In the last post I said that for us to be able to know specific things about God He would have had to communicate with us, and the most likely form of that special communication would be through written language, through a book.
Christians believe that God has spoken to us through the Bible. The defense of that belief takes two forms, a positive affirmation of the uniqueness of the Bible, and an answer to objections against it.
In my experience, the conversation usually starts with the objections, so I’ll start there. In my next post I’ll present the positive case for the Bible. Here are six common objections:
Objection 1: The books of the Bible were written long after the original events took place and are therefore historically unreliable.
At this objection’s most extreme level, I have heard people argue that the New Testament was written by Shakespeare! That simply flies in the face of the facts. The truth is that even the liberal biblical scholars, those who don’t believe the Bible is God’s Word, date the majority of the New Testament manuscripts to the lifetimes of the apostles. Even when examined through a critical lens, it can be demonstrated that the New Testament was written very closely to the events that took place.
There are more variations in interpretations when it comes to the dating of the Old Testament books, though archaeological discoveries have tended to confirm earlier dates. For instance, we now have evidence of writings similar to the books of Moses from around the time when he was said to have lived, demonstrating that previous assumptions that those books could not be dated that far back were false. Some Old Testament books (see Daniel) are assumed to have a late date because they contain predictions about the future which did, indeed, occur (thus, they must have actually been written after the events took place). But this is based on the presupposition that predictive prophecy can’t happen. If God is behind the writing of Daniel, though, it certainly could.
Objection 2: Even if the original were God’s Word, the copies we have of them are corrupt and therefore cannot be trusted.
Biblical critics like to point to statistics that say that there are as many as 400,000 textual variants in the New Testament texts, that is, 400,000 differences can be found between the many manuscripts and manuscript fragments we have available. This, they say, proves that the text we have of the New Testament has become corrupt and that we must then be unable to get back to the original manuscripts.
But we need to take a more critical look at this statistic. What do we really know about textual variations and how they relate to whether or not we can faithfully reproduce what the originals actually said? First, they are spread over around 25,000 manuscripts or fragments of manuscripts. Second, they are condensed in just a few areas. Third, the vast majority are so minor (i.e., variations in spelling) as to be completely negligible.
Once you drill down to textual variations of any possible importance you’re left with very few, and those appear as footnotes in your Bible. Open it up and scan through the pages. You’ll see a few footnotes on each page. I just opened mine and turned to a random page and scanned the footnotes. I came across Mark 7:9 which in the NIV reads: “And he continued, ‘You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!’” The footnote in my Bible says, of the word “observe”: “Some manuscripts set up”. What’s the impact if we decide to read Jesus’s words as “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to set up your own traditions!”? Nothing. The sense is the same. This is the case with the vast majority of these textual variants.
Now, there are two New Testament variants that are worthy of further discussion. One is the story of the woman caught in adultery. In this story Jesus says the famous line, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Given the discovery that this passage is not included in the earliest manuscripts, and the observation that it appears in different places in older manuscripts, it is unlikely that this passage is part of the original text of John. We see the same thing with the “long ending” of Mark (Mark 16:9-20).
But do these examples show that we can’t get back to the original text? No. In fact, because of the massive number of manuscripts we have available, scholars can be very confident that we can, indeed, know what the originals said. These two passages are the exceptions that prove the rule, for even in these cases, we have a high degree of certainty about their place in the original text. In the cases where we lack that confidence, the sense of the passages are not seriously changed. Significantly, there are no orthodox Christian doctrines which are called into question because of textual variations.
Objection 3: The selection of books for the canon was a political decision, so we can’t trust that the ‘right’ books were selected.
The process of canonization is a longer conversation than I have time for in this post. For a clear explanation I’ll refer you to chapter 2 of Craig Blomberg’s Can We Still Believe the Bible?.
Briefly I’ll say that this objection comes either from giving too much weight to fictitious accounts of the process (see Dan Brown’s The Davinci Code) and from an assumption that the canonization of the Biblical books happened suddenly and without process at some later church council. In fact, very early writings of the church fathers demonstrate that books were considered Scripture long before councils made it “official”.
Objection 4: Because the books are written by human authors, they must be filled with errors.
I recently read an article that assumed that Christians believed that the Bible was dictated, that the human author was basically nothing more than a pen, controlled without his will. This is not what Christians believe (or, it’s not what they should believe anyway).
God used humans to write the books of the Bible. The personalities and perspectives of those authors come out clearly from the text. Each has a unique style. But that doesn’t guarantee that they erred. Christians don’t believe that the Bible was dictated, but that it was inspired. This doesn’t mean that the authors themselves were infallible, but that God could have made what they wrote while writing Scripture infallible, all while their minds and emotions were fully engaged in the process.
Fallible humans write true things all the time. How much more could such a human write truth if they were also being guided and protected by God? Human authorship doesn’t ensure human error in the text.
Objection 5: There are contradictions in the Bible which means that it cannot be God’s Word.
It’s not hard to find lists of apparent contradictions in the Bible. They key word here is “apparent.” Actual contradictions in the originals would be a problem for the believer in the Bible. The question, then, is whether these apparent contradictions are real contradictions.
These supposed contradictions fall into a few categories, not all represented here. Some come from a misunderstanding of the biblical genre. For instance, I was told there was a contradiction between the phrases “The Lord has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud” (1 Kings 8:12) and “God lives in unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6:16). But these texts are obviously speaking figuratively and communicate different aspects of truth about His character, not about a literal dwelling.
Some come from theological interpretation. Was Abraham justified by his faith alone (Paul), or was he justified by his works (James)? James himself clarifies this by showing that “faith without works is dead.” We’re justified by a living faith. Or, rather, faith is proved genuine by works.
Many come from different eyewitness accounts found in the gospels. But these aren’t contradictions so much as differences in emphasis, or retelling of a similar but different event. Some of these can be quite difficult to harmonize, but after more than a decade of deep study of Scripture I have yet to find one that is a true contradiction.
Summary: I have learned that the Bible is trustworthy. So, whenever I come across a supposed contradiction, I have confidence that a reasonable answer can be found, and all that awaits its discovery is a little research, usually from a good commentary.
Objection 6: Miracles prove that the Bible is mythical and unreliable.
What about the miracles? Do they show that the Bible is more of a myth than a reliable source of knowledge?
Here it’s important to remember where we started, with the assumption that it is at least possible that God exists. Unless you believe in the impossibility of miracles, then this argument shouldn’t hold much weight. After all, if God really does exist, and if He wants to make Himself known, wouldn’t He perform miracles to show us that there is something “beyond” this world? And isn’t it not only possible, but likely, that these miracles would be recorded in His book? I think so.
“The Bible is weird”
Some people object to the Bible because what they encounter therein is odd and offensive. There are a lot of strange things in the Bible, and many are offensive in our current cultural milieu, but I’m not sure that this is a case against the Bible. Should we really expect a transcultural book – which we should expect a book inspired by God to be – to be a perfect fit with our culture? I don’t think so. The fact that the Bible both affirms and challenges the cultural values and expectations of every culture (including ours) is a point for the Bible, not against it. But I’ll explain that more in my next post.
Can We Still Believe the Bible?: An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions