What is the Bible, really?

Opening of The Shrine of the book, Israel Museum

I often like to remind my readers that theology is the “science of God.” Scripture, found in the Bible, is the primary data source we analyze in the pursuit of supporting or falsifying theological hypotheses. The normative or binding Special Revelation of the Bible is primary (although it may be bolstered by data gleaned from General Revelation and non-binding Special Revelation). But what is the Bible?

At times our culture takes it for granted. We walk past the sensory-overload of options on the shelves of bookstores, ignore the copies placed by the Gideons in the drawers of hotel rooms, and have long forgot where those pocket-sized, orange New Testaments went that some street evangelist handed us years ago. Believing and unbelieving politicians alike are sworn in on them. They line the backs of church pews and lay open superstitiously in some dusty relative’s house. A hundred different English translations are available online for free at the click of a button.

But what is this book, really?

Well, it is not a book at all. The Bible is a collection of sixty-six different documents (in the Protestant canon most familiar to us), written by no fewer than forty human contributors, across the span of some 1,500 years, in three different languages.

These diverse writings encompass many different genres and forms: creation stories, history, genealogy, narrative, law, covenantal agreements, song lyrics, wisdom literature, prophecy, erotic poetry, apocalyptic, gospel, epistle, and more. Some ‘books’ of the Bible are brief letters written from one individual to another, while another ‘book’ may symbolically and/or literally describe the future end of the entire universe.

Yet these laws, prophecies, and writings are tied together by some crucial factors. First, the collection tends to follow the nation of Israel in general, and more specifically the genealogical family lineage of Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ) and, later, the effects of his ministry and the actions of his followers. Second, many sections purport to be records of Divine Speech. A writer will often record a supernatural encounter that happened at such-and-such a place, at such-and-such a time, in which the writer will be commanded to “write down these words.”

The Old Testament depends on the testimony of recognized prophets, persons commissioned by God to be his messengers. Likewise, the New Testament rests on the concept of apostolicity, that all of the contributors were eye-witnesses of Jesus Christ. All of these documents were recognized fairly early as authoritative and legitimate by their respective audiences, with other writings being excluded for not passing the sniff test.

Despite the span of geography and time, and the complexity of writing, editing, transmitting, collecting, preserving, and ultimately translating these supernaturally-themed works, Christians recognize the final product now known simply as the Bible as being both a human book and a divine book. There are many terms that can be used, including ‘inspired,’ ‘authoritative,’ ‘inerrant,’ and so on. That may lead to confusion for the uninitiated, because the Bible at times inerrantly quotes from non-inerrant sources, and our best manuscripts might actually have missing pieces (see: 1 Samuel 13:1)!

One concept I like to focus on is that of ‘inscripturation,’ which is to say that our closed canon of scripture contains everything that God wanted it to contain and nothing that God did not want it to contain. The Bible is a collection of literature, the creation of which God superintended, sometimes even having his literal speech recorded word for word. To the extent that we can find the most accurate manuscripts, being closest to the original, ancient-language autographs, and seek to understand them through the best linguistic, archaeological, and cultural study tools available, we have access to an amazingly invaluable resource.

The Source of All Truth

reality

“What is truth?” – Pontius Pilate

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” – Jesus Christ

In a discussion over coffee about the compatibility or non-compatibility of Freudian theories of psychoanalysis with Christian belief, a pastor once told me that “All truth is God’s truth.” I have since heard that sentiment expressed by many others. While that statement can indeed only be true, something about it kept nagging me. How exactly are you defining or determining truth? It seemed to me that such a statement could be used to conveniently sidestep the need to do the work – to investigate and actively establish truth on a clear basis.

How do we define truth? What priority do we give to various sources that claim to describe reality accurately? Here are my current thoughts on the subject:

TRUTH

God himself is the source of all truth. The eternal, self-existent God is the ultimate reality. There is no higher being or principle in existence. Everything that is has originated from him (John 1:3). As the First Principle, the Unmoved Mover, the Uncaused Cause, the Prime Reality, the great I AM… Yahweh is the very embodiment of truth.

PRIMARY SOURCES OF TRUTH

The Bible, at the very least in its “original autographs” (e.g., the actual scrolls that Moses wrote on, etc.), is a primary source of truth because it accurately testifies about God and records his words. It is direct and purposeful revelation from the all-knowing and truth-telling God. Because God has infinite understanding (Psalm 147:5) and is unable to lie (Titus 1:2), we can fully trust everything that he says. We can trust that what he says is accurately recorded in scripture because all scripture is “inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16) and prophecy was made by men “moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Further, we are told that “scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Jesus himself quoted and affirmed scripture on many occasions.

The Bible itself is not the ultimate reality, nor does it describe everything that exists in reality. Truth existed for a presumably infinite period of time before the Bible was written. However, as Christians we can and must trust in the whole counsel of scripture (Acts 20:27).

The Holy Spirit is described as the Spirit of Truth which can lead us into all truth (John 16:13). A word from the Holy Spirit to an individual can thus also be a primary source of truth, albeit subjective. Well, let me clarify. A word from the Holy Spirit is open to subjective interpretation – it is personal, and not normative for all believers. The Bible tells us that there are other spirits that speak (1 John 4:1; 1 Timothy 4:1). We must always compare what we believe the Spirit to be revealing to us with the witness of scripture, which is a much more standardized and objective primary source of truth.

SECONDARY AND TERTIARY SOURCES OF TRUTH

Apart from the Bible, which is ‘special revelation,’ general revelation can be found in three main sources: “nature, history, and the constitution of the human being” (Erickson 1998, 179). However, this form of truth requires the application of human reason and investigation. As humans are finite and flawed, such deductions and conclusions cannot be held with the same regard as primary truth. Generalizations from revealed biblical truth, if theologically rigorous, may be a form of secondary truth. Deductions and conclusions from the three sources of general revelation that do not coincide with a Christian worldview may be no better than tertiary sources of truth, or may be completely false and unreliable.

Basic Principles for “Doing Theology”

CO012-Compass_Sundial_1024x1024

Theology is the science of God, and one that primarily concerns the study of sacred texts. Religious doctrines are like scientific theories, but scripture is the objective data we scrutinize to ultimately validate or invalidate our theories. Naturally, our axiomatic assumptions, cultural biases, lenses of lived experience, and finite / depraved perspectives can distort our ability to “do theology.”

As I continue my extended theological thought experiment to discover exactly what I believe and why, I must identify some key and fundamental principles. These are assumptions that are for my purposes non-negotiable and will serve as the foundation for all that is to come – they are like a compass in my pocket that will help chart my course and get back on track when I start to go astray.

1. “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)

I have discovered that all theological attempts that do not begin with reverence for God soon go off the rails into heretical and/or blasphemous territory. This shall be avoided. We do not place God in a box to contain him nor on an autopsy table to dissect him. Attempting to discern some of the hidden things of God can be like splitting an atom.

2. “If I … know all mysteries and all knowledge … but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)

This verse does not state that understanding all mysteries is a bad thing – not at all. The only explicitly unknowable things referred to in the Bible that I am aware of are the return date and time of Jesus Christ and what the seven thunders say in Revelation 10:4. Everything else is fair game. But, I am not on this journey for the purpose of tearing others down or of pridefully elevating my knowledge over others.

3. Truth is basically defined as what corresponds to reality.

In other words, truth is whatever is actually, really real. Our perceptions, understanding, and interpretation of that reality may be flawed, limited, or in some cases non-existent. But the truth is out there! There is an objective reality totally independent of our perception and interpretation of it. It defines us, we do not define it.

4. All scripture quoted will be from the New American Standard Bible, with a couple notable changes.

I own and enjoy many different translations of the Bible, but my personal favorite is the New American Standard Bible. This is due to its higher reading level and the fact that it is the most literal of all mainstream translations. I will quote exclusively from the NASB 1995 text update to avoid picking and choosing whatever translation best fits my desired interpretation for any given verse.

However, I will be following the ESV in not capitalizing divine pronouns when there is no manuscript-evidence suggesting to do so. Also, I will translate LORD in the Old Testament into Yahweh every time, and swap in the even more literal footnotes of the NASB when available.