tradition, it’s Peter authority that lies behind the Gospel of Mark, so the Gospel of Mark was accepted as authoritative. It was immediately accepted as correct because, “It’s Peter, and obviously Peter knows what he’s talking about.”
Matthew was accepted instantly. Interestingly, John had some trouble: Both his Gospel and his letters were more slowly accepted because some of the heretics were using them to try to prove their own teaching, and so the church was a little leery about the writings of John. We’ll talk more about the issue called canonicity later, but because it was John behind the gospel, the Beloved Disciple, ultimately the church said, “It’s got to be correct; we just simply have to accept it even if these people are misusing it.”
Here’s the point I’m trying to make. At a very early date, within twenty years probably of when Jesus died, you had people that were absolutely trusted. They were fully authoritative. They were recognized by the entire church (not just a little church in this city or a church in that city) as being people with ultimate authority to speak for God. It’s their authority that lies behind the Scripture, it’s their rightness that lies behind the rightness of Scripture.
So that is the process from Jesus’s life and teachings up until these things being written. There are, of course, some books that are written by non-apostles, right? Luke was not an Apostle and wrote a third of the New Testament: Luke and Acts. We don’t know who wrote Hebrews. James wasn’t an Apostle; he was a half brother of Jesus, but not an Apostle. So there are some writings that we have that are not from Apostles. But the bulk of the New Testament was written by people who were seen to be totally authoritative because of their role as Apostles.
What I’m trying to do is lay a foundation for helping you understand why you can trust the New Testament; that’s where I’m going in all of this.
Writing of the Synoptics
When it comes to writing, we need to talk about something called the Synoptic Problem, or the Synoptic Gospels, because much of the discussion that you hear over the water cooler at work has to do with the Synoptics.
Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels. They are called that because they are so similar; that’s what the word synoptic means.
There are many places in which Matthew, Mark and Luke are very similar in wording and in order. The problem comes about more when they are different because even in the same paragraph they can be very similar and yet there can be significant differences among the three Synoptic Gospels. So the synoptic problem, as we call it, is, “How do you explain the similarities and differences that exist among the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke?”
In one sense this isn’t that big of a deal to me, but in another sense it is, because it deals with trust of the Bible. That’s why it’s important to understand how Matthew, Mark, and Luke got put together, because if you can see that, then you can understand that they are trustworthy.
When I was a teacher, if I had asked for a term paper on the Life of Christ and I got papers from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, I would have flunked all three of them and sent them to the Dean’s office. You can’t copy today, you can’t come out word for word, and yet have significant differences, without there being an issue of trust or honesty or something like that involved. So, I’m going to go into some detail about the synoptic, but the point is that I want you to see that you can really trust them. That’s my goal.
Let me give you some examples. In fact, these passages are in your notes at the end of this section: Matthew 3:7-10 and Luke 3:7-9. The underline shows where they are different. The first sentence is a little different. “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, or, he said therefore to the crowds that came up to baptized by him.” In other words, Matthew, for whatever reason, wanted to be a little more specific as to who was in the crowd. Evidently Luke didn’t think it was very important, so he left out some of those details.
One has the singular “bear fruit” the other has the plural “bear fruits.”
One says “do not presume to say to yourself” while the other, “do not begin to say to yourselves.” Those are differences that are reflective of the Greek; they are not just English differences.
But the rest is exactly the same, word-for-word. Now how does that happen? How do they get word for word, exactly the same?
There are also significant differences in wording if you compare stories. In Matthew, one of the Synoptics, it says Jesus was crucified between two thieves and they reviled him. In Luke, you have the story of one of those reviling thieves that converts (the verses are in your notes). He converts, and you can look at that and say, that’s so different. One says they reviled him and the other one, evidently, found out more about Jesus and repented of sins and we’re going to see him in Heaven.
These are the kinds of differences in the Synoptics: similarities and differences of wording.
There are also similarities and differences of order. The Synoptics all have the same basic structure. Jesus spent most of his time in Galilee, then, he went on a long trip outside of Israel and eventually ended up in Jerusalem and died. There is a basic similarity of order.
And yet there are some significant differences. For example, if you go to the story of temptation in Matthew 4, the devil says, “Turn the stones to bread, jump off the temple, worship me.” In Luke, the order is different—”Turn the stones to bread, worship me, jump off the temple.” That’s pretty different, isn’t it? So the question is how do you explain these similarities, and how do you explain the differences? I’ll come back and explain these examples to you in a moment.
What do the Synoptics Say about themselves?
If we’re going to see how the Synoptics were put together, it’s best to let the Synoptics tell us how they were put together; and there are three passages that are very important to understand.
The first is the first four verses of Luke 1. As I read this, you tell me what Luke is telling you about how he went about writing his Gospel. He says, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” There’s a lot in those four verses that tell us what Luke is doing. What are some of the things that he tells us about how he went about writing the Gospel?
He’s not the first one to write an account; there are other accounts out there.
He’s trying to make it orderly; that’s really important. He’s not claiming to make it chronological. I know one of the translations out there says that, but it’s a virtually impossible translation of the Greek word “orderly.” he’s claiming to do an orderly account.
Ancient writers were not nearly as concerned about sequence as we are. For example, in the temptation narrative, Matthew says that the temptation sequence was, turn stones to bread, jump off the temple, and then worship Satan. In Luke, the sequence is, turn the stones to bread, there worship Satan, and then jump off the temple. When we hear the word and, we hear sequence. That’s our culture; that’s not the biblical culture. There is a very strong theme in Luke that a prophet dies only in Jerusalem, and it appears that Luke changed the order to make that point. He doesn’t claim to be telling us chronologically what happened, but he’s trying to make a point. So he just says this happened and this happened and this happened, without claiming chronology.
There are other things in Luke 1 as well. Luke is a Christian. He’s writing to corroborate other testimonies.
Historical veracity is very important to him, isn’t it. He wants Theophilus, the guy that’s probably paying for all of this, to know with certainty the things that he has been taught. So for example, you find in Luke a tremendous emphasis on historicity. It was when Quirinius was governor of Syria that Augustus ordered the world to be taxed. When you get into Acts and he starts recounting all the places that Paul traveled in this trip, Luke almost ad nauseum tells us every little hole in the wall that Paul stopped at on his trip to Rome. “Come on Luke, I don’t really care.” Well, Luke does care because he wants us to understand that these things really happened.
So there is a broader issue here too, and that is that Luke is writing with purpose. It’s not simply to tell us everything he could possible drum up about Jesus, but he has certain goals in mind, and he’s writing and he’s choosing certain stories of Jesus and he’s doing it with intent.
The reason that is so important can be illustrated by the example of the thieves. Is it an error when Matthew says he was crucified between two thieves on the cross who reviled him? Luke says one of them converted. Did Matthew make an error? No, because Matthew is not claiming to tell us everything. That’s really important. This is a foundational point: Matthew makes no claim to tell us absolutely everything about Jesus. John, in fact, denies it when he says the world couldn’t hold all the books that would have to be written—they didn’t have memory chips back then. So Luke tells us part of the story that Matthew doesn’t. It’s a great story. I have no doubt that both thieves started by reviling Jesus, and what do you think Jesus did? For the first time in his life sat there and didn’t say anything? No, I’m sure he witnessed to thieves. I’m sure he talked about who he was and what he was there to do. And one of the thieves was converted on the cross. Matthew is not wrong by not telling us about that; he just didn’t want to tell us about it. The gospel writers are selective.
Luke’s gospel is more like a research paper; Luke went out and researched his material. There’s a lot of other source material out there, but he has certain goals in mind and he picked the material up that was important to him.
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;, but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Again, John is writing with purpose, isn’t he, and it’s a highly evangelistic book. That’s the whole goal of John: “I went out and I know all these stories about Jesus, but I’m going to pick and choose the ones that will help me accomplish my purpose, and that is so you will believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God.” So there was purpose.
“Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” There’s selection going on. They don’t claim to tell us everything.
This is really important, because if you look at that passage that we looked at earlier about the crowds coming to John the Baptist to be baptized, one says that there were Pharisees and Sadducees. The other one doesn’t specify. Is that an error? There are people who will say that’s an error because they have some convoluted definition of what the Gospel writers are trying to do. But the gospels are not claiming to tell us absolutely everything. They are not claiming to tell us everything in chronological order. The authors have purposes, they have a mission for writing, and they are going to pick those stories of what Jesus did and said to accomplish their goals. It doesn’t make it wrong; it doesn’t make it untrustworthy. That’s just the way they did it.
Let me give you the standard reconstruction of how the Gospels were written. Of course, there’s always controversy about all that I am going to say, but this is the standard explanation.
Most people think that Mark was written first. It’s generally believed that Mark was written when Peter was in Rome. This is because there’s a lot in Mark that would especially appeal to the Roman way of thinking. We don’t translate it because it would sound terrible in English, but the first chapter of Mark has around forty occurrences of the word “immediately.” Now Jesus did this and immediately he did that. Mark is presenting Jesus as a man of action, which is something that would have been very appealing to the Romans. Interestingly, all of Mark, except for one passage, is replicated in Matthew and Luke. So if you’ve read Matthew and Luke, except for one passage, you’ve read all of Mark. Mark is likely the first one written.
The second source in addition to Mark we call Q, which is just an abbreviation for a German word. It’s a hypothetical source, but we believe that there was another gospel written that has been lost, and Matthew and Luke made use of this document. It explains why the story about John the Baptist is word-for-word the same, because they are both copying from the same document. So Q is used to describe information that does not occur in Mark, but occurs in Matthew and in Luke. In other words, Matthew and Luke sat down, they had Mark and they copied most of it. They also had this other source that we don’t have any more, and copied from that.
And then the other two sources are called, very creatively, M and L. In other words, it’s just a way of saying that Matthew has information that no one else has and Luke has information that no one else has. So when Matthew sat down to write his gospel he had the Gospel of Mark, and copied all, but one paragraph (why he left that paragraph out I have no idea). He had this other source we call Q that he copied from, and then he had a bunch of other information. So he picked and he chose what he wanted to use. For example, Matthew is written to the Jews. Nobody debates this that I know of, because what you’ll find in Matthew is anything and everything that proves Jesus is the Messiah. Constantly, Matthew is pointing out that Jesus fulfilled prophecy. Luke doesn’t care about that because Luke’s written to Gentiles who mostly don’t know the Old Testament, so the fact that Jesus fulfilled prophecy is not important to Luke. It’s important to Matthew. So he picked and chose the information that was important to his audience.
And then there’s Luke, who primarily has Mark and this Q document and then a bunch of other material. Luke has other purposes, one of which is to let people know that Jesus cared about the minorities. If there’s a story about a woman, you’ll find it in Luke. If there’s a story about someone who is a social outcast, you’ll probably find it in Luke and not in Matthew or Mark because that was one of those very important things to Luke. And Luke is a Gentile, right? So it’s the story of Jesus going outside of Israel and traveling for a while among the Gentiles, among the non-Christians, that’s huge to Luke. So that section goes on for some ten chapters. In the other Gospels, the same section is much shorter.
So they are all picking and choosing the stories that will help them accomplish their goals.
This is important because you will run across people who will see the differences in the Synoptics and they will conclude they can’t trust them because they’re so different and yet so similar. These people will conclude that the gospel writers obviously copied, but they didn’t all get it right. Hopefully this explanation has helped you understand why you can trust them.
Let me give you an example of how this works. You know the word “harmonization?” What I’ve done earlier is called harmonization. Harmonization asks the question, is there any way in which both stories can be correct even though they are different? I did that with the temptation narrative. I did it with the thief on the cross. Is there some way that both thieves could have reviled Jesus and yet one of them became a Christian? Sure. That’s the process of harmonization.
Let me show how it works with the birth stories. Both Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born. They both agreed that the shepherds came that night. But this is where the story changes. In Luke, Jesus was taken to be circumcised in the temple and then he was given his name. Matthew on the other hand has the Magi, the three wise men, come, and then Jesus goes to Egypt for two years and you have the killing of the children.
But both Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus ended up in Nazareth. You can look at that and say, how could you trust something like that? My goodness, there was a whole trip to Egypt and Luke didn’t get it. How are you going to put that together? I’ve already given you a hint in terms of how it’s laid out on the screen.
Let me give you some interesting facts. How old is a baby when he’s circumcised? Eight days. So we know that circumcision happened within eight days of the shepherds.
During the naming at the temple, Anna and Simeon are there. If you read what they said about Jesus, they call him a light to the Gentiles. For Luke, it’s a tremendously important statement that at the very beginning of Jesus’s life, he is being proclaimed as having a ministry to non-Jews. That’s probably why Luke included them.
Where was Jesus when the Magi came? he wasn’t in a manager; all those nativity scenes we have are wrong. He was in a house. So whenever the Magi came it wasn’t the night on which he was born. I guess you could say the Inn Keeper felt sorry for them and let them come in, but we really don’t know what happened.
How old were all the babies that Herod had killed? Two and under. Now we know that Herod was absolutely paranoid. He killed off his own family, but you’ve got to be pretty paranoid to kill two years and down in order to get a one-day old baby.
When you put all those pieces together and harmonize them, this is what appears to have happened. I don’t know for sure this happened, but it’s a pretty good guess, that he was born that night the shepherds came. Joseph is in his hometown, Bethlehem and evidently decided to stay around awhile. Mary had just had a baby. They took him to Jerusalem, not very far away to have him circumcised, and it appears that they went back, not to Nazareth, but back to Bethlehem. He stayed there for awhile. The Magi came (we don’t know how long afterward), and Herod went on this killing rampage after they left. So probably between the naming and the Magi you’ve probably got about a year or year and a half. The Magi left, Herod went nuts, the angel told Joseph to get out of town, so he went down to Egypt for two years, and the babies were killed. After Herod died they came back and went back up to Nazareth.
That’s the whole process of harmonization. Looking at this reconstruction of Matthew and Luke’s account, is there any way they are both true? How do they fit together? So you go to the text, you look for hints and pieces and you fit them together. Like I said, this may be overkill for some of you right now, this may be too much information, but you need to understand there will be people who will attack your faith by saying the Gospels aren’t reliable. You need to see with relative ease how you can start fitting these things together and make perfectly good sense.
I’ve got a good friend that teaches at a school in Tennessee, and when he gets to the Synoptic problem in class he sends two people out into the hall. They sit just 30 feet from each other for about a half hour. He goes through and explains the Synoptic problem in class, and then he brings the two students back in. He has each person describe what it was like to sit in the hall for a half hour and what happened. The first one goes through all the discussion and then the second one describes his experiences, and about 30 seconds into the process the whole class starts laughing because it sounds like the two students weren’t even in the same hallway. Did they see the same things? They obviously were sitting in the same hall for the same 30 minutes, but their stories are different, but they’re compatible. That’s all that harmonization does. We’ll do more of this as we get into the Gospels.
What I want you to understand is that even if when you’re presented with a problem in the Gospels, even if you can’t explain it, you need to understand that there is a process you can go through with a little bit of study, a little bit of learning, so that these Gospels all do go together and make sense. That’s the process.
The Importance of Trusting the Bible
Where all of this is going is the simple question of whether we trust the Bible. I’ve been trying to give you enough background so you can deal with the questions that come up. This is one of the fundamental questions that you will answer in your life, and again it’s so easy in evangelicalism to say you trust the Bible, but not take it seriously. I watched this for 10 years when I taught in university. Students would say, “Oh sure I trust the Bible,” and the next year they would come in and ask, “Is it okay if I sleep with my girlfriend?” I would say, “Isn’t the Bible pretty clear on that?” “Well, yes, but it’s just the Bible.” “Oh so you don’t really believe the Bible’s from God.” “I guess not that part.”
Those are conversations I had in a Christian University year after year. You cannot make a snap answer about trusting your Bible; it is a decision that you will continually remake as you go through the experiences of life. We had two children die at birth. Robin and I had to ask the question again, “Do we really believe a Bible that says that God is all good all the time? Then why did my two daughters die?” This is not a question to be rushed through; it’s not a question you can answer once when you’re ten and that’s it for life. But trusting your Bible is fundamental to your Christian walk.
As a preacher, this is something I have to deal with. The reason I preach the Bible is that I believe it’s true and I trust it. When I hear preachers preach something other than the Bible, my question is, “I wonder if they really believe the Bible or not.” If you really believe the Bible is true, why are you mixing your ideas with God’s ideas? Doesn’t make any sense to me.
So no matter who we are or where we are in life, this the question of trusting Scripture is going to be a process and a fundamental question of life. Did the biblical writers get it right when Jesus says that the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many? Do you really believe that? Do you believe the essence of Christian discipleship, just like the essence of Jesus’s life, is to be a servant? Do the writings accurately portray what Jesus and the others taught, or did the church make up stuff? Do you trust it? Are you willing to bet your life on it?
I talk to some people about Christianity and they say, “Well, I’ll think about it later.” And I’ll say, “Are you willing to bet your life on that—that you’ll be around later?” “Well, I just think that all roads lead to God.” “Well that’s interesting. Are you willing to bet your eternal life on that? Because you are. That’s exactly what you’re doing.”
Is the Bible your authority? Especially for our children, this is something in our family we work on; I’m sure in your families you do as well. Kids have to make their own decisions. And all of us who were at one time kids understand that. Having taught for ten years in the university I watch people, kids (18, 19 year olds) say, “My mommy and daddy believe the Bible, but I have to believe it myself, don’t I?” This was one of the most common sentiments I noticed in a Christian school; mom and dad believe it, but I’m not sure that I do. So these are fundamental questions that each one of us has to make for ourselves.
What we’re dealing with here is the whole doctrine of what’s called the inspiration of Scripture. The definition of inspiration is that Scripture comes from the mouth of God. The primary verse for this is 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is” – the older translation said “inspired,” the NIV says, “All Scripture is God breathed,” and I love that translation. But we had to say something differently in the ESV, so we said, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is, therefore, profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” The doctrine of inspiration has to do with source. 2 Timothy 3:16 says Scripture comes from the very mouth of God, and then it spells out the implications of that.
Notice that the doctrine of inspiration deals with source, not mode. Where does Scripture come from? The doctrine doesn’t primarily deal with how God did it or how he spoke it. Sometimes when we’re talking about inspiration we go off into another topic: did he dictate it, or did he do it some other way? That’s an important question, but first and foremost the doctrine of inspiration is about where Scripture came from. Scripture says it came from the very mouth of God.
There are two words that are connected with discussions of inspiration that are important to know. The first is the word “infallible,” and in our statement of faith, this is the word we use. Scripture is infallible. In other words, it’s true in all that it affirms. Everything it says is true. That’s the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture. Because it comes from the mouth of God, and God cannot lie, everything it says must be true.
The other word is “inerrancy,” and inerrancy is the doctrine that there are no errors in Scripture—there are no internal contradictions, there are no contradictions between the text and science and history. Now you may look at that and you may say, in essence infallibility and inerrancy mean the same thing. Yes, as far as the English words are concerned, they mean exactly the same thing. But there has been a debate for the last thirty years around those two different words. So people are going to use these words differently and you need to be aware of what’s behind them.
Inerrancy is sometimes associated with modernism. Modernism affected the church a hundred years ago, destroying large portions of it. The part of the church that stayed faithful fought for the authority of the text, and inerrancy was one of those words they wanted to use to say that the Bible is true in everything it says.
When I was in seminary, at Fuller Seminary in the early 70’s, we were in the middle of this debate in the church, and Fuller championed the “infallibility” word. By “infallible” they meant that Scripture is true in areas of faith and practice, but it’s not necessarily true in areas of history and science. That was how Fuller divided it. Scripture is true in areas of faith and practice. If it says this is what you believe, this is how a Christian behaves, then that’s true. But if Scripture makes a statement about science or history it’s not necessarily true. That’s outside the scope of inspiration. We’re going to get into that in a moment, but that’s historically the difference between those two words. Is everything it says true, or is only some of it true?
I was just talking to a professor at a local school a couple of months ago and it was interesting to hear exactly that distinction championed again, and this is what he’s teaching: The Bible says Quirinius was Governor of Syria when Augustus ordered the world to be taxed, but not necessarily, since that’s a statement of history and therefore not inspired. That was the teacher’s position.
The Method of Inspiration
There are three theories of inspiration that do have to do with how God breathed out Scripture. On one side of the spectrum, is the idea of “inspiring.” Some people think Scripture is inspiring. They may think Doonesbury is inspiring or they may think that Shakespeare is inspiring or Garfield is inspiring or Scripture’s inspiring too, but that it’s completely a human book.
As far away as you can get from “inspiring” is what’s called “the dictation theory.” The dictation theory says that God simply spoke every word and the writers wrote down what they heard. In other words, the Gospel writers were nothing more than stenographers. There certainly are areas of Scripture that claim that. “Thus saith the Lord, I had a vision and God said to me.” There are places of Scripture that say these are the exact very words that God told me to write down.
One of the problems with the dictation theory, though, is that if you were reading Greek (and it comes through somewhat in English), the writers are all really different. They have different sets of vocabulary; they have different ways in which they like to speak. There is a tremendous amount of personal variety in the writing of the New Testament. The Greek of Hebrews, 1 Peter, and Luke are exquisite and difficult Greek. John, however, is second grade Greek, “see Spot run” Greek. It could be that God inspired different personalities, which is what this position says. But you do have a problem that there is this real definite variety of writing style and vocabulary throughout the Greek New Testament.
The theory that’s in the middle (and you’ll find I normally sit in the middle) is called the dynamic view of inspiration. The dynamic view of inspiration makes two affirmations. One is that the writers wrote exactly what God said. In other words, the dynamic view of inspiration holds firmly that these are the very words of God. And yet the dynamic view of inspiration says that God did not override their writing styles and personalities. It’s a mystery, we simply don’t understand it.
Some people aren’t comfortable with mystery. They want it more concrete and so they tend to go toward the dictation theory. 2 Peter 1:20, that the writers of Scripture wrote as they were moved along by the Holy Spirit, is the verse that the dynamic view of inspiration likes to hold to. The Holy Spirit superintended the process, didn’t override their personalities, but what was written was exactly what God wanted written. God did not want Matthew to tell the story of repentant thief; God did want Luke to tell the story of the repentant thief.
The Scope of Inspiration
Let’s move to the whole issue of the scope of inspiration. The historical issues of infallibility and inerrancy raise the issue of the scope of salvation. Is it “all Scripture is inspired,” or as most of the people at Fuller wanted to translate it, “all the Scripture that is inspired” is profitable? How much of Scripture is from God? And the Fuller position and many others hold to what’s called “limited inspiration.” They use the word infallible and by that they mean that the inspiration of Scripture is limited. It doesn’t apply to all of the Bible. It applies to faith and practice, but not necessarily history and science.
Let me tell you some of the problems connected with this position because I really don’t believe it. “Jesus Christ died on the cross.” Is that an inspired statement or non-inspired statement? It’s historical in one sense, but the minute you say Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins, which is the affirmation of Scripture (not in those words, but that’s what it teaches), is that inspired or not? This creates an artificial separation between faith and history, because Christianity happened. And if Christianity didn’t happen, then none of it is true. We’re not like Hindus. In Hinduism, it doesn’t matter whether the different people lived or not—Hinduism is not grounded in history. Christianity must have happened; that’s why Paul says that if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then everything we believe is false.
So the problem that Fuller had, and the people who followed it have, is answering how you determine what is history and what is science, and what is faith and what is practice? It’s virtually impossible in Scripture to make that distinction. All the way through the story of creation, you have historical facts woven together with theology—the significance of the creation of human beings, and supremacy of God.
Only affirming infallibility is also contrary to Scripture, I think. The most straightforward, natural reading of 2 Timothy 3:16 is that “all Scripture is inspired.” That’s the claim that it makes. We see Paul in Galatians say that the Old Testament refers to “seed,” not “seeds” and builds a whole theological argument on the fact that it is singular and not plural; we see Jesus say that not a jot or a tittle are going to pass away; we see this incredible desire to validate every single statement in Scripture. When we see these thing, we start seeing why you can’t separate Scripture into different parts, some of which is inspired and some which is not.
You can also make the argument that if the Scripture writers can’t get history right what makes you think they can get theology right? It’s a lot easier for me to historically date the bombing of Pearl Harbor than it is to talk about what you should believe or how you should behave. If I can’t get a historical fact right like Pearl Harbor, what makes you think I can get anything right? So there are some very strong arguments against limited inspiration.
The people who believe with limited inspiration are trying to deal with two issues. One is the apparent contradiction between Scripture and science. For example, Jesus says the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds. We now know that there are in fact smaller seeds than the mustard seed. This been used as an example for decades that the Bible is full of errors because the mustard seed isn’t the smallest of seeds.
They’re also trying to deal with the places, especially in the Gospels, where they appear to contradict each other, and how we handle those apparent contradictions. Their solution is to say, “It’s not all inspired; there are mistakes in it.”
The other view of inspiration is the doctrine of plenary inspiration, and we’ll go into more detail next time. A plenary inspiration view says that you can explain the apparent contradictions; there is no contradiction between Scripture and science. All Scripture claims to be from the mouth of God and I believe that all (from the word plenary, meaning full) Scripture is from the very mouth of God.