What is the Bible? That is one of those questions where, depending on who is asked, one can get a variety of answers. In many of these instances that is, perhaps, not that terribly surprising. One can expect a certain response if they ask an Atheist or a Muslim or a Buddhist or someone who adheres to the Hindu faith for example. Where the answer can be more disturbing is when one asks those who claim a Christian faith what they believe the Bible to be.
A few years ago now Gallup did a study and what they found was that only approximately 24% of Americans considered the Bible to be the literal word of God versus 47% who believed it to be the inspired word of God, some to be taken literally, some not, and 26% who believed it to be a book of fables, myths and legends mixed with some history to offer us some good moral lessons. The general conclusion that the Gallup survey was that over the past 30 years the view of Americans with regards to the Bible has been shifting. Those who believe it to be the literal Word of God are decreasing in numbers, while those who view it as something less, considerably less, have been increasing.
This is not simply something that is limited to non-Christians. In fact, it has become more commonly accepted in some Christian circles. The Bible is no longer seen as being the Word of God. Rather, it is accepted as being a guide, a man-made, man-authored book, meant to give instruction to live a good life. Because of this it is ultimately up to the individual to determine what they are going to accept, and what needs to be relegated to the palpably obscure, ignored as ancient, and archaic, no longer relevant to society today. What makes someone uncomfortable or uneasy amidst the present spirit of the age can simply be tossed aside.
The inclination to disregard Scripture, or to simply ignore the Word of God is not something new, nor is it unique to the present world. To consider the fall to sin is to recognize this fact. What, after all, are the words of the Serpent? He begins by asking “Did God actually say…” (Gen. 3:1) before stating that God didn’t mean what He said. (Gen. 3:4-5) His deception, his manipulation begins with questioning what God said before coming right out and stating that the word’s which God Himself spoke were not, in fact, accurate.
What this teaches, what this demonstrates is the reality that there is an inherent danger to questioning the Word of God, to treating it as if it was nothing more than a guide that one is able to pick and choose from. Disobedience against God – sin – quickly follows. The individual places themselves outside of the Word of God and, therein, places themselves outside of the will of God.
The Christian does not get to pick and choose what they believe out of the Bible. That is not how Scripture works. What is truth is not based on how an individual feels at any given time, nor is it based on the cultural zeitgeist. It is timeless and enduring, and, if it is found to be in direct conflict with what is being espoused in society then it’s society that’s fundamentally wrong, not Scriptures.
For the Christian this should be a non-negotiable starting ground for us. Why? Because this is how God has chosen to reveal Himself to humanity, and, in revealing Himself in this manner, He preserves the means by which man may come to know Him.
In his epistle to his young protégé the apostle Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17) What this is intended to point to for the Christian is the reality of the Word of God. The Greek word here, θεόπνευστος, which is translated as “breathed out by God”, is found only once in the Scriptures. It’s more likely a word Paul himself coined in order to express a very specific idea. This is namely that Scriptures are, by their very nature, sacred and divine in their origin.
The idea of holy breath is one that is synonymous with the Holy Spirit. The Hebrew word רוּחַ, as a case in point, is the word for wind or breath. Yet, it is also the word which, when it is brought together with God, comes to mean the Spirit of God. This is seen, for example, in the Creation Narrative in Genesis 1:2. What this then shows is the true author of Scripture.
What is perhaps interesting here is to compare Paul’s words in 2 Timothy to the words of the author of Hebrews. It’s here that we read “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Heb. 4:12-13)
In these two verses we are given two different descriptions for the Word of God. The first is, as discussed, the idea that it is God-breathed. The second is that it is “living and active.” The significance of this can be seen in the creation of man. The distinction between man and the other creation is the fact that he is created in the image of God. While the rest of creation is brought into existence through the spoken word of its Creator man is unique, because his life is given by the breath of God.
In this sense, the fact that the Scriptures are “God-breathed” and alive and active reflects something incredibly important. Just as the breath of God does not destroy that which is human in man, but, rather, imparts upon him that which transcends the temporal, namely the soul, so too then does the breath of God bring life to the Holy Scriptures, not destroying that which is human, but imparting on it that which surpasses the human.
To this end the Spirit will use human authors, their experiences and their understanding, but He will move them in such a way that they will communicate God’s purpose and meaning. To this end the Spirit guides and navigates them to where they must be, giving to them knowledge and wisdom that transcends their own.
Scriptures, in turn, are multifaceted. They are, first and foremost, intended to reveal God to man, to point to Christ and the ultimate salvation which comes through Him. This is their primary purpose. Through the power of the Spirit, it is intended to convict the sinner, and draw them to a sincere faith. In teaching about Christ, pointing to that grace which saves, it further instructs the Christian in that faith.
Into All Nations
It is the instruction which the Scriptures offer which tends to be what’s most problematic for most people. Christ as a moral teacher can generally be accepted, because, as the argument is articulated, he is simply about love. Even the most famous instance of Jesus’ judgment, where he overturns the tables at the Temple amidst his righteous anger, (Matt. 21:12-13; Mk. 11:15-18) is viewed through this lens. It is viewed as his indignation against the religious of his day, not necessarily those who had corrupted the Word of God and chased after the earthly amidst their own depravity.
Once one ventures into the other works of Scripture, then that is where the difficulties begin. The writings of Paul, for example, are quickly discounted, or, if not completely ignored, picked at for scraps until there is nothing there. Why would one, after all, listen to Paul, when he speaks on matters that Christ himself was silent on?
What’s missed in this argument is the nature of the context of Christ’s ministry on earth. Though he would, as is expected for that period, encounter the gentile world, particularly in the form of Rome, which ruled the region at that time, Christ preached to an early first century Jewish population. Though some, such as the Sadducees, might have worked with Rome, the reality was that they had largely rejected the Hellenization of the their religious and cultural life, noted in the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire between 167 and 141 BC. The Gospel, after all, comes first to the Jewish people, those who God promised a Savior.
Thus, Christ himself would not teach on particular matters, because it was not necessary for him to for the immediate context in which he was in. Sins which were prevalent within Greek or Roman culture were not prevalent within Jewish culture during that time. Other matters were. Thus, Christ’s silence on something cannot logically, or consistently be considered to be an affirmation of it.
Yet, this Savior is not limited solely Jewish population. This dynamic is not only reflected throughout the Old Testament but in the words of Christ himself. It is he, after all, who tells his followers to go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Triune God, teaching them to observe all he commanded them. (Matt. 28:19-20) This extends the mission of Christ beyond the Jewish context.
Paul, on the other hand, was chosen by God, called as an apostle, for a specific purpose. This was, namely, to live the Great Commission command and carry the Gospel to the Gentile world. To this end, he is, naturally, going to speak on issues which are more prevalent within the Greek and the Roman world, issues which the Jewish population would have, ultimately, taken for granted, based on their understanding of God and His laws.
When Paul then speaks of Scripture being “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”, he is recognizing that the entirety of God’s Word is there to instruct the individual that they may live as imitators of Christ. (Eph. 5:1-2) This means the whole counsel of God, recognizing that God is one, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, united in purpose. The instruction, the words of Christ then exist in harmony with those words which are divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit. There is no disunity or distance that exists between them.
Scripture teaches based on the knowledge of God even if the hands are used to write them, and their experiences are reflected in them. This is how God has chosen to teach to us that we may live as His children. The instruction there is not some sort of buffet dinner whereby the diner may pick and chose what is to their liking, learning from one area of God’s instruction while ignoring others because it leaves a bad taste in their mouth.
Yet so often that is what is done, and it is done based on the sin of pride. There is nearly two thousand years that exists between the last of the New Testament being written, and the present age. It’s an even longer gap that exists between the final words of the Old Testament and the modern world. Though it may not be articulated as such, what is often come to is the belief that we know better. We have advanced further than the Patriarchs and the Prophets, the Apostles and the Disciples found within the pages of Scripture. We have technology that puts information at our fingertips, and we have pushed the development of science to new frontiers. What could they possibly teach, particularly since so many of their notions and ideas are archaic comparatively?
The mentality that can be reflected in the present age with regards to Scripture do not reflect the wisdom of men. Rather, what it reveals is the pride and vanity, the hubris that can be reflected in the minds of men. It is a sin that is reflected in the fall of humanity at Eden or at the Tower of Babel, the belief that we can know as much as God, if not more, the belief that we are capable of reaching the same heights as God.
Pride is what Augustine of Hippo regarded as the prototypical sin, the sin by which other sins will proceed from, and in his Confessions, he recognized that it was this sin of pride which had, ultimately, kept him from understanding and appreciating Scriptures for what they actually were. It was only when he was able to humble himself, that he would find the truth of Scripture would be open to him. It was in that humility that he was able to admit the weakness of his own reasoning, and, in that weakness, find himself able to grow in truth, submitting himself to God.
For the individual to recognize the authority and the teaching of Scripture as it is, rather than what they desire it to be, they must first humble themselves, and, in setting aside that pride, enter into their study with a deep sense of humility. It is only then that they can begin to recognize that no matter how far humanity believes it may have advanced, no matter how great humanity may believe its knowledge is, it is God, and God alone, who is the source of all knowledge, wisdom, and reason as His foundational truth transcends the ages.
In the grand scope of our own knowledge what we have to then recognize is that we have only advanced a short time, a short way, and, in reality, we can only see a short distant in the future. What we assume to be the dominant assumptions of our age are transitory. They are subject to change. Yet it is God who has no beginning and no end. It is God who can look across the scope of time and space, understanding all things, including that which is veiled to us. This is the God who preserves His Word from age to age that we may be steadfast in it.
Now all of this may lead to discussions about how it is that Scripture should be understood, and that is a fruitful discussion. Yet, before that can even be entered into one must begin with a baseline. This baseline for the Christian must be based on a high view of Scripture, one which accepts it as the divinely inspired Word of God.
For the Christian there can be no compromise on this reality. Why? Because the moment that this compromise begins is the moment in which we open our faith to worldly influences and forces, influences and forces which are inherently opposed to it. This, in turn, opens the door to all sorts of disobedience to God, to heresy and idolatry even as it allows for sin to come and dominant our lives.
God does not give us His Word, He does not preserve His Word simply for His own benefit, nor does He do it so that we may take it glibly, picking and choosing what is important from it. He does it that we may come to know Him through Christ Jesus, and, in that, be instructed in all righteousness, equipped for every work He lays in front of us, even as we purify ourselves as Christ himself is pure. So, as the hymnist once declared, let us too pray “Lord, grant, while worlds endure, we keep its teachings pure throughout all generations.”