Is the Bible true? – 3 things you need to know

Is the Bible true? – 3 things you need to know

Is the Bible true – literally true? At a talk I once attended by theologian Tim Hull, he made it simple. He said the Bible is like your town library. If you were to stand in the middle of your town library and say: “is this library true?” ….. well suddenly the question sounds unclear, even pointless.

BibleQuoteOf course the Bible is also a library, a collection of 66 individual books, written over many centuries and situations. We trust its author but sometimes question its contents. Some questions I have come across recently include:

  • If Adam and Eve were the first family who did their children marry?
  • Why do the Gospel accounts of Christ’s resurrection differ?
  • Should women be silent in church?
  • Are the numbers and time-periods in Revelation literally true?

The-British-Library

Three facts will help us appreciate the splendid truths of the Bible:

1st – There are different kinds of truth

Let’s return to the library idea. In one corner of the library you may have books of history and yes they are true in that the kings and reigns they describe happened. But on another shelf there are books of poetry… ‘Like a lily among thorns is my darling among the young women(Song of Solomon 2). That is a kind of “truth” but different, poems are not literally true. Similarly in another room there may be books of Proverbs – wisdom that helps us to navigate our world …. ‘Even a fool is thought wise if he remains silent, discerning if he holds his tongue!(Proverbs 17) is a favourite of mine.  Another kind of truth.

Truths

Pythagoras theorem is true, the Bible is true, and love can be true.
All true – all different

Moreover, in several books of the Bible we will find accounts that are not “true” but have truth within them. Jesus’ parables were obviously made up but for everyone who wants to hear, there are values to live by in these stories of farmers, lost coins, and houses built on sand. And Jesus sometimes used flagrant exaggeration to make a point memorable eg ‘if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out(Matthew 18) – tells us to go to great lengths to avoid temptation, but it is not an instruction.

2nd Some parts of the Bible were never meant to be “true” …
…they record accounts of human faults as warnings, lessons..

Just because something is in the Bible, clearly stated, doesn’t mean it’s for us to follow. Some parts of the Bible are provided as “counter-instruction” ie “don’t do what this person did” Chris Sinkinson explains that “much of the Old Testament is descriptive but not prescriptive”. God does not want us to follow these behaviours, eg the murder and adultery committed by David or the conclusion in Ecclesiastes that ‘life Is meaningless’. But perhaps the best example is in the book of Job where much ink is spilt on explanations by Job’s 3 friends as to why God has abandoned Job. They blatantly misrepresent God – God himself enters the story and states this – but their mistaken speeches are still in the Bible.

And 3rd Some truths in the Bible no longer apply to us
We have to distinguish between instruction to the people then, and what God asks us to do in our different time and different world This is the hardest one to get right.

Paul states clearly eg 1 Corinthians 8, that Old Testament rules on food offered to idols and circumcision were true for people then but are no longer binding on Christians.  We can also see that guidance to slaves and slave-masters, which was appropriate to that culture, has no place in our world (Ephesians 6).

A recent example where most of the church is now in agreement, is on affirming the role of women in all church ministries, which appears to contradict some New Testament teaching. However we know that Paul himself had women leaders as far as his culture allowed (eg Romans 16).

Cultural norms versus timeless truths – the two are not the same.

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In Closing

As well as these principles just described, we need to learn from Jesus’ view of scripture.

Church leader Andrew Wilson states “Jesus is the lens through which we need to read and understand scripture”. We are fortunate to be able to look back at Old Testament scriptures “through Jesus” to give them their full meaning. Jesus affirmed scripture but was not afraid to challenge traditional understandings, not afraid to re-interpret scriptures in ways that people had either forgotten or simply never understood … “you have heard that it was said love your friend, hate your enemies, but now I tell you ….” Jesus effectively caused people to question long-held practices and beliefs …. “Go and learn what this means ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice”. The words of Jesus must always be paramount in our study of the Bible.

Jesus - the lens

The Bible is utterly reliable and dependable. It is the story – yes the true story – of God and his people. An unfolding story in which you and I are invited to take our parts.  It is the inspired word of God but God asks us to keep our brains switched on as well as hearts when we approach it…. How else would you handle a two-edged sword? – Hebrews 4.12.

If you enjoyed this blog try these fresh readings of well-known Bible stories: the Good Samaritan Re-considered;  a Modern Day Prodigal; and a Woman Caught in Adultery

  • Stephen

    Chris, I am not sure about your 3rd point. How are Christians meant to discern this? Your comments on Romans 16 would seem to be in contrast to the letters of Pliny to Trajan; Christians would appear to have been operating in fear of their lives rather than seeking social conformity or acceptance. Romans 12 v.2 seems to set out some of the requirements.

    Clearly Christians have to work out a way of operating in the social and national setting in which they find themselves but to set biblical truths and principles aside this easily would simply lead to different “truths” in different national or social contexts, surely? Self evidently this has happened historically but the force of Galatians 3 v 28 is that it was not the intention that it should be so.

    • BIG topic – not properly dealt with in my blog! ! I agree this that interpreting biblical principles for our time is indeed difficult but it is something that Jesus did, it is something that Paul did and it is something we are called to do. And in fact most of us agree on most issues don’t we – eg by not having slaves, by not asking women to cover their heads in church etc. I think it’s on specific issues such as gender and sexuality where the church has moved in different directions.

      And I also agree that the church is different and should retain its distinctive nature – your reference to Romans12. It must never be a question of “making the gospel more attractive” for wherever we happen to live.

      It helps me to remember that the contextual aspects of the Bible that Christians tend to disagree on are important BUT actually they are peripheral to the central message of the cross and salvation. They are not “Biblical truths” in that sense. Lots of prayer, discernment, and a gracious hand extended to those we do not agree with are the most important principles to apply here – and I think that is a Biblical truth….. Many thanks for raising the question – I don’t claim to have all the answers!

  • Chris

    Very Good , Chris .
    Typically, literal translation is just used to discredit the validity of the truth in the Bible. Just like morality is universal and God given, contextual understanding may be as well. Of course, understanding of historical culture is helpful as well.

    • Yes you’re right – in my experience atheists often take a very literal interpretation of a small portion the Bible in order to cast doubt or ridicule the entire Bible. Thanks Chris – and your note on culture is also one that Steve has raised below.

  • Allen

    Nice post. When it comes to the topic, I differentiate truth from Truth. In some regards the Bible might not be true in the historical sense. But it is True in that it truly reveals God’s love and God’s saving work for humanity, especially thru Jesus Christ.

    • Thanks very much Allen. Couple of thoughts. Firstly there is history in the Bible as well as poetry, proverbs, parables etc. Secondly I am not sure how you differentiate “truth” from “Truth”……? If you mean that parables and poetry may not be literally “true” – yet there is “Truth” within them – then yes I agree! And I certainly agree with your comment on it being the revelation of God’s concern and love for humanity.

  • KetanInKorea

    This is a great post! I am not Christian anymore, but I grew up in a Christian household. I also studied theology and church history pretty heavily when I was in university. I find parts of the bible to be amazing and beautiful from a literary and poetic sense. Some parts are historical, but are obviously biased towards the Jews (but what historical account isn’t biased?). Some parts have good lessons for Christians and non-Christians alike, and others are not meant for a modern-day interpretation.

    I find it annoying when certain religious groups purport the bible as a literal word of god, forgetting that it was a collection of different writings by different people, spanning hundreds of years. It has been changed and certain things have been lost in translation throughout the years. There are many good things worth discussing, but not everything in the bible is meant to be taken as truth or even literal (like the creation account).

    • Hi Ketan! I am sorry that your study of Theology seems to have caused you to lose your faith – I have seen that before and you probably have also. My Theology has come somewhat later in life and my discovery is that, as my layers of “unquestioning belief” have been stripped back, God has taken me to a new place, of greater faith – or as someone put it “winning through legitimate doubts to a place of greater confidence”.

      I agree on your comments about a bias in the Bible towards the Jews. It is biased in other ways too eg biased towards holy living, towards ethical living, towards strong communities, and (I think) towards the poor. And I also agree that much of the Bible is not meant to be taken as literal truth – a few examples in my blog.

      I’ve visited Seoul a few times – in case that’s is where you are based – and that ENORMOUS Yoido Full Gospel Church – wow!

    • vovo

      Is the bible is true? Here is the proof: Did god create earth? How does the evidence of life on earth millions of years ago equate with the Bible claim that God created life on earth recently by comparison? Starting with a deep commitment to the inerrancy of God’s Word, has calculated a span of just a few thousand years, most likely close to 6000 years, since creation.

      The “Age of Dinosaurs” is the Mesozoic Era, which is divided into three periods: the Triassic (245-208 million years ago), Jurassic (208-145 million years ago), and Cretaceous (145-66 million years ago).

      And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. (Genesis 2:21-22)

      These verses tell us how God made the first woman. But would women from that point have more ribs than men? No. Go to do some search on google. Both men and women have 24 ribs.

      • Hi – not really sure what point you are making here vovo. That the 6000 years argument or numbers of ribs prove something? The idea of the earth being 6000 years old is held by a small number of Christians. However there are many evolutionary theists for example who believe in the Christian God and evolution.

  • Kevin Osborne

    Chris, what I believe is saddening is that in the pursuit of Truth however one interprets that as God’s Truth or a revealed truth in one’s heart, that division between people and faith groups occurs. Often, many of us I think without realizing it engage in theological discussions on the level of asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. These are insignificant matters which should not divide us.
    There needs to be far greater harmony among us. We can have our points in which there will be disagreement. Think of what a dull world it would be if everyone agreed with you about everything. Would it not feel like living with many clones of yourself? How many of us could stand living with people who repeated back to us exactly what we believe?
    Differences of belief in revealed truth whether in life or in Scripture should foster healthy debate and through that growth in our spiritual life and as people.
    Thank you for helping me in my growth through the sharing of this piece. The peace and abiding comfort and joy of the Lord be with you.

    • Good thoughts Kevin – agree – there is room for disagreement and diversity within our faith without us walking out on each other. The things that unite us are far greater

    • Justin Spence

      I totally agree here, but at the same we must not compromise faith for feelings. Not looking to hurt or damage anyone, but there is a need to teach thd truth.

      • Would agree with that … thanks for taking the time to read and comment Justin

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