Digging into the Accuracy and Inspiration of the Bible

I wrote recently on the character of Scripture, prompted by a statement made by Marty Solomon in Episode #82 of the BEMA Podcast, focusing on the question: Does inspiration mean accuracy? The idea that Scripture is inspired by God comes from 2 Timothy 3:16:

“All Scripture is inspired by God and beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness….” 

2 Timothy 3:16 (NASB)

This statement from Paul is one of the few comments on the character of Scripture in the Bible. In this article, I want to focus on other comments on Scripture in the New Testament.

You might be surprised to know that Peter cross-references Paul. Peter recognizes Paul’s letters and lumps them in with “other Scriptures”. (2 Peter 3:15-16 ESV) The recognition by Peter that Paul’s writings are “scripture” is highly significant because Jesus said Peter was the “rock” on which Jesus would build his church. (Matt. 16:18) If Peter considered Paul’s writings “scripture”, we should too.

Paul cross references Luke in his first letter to Timothy. Paul quotes “the Scripture”, saying “’Do not keep an ox from eating as it treads out the grain.’ And in another place, ‘Those who work deserve their pay!’” (1 Timothy 5:18 NLT) The first quotation is from Deuteronomy 25:4. The second is from Luke 10:7 (NRSV). Thus, Paul quotes Luke’s Gospel, as Scripture in the same vein as Deuteronomy.

This discussion, though, begs the question: what is Scripture? Obviously Peter thought Paul’s letters were Scripture, and Paul thought Luke was Scripture. Most of Scripture in that time would have been what we call the Old Testament. There was no “New Testament”, so what else is Scripture?

Many misconceptions abound. People claim that books were removed from the Bible. People claim that a group of church fathers got together and determined what should be in the New Testament. These claims are false. They have no basis in the historical record.

The truth is more complicated, and the NT canon developed more organically than what is popularly believed. The writings of the NT developed from the texts that were considered authoritative throughout the early church.

We may think of Christianity being controlled centrally from Rome, but that didn’t happen until the 4th Century. Before that, churches were scattered all over the Roman Empire and beyond. Various centers of influence existed, including Rome, Alexandria (Northern Africa), Caesarea (the Levant), Antioch (Syria), Lyons (France) and other places, but the top down authority of Rome (and Constantinople) developed much later.

The writings that make up the existing New Testament were shared and circulated throughout a wide area, wherever churches took root. Opinions were shared, and a consensus grew based primarily on the authorship (apostolic connection) and message (consistency with the teachings of Jesus).

Many of those writings were accepted very early by a majority of people, and others gained acceptance later by consensus. (See The Formation of the New Testament Canon) Many other writings were considered helpful, but not Scripture, and some writings were considered heretical. Late writings (turning up after the apostles were gone in the 2nd Century and later) were categorically excluded.

Eusebius of Caesarea was one of the first people to attempt a summary of authoritative writings. The 22 “books” he identified in the 3rd Century are nearly identical to the canon we have today, minus a few and plus a few. The consensus was close to settled at that time.

The first person to name all 27 writings exactly as they are known today was Athanasius in Northern Africa in his Festal Letter written A.D. 367. The same canon was accepted by the rest of Christendom at the African synods of Hippo Regius (A.D. 393) and Carthage (A.D. 397 and 419). (Not the Council of Nicaea as the popular myth goes!)

In between the 1st Century and the early 5th Century when the canon was officially settled, other lists were offered by various sources. Bruce Metzger, the Princeton Theologian, says, “The slowness of determining the final limits of the canon is testimony to the care and vigilance of early Christians in receiving books purporting to be apostolic.”

Metzger notes that “the chief criterion for acceptance of particular writings as sacred, authoritative, and worthy of being read in services of worship was apostolic authorship”. The early church focused on the source or authority – connection to the apostles who knew Jesus. They also measured them by the known message of Jesus, as preserved by those apostles.

Keep in mind that the apostles lived on after Jesus. Peter died in 64 AD during the reign of Nero in Rome according to contemporary, extra-biblical sources. John, the Apostle, died in 100 AD according to reports preserved from multiple sources.

Thus, the apostles, the closest people to Jesus, lived on 30 to 70 years after Jesus died. They were the standard by which the authority of contemporary writings were judged.

Determining (or accepting) what is Scripture is only a beginning, though. How we view Scripture and interact with it is where the real rubber meets the road. In my last article, I wrestled with what it means that Scripture is inspired, suggesting that accuracy is not necessarily the key component. I will dig a little deeper in the rest of this article.

Continue reading “Digging into the Accuracy and Inspiration of the Bible”

Wrestling with the Accuracy and Inspiration of the Bible

In episode #82 on the BEMA Discipleship Podcast (dealing with “textual criticism” of the Bible), Marty Solomon made the following statement about growing up in a fundamentalist church: “Inspiration means accuracy in the world I grew up in.” Now he says, “That’s not what inspiration means. Inspiration means it was inspired by God.”

Solomon is talking about one of the few verses in the Bible that gives us explicit insight into how we should view Scripture:

“All Scripture is inspired by God and beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness….” 

2 Timothy 3:16 (NASB)

That Scripture is “inspired by God” is what those with a “high view” of Scripture hang our hat on, but what does “inspired by God” mean exactly?

Jesus revered Scripture, and he quoted from it often, He quoted from the Torah at least 21 times and from the Prophets at least 18 times. He referenced those writings when he said,

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them. For I tell you truly, until heaven and earth pass away, not a single jot, not a stroke of a pen, will disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” 

Matthew 5:17-19

His words seem to suggest a high standard of accuracy in “the Law”, but I have often noted that the quotations of Jesus in the New Testament do not often match (if ever) the exact phrases from the passages he quotes. He doesn’t cite “chapter and verse” because there were no chapters or verses then.

Further, the Scriptural texts were written out carefully by scribes who were highly specialized in the tedium of copying the text verbatim, but many people could not read or write. Scripture was committed to memory and quoted often from memory.

Solomon’s comment reveals how his position has changed from the view of the church in which he grew up. He still believes the Bible is inspired by God, but he no longer believes that inspiration means accuracy.

The exact words quoted in the New Testament writings that were spoken by Jesus were likely spoken in Hebrew, or maybe Aramaic, and they were translated into Greek. We have Hebrew manuscripts, Greek manuscripts and Latin manuscripts. We also have manuscripts in Coptic, Syriac, and other languages.

We have a virtual treasure of manuscripts of the biblical texts, so much that they dwarf the text of any other ancient writing many, many times over. We also have many modern translations, each with differences in words, sentence structure, phraseology, etc.

The Bible we have is magnitudes more certain in its reliability and integrity than any other ancient text. We can trust that we have a very, very close approximation in the Bible of what was originally said because of the wealth of texts we can compare to each other. But can we say it is 100%, word for word, accurate in every jot and tittle?

Solomon has a “high view” of Scripture, as I do, but he doesn’t necessarily demand, expect, or hold on to it as if every word is accurate (without error). This can be a difficult “concession” for many people who are Christians and believe the Bible must be viewed as 100% accurate in every word and detail.

A “high view” of Scripture, to me, means to view it with the utmost respect, to embrace it as authoritative and inspired, and to study it regularly as food for the soul/spirit, for guidance in knowing and understanding God and His purposes and how to live as one who would follow Christ.

The idea that the Bible is inerrant (without error) is not to be found in the Bible. Rather, we can find in the Bible that it was inspired by God. In the second letter Paul wrote to his young disciple, Timothy, he said:

Most people who claim to be Christians, and some people who don’t, agree that the Bible is inspired. The idea that the Bible was inspired, and inspired by God, is somewhat noncontroversial, but some people take it further: they say that every word in our modern Bible is from God; they say the Bible is without error; they say the Bible is inerrant (meaning, incapable of being wrong).

When Paul said all scripture is inspired by God, he was likely talking about the Old Testament, as there was no New Testament as we know it when Paul wrote his letter to Timothy. He also doesn’t clarify what he would include in the term, “Scripture”. We have to try to fill in those blanks.

Can we really say the Bible – every word of the text we have today – is 100% accurate to the words that were originally inspired by God, spoken and written down? Which translation? In which language?

Maybe there is a reason Paul did not say that Scripture is an accurate, word for word, and verbatim script of God’s words to the people who were inspired to receive them. Muslims claim that is what the angel Gabriel did with Muhammed. They claim the angel dictated to Muhammed, who wrote down everything exactly as it was spoken to him. The biblical text doesn’t make that claim about itself.

Paul says that Scripture is “beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness“. He implicitly says we can trust it and rely on it. He holds it in the highest regard, but he doesn’t say what we try to claim about the Bible.

Maybe we shouldn’t go as far in our claims as we do. In writing this piece, I am not suggesting that we should not trust the Bible or rely on it. I am not saying we should disregard it or discount it.

I believe Scripture is “alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) Does it need to be 100% accurate to do that? Does it need to “inerrant”?

NT Wright makes the bold claim that we have the Scripture God wanted us to have. Human beings have a strong desire to categorize, define, and reduce to certainty. Maybe we should resist that temptation.

“God’s ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts.” We are finite and limited beings. We will always have a measure of uncertainty. Faith involves placing our trust in what we believe is trustworthy. Faith doesn’t require certainty.

We will never have certainty because we are finite, limited beings. We are not gods, and we are certainly not God.

I realize I have not, perhaps, brought much clarity to the subject. I do have some more thoughts on the subject, including what Peter has to say, and what Peter and Paul say about each other. I will pick where I leave off here in future writings.

How Do We Demand Signs and Miss What God is Doing in the World?

The Gospel records a three year period of time in which Jesus seemingly performed miracles, signs and wonders everywhere he went. Perhaps, the accounts in the Gospels give us an impression that doesn’t correspond to the reality because they recount the many miraculous things he did, but they don’t describe all the times in between.

It seems strange, given all the miracles, signs and wonders that Jesus did that the Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus one day to test him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. (Matt. 16:1) Perhaps, they wanted him to do it on command, like a science experiment to prove himself.

Perhaps, they had only heard of the things Jesus did, but they hadn’t actually seen him do anything. Perhaps, they didn’t trust the accounts of the common people Jesus seemed to prefer to hang out with. They were more gullible and less discerning.

Attitudes like that haven’t changed much in 2000 years. The Sadducees and Pharisees were more learned. The Sadducees didn’t believe in supernatural occurrences, miracles or demons. The Pharisees did believe in those things, but they were skeptical. The two groups had very different worldviews, but they were aligned in their skepticism.

When these elite religious leaders asked Jesus for a private performance – “a sign from heaven” – he refused .

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign[i]; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” 

(Matthew 16:4)

The fact that these two groups, one that believed in the supernatural and one that didn’t, were aligned in their skepticism suggests that their “problem” with Jesus was that he challenged their dogmas. They doubted the fact that he did miracles, signs and wonders because of the content of what he was saying.

Jesus seemed to revel in provoking them on those differences!

The Pharisees (who believed in the supernatural) determined that healing on the Sabbath is work and is, therefore, prohibited by the Law of Moses. They demanded that Jesus not heal on the Sabbath, but Jesus did it anyway. (Matt. 12:1-14)

Ironically, this healing that was done right in the Pharisees’ presence occurred four chapters before they came to Jesus and demanded a sign from heaven. They had seen a sign from heaven already and dismissed it out of hand because it went against their beliefs.

Jesus challenged their preconceived ideas and expectations. He challenged their authority to determine what is work in violation of the Sabbath and what isn’t. They watched Jesus heal a man with a shriveled hand, but they dismissed it because of what he taught that was contrary to what they believed.

God showed the Pharisees a sign (the healing of a man with a shriveled hand), but they were too focused on his violation of their understanding of Scripture and religious dogma to notice it for what it was.

This story illustrates the danger of our religious dogmas and preconceived ideas of what God should do and not do. Even when the evidence is staring us in the face, we can be tempted to ignore it, gloss over it, and explain it away in favor of how we interpret and understand Scripture.

Continue reading “How Do We Demand Signs and Miss What God is Doing in the World?”

To Those Who Receive Christ God Gives the Right to Become His Children

Sometimes, we gloss over what we read in the Bible too quickly, and we don’t spend enough time digging deeper. I have read over the following verse in John 1 many times before I thought, “Wait a minute!”

“But to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.” 

John 1:12

John wrote that “all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, HE GAVE THE RIGHT to become children of God”. My emphasis added is the phrase that caught my attention.

For all the verses in Scripture about God choosing us, predestining us, foreordaining us, we find verses like this that put agency squarely in our own hearts and wills. But that isn’t the beginning of the story – or the end of it.

Yes, God chooses us; and in choosing us He gives us “the right to become children of God”.[i]

Yes, He made that choice before the foundation[ii] of the world, and He made us children of God not by blood descent, not by the will of parents or anyone else – maybe not even by our own will – but by His own choice.[iii]

We didn’t choose Him; He chose us, but the vehicle of the choosing was to give those who received Him the right to become children of God. The implication is that He didn’t those who did not receive Him the same right to become His children.

I do not have a systematic theology. I am not a theologian. My understanding of systematic theology is limited, but free will has always seemed self-evident to me as I read Scripture.

Continue reading “To Those Who Receive Christ God Gives the Right to Become His Children”

Who Is God? How Can We Approach Him? What Do the Answers Mean for Us Today?

Many things to which we devote our energies are good, but they become idols when they become our “ultimate things”.

Who will approach God? Who is the King of Glory? These are questions David poses in Psalm 24, one of the Messianic Psalms.

He begins with recognizing who God is. God is the creator of everything there is, and He possesses and has authority over all that He created.

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
    and established it on the waters.

Psalm 24:1-2

Though the nations all around David had their own gods in various images and likenesses, David recognizes that there is only one, creator God. One God made the heavens and the earth, and there is no god like Him. In that context he asks the question:

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
    Who may stand in his holy place?

Psalm 24:3

How does one approach a God like that? How do created beings, such as ourselves, approach the God who created us? David understands that we can only approach such a God on His own terms:

The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
    who does not trust in an idol
    or swear by a false god.

Psalm 24:4

Only a person with clean hands and a pure heart can approach a God like that. Only a person who trusts in such a God, alone, can approach Him. Only a person who understands truth and is free of deceit.

Can any of us say that we meet these conditions?

If we think honestly on these things, we have to realize that we don’t. The truth is that no one is righteous, not even one person. (Psalm 14:3; Psalm 53:3; and Romans 3:10)

Think of David, the very person who wrote this Psalm. He didn’t meet those conditions, and he certainly knew it. He is one of the most flawed people of all the people of faith in the Bible. He knew where he stood with God.

The problem: we want clean hands and a pure hear; we want to trust in God alone, and we want to hold to nothing but the truth. The truth is, though, that no one meets these conditions. No one can approach a holy God!


Yet, this Psalm exalts in the anticipation of connecting with such a God – a God who made and possesses the universe, a God who can only be approached with cleans hands, a pure heart, with singleness of devotion and in the fullness of truth. This is because David anticipates something. And this is where the Psalm shifts:

They will receive blessing from the Lord
    and vindication from God their Savior.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
    who seek your face, God of Jacob.

Psalm 24:5-6

The resolution to the problem is that we do not approach God: He approaches us. We must receive from God his blessing and vindication. It is nothing we can ascend to, nothing we can achieve.

God knows this well, and He provided a way. As with Abraham for whom God provided a ram caught in the thicket to sacrifice in place of his son, Isaac, God has provided for us what is necessary to clear the way for us to receive Him. Through Christ, we are made holy, clean and new.[i]

The Psalm is considered “Messianic” because David anticipates our need for God to come to us, to provide for us. He says:

Lift up your heads, you gates;
    be lifted up, you ancient doors,
    that the King of glory may come in.

Psalm 24:7

Thus, David exalts not in the prospect that someone might ascend to heaven, but in the anticipation that God will descend to us. God meets us where we are. But there is more to this than God simply meeting us where we are: we need to be ready to receive Him.

Before the church service that inspires this article this morning, I read an article in my newsfeed: How the Capitol attacks helped spread Christian nationalism in the extreme right, from the Religious News Service. It may seem like a strange tie in to Psalm 24, but I hope you will stick with me to see the connection.

Continue reading “Who Is God? How Can We Approach Him? What Do the Answers Mean for Us Today?”