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.

An Invitation to Join Me or Visit Me on My Journey in 2021

The year 2020 has been difficult, but there is light ahead.

I have been using the YouVersion Bible app for a number of years now. I wake up in the morning, and the first thing I do is grab my phone and open it up. It has become a habit.

For the last two years, I have used year long reading plans by which I have read through the Bible from beginning to end. Last year I read it book by book. This year I read it in chronological order. (Did you know the books are not in chronological order?)

For 2021, I have chosen another (almost) yearlong reading plan that focuses on how Jesus is revealed in Scripture from beginning to end.

Jesus said that he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17). Jesus didn’t just fulfill the Old Testament Scripture; Moses (the Law) and the Prophets is all about him! (Luke 24:27) The story of Scripture finds its denouement in Jesus! Thus, I have decided to use a yearlong plan that focuses on Jesus throughout the Bible, from start to finish.

I am reminded this morning of Psalm 1, which says that a person “whose delight is in the law of the Lord and who meditates on his law day and night” is “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither….” (Ps. 1:2-3)

Jesus, having fulfilled the Law God gave Moses (a law we cannot hope to fulfill in ourselves), has demonstrated for us a love which is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom. 13:10) We are, then, to love our neighbors as ourselves just as Jesus loved us demonstrably in giving up his own life for us. “Love one another…. [a]s I have loved you” is the commandment of new covenant (John 13:34), which is the outgrowth and the ultimate fulfillment of the old covenant.

The year, 2020, will go down as one year that we will never, ever forget. History books will be written about it no doubt. It was a year of tribulation, unrest, angst, fear, anger, isolation and polarization, but not all is dark.

Continue reading “An Invitation to Join Me or Visit Me on My Journey in 2021”

Who Was Jesus?


Who was Jesus? A friend recently asked, “Jesus was a Jew preaching Judaism. Right?” He explained his thought that the people who came after Jesus created a new religion using him as the central figure in spite of who he really was – just a Jewish man preaching Judaism.

This is a popular Internet characterization of Christianity. I am not a scholar on the subject, but I did minor in religion in college. I took all the courses for a religion major, including the thesis course, and I even did the research and wrote the thesis. I would have had a religion major if I had turned in my thesis. I didn’t do it because I didn’t need the major. I took the classes because I was interested in them. I didn’t hand in the thesis paper because I didn’t feel good about it.

A religion major at a small liberal arts school meant majoring in “religion” generally. There were no flavors available for particular study. We looked at all religions, though we focused most heavily on Judaism and Christianity. That is because there was one “Christian” professor and one “Jewish” professor.

The Christian professor took the position that “all roads lead to the top of the same mountain”. Of the Christian road, he was very fond of Liberation Theology that took the position that the God has been changing, progressing and more or less learning to be God throughout time. Liberation Theology was born in South America among the people who were oppressed by the corrupt government and military forces in the 1970’s, and the Catholic priests who espoused this theology believed in taking arms in counter-insurgence against the oppressive political and military regimes.

My “Christian” experience included some very progressive literature. We were encouraged to sit in on lectures given by people like Hare Krishnas and a European Muslim – both lectures that I attended, among others. The Jewish professor was very much the modern, reformed variety – not conservative or Hasidic. This was my introduction to religion and to the Bible.

I did read the Bible from cover to cover in college, not only as an academic exercise as part of my course of study, but because I was drawn to it. In the midst of the all-roads-lead-to-the-same-mountaintop atmosphere in which I studied, I began to be taken by Jesus, who said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6) This is because Jesus stood head and shoulders above all the other religious personalities that I read about. There was something transcendentally different about him.

As I have been thinking about the (largely rhetorical) question my friend posed about Jesus, I think of the sweep of the Bible – Old Testament to New Testament, beginning to end. Having been intimate with it for well over 30 years, having read it many times over, and recounting my own journey of discovery, I feel compelled to tackle the question, but the scope of the answer is daunting.

Continue reading “Who Was Jesus?”

Balance Between Scripture and Spirit

Reaching for one without letting go of the other

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I feel compelled by the Holy Spirit (I hope) to explain myself a bit. Please forgive me if this gets into a little self-conscious rambling.

I have touched recently on some important doctrinal issues without really addressing them in a doctrinal way. That is intentional, but that leaves me a little self-conscious about it.

I have brushed past many doctrinal issues in this blog, and some of them are themes that I come back to quite often. Recently, I have veered dangerously close to issues like the inerrancy of the Bible and Bible hermeneutics, though I have not used words like that, other than to acknowledge at some points those rocks that exist in the turbulent waters.

I often reflect on the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. I often reflect on atonement, redemption, salvation and similar themes, though I don’t often use those words. Anytime we speak of the cross, the specter of those doctrinal ideas arises.

I am usually not all that conscious about doctrine in the sense of academic formality or denominational purity. This also is intentional, though it isn’t intended in any rebellious, skeptical or heretic away.

What I always aim for is “mere Christianity”.

Continue reading “Balance Between Scripture and Spirit”

Reading the Bible in Context

When we read the Bible, we need to come to it with the understanding of what it is and what it is not.

Depositphotos Image ID: 1439763 Copyright: sframe

We read the Bible, with writings going back to the Bronze Age, through the lens of our modern experience, understanding and knowledge, often without considering that we need to adjust our lens to understand what we are reading.

I do believe that the Bible is Scripture, conveying an accurate understanding of a timeless, changeless, faithful God, but it is written through the eyes of men who lived at particular times in history in particular cultural and historical contexts. It was written by about 40 men, to be more specific, over a period of about 1500 years with the last writing penned about 1900 years ago.

While Paul tells us that Scripture is inspired by God (“God-breathed”),[1] he means that Scripture was “translated”, written out and conveyed through the vessel of people. I don’t mean to get into the subject of inerrancy or whether the Bible must be read literally in all respects. The way God communicated through people in the Bible is different from the claim that Mohammad made, for instance, in regard to the Quran: that he took down the dictation word for word from Allah.

The Bible does not claim to be a word-for-word communication from God (as if God speaks in Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek). God inspired what was written, but He didn’t dictate it.

I find this at once remarkable and hopeful. Continue reading “Reading the Bible in Context”