Is the Bible the truth of God or merely composed of human ideas?
In January 1989, John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, raised some disturbing questions about the Bible’s truthfulness. He disputed it during a televised debate with fundamentalist minister Jerry Falwell. Millions of Americans were watching the network news show as they ate breakfast.
There was no mistaking the seriousness of Bishop Spong’s challenge to the Bible. Shortly before the debate, he had faulted many of the Bible’s passages, saying they reflected facts and attitudes today’s Christians simply do not believe. It was a controversial view, making for lively television drama. As Bishop Spong put it, “We clearly had touched a vital nerve in the religious soul of this nation.”
Bishop Spong continued firing public volleys against the Bible. In the fall of 1989, he and John Ankerberg, a fundamentalist evangelist, debated the Bible on American cable television in six 30-minute segments. The issue was the Bible’s truthfulness and relevance.
Bible debate continues
Two years later, Bishop Spong fired yet another salvo in his debate with the Bible. His controversial book, Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism, was published. The book’s title spoke for itself. Bishop Spong’s stated purpose was “to rescue the Bible from the exclusive hands of those who demand that it be literal truth.”
Bishop Spong wrote that literal interpretations of the Bible justify slavery, anti-Semitism, war and revenge, the subjugation of women and the denial of rights to gays and lesbians. “Can a book responsible for these things be in any literal sense the Word of God to me?” the bishop asked.
In his book, Bishop Spong also criticized traditional churches. He wrote. “The average pew sitter in the average mainline church, both Catholic and Protestant, is, to say it bluntly, biblically illiterate.” Studies show that Bishop Spong has a point. For example, only 42 percent of Americans can name five of the Ten Commandments, and only 46 percent know the names of the first four books of the New Testament.
Polls also show that Bible readership is not particularly high nor regular. George Gallup Jr. has spent years sampling public opinion about this topic. He has observed that people revere the Bible, but they don’t read it. For most people in the 20th-century Western world, the Bible is a dead book. Many religious leaders readily admit this.
George Barna is president of a research group that studies Christian habits and attitudes. He says most Americans consider the Bible to be largely irrelevant to life. “Many people, even Bible readers,” he says, “do not see Scriptures as containing instruction and answers that deal with the everyday problems they face.”
We would have to agree with Bishop Spong’s observation about the sad state of biblical literacy. It also seems true that most people don’t think the Bible’s message is important to their lives.
But is Bishop Spong correct in his view that the Bible must be liberated from its own teachings? That it must be, let us say, rewritten for our times? Many scholars and church pastors would say Bishop Spong is not only wrong in this idea, but that his claim is downright dangerous. The Christian Research Journal, in a review of Bishop Spong’s book, said he was “advocating heresy" and that “his views are absolutely apostate.” The writer of the review called him “nothing but a humanist in clergyman’s garb.”
Yet, Bishop Spong’s is not the only voice claiming the Bible is more human created than God inspired. For example, the Jesus Seminar, an influential group of North American biblical scholars, has been raising the same issue for some time. So have secular scholars. British historian Robin Lane Fox has questioned the historical credibility of Scripture in his book, The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible. He even asked whether the author of 2 Timothy — a book that says Scripture is inspired by God — lied about his own identity.
How are we, as Christians, to respond to these challenges to the Bible’s spiritual authority? Most Christians aren’t able to become biblical scholars. They cannot spend years in a seminary poring over hundreds upon hundreds of specific allegations that claim the Bible is teaching error, prejudice and untruth. Most don’t have the resources or time to study the many hundreds of scriptures said to be contradictions and errors. How are they — how are we — to judge whether the Bible contains the truth of God or is merely composed of human ideas?
It is not an issue we can avoid. If the Bible is the Word of God, it is the only written link to the mind of God we have. We cannot afford to accept someone’s view of the Bible simply because that person is eloquent or schooled or insistent. How can we know whether or not the Bible has God’s authority behind it?
The first thing we should notice about the Bible is that each of us brings to its pages our own dimension of understanding. Paul J. Achtemeier, professor of biblical interpretation at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, explains this perspective in The Inspiration of Scripture. He says the reading or hearing of the Bible “does not necessarily lead to understanding it or accepting its witness as true.”
We can see this idea makes sense if we analyze the Bible’s effect on those who read it. It’s plain that different people view this same book in radically different ways. Some see the Bible as God’s Word — inerrant and infallible. That is, they think of it as true in all its details and without errors. They consider its teachings to be perfect and unfailing.
Others see the Bible as a set of purely human writings. These critics say the biblical documents reflect the beliefs of their authors and the communities they represented, both Jewish and Christian. That means the biblical writings would not necessarily contain the inspired Word of God.
Still others see the Bible as great literature, but only as literature. At the other extreme, some despise the Bible. They claim it has fostered the most hideous of human institutions such as anti-Semitism, slavery and the subjugation of women.
Can all these people be reading the same Bible? What makes for the difference in attitudes toward it? What does it tell us about a book said to be God’s Word? To begin with, let's look at the inspiration of the Bible from a different perspective. Let’s see the Bible’s message as the dynamic that operates between the human mind and the printed words. To put it another way, inspiration can be seen to apply equally to the reading and understanding of the Bible as well as to its words in print.
This tells us, in the words of Dr. Achtemeier, that “the Scriptures contain no truth unless someone recognizes it.” Does that make sense? Yes, it does if we view the inspiration of the Bible as being in the response of the person reacting to what it says.
What happens if a person’s response is not inspired? Then, says Dr. Achtemeier, “Scripture remains a museum piece, of interest to antiquarians who want to affirm that at one time the Spirit of God inspired a collection of writings.”
That explains, at least in part, why for some people the Bible is a dead book, without relevance to their lives. What, then, would make the Bible a living book? Simply, a mind motivated by the enlightening Spirit of God coming to it with spiritual comprehension. Interestingly, Scripture itself describes this aspect of inspiration — the one in the human mind.
Spirit of truth
The Gospel writer Luke explained how this process worked in the disciples’ lives. After his resurrection, Jesus explained to his disciples that the Old Testament was centered around his work and person. Luke wrote, “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
Jesus did more than explain. Luke tells us Jesus “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (verse 45). How did this opening take place? Through the enlightening inspiration of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-17, 26; 15:26).
If we do not see inspiration in the Bible, perhaps the problem is in our own, uninspired minds. The Bible merely rests passively on the mantel or in the bookcase — waiting to be read and understood by an inspired mind.
Of course, God’s inspiration does pervade the Bible as well. Most importantly, the Bible’s writers see themselves as teaching the Word of God. In that sense, the Bible itself speaks for its own inspiration.
Moses claims to speak God’s words, and so do the prophets. They regularly use some variant of the expression, “the word of the Lord came to….” In the New Testament, the apostles say they teach in the name of Jesus and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 1:11-12; 1 Peter 1:12). Jesus said of his own teaching, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63). Those teachings, of course, are the basis of the four Gospels.
The Bible comprises only the paper and ink abstraction of spiritual truth. It lies dormant until a human mind expresses understanding. But perception can only come, the Bible itself says, through the Holy Spirit.
The apostle Paul said that his sermons and writings, some of which we have in the New Testament, could be understood only through the Spirit of God. Paul said a person not guided by the Holy Spirit could not understand the Scriptures in a spiritual sense. “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God,” Paul wrote, “for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Did Gospel writers change Jesus' words?
It may come as a surprise to learn that writers of New Testament books adapted Jesus' sayings and stories to new situations. They did so in a number of cases.
One example is found in Jesus' story of the wise and foolish builders (compare Matthew 7:24-27 with Luke 6:47-49). Matthew's version spoke of building a house on rock versus sand. Perhaps writing for the Christian community in Judea, Matthew most likely preserved Jesus' own words. Matthew's was what we might call a literal telling of the story.
Luke's version of the wise and foolish builders was drafted for a new audience. He compared building a house on a deep foundation or without one. Luke used a thought-for-thought equivalent for Jesus' original way of telling the story. He, in effect, interpreted what Jesus meant for a new audience.
New Testament critical scholar Marcus Borg says Matthew's version described construction methods in Judea and Galilee. In this area, he points out, "Building upon sand meant building in the middle of a dry and sandy stream bed (a wadi), which in the rainy season became a raging stream." On the other hand, Luke described building with or without a foundation. He reflected building techniques used outside of the land of Israel.
Matthew's version was clear in a Judean environment. Luke had to adapt the story for a broader Mediterranean audience.
Such examples show that the Gospel writers had divine license to adjust Jesus Christ's original wording. This allowed readers to understand the narratives more clearly.
The Gospel writers were "inspired interpreters of Jesus' teachings, and were not simply stenographers," says biblical scholar Robert Stein. Neither were they trying to transcribe word for word a tape-recorded message of what Jesus said. The Gospel writers were trying to capture meaning, not literal details. They were free to paraphrase Jesus' speeches, modify terms and add comments to help their readers understand his teachings.
Jesus gave his disciples wide latitude to expound his teachings (Matthew 16:18-19; 18:18; 28:19-20). They could teach dynamically — even paraphrase and interpret — in Jesus' name because they were guided by the Holy Spirit to speak and write the truth (John 14:26; 16:13).
That's why we shouldn't insist on harmonizing every detail in the Gospels. That is the literalists' dilemma. Neither should we see differences in the accounts as hopeless contradictions. That's the bane of those who view the Bible only as a human-devised book.
As the word of a living God, the Bible is a dynamic book. It was written by human beings for human beings — clay jars for clay jars (2 Corinthians 4:7). God inspired humans to write, and when those words are read by people who are also enlightened by the Holy Spirit, the Bible's spiritual meaning is clear.
It’s not a question of knowing what the Bible says in a technical or academic sense. After enough study, the great majority of people can understand the Bible’s central message without difficulty. But that is not understanding in the biblical sense. One may be thoroughly familiar with the Bible’s teachings, but not understand their true meaning and application.
The words of the Bible are of no value as mere letters on paper. They must live in the minds of people through the Holy Spirit. Without that Spirit, the message of the Bible is not understood in the sense that the Bible speaks of understanding — that is, the life-changing nature of God’s Word.
How, then, should we react to statements that the Bible is out of date — in effect, a museum piece, a relic from another age? Or that it is fatally flawed? We must ask ourselves where the problem lies. Is it with the Bible or with the uninspired mind that comes to it? In that sense, we must decide on the Bible’s merits for ourselves — under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a gift God desires to give each of us (Luke 11:13).
We should also be aware that Scripture does need some explanation. The ability to explain God’s truth is a spiritual gift (Romans 10:14-15; Ephesians 4:11-13). Faith in God and in his Word (as the Bible), Paul said, comes through hearing the true message by means of this inspired preaching (Romans 10:17).
An example in the book of Acts shows how this process of inspiration works (Acts 8:26-39). The Ethiopian eunuch had the meaning of Scripture explained by an inspired teacher (Philip) and thus the eunuch was inspired to understand the message.
The Holy Spirit, then, operates at all levels of inspiration — in the hearer, the message bringer, and in the Bible itself. Most importantly, the empowering of the Holy Spirit inspires minds so they resonate with the inspired truth in Scripture.
God’s Spirit can allow us to respond positively to the central message of repentance and salvation. The Spirit of God itself testifies in Scripture: “1 will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds” (Hebrews 10:16).
Today, if we do not harden our thinking against the Bible, we may be privileged to find that inspiration, and to understand God’s Word. The good news is that with inspired minds we can come to understand that the Bible does contain the inspired Word of God.