What Do We Mean When We Say the Bible is TRUE?
Over the next few weeks, we are discussing big questions about the Bible. We will be adapting our sermons for this blog. This is part one of our sermon series, "Questions About the Bible".
About 6 years ago I was sitting in my office when I received this really provocative email from a young girl in my youth ministry named, Sarah. I think she was about 15 when she sent this to me.
This is what she said:
“Chris, I have weird question. [It’s] about the Bible. Namely, how to actually read it. I don't mean in the sense of like, reading the words, or even getting meaning out of them, whether it's something I apply to my own life because of devotions or something God throws at me with flashing lights that say SARAH! SARAH! READ! THIS IT'S IMPORTANT! I mean more in terms of truth. I mean, [I’ve heard] that the Bible is true and it's the word of God. [However,] I don't get are some of the stories. We're told from a really young age that every word of the Bible is true, and then later [I heard] that Esther might not have ever even existed (which was a blow for me as she's my absolute favorite). I've been struggling with this issue for a while, and I talk to my parents about it. I'm just wondering, how much of the Bible is open for interpretation-- if any of it is at all? And how are you supposed to know? Are things like the story of Esther in the Bible sort of parables, teaching us truth through fiction, or... what?”
How would you answer her questions?
Growing up I heard people say all kinds of things about the Bible. Some softer statements like “the Bible is our map”, and our “guide to faith.” But others were more dogmatic, like “the Bible is the literal, inerrant, infallible, inspired word of God.”
Sometimes it’s implied that the Bible is like a “Christian magic book” that God tossed from the sky onto someone’s desk or is this immovable list of ancient rules that should be applied for all time. Some treat it as a book of historical events, others see these as a collection of mythical stories, and still others believe that it contains everything that encompasses the mystery of God, and all answers of science and the universe can be found within it.
It’s safe to say there can be a lot of confusion surrounding this unique, ancient book. So where do we begin?
John Wesley, our theological forefather, believed that the scriptures “are a complete rule of faith and practice,” and “they are clear in all necessary points.” But he also adds, “and yet, their clearness does not prove that they need not be explained.”
And if that is the case, then it’s important to ask questions like the ones Sarah asks:
- What do we mean when we say the Bible is True?
- What is the Bible and where did it come from?
- What is the function of the Bible?
- How do we even going about reading and interpreting the Bible?
- Why does reading and interpreting the Bible even matter?
But - let’s be honest. Asking questions can be a slippery slope, and when we start down this road asking these sorts of questions, a whole series of other questions about the Bible, God, truth, life, and faith are raised. We get a little uncomfortable. So as your pastor, let me just assure you, that it’s okay to be uncomfortable. When talking about his own reading of scripture, Eugene Peterson says: “It looks like I am going to have to let go of what I expected and dive into a mystery.”
Over the next five weeks we will tackle some big questions about the Bible, but first is this: What do we mean when we say that the Bible is TRUE?
To answer this question, we have to take a giant step back and recognize that at the heart of the Jewish and Christian faith is a revolutionary idea: God uniquely “reveals” Godself to humanity within the context of historical events. (Dennis Bratcher, For the Bible Tells Me So) In other words, God makes the first move. God makes the introduction. God is the original seeker – and from the beginning this God is about seeking out humanity and creating ways to redeem and restore creation.
What makes Christianity unique even from Judaism is that Christians believe God revealed Godself in person. This is Orthodox Christianity. God is on full display in the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth.
The whole Christian story is one by which God is attempting to move into our world. We call this “The Incarnation.” God moved into the neighborhood (John 1). Christianity is the response to God after this self-disclosure in history. This is an area in which the order of things is really important.
WRONG ORDER: GOD → BIBLE → CHURCH
When I was younger, I was under the impression that God first gave humans the Bible by telling them what to write down, almost in a trancelike state. And I thought this is what made it authoritative, inspired, and true. Then, I thought, a group of people were convinced of the “truth” of these words, and made a religion, becoming the Church. And in that scenario, it was important for these Bible-believing people to use the Bible to convince others to believe it. And it was doomsday for those who didn’t make a decision to believe.
Now the implications of this order are very serious because it means that the scriptures, given to us by God, would be the revelation of all knowledge. In this understanding, the Bible then is the communication of data, facts, details not to be missed -- full and complete. There is nothing mysterious – there is no wonder, admiration, awe, or even love – in this approach.
But Christian orthodoxy (right belief) INSISTS that the Bible is NOT the revelation of God – but rather, it POINTS TO THE REVELATION OF GOD TO THE WORLD!
CORRECT ORDER: GOD → CHURCH → BIBLE
The scriptures “bear witness to” the true WORD of God. The scriptures are a proclamation – a story – a narrative - that tell about God’s self-revelation. We could say it this way: The Bible is the written word (lower case “w”) of God (that only has authority) because it points to the LIVING WORD (capital “L,” capital “W”) of God (who IS the authority) – Jesus Christ. Our Church of the Nazarene article of faith about the Holy Scriptures is rooted in a historic Orthodox understanding. It says it this way:
We believe in the plenary inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, by which we understand the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, given by divine inspiration, inerrantly revealing the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation, so that whatever is not contained therein is not to be enjoined as an article of faith. (Luke 24:44-47; John 10:35; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; 2 Timothy 3:15-17; 1 Peter 1:10-12; 2 Peter 1:20-21)
We believe that the Bible (the 39 books of the Old Testament, and the 27 of the New) is a series of ancient documents of various genres, written over time, and through the Spirit are without error in collectively telling us the story of how God has decided to save the world – and God has decided to do this through the Son, Israel’s Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
The scriptures are the story of the activity of a once-mysterious-but-now-fully-revealed, loving God, as God works in history, in and among human beings, through events, and within the cultural framework from which they come.
God revealed Godself – people saw and experienced – then they talked about it – then they wrote it down – then they collectively affirmed it. And Christians still affirm that this God is still revealing Godself today. This is what gives the Bible it’s beef, it’s authority, it’s inspiration. It’s not that “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” What gives the Bible authority, what makes it TRUE, is the collective affirmation of the people after they saw this God ACT. Show up. It tells us the truth about God. And people testify today, affirming that, “Yup! That’s what God did through Jesus in my life.”
So when Sarah asked me if I believed the Bible was true, this is how I answered her:
“If you would ask me if I believe (or the Church of the Nazarene’s official statement) is that the Bible is absolute historical fact, I (we) would say, “Well, some of it.” Some of it is fact. Some it is poetry. Some of it is letters. Some of it is song or parables. Some is this interesting genre called apocalyptic literature. Some of it is Wisdom literature (i.e. the Proverbs). Some of it is allegorical.
Above all – It is a spiritual book which means that it is the testimony of how GOD has acted in history – and yet – it is a human book in that we don’t believe that human beings were set in a trance and then robotically wrote things down as it was shot to them from heaven. Humans wrote within contexts, searched their hearts, communicated what they saw within their own contexts under the guidance of the Holy Spirit… In other words, the Bible is the written word of God that points to the LIVING WORD of God. – Jesus Christ."
There are a lot of details that Sarah asks – and we will get there – but there is a starting point for us: We read the Bible through the lens of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.The written words point the way to the Living Word, and in turn He provides what we need to understand and interpret all the other words. This, we affirm, is true.
God’s activity in the past, described in the scriptures, is the same activity that changes our present, and gives us hope for the future. This is what the Church confesses and this is what we bear witness to every time we gather. It is at the Table of our Lord where we remember and live into the story of God’s revelation to us in Christ. Bread. Wine. Body. Blood. Life. Death.
This is the mystery into which we are invited to dive.