/ Apologetics / Truth & Scripture – Is the Bible Wholly True?

Truth & Scripture – Is the Bible Wholly True?

Craig Smith on August 22, 2013 - 1:12 pm in Apologetics, Bible

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As August draws to a close, millions of young men and women are headed off (or back) to college where they will, hopefully, have their horizons expanded and their minds sharpened.  Unfortunately, for those Christians among them, college will also likely be a place where their faith is tested.

Now, having one’s faith tested isn’t a bad thing at all.  On the contrary, if our faith has been placed in something that is real and worthy, then testing can only confirm it.  I call this testing “unfortunate” only because too many Christian students are woefully unprepared to face the challenges that secular – or even ostensibly Christian – colleges will throw at them.  Make no mistake about it, the Christian faith can withstand any attack leveled against it…but the same cannot always be said for each Christian person.

One of the most basic attacks against Christianity focuses on the Bible, and for good reason:  if the credibility of the Bible can be undermined, then the rest is easy.  If we cannot trust the Bible, then we have no reason to consider what it says about who God is and what He wants from/for us.  If we cannot trust the Bible, then we do not have to wrestle with what it means that Jesus claimed to be the only way to a relationship with God.  If we cannot trust the Bible, then we have no reason to conform our lives to its commandments. In short, while Christianity could still be true even if the Bible could not be trusted,[1] the reliability of the Bible is one of the key premises in any argument for the truth of Christianity itself.  The skeptics know this and for this reason, many college students can expect to find their faith tested in the coming months by way of disparaging remarks made about the Bible.

Disparaging remarks about the Bible and arguments against its reliability and consequent authority take many forms, but they all revolve around a relatively small number of key issues.  Today, we consider the issue of what it means to say that the Bible is “true” and whether or not it is at all reasonable for Christians to claim that the Bible is always “true”.[2]

Nearly everyone will admit that the Bible is true in some respects, but Christians have historically gone a great deal further than this, claiming that the Bible, as the inspired Word of God, is true in all respects.  This is, admittedly, a bold claim and it should not come as any surprise that this idea is difficult for non-believers to accept.  To be fair, this is a concept that many otherwise conservative believers struggle with.  But is this claim inherently nonsensical?

Answering this question requires that we define several terms carefully.

What does it mean to say that the Bible is “true”?

First, let us consider the basic issue of what we mean when we say that the Bible is “true.”  Historically, Christians have held to what is known as the correspondence theory of truth which says that a propositional statement[3] is “true” only so long as it matches up with reality.  The statement “I drove to school in a blue car” is true only if I actually did drive a car to school and that car is blue.  The Bible contains many propositional statements (e.g. “Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s household,” “Jesus was born of a virgin,” “Jesus rose from the dead,” etc.).  Therefore, to say that the Bible is “true” is, in part, to say that all of its propositional statements succeed in describing things as they actually are (or were, in the case of statements about past historical events).

This understanding of what it means for a proposition to be “true” is widely accepted[4] and easily applied to the Bible, but we must also recognize that the Bible also contains many statements which do not claim to describe reality.  For example, the Ten Commandments (e.g. “Do not steal”, “do not lie”, etc.) cannot be described as propositional statements.  They do not describe reality but rather dictate behavior.  In what sense can we then describe them as being “true”?   In this case, we are using “true” in a slightly different, but still related, sense to say that something correctly points in the direction it ought to point; i.e. to say that the commandments correctly instruct us on how to live.[5]  In other words, if we follow the instructions of the Bible we will be living in such a way that we honor God and give Him glory.  Of course, this begs the question of how one can know that  this is actually the correct way to live, but that is a different question entirely.  For now we are simply defining what Christians mean with they say the Bible is “true.”

In short, when Christians say that the Bible is “true”, we are saying that 1) the Bible’s propositional statements describe reality the way it actually is (or was) and 2) the Bible’s instructions tell us the right way to live.  Incidentally, this definition is also what Christians typically mean when they say that the Bible is reliable, inerrant,[6] trustworthy, etc.

What do we mean when we talk about the “Bible”?

Now that we have defined the word “true” we must also carefully define the word “Bible.”  This may seem unnecessary – don’t we all know what a Bible is? – but it is actually quite important.  When we say that “the Bible is always true” without defining this term we are actually inviting a host of tangential objections that can and should be avoided.

It may prove easiest to define this term by first saying what we do not mean by it:

  1. We are not talking about any one particular translation of the Bible.  No matter how carefully one proceeds, translation is a complicated business.  Rendering the ideas from one language into another invariably requires a variety of judgment calls.  In some cases, the target language does not even have the necessary words or grammatical structures that would be required for a technically precise, word-for-word translation, in which cases, translators must do the best they can to get the meaning across with the tools available to them.  But this raises another difficulty:  if the job of a translation is to communicate meaning, then translation is always an exercise in interpretation, at least to some extent.  And, because this interpretation is being done by imperfect human beings, their interpretation and therefore their translation may be inaccurate in some respects.  These “inaccuracies” are typically very minor, if not inconsequential, and can be minimized by careful editing and by vetting the proposed translations through a committee, but they cannot be entirely eliminated.  For these and other reasons, no translation of the Bible is likely to be “perfect”.  Therefore, when we say that “the Bible is always true” we are not speaking of any particular translation of the Bible.Nor are we speaking of the Bible in the original languages.  Obviously, reading the Bible in its original Hebrew or Greek will avoid many of the possible difficulties that creep in during the translation process, but even this is not sufficient to weed out all secondary[7] inaccuracies.  We do not, to the best of our knowledge, possess any copies of the original documents called the autographa which have almost certainly been lost to the ravages of time and climate.  Instead, we have copies of copies (et al) of those original texts.  Now, because in many cases we have so many copies of the biblical books to compare to one another[8] we can be extremely confident that the copies we do possess accurately reproduce the original wording of the autographa.  However, we must acknowledge that inaccurate copying did happen (both by accident and in some cases by design) and so we cannot say that any particular Greek or Hebrew manuscript we currently possess is “perfect”.  It would be different if we had the autographa, but we don’t.  Therefore, when we say that “the Bible is always true” we are not speaking of the Hebrew and Greek texts which we currently possess.  Rather, as you have probably already guessed, when we say that “the Bible is always true” we are talking about the autographa.[9]
  2. We are not talking about any particular interpretation of the Bible.  When we say that “the Bible is always true” we are speaking about the intended meaning of the A(a)uthor(s),[10] not some other individual’s understanding of that meaning.  If God & Moses originally intended “day” in Genesis 1 to refer to literal 24 hour periods, then any interpretation which holds the term to designate extended periods of time is wrong.  Conversely if God & Moses originally intended “day” in Genesis 1 to be a figurative reference to an extended period of time, then any interpretation which holds the term to designate a 24 hour period is wrong.  The point is simply that both interpretations cannot be right.  The “right” interpretation is the one which correctly identifies the meaning intended by the A(a)uthor.  Because even well-meaning individuals over the centuries have misinterpreted Scripture, it is clear that the process of interpretation is not infallible.  Therefore, when we say that “the Bible is always true” we are not speaking of interpretations of the Bible, no matter how common they may be, but rather of the original meaning as intended by the A(a)uthor(s).  It is this original meaning which always coheres with reality or rightly instructs us on how to live.Related to this idea that the “truth” of the Bible exists in the original meaning and not in subsequent attempts to interpret that meaning is the idea that such truth is often expressed in language appropriate to the original context.  For instance, the Bible often rounds numbers or uses phenomenological language (describing things as they appear; e.g. “the sun rises in the east”) but this sort of colloquialism does not affect the truth value of such statements any more than a reporter saying “five thousand protesters assembled on the courthouse lawn at sunrise this morning” would be cause to question his/her credibility.

So, what do we mean by “the Bible”?  In short, we mean “the original meaning as intended by the original A(a)uthor(s) and expressed in the original texts they composed.”  Putting it all together, when we say that “the Bible is always true” we are saying that “the propositions of the biblical autographa always describe things as they actually are/were and the commands of the biblical autographa always tell us the right way to live.”  Now, of course, there are nuances that must be dealt with, such as when a command was intended for a limited context rather than for all people in all circumstances (e.g. the commandments to the Israelite army as they entered Canaan), but acknowledgement of such nuances does not alter the essential understanding of what Christians mean when we say “the Bible is always true.”

Several of the commonly-encountered arguments against the Bible fall apart when we understand exactly what Christians are claiming about the Bible.  For instance, it is common to hear people object that the Bible cannot be trusted because “there are so many different interpretations of it.” It is true that there are many different interpretations, and for a variety of reasons (genuine complexity, lazy readers, insufficient translation, etc.) but the existence of multiple interpretations is irrelevant to the actual truthfulness of the Bible.  Properly defining our terms by no means answers all – or even the most significant – objections to the Bible, but it does sweep away a surprising number of the challenges that Christians are likely to encounter in the classroom or the culture at large.  We will look at answering some of the more considered objections in coming weeks.

Is it unreasonable/irrational to assert that the Bible is entirely true?

But regardless of how precisely we define the Christian claims about the truth of the Bible, is this claim even reasonable?  In other words, is the very claim itself nonsensical?  Many skeptics believe that it is, on the grounds that the Christian belief about the truthfulness of Bible does not have any reasonable foundations but is instead a hopelessly circular argument.  For example, Christians often defend the Bible’s truth by citing 2 Timothy 3:16 which says that “All Scripture is inspired by God”, but how do we know that this is true, that the Scriptures really were inspired by God?  The skeptics’ answer is that Christians believe what 2Ti 3:16 says because it is found in the Bible…and everything found in the Bible is true…because the Bible says that everything in the Bible is true.

It should be acknowledged that if 2Ti 3:16 is the only support Christians have for the Bible being true, then this argument is circular.  However, it should also be noted that a circular argument is not necessarily a false one, a logical mistake that many of the Bible’s detractors seem to make.  If I tell my daughter that snow is frozen water rather than fairy dust and she believes me…because I’m her father who has told her to trust him…her acceptance of the snow-is-frozen-water proposition is hopelessly circular, but the proposition itself is also completely true.   The problem with a circular argument is that it does not provide reasonable evidence of the proposition’s truthfulness, but whether or not the proposition is actually true is an entirely different issue.  So, even if a Christian’s use of 2Ti 3:16 to support the reliability of the Bible is a circular argument, this has no impact on whether or not the Bible is actually true.

But more importantly, the question of whether or not the Bible is true is answered by far more compelling evidence than a single verse which may or may not be used as part of a circular argument.  There are numerous lines of evidence which support the assertion that the Bible’s propositions and commandments are true and there are many resources which have compiled this evidence into readily-accessible form.  Beyond this, there is a clearly non-circular argument that must be advanced and considered:

Premise 1 – God cannot lie or be mistaken, therefore anything He says must be true.

Premise 2 – The Bible was wholly[11]  inspired by God and is therefore a kind of divine speech.  (Note:  this is the claim of the Bible itself [2Ti 3:16] but this is by no means the only reason to think this premise is true.  This claim is supported by multiple lines of reasoning and a great deal of compelling evidence, much of which is found outside Scripture itself).

Conclusion – Therefore the Bible must be wholly true.

This is a reasonable/valid argument in that the conclusion must be true if the premises are true.  The question therefore is whether or not each of the premises are true.  Of course, demonstrating the truth of these premises is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say at this point that both these premises are logically defensible and supported by a great deal of evidence.  This does not mean that everyone confronted with the evidence will necessarily come to believe that the premises – and therefore the conclusion – is true (i.e. that the Bible is wholly true), but it does mean that the idea that the Bible is wholly true is perfectly reasonable in the sense that it rests upon sound logical and evidential foundations.  Some of our beliefs about the Bible may involve faith, but it is by no means a blind faith.

There is no reason at all that a Christian ought to hesitate to affirm that the Bible is “always true”.  In doing so it is important that we define our terms carefully (see above) and frame our arguments properly, but there is no reason to shrink back from a debate about this issue or abandon the historic Christian position on the truthfulness of the Bible.

 

 



[1] What I mean by this is simply that Christianity depends on certain historical events (e.g. the life, death and resurrection of Jesus) having actually happened, rather than on the reports of those events being accurate. However, since the Bible provides the primary account of these key events on which Christianity depends, the reliability of the Bible remains of paramount importance.

[2] In theological or doctrinal terms, the idea that the Bible is “always true” is typically called “inerrancy”.

[3] A propositional statement is a type of truth-claim in that it intentionally and explicitly attempts to describe the way things actually are.

[4] This is not to say, however, that no one objects to the correspondence theory of truth or that it does not have some legitimate difficulties.  On the whole, however, alternative theories of truth such as the coherence theory or the pragmatic theory are demonstrably weaker and the difficulties with the correspondence theory are by no means intractable, having more to do with how the theory is articulated rather than with its actual viability.

[5] Douglas K. Blount, “What Does It Mean to Say that the Bible is True?”, in In Defense of the Bible, ed. by Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder (B & H Academic Press, 2013), 53-54.

[6] It could be argued that there is a difference between reliable and inerrant such that the former speaks to a general trustworthiness (i.e. in regards to the most important matters) and the latter to an absolute trustworthiness (i.e. in regards to every matter regardless of how trivial). This potential distinction is acknowledged but not found to be critical in the present context.

[7] A secondary inaccuracy is an inaccuracy that creeps in after the original composition of the document.  A primary inaccuracy would be an error of composition whereas a secondary inaccuracy results from a flawed transmission process whereby the original composition is inaccurately copied or translated to subsequent generations.

[8] The process of comparing copies of biblical texts to ensure we know what the original text said is called textual criticism.

[9] This is made explicit in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy:  “WE AFFIRM  that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original”; http://www.bible-researcher.com/chicago1.html

[10] I use this rather odd construction to acknowledge both God’s authoritative inspiration of the books of the Bible and also the human authors He used to compose them, recognizing that divine inspiration does not obliterate human personality and even peculiarities; i.e. Paul’s personality is distinguishable from John’s in their different writings even as the Divine personality is simultaneously discernible in both.

[11] This is sometimes referred to as plenary inspiration, meaning that all parts of the Bible were inspired, not just some of them.

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