Thursday, November 09, 2006

Bible Doctrine (3)

The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God. It is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour.

What is it that we base our faith on? Is it merely on "feelings", emotions, experiences? Or is there a more tangible, reliable, logical basis for belief?

Thankfully, the answer is yes! We have the most detailed and reliable ancient document in existence - the Bible. Let's delve into the various parts of the statement above:

The Bible

What is the Bible? The collection of 66 books written by dozens of authors across a 1600 year time period throughout the ancient world is a mixture of different writings: poetry, history, prophecy, genealogy, letters and so on.

As originally given

God inspired the writers of the Bible to write exactly what they did. While there are no complete original documents, by comparing many hundreds of fragments and dating them, we can be certain that over 99% of our current Bible is the same as the original text, except for translation. God may not have inspired any particular translation, but He has providentially maintained the text for us to read, and blessed us with many good translations... at least in English. Spare a thought for the 2500+ people groups in the world yet to have any of the Bible in their own language!

Is the inspired and infallible

There are several terms we can use to describe the authority of the Bible. None of them seems to quite hit the mark, and so we end up with combinations.

  • "Inspired" means that God has decreed what should be written, within the context of each writer's personality and culture. It doesn't just mean that the Bible is "inspirational". "All Scripture is God-breathed..." (2 Timothy 3:16) - this translation is probably most accurate regarding "inspiration".
  • "Infallible" means that the Bible will not fail us, whatever test we may put it to: it's perfect... but a criticism is that it might just be perfect for what we use it for, ie. "faith and practice" as Grudem says (p.43), and not for some historical or scientific facts. This goes against the teachings of Paul (Acts 24:14), Jesus (Luke 24:25) and various psalmists (Psalm 12:6, Psalm 119:96), who state that all the Bible is true and reliable.
  • "Inerrant" is the other frequently used term, although not in the UCCF doctrinal basis above. It means that the Bible is without error: perfect and truthful in every way. It has a different emphasis than infallible - it's stronger in what it does affirm, but arguably starts from a negative viewpoint.

What does inerrant mean? Well, it makes allowances for things like "loose" quoting as we would see it. When the New Testament quotes from the Old, the wording is often slightly different, or maybe many verses will be combined into one. We live in an age of search engines and libraries, where precise wording is necessary for a reliable quotation. In ancient times, the purpose of quoting was to convey the meaning of the original text.

Inerrancy also allows for authors to use ordinary language. God speaks through the authors using human language, but never compromises His holiness or perfection in so doing.

Word of God

How is the Bible God's Word? It displays God's characteristics: it is pure, truthful, holy, trustworthy and faithful, to name but a few. "Every word of God proves true" (Proverbs 30:5).

The "Word of God" is revealed to us in the Bible. But God's ultimate speaking is through Himself - in the person of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament prophesies about him, and the New Testament provides testimony of eye-witnesses to him. Thus the whole Bible focuses on Jesus, and the words that he spoke.

It is the supreme authority

The Bible is reliable because it is the Word of God. It attests to this itself many hundreds of times: in the Old Testament the words "Thus says the Lord" indicate a direct revelation, and because all the words of the Law/Covenant were to be treated as such, the whole Old Testament is God's Word: " After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end, he gave this command to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD : "Take this Book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God. There it will remain as a witness against you." (Deuteronomy 31:24-26)

Similarly, the New Testament makes claims about itself - and the Old Testament. Jesus frequently quotes from the Old Testament, making clear that he regarded it as reliable (not surprisingly, as he wrote it!). The famous 2 Timothy 3:16 states that scripture is theopneustos, or "breathed out by God". The word he uses for "scripture" usually means the Old Testament Jewish scriptures - but several examples include New Testament writings as well, for example 1 Timothy 5:18 quotes from both the Old and New Testaments, and Paul calls them both "scripture." Peter affirms Paul's writings as scripture in 2 Peter 3:16.

Some object that using the Bible to prove the Bible is a circular argument. Well... yes and no. Every appeal to a supreme authority has to use that authority to prove itself. For example, "I believe in the physical universe only, because nothing I have experienced is outside of that". The Bible makes claims about itself, but if you examine the Bible, you come to see that its claims are true and that God is faithful. Grudem describes this as more of a "sprial" than a typical circular argument (p.38).

In all matters of belief and behaviour

The wonder of the Bible is that it is not just cerebral theology - it is applicable to us in our lives. Theology is, of course, very important - the Bible tells us about Jesus' life, death and resurrection and provides the basis for our faith. We don't just find out about this core teaching from the Bible, but also many great doctrines of God - like the ones I am hesitantly exploring on this blog.

When we say that the Bible "is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour", it means that secondary sources, for example the writings of theologians, the teaching of pastors, and our own experiences, must come secondary to the Bible. It alone is the revealed Truth.

How should we act in response to this great revelation? Firstly, let's praise and thank the Lord for giving us his Word. Without it our only way of seeing Him would be through our conscience - which provides a guide and conviction - and creation - which reveals the glory of God. Because of the Bible, we can know so much more about God; primarily because of the embodied Word, who became flesh - Jesus Christ.

Problems of interpretation

It would be great if Christians always agreed on what the Bible says. Once the problems of quoting out of context, and mistranslation are taken care of, we still end up in the situation of disagreeing on various secondary issues: the historicity of Genesis, the application of the Law in the New Testament, whether or not to have women preachers, eschatological issues arising from Revelation, and so on. I have found that my opinions on many of these issues have altered over the years of being a Christian. We can be confident that there is a correct interpretation of each of the contentious passages of Scripture - what we can't always be confident of is whether we have it! How to resolve them? Read your Bible and pray... next question?

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