Are the Scriptures Reliable

I finished a series in the book of Jonah back in November of 2013.  After teaching sermon 2, 3, and 4, the most common question I received was, "so do you believe God's word is inspired?"  Fair enough, every pastor should allow himself to be questioned by the people he pastors.  That said, I was curious as to why that question resulted from our Jonah series.  So, I went back and listened to the messages to make sure I wasn't communicating something I didn't believe.  What I found, or what I am left assuming, is how closely we tie our interpretation of scripture to scripture itself - meaning often times we don't know where scripture ends and our interpretation begins.  I found this very interesting, but scripture and interpretation of scripture or very different things, and we should know how to separate the two.  However, that could be for another blog some where in the future.  A few months before the Jonah series we participated in a city wide sermon series with over 300 churches in the Austin area.  In this series we discussed seven different questions that are often asked by critics or those struggling with faith.  One of the question we sought to answer was, "Is the Bible Reliable?" In this message, I addressed the idea of scripture inspiration.  For whatever reason that sermon did not get recorded.  So, I will attempt to blog my thoughts on this question, which I think will, at least, to the best of my ability, answer the question posed to me, "so do you believe God's word is inspired?"

First, let me say this, which may cause me to lose 50% of my readers: The Bible is not God's Word.  The Bible is God's word about God's Word.  The Bible is witness to the Word of God, and the Word of God is Jesus.  If I were to compare this with another religion, I would say, often times we do to the Bible what Islam does to the Koran.  But this is not the way it should be.  The Koran is to Islam what Jesus is to Christianity.  The best way I think we can define the bible and what it is, if it is not THE word of God (because Jesus is), is to say that it takes on more of the role of John the Baptist - one who gives witness to Jesus.  The Bible points away from itself and to Jesus, THE Word of God.  That's all I'll say on that.  

Now, let me start with a disclaimer - personally, I didn't like the question, "is the Bile reliable".  For a couple reasons, but mainly because of all the assumed bagage both Christians and non-Christians have packed into the word "reliable."  Can we not at least take the time to first ask, "what is the bible supposed to be reliable for?"  If we leave the word "reliable" open-ended, is it not possible to project something on to the Bible that it never claims for itself.  For instance, I hear Atheists say, "the Bible is not a reliable book because it is wrong scientifically."  But if the Bible was not written to be a science book expounding on the depths and complexity of the universe, can we really shuffle the Bible into the "unreliable" category because it doesn't line up with the current scientific findings, when it never claims to?  I could give many examples of this sort of attack, but I'd rather not park it here for now.    

Then one of the other reasons I don't like this question comes form the 'Christian' and albiet defensive perspective.  For instance, as soon as the reliability question is asked, many Christians go on the immediate defense with statements like, “the Bible has never been proven wrong” - that’s a slippery statement - because neither has unicorns or bigfoot, but that doesn't mean we believe in them. Then there is a whole slew of other questions that pop up from that surface statement:

  • Are we talking about a 21st century literal reading of the english translated scriptures
  • Are we talking about our understanding of what we assume scripture to means...because while truth is not relevant, our interpretation of truth is. 
  • For that matter, what does “wrong” mean? wrong about what?
  • What do we mean by “proven” - are we talking observed, test-tube, labs, intuitive, etc...?
  • When we say the “bible” what do we mean by that? 
  • What does the text in the Bible mean, or what did the original writers understand it to mean?

So on top of that let me go ahead and just say, I don’t like the categories we use when we talk about the Bible: Biblical Inerrancy, Biblical Infallibility, Biblical Literalism, Biblical mysticism...I don't like these because most of these are not based on how the original scriptures were actually intended to work, nor were these categories that the original authors had in mind.  These categories have been super-imposed by us as responses to claims and arguments made since the dawn of the enlightenment. based on how we choose to read and the lens we use to interpret our English translation of these documents - in other words, these are all modern-western constructs forced on ancient Near Eastern documents, often times out of fear.

So, I think what we have to ask ourselves first, to the question, "Is the Bible reliable?" - is what is the purpose of the scriptures?

  • Did God inspire them so that we would have instructions for life? Kind of a moral rule book. 
  • Did he have them written so we could have scientific data about certain phenomena in our universe?  Kind of a plumb line for scientific discovery.
  • Did God inspire them so we would have an accurate history book? In other words, was God's point in inspiring the scriptures simply to give us a history book of ancient Israel, nothing more and nothing less?
  • Did he inspire them for another reason, and if so, what is that reason?

If we don’t know that, we can’t answer the question, “Is the Bible reliable?”  With out knowing what the Bible is supposed to be reliable for.  And if we don't know what the bible was meant to be reliable for, we are left to inject whatever thought and build whatever framework we want to on and around the text, and to do that robs the text of integrity and purpose.  Along with that it actually attributes to us higher authority than the book we claim has a higher authority than man - ironic isn't it? If we are to claim the scriptures are reliable, the only thing we can hold them reliable for, is what they were purposed to be reliable for - nothing more and nothing less.

There are a lot of ways we can answer the question, "what are the scriptures supposed to be reliable for?"  We can decide the answer to this based on what we have been taught.  We can answer this based on what we think they should be reliable for.  We can answer this question based on our fear of both scientific and historical findings.  Or we can do something really crazy, and simply ask, scripture to answer the question for us.  In other words, let the scriptures themselves answer that question for us.  Another way to phrase that question is to ask, "what does scripture tell us about itself? 

There are a lot of texts that I could of used for this, but I think they all can be narrowed down into one text:  2 Timothy 3:16-17

Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work.

Let's break down a few of these words, not according to how we interpret them, but based on the defintions used in the Greek and the ancient Near East (the context they were written into).

Inspired - simply means to be from the breath of God... this is a creation picture... the first time we see this is through the word-picture of God breathing into man to create the image of God.  In the context of creation man is nothing more than dust, he is no different from his primordial ancestors, until God breathes into him.  God doesn't just breathe into man for the sake of some sort of new breathing exercise, rather God's 'breath' carries with it the authority to assign man a value or a purpose of being. The value breathed into man is God's delegated authority to be God's image bearers on this planet through the cultivation of the created order in the way of shalom... So, the same goes with Bibles, these books we hold are no more special than the dust of the ground, they are ink, and parchment, and leather or plastic, or cardboard, and that's all they are... So, what scripture is saying of itself is that scripture in some way, is from the breath of God, and when like man, God breathes into something, he is delegating his authority in it and/or through it for some intended value or purpose, of being.

  • So what I would say, is that for Scripture to be God inspired, or "from the breath of God", is this: Scripture has the authority of the triune God, exercised in and through it for some intended purpose

Authority - We've brought up a new word not found in our 2 Timothy text - authority.  When we think of our western version or ideas of authority, and when we think of authoritative documents, we think of bullet points, systems, lists, and the like...but if you've read scripture at all we know it is not a "list of codes and rules" (though it does indeed have codes, rules, and commands). Nor is it a Theology book made up of true doctrines (of course many parts of scriptures declare great truths about God, Jesus, the world, and humans).  I think N.T. Wright sums it up best when he says, scripture is a story about God becoming king through Jesus. In our world today, it is often times hard to think of story and authority within the same framework. 

However,  there are ways in which stories can wield power to change, guide, and influence people - in other words, can exercise authority - in ways that no amount of to-do-lists, commands, or rules will ever do.  While rules or commands have the ability to make people follow, at least externally, a way of life, story has the power to transform people into a people who long to live life a certain way by capturing our imagination in such a way that the rest of our life follows. 

This is very much like the authority scripture wields - a story told to capture the imagination and invites readers and hearers to imagine themselves in that very story.  This story opens our minds up to new and different ideas about God and humanity which help us envision a life lived according to that story.  So, lets break down this idea of authority as the concept is used throughout scripture.  

Authority, as it is used throughout scripture, is used in a very different way than our kind of judicial or executive use authority - while it certainly does carry with it both judicial and executive notes the idea of authority throughout scripture is much deeper and richer than that.  When we look at scripture as the story it is, the story of God becoming king through Jesus, we see this idea of "authority" or a re-popularized word, "sovereignty" evolving throughout scripture as this idea of God shaping and moving things for the reestablishment of shalom, or better stated, the inauguration of God's kingdom through the work, miracles, word, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and it's continual yet gradual breaking in. In other words, authority is the sovereign rule of God sweeping through creation in judgement and healing. It is the powerful love of God in Jesus Christ, putting sin to death and launching new creation (NT Wright quote).

  • So how could we summarize what we have said so far?  Scripture has the delegated authority of God and is purposed to point away from itself and toward the reality of shalom, or the kingdom of God ruled by Jesus, who is the true Word of God. 

Righteousness - We do not get to project our idea of what "righteousness means.  That said, we do not have the space here (as we've already taken too much) to do an in-depth research project.  But our idea of righteousness cannot be formulated starting with the New Testament, we have to go all the way back to the Old Testament (Abraham) and work our way forward (if you have nothing to do, spend a couple weeks doing this, it's fun).  By the time we get to the Psalms and the prophets the idea of righteousness takes in the meaning 'giving deliverance to the needy (poor, humble, unimportant, voice-less, weak, forgotten, oppressed, etc) [Moltman, p. 6].  Then as we see down in verse 17, the noun ""righteousness" plays itself out in what is called 'good works' (ways, actions, rhythms, disciplines, and practices for the good of the poor, humble, unimportant, voice-less, forgotten, oppressed, etc.).  These good-works are a result of a person being developing in righteousness, which is properly developed in that person through the authority of the triune God exercised through scripture.  

  • So, here's what we have so far - somehow, God mediates his transformative authority through his scriptures to develop us into a people of righteousness.

This verse tells us the way scripture forms us and shapes us into a righteous people who are committed to 'good-works' by showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, or exposing the ways in us that are and work against righteousness, correcting our mistakes and misconceptions of who the king and his kingdom happen to be; and shaping, guiding and informing us to live the way of Jesus as citizens of his kingdom.  Our citizenship (being God's people in God's kingdom) is not shown through ethnicity, through sex or gender, through social ranking, but rather through every good work (the manifestation of being a people of righteousness). 

So, let's go back to the original question, "are the scriptures reliable?"  If we put all of our thoughts from this post together, and we now re-ask, are the scriptures reliable, we are asking, “are the scriptures reliable to capture our imaginations with the story of God, and become the normative way by which we live in that story through ways, actions, rhythms, disciplines, and practices (aka - our whole life) for the good of the poor, humble, unimportant, voice-less, forgotten, oppressed as we follow Jesus."

And to this, I answer, yes, the scriptures are indeed reliable.