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.

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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.

On Revelation – Apocalypse Now

Wenceslas_Hollar_-_Jacob's_ladder_(State_2)

The word ‘revelation’ found in New Testament passages such as Luke 2:32, Romans 2:5, Galatians 1:12, Ephesians 3:3, and Revelation 1:1 (to cite a few examples) is the Greek word apokálypsis. You do not have to be a Greek scholar to recognize the English word ‘apocalypse.’ However, in English we have come to associate apocalypse with the cataclysmic end of the world. In reality, apocalypse means uncovering or unveiling.

Read Paul’s words in Galatians 1:11-12 with a simple translation change, “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through an apocalypse of Jesus Christ.”

When theologians talk about revelation they are primarily concerned with the following question: how can we know anything about God at all? If God is transcendent, or infinite, or outside of the created cosmos, how can finite, mortal creatures approach him or discover something of his nature?

John the Apostle was fond of pointing out that “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18a; also 1 John 4:12a) and “Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; he has seen the Father” (John 6:46). So how can we discern a God that is “invisible” (1 Timothy 1:17) to us? The answer is that God has to pull back the veil, let us peek behind the curtain, and reveal a part of himself.

Humanity cannot reach a knowledge of God completely on their own. But what about general revelation and the associated natural theology, in which individuals discern attributes of God from what has been created? We must admit that God has given human beings the ability to sense and perceive as well as minds capable of understanding and reaching conclusions. Therefore, even our most “independent” observations and conclusions are only possible because God first allowed their possibility by the decisions he made when designing and creating us.

Prolegomena – Confessions of a Theology Geek

Clarion & Coffee

When I was younger, I assumed that the Bible was all one needed to attain perfect understanding of spiritual matters. I attended seminary for the purpose of obtaining a Masters degree in Pastoral Counseling (which I did); theology was nowhere on my radar. Instead, I found a lot of my counseling courses to be fluffy and vague, and discovered a deep love for theology that I never expected. This began a passionate affair indeed. I lay awake many a night pondering theological puzzles. I obsessively revisited and revised my Amazon wishlist with new must-buy books that I would have little time to read. Often my deepest desire was to simply sit down and discuss theology over coffee with someone, anyone who was game. One night I even forgot to shower, floss, and brush my teeth due to my preoccupation!

The doctrine of perspicuity or clarity of Scripture teaches that “…those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (Westminster Confession). And I would agree with the qualifier, “for salvation.” Yet, on other topics we find well-intentioned and Christ-loving people with access to the same growing number of respectable Bible translations arriving at opposite, mutually-exclusive conclusions on various points of doctrine and belief. Not only the Bible (which must be primary) but also our underlying philosophical assumptions / axiomatic beliefs come into play. Interpretation matters.

Two years ago I launched my Theology Geek blog with the aim of finding out for myself exactly what I believe and why – to build my Christian theology from the ground up. I desired to end up with a compendium theologiae novum, a summary of a new systematic theology. As I set out on this complex thought experiment, I committed to pursue objectivity. I needed (and still need) to transcend family and church tradition, tribalistic denominational loyalty, and popular beliefs originating in by-products of Christianity rather than the source. Today, I know more than I did two years ago. I know more now than I did two months ago. By the grace of God, I hope to know more next week than I do today. A lot of my mental agitation or cognitive dissonance has leveled out as my theological hypotheses have become sharpened. On other matters, I hold the various theories on this doctrine or that like a deck of cards in my back pocket, ready to shuffle and deal out as needed.

I’ve met many people who roll their eyes when somebody starts spouting off about theology. Some people have no interest whatsoever in the subject (which is fine) while others prefer to swallow the wholesale interpretation of others without exerting any effort of their own toward understanding (not ideal). Theology has been called ‘the queen of sciences.’ Josef Pieper described theology as “the study of sacred documents.” My theology professor in seminary referred to theology as “a way to worship God with our minds.” Whatever the case, I believe it is a very worthwhile pursuit. Systematic theology, for me, is the highest achievement of mankind in regards to special revelation.

Here are three reasons that you should join me on this continuing journey:

1. Theology is COOL

Proverbs 25:2 tells us that, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.” Christian Theology is the one and only discipline that peers behind the veil of the weightiest metaphysical realities. Studying theology is like choosing to take the ‘red pill’ in The Matrix.

2. Theology is HARD

“Even though most evangelicals agree that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant … Word of God, sometimes groups among them arrive at contradictory doctrinal conclusions” (Walls and Dongell 2004, 22). And many of these points of disagreement are not trivial, but rather are deemed crucial by those who have debated them for thousands of years. We must stand on the shoulders of giants while not being trapped by their errors (made inevitable by their finitude and imperfections). Question everything and follow the evidence wherever it leads.

3. Theology is IMPORTANT

Bad theology has been used to justify evil acts, such as antisemitism. Individuals with good theology have been burned at the stake and drowned as heretics by those with opposing views. Theology at the highest level trickles down to the masses and impacts society. Theology is important because, ultimately, what you believe should determine what you do.

Be strong and very courageous. The truth is out there!