Essentials of Christian Beliefs - Lesson 2

Our Knowledge of God

Christian doctrine tells us what Christians believe about God. But before we can discuss what we believe about God, we must tackle the preliminary question of how we come to know about God, and to learn about his existence, character and actions. This question is one of crucial importance, for the differences between the various theological positions Christians hold very often depend on differences in how knowledge of God is thought to be obtained.

I. Howard Marshall
Essentials of Christian Beliefs
Lesson 2
Watching Now
Our Knowledge of God

1. Introduction

A. Christian experience

B. Reason

2. Revelation in nature (Isaiah 40)

A. Cosmological argument

B. Teleological argument

C. Moral argument

3. Revelation in history (Psalm 78)

4. Revelation in Jesus Christ (John 5:19-47)

5. Revelation in the Bible (Revelation 1)

A. Historical record

B. Explanatory commentary

6. The Inspiration of the Bible (2 Timothy 3:14-17)

A. God's Dealings with Israel

B. God’s revelation in Jesus and the life of the church

7. The Reliability and Infallibility of the Bible (Luke1:1-4)

A. The Bible is a full and reliable revelation of God

B. The Bible is written in popular language

C. The Bible records a developing revelation of God over many centuries to many different people

D. The basic outline of biblical history can be shown to be dependable

E. Many of the alleged difficulties in the Bible are due to our failure to interpret it correctly

  • If we already have God's revelation in the Bible, someone may well ask why we need to study Christian doctrine: surely it is sufficient to be a Bible student without bothering about doctrine? Perhaps the simplest answer to this question is that anybody who studies the Bible is, in fact, really studying doctrine. A systematic discussion of Christian theology will take the student to many sources of knowledge and areas of thinking. Our purpose here will be the more modest one of attempting to set out the biblical teaching that forms the foundation of Christian theology.

  • Christian doctrine tells us what Christians believe about God. But before we can discuss what we believe about God, we must tackle the preliminary question of how we come to know about God, and to learn about his existence, character and actions. This question is one of crucial importance, for the differences between the various theological positions Christians hold very often depend on differences in how knowledge of God is thought to be obtained.

  • Although we cannot by searching find out God, yet God has revealed himself to us in ways that we can understand. Since we are creatures made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), it is possible for us to have some understanding of the God who made us. God has revealed himself by means of human language, and so long as we realize that human language is a true, but inadequate, vehicle for communicating the reality of God, we can make some progress in understanding. God has graciously accommodated himself to our feeble and sinful minds by speaking to us in a personal revelation, and so we must remember that the person himself is greater than the revelation. Provided we remember that he is greater than our understanding, and that human words cannot do justice to him, we can still say much about him.

  • The story that runs through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is the story of how God created the world, how the world fell into sin and rebellion against him, and how God has begun a process of new creation that will continue until every trace of sin has been destroyed. Humans are the climax and crown of God's creation, for, unlike other creatures, they are the image of God (Genesis 1:26f.). The creation of mankind was quickly followed by the entry of evil into their heart. They were created with the possibility of choosing between right and wrong, between obedience to God and disobedience. But they made the wrong decision at the instigation of the tempter, and sin with all its dreadful consequences entered the world.

  • The central theme of Christian theology, that which gives it its Christian character, is the coming of Jesus into the world as its Savior from sin. His coming is both a revelation of the character of God as holy love and also the supreme act of love by which God reconciles sinful people to himself.

  • The next stage in the study of Christian doctrine is to consider the new life which God bestows upon those who accept Jesus as their Savior from sin. We shall begin by looking at two general words which are used to describe our experience as Christians; then we shall discuss four different aspects of Christian life; and finally we shall consider the nature of our response to God's gift of salvation and eternal life.

  • A person cannot become a Christian by faith in Jesus Christ, without at the same time becoming a member of the people of God along with all his fellow believers and sharing in the life of the church. Indeed, we could not have come to know Jesus without the testimony of other Christians, their work in translating and distributing the Bible, and their prayers for us. Jesus came not to save individuals in isolation from one another, but to found a new community of people who would build one another up in the faith and evangelize the world. We must now explore what is meant by the church and what are its functions.

  • Eschatology is concerned with God's final intervention in history to bring the present evil world to an end and to inaugurate the new world. But this act of God is not confined to the future, for God began his new creation in the coming of Jesus and the establishment of the church. Prophecies relating to the last days were understood to be in course of fulfillment in the early days of the church. In order, therefore, to understand what is going to happen in the future, we need to recapitulate some of the biblical story so as to put the future into perspective.

Every Christian ought to have a working knowledge of what they believe and how it impacts their lives. We all have a theology, we all have a set of core beliefs that control how we think and how we behave. But do you know what you believe? Do you know what is driving your thoughts and actions? Do you know if your beliefs agree or disagree with the Bible? Does that matter to you? Professor Marshall wrote this book when he was 27 years old as a way to collect his thoughts and make up his mind on the basics of his faith; we are thankful that has shared his work with us. The chapters are read by Gary Leonard and Bill Mounce. 

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Essentials of Christian Beliefs - Student Guide

Essentials of Christian Beliefs - Student Guide

Every Christian ought to have a working knowledge of Christian doctrine. This book gives the basic essentials, so that anyone may obtain a reasonably complete bird’s eye...

Essentials of Christian Beliefs - Student Guide

Dr. I. Howard Marshall

Essentials of Christian Beliefs


Our Knowledge of God

Lesson Transcript


Christian doctrine tells us what Christians believe about God. But before we can discuss what we believe about God, we must tackle the preliminary question of how we come to know about God, and to learn about his existence, character and actions. This question is one of crucial importance, for the differences between the various theological positions Christians hold very often depend on differences in how knowledge of God is thought to be obtained.

There is a popular Christian song that may suggest a possible answer to our question. The chorus of the song contains the rousing claim, "Christ Jesus lives today" and offers a statement of the resurrection of Jesus. The composer goes on to pose the question, "You ask me how I know he lives?" and then answers himself: "He lives within my heart." How do you know and prove that Jesus Christ is alive today? The answer of this writer is that we can appeal to the experience of his presence in our hearts. From which it is a short step to the conclusion that by putting down our experience on paper we are recording Christian doctrine.

Years ago there was written a book entitled The Theology of Experience. Today it is virtually forgotten, but its title may serve as a summary of this kind of approach. It would stress that knowledge and certainty in religion come not from intellectual argument, but from inward conviction. There is an element of truth here. A person can know all about Christianity in their head through argument and reasoning, but unless they also knows it in their heart, then it will not make much difference to their living. Their theology will remain cold and abstract, just as was the case with John Wesley, whose correct knowledge of the gospel remained dull and lifeless until the occasion when he felt his heart "strangely warmed" and what he already knew in his head became a matter of personal experience and conviction. We cannot do without Christian experience.

Not surprisingly, then, some people have thought that writing Christian doctrine consists in setting down what your Christian experience has taught you. After all, scientists do something like this. They do their experiments. By personal discovery they finds out what is going on, and they then formulates their results and offers an explanation of their experience. Science depends upon the experimental method. Should not theology proceed in the same way?

It sounds excellent, but it doesn't work. For it is very easy to confuse faith and feelings. A person's consciousness of the presence of God may vary from day to day, and seem different when circumstances change. Experience is a very shifting foundation in matters of religion. Then, again, people might begin to compare their own experience with that of others, and discover that all their experiences are different. They might not even explain their experience in terms of God at all. Even among Christians there are enormous differences in outlook and feelings. Sooner or later one would have to ask, How do I know which of my experiences to trust? How can I compare the experiences of different people and know which is right? These questions cannot be answered on the level of experience.

Perhaps, then, we should try something more objective and reliable. Suppose that for experience we were to substitute reason; for the use of reason can lead to much more certain knowledge, as in the case of mathematical reasoning. It is not surprising that this course has been tried in theology. In fact an element of reason must enter into theology. Even when we spoke of using experience as a foundation, it was implied that we must think about the significance of our experience, and to think is to reason. And to think about thinking about theology, as we are doing just now, is certainly to use our reason. Clearly we cannot do theology without employing reason, any more then we can leave emotion and experience out of religion.

But the suggestion goes further than this. It is that thinking and reasoning are the source of our knowledge of God and his ways. Philosophers, for example, have produced arguments for the existence of God, based on the use of reason, and have tried to deduce what he is like and how he acts. Theology has been regarded as a system of ideas which can be discovered by reason.

But once again we must be critical, and ask whether this approach really works. There are two main objections. Are our minds big enough to think properly about God? From our fairly simple knowledge of God as Christians, we have reason to believe that he is infinite. How, then, can our minds possibly measure up to the task of understanding him? The thing is impossible. Again, even if we do manage to form a mental understanding of God, how do we know that it corresponds to reality? How do we know that our ideas correspond to what is real? How do we know by the use of reason that God is there?

The effect of arguments such as these is to suggest that reason should be conscious of its own limitations. Plainly reason isn't the key to theology, although, like experience, it has its value and cannot be set aside. What has gone wrong is that in both cases we have started with humans, trying to discover by their own abilities what God is like and not getting on very well. What we need is some evidence of the activity of God, something that God does to make himself known to us, in other word, revelation. So far we have been talking about discovery by humans; what we need is revelation by God. Of course the two go together; revelation must be discovered by us and received by the use of our faculties, but our difficulty has arisen because we began from the wrong end, and started with us instead of with God. Experience and reason must both have something to work on, or else they will remain empty. And the conclusions of both experience and reason must be capable of being tested by some external, objective standard, or else their conclusions will remain uncertain and ill-founded.

It is, therefore, fundamental to realize that, if there is a God, he can be known only through his own revelation of himself: "Through God alone can God be known." What we must now ask is whether and how God has revealed himself to human apprehension. 

Revelation in Nature (Isaiah 40)

In almost every age and culture people have been led to believe in some power or powers greater than themselves through considering the nature of the world around them (cf. Psalm 19). The very fact that there is a world at all has led people to ask whether it came into existence by itself or does not suggest the activity of a creator (the so-called cosmological argument for the existence of God). Again, the universe is not a haphazard concourse of parts, but shows evidence of structure and even of beauty: one may well ask whether the evidence of "design" does not point to the existence of a designer (the teleological argument). Finally, there is the fact that although the universe is material in composition, there is nevertheless mental and spiritual activity in it, and there exist such ideas as goodness, justice and love, which hardly developed out of a purely material system; does this not point to the existence of a moral and spiritual being as the creator of the universe (the moral argument)?

The nature of the universe thus raises questions about its origin and character. The answers to these questions have been formulated into arguments for the existence and nature of God, but there has been immense debate as to whether these arguments actually prove anything. The fact is that many thinkers are not persuaded by them, and it can be claimed that an argument that fails to persuade intelligent people is not a compelling argument, since it does not in fact compel assent. On the other hand, it can equally fairly be claimed that counterarguments intended to disprove the existence of God have not been any more successful. The situation is something of a stalemate. What can be said is that the traditional arguments show that belief in God is not unreasonable, and they help to confirm a belief in God based on other grounds. In the light of other evidence, the universe may be held to constitute one way in which God has revealed himself to us, but the fact remains that the revelation is a somewhat diffuse one taken by itself, and that, at best, it can teach us only a little about the nature of God. Even though Paul believed that creation reveals God, he recognized that human minds were blind to its significance (Romans 1:18-23). Clearly we must look for the possibility of other evidence. 

Revelation in History (Psalm 78)

We can advance a step further by asking whether there is any evidence of the activity of God in historical events. Is there any way in which the shape of human history reveals the presence of God? This was certainly the belief of the people of Israel. They believed that, so far as their own past was concerned, God had spoken to Abraham and called him to leave his native land and settle in Canaan, where he was to be the ancestor of their nation. After their escape from captivity in Egypt they believed that it was God who brought them out. It was he who raised up Moses to be their leader and who brought them through water and wilderness into the promised land. He gave them their rulers. He provided for their wants. When they did wrong, they saw their disasters as God's judgment on their sins, and when they prospered, they saw this as evidence of God's blessing. Consequently, they spoke of Yahweh (their name for God; mistakenly rendered into English as "Jehovah") as the living God, meaning that he was active and did things, unlike the dead idols of the pagans.

Here, then, we have a revelation of God that demonstrates his concern for people and displays his moral judgment on the world; this takes us a lot further than revelation in nature. It is not surprising that some theologians stop at this point and suggest that the way God reveals himself is simply by events. Revelation on this view means divine action. The matter, however, is not quite so simple. How do we know which events point to the activity of God, and how do we read off their significance? If you look at the chronicles of the neighbours of Israel, you will find that they looked at the same events, but interpreted them quite differently — if they bothered to interpret them at all. They saw the activity of their gods in some of them, and they would have denied the Israelite interpretation in terms of the activity of Yahweh.

Moreover, we may ask whether this revelation of God is sufficient. A God who merely acts in history is still not a personal God; it is not clear that he can be known by individuals. Our Christian experience (which we may legitimately call into the debate) suggests that there is something more than this to be known about God. 

Revelation in Jesus Christ (John 5:19-47)

The coming of Jesus was the supreme manifestation and fulfillment of the revelation that God had begun to make in the life of Israel. Jesus claimed to speak in the name of God and to make known God's will to the people. In his character and actions he revealed the nature of God, and he displayed a righteousness and love that could be seen as a reflection of the character of God. He did mighty works that raised the question whether he was not more than a man, and, most significant of all, after his death his disciples believed that he had come to life again and that they were able to see and speak with him. His followers believed that somehow "God was in Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:19) and they spoke of him as the Word of God.

In Jesus Christ revelation took a personal form. It was no longer a case of merely seeing the effects of God's activity in nature or history. Here, they believed, was God in person, somehow identified with the man Jesus. This was how God communicated with us, by speaking a Word that was in fact a person. Surely this is the supreme revelation of God. And so it is. But once again we face the same question as we faced a moment ago: how do we know that Jesus was a revelation of God? How do we know what God is saying through him? And indeed, to press the point, how do we know what Jesus said and did, since we were not privileged to see him for ourselves? It is not foolish or irrelevant question, for the simple fact is that people have formed many different ideas about Jesus and his significance. Even if the revelation in Jesus is the supreme revelation of God, it is not necessarily a sufficient revelation for us. 

Revelation in the Bible (Revelation 1)

The answer to the questions that we have been raising is to be found in the existence of the Bible. If we look back at the history of Israel, we find that the significance of that history was expressed by the prophets who claimed to act as the spokesmen of God (1 Samuel 3; Isaiah 6; Hosea 1; Amos 7:14f.). It was they who revealed to the people that Yahweh's character was righteous and loving (Isaiah 6:3; Amos 5:6f.; Deuteronomy 7:8; Jeremiah 31:3; Hosea 11:1), that Israel was his chosen people (Deuteronomy 7:7f.; Jeremiah 7:23; 13:11) and that he required of them not only worship but also righteousness and love in their national and social life (Amos 5:21-24; Isaiah 1:27; Micah 6:8). It was through the insights of the prophets and other inspired men that the revelation of God in nature was recognized and expressed (Isaiah 40; 42:5; Amos 5:8) and that history was seen as the arena of his activity (Deuteronomy 28; Judges 2; Amos 5:14; Daniel 2).

The same thing is true of Jesus. We should not have known what he said and did, were it not for the Evangelists who recorded the story. Nor would we have known the significance of Jesus, had it not been for the biblical writers' interpretation of him. Jesus himself drew attention to the way in which the prophets had foretold his coming, so that his life was to be understood in the light of their message (Matthew 5:17; Luke 24:44). His followers carried the same point further; they realized that the significance of Jesus was that he was the fulfillment of the prophetic message. But above all, they were able to look back on his earthly life in the light of his resurrection and their own Christian experience, and thus to see it in a way that had not been possible earlier. It needed knowledge of the risen Jesus and the Holy Spirit to put the life of Jesus on earth in its full context.

What this means is that our understanding of certain events as revelatory depends on the interpretation of these events by people who were inspired by God to recognize and comment on their significance. In this way the original revelatory events are able to reveal God to later generations (including our own) that did not participate in them, and at the same time the inspired "commentary" on them is also made available to us.

We thus find that revelation took place both in events and in the communication of the significance of those events to the biblical writers. Revelation is not a matter of either events or words, but is a combination of both, neither being complete without the other. Obviously a commentary on events that never happened is without revelatory force. But a mere chronicle of events that does not show how they are revelatory is equally useless. The Bible is historical record and explanatory commentary woven into one, and it is because of this dual character that it constitutes God's revelation to us.

In view of this important place which the Bible holds as the means of divine revelation we must now examine its nature in more detail. 

The Inspiration of the Bible (2 Timothy 3:14-17)

The Bible consists of two parts. In the first we have the record of the first great episode of revelation, God's dealings with Israel. Already by the time of Jesus, the Jewish people had come to accept the Old Testament as a set of authoritative documents. There was some doubt about the status of one or two minor books, but substantially the Old Testament existed in its present form. The early Christians naturally accepted this set of books, although it is important to note that they did not accept the unwritten traditions that had developed as well, despite the fact that to some Jews these were every bit as important as the Old Testament. To the Old Testament they added a second part, the records of God's revelation in Jesus and the life of the church. This process of forming the Bible did not take place all at once, but over a long period of time. Although the task was complete in principle by the end of the second century, it is not until ad 367 that we find the first authoritative list of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as we have them in our Bibles today. The process of forming the "canon" (or authoritative list) of the books of the Bible was not so much a conferring of authority by the church upon these books as a recognition of the authority that they inherently possessed.

What exactly was the church doing when it recognized the authority of these books? So far as the Old Testament was concerned, it was simply following the example of Jesus himself and his followers, who accepted these writings as authoritative Scriptures. In the case of the New Testament, it accepted those books that had been used by churches of unquestioned orthodoxy from the earliest days of Christianity and that had been written by the apostles or men (like Mark and Luke) who stood close to them. This test was no formality, for there was a good deal of Christian literature around, some of it of high spiritual content and some positively erroneous, with claims to go back to the early days of the church, and the church had to exercise careful judgment in limiting its Scriptures to those books that actually fulfilled the conditions of canonicity.

The value of these books lay in the fact that they recorded the great acts of God's revelation in the history of Israel and in the ministry of Jesus. At the same time, this record contained the inspired interpretation of these events through which their real meaning could be understood. The Bible is, of course, a human book, written by humans, and it bears the marks of the different personalities who contributed to its composition. If it tells how God revealed himself to these people, it also records how they responded to God's revelation — and the tale is sometimes one of sorry failure to understand and obey the revelation of God.

At the same time, the Bible is the work of people to whom the Word of God was revealed in various ways. Sometimes the writers were simply recording historical events, using the ordinary means of knowledge to discover what had happened. Sometimes they were recording the messages that prophets and apostles received from God. Sometimes they pondered deeply in their own minds on the things of God and he used their thoughts to bring his message to them. And sometimes they were guided by God to write words that were charged with a deeper meaning than they themselves were aware (1 Peter 1:10-12; cf. Daniel 12:8f.). Although, therefore, the Bible is a set of human books, nevertheless its several writings claim to be divine in origin. Later writers looking back on earlier writings could describe them as "God–breathed" (2 Timothy 3:16) and state that their authors were people moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20f.).

This account of the Bible as a book produced under divine inspiration is based on the testimony of its own writers. What reason have we to accept it as a true description, as compared, say, with the claims of the Book of Mormon or the scriptures of other religions? It is clear that a scientific proof of the inspiration of the Bible cannot be attempted. Belief in God is not a matter of accepting a scientific or philosophical proof of his existence; as we have already observed, no such universally accepted proofs exist. We believe in God because an explanation of their experience in terms of the existence of God is the most satisfying explanation of all the evidence; such belief may go beyond the evidence (as is the case with many hypotheses in other areas of knowledge) and may even go against some of the evidence (such as the existence of pain and suffering); nevertheless, despite the existence of factors that apparently militate against belief in God, the believer is prepared to emphasize the word "apparently", because in his judgment the evidence for belief has greater weight.

Two things follow from this. The first is that, if acceptance of the existence of God is a matter of faith rather than of rigid proof, then acceptance of the Bible as the revelation of God must also be a matter of faith. But this does not mean that acceptance of the Bible is an irrational act without any basis in the evidence, any more than that belief in God is irrational and unjustifiable. The second point is that acceptance of the Bible as the revelation of God must fit in with what we know of God as he has revealed himself. No Christian doubts that in the Bible we have some record of how God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. The problem is whether it makes sense to claim that the God who revealed himself in Jesus has also revealed himself in a written revelation. Is the Bible itself an inspired revelation of God, or is it merely a human record and interpretation of historical acts of revelation?

Along these lines it has often been argued that written statements can tell us about acts of revelation but cannot themselves be a revelation, since revelation can occur only through events and persons. The Bible would then be a book about a revelation, but not itself a revelation of God. This argument, however, does not do justice to the character of the God who revealed himself in Jesus. He revealed himself as a person. But personal communication takes place by means of words, so much so that one might almost define persons as beings who are able to communicate by means of language. God, therefore, spoke to the prophets by what appeared to them as words (e.g. Deuteronomy 4:1-5; 2 Samuel 23:2; Jeremiah 1:9); no doubt the "words" of an infinite, transcendent God are beyond finite human comprehension, but we may say that God accommodated his forms of expression to what we could receive. Again, when God revealed himself in Jesus, the revelation largely took the form of words. Certainly the Evangelists were as much interested in what Jesus said as in what he did. According to John, what Jesus said had the character of words of God (John 7:16f.; 8:38; 14:24; 17:8, 14). And when the early church tried to reveal God to people who had not met Jesus for themselves, it did so bypreaching. Words are an indispensable form of divine communication (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:13). It follows, therefore, from the character of God as personal, that his revelation of himself had to be in verbal form, as well as in events and persons, and that there is, consequently, nothing surprising about the Christian claim that the Bible is the Word of God in written form. Without a written record the original events by means of which God revealed himself could not be understood in their full significance or be of any revelatory value to later generations which did not experience them.

Some people have suggested that the Bible itself, as originally written, is not the Word of God, but that it can become the Word of God as the Spirit of God uses it to speak in new situations to new readers. This view is true in what it positively affirms, namely that the Bible remains a dead letter to the reader if the Spirit does not work in and through it to illumine the mind of the reader. It is false in what it denies, since, for one thing, it is impossible to see how the Bible can become the Word of God if it is not already the Word of God. Furthermore, it is hard to see why the Bible alone has this quality of becoming the Word of God to the reader. Above all, this view does not square with the attitude of Jesus and the New Testament writers to the books of the Old Testament, which they clearly accepted as divine revelation.

People sometimes find it hard to believe that a book written by human beings could have been inspired by the Spirit of God. We must certainly reject the view that the biblical writers were little more than passive instruments, like typewriters, used by God to record what he wished. There have occasionally been thinkers (like the Jewish writer Philo) who did think of the Scriptures in this way, but it is safe to say that it has been generally repudiated since it does not do justice to the way the biblical writers express it. It would be no more true to say this than to say that Jesus behaved like a divine tape-recorder when he spoke, uttering pre-recorded messages. In fact the biblical writers claim that the word of God came to them in many different ways, but usually through the normal exercise of their God-given faculties of mind and reason.

There is something of a paradox here in that we can regard the Bible as at once a human book and a divine book. But a paradox is not the statement of a contradiction, but rather the expression of two statements that are seemingly contradictory, but contain complementary truths. We have the same kind of paradox in the belief that Jesus was an ordinary man and at the same time the Son of God. Christians firmly hold to this belief although nobody has ever been able to explain it, and indeed it cannot be explained on the level of human understanding, since it is concerned with how the divine can be united with the human. We may legitimately use this analogy to help us to understand the nature of the Bible, provided that we do not fall into bibliolatry, the error of regarding the Bible as a kind of incarnation of the Holy Spirit, and so worshipping it. It is true that some theologians have demurred at the use of the analogy, holding that the inspiration of the Bible is not like the incarnation of the Son of God. And of course they have a point. In the incarnation the second Person of the Trinity became man, but there is no sense in which a divine Person became Scripture. But this is not the point of the analogy, which rather asserts that just as God could be united with man in the incarnation, so God could unite his Word with the words of men in Scripture.

The process of inspiration extends to the Bible as a whole. When the church accepted the canon of Scripture, it was expressly denying the inspiration of other books that dealt with the history of Israel and the early church, but it was equally strongly affirming its conviction that all the books that were accepted were inspired by the Spirit. This does not mean that all books reveal God with the same concentration or the same clarity. There is obviously much more of a divine message in the Gospel of John or in Romans than in Ecclesiastes or the Song of Solomon. But the latter books have important things to say, even if they are peripheral to the central revelation of God in Jesus. We should not forget that the various books of the Bible were written for people in different ages and situations, and a passage that does not speak to us now may have a very relevant message for other people in different circumstances. A letter from a missionary three or four years ago said, "Give thanks to God for the way in which the Gospel of Mark is helping the people here to see that Christ has overcome the power of the demons." That was not a lesson that we needed in this country at that time — although since then reports of demon possession and exorcism have demonstrated its relevance here also — but undoubtedly it was and is very relevant indeed for the people in the African country in question. 

The Reliability and Infallibility of the Bible (Luke 1:1-4)

If we say that the Bible as a whole is the inspired Word of God, the obvious implication is that it is a reliable revelation of ''God''. The traditional word for this quality of the Bible is "infallibility," i.e. the quality of not leading people astray. The claim that the Bible is fully reliable is based on the attitude of Jesus to the Old Testament and on the witness of the Bible to its own character (Matthew 5:17f.; Mark 7:1-13; 12:35-37; John 5:39-47; 10:34-36; 14:26; 16:13-15; 1 Corinthians 14:37f.; Ephesians 3:3; Revelation 22:6); it is a corollary of the belief that the Bible is inspired by God. Like belief in inspiration; therefore, belief in the reliability of the Bible is a matter of faith and not of proof, but at the same time such belief can be tested by the ordinary methods of historical study.

It is often said that this belief is no longer tenable by modern Christians, and that we cannot believe in the reliability of the Bible because of the many alleged errors and contradictions which it contains. We must therefore state the following points by way of elucidation of this belief.

First, much difficulty has arisen through failure to interpret the Bible correctly. It is a full and reliable revelation of God. It is not meant to be a detailed encyclopaedia of factual information on all subjects; it does not profess to provide answers to all the questions that we might want to ask, but to train and instruct us in Christian doctrine and godliness.

Second, the Bible is written in popular language and not with twentieth-century scientific terminology and exactitude. For example, the book of Genesis does not purport to offer a scientific cosmology. Indeed it would be foolish to expect this; and if it had been achieved, not only would it have been unintelligible to the original readers of the Bible, it would also be incomprehensible to most of us who have not had a scientific training.

Third, the Bible records a developing revelation of God over many centuries to many different people. Its individual statements must be interpreted in the light of the revelation as a whole, and earlier teaching must be related to later teaching. Belief cannot be based on individual statements taken out of their total biblical context. The sacrificial requirements in the Old Testament were true so far as they went, and valid in their own time, but they are no longer a valid expression of God's will for Christians. Even an institution like slavery, which is taken for granted as part of the social system in the New Testament, may no longer be acceptable today in the light of the general ethical teaching of the New Testament itself.

Fourth, so far as the historical truth of the biblical narrative is concerned, archaeology has done a great deal to confirm its essential accuracy, although, in the nature of things, there are many statements for which such confirmation cannot be expected. In general, the basic outline of biblical history can be shown to be dependable, although there are many places where we cannot "prove" that events took place just as they are recorded, because the required supporting evidence does not exist. It must also be admitted that in some places the biblical narratives raise historical difficulties to which there are at present no convincing answers; in such cases the wisest course may often be to suspend judgment, since fresh discoveries and discussion may alter the situation.

Fifth, many of the alleged difficulties in the Bible are due to our failure to interpret it correctly. The cardinal rule of interpretation is that statements in the Bible must be understood according to the way in which the original writers meant them to be understood. It is folly to take metaphorical or poetic statements as if they were recording literal facts. Passages that were intended to be read as fiction should not be read as if they were historical accounts. It is easy for people of a literal turn of mind to think that all truth must be expressed in literal statements and to forget that truth may be expressed in metaphor and symbol — and that some truths can be expressed only in this way. We cannot, for example, describe the beginning or the end of the universe in literal language, and we should not misunderstand the symbolical language used in the Bible in this connection as if it were to be taken literally.

These considerations may help to show that belief in the inspiration and reliability of the Bible can be defended against the arguments customarily brought against it. There are, of course, difficulties about the doctrine, just as there are difficulties surrounding belief in the love of God in a universe where evil and pain occur, but these difficulties are not sufficient to overthrow a doctrine that rests on the teaching of Jesus and his apostles.

Two further points should be made. The first is that, since the Bible is both a human and a divine book, both of these aspects must be taken into consideration in its study. Since it was produced by human writers in particular historical situations, it is both proper and necessary to employ all the usual techniques of historical and literary study in order to place the various books in their historical settings, to discover the circumstances of their composition, and to understand their contents. Such study has sometimes been rejected by Christians on the grounds that it has led to the Bible's being treated as if it were merely a human book, and that it has led to a denial of the truth of the Bible. There is, however, nothing wrong with the methods of study, provided that their use is not vitiated by false presuppositions that call in question the activity of God in revealing himself in the events recorded in the Bible and in the Bible's own statements. If we believe that the Bible is God's Word, we need not fear that critical study is going to disprove it, even though the conclusions of some biblical scholars may appear to contradict its truth.

This points us to the second aspect of the Bible that must not be forgotten in study. The Bible must be read and studied as the Word of God. He who inspired the prophets, apostles and holy men to write the Bible still speaks through it, so that we may come into living contact with him and receive eternal life. When we read the Bible, we must listen to hear his Word, and so we must pray that the Spirit who inspired the writers will illumine the readers to recognize and accept what God is saying to them.

The second point is that the Bible is our final and supreme authority in Christian doctrine and practice. It contains the record of the revelation of Jesus Christ, to which nothing can be added, and it is the book that the church has accepted as canonical and as its final authority in all matters of faith. The purpose of biblical interpretation and theology is not to produce new truths that are not in the Bible, but to bring to light the full meaning of what is already contained in the Bible. It is an essential part of Protestant belief that the church can add nothing to the Bible and that all its doctrines must be tested by their fidelity to the Bible.

There are some questions and problems on which the Bible has nothing specific to say, and in such situations it is the task of the Christian to seek solutions that will be biblical in character and yet may go beyond the teaching of the Bible. Some Christians (though not all) believe, for example, that with the enormous contemporary problems of alcoholism and accidents due to drinking, it is right for them to go beyond the specific commands in the Bible and make their own application of the principle of not causing stumbling blocks (Romans 14:13, 21) by abstention from alcohol. Other problems arise with practices such as abortion, contraception and euthanasia; here modern techniques and knowledge have raised problems of a kind unknown in biblical times, and Christians have the responsibility of discovering God's will in such areas on the basis of scriptural teaching. These tasks may not be easy, and Christians do not always come to the same conclusions on particular problems; the important thing is to seek solutions that will display obedience to the revealed will of God. Despite its lack of direct teaching on such problems, the Bible contains a sufficient revelation of the will and character of God to enable Christians to know how to believe and act in the modern age. 

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