Saturday, November 04, 2006

Contradictory, Unreliable & irrelevant: why not bin the Bible?

I gave this talk at Surrey CU. I'm speaking again on the same subject at Reading in a month, so any comments, critique etc welcome.

CONTRADICTORY, UNRELIABLE, IRRELEVANT: WHY NOT BIN THE BIBLE?

Defending the Bible is a strange task. It's bit like defending Parliament, but once in a while a Guy Fawkes comes along wanting to destroy it.

This book is the all time bestseller and was the first book to come of the Gutenburg press, at the start of the enlightenment. I love the scene in the film The Day After Tomorrow, the survivors burn books to stay warm but the staunch atheist clings to the Gutenberg Bible, as a great symbol of human triumph.

Its contraband in many countries, whilst the Gideons place editions in most hotel rooms worldwide,.. though increasingly they find the bedrooms doors of University campuses barred... so much for free thought! :)

Until 500 years ago you could only read it in Latin. And when William Tyndale translated it into English he was killed and burned at the stake because of the outrageous message he uncovered within it's pages.

No regarded ancient text has more and as reliable manuscripts. And yet this book, attributed with laying the foundations of western culture, is today marginalised, defamed, slandered or just left to collect dust on the bookcases of Britain.

I suspect that most of us have simply not read the Bible. I'd not until I was 18 years old... imagining it to be impenetrable. Yet, its a bit unfair to write of what we've not examined. Until September I'd not seen The Sound of Music. Everything I'd heard had put me off. Since then I've been forced to watch it... and my “informed” critique is that I'm not a fan.

However, I don't think the Bible will confirm our greatest fears about itself. I wouldn't promise that if you read it you would accept it – but we ought at least to give it an adult reading on its own terms. Our question today assumes a few things in the charges it raises. Contradictory, Unreliable, Irrelevant: why not bin the Bible? This assumes at least four things:
1.Contradictory claims are a problem. We want life and truth to be consistent. Quite right.
2.Unreliability is a problem because we want things we can depend on.
3.Irrelevance is an issue. We want something that speaks to our situation. If we're hungry we assume food is the only relevant response... but a reminder of 3rd world famine may also be relevant as we proclaim that we're “starving” - what is relevant might be unpleasant to hear.
4.The Bible is highly regarded and that which is valued ought to meet the previous conditions, or otherwise dismissed.
These to some extent our assumptions. I want to speak to three questions that will deal with the charges at hand. What is The Bible? - Agsainst the charges of it being contradictory or unreliable. What does it claim to be? And what is it's message? Both of which speak to the issue of relevance by consider the Bible here on it's own terms. We're free to not act in response to these claims but we ought at least to agree that it makes such claims.

What is the Bible, materially?
Some facts to deal with.
  • a. The Bible is a library of books to be treated literally – as literature – narrative, poetry, letters and other genres. It has two volumes: The Old testament and new, with a total of 66 books.
  • b. The Bible was always highly regarded and so was preserved carefully and distributed widely as God's message for the whole world.
  • c. The oldest New Testament documents date to within a generation of the event they record, which is better than anything else in antiquity.
  • d. The authors of the New Testament in particular are not portrayed in a good light. This doesn't prove the authenticity of what they write but makes it unlikely that they set out to deceive us.
  • e. The Bible writers are convinced that they are documenting history. It is not fiction. It is not invented stories. Everything is staked upon the historicity of the events they record. A potential weakness but one that makes it possible to examine Christianity.
  • f. Written over 1600 years by 40 authors who were “kings, diplomats, poor people, fishermen, tentmakers”. who wrote in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek from Asia, Africa and Europe. A global book.


For many years it was locked up in Latin, but over the last 500 years has been increasingly translated into many languages. Releasing it's message to every nation, tribe and tongue. It's not just a Western book. The Bible carries a message of free forgiveness for those of every culture. Christians have thus taken it upon themselves to make accurate translation for every language, and we're making good progress in this.

But you might say doesn't the message get lost in translation. It might if those translating didn't work carefully. It might if they translated from translations of translations of translations. Bible Translators work from the oldest manuscripts with painstaking care and attention.

These translators know that the Bible is an evidential book and that Christian faith is based on believing evidence and so they endeavour to translate accurately. Different translation philosophies are used but these are always detailed at the front of the Bible, in addition to translators footnotes.

What does the Bible claim to be?
If the charge is irrelevance we must consider what the Bible is about – and then if true how is it relevant. What does it claim of itself? We must evaluate it on its own terms – we're then free to reject it for what it is, rather than what it isn't.

The Bible makes many claims about itself, a key one is on page 60 of the Life books in front of you (20:30-31) John tells us that Jesus did many more things than are recorded in this book,but he has recorded these are recorded for a particular purpose. What purpose? Sentence 31, so that we may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in him you will have life.

John records a selection of the evidence with the goal of convincing us. He is thoroughly biased and involved as he shows us this evidence. But, he is open about his goals. If you flick over to page 63, you'll see that John thinks that if he told you everything about Jesus the world isn't big enough to contain them.... the quantity of evidence according to this eyewitness is vast. This is the way the Bible works. It records evidence, so we could believe. Later in the Bible a key human figure, Peter writes in one of two letters that he was an eyewitness of the life of Jesus.

Peter states explicitly that he isn't telling “cleverly invented stories”, he stakes everything on what he says being accurate eyewitness testimony, insisting it is what he heard and saw. And commits to a lasting record being made before he dies.

The Bible writers could have set out to write fiction but their book makes no such claims. It stakes everything on the historical accuracy of their testimony. A testimony they think is sufficient for us to believe. They could have recorded more testimony – but this was what we'd need.

And elsewhere, another key writer, Paul, stakes everything on whether or not Jesus was physically resurrected. The death and resurrection of Jesus are the key event of the Christian message. But these events are not left to be mythical events or nice stories. Paul states simply that if Jesus was not resurrected then Christianity is a sham and Christians are fools. Many “holy books” don't require this, but The Bible does.

The Bible claims that it's record is both the word of men – many of whom attach their names to their writing and the word of God – breathed out by God. It claims to be God speaking through men. And that God helped eyewitnesses to remember what they had seen, to ensure the accuracy of their testimony. (p47, 14:26)

Many of the human authors are not portrayed favourably. The chief New Testament authors are Paul and Peter. Paul is the murderer who became a Christian missionary. Peter the man who denied Jesus and became his chief preacher. No cover up of past failures for anyone. No need to pretend we're good, because Christianity is about free forgiveness.

The writers honesty tells us about their message. The don't teach us to be good. They have good news for bad people, like me. And as they write they want us to have certainty about what we believe. Certain that Jesus died and rose from the dead. This event is central, and it's explanation is everything – that Jesus died so we could come to know and enjoy God forever.

What is the Bible about.
The hints have been there already. Jasper Gerard wrote in The Sunday Times earlier this year that the message of the Bible is “love and tolerance” - he wanted to remind Christians of what our book is about it.

It's important to know what a book is about to be able to understand it. Just as it's important to know what anything is if we're to use it. If I think my mobile phone is a sponge to help me wash things I'll terribly miss use it.

So, what is the Bible about. I have to disagree with Jasper Gerard. I seriously doubt he has read the Bible. It is not chiefly a book about love and tolerance, though it certainly had a lot to say about love. Of course if it were a book on a love and tolerance we'd all be devoted to it – because love and tolerance are the chief values of our society. But the Bible is not about that. It's not about me. It's not about politics, nor is it a textbook to help us pass exams or live morally.

In fact it is a book about one person, Jesus of Nazareth – a man born in the backwaters of the Roman Empire around 2000 years ago, to a teenage mother and adopted by a local carpenter. A man who grew up in the most unremarkable part of the world – and yet through his teaching, but even more by his death and reported resurrection from the dead has become quite simply the most influential person in human history. His birth divides our calender and the gruesome roman invention, the crucifix, to which he was hung to die has become the greatest symbol in the world – whether of fashion, architecture or faith.

Turn with me to page 19 of the Life book. This is the fifth chapter of John's book about Jesus. Remember he wants to show us who Jesus is so we'd believe. Look at the sentences 45-47 in the last paragraph on the page. Jesus is talking with the religious experts – scholars in the first volume of the Bible. And they were plotting to kill Jesus and would ultimately succeed in doing so.

Jesus says that if they understood the books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible which they treasured so much, they would have believed in Jesus. Why? Because Moses wrote about Jesus. The books written up to 1500 years before Jesus was born testified about Jesus. And they didn't like that at all. So much so that it provoked them to kill Jesus.
When we come to the question of the relevance of the Bible everything will turn on whether we think Jesus is relevant to us.
The Bible says we're in desperate danger because we've rebelled against God. And it tells us that God offers us free forgiveness through the death of Jesus Christ in our place.

Whether we think the Bible has any relevance for us today rather depends whether we agree with it's diagnosis of us as rebels in danger. And whether we're prepared to accept it's solution – that a man hung on a Roman cross can save us from God's judgement against us.

The Bible is not a moral textbook for our age. It is not a book of love and tolerance. It's not a self-help book. It's not necessarily a book we'll enjoy. Let me close with some words from the first volume of the Bible. These words from a man who asked questions like ours about the Bible. He wasn't a student but a King of Israel, named Ahab.
He said “There is still one man through whom we can inquire of the LORD, but I hate him because he never prophecies anything good about me, but always bad”
(2 Chronicles 18:7)
Author Mark Dever comments:
“How stupid to reject something regardless of whether it is true, simply because you don't like it! Can you imagine sending back a low bank balance report, or a high credit card bill, or a medical x-ray, just because you don't like what it says?”
Jesus says on page 25 (7:17) of this Life book that if we will seek to obey what he says we'll know whether or not it is from God. The Bible warrants a humble reading that takes it on it's own terms and is prepared to obey it. It's a book of comedy, tragedy, adventure and divinity. A book about the crucified Jesus. But we may find it incredibly uncomfortable to read – but I urge you to try.

tags : | | | | |

4 comments:

  1. This is great stuff - I'm going to link to it, because I know a few of our guys are looking for help on these issues too.

    As for critique, I am VERY concerned with the position you have taken on the Sound of Music. As you know, until 30 years ago this was only available on reel, not accessible to the masses except via the Old Cinematic System. Then the first mass produced version on VHS made it available to the ordinary man and lives were changed.

    Now we have a modern version on DVD and we can not only watch it, but UNDERSTAND it and sing along too.

    Such a carefree attitude to something that stands at the heart of our culture gives great cause for concern.....

    ReplyDelete
  2. As always enjoying your interaction. We were actually subjected to the Sing-a-long version... and at a UCCF conference...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Maybe... a Powerpoint slide..or something that people can see and take in and digest?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Only just got around to reading the talk, Dave.

    I like the way that you started:
    "a. The Bible is a library of books to be treated literally – as literature – narrative, poetry, letters and other genres."

    but was disapointed that you then turned your back on this and returned to a 'it's historically verifiable' position.

    [I suggest "e. The Bible writers are convinced that they are documenting history. It is not fiction. It is not invented stories. Everything is staked upon the historicity of the events they record. A potential weakness but one that makes it possible to examine Christianity" is setting oneself up for an unnecessary fall].

    I wonder whether it could be helpful to people to know that the Bible does include such things as myth, legend and story (what one writer calls 'true fiction') as well as other texts which most scholars would indeed have no problem according historical credance? So I'd suggest you broaden that section.

    Also, aside from a genre issue, there are two hermenutical ones possibly you might like to consider: 1) that reading Scripture is different to reading any other text, as it involves the work of the Spirit and God (re)speaking through old words afresh, rather than the reader on their own merely focusing on the text and whether it is historically accurate or not.

    2) I would suggest that a Road to Emmaus allusion might be a useful addition when you do this talk again - where Jesus uses his own existence as a lens to interpret Scripture.

    i.e. to blend 1) & 2) scripture becomes 'Holy' for Christians when it is read through the lens of the Spirit of Christ. Until that point it may indeed, in practical terms, be contradictory, unreliable and irrelevant to most people (and hence whey they do bin it).

    PS have come across a lovely rereading of atonement theology I'd like to discuss with you, would you like me to photocopy it?

    ReplyDelete