Why We Believe the Bible
The Inspiration, Inerrancy, and Authority of the Bible
Thank you so much for being a part of this. I love to talk about the scriptures. I especially love to talk about what they mean. And when I must, I love to talk about why we believe they’re true. I would rather talk about what they mean, which is what I do week after week, but from time to time it’s really important, I think, to step back and have every Christian ask himself the question, “Okay, I’m staking my eternity on this. Why?” That’s what we’re doing here, and it’s really, really significant to ask that question.
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward (Psalm 19:7–11).
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish (Psalm 1:1–6).
Charting the Course for Confidence in the Bible
The outline of the course has seven steps to it. I hope we get through all of them. I’ve never succeeded but I’m going to really try hard because this is being filmed and I want it to work for you and for everybody.
Step one: Why are we concerned about it? Why does it matter whether the Bible is true?
Step two: Which books make up the Bible? Why are these 66 books the ones and not, say, the Apocrypha that are in the Catholic Bible?
Step three: Do we have the very words of Scripture that the Apostles and the Prophets wrote, or is Bart Ehrman right in this book Misquoting Jesus?
Step four: What does the Bible claim for itself? We’re only going to focus on Jesus there. We could talk about huge amounts of other self-claims from the prophets and apostles, but we’ll focus on Jesus because he sweeps the whole Bible in his comments.
And then the most important step is probably step five: How can we justify the claim that the Bible makes for itself?
Step six: What is the nature of the inerrancy or the authority or the inspiration or the infallibility that we claim? What do we mean by that?
Then finally, if there’s time, step seven: How then shall we handle the Bible? That’s where we’re going.
Step One: Why Does It Matter if the Bible Is True?
Why are we concerned about this? That’s what I have here.
1. The Basis of Our Affirmations of Faith
The first reason is that we as a church, Bethlehem, and probably the churches you come from, have affirmations of faith that claim things like this:
We believe that the Bible, consisting of the 66 books of the Old and New Testament, is the infallible word of God, verbally inspired by God and without error in the original manuscripts.
That’s from the Elder Affirmation of Faith at Bethlehem. It goes on like this:
We believe that God’s intentions, revealed in the Bible, are the supreme and final authority in testing all claims about what is true and what is right. In matters not addressed by the Bible, what is true and right is assessed by criteria consistent with the teachings of Scripture.
We believe God’s intentions are revealed through the intentions of inspired human authors, even when the authors’ intention was to express the divine meaning of which they were not fully aware, as, for example, in the case of some Old Testament prophecies. Thus the meaning of Biblical texts is a fixed historical reality, rooted in the historical, unchangeable intentions of its divine and human authors. However, while meaning does not change, the application of that meaning may change in various situations. Nevertheless, it is not legitimate to infer a meaning from a Biblical text that is not demonstrably carried by the words which God inspired.
If you come to me and tell me that you know the meaning of a text because God told you this morning in your devotions, I will pay no attention to you, unless that leads you to see something in the Bible that I can also, and then I’ll listen. But if you pull rank on me and do an end-run around the words and the meanings of the words to say, “I got a message about this text,” I won’t buy it. That’s what’s implied in that. I think we honor the Holy Spirit and his inspiring work when we treat the Bible that way. The Elder Affirmation of Faith goes on like this:
Therefore, the process of discovering the intention of God in the Bible (which is its fullest meaning) is a humble and careful effort to find in the language of Scripture what the human authors intended to communicate. Limited abilities, traditional biases, personal sin, and cultural assumptions often obscure Biblical texts. Therefore the work of the Holy Spirit is essential for a right understanding of the Bible, and prayer for his assistance belongs to a proper effort to understand and apply God’s Word.
So the first reason why we take this topic up is because I am serving a church whose elders ascribe by signing those affirmations. And we should know why we believe and not just make it up. For my own conscience’s sake, I need to give an account for why that is something I ascribe to.
2. Historic Evangelicalism
Here’s a second reason. And I won’t go into these, I’ll just point to them. I won’t read them. The evangelical tradition goes back to the Westminster Confession and Keach’s Catechism. The evangelical Theological Society has a statement about inerrancy, and the Lausanne Covenant does as well. I’m excited about the Lausanne Covenant even though it’s 34 years old because my dad went to the 1974 Lausanne Conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, the first major Lausanne Missions Conference at which epoch-making things happened. The next one is in 2010 and I’m going there. In fact, I’ve been asked to speak at it, which is an incredible privilege for me.
I kind of vibrate with the excitement that I can be a part of the 100th anniversary of the Edinburgh Missions Conference, which will be celebrated in South Africa. I just said to Doug Birdsall, the head of that conference on the phone yesterday, “You know, in my judgment, the greatest thing that came out of Lausanne 1974 was its Affirmation of Faith.” And we agreed along with a couple of other things. It has a strong statement on the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, for which I’m deeply thankful.
And then there’s the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy from 1978. There was this big hoopla when I was in school to the effect that the Bible wasn’t inerrant and there was a great deal of writing about it. The Chicago Conference on Inerrancy came together and produced a very good statement. You can get that online. Just type in Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. It’s a full and helpful word.
So we have a church affirmation that affirms it, and second, the wider evangelical historical movement has affirmed the inerrancy of the Bible — so does the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, the church has affirmed this for almost 2,000 years, as long as the Bible has existed. This has been the understanding of what it is.
3. Denying the Existence of Truth
Here’s reason number three for tackling this issue: Many in our day deny the existence of just truth, not just Bible truth. This is a quote from Michael Novak, which I found provocative when I read it 13 years ago. It’s still true today.
“There is no such thing as truth,” they teach even the little ones. “Truth is bondage. Believe what seems right to you. There are as many truths as there are individuals. Follow your feelings. Do as you please. Get in touch with yourself. Do what feels comfortable.” Those who speak this way prepare the jails of the 21st century. Those who undermine the idea of truth do the work of tyrants.
Now, I wonder if you understand why he said that, if you feel the immediacy of the rightness of that conclusion about truth deniers — that they prepare the jails of the 21st century and that they do the work of tyrants — why? Here’s why: If there is no absolute truth functioning as the arbiter that two people in an argument with each other can appeal to, there’s only one appeal left: power. And therefore, might will make right. That’s the definition of a tyrant. There is no alternative. You better hope that all those loosey-goosey, mushy Christians that talk in vague, hazy terms about propositions being old-fashioned, enlightenment ways of doing truth better do not carry the day.
They prepare the jails that tyrants will put you in when you claim that it’s wrong to put you there for just believing what you believe. And they will say, “Who are you to say what’s right and wrong? What’s right to me is right to me, and I’ve got the sword.” You don’t want to go there. Don’t play, students, in the university with epistemology. Don’t play games with epistemology.
Huge things are at stake in how you view whether there is such a thing as truth or not. We’re not playing games. This pays a price. If you have to know two centuries of history, know the first and know the 20th; know Christ and know the Gulag; know Hitler, know Mussolini, and know Stalin. Don’t be ignorant of what price has been paid for those who think they can call the shots without submitting to any absolute truth. Know at least two centuries, because the 20th was the worst and the first introduced the best.
So, the third reason why we’re taking this up is that underneath it is an assumption — namely, there is such a thing as truth and the Bible contains it. But you need to know that there are many people, many hundreds of thousands of people in our day who scoff at the notion that there is such a thing as truth.
4. Attacks on the Word of God
Here’s the fourth reason why this is important. One trait of secularism is the criticism of the Bible as a mixture of truth and error. Here’s one of the most radical statements I’ve ever read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and they’re pretty common:
One of the few worthwhile statements in the Bible is, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Knowledge of the Bible is hindered by the informal censorship imposed by religious leaders who would rather their followers didn’t know what’s in it. The innumerable contradictions, historical errors, plagiarism, absurdities, meaningless prophecies, myths represented as historical fact, countless instances of divinely ordered or approved atrocities. It is true that the Bible has some worthwhile material including entertaining stories, inspirational sentiments, and astute observations about human behavior. However, those worthwhile parts could probably be contained in a pamphlet.
I didn’t like that when I read it, and I wrote to them. My letters to the Tribune don’t get anywhere.
5. Competing Ideologies
Here’s the fifth reason. Competing Holy books of other religions are increasingly close, and if I had been giving this seminar 25 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have included this reason. We all knew the Quran and the Hindu scriptures existed, but it was way far away from our sight — not anymore. This is Kenneth Cragg speaking about contemporary trends in Islam:
Islam is essentially fundamentalist in a way that the biblical Christian faith could never properly be, for the Quran is understood as the ipsisima verba (that’s the Latin phrase for the very words) of God himself, given in the Tanzil, descending down to Muhammad in Arabic.
So God spoke Arabic to Muhammad and he wrote them down as transcribing of the divine book in heaven. Now, what makes that so interesting is this comment from Andrew Walls. Andrew Walls is one of the most perceptive missiological spokesmen in our day. He’s a retired professor at University Edinburgh. He says:
Christian faith must go on being translated. Must continuously enter into the vernacular culture and interact with it . . .
He’s contrasting the Christian scriptures with the Quran because the Quran may not be translated with any authority. If it goes out of Arabic, it’s not authoritative anymore because you can’t really understand it unless you read Arabic, because God spoke Arabic and it dropped into history straight out of heaven with God’s own language. However, the Bible is very different, he’s arguing. He continues:
Islamic absolutes are fixed in a particular language and in the condition of a particular period of human history. The divine word is the Quran fixed in heaven forever in Arabic, the language of the original revelation (nobody claims that God speaks Hebrew or Greek or English or French or German). For Christians, however, the divine word is translatable, infinitely translatable. Christ probably spoke in Aramaic, not Greek. And the first Gospels are in Greek, not Aramaic. So the very beginning of the inspired Scripture was a translation.
The very words of Christ himself were transmitted in translated form in the earliest documents we have, a fact surely inseparable from the conviction that in Christ, God himself was translated into human form. Much misunderstanding between Christians and Muslims has arisen from the assumption that the Quran is for Muslims what the Bible is for Christians (this is profound). It would be more true to say that the Quran is for Muslims what Christ is for Christians.
That’s very provocative. The Quran dropped out of heaven and became a human book, and Christ dropped out of heaven and became a human being. The Bible is the inspired record of that and is infinitely translatable. The point in that is simply that in our day, the Bible is certainly going to be challenged as not being the only holy book one should pay attention to — hence the need for a seminar like this and reflection of this kind.
6. Forfeiting Biblical Infallibility
The sixth reason is that one trait of liberal Christianity is the rejection of the infallibility of the Bible and calls for us to find a canon within a canon. In other words, the Bible is the Protestant canon, and the 66 books are closed. You don’t add anything to it. Liberalism says, “You can’t believe all of this. There’s some of this that is simply unbelievable and mythological.” And what they say you find is that within the canon there is a canon, and different liberals have different canons within the canon to judge what you can accept and what you can’t accept, like love, or the brotherhood of man, or the fatherhood of God, and things like that.
I went to a seminar with Ernst Käsemann. He was one of the big German scholars in the 1950s through the 1970s, and he lived to be a very old man. He wrote this, which is typical of radical, liberal, New Testament scholarship:
The Scripture, which one gives over to itself and to which one gives himself up uncritically without the principle key, leads not only to a multiplicity of confessions, but also to the inability to distinguish between faith and superstition — the Father of Jesus Christ and the idols.
In other words, if you give yourself wholly to the Bible as a whole, without making distinctions in it, you will wind up in a situation where you can’t distinguish faith from superstition.
Does the New Testament canon establish the unity of the church? No, its canon establishes also a variety of Christologies, which are in part incompatible. The canon as such also legitimates, more or less, all sects and false doctrines.
What he’s saying, very simply, is that this New Testament, if you take it as it is without making distinctions of what you can accept and what you can’t, is a book that gives warrant to all sects, all heresies, and all Christologies, because they’re all here and they contradict each other. According to him, the Bible is not the ground of the unity of the church; it’s the ground of the disunity of the church as we find it. And the only way to handle a book that grounds disunity is to accept some parts of it and not other parts. That’s Ernst Käsemann. That’s liberalism right across the board.
A Meeting on Inspiration
I had lunch with a liberal pastor in the city here, and there are lots of them, but I was especially bent out of shape by one because of a sermon of his on the web. I called him up and I asked him if we could do lunch. This guy is probably the most liberal pastor in the State of Minnesota, at least that’s what he would claim.
And so we went to Bakers Square over by the university. I wanted to meet a real, live, radical liberal, who called himself Christian and didn’t believe anything I believed. And there he was sitting across the table and I began to just ask him questions about heaven, hell, the deity of Christ, and the inspiration of the Bible. He said, “No, no, no,” and I gave him a text in particular from Acts 13:48, which says, “As many as were foreordained to eternal life believed,” and said, “It seems to me that some Jews believed and some Jews didn’t, and the implication is that some are lost and some are saved.” He got really upset because he was arguing that everybody gets saved and that they can go the Jewish way, the Muslim way, or the Christian way. He said, “We have the Christian way, so we should stay to it and be faithful to it, but others are okay.”
And finally, I just kind of threw up my hands and said, “I just don’t see how you can call yourself a Christian.” You don’t say that to one of the most prominent pastors in the Twin Cities with a big church downtown. You don’t have to guess which one it is. He’s still here. And he got very upset with me. He said, “I’m very offended by that.” And I said, “I would assume you are. I just can’t believe it.” So there was my experience and that was that.
So I’m not just quoting Käsemann from far away in Germany 30 years ago. This is a local pastor. I forget when that meal was. Maybe two or three years ago we did that, and he’s still there. I mean, our city has dozens of pastors who would just as soon take their text on a Sunday morning from an American poet as from the scriptures. In fact, he told me over that meal, “My people are on my case to take more Sunday morning texts from Emily Dickinson, but I usually take my texts from the Bible.” I said, “Well, that’s good. I’m glad you do.” It’s very sad and very real here where we are.
The Reliability of the Bible
I wrote this today. It’s not old because stuff is happening all the time:
In every generation there are new creative attacks on the trustworthiness of the Bible. In our day, Bart Ehrman leads the pack in trying to discredit the reliability of the big bold text. His claim is that the New Testament has been corrupted by copyists so badly it can’t be recovered. His newest book here in 2007 is Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, and there are a couple of other of his books here.
Ehrman and others, as you know, with the gospels that are popping out here and there have also argued that there are other gospels besides our own that show alternative Christianities that are as valid as the traditional one.
These include The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot and Elaine Pagels’s Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. And I would just point you right here. This is a brand new response by Darrell Bock, titled Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. So if you want a right-off-the-front-burner, careful scholarly yet readable response to the Bart Ehrman-type attacks, then go to Darrell Bock’s Dethroning Jesus.
So this is very relevant, very up to date. If you want to look at these at any time, I’ve got a list of books on the reliability of the New Testament with more contemporary kinds of responses to Käsemann. I won’t go into those here, but I will set them aside. In fact, let me take this point to just draw your attention to a couple of books or to a certain kind of book. You may not know that such books exist. They have proved very, very helpful. If you regularly get questions from people — family members, or work associates — who are poking at a problem in the Bible that they’ve spotted, or somebody mentioned on the radio, these kinds of books can be helpful. They’re not the kind of book you just sit down and read through.
The first one is called When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties. by Geisler Howe. Over a lifetime of trying to wrestle through difficulties in the Bible, he’s put answers together.
Here’s an older one. There may be something more contemporary than these that I’ve missed, but Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties by Gleason Archer is another one. So those kinds of books are out there for your help.
Quick to Forget
By the way, here’s another methodological comment, just to help you survive. I am keenly aware that after five hours of talking, you will remember almost nothing of what I say, and that’s the case with almost all elaborate argumentation for a true point, which means the bottom line is that your deep confidence in the word of God cannot rest on your memory of historical argumentation, because your memory won’t work like that. In the moment of trial, either somebody attacking you or cancer being announced by the doctor, that memory will not work. You can’t reconstruct five hours of elaborate argumentation for your confidence in the Bible. It won’t work, the mind won’t do it.
So where do you rest? I’m aware of that, so by the time we’re done Lord willing, tomorrow I will have honored that reality in the way I answer the question of your confidence. I just want you to know ahead of time that I’m not expecting you, as I lay these one after another, to say, “I can’t remember that. I can’t even understand that,” and as you’re losing your balance you say, “My faith is going to be as fragile as all this information. I can’t remember.” I hope not. So hold on and stay with me, and I will try to show you how I live in the real world as a believer in the Bible, when in fact, I can’t even remember my own best arguments.
That’s true. I’m 62, and I’ve worked on this for a long time and I’ve forgotten most of what I’ve studied. I have to refresh every time I teach this course. And so, what good is that? Well, that’s just life. We have to figure that out because that’s where almost every human being is. And most of the people in the world who are being preached to right now don’t even have a grade school education. And we expect them to die for Jesus, being confident that the Bible is true. We better have another way for them to have warranted faith than to be able to reproduce all this stuff, okay? I’m aware of that. And just want you to know that I’m where of where you are.
7. The Words of Eternal Life
Here’s the seventh reason as to why we’re doing this. If the book is true — which is a big if at this point — then the message of the Bible is the only message of eternal life because it says it is. If it’s not true, it may not be. But if it is true, then it is. For example, Psalm 96:5 says:
All the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
That’s a sweeping statement. Also, John 14:6 says:
I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father but through me.
And John 6:67–68 says:
Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life . . .”
Acts 4:12 says:
And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.
John 8:42 says:
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here . . .”
In other words, if you don’t love me, you don’t know God, and you don’t love God. First John 2:23 says:
No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.
And 1 John 5:12 says:
Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
This is a sweeping rejection of all other religions. This is an intolerable thing to say in public in Minneapolis. They have really ugly names for people that believe this.
Luke 10:16 says:
The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.
If you reject Jesus for who he is, you reject the Father. You can’t create him in your own image and say, “Oh, I believe in Jesus as a teacher.” That’s not what he means, as if he were saying, “accept me on your terms.” No, he is saying, “Accept me for who I am and you accept the Father; reject me for who I am and you reject the Father.” Jesus Christ is the litmus paper that you put in the chemical of every religion. If when you put Jesus Christ in the chemical of that religion, they say, “I don’t believe,” then they don’t know God. That’s big. That’s really big.
And so we need to know, “Am I going to stake my reputation on this and be called an absolutely foul-mouthed, fundamentalist, obscurantist, intolerant, obscene pastor?” Those are all words that have been used of me in the newspaper or in personal letters from those pastors in the city. Well, you decide.
8. Of All People Most to Be Pitied
Here’s number eight for why we are taking this up. Building our lives of sacrificial service on a mistake would be pitiable. In other words, if we have hope in Christ in this life only, if the resurrection is a myth and a sham, we of all men are most to be pitied. If that’s the case, then what absolute fools we are to embrace this, build our lives on it, make sacrifices for it, and structure our whole existence around it. What a foolish thing, unless it’s true.
9. Claims to Inspiration, Authority, and Innerancy
The ninth reason is that the Bible makes claims to inspiration and authority and inerrancy, and we have to come to terms with those. For example, 2 Timothy 3:15–16 says:
From childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness . . .
So there’s the claim. It says, “all Scripture,” so we’ll talk about what is contained there. All Scripture is inspired by God and therefore it’s profitable.
10. Harmonizing Difficulties
There’s one last reason for why we’re doing this. The most devout believers meet scriptures that do not seem coherent with other parts of the Bible or with our experience, and here are just a few. First, there is the problem of justification by faith in James and Paul. James 2:24 says:
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
And Romans 3:28 says:
We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
You can imagine coming to the Bible and just being presented with those two statements, and saying, “This Bible is not coherent.” You have to reckon with that. I mean, there are numerous things like that in the Bible. And the question is whether or not those words are used the same by James and the same by Paul in such a way that they are constructing two different views of reality or not. It is possible to say very different things and not have a meaning behind them that is contradictory. That’s possible.
Or in 1 Samuel 15:11, it says:
I regret (repent) that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me . . .
There you hou have God repenting, and then in 1 Samuel 15:28–29, 17 verses later, it says:
And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret (repent), for he is not a man, that he should have regret (repent).”
Now, that’s a little more comforting because the verses are only 17 verses apart, which means you have the same author saying in one verse God repented that he made Saul King, and then 17 verses later he is saying, “God never repents.” So either he is really, really quickly confused, or he has meanings in mind here that are not contradictory, and you have to figure out what’s going on.
That’s a 10th reason for why we need to be confident in the word, because you’re going to bump into these kinds of things in your daily devotions pretty regularly. And the longer you live and walk with the Lord, I believe the more confident you become and the more solutions you can find, and sometimes you need to suspend judgment and say, “I don’t have time to work on this, Lord. I’d like to have an answer for what this means and how it fits with that over there.” And then you put it on a shelf or keep a list, and as God gives you occasion, you work.
But my guess is that we will go to our grave with some of those on the list unresolved. Do you love anybody that you can’t understand, like Noël Piper? She baffles me over and over again. What makes you tick, Noël? I can’t figure you out, but my do I love you. I’m going nowhere, but with you, perplexing as you are as a human being. If you can do that with a wife, you can do it with the Bible. The Bible has got a lot more going for it than Noël does, and she wouldn’t be offended by that statement. That’s why I like her. So that’s step one: Why are we doing this?