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.
Of 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.