A Dialogue on Scripture

This post, presented as a dialogue, addresses what I think are some basic issues raised by Christians’ recognition and use of Scripture.

What do you mean by Scripture?

Most dictionary definitions say simply it is writing that a particular religion holds to be “sacred” or “holy.” So it is writing that is God-related, but of course there is more to it than that. It also has to be true, and true in a unique way: inspired by God, God-breathed, so that its truth is special in its importance and in its reliability. (In another passage on this blogsite, by the way, I quote here a passage that I found instructive about Scripture generally from an article in First Things.)

What reason do we have for believing that there should exist anything we describe this way?

Let me put up front the best argument for why Christians should recognize that there is such a thing as Scripture: Because Jesus did. We know, to quote from an article in a recent issue of the conservative Methodist Good News magazine, “that Jesus loved the Bible, that he never criticized or contradicted it, and that he quoted it often …” (Eric Huffman, “From Skeptic to Believer,” Good News 8, at 10 (May/June 2021), link here). For a compilation of Jesus’ quotes from the Old Testament, see here, for example [link: https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1060&context=second_person ]. Of course, Jesus Himself could not have quoted the New Testament, but I’ll note that Peter, in one of his letters, considered Paul’s letters to be Scripture (II Peter 3:15-16; see also II Peter 1:16-18). And later on in this post I’ll discuss why the existence of Scripture like what we have in the New Testament would be expected.

Does it make sense for God to speak through Scripture?

I’ve written elsewhere about the sensicality of Scripture — what’s in it, and God’s use of the written word. For a variety of reasons, He might not have want to show up everywhere, every day, and make pronouncements. For example, too direct a presence would or could defeat the need for freely chosen faith and belief. And, again, what is in Scripture also makes sense, as I discuss here.

Nor does it seem to be crazy for God to create Scripture through speaking to and through individuals. In addition, He might create text Himself (as indeed He did in the special instance of the Ten Commandments) or dictate those texts (as, again, apparently was the case sometimes in the Old Testament, as well as those red-letter parts of the New Testament). Again, none of these approaches strikes me as inappropriate, and in all instances there is some reliance on humans for transmission of God’s Word.

Elsewhere on this blogsite [link: https://merepensees.com/2017/09/if-i-were-god-how-would-i-run-the-universe/ ] I wrote:

Is it odd to have so much — about [God’s] revelation, how He wants us to live, and so forth — hinge on a written book?

… [M]aybe not.  In the first place, of course, this is not the only way that He reveals Himself or His wishes.  There are other indicia of His presence and His nature [see, e.g., Psalm 19], and it can be argued (as per C.S. Lewis for example, and per Paul in Romans, for that matter) that our innate sense of right and wrong is divine in origin.  And the biblical revelations were transmitted orally before (and in addition to) being written down.

But, in any event, written Scripture is a quite logical mechanism when you think about it.  Unless God is to reveal Himself in every way to every generation, there would need to be some way for His message to be transmitted from one generation to the next.  And it is only through words (oral or written) that this can be done. And written words are much more reliable.

Finally, whether He uses the written word or not, God needs to be able to communicate with us in some fashion. Scripture is most essential when it is telling us a truth that only God can know, specifically the way God wants human beings to behave. There is much else in Scripture, of course, especially historical accounts. But those accounts can at least in theory be verified by human historians; they can also be challenged by them. Instructions on how God wants us to behave cannot be second-guessed by humans; the most they can do is adduce other evidence, particularly other Scripture, that is thought to be more reliable.

How do we tell if Scripture is God-breathed?

Typical of conventional definitions is what is given to us by John MacArthur in his study Bible, stating (xix) that the rules for acceptance as Scripture are that the author be a recognized prophet or apostle (or at least the close associate of one), that the text not contradict other Scripture, and that “the writing had to have general consensus by the church as an inspired book.” I found essentially the same thing at “Blue Letter Bible” and “Biblical Training” on the Internet.

There’s some circularity in that third point, alas. And in that regard consider this quote from J.A. Cove in “Miracles and Christian Theism,” Reason for the Hope Within 370 n.15 (emphasis in original):

…[T]he divine authority of Scripture seems to me not something that one could really establish at all. Some of us came to believe it at our parents’ knee. (But then, how’d they come to know it?) To accept the authority of Scripture on the authority of my parents will work all right as an explanation of why I do believe it, but hardly works as a justification of the belief itself (why I should believe it). My own view is that no amount of historical scholarship can establish the inspiration and authority of scripture. We’ve got historical evidence about the life of President Washington sufficient to underwrite the belief that he owned slaves; but what sort of evidence could there be about God inspiring the Gospel writers (say) or the selection of the Canon that would underwrite belief in those? (…. My suspicion is that [Alvin] Plantinga is right: our warrant in believing the Bible to be the authoritative Word of God owes to the work of the Holy Spirit. Full stop, pretty much.) 

In all events, I’ll suggest two additional requirements. The first is whether the circumstances that existed at a particular time make it is plausible to think that God would have wanted to breathe a particular text. The second requirement for a Scriptural text is even more obvious: It must be true. More on both of these below.

Note that there have been disagreements among Christians over the years about the canon. Luther, to give a particularly prominent example, opposed the inclusion of several books that nonetheless made it into the Protestant Bible.

Some related, but tentative, notes: (1) I suspect that sometimes a Bible book writer knew he was God-inspired, but sometimes he might not have known; anyway, my point is that a writer could be inspired and not know it. (2) I’m open to an argument that God would not have allowed something into the canon if it weren’t Scripture, or at least would have acted to prevent something wildly inappropriate from getting in. (3) I’m likewise open to a Burkean argument that the fact that a text has been accepted as Scripture for generations means that it deserves at least a presumptive acceptance by us.

Does it matter who the author of a book is?

In general, the Bible is inspired by God, not written or dictated by Him. And note that, if Jesus said something, we really don’t have to worry about whether He was “inspired” or not — but with Paul, we do.

The perspectives and experiences of a non-divine author inform what he said or could have said. Luke cannot speak as a Jew, he may not know as much about Judaism, and he may not be able to write as persuasively to Jews. Paul, on the other hand, was a Jew, and a well-educated one at that. Also, having established churches, Paul could draw on that experience. John, to give a more dramatic example, saw things in Revelation that no one else did.

But these are different perspectives — not different truths. The blind men perceived different parts of the elephant, but they all perceived an elephant; they did not describe the same parts differently, let alone contradictorily.

Perhaps this is a good place to make a point regarding what is and is not within the scope of a Scriptural text’s truth. Consider these different sorts of Scriptural passages: (1) Paul says something in a letter that is a personal complaint about a perceived personal wrong done to him; (2) in the same letter, Paul makes a theological point; (3) Luke in Acts quotes James writing something doctrinal in a letter; and (4) the author of one of the Old Testament historical accounts quotes an edict of David’s. I would be open to an argument that we need not accept item (1) to be a justified complaint. On the other hand, we should pretty well accept that item (2) is correct. For item (3), we must accept Luke’s word that James wrote what was in the letter, but we need not necessarily accept the soundness of what James said in that letter (but I’m more open to an argument that perhaps it ought to be accepted than the veracity of what’s asserted in item (1)). I think the same thing is true for item (4): We must accept that the edict said what we’re told it said, but the edict itself might or might not have been a good idea (and, here again, I’m less inclined to accept the wisdom of the edict in item (4) than James’s doctrinal decree in item (3)).

What is the relationship between truth and Scripture?

Not everything that is true is in Scripture, of course: the Pythagorean Theorem, for example, or the current National Hockey League standings. But everything in Scripture must be true.

If something in Scripture were shown to be false, that would be a problem. I don’t think it could any longer be claimed as part of Scripture; what’s more, if it were shown to be false, then unfortunately it would taint the truth of other Scripture.

If a text is true, by the way, then I’m not sure how much it matters whether it is God-inspired. You would want to believe it and follow it either way, would you not? If something is God-inspired, that is sufficient but not necessary for it to be true. If for some reason we were absolutely confident that a text is God-inspired, it is no longer necessary to ask if it is true.

I’m inclined to think that it makes sense to treat the Bible as presumptively true. It has been read, pored over, researched, and followed by a lot of smart people for a long time. There seems generally to be much more to lose by wrongly ignoring it than by wrongly following it, and much more to be gained by rightly following it than is gained by rightly ignoring it. Cf. Pascal’s Wager.

Christians should strive to ensure that Scripture is interpreted so that it is true, and the good news is that indeed it is — but obviously this is a subject beyond the scope of this post, and on which much, much, much has been written.

You said at the outset that Christians should recognize Scripture because Jesus did. But you also acknowledged that of course He cited only what we call the Old Testament. So what about the New Testament — why should it be recognized as Scripture, too?

In addition to considering the spiritual reliability of the person who wrote it, and whether what was written is consistent with other Scripture, perhaps it makes sense to consider whether the text was written at at time and under circumstances when it would have made sense for God to inspire such writing. (On how those particular circumstances nonetheless varied, see another post on this blogsite, here.)

Now, with regard to this last consideration, the Old Testament books can be considered on a case-by-case basis, but in all events we have Jesus’ imprimatur for them, as discussed above. And, as for the New Testament: If ever there was a time when Scripture was called for, it was in the first century, after the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

In particular, of course, God would want us to have a trustworthy account of the birth, life, death, Resurrection, and teachings of Jesus Christ. He would, that is, want us to have the Gospels. An account of the early church, of the first and inspired efforts to carry out the Great Commission, would also make sense (i.e., the book of Acts), as well as instructions to the early Christians from the church’s early leaders that elaborated on what we are to believe and how we are to act, worship, and set up churches (i.e., the various epistles). Finally, regarding the book of Revelation, wouldn’t it make sense for God to provide some assurance to believers of how everything would turn out? (As noted earlier, I have more on why the basic subject matter of Scripture makes sense in another post on this blogsite, here.)

I’ll note that the New Testament seems broadly to have worked! That is, we have lots of Christians and churches in the world: The Good News has been preserved and spread.

Now, is it possible that there might have been other inspired writings, lost to us (at least so far)? I suppose. Are there questions that we wished God had answered and, in extant Scripture, has not? Well, it’s always nice to know more: One pastor in a sermon complained about the lack of instructions we have on church organization; on the other hand, perhaps where we lack detail it is because God intended to allow flexibility, experimentation, and change.

It’s rather interesting that, after a couple of millennia, there have not been many new attempts at Scripture writing in the West, the two notable exceptions being Muhammed and Joseph Smith.

Finally, I’ll note here that one can view the New Testament as a work that God intended to inspire all along (since He knew that eventually He’d have to send His Son to save us) or as a “pocket part” to the Old Testament (made necessary because of “the great reset” He had to push after mankind repeatedly disappointed Him). Caveat: Reasonable Christians differ in their views about the scope of predestination, a tension that might be resolved by God’s not being time-bound, which is likewise a matter for reasonable discussion.