One of the questions I get asked the most about the Bible concerns some element of its trustworthiness. “Can you trust the Bible?”
In fact, I was asked to speak at a philosophy conference many years ago, in which my question for the evening was, “Is the Bible Reliable?” In the weeks leading up to the event, I asked the moderator for a few more specifics on what he meant by reliable, qualifying “reliable for what?” He laughed and told me to take it where I felt inclined.
He was less than pleased when I opened the lecture part of my discussion with a list of things that we could absolutely rely on the Bible to accomplish. For instance, your Bible will hold up one corner of your couch if its leg is broken. It may be a sacrilege, but it will work. I have a friend who once used a bible to defend us against a street gang intent on robbing us. It was efficient. Indeed, a good Bible will even stop most bullets… assuming it’s not a digital one on your smartphone.
I followed with a list of things that one could NOT rely on the Bible to do. You cannot rely on all of Scripture to be easy to understand, or to give up all its secrets to the casual observer. You cannot rely on the Bible to reflect your own cultural or personal sensibilities back to you, or to use all your own categories for understanding the world. Scripture is neither a math text, nor encyclopedia, nor dictionary, nor comprehensive history of the world written with modern standards of what does and does not constitute history. It is not a manual on psychology, philosophy, economics, nor is it a textbook on biology, archaeology, linguistics, physics, chemistry, anthropology or medicine.
This does not make its literature primitive babble, nor insist that the Bible is utterly useless when discussing these matters, but it does mean that the authors’ orientation to the world, their vocabulary and categories will not replicate our own. It does mean that the intention of the writers is not to satisfy inquiring minds, but is to impart a specific body of understanding and wisdom to the diligent student.
While we categorize the animal world with mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, bird and the like, it is perfectly acceptable for the inspired writers to present a world organized around different categories, like swims, crawls, or flies. In that case, a whale can be called a great fish, a bat can be classed with birds. My inability to trust Scripture to organize reality as my modern mind does is NOT a testament to its frailty, but to the important distinction between wisdom and knowledge.
The cosmology of Scripture, for instance—the vision of the structure and nature of the world—has the disadvantage of being almost entirely presented in poetry, making their beliefs about material world forces difficult to discern with precision. For instance, it is plain from the historical texts written in prose—normal talk—that the ancients understood quite well that rain came from clouds and that clouds were made of water, but that does not keep their prophets from recording God’s poetic challenge to Job and his friends saying, “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail…?” Just so, sailors have known for ages that the earth is round, witnessing at sea as the hulls of ships disappeared from view before their sails, exposing the curvature to view. In fact the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes discovered the circumference of the earth with a stick and a shadow almost three centuries before Jesus walked the shores of the Mediterranean.
There is a big difference between what the arrogance of modern souls imagine about the ignorance of the past and what the ancients actually knew. We can trust the Scriptures to present to us the divine wisdom of the ages in an ancient husk, if we are wise enough to wrestle our way to it. Hubris will sabotage us.
Let’s finish with one more. You cannot rely on Scripture to be a science book. The scientific method was articulated millennia after the writing of even the newest Scriptures. Our particular way of thinking about and talking about the world as scientific-minded readers (However poorly we do at it) will not be reflected back at us. This does not make Scripture untrustworthy or wrong, rather it qualifies the kinds of discussions we can and cannot have with the Biblical text.
For example: The Creation story of Scripture, which in truth stretches from Genesis 1 through Genesis 11 is not interested in our modern ontological curiosities about the origin of the material world. The Biblical Creation story is more interested in functional ontology than material ontology. Scripture tells us not about the origins of all the stuff, beginning its tale with the material world in place, unformed as it was, but does tell us about the nature of divine order in creation as God takes that material and turns it into a functional world.
We want to know “when” and “how,” but the author of Genesis wants to talk about “Who,” and “Why,” and “What.” Who made the world? What did He make the world to be? Why did He make the world? How did He make it to function? The ultimate question then becomes a wisdom question: How can I function best in the world that Yahweh made and that man has influenced? This is the Bible’s bailiwick.
The inspired descriptions of creation are made within the bounds of interest for the inspired writer, dealing with the realities of a world drowning in paganism. Therefore, I cannot rely on him to dazzle me with a scientifically definitive answer to questions of “when” and “how,” but I CAN rely on the prophetic writer to tell me the truth about life before the one Holy Creator of all. I can trust him to tell me the truth about the fundamental problem in the world’s systems. I can trust the Bible to speak true about the hope that we have for redemption and restoration in the salvation plan of that Holy Creator.
This does not mean that the inspired writers are ignorant clods on all matters we would regard as scientific. They lived and prospered in their world far better than most of us would if magically transported there. True, we understand many things that they do not. We know how far the moon is from the earth. We know what the bottom of the ocean looks like. We even know the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow. But we don’t know many things that they understood intuitively and that they learned by lived experiences so different from our own.
It reminds me of the punch line in the majestic poem in Job 28, which after detailing all the then-modern accomplishments of man, asks the more meaningful question. We find boasts like those in verses 3 & 4, saying, “Man puts an end to darkness, And to the farthest limit he searches out. The rock in gloom and deep shadow. He sinks a shaft far from habitation, forgotten by the foot” But, the poet turns to the important counter in verses 12 & 13, “But where can wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? “Man does not know its value, Nor is it found in the land of the living.” We can put an astronaut on the moon, but living peaceably with our fellow man is often beyond us. We can map the human genome, but do not know how to cultivate truth and integrity. We may rightfully boast the former, but it is Scripture that will guide us in the mastery of the latter.
As we continue to unpack the question, “Can you trust the Bible?” let us escape the simple-minded approaches to Scripture common to modern readers who have not learned to think reasonably or wisely about their own questions and expectations. Instead, let us articulate exactly what we mean (and don’t mean) when we ask, “Can I trust the Bible?” and continue the investigation in coming posts.