Three Kinds of Bibliology

You really can’t study Karl Barth in evangelical circles without hearing some (often quite strong) objections to his bibliology. This, of course, is perfectly understandable, as inerrancy makes for an important discussion. Nonetheless, I often think Barth is overly criticized on this point, and in large part my reason for this involves my understanding that, whatever Barth’s views on the nature of inspiration and revelation, he took Scripture extremely seriously and worked hard to conform his thinking to it. In contrast to more liberal or skeptical theologians, Barth declared, “Once and for all, theology has…its position beneath that of the biblical scriptures…[T]he biblical witnesses are better informed than are the theologians. For this reason theology must agree to let them look over its shoulder and correct its notebooks.”1

Reflecting on this led me to think that we would do best to understand bibliology as having three distinct aspects, which have different levels of importance and practical impact. I think it may be helpful, when assessing and debating views on Scripture, to have these distinctions in mind. My proposed bibliological distinctions are as follows:

Confessional Bibliology
By confessional bibliology, I mean the descriptions which people are willing to employ regarding Scripture, i.e. what people confess about the Bible. Confessional bibliology is the sphere in which we simply use individual words to say what we believe about Scripture, something primarily visible in confessional documents. A “high” confessional bibliology may use terms like “inerrancy,” “infallibility,” and “verbally inspired.” A “low” confessional bibliology may shy away from such terms, except perhaps “infallibility,” in favor of less specific language such as “authoritative” or “inspired.”
Technical Bibliology
By technical bibliology, I mean the precise way in which people explain their views on what Scripture is and how it was inspired. Most “views of inspiration” would be included under this heading, such as verbal plenary, dynamic, existential, etc. On this level we describe what “God-breathed” means, how God used men in writing Scripture, what the role is of the Holy Spirit, and even broader questions such as divine providence and the nature of God’s revelation.
Practical Bibliology
By practical bibliology, I mean the way we actually use Scripture. How do we handle it? Do we treat it with submission and reverence, or do we twist it for our own ends? This includes certain questions of hermeneutics, the relation to tradition, and how we can be self-conscious and self-critical about the presuppositions and worldview we bring to the Bible. A high practical bibliology robustly allows Scripture and its inner logic to change our thinking and doctrine. A low practical bibliology makes the Bible into a servant of our preexisting convictions and outside norms.

So, a few thoughts on these categories. First, having a “high” bibliology in one of these areas does not guarantee a correspondingly high bibliology in all of them. One might have a high confessional bibliology, for example, willing to call Scripture “entirely without error,” while essentially taking this away by fine print details with a low technical bibliology. On the other hand, it is easy enough for someone to have a low practical bibliology, treating Scripture like a prop for their own ideas and agendas, even though they have the highest of confessional and technical bibliologies (e.g. independent fundamentalists who act like the whole point of the Bible is anti-communism, anti-feminism, and anti-rock music). Sometimes we might even see conflict between the priorities of these types of bibliology. For instance, often conservative apologists will twist a text in an impossible way (exercising a low practical bibliology) in order to defend it from a charge of error (to defend a high confessional bibliology). It would be better in these cases to proclaim a lack of knowledge and let the text speak for itself.

And then there are people like Barth. Barth had a mixed confessional bibliology, calling Scripture the “Word of God” while nonetheless insisting that this identification is indirect. In a sense, you might say Barth had a medium-high confessional bibliology and a very difficult to rank technical bibliology. But where he shines is in his practical bibliology. Despite all of the qualifications Barth made about the humanity of Scripture, its role as witness to revelation rather than actual revelation, and his indirect identification of it with God’s Word, he submitted to it. He sought to understand the prophets and the apostles as best as he could, to see Christ in the pages of their writings, and to submit his thinking and living to Christ at every point. One may disagree with much of his exegesis, but one cannot deny that he read Scripture with reverence and an eye to knowing and obeying the Word of God who is Jesus.

This framework, I suggest, offers a way to be more precise and more charitable when enaging with people who view Scripture differently than we do. Likewise, it lets us see how people may be understood as faithful to the Bible even when they don’t necessarily believe in the same kind of inspiration, or confess quite the same adject ives, that we do. And if anyone has any comments or suggestions about these categories, I’m interested to hear them.

Jesus the Prophet and the Word

A sermon I preached this morning. I pray it will be of some edification.

So, I am not one to get too political in the pulpit for the sake of simply avoiding unnecessary strife. Christians can and do disagree on political issues, though I do believe that Scripture and Christian preaching can and does have some things to say to politics. I’m also not intending to make political point here or offend anyone. But I wanted to menion a funny story I’ve run across about Donald Trump because it is related to what I’m preaching on this morning.

In an interview a while back, Trump was being asked about his relationship with God. He was asked this question: “You have said you never felt the need to ask for God’s forgiveness, and yet repentance for one’s sins is a precondition to salvation. I ask you the question Jesus asked of Peter: Who do you say He is?”

Trump’s first response originally was mostly irrelevant and ignored the issue to point out how much support he has from Christians. But then he was asked the question again to get back on track, and he said this: “Jesus to me is somebody I can think about for security and confidence. Somebody I can revere in terms of bravery and in terms of courage and, because I consider the Christian religion so important, somebody I can totally rely on in my own mind.”

Now, obviously this is a silly answer. It’s nearly a joke. It doesn’t tell you who Jesus is, just how Trump supposedly feels about Him. I bring this up not to Trump-bash, but to make a point. The identity of Jesus is important. Even crazy Presidential candidates are forced to reckon with it. Jesus left the earth 2000 years ago but people still have to answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?”

Well, that’s my theme today, and for the next however many times I get to preach here. I want to look at the different Biblical angles for understanding who Jesus of Nazareth, called “Christ” and “Son of God,” is, and I want to see what focusing on these different angles can tell us about our relationship to Him and how we ought to live as His people.
So for today I want to start with something very basic, an aspect of Jesus’ identity that almost anyone could agree on from simple history. This is Jesus as a prophet. It cannot be denied that, whatever else Jesus was, He was a prophet. Everyone is willing to concede that, whether atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, or random people off the street. Some might think He was a false prophet, and some might think His prophecies came from delusions or evil schemes, but it is uncontroversial to say that Jesus lived as a prophet. It is also the first in most orderings of what people like John Calvin have called the “threefold office of Christ” as prophet, priest, and king. So I’d like to look at Jesus’ prophetic role according to Scripture, and then to see what we can learn from that.

But in order to do that, I will actually also have to go deeper, because a prophet cannot be understood apart from his message, his word. In the case of Jesus, He Himself is a word, actually the Word of God the Father. Because of this any attempt at explaining Jesus’ prophetic office apart from His being the divine Word can only be incomplete. But with both of these in mind, Jesus as prophet and as Word, we will be able to see just how knowing who Christ is can change our lives as His followers.

So, with that goal in mind, on to what Scripture says about Jesus as a prophet. The first thing to notice is that, with our order of the Old Testament canon, Jesus in the New Testament comes right after the prophets. I’m not convinced that this is any arbitrary coincidence. I think it matters. Throughout the OT prophets we see Israel struggling with God, sinning and begging for help and almost repenting but still sinning more, and God kept sending them prophets. These prophets brought God’s word to Israel, usually warnings of judgment or promises of restoration, and in fact most of the time both are mixed. Then there is silence for 400 years. The last prophet writes and dies, and no word from God comes to Israel for centuries.

It is at this point that John the Baptist shows up, the first prophet in a very long time. He announces that the Lord is coming and that the people need to get ready and repent. Then Jesus comes to Him and is baptized, and immediately begins His own prophetic ministry. The very first words we here from Jesus in the Bible are in Matthew 4:17, and they are words of prophecy. He starts preaching, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!”

At this point it would be useful to clarify what the prophetic office is. Essentially, to be a prophet is to hear God’s word and relay it faithfully to men. This is a human task, something which humans do for God and for their listeners. It is a kind of work as a mediator, in this case mediating messages, as opposed to the priest who mediates blessing or cursing, or the king who mediates justice. God elects a man as a prophet, calls him to obedience, and entrusts him with a word for God’s people.

Part of the reason for this need is that God transcends us. He is Creator and we are creature. There is an infinite qualitative distinction between God and man. We quite literally have nothing in common with God by nature. Some people would say that we’re like ants or cockroaches compared to God, but even that makes us seem more like Him than we really are. It takes omnipotent power to bridge this gap. Because of this humans can only hear from God if God first puts His words into a human mouth. Otherwise His word, as pure and holy and omnipotent as it is, would be a poweful terror for us, like when God spoke to Israel from Mt. Sinai and they begged Him to stop and speak only to Moses.
But what makes a prophet able to hear God’s word if others cannot? This is the role of the Holy Spirit. This is why in the Old Testament in the few occasions that people are filled with the Spirit, many of them are prophets. The Spirit fills the prophet with the word of God, and the prophet speaks the word of God using his human words. This means that ordinary people can then hear the word of God and respond to it.

This brings us to Jesus’ baptism, the start of His prophetic ministry. At His baptism, according Matthew, Luke, and John, the Spirit came and dwelt in Jesus. We must remember that Jesus’ humanity was truly and fully human in a normal sense, and so in His human life He also needed the Spirit to empower Him for His prophetic ministry. So once He was baptized, anointed as a prophet, He was filled with the Spirit and began preaching.
This actually now brings us to my main text on Jesus’ prophetic office. What matters most for prophets is the message they preached, so I want to go to Luke 13 to find a summary of basically Jesus’ entire message, beginning in verses 1-5.

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

What Jesus says here is actually in His preaching all of the time in all of the Gospels. Roman oppression has killed some Jews. That’s a normal part of the background of the day, and one of the main concerns of the Jewish people who were waiting for their Messiah to rescue them. But of course there was a tendency to view the people who suffered most as the worst sinners, as though the people who Pilate killed were special targets of divine judgment. Jesus corrects them by saying that unless they repent, they will all suffer the same fate. He brings up another example of a tower which fell in Siloam and killed people. Those people weren’t any more guilty either. Unless they repented, they would all likewise perish.

Now, it is important to realize that this isn’t just Jesus saying, “Everyone’s a sinner.” Jesus was a prophet to Israel specifically, just like most the prophets before Him. Israel needed to repent, and Israel was in danger of coming judgment. It’s also important to realize that Jesus isn’t saying, “These people died, and if you don’t repent you will go to Hell.” The word for “likewise” in “likewise perish” means “in the same way.” These people died by Romans violence and falling buildings. Here Jesus prophesies not just any judgment, but the judgment coming on Israel through Rome. This is, again, just like the prophets before Him. They prophesied coming judgments by God through the armies of Babylon, or Assyria, or other nations. Jesus prophesied a coming judgment by Rome. Unless they repent, they will perish under Roman violence and collapsing buildings, a prophecy which was fulfilled when Titus destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70.
This is a constant theme of Jesus, and it is core to His message. It is the point of parables like that of the wicked tenants and the of the talents. We see it pop up again immediately in our chapter, verses 6-9. The fig tree, a figure used in the OT for Israel, has no fruit, and it must be cut down unless it bears fruit very soon. At the end of this chapter, in verses 33-35, Jesus makes the meaning of this message explicit. He says:

It cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Behold, your house is forsaken.

The message is clear, and it is repeated throughout all of the Gospels over and over again as Jesus battles with the Pharisees, the Saducees, the zealots, and the Herodians. Israel is about to be judged, and God will use Rome, the very nation they expect God to rescue them from, to do it.

There are, though, two major differences between Jesus’ message and the messages of the prophets before Him. First, this is not just one more judgment in an ongoing cycle. This is Israel’s last warning. If they do not repent now, they will not be given another chance. This is most clear in the parable of the wicked tenants. The owner sends messengers and servants, and finally his own son, but the tenants kill the son, so instead of giving more chances the owner destroys them. Israel has been sent many prophets, but Jesus will be the last, and if they reject Him, as Jesus knows they will, then they will be desolated. This exile will be permanent, and Israel will ever be under the curse of the Torah which they disobeyed.

But, despite all of this negativity, there is a strong positive side to Jesus’ message. On the one hand, He preaches coming judgment, but just like the other prophets He preaches with it coming restoration. Unlike the other prophets, He preaches that the restoration is now. This is what we see when we move back to the middle of this chapter. In verses 10-17, Jesus heals a disabled woman and brings glory to God on the Sabbath. He then moves on to talk about the Kingdom of God breaking in small at first but certain to grow into something massive. These are also major themes in His ministry elsewhere. His first prophecy was that the Kingdom of God was coming. These healings are all signs of it. The loose attitude towards Sabbath regulations is also a sign, a sign that the weekly Sabbath law is now being fulfilled in the great Sabbath of the Kingdom of God.
This Kingdom is the Good News of Jesus’ Gospel. Even though there is a coming judgment, there is also a way for forgiveness of sins, healing, and restoration. This way is in following Him, the Messiah. This is what Jesus preached from the beginning, like in Luke 4:18-19:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The year of the Lord’s favor had arrived, and if anyone would repent of their sins, their attempts at establishing their own justification though stricter Torah observance or revolutions against Rome, but instead simply follow God’s Messiah, they would enter into this year, the age to come. This was to be the way out of the judgment. Israel as a whole was ready to reject the Messiah and be judged by God, but those who would instead repent and believe that Jesus is the Messiah would find that they could follow Him into a new way of being God’s people which would survive even the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. This was ultimately the way into the resurrection, the regeneration of the world. Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will give you life in the age to come.”

This all, then, comes back to the belief in Israel since they were originally exiled into Babylon that Yahweh their God had departed from them, especially from Jerusalem and the Temple. The glory which used to fill the Holy of Holies had disappeared, and they suffered constant subjection under the pagans. They had been waiting on God to return to them and rescue them again, to bring His glory back into Israel. Jesus preached just this: the return of Yahweh to Zion, a return which would lead to judgment for the wicked and salvation and resurrection for those who embraced Him.

This actually explains some of Jesus’ more odd prophetic actions like whithering the fig tree or cleansing the Temple. He symbolically announced that judgment had arrived, just as the prophets in the OT performed strange actions to illustrate their points.

But, the way Jesus did these things was all even more odd. His healings, His control over nature, His forgiving sins, riding triumphantly into Jerusalem after declaring maternal care, His cleansing the Temple–all of this almost makes it look as though Jesus were Himself acting as Yahweh returning to Zion. You get the impression that these acts are divine acts. Jesus appears to have considered Himself to be not just Yahweh’s prophet, but in some sense an embodiment of this God Himself.

This could, of course, have been passed off as lunacy or maybe something more devious, especially once Jesus was hung on a cross to die. If Beau were to start acting like he’s God, I think we’d all suspect that he’d gone crazy. So it seemed that way for Jesus, too. If He was in any sense God, or an agent of God, the Cross made no sense. God is the judge, not the judged. He is the life-giver, not mortal.

Yet then after three days Jesus rose from the dead. It would seem that this means Jesus was right. In some sense He was truly acting God’s acts. And it is the Gospel of John which helps us understand this, for in John we find that Jesus is not only a prophet, but the divine Word of God Himself.

This brings us to John 1:1-18, the text where we can see most clearly that Jesus is a prophet who reveals Himself as God. John 1:1 tells us that in the beginning the Word was with God and was God. It tells us that Jesus was and is this Word, the Word of creation, of light, and of life. This Word is not merely from God, but is of the very same being, the same essence as God. Verse 14 is key: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” This Word is God as He knows, sees, and proclaims Himself. The Word of God is God speaking God, and this is precisely who Jesus was. This Word became a human being, and as a human being He became a prophet.

The prohetic office and Jesus’ divine person as the Word of God work together in a unique way. This why is Jesus is not merely another prophet, but the last and the greatest prophet whose coming marks the climax of Israel’s story. The word from God which Jesus spoke in His life was not merely any message, but in fact His own person as God’s self-revelation. Basically, Jesus as a prophet preached the Word of God, but unlike every other prophet Jesus was the very same Word of God which He preached. The judgment Jesus warned Israel about was His own judgment, a judgment He made Himself and suffered Himself. The Kingdom of God He said was coming was in fact His very own authority, His own reign over all the earth. And the return of Yahweh to Zion He announced was literally His coming to Jerusalem as the Word of God.

What we understand from this is something which is elsewhere described in John, namely that the word and act of Jesus the prophet from Nazareth are literally and directly the word and deed of God. There is no difference. In John 5:19 Jesus says it simply: “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.”

So Jesus as a human prophet is somehow from within His human life and nature doing the very work of God. The call to repentance was Gods’ last call to Israel. His healings were not just signs of the coming Kingdom but part of the way God was actually calling the new creation into existence. The judgment He proclaimed would be a judgment He Himself would execute and suffer.

All of this, when brought to the Cross, means that Christ’s suffering, being executed as a false prophet and revolutionary, is in fact the act of God. Jesus died for the nation, for the world, which means that God Himself took upon all of this for us. This means we are assured that at His very core, in the depths of His being, God is for us, a God who self-sacrificially loves us. What Jesus did in His whole life and ministry, but especially on the Cross, is what God does. We know God because we know Christ, and knowing God in this way means that His love for us goes all the way down even into Hell. And this is who God really is. The fact that Jesus is both God’s prophet and God’s Word means that, as Scottish theologian T. F. Torrance liked to say, “There is no God behind the back of Jesus.”

This is the ground of all of our assurance. The prophet who said “Neither do I condemn you” is the same God of the universe who will judge the world. There is no division, or even a true distinction, between the mercy we see in Jesus, the gracious promises He offers to those who follow Him, and who God is toward us. This is how we know that there is absolutely no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We do not know everything about God by looking at Christ, simply because of human limitations, but because the prophetic word of Christ comes from His person as the Word of God who is God, what we see in Christ is true all the way down into the depths of who God is. To quote Torrance again, “God is deep but not devious.” We can have confidence to follow Jesus wherever He leads because we know that the words by which He leads us is the Word of God, and whatever He tells us about our destination is exactly where we will end up. If we are in Christ, then we are in God, and if we are in God, we have every reason to hope.

But to mention being in Christ brings us to the question of what a life in Christ looks like. This in turn brings us back to Jesus the prophet. When Jesus left His disciples, He did the same thing for them that the prophet Elijah did for his successor Elisha. He left behind His Spirit. At Pentecost, Jesus poured out His own Spirit on the Church, so now by the Spirit we are called to continue Jesus’ ministry as prophets. It is our job to be prophets like Jesus, continuing to proclaim His message. Jesus told everyone about the Kingdom of God wherever He went and whatever He did, and this is how we are also called to live. This is why we must evangelize: we share in the ministry of Jesus as prophet. We have to spread His message in the power of His Spirit now that He has been taken to heaven. Obviously not all of us are prophets in the common sense of receiving direct, personal messages from God and being called to preach them and perform signs to confirm them. Yet in another sense we are all prophets now. We’ve received a direct message from God in the prophetic Word of Jesus. We are called to share this Word, and if nothing else we are supposed to use our lives as signs to confirm it. In Jesus we all become prophets, and as prophets we must share the Word of God, who is Jesus, with the world around us.

Now, if we’re going to be prophets like Jesus, our message needs to match up with His. But there are differences. Much of what Jesus preached was directly to a unique moment in Israel’s history. They were about to be judged, the Old Covenant would end, and the Kingdom would come through Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection. In our day, all of that has already happened. So how do we carry on Jesus’ message in our AD world? We have to look back, see Jesus’ message, and how He has fulfilled what He preached, and then apply the new situation created by His fulfillment to our message. What does this look like?

To begin with, the whole world today is in a similar situation to Israel. At Pentecost God began to invite all the nations into His covenant. He called the Gentiles to repent and submit to Jesus. But the world in large part hasn’t repented. They’re still sinning and rejecting God’s purposes and calling. They’ve been doing this all since Jesus came on the scene, cooperating with the Jews to kill Jesus. But God has raised Jesus from the dead. That proves all He said was true, and God has now put Him over all the world as its judge. Unless they repent, they will all perish under Christ’s judgment, just like they killed Him under their own.

But even so, the Kingdom of God has entered the world in Jesus, especially in His resurrection. The risen Christ offers eternal life as the source of salvation, a way of escape from the coming judgment and a path into bliss of the age to come. This marks the beginning of a new creation, which will eventually set all the universe free.

So now Jesus is set to return, and when He does judgment will come, but those who believe in Him will find that He has already suffered judgment for them. The wicked will perish and the righteous, specifically those who find righteousness by trusting in Christ, will be raised just like He was.

This is, at least, one possible way to tell the story, a sample of how we carry on Jesus’ message in view of the world’s changed situation after He fulfilled His work. And this king of message is what we need to proclaim. It is what we need to tell our neighbors and friends and coworkers. We have all been called to be prophets of Jesus, following in His footsteps as a prophet, by our union with Him.

So how can we really, practically do this? That’s a great question, and if any of you know the answer I’d be glad to hear it. But seriously, we need to think about that and do what we can to proclaim the word about the Word. Some of that might be personal evangelism, talking one-on-one to people we know. Some of it might be Bible distribution or street preaching. Personally, I would like to see especially here a way to get involved in more canvassing and survey evangelism. And of course there are actual mission trips, and there is VBS and community outreach. We must do all of this, and anything else we can come up with, to be prophets of Christ, sharing His Word with the world.

Our lives must also match our message, just like Jesus’ did. Jesus preached that the time of God’s favor had come, and He proved it by healing, forgiving, and redeeming broken lives. He also preached that the time of judgment had come, and He acted it out in the Temple, on a fig tree, and in His harsh condemnations of the religious elites who were leading people astray. He lived the life He said that God’s people must live in this new time: a life characterized by love for enemies, trust in God, patience under persecution, and compassion and mercy to those in need.

If we are going to be Jesus’ prophets, we have to live the same way. If we don’t, we make our message look fake or powerless. For Jesus there was no difference between the life He lived as a prophet and the divine Word which He was in His person. In the same way, we can’t let there be any difference between our lives and the Word of Jesus that we preach. Of course we will fail at this over and over again. We sin daily, and we fail to be the prophets we are supposed to be. We don’t share the message of Jesus enough or well enough, and we don’t live the kind of way that backs up even what we do say. But Jesus anticipated that from the start, and our union with Him includes our dying with Him, so that our sins are already dealt with. His “Neither do I condemn you” is assured for us. Confident that Jesus will keep His word, since He is God’s Word, we can try again, repent daily, and continue to press on in our lives as prophets of Jesus.

The goal of all of this, of course, is for us to make Jesus visible in both our words and our deeds. We want to direct people away from us and to the Word of God, who Himself was a prophet of His own Word. We basically just want people to see and hear Jesus when they see and hear us, because whoever has seen Jesus has seen the Father. We do and say what Jesus does and says which is what God does and says to reach our final end. We want the world to find life in knowing God. So I encourage all of us, myself more than all of you combined, to take this call to heart and do anything we can to be prophets of Jesus. If we combine our witnesses as the Body of Christ, then one day Isaiah 11:9 can be fulfilled, and “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” This future, the hope of the Kingdom of God, is our call and mission. So let us take up this mission, and follow after our leader, a prophet called Jesus of Nazareth.

The Bible Is Not a House of Cards

What do very many Christians and very many atheists have in common? Believe it or not, they view the Bible pretty similarly. What could an atheist and a Christian both think about the Bible? Both often act as though the Bible were a house of cards.

We’ve all seen card houses. As children, we all made them. They were always a very difficult project, trying to stack each flimsy card just right to keep the whole building from falling down. And fall down they did. At the slightest disturbance, if even one card was removed or wiggled, the entire house crashed.

To far too many people, the Bible works more or less the same way. Every statement in Scripture is a card, and the whole Bible is the house. If a single statement were found false, mistaken, or even just a bit uncertain, the falling card would mean the collapse of all 66 (or 73, for my filthy papist Catholic friends) books and indeed the Christian faith as at all trustworthy.

The logic behind treating the Bible this way is usually quite straightforward. According to the Christian side, the Bible is the word of God. Since God can’t lie or even make a mistake, every word in the Bible must be certainly true. Therefore if a single word in Scripture were less than completely true, the Bible could not be God’s word. So Christianity is false.

But this is a completely wrong way to approach the Bible. Let’s say we found for sure a definite error or contradiction in Scripture. What would be the possible implications? There are, generally speaking, two options:

  1. The house of cards logic is correct, which means that because of this error, the entire Bible is not trustworthy. So Christianity is almost certainly false. This position is taken by many pop-level atheists, and is also the fear many Christians would have if they found an error.

  2. The house of cards logic is false. Even though there’s an error, the Bible can still be considered the word of God. But in this case the “word of God” does not mean every last individual word comes straight from God’s mouth. A more flexible theory of Biblical inspiration is probably true (see my post on the different theories). Christianity can still be true. This position is assumed by very many Christians outside pop-theology.

Obviously, option 2 is preferable to option 1 for multiple reasons. For one, remember that Christianity is based on Jesus first, and the Bible second. Historically, Jesus did rise from the dead, regardless of whether the Bible has errors or not, so Christianity is true. As well, remember that no other book is held up to an all-or-nothing standard. If the Bible was not the word of God, we would have to treat what the Bible says just like we treat what every other book says. In that case there would be still good reasons to believe that Scripture is at least generally reliable, that Jesus did rise from the dead, that the apostles spoke authoritatively for Christ’s church, and even that the Old Testament is a useful historical resource. Based on pure facts, evidence, and human reason all of this would be true even if the Bible wasn’t God’s word.

If that is not enough to persuade you, I would also suggest that the Bible can easily be God’s word even if there are errors. There are several theories of Biblical inspiration out there. Some allow for errors, some don’t, but most of them still call Scripture “God’s word,” say that He actually speaks using the Bible, and agree that our Bible has final authority over the faith. I wrote a post about the major theories a while back, and you can look at that list to understand what I mean if you don’t. So if the Bible did have an error, maybe verbal, plenary inspiration would be wrong, but something else like dynamic inspiration—which does say the Bible is God’s word and final authority—could be the truth.

So I propose a different analogy for the Bible. God’s word is not a house of cards, but a house of many materials built on a firm foundation. That foundation is the history of Jesus Christ, including the history of the Israel who brought Him into the world, the history of His own life, and the history of the church of His apostles. All of these things really happened, and behind them all is the work and word of God, His powerful acts and equally powerful words by which He brought Himself to humanity. Even if the Bible was never written down and passed on to us, this all still happened in our own space and time history. God through Jesus is a physical part of our human past. So with this firm of a foundation, even if there were cracks or rot in the walls or floors, the house of God’s word would still stand.

The Bible, then, is more than anything a testimony to these foundational facts of history. What God did and said in the past are now fixed realities, and the words of Scripture tell us about them. We can see the Bible as the word of God because God’s own prophets and apostles, led by the power of the Holy Spirit, wrote it as permanent witness to God’s revelation in the human world, including His greatest and final revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ.

If this is how we see the Bible, then errors become less important. The text we read in Scripture is the, to use an analogy, courtroom testimony of witnesses to what God has done and said. So even if the witnesses were to make mistakes, forget things, or interpret something wrongly, what God actually did and said remains solid and fixed. The Bible is built on a firm foundation, and so is no house of cards but the house of the wise man.

All this, by the way, is not to suggest that the Bible actually is full of errors and needs special defense. No, I think that Scripture speaks for itself (actually, the Holy Spirit speaks for, through, and with Scripture), showing us that we can trust the Bible. Yet for the sake of the faith of many people, and to keep ourselves from being ridiculous before skeptics, I do propose this understanding so that we do not have to worry about errors in the Bible even if they do exist, since our faith is focused on something, make that Someone, who is Himself the undefeatable Truth. My concern is truly a pastoral one: I want people to know their faith in Christ needn’t be shaken just because they can’t find any answer to reconcile two genealogies or Resurrection accounts.

In case this isn’t clear, by the way, I’m not actually saying there are errors in the Bible. I’m not convinced that there are, but I definitely wouldn’t stake my life that there aren’t. If we are to be faithful to the God who created the real life world, we have to judge that based on what is actually in the Bible, not by our doctrines of inspiration. What we believe about the book God gave us has to be based on what is really true about what He gave. My true attitude is this: if there are no errors in the Bible, I praise God for giving us such perfect record of who He is and what He does! If there are errors in the Bible, I praise God for even making human mistakes work towards His all-consuming purpose of redemption, just like He does in our lives all the time! Either way, God is glorified, because we have a book from the Father, about the Son, given through the Holy Spirit for our sanctification. Amen!

(P.S. To any of you more learned readers out there, you may think my explanation of the Bible sounds really Barthian. While I do find Barth a very helpful influence with his language of witnesses and testimony, I am more conservative on Scripture than he is. My theory of inspiration is not actually Barthian, and honestly I still default to verbal, plenary inspiration.)