The Bible as a source of wisdom and authority

Eduqas/WJEC
Christianity

The origin of the Bible

The Christian teachings were first passed on by the apostles through oral transmission. The letters of St Paul came shortly after that, from 50-60 CE. Paul’s letters are teachings that he sent to various churches that were then copied and spread around. The Gospels came next, with Mark around 66 CE, Matthew and Luke around 85 CE and John around 90-110 CE. Other letters and Revelations (a book of prophecy) were also written during this time period. The 4 Gospels and Paul’s letters were seen as the most important writings during the 2nd century.

These are the three criteria that guided the early Church in their decision of what to canonise:

  • Connection to the Apostles
  • Connection with the Churches, supporting faith and practices in a diverse range of places.
  • Not contradicting any key Christian beliefs such as the Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection.

The writings of the Apostolic fathers reveal that there was debate about including the book of Hebrews and the Revelations because of doubt over whether their authorship was apostolic. However those doubts were eventually put to rest and the books were canonised.

The official canon was decided on in the 4th century. Today there is general agreement over the 27 books of the New Testament.

The early Christians had many holy books to guide them, but the early church fathers refined the list of approved scripture because of concerns that some books misled the faith of believers. The official Biblical Canon is the result. It contains the books of the Old and New Testament.

One area of controversy is that these books span a thousand years and were written by different authors in different languages.

In early Christianity, the Old Testament, Paul’s letters and the Gospels were considered to be scripturally the most important. However there was controversy regarding which Gospels to use and how to translate the Old Testament. There were also issues due to authors using significant names as their own to gain authority.

The Christian canonisation was going on at the same time as the Jewish canonisation. This resulted in Christian views on what to include in the Old Testament varying, while Jews eventually agreed on their Canon, so the Old Testament is not exactly the same as the Hebrew Bible. 

There are seven books in the Hebrew Bible which the Catholic Church canonised, but some church fathers were sceptical of, and which the protestant reformers came to ultimately reject completely. They are called deutero-canonical and included books like Judith and 1st and 2nd Maccabees. Additionally, the New Testament writers used the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, which included some things that were later excluded from the Jewish cannon. The books in the Hebrew Bible that did ultimately get into the Christian Old Testament came to be called proto-canonical.

Luther’s protestant Bible called the deuteron-canonical books “Apocrypha”, meaning books that have some limited usefulness but are not equal to the holy scriptures. He gave them a different place in his Bible to indicate that they are not canonical. These books are sometimes called intertestamental, indicating they were written in between the books of the New Testament and those of the Hebrew Bible.

Luther thought some of the books were heresy, such as Maccabees 12:46 which seems to suggest purgatory exists and denies justification by faith alone.

The inspiration of the Biblical canonical orders.

The Bible has a certain order, from Genesis to the book of Revelation. Was this order inspired by God? Some think it is the words in the Bible that really matter, but others argue that the order in which the books are arranged is also important because it shows you the progression of God’s revelation which helps you understand it better.

Historical contingency. The order of biblical books is just down to the accidents of history.

There does seem some important order, i.e. the creation story, the fall, the covenant with the Jews, the new covenant with Jesus, the book of revelation. Some of the canonical ordering might be random, but these core parts of the canon do seem to have an important order.

Humans decided on the Biblical canonical orders. The books of the Old Testament were originally written on scrolls. They were ordered into three groups: Law prophets and writings. Jesus himself seemed to recommend this grouping, claiming that “all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the prophets and the Psalms concerning me” Luke 24:44-45. Luke then claims that Jesus said this so that people could “comprehend the scriptures.

The Greek Septuagint, the earliest version of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that we currently have, was written with different groups and added apocryphal books. Law, prophets and Psalms became Historical books, wisdom and prophets. 5th Century theologian Jerome wrote the Latin Vulgate, which copied the groups from the Septuagint but decided on yet another different order for the individual books. The old Latin order of the Gospels was Matthew, John, Luke and Mark. Jerome decided on the Greek gospel order of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

As is seen from the history of the canonisation of the Bible, it was determined by human debates.

Many theologians believe that the Holy Spirit was influencing those debates and decisions.

Different bible orders were produced, so how do we tell which one to go with? How do we tell which debate outcome we should accept? Arguably God’s spirit is equally involved in all of God’s revelation so there cannot be an order to it.

If the order were important, then Matthew would have to be the most important book of the New Testament. It’s hard to argue it’s somehow more important than the other gospels, however.

Arguably the order being important does not suggest that the first book is the most important, just that the order of the books is important to the unfurling of their revelation.

Inspiration: The Bible and the word of God

The Bible says that ‘Ru-ach’ – God’s breath, was breathed into the authors of the bible – directly inspiring them. 2 Timothy 3:16. ‘all scripture is God-breathed’. “Inspire” comes from a Greek word meaning “God-breathed”. Christians believe that the Bible was inspired by God.

The question of this topic is what it actually means to be God-breathed. There are different views about how much God contributed, and how much the human writers contributed.

For example, does it involve God completely controlling what was written, which would make the Bible the literal word of God, or could the inspiration have been more indirect and thus blended with influence from the human mind of the authors of the Bible?

Dictation theory is the traditional view is conservative and objective: that the Holy Spirit directly moved biblical writers to write the words of the Bible. There are clear examples of this in the Bible, such as God speaking either directly through or to a prophet like Moses, or inspiring people via the Holy Spirit. Irenaeus claimed that the scriptures are “perfect” because they were “spoken by the Word of God [Christ] and his Spirit”. Augustine claimed there are no contradictions or falsehoods affirmed in the Bible, and that believing otherwise would have “disastrous consequences” because that would cast doubt on the entire thing.

The enlightenment period critique. During the enlightenment period, scientific, historical and literary methods of analysis were greatly improved and applied to the Bible itself. This led to evidence of scientific inaccuracies, historical inaccuracies, and literary evidence such as that the writers of the Bible had different styles which seemed to depend on their nationality, culture and age. They narrated the same events differently, appeared to have made efforts to gather information, and made grammatical mistakes. None of this looks like the words of an omniscient being. It became difficult to ignore the human influence in the scriptures.

Different theories of biblical inspiration resulted from this challenge:

Conservative/Objective views of inspiration attempted to hold on to the traditional view that that Bible was the perfect word of God. These theories are objective, meaning mind-independent. An objective view of inspiration claims that the inspiration for what was written in scripture was independent of the minds of the authors; it came from God.

  • Literalism simply denied any challenge to the view that the Bible was the exact word of God.
  • Plenary verb inspiration attempted to claim that although there is evidence of human influence, nonetheless the Bible is still the exact word of God because the minds of the divine and human authors somehow worked together.

Liberal/Subjective views of inspiration accept that the writing of the Bible was a human process and thus did not produce the exact word of God, leaving its meaning up for interpretation.

Neo-orthodox views of inspiration claim that although the Bible is not the exact word of God, it is a miraculous document through which the word of God can be heard.

Literalism

Most notably in America, Literalism takes the view that the Bible is literally true. Ken Ham is a literalist and he makes the argument that the Bible is all or nothing; you can’t say some parts are true and others are not, you either think it’s all true or it’s all false. Their approach to the evidence of human influence which began being discovered during the enlightenment era is to deny that evidence. For example, creationists will deny the scientific evidence for evolution because they think it contradicts the Genesis creation story and thus must be false.

Conflict with science. Denying science is a difficult position to maintain. Science can clearly explain so much of the world around us that it can successfully manipulate it into ways no one in the past could have dreamed of. That same science, when applied to biology and geology, tells us that we evolved and that the earth is billions of years old. This makes plenary verb inspiration look like a more attractive theory of conservative objective inspiration.

We do not have the original manuscript of the Bible. B. Ehrman “we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals … What we have are copies made later- much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places.” Furthermore, textual criticism suggests that some entire parts of the Bible which were added later. There is debate over which letters of Paul’s are authentic, for example, and many scholars think that the ending of Mark’s Gospel was added by a different author to the original one.

Plenary verb inspiration

Plenary verb inspiration means ‘every word inspired’. It is another objective and conservative view of inspiration. It is arguably more realistic than literalism because it accepts and acknowledges the evidence of human influence on the Bible. It still holds that all the words of the Bible are equally inspired and come directly from God, but somehow the gospel writers at the same time did have some influence.

William Lane Craig is a proponent of this view. He explains that biblical inerrancy is the view that “everything that the Bible affirms to be true is true.” There are many examples of metaphor and symbolic language in the Bible, which the Bible is therefore not presenting as literally true. This allows Christians who hold to this view to believe that the genesis story of creation is symbolic and thus not affirmed as literally true by the Bible, so they can agree with what science says about creation.

Contradictions in the Bible. E.g. the birth and resurrection narratives. This suggest a subjective view of inspiration. Bart Ehrman claims that it is “impossible” to reconcile the differences in the birth narratives. He points out that in Luke, Jesus is presented at the temple and the family then returns to Nazareth. However, in Matthew, the slaughter of the innocents causes the flight to Egypt until Herod dies in 4bc upon which the family returns to Nazareth. Ehrman concludes: “If Matthew is right that they fled to Egypt, how can Luke be right that they went back to Nazareth a month later? The chronology doesn’t work.”

N Geisler claims that when two parts of the Bible appear to be contradictory, that does not prove that the Bible contains an error. It could simply be that we do not understand how the seemingly contradictory passages are to be harmonised. If we understood more about the meaning of the texts by studying the historical and cultural context, we might learn how they are harmonised. Ultimately, passages appearing incompatible only shows that we do not know everything. It cannot prove that one of the passages must be false.

The Catholic view of the Bible & its link to tradition

The Catholic view of inspiration is similar to plenary verb inspiration.

The second Vatican council’s document Dei Verbum states that the Bible is indeed written by humans but inspired by God via the Holy spirit such that it is “without error” and contains “that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings”.

“In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.”

Sacred Scripture ‘is the word of God’ as it was written “under the inspiration of the divine spirit” and sacred Tradition “takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors” so that they can faithfully “preserve” and “explain” it.

“Therefore both sacred tradition and sacred scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence”

“But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church … explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit.”

“It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, sacred scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.”

Cardinal Newman: “though the Bible is inspired, and therefore, in one sense, written by God, yet very large portions of it, if not far the greater part of it, are written … with as little consciousness of a supernatural dictation or restraint, on the part of His earthly instruments, as if He had had no share in the work … Though the bible be inspired, it has all such characteristics as might attach to a book uninspired, – the characteristics of dialect and style, the distinct effects of times and places, youth and age, or moral and intellectual character

The paradox of Plenary verb inspiration. Plenary verb inspiration insists that there is a “confluence”, meaning the Bible was authored by both humans and God. This seems to result in a paradox as to how that could possibly work. It seems the inspiration for the words of the Bible must have come from one mind, yet to acknowledge the human influence yet still insist on the divine authorship leads to this paradoxical view that it came from both. J. Newman admits that Bible is divinely inspired, but has characteristics of a book that was not divinely inspired. Newman reflected on this by simply admitting that this is a mystery: “In what way inspiration is compatible with that personal agency on the part of its instruments, which the composition of the Bible evidences, we know not”.

Arguably Christians should simply have faith that God’s omnipotence somehow has the power to cause this confluence despite it seeming paradoxical to us.

Liberal subjective views of inspiration

This began during the enlightenment period and accepted the scientific, historical and literary evidence of human influence on the Bible, which is concluded to be a product of the human mind, not the perfect word of God. This suggests that the scriptures were written by witnesses of God’s divine events in history like the incarnation, or times when God communicated or revealed himself. What came to be written down as a result however was merely what those people took away from such events, or from hearing about such events from the testimony of those who witnessed them. The words of the Bible are therefore just human interpretations of what the authors felt and understood of God’s revelation. The bible thus reflects the cultural and historical context of its human authors and requires continual re-interpretation to ensure its relevance. Liberal Christians will point out that Jesus himself seemed to be progressive in that in the sermon on the mount he modified some of the old testament laws. Christians should follow this example and continually update and improve Christian theology and ethics.

John Hick thought that we should view the Bible as a record of how ancient humans interpreted events like the life of Jesus. They wrote it down not as a set of historical facts but as stories which had a symbolic meaning. For example, the resurrection symbolises God’s gift of renewal and the possibility of life after death. Hick does not believe the resurrection actually happened. He views Jesus as a ‘guru’.

Liberal inspiration leads to a crisis of authority. The problem with liberal views of inspiration is that it’s difficult to see how it could grant authority to the Bible if it derives from human minds. Furthermore, it opens up the Bible to interpretation and every person will have their own interpretation. This cannot provide the kind of stable consistent theology that a religion needs for it to persist. This is why traditional Christians criticise liberal Christianity for allowing people too much freedom to believe whatever feels right to them and their opinion, which results in the disunified chaos of everyone believing in their own God and the interpretation of the Bible which suits them.

Just because it leads to the “chaos” of everyone having their own interpretation, that doesn’t mean it’s a false view of biblical inspiration. Perhaps God wants everyone to have their own interpretation! Traditional Christians point to the chaotic theology of liberal Christianity where everyone believes their own interpretation as evidence against the subjective view of inspiration. Augustine says it would have “disastrous consequences”. However, this assumes that God wants the kind of Church where everyone is told to believe the same thing. Perhaps in ancient times people needed to all believe one thing so that society could hold together because society was in a more fragile state, but now that we have developed historical, literary and scientific criticism that suggests we have reached a stage where we no longer need to believe the same thing for society to function.

Karl Barth’s Neo-Orthodox view

Neo-Orthodoxy accepts that the scientific, historical and textual criticism of the Bible show that it could not be the word of God. He concluded instead that while the Bible was not the word of God, by meditating on it with proper faith it is possible to experience the word of God through it. He viewed the Bible as miraculous, capable of creating a kind of religious experience which connects the mind of a faithful believer to God’s word. This has the strength of taking seriously the issue of the evidence of human influence on the Bible.

Religious experiences and the lessons people take from them are also quite different. A Neo-Orthodox view of inspiration also seems to lead to theological chaos.

Calvin’s use of Accommodation.

Accommodation is the idea that the seeming incompatibility between God’s authorship of the Bible and historical, scientific or textual criticism can actually be reconciled. The idea is that God is beyond our understanding, so in order to effectively communicate with us God had to use flawed and inadequate language and concepts because it was all humanity was capable of understanding.

The seemingly false claims about history and science in the Bible are therefore just God attempting to get a point across in language we could understand. So the presence of these errors in the Bible does not show that God wasn’t the author.

Accommodation seems valid because God clearly at least accommodated his message to the confines of the grammar and vocabulary of the Hebrew and Greek languages in which the Bible in written.

John Calvin used accommodation. He believed that God was completely beyond our ability to understand and beyond the ability of our language to describe. Revelation must therefore involve God presenting himself in a lower, more basic way, in order for us to be able to understand. Calvin likened it to a nurse speaking with simplistic language to an infant.

Moses in Genesis 1:16 talking about God creating the ‘great lights’ of the Sun and the Moon, but by Calvin’s day it was known that Saturn was much larger than the moon. There was no point explaining that to people who lived thousands of years ago and to try would have distracted from the actual intended message of Genesis. The apparent errors in the Bible are the result of simplification for the sake of God achieving the purpose he intended revelation to have. In that case, Calvin concluded that there are no errors from the point of view of the reader at the time. Calvin notes differences between the Old and New Testament, and suggests it is because of God accommodating himself to different levels of humanity’s mental advancement. For Calvin, it was the Holy Spirit which confirmed the authenticity of the Bible. He thought it was inappropriate to subject it to “proof and reasoning” because it was “self-authenticated”.

Accommodation has the issue that it seems perfectly possible for God to have accommodated his language and concepts to the time and place of the bible authors without stating errors. To take Calvin’s example of referring to Saturn as a star, surely it was possible for God to have simply stated that aside from the Sun and Moon there were other various seemingly smaller lights in the sky. Furthermore, Jesus seemed to speak against many things that people believed at the time, especially regarding morality.