We only have statements about God based on what he has said about himself in the Bible. The Bible alone is our source of authority, and this one book is made up of 66 books — and the manuscripts behind them are ancient. The languages of the Bible are Hebrew, Greek and some Aramaic. It is not trivial for us to go back and read those ancient documents. But we must! And we are not lost in a world of uncertainty simply because we are so far removed from the events of the Bible and the recording of those events.
How a church reads the Bible is of supreme concern to its members. That the Bible is our perfect source of authority is not an abstract statement that is ultimately meaningless (being something that religious people have to say because they want to be religious).
Therefore, we now want to ask and answer the question: What does it mean for the perfect to come into contact with the imperfect? The Bible is without error, but we are not. So how does the imperfect sinner rightly read the perfect text? The answer is that we have rules of engagement (which we list below). The authority of Scripture has specific contours, and so it is not an edgeless undefined religious statement to say that the bible is our inerrant authority. We are right to speak of the inerrant authority of the Bible, but with that statement comes the responsability of being particular about how it works (in practice), for which the following list points to some key principles.
This is not an empty exercise, for our quest is not hollow. We are right to dive deeper into the question: How does the Bible act as a source of authority when we are imperfect in our reading of it? A cynic may ask this as a way to wiggle out from underneath the authority of scripture (in essence, giving up), or, perhaps, as a way to mock Christianity as if it were on a fool’s errand. But we have not given ourselves over to a hopeless task, as we have the following sure aids and tools for the quest:
- Scripture is inerrant (i.e. completely true, accurate and without error)
- Know Thyself…
- Reason, logic, language and history help us eliminate false options and false interpretations
We must start with this confession. It is axiomatic, and it is a non-starter to say otherwise. This is not one doctrine within a larger unordered collection of statements about God, this is the formal principle out of which we gain our material collection. The material of this web site, for example, is based on this: the Bible is without error. If not, we should shut the doors of our church and delete this site.
Each of us must be keenly aware that we are not blank slates exempt from bias; we have ideas we bring to the text of the Bible (often for the worst). We have presuppositions that we must discover so that we can account for our own biases. It does us no good to claim a special place of privilege in this. None are immune, we all bring baggage to the text of scripture, and none of us is the exception to the rule. If we understand philosophical movements and the cultural philosophies and debates that charge our world, then we will begin to sense our own biases.
Because words are reasonable, and God has used words and history, we are not confused post-modernists with no basis for eliminating false options. We have aids:
- Reason is a valid tool for interpreting words
- Words are reliable conduits to carry meanings
- We can use solid research to prove that some lines of thinking are invalid
- Ongoing Biblical education helps, and we have access to it (seminaries and scholarship)
- Archaeology and biblical commentaries are not to be ignored or dismissed as dry intellectualism
The careful use of available tools means we are not left with intellectual anarchy — that is, we are not without rule. Words work!
We should consult older and ancient commentaries, but these older works do not trump reason, history, logic, linguistics, archaeology and valid research simply because they are older. Reason and logic are not overturned by the age of a commentary. The more ancient a commentary does not mean we excuse it for being less reasonable or logical (see this article on the relationship of archaeology to long-standing traditions). God is not irrational in his word, and those who comment on his word are not faithful to the meaning despite logic and reason, but with logic and reason. The church fathers and old commentaries are useful, but being very old and long dead does not make them de facto masters over archaeological discoveries, Hebrew, Greek, logic and reason.
Linguistics is a valid field of study. It is not a field of study that pastors get to when they want to find some esoteric nuance to biblical doctrine, but it is the very conduit of doctrine. Linguistics includes the study of grammar, metaphor, typology, poetry, semantics, lexicography, genre, and literary forms, and is the foundation for a meaningful encounter with the Bible. Linguistics is not an egg-head pursuit that impedes our real access to God, but God has made himself know by his Word. God reveals himself with language, and the rules of language are valid and necessary for our quest.
Archaeology is the handmaiden of biblical interpretation. The Bible was written within various historical periods and contexts. These contexts are illumined by the light of history discovered through the spade of archaeology. Since the late 1800s, ongoing excavations in Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Iraq have advanced biblical knowledge in profound and various ways. A few examples may help make the point:
- Solomon’s temple and the ancient Near East shed light on the Old Testament
- The Judaism revealed in Qumran and “2nd Temple Judaism” assists us in reading the New Testament
- Josephus and the Dead Sea Scrolls shed valuable light upon the historical period of Jesus
- Archaeological findings reveal cultural and historical data that explains the Philistines and the times of the united monarchy
Reason is rooted in facts, and the interpreter of scripture (who is also a historian) uses archaeology to understand the relationships between various historical contexts.
The context of what Moses wrote fits into the covenant treaty structures known to have existed during his life. “Covenant theology”, being a system of theology, gets its start from such simple observations. More to the theological point: Theologians must be aware of their beliefs within the spectrum between Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology. These two categories predominate in the church. Even if one is not familiar with these terms, everyone is within one or the other streams of thought — and both streams presume a way of reading the Bible. These are two big ways that Bible-believing, Jesus-loving theologians read the Bible: Dispensational vs. Covenantal. As a church, we gravitate to being Covenantal in our theology even as we do account for major discontinuities between the covenants.
From Genesis to Revelation, there is the message of God’s Image, his Temple-abode on Earth, and the message of what he is like and how he is imaged in someone being like him. The Bible is the message about God and his kingdom (a Kingdom which passes through various stages, of which, see more below), and central to the news is Christ who is God’s Temple, and Christ who is God’s Image and the Exodus by which the New Exodus is ultimate — where Jesus enacted a New Exodus in his flesh (cf. esp. Luke 9, and the Mt. of Transfiguration event).
To be practical about our belief in the inerrancy of scripture, it is necessary that we speak to the unity and structure of the four Gospels. It also means we treat them according to their genre and history. For example, when the gospel of Luke opens up, the context is still the Old Covenant. Luke was written after the New Covenant was already ratified, but it starts its tale in the sphere of the Mosaic Covenant. Such observations, and other like them, rule over us. That means we have logical and reasonable guidelines that control how we come to the Gospel books. These include:
- Read the Gospels as narratives from the first century
- Read the entire Gospel from start to end
- Don’t think of the Gospels as competing or even disparate collections
- Read the Gospels in context of all of Scripture
This observation has far reaching ramifications for how one understands the relationship between the old and new covenants. As we read the Bible, we should account for the fact that the Church is not under the Sinai Covenant. This is not obvious to everyone, and has been a source of misunderstanding in the following areas:
- The Relation of the Christian to Israel’s Torah
- Sabbath Laws and Sabbath keeping?
- Stoning rebellious children in the Torah — Why is that in the Bible?
- Ezra commands divorce (Ezra 9-10)? Yikes!
- The list goes on… the relationship of Old Covenant commands to New Covenant members
God is motivated by God. This is not at all obvious to some theologians. There are various degrees of rejection of this idea, and every student of the scripture must know what it is they think of the matter. As for Eastside Church of the Cross, we understand God to be passionate for his own glory. This we derive from the book of Isaiah, Romans, John, and indeed, all of scripture.
When we say this, we affirm that our historical research is valid. Men wrote with the words they chose for their writing. The people of God would write from their own vantage point and with their own vocabulary. God did not take over their bodies, as it were, and cause them to write in a trance. Scripture was not written that way. Rather, the followers of Christ later wrote down what Christ said and taught. Or, to take a sample from the Old Testament, Moses kept a travel log in the wilderness. And in so doing, they were writing scripture. This is not to say that the Bible was not written by God, it is to say that the Bible was written by men, and that all of our historical studies work. For example, Moses was raised in Egypt, and that means Egyptian studies are a source of light on his writing. In the same way, it is valid to inspect John’s use of a certain Greek form to discover his own particular grammatical tendencies. John wrote the Gospel of John, so understanding the life and times of John is a useful tool for interpreting his writings.
To say this is not to be ironic or to cloud the previous statement. Both are true. Just as Jesus is both man and God — without any loss to divinity or humanity — so the scriptures are the union of Heaven and Earth. Two realms meet in the scriptures. The Word of God is heavenly in origin, and God is the great author of it all. Men who wrote the Bible did so under the inspiration of the Spirit of God who was attending to the whole process. God himself saw to it that he would have an accurate recording of the his acts in history. God — in his Godness! — can do this sort of thing. So while it may seem beyond us, it is another sign that God is not like us, and that he is able to be both the author and the one who uses human agency in his work, without subverting human agency or diminishing his ownership. The best analogy, again, is the incarnation of God in flesh. While this is beyond us, it is perfectly within the power of God to be Trinity so that, indeed, Jesus is the God-Man. Likewise, he is the author of all revelation, even as he uses humans. And herein we learn afresh what God is like. God is the one who uses human agency to perfectly convey a knowledge of himself, and he does so without subverting the humanity of the human authors (by turning them into mere ink pens or something of that sort). We can thus say that the bible is 100% written by men, and 100% written by God. Rightly understood, this is no contradiction, but is reflective of how God acts in history.
This is not the last point because it is last, but because it merits special attention! The scriptures testify to Christ (Jesus himself said this in John 5). And God himself, by his Spirit, points us to Christ. That is, God, by his Spirit points us to God the Son. Our reading of the Bible is rooted in the Trinity. As God is motivated by God, he motivates us in the same way by his Spirit, and thereby our attention is directed to Christ. Christians are Christians by the work of the Spirit of God, and so his church and their reading of his 66 books is in the Spirit. And this always leads to a Christ-centered reading of the Bible. This does not open the door to wild interpretations where someone is free to claim that God is leading them into various new ideas. But the Spirit of God, using means (including those listed above), lead us to Christ. We are right to say, then, that the Bible is about Jesus. Or, as one theologian has said it, “The Old Testament is summarized by one word: Christ, and the New Testament is summarized by one word: Jesus.”
Unaided by the Spirit, we would read the scriptures without real profit; we need the Spirit of God to lead us into all truth, and this leading is not independent of the Scriptures, but is in, by and with the Scriptures. The Spirit of God uses the Bible as the primary means to lead us to Christ and to guide his people. He does this reasonably. He does not contradict the valid use of words, logic and reason (so that reading the Bible becomes mindless and without contours and edges), but honors the use of language as the valid conduit of conveying the Trinity via the Scriptures.
Each of these points informs upon our life as a church under the rule and authority of Scripture. When we say that the Bible is without error, we are saying all of the above. We are not trying to religiously mimic mere tautology (which, we fear, is a real threat and an identifiable practice among some), nor are we attempting to be safe in our bible-belt dialect. When we speak of the inerrancy of scripture, it wells up from convictions rooted in linguistics, logic, reason, archaeology, history, and language — all according to the work of God by his Spirit through the 66 books of the Bible (and not through any other books or sources).