“And how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” – 2 Timothy 3:15-17
The Bible is a work of fiction. It is thousands of years old, and untrustworthy. What is more, it is filled with contradictions.
This is a popular sentiment among skeptics and atheists. “This is the twenty-first century,” so the line goes, “why would we base our lives on some ancient text?” Fiction movies, such as the Davinci Code, have culturally encouraged a kind of skepticism as well. “We don’t even know what books we’re suppose to have,” some conclude. In this segment we will examine these charges.
Is the Bible Fiction?
To be sure, the Bible itself claims to be the very word of God (Jer. 33:2; 2 Tim. 3:15-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21), and as the word of God it claims to be without error (Ps. 12:6), it claims to be true and pure (Num. 23:19; 2 Sam. 7:28; Ps. 119:89; Prov. 30:5; Matt. 24:35; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18), and it claims to be a faithful account of what actually happened in history (Luke 1:1-4).
In the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, Luke begins by saying:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4).
It is clear from this (and other passages) that the biblical authors did not see themselves as writers of fiction. What is remarkable is that the sixty-six books that make up the Bible were written by about forty different authors, over a span of around 1,600 years, on three different continents, using three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek), and all with a unified message.
What is more, if these authors were writing fiction, literary critic C.S. Lewis said this:
I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. Of this [gospel] text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage… or else, some unknown [ancient] writer… without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative.
Lewis points out that ancient fiction is nothing like modern fiction. Modern fiction is realistic, with minute details and eyewitness accounts. This kind of fiction, however, only developed within the last three hundred years, which means if the Bible were fiction, it literally happened in a vacuum, for that kind of writing is foreign to the first century.
Is the Bible Trustworthy?
Related to the previous question, the issue of trustworthiness is also an issue challenged by skeptics. The Bible, however, is actually remarkably trustworthy. All of the New Testament books were written within the first century—many from the eyewitnesses, and all within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. The manuscript evidence for the New Testament, for instance, is better than the manuscript evidence for authors like Plato, Aristotle, and Herodotus. As William Lane Craig argues, good evidence doesn’t become bad evidence simply because of the lapse of time. What is more, claims that the biblical authors were liars would require some degree of burden of proof on those who levy such an attack on their character.
Part and parcel with the issue of trustworthiness, is the issue of whether or not we have the right amount of books that God has written. What about the apocryphal books written during the 400-year gap between the close of the Old Testament and the start of the New Testament (e.g., I Maccabees, Tobit, the Book of Wisdom, etc)? What about the pseudepigrapha books (e.g., Enoch, etc)? Or what about the second century Gnostic books (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Gospel of Philip, etc)? Or what about the books that some in the early church thought to be canonical (e.g., Shepherd of Herman or the Didache)?
These issues are complicated, as they often require one to discuss the contents of the books themselves. It should also be said that many of the books are useful books. But the issue is not which are helpful, but which ones are God-breathed. The apocrypha is not believed to be God’s word because neither Jesus nor the New Testament authors quoted from the books, Josephus and the Talmud describe the apocrypha as being separate from the Old Testament, the apocryphal books don’t claim divine origin (even deny it at times, c.f., 1 Macc. 9:27), some of the apocrypha contains historical errors, and in AD 170 the church leader at Sardis, Melito, travelled to Jerusalem to assure himself of the books that are to be in the Old Testament, and not one of the apocryphal books were included. (For more reasons, see: Scripture Alone by James White)
Regarding the Gnostic writings, not only were they largely written in the second century—much longer than the books of the New Testament—but Gnosticism is of a different religion entirely. The Gnostics used the same language as Christianity, but they deviated significantly. For instance, Gnostics believed in a distinction between the transcendent God and Creator God, they believed that God is not necessarily more powerful than Satan, and they believed that higher levels of “secret” knowledge gain salvation. It is not surprising, therefore, that their books contain odd teachings, like women have to make themselves men in order to enter heaven (Gospel of Thomas), or that only the descendents of Jesus’ union with Mary Magdeline will be saved (Gospel of Mary).
Much academic work has been done in this area for those who would like further study (see: Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books by Michael Kruger, The Canon of Scripture by F.F. Bruce, Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant? by Walter Kaiser, Can We Still Believe the Bible? by Craig Blomberg, and Nothing But the Truth by Brian Edwards). Indeed, we can have full confidence that the sixty-six books of the Bible are the exact books ordained by God for us to have (Deut. 29:29). They are completely sufficient, trustworthy, and authoritative, for they came from God Himself. The church does not create the canon of Scripture; rather, God creates the canon of Scripture for the redeemed to recognize.
Michael Kruger, commenting on the New Testament books of the Bible, gives this helpful explanation:
We tend to think that we are not justified in holding a belief unless it can be authenticated on the basis of other beliefs. But… this approach overlooks the unique nature of the canon. The canon, as God’s Word, is not just true, but the criterion of truth. It is an ultimate authority… If we try to validate an ultimate authority by appealing to some other authority, then we have just shown that it is not really the ultimate authority… When it comes to authenticating the canon, we are not so much proving Scripture as we are using Scripture. Or, even better, we are applying Scripture to the question of which books belong in the New Testament… When we do apply the Scripture to the question of which books belong in the canon… it testifies to the fact that God has created the proper epistemic environment wherein the New Testament canon can be reliably formed.
Some arguments against the trustworthiness of Scripture come from a more subjective and emotive angle. “It’s the twenty-first century,” someone might say. Timothy Keller invites us to have some introspection. He writes:
I urge people to consider that their position with some text might be based on an unexamined belief in the superiority of their historical moment over all others. We must not universalize our time any more than we should universalize our culture. This of the implications of the very term “regressive.” To reject the Bible as regressive is to assume that you have now arrived at the ultimate historical moment, from which all that is regressive and progressive can be discerned. That belief is surely as narrow and exclusive as the views in the Bible you regard as offensive… To stay away from Christianity because part of the Bible’s teaching is offensive to you assumes that if there is a God he wouldn’t have any views that upset you. Does that belief make sense?
Are There Contradictions in the Bible?
Claiming that the Bible is “full of contradictions” is pretty common among skeptics (and even theological liberals). What one finds, however, is that when people claim contradiction, there isn’t an actual contradiction. A contradiction would be for someone to postulate A and non-A at the same time and in the same way. To be sure, there are difficulties in Scripture, but a difficulty is not a contradiction. (see: Are There Contradiction in the Bible? by R.C. Sproul and Are There Contradictions in Scripture? by G.K. Beale)
Christians who hold to the inerrancy of Scripture have affirmed from the beginning:
We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations (Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article XIII).
Because the Bible ultimately has one divine Author, you find that discrepancies in passages are actually to be seen in a perspectival and complimentary fashion. New Testament scholar, Andreas Köstenberger said it like this, “…[I]n God’s sovereign providence we’ve been given multiple Gospels “according to” Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in order to provide us with a diversity of perspectives that can legitimately be viewed as complementary rather than contradictory.”
Take the death of Judas, for instance. Did Judas die by hanging (Matt. 27:3-8), or did he fall headlong and spill his guts out (Acts 1:16-19)? David G. Perterson shows how to view these passages in a complimentary way:
Luke’s description of the glory end of Judas can be related to the tradition that he hanged himself if we imagine that his fall was sequel to his hanging in some way, with his body rupturing as a consequence. There is also a possibility that the Greek expression prenes genomenos in v. 18 means ‘swelling up’ instead of ‘falling headlong,’ in which case we can imagine his corpse becoming bloated in the heat and bursting open while still hanging.
The Bible is Required for a Foundation of Knowledge
This section, perhaps, has the greatest apologetic import, but it must be stated in brief. Cornelius Van Til, Scott Oliphint, Lane Tipton, and Greg Bahnsen have written on this subject in greater depth. I would encourage the curious reader to continue his study on this very important issue.
Some would wonder why I said “Bible” in the heading and not “God” or “Christ, as the Word of God.” I don’t disagree with the sentiment, but I also don’t think Scripture is at odds with or somehow deficient when we talk about issues of epistemology (study of knowledge). Moreover, apart from mysticism, one cannot divorce Scripture from God or Christ. So says Van Til:
The inscripturation of the Word of God with respect to God’s plan of redemption through Christ, therefore, is the Bible. Because of sin in the heart of man, the Word of God thus acquires the greatest permanence of form. It is, as the inscripturated Word of God, less liable to perversion than mere tradition would be… The writers of Scripture were inspired by the Holy Spirit to set forth this system of truth.”
Therefore, “The facts of the universe in general,” Van Til continues,
may either be regarded in the light of the system of truth presented in Scripture or they may be seen in the light of some other system of truth that men think they possess. The Christian is convinced that there is no other system of truth in the light of which the world may properly be regarded.
Another element to this has to do with the Christian’s understanding of anthropology. Given the Fall of humanity (Gen. 3), we have reason to believe that our reasons and autonomous intellectual capabilities will lead us astray. To be sure, we can know true things and discover true things, by virtue of being made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and due to God’s common grace (Matt. 5:45) toward us. Van Til gets to the heart of the matter:
We cannot subject the authoritative pronouncements of Scripture about reality to the scrutiny of reason because it is reason itself that learns of its proper function from Scripture… But if man is not autonomous, if he is rather what Scripture says he is, namely, a creature of God and a sinner before his face, then man should subordinate his reason to the Scriptures and seek in light of it to interpret his experience.
The Christian views the world through the lens of the Bible, and the non-believer views the world through the lens of his own autonomy. Which lens or worldview is the correct worldview? (see: Worldviews and Point of Contact). Jason Lisle writes this: “In order for a worldview to be rationally defensible, it must be internally consistent,” and “must provide the preconditions of intelligibility” (e.g., the reliability of memory, the reliability of senses, and the laws of logic) Lisle continues:
We all presume that there are law of logic that govern correct reasoning. Earlier in the chapter I stated that contradictions cannot be true. It probably didn’t occur to any reader to question that claim; it is a law of logic that all take for granted. And yet how could we prove that there are laws of logic? We would have to first assume them in order to begin a logical proof. Therefore, laws of logic constitute a precondition of intelligibility. They must be assumed before we can even begin to reason about anything—including reasoning about laws of logic themselves… Only a consistent Christian can have justification (a sound reason) for things like laws of logic and the reliability of our senses. Without justification for things we take for granted, we can’t really know that any of our thinking or observations of the world are correct… For the Christian there is an absolute standard for reasoning; we are to pattern our thoughts after God’s… According to Genesis, God has made us in His image (Gen. 1:26) and therefore we are to follow His example (Eph. 5:1). The laws of logic are a reflection of the way God thinks, and thus the way He expects us to think… Laws of logic make sense in a Christian worldview. But other worldviews cannot account for them.
In conclusion, we must affirm, “The Bible must be true because if it were not, we could not actually know anything at all.” If one were in a prolonged debate, it may require one to survey various worldviews, religions, and ideologies in order to show why each one fails to account for the preconditions of intelligibility. Jeffery D. Johnson and Scott Oliphint have both done some good work in this arena.
I will give the final word to Greg Bahnsen:
Man must think God’s thoughts after Him, for “in Thy light shall we see light” (Ps. 36:9)… To make God’s word your presupposition, your standard, your instructor and guide, however, calls for renouncing intellectual self-sufficiency—the attitude that you are autonomous, able to attain unto genuine knowledge independent of God’s direction and standard… All knowledge begins with God, and thus we who wish to have knowledge must presuppose God’s word and renounce intellectual autonomy… The foundation of knowledge is God’s revelation. Are you founded there or intellectually adrift?
“No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” – 2 Peter 1:20-21
Also in this series:
© copyright J. Brandon Burks
Brian H. Edwards, Nothing But the Truth: The Inspiration, Authority, and History of the Bible Explained (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2006), 51, c.f., 52-75.
As quoted in: Timothy Keller, The Reason For God: Belief in the Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead, 2008), 110.
Edwards, Nothing But the Truth, 201-206.
Paul Taylor, “Is The Bible Enough?” in The New Answers Book 2: 30 Questions on Creation, Evolution, and the Bible, ed. by Ken Ham (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2008), 223.
Edwards, Nothing But the Truth, 228.
Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 91-94.
Keller, The Reason For God, 115-116.
Andreas Köstenberger, “Does the Bible Ever Get it Wrong? Facing Scripture’s Difficult Passages (#4): Andreas Köstenberger,” in Canon Fodder (Sept. 14, 2014), http://michaeljkruger.com/does-the-bible-ever-get-it-wrong-facing-scriptures-difficult-passages-4-andreas-kostenberger/
David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, in The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapid, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), 124.
Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1969), 27, 33.
Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, ed. Scott Oliphint (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1955), 130.
Jason Lisle, The Ultimate Proof of Creation: Resolving the Origins Debate (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2009), 38-39.
Ibid., 39-40, 52.
Greg. L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, ed. by Robert R. Booth (Nacogdoches, TX: CMP, 1996), 19-21.