This is the tenth in a series of posts on Understanding the Bible in the 21st century.
We have seen that the Bible claims to be an authoritative scripture which reveals God. We have also seen that it doesn’t seem to claim to be inerrant or the very words of God himself.
So what can we honestly believe about the Bible, and how does this help us?
Believing the New Testament
The New Testament is the key part of the Bible for christians. When we read it, a few things are quite clear:
- Luke and John claim their biographies of Jesus are based on the reports of eyewitnesses, and they are telling the truth.
- Paul said he was changed by a vision of Jesus, and that he spoke at length with some of Jesus’ followers who knew him well.
- Jesus said he was showing what God was really like, he was bringing God’s rule on earth in a new way, and he was offering God’s forgiveness to all who would receive it. And he backed these claims up with miracles, authoritative teaching, and (if we can believe it) by coming back from the dead.
Support from the historians
While the scholars are guarded in their conclusions, there is fairly broad agreement on matters which support the New Testament claims:
- Most historians agree that the 4 gospels are good historical documents for their time, and we learn much about what Jesus did and said from them.
- The writings of Paul, plus a few other first and early second century writings, offer good independent attestation of the basic facts of Jesus’ life.
- Jesus was indeed known as a healer, exorcist, teacher, prophet and, among some people Messiah (or king). Many scholars believe he really did and said these things, others are more cautious and say only that he was known for them. And the majority of scholars believe that Jesus tomb was found empty, and/or that his followers saw appearances of him after his death, that his followers believed in the resurrection more or less from the beginning, and that this was a major factor in their zeal to spread the word.
If this was any other (more normal) history, this would be an unusually large amount of independent information that would make a very strong case for the truth of the events described.
The people agree
It is a remarkable fact that millions, perhaps billions, of people have read the New Testament and found it became truth in their lives. People have found Jesus has changed their lives as they read about him, whether through healing them, giving them hope and direction, or by revealing himself to people who grew up not knowing about him. Billions live their lives day-by-day believing in Jesus, reading the New Testament and having what they believe is personal contact with him. One of the tests of any belief is how well it works, and on that basis, the New Testament can be trusted.
It is true that there are those who try, and find christian belief does not work for them. I feel sad about this and don’t have any way of knowing why this is, but they are a relatively small number overall. For the majority, the New Testament brings life.
Philosophy and science
There are many facts and arguments that seem to point towards the existence of a God like the one Jesus revealed – the arguments from the existence and design of the universe, and from aspects of humanity such as rationality, ethics, freewill, etc. Different people find these arguments variously convincing, but they still point, however weakly or strongly, towards the truth of the teachings of Jesus.
A time for facts, a time for faith
Christian belief has always been based on both evidence and faith. The evidence briefly outlined above can only take us part of the way; we need to make a choice based on probabilities and judgment, and faith in the New Testament writers and the Jesus and God they point towards. Christians believe that when we read the Bible with an open and seeking mind, the Spirit of God gives us faith to make the jump and not only believe, but commit ourselves to that belief. That is one way in which the scripture is God-breathed.
Believing allows us to extrapolate in faith, and trust those parts of the New Testament which the historians are unable to endorse. We may be able to accept as true passages that cannot be verified. Even if we think a story is unhistoric or exaggerated (as many think the stories of Jesus’ birth are), we can still in faith accept them as teaching truths of one sort or another. This isn’t blind faith, but rather a willingness to accept things as they are and trust the Spirit of God to teach us. And to be willing to change our view as we gain understanding.
The new way of the Spirit
But it doesn’t end there. We have seen that Jesus and the apostles interpreted the Old Testament flexibly. And Paul also endorsed freedom and flexibility – he said in several places that the Spirit should be our guide, not the letter. Check out Romans 7:6 & 2 Corinthians 3:6:
But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”
He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Whatever those passages mean, they show that believers have a freedom that doesn’t require legalism, certainty, rules or unnecessary restrictions, but rather depends on a living relationship with God through his Spirit. The Bible is an important part of that relationship, but it isn’t as limiting as many christian make it.
Those who believe generally find that as they continue to ask the Spirit of God to guide them, the Bible comes alive to them. No matter how often they read it, new things are revealed to them. For many, their new life spills over into all sorts of adventures, self-improvement, unusual callings and service of others. Following Jesus should not be boring (though, regrettably, sometimes our modern western christianity inspires us far less than it should)!
A case study in faith
All this is a case study in how christian faith in the Bible works. We don’t need an inerrant Bible whose words are the very words of God. We need a Bible that has historical credibility where it matters (i.e. the life of Jesus), and through which the Spirit of God communicates what God wants us to know, to guide, challenge, convict and encourage. And we need the faith, based on the evidence that speaks to us individually, to believe it and live it out. Doctrine doesn’t matter as much as faith, obedience and the Spirit.
Read more about the evidence
- Trusting the New Testament and Trusting Jesus
- Reasons to believe generally
- Healing miracles, Visions of Jesus and people’s stories of finding truth in Jesus
- Arguments from the universe and from morality