How Can We Trust the Bible?

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Millions of people through the generations have valued these documents because they found in them an accounting of the relationship between God and his people that is unlike any other ‘holy’ book ever written

The Koran has one author. The Book of Mormon has one author. Buddhist texts all claim to be the words of the Buddha. Confucius wrote the Five Classics of Confucianism. The Bible, however, is one book of 66 parts written in three languages by up to 40 different people over two millennia.

For those of us who already view the Bible as a special book, this affirms our trust in a God who guided the collection of these books over the generations. Those who don’t yet believe, however, may wonder how we can call this hodgepodge of books “holy” and trust the Bible for insight into God, ourselves, and our world.

The assumption is that if humans were the primary sources of the documents, the primary curators of which documents mattered, and the primary voices interpreting the documents, then the documents themselves cannot be trustworthy. But here’s why the comparison to other religious books is important: for the Bible, there wasn’t only one author, one person curating the documents, or one person interpreting them. Millions of people over generations have valued these documents because they found in them an accounting of the relationship between God and his people that is unlike any other ‘holy’ book ever written.

The canon (a word that means an accepted and approved list) of Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) was most likely finalized while the Jews were in exile. Because disobedience to the Word of God had led them into exile, there was a renewed devotion to the Scriptures during and after the exilic period. Nehemiah 8 tells of the scribe Ezra bringing the Torah back to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon and reading it to the people. When the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1946, scholars were amazed to find Hebrew copies of Old Testament books that were essentially identical to the Hebrew editions currently in use. The book that Ezra read was the book that Jesus read and is the book we currently read!

For the books we call the New Testament, the early church was quick to circulate letters from Paul that each congregation had found helpful, showing that the church was already respecting certain texts as valuable for teaching and worship (Col. 4:16; 2 Pet. 3:16). The gospels were written later than most of the letters as a way to preserve the stories of Jesus before the people who lived alongside Jesus died.

This is why the “gospel” of Thomas and the “gospel” of Mary were not included in the Bible: they did not align with the redemption story that begins with the Torah, continues through the wisdom books, the prophets, and the epistles, and is clearly seen in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The Bible was not written to answer all of our questions or to polish up the truth of a broken people and a mysterious God. This isn’t a book of fairy tales. The characters do not live happily ever after. This is a book that says, “Life on earth is hard. People get hurt. We hurt each other, and we hurt God. But out of God’s great love, God gives hope to God’s people through the Son and assures us of God’s presence through the Spirit. In this book, God calls God’s people from death to life. God holds out the hope of a new heaven and a new earth.” The Bible is not a book that simply describes the past. It is a book that promises our future.

About the Author

Mary Hulst is university pastor for Calvin University and teaches at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Mich.

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Comments

      Thanks, Mary, for your thoughts on the inspiration of Scripture and the validity of the Christian Bible as God’s word.  Whether the authors of the Bible were many or the Scriptures of other religions were given by God to a single human being doesn’t really matter.  Each religion can give valid reasons why their Scriptures are the inspired Scriptures of God.  And like you suggest for the Bible, those who trust the inspired Scriptures of other religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, or the Muslim religion, have believed their Scriptures are the very word of God for as long or longer than Christianity has been in existence.  And their Scriptures have been preserved with accuracy for as long or longer than the preservation of the Bible.  So does the Bible really stand out as unique among the special revelations of the various world religions that exist today?
       You suggest that only certain books have made it into the Christian canon of Scripture because ones that did not align with the Christian redemption story were excluded.  And yet the largest Christian denomination includes fourteen books in their Bible that most Protestants exclude.  That leaves open the question of inspiration for these books that Roman Catholics think should be included in the Bible canon.  Within the Christian religion there are those who say certain books fit, but others don’t agree.
        What you suggest about the Dead Sea Scrolls found in 1946 is a testimony to the preservation of the Jewish Scriptures.  These scrolls did not include any Christian (New Testament) writings.  Jewish scholarship does not see the New Testament as the culmination or fulfillment of their Scriptures.  So these dead sea scrolls do not affirm the Christian religion (the incarnation of Jesus Christ) any more than the ancient Hindu Scriptures.
       People from the world’s religions all want to believe their Scriptures are the inspired word of God and therefore true in pointing people to the God of creation and the God of salvation.  Who are we to say our Bible is the only revelation approved by God or better than others?  Thanks, Mary, for your insights.

Thanks for your brief overview of some important aspects of the coming-together of the Bible and its distinctives. A few things might be more carefully stated, such as that only the "Law" and the "Prophets" of the Hebrew Bible were essentially canonized at or during the time of the Exile. This is the reason why Jesus constantly refers to these two, and why Moses and Elijah appear next to him on the mountain of the Transfiguration. It is also why the Bibles of Protestants and Roman Catholics differ, since the larger collection of Writings were in circulation and used extensively by the first Christians. Only after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. did Pharisaic rabbis further canonize the Writings, excluding some documents from the larger collection possibly in response to their use by Christians who had found a number of Messianic suggestions which they applied to Jesus. The "Old Testament" of Christianity was never officially "closed," so when the 16th century Reformers reasserted primacy of Scripture over tradition, they needed to define the Old Testament, and chose to use the limitations placed upon its canon by the late First Century Pharisaic rabbis--i.e., the Hebrew Bible. But not all agreed on this, since Luther did not wish to have Esther or James in the Reformation Christian Bible! But the Hebrew Bible became the essential Old Testament for Christians, while the broader "Law" plus "Prophets" plus unreduced "Writings" remained in the Bible of the churches with allegiance to the Roman pontificate.

There is much more to be said about why these writings (which you tend to gloss over rather quickly, as is typical). I have devoted my entire ministry to understanding the reason for, gathering of, literary connections within, theological purpose for, and overal unity of the Biblical collection. My fullest expression of my findings and understandings is in my book Covenenant Documents: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (Cognella), and is also signficantly summarized in my recent book Splitting the Day of the Lord: The Cornerstone of Christian Theology (Wipf & Stock).

Thanks, Wayne, for your comment explaining, with further detail, the Christian Old Testament canon of Scripture.  I’m not sure what purpose your comment is meant to make, whether in favor or critical of Mary Hulst’s article.  It seems you are merely adding detail to the arduous and complex task of finalizing the canon of Scriptures to be included as the Bible.  And that task (of canonizing Old and New Testaments books) wasn’t finally completed until the fifteenth century.  And still to this day there are Christians who hold to a different canon than most Protestants.  The largest Christian denomination includes fourteen books, which are not included by most Protestants.  All this human effort, to reach a conclusion as to what books to include in the Bible, supports the idea that the Bible is a human endeavor, and cannot strictly be called the divinely inspired word of God, any more than the Scriptures of other religions. And of course, that impacts with what authority the Bible speaks to a number of complex issues today.  Thanks again, for a challenging article and comments.

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