Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why trust the Bible?

There is a book by Amy Orr-Ewing with the above title, which I had on my wishlist for a while but have never got around to reading. This is not a review of that book. But it is a serious attempt to answer the same question.

Ms Orr-Ewing addresses some of the issues raised by bible skeptics and sets out to show that the bible has not been distorted through many generations of manuscripts, is historically reliable, is demonstrably more reliable than the holy books of other religions, and furthermore she defends the bible's stance on sex and gives context for the overt violence and explicit sexism in there.

I've read defences of all that before. I'm sure Ms Orr-Ewing does a good job of presenting the same old arguments in a modern and readable manner. But as I say, I haven't read the book...

So. Why trust the Bible?

I suppose we really need to unpack the "trust the bible" part of that before we can get to the "why".

Here is what Scripture Union says about the bible in its statement of faith:
"We believe that the Old and New Testament Scriptures are God-breathed, since their writers spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit; hence are fully trustworthy in all that they affirm; and are our highest authority for faith and life."
UCCF has a slightly different emphasis:
"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."
The church I currently attend has this:
"We believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the human authors of Holy Scripture so that the Bible is without error in the original manuscripts. We receive the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments as our final, absolute authority, the only infallible rule of faith and practice. "
These statements affirm that the content of the bible is what was imparted from God to men and is therefore trustworthy, without error, infallible and has supreme authority. These statements then all include some wooly wording which seems to be a 'get out of jail free' card - "as originally given" or "in the original manuscripts" - the only point to these clauses is to imply that the bible we now have might (just might) contain a little error or two. I happen to like the SU version that doesn't use that cop-out, but does restrict the remit of the bible to merely "all that they affirm" and limits the scope to only "faith and life", not science or history or anything like that.

This avoids the problems of the historical accuracy of the bible. Basically while much of it might be historically accurate, there are a few things we can point to in there that we know are historical errors. The classic example of this is when the census in Luke took place - was it when Quirinius was governor of Syria or was it during the reign of Augustus? It can't have been both as the two did not overlap.

That's not to say that the bible does not contain history, its just that some of the history it contains is wrong. So can you trust the bible for historical details? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

The problem with this is, of course, that it is clear that if there was an impartation of the bible from God to man, then this was not an infallible process, and errors definitely have got in. The bible is not infallible, at least not in the details.

OK, so maybe the bible isn't infallible, but maybe it is trustworthy as it was written by trustworthy men and women (there is a case to be made that Hebrews might have been written by a woman, but I'm not going into that here)? So who were these people? Well, many of them are unnamed, so we don't really know how trustworthy (or otherwise) they were. But some are named. Peter, Paul, James and Jude are all self-identified in their epistles. Well, that could be the case in some instances, but Peter is interesting. Textual study of 1st and 2nd Peter has shown conclusively that these letters could not have been written by the same person. Maybe one of them was written by Peter, but the other certainly was not. Yet both claim to be by Peter. The only reasonable conclusion to make of this is that (at least) one of them is a fake. And thus, there are fake books in the bible, bearing false witness to who it was who wrote them. Textual study also suggests that the author of the 'pastoral' epistles was not the same guy as wrote the likes of Corinthians or Romans, so some of the letters attributed to Paul, and bearing his name are fakes.

So far, we have the bible containing demonstrable errors and demonstrable lies.

Why trust this book? It seems we can't trust the details or its claims about who wrote some bits of it.

But good advice and spiritual truth can be conveyed by anonymous authors, can't they? Can we trust what the bible says about God and how God wants us to live? Surely the 'red letters' (sayings directly claimed to be the words of Jesus or the words of God in the Old Testament) can be considered trustworthy?

Well, leaving aside the observation (that I made in a recent post) that Matthew and Luke, in copying Mark's gospel actually changed some of the words attributed to Jesus, and leaving aside the observation that the way Jesus speaks in the fourth gospel is completely unlike the way he speaks in the other three, we see that even the words directly attributed to God himself in the Old Testament are not trustworthy. Look at Ezekiel 26v7-14:
7 For thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I will bring upon Tyre from the north Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, king of kings, with horses, chariots, cavalry and a great army. 8 He will slay your daughters on the mainland with the sword; and he will make siege walls against you, cast up a ramp against you and raise up a large shield against you. 9 The blow of his battering rams he will direct against your walls, and with his axes he will break down your towers. 10 Because of the multitude of his horses, the dust raised by them will cover you; your walls will shake at the noise of cavalry and wagons and chariots when he enters your gates as men enter a city that is breached. 11 With the hoofs of his horses he will trample all your streets. He will slay your people with the sword; and your strong pillars will come down to the ground. 12 Also they will make a spoil of your riches and a prey of your merchandise, break down your walls and destroy your pleasant houses, and throw your stones and your timbers and your debris into the water. 13 So I will silence the sound of your songs, and the sound of your harps will be heard no more. 14 I will make you a bare rock; you will be a place for the spreading of nets. You will be built no more, for I the Lord have spoken,” declares the Lord God. 
This is a very detailed and precise prediction of the destruction of Tyre. The thing is, it never happened. Yes, Neb and his army came from the North, yes, they besieged the city. No, they didn't breach the city, no, they didn't trample it, no, it was not destroyed. The prophesied event did not happen. Its not as if the prophecy wasn't right in the details, it wasn't right at all. It was wrong. It says "I the Lord have spoken..." yet clearly either he hadn't spoken, or the prophet completely misunderstood what God had said. Either way, the bible contains failed prophecy and misrepresents the very words of God.

So, is the bible trustworthy?

Doesn't really look like it does it?

Yet millions of people read it on a regular basis and take guidance from it. They claim God speaks to them through it. They believe it to be trustworthy and many will say that their experience shows it to be trustworthy. Bestselling books call these people 'deluded'. Are they?

If there really is a God, would he speak through a book that contains lies, misinformation and false claims about the things he allegedly said? Well, he might. But he could just as easily speak through other flawed and misleading writings, like the holy books of other religions or even the horoscopes in the morning papers.

None of what I say above leads us to the conclusion that God, assuming there is a God, can't speak to us, assuming he wants to speak to us, through the bible. Its just that the bible, on the basis of the above, doesn't seem to be a special way to find his words. It is not special revelation. If God wants to speak to you, rest assured he will, irrespective of what you read. But I don't think I can trust the bible as the exclusive way to hear from God anymore.


Mike Blyth said...

Have you read Sacred Word, Broken Word by Kenton Sparks? I have not read it yet myself but it's on my list, because of the same issues you're mentioning in this post.

KWRegan said...

What interests me about the excerpt from Ezekiel is that if it was written after the fact, then the writer got the facts wrong. Why?

What bothers me more is the appearance of cherry-picking one piece of prophecy from such a paragraph, as with riding on a donkey on Palm Sunday---I noted that in the "Hey You" essay on my website.

In-among the three statements you cite, my view of inspiration is not "divine dictation" but rather agency, stirring people. And my view of inerrancy is per comments in your "Both sides now" thread.

KWRegan said...

Perhaps you mis-spoke when you wrote that the governorship of Quirinius and "the reign of Augustus...did not overlap"? Did you mean the reign of Herod the Great?

Looking again at the three statements you quoted, I agree completely with the Scripture Union one even at individual-word level, while rogering your reservations about the "...original..." clauses, and reiterating my take on "infallibility". I read Bart Ehrman's book Misquoting Jesus and my reaction was that all those little things didn't bug me---plus IMHO it explains how Josephus 18 could have acquired "He was the Christ" as originally a side note by a scribe.

KWRegan said...

Saw a link to this post quoting C.S. Lewis' own views of Scripture (also <a href='">this</a> post). The link itself quoted:

"The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense an irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion. When we expect that it should have come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorised Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King. The real sanctity, the real beauty and sublimity of the New Testament (as of Christ’s life) are of a different sort: miles deeper or further in."

Unknown said...

even if the whole Bible is no more than tales told around the campfire the message is still of value.

Ricky Carvel said...


Which message?

It is only if we assume that the Bible speaks the 'Word of God' that we can assume it has a single coherent message.

If the Bible is merely a collection of human writings or 'campfire tales' as you put it, then we cannot assume it has a single message, and indeed viewed as a human book, we find mixed messages in there.

Sure, some of them are worth passing on, but...