I’ve always hated that question, “Are you one of those people who takes the Bible literally?” I think what people mean by that is something like, “Did you chuck your brain so you could mindlessly follow some wacko who wrote in a day when they didn’t even use last names?” I’d like to think the answer to that question is no. The real question, when it comes to the Bible, is this: “Is it human or divine?”
As always, the line of reasoning starts with Jesus. The earthly Jesus taught and modeled that there is a kind of writing that “comes from the mouth of God,” even though it is mediated through flawed human beings. It was Jesus’ conviction that the books we now view as the Old Testament were of this category (see Matthew 4:1-17). His Apostles, in following his lead, gave the name “scripture” only to those writings they believed fit this same category of “divine in origin.” When Peter refers to the writings of Paul as “scripture,” he is making a strong statement as to the ultimate origin of his letters and, hence, their authority. The early church confirmed the collection of New Testament writings we now have as being the ones given by God.
Without looking at the actual data, it might seem like the inclusion or exclusion of a particular book in the Old or New Testaments must have been a bit arbitrary. When we consider actual candidates, however, it turns out the process was not so difficult. Authorship, dating and theological consistency make separating the wheat from the chaff fairly simple. Perhaps the book most often suggested as a possible candidate for the New Testament is the Gospel of Thomas. But the Gospel of Thomas is clearly theologically inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. For example, the book ends with these words, “Simon Peter said to them: “Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said: “Lo, I shall lead her, so that I may make her a male, that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who make herself a male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” Ouch! Is it really so hard to see why this book didn’t make it in?
A person who believes the Bible to be divine in origin gives it a special place of authority in his or her life. What the Bible says, this person seeks to understand, apply and carry out. Often this is easy and brings immediate blessing. Sometimes, however, the commands of scripture run counter to the desire of the individual. It is in these moments that faith is tested and strengthened. “Is my word authoritative in your life even when it is difficult or hard to carry out?” God asks. For most Christians, the tough passages in scripture need to be sat with over a period of time, reflected upon and digested, before sense can be made. This process is good, healthy and ought not to be short-circuited. At the end of it, we find that, yes, God knows what he’s talking about. A clear sense of the origin and authority of scripture motivates us to hang in until we get there.
Origin of scripture: 2 Peter 1:21
God’s word is powerful: Psalm 33:6
Jesus’ view of scripture: Matthew 4:1-17, Matthew 5:18
Paul’s letters as scripture: 2 Peter 3:15-16
Authority of scripture: 2 Timothy 3:16, Hebrews 4:12
The New Testament Documents, Are They Reliable? by F.F. Bruce
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, by Craig Blomberg
The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant?, by Walter Kaiser
- Which teaching in the Bible is difficult for you to live out? Study it on your own or talk to a knowledgeable person about it so you fully understand it. Then step out in faith to live it. What happened? Share with your small group.
- Read one of the books listed above and then look for an opportunity to share your views on scripture with a skeptic. Share how it went with your small group.