Lunchbar: Why trust the Bible?

Lunchbar last Friday at Nottingham University Christian Union was on the question “Why trust the Bible?” As our speaker pointed out, this is not only an academic question, but one of huge personal significance, and a really important question for anyone exploring or trying to understand the Christian faith.

What our speaker wanted to put forward was the contention that the Bible is what it says it is – that is, that the biblical writers were not mistaken when they said things like:

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”
2Timothy 3:16

“Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
2Peter 1:20-21

The Bible itself claims to be divine revelation and not human ideas about religion. But this is very different to the common perception of the Bible as irrelevant, contradictory and full of fairy tales. Is this correct?

In 1999, over 60 million Bibles, 90 million New Testaments and 1.5 billion parts of the Bible were printed – in 1999 it was the world’s most printed book. Apparently, in one year in the previous decade, this was not the case for the first time ever – and the IKEA catalogue actually had more copies printed. But few people would turn up to a talk and question and answer session on “Can we trust the IKEA catalogue?” – certainly not as many as came to the talk on the Bible, because the Bible is also important because of its content and the scope of its claims. It makes claims about the very nature of reality itself, and about the world we live in, and about how to know God, and about the future. So the question of what we do with the Bible is not an abstract one, but something really important. If the Bible isn’t trustworthy, we shouldn’t believe it – and if it is trustworthy, we should not only assent to its truth but also stake our whole lives on it being true. It’s that important.

So we’ve seen that the Bible itself claims to be divine revelation and trustworthy. But are there any other reasons that might help us trust that it is what it says it is?

  • There’s the whole scale of the Bible – written over many centuries by over 40 authors, but with a coherent storyline and a likeness and affinity between the individual books that make up the Bible. Individual books are distinct, but yet they have a wholeness and closeness to each other that you wouldn’t get, for example, by going to the “Philosophy” or “Religion” section in a bookstore and picking the first 66 books you found there.
  • There’s the historical rootedness and reliability of much of the Bible. A lot of the Bible is narrative, about people and events that are found in history – many of which can be known about from nonbiblical sources. These accounts are not like fairy stories at all, but check out historically.
  • There’s the matter of fulfilled prophecies – for example, the Old Testament prophecies which are undeniably more ancient than their fulfillment – many of these concern events in the life of Jesus.
  • There’s the huge influence the Bible and its message have – transforming people, societies and whole nations.
  • There’s the realisticness of the Bible. It doesn’t present a wholly flattering picture of its characters – even the ones it praises. The biblical writers are honest about the failures of even people said to be close to God: Jacob is the father of Israel, but Israelite writers call him a deceiver; David was Israel’s greatest King, but his adultery and conspiracy to murder are recorded; Jesus’ disciples stand behind the New Testament gospels which show them to be dull-witted and faithless, abandoning Jesus as he is arrested and killed. The Bible’s claim about human nature and sinfulness is also realistic. It tells us about a world that is true to life and readily recognizable.
  • The textual transmission of the Bible is reliable – that is, we can be confident that what we have now is essentially what was originally written. For the New Testament, particularly, the manuscript evidence enables us to be very confident. For the Old Testament Hebrew text, we know that the ancient scribal copying processes were rigorous and accurate, as witnessed to by the surprisingly small amount of difference between the Hebrew text as found in a modern critical edition and the Hebrew texts of Old Testament documents found among the “Dead Sea Scrolls” at Qumran.

This is a kind of “balance-of-evidence” argument, and none of these are knock-down arguments proving the Bible is the reliable and trustworthy word of God. But they are enough to convince many millions of people that the Bible is trustworthy. And perhaps they are enough to convince us to take it seriously and take its message about Jesus seriously.

These kinds of evidence don’t, however, prove our main contention: that the Bible is what it says it is. This is a circular argument – but then so too are all epistemologies (“Reason is the ultimate arbiter because it seems reasonable to me for it to be so”; “There is no ultimate authority because I do not know of any”) – so it is not “special pleading” but rather a case of which claim to authority we accept. The Christian’s claim that the Bible is authoritative revelation of God is, however, one that works – though that can perhaps only be seen by people who try it out.

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