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THE CELL LEADER’S MANUAL

An Apologetics Primer

The Bible: Authenticity & Authority in an Age of Suspicion

GEM ’85, this rev. Aug. 2002a 

"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  But do this with gentleness and respect . . ."     (1 Peter 3:15)





2.         The Bible: Authenticity and Authority in an Age of Suspicion

Traditionally, Christians hold that the Bible is "God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."  (2 Tim. 3:16, 17.)  Thus, we see the Bible as being the recorded Word of God that breathes out his redemptive, life-transforming, perfect truth, love, moral purity, wisdom, authority, and power.  

Consequently, we understand ourselves and our world in light of the biblical plot-line[11]:

q       God is the eternal, holy, perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing, loving Creator and Sustainer of the cosmos, who made humanity in his image, to be his stewards of the earth.

q       This stewardship implied the power of choice, thus necessarily the potential for virtue or vice.  Unfortunately, our first ancestors chose to walk in their own way, and ever since, each of us has ratified that choice through our own wilfully sinful behaviour — which wreaks havoc on our own selves, other people and the whole earth.

q       So, naturally, all of us are subjects of God’s just anger at sin.  However, in love, God made a way for us to be reconciled to himself and so seeks to rescue us from the enslaving and destructive power of sin. 

q       To effect this plan, God chose a particular people (the Jews) and joined covenant with them, creating a culture within which he sent his prophets with his words that guided them through times of faithfulness and unfaithfulness, blessing, and judgement, preparing the way for his chosen Messiah — Spirit-empowered deliverer.

q       In due course, that Messiah/Christ was sent by God: Jesus of Nazareth, the unique Son of God.  He loved, served, taught, healed and delivered from Satanic bondage.  But he was rejected and declared worthy of death (as a blasphemer) by the leaders of his own people, and “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” who — for political expediency — unjustly condemned him to death, having declared Jesus innocent of sedition against Rome.

q       But, in dying on a cross, Jesus bore our sins and brought redemption for us.  Then, triumphing over the Devil, he rose from the dead as Lord.  In ascending to his Father, he sent out his church into the world under the power of his Spirit, with the Good News that freely brings forgiveness, reconciliation, salvation, healing, wholeness and liberation to all men who will but receive it.

q       So, even now, through the church, the Risen Lord works to fill all things with his grace and glory, creating a foretaste of what shall be in perfect fulness at his Coming.[12]  Then, he shall establish his Eternal Kingdom in its fully manifested power and glory, triumphing over all human and demonic rebellion and chaos.

Few things are as controversial today as these traditional, Bible-based Christian claims!

Basically, they have been challenged from three directions:

1.)       Some feel that during the centuries of copying by hand from one text to another and due to "inevitable distortions" in the translation process, the original text "must" have been badly distorted or even totally lost.   Thus, such people believe that we can have no way of knowing that the Bible’s story line is authentic.

2.)       It is claimed, often by learned Theologians (such as Dominic Crossan and the Jesus Seminar, or Bishop John Spong of New Jersey, and many others) that much of the Bible is simply a collection of pre-scientific myths and pious forgeries, which has to be "demythologized" and "reconstructed" before use.  In particular, such thinkers are suspicious of the idea that History, under the Lordship of Christ, is moving along a path from Creation and fall, through redemption and witness to all nations, towards a culmination at the Second Coming. 

3.)       Some argue that the Bible is factually inaccurate, that is, it does not square with what we know today about the world in the past — especially in Genesis, in its prophecies, and reports of miracles.  That is, they hold that (based on our ability to reconstruct the past through historical, archaeological and scientific investigations) we can discredit and dismiss the Bible’s claims.

The first challenge is easiest to deal with.  Simply put, we have a mountain of ancient textual evidence to the Bible (in both the original languages and ancient translations), which enables us to be reasonably confident that we know what the original text was, in all essential details at all essential points.   Moreover, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the original languages, are still understood and studied today, so we can easily check the accuracy of any particular translation.  Of the many available good modern English versions, the Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Version, the New King James Version and the New International Version are generally highly respected.  (For more details, consult J. McDowell's Evidence that Demands a Verdict, or F.F. Bruce's The Books and the Parchments.)

The second is somewhat more technical and not usually relevant to laymen — unless they have been influenced by the claims of the Jesus Seminar or the like.  Suffice to say that, for example, the idea that Moses' books were written in the tenth to sixth centuries BC originally depended upon the assumption that writing had not been invented in Moses' day; a theory which has long since exploded.  Similarly, there is little or no sound reason to conclude that the New Testament documents are pious forgeries dating to the second century.  In general, such sceptical scholarly theories are based upon materialistic and evolutionary assumptions that are debatable, or even arbitrary, and which we are by no means compelled by the evidence to accept without question.  For details, see J. McDowell's Evidence that Demands a Verdict, and various articles in The New Bible Dictionary, IVP.

The third objection is more fundamental.  The Bible is full of reports about the supernatural works of a sovereign God, in creation, revelation, salvation, healing, and deliverance.  It is often claimed that such reports cannot be true, either because they contradict the scientifically established laws of nature or else known facts about the past.

Clearly, the issue is not one of proof beyond all doubt or dispute — no such "proofs" exist.  Rather, the issue is whether it is intellectually honest or sensible to believe a book making claims such as the above. 

The best place to begin, as always, is with Jesus, his life, death, and claims.  Luke, in beginning his Gospel, for instance, claims:

[S]ince I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you . . . so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.    [Luke 1:3, 4; emphasis added.]

Luke, then, starts out by saying his writings are a carefully researched, accurate and orderly account of the life of Jesus and — taking in the Acts, also addressed to Theophilus — also of the early history of the church; based upon eyewitness testimony and (apparently) records of such testimony.  His main aim was to provide warrant for Christian faith, and he argued that an accurate, orderly account of what happened to Jesus and his followers would be quite sufficient.

This is a claim to be writing objective history, and within the lifetime of eyewitnesses.  If these claims are false, “Luke” is out and out guilty of fraud, however pious.

But Luke is open to checking, as he tosses out names, dates, and places with abandon, even (in the "we" passages in Acts) implying that he was himself present as a participant in some of the events he records.  So, if he were, say, a second century forger, he would be likely indeed to get the facts wrong. 

At one stage this was commonly felt to be so, "but it is generally admitted by scholars today that the author's historical accuracy has been vindicated." [J. N. Geldenhuys, "Luke, Gospel of," New Bible Dictionary, IVP, 1976, p. 757.]  F.F. Bruce adds: "The historical trustworthiness of Luke's account has been amply confirmed by archaeological discovery.  While he has apologetic and theological interests [mostly, to commend the Christian faith to the Romans as not being a security threat and as being based on a true understanding of God’s intervention into human history in the person and work of Jesus], these do not detract from this detailed accuracy." ["Acts, Book of the," NBD, p. 11. Parenthetical summary added.]  For instance, it has been pointed out that his account of Paul’s voyage and shipwreck in Acts 27 provides one of the best accounts of ancient seafaring.  Indeed, the course of the voyage, the weather systems that led to the shipwreck and its likely location can be reconstructed from the account!

This pattern of confirmed accuracy is vital when we turn to the main line of the account.  For, accuracy, as has been often said, is a habit — as are carelessness and deceitfulness.  And, Luke’s main plot-line (while tossing out abundant and well authenticated incidental references to life in First Century Palestine and the wider Mediterranean) weaves momentous claims into the basic fabric of the times: the birth, life, teachings, miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus and the origin and progress of a church which testified to these things, did similar miracles, and could not be stopped, not even by force.  Indeed, the claim that the Church's opponents had to resort to force, even within walking-distance of Jesus' now empty tomb, is itself significant.

Luke contends that all of this is fact, carefully researched and orderly presented fact.  If he was wrong, surely the church's opponents would have been able to ram his false or inaccurate claims back down his throat, followed by copious helpings of crow!

Instead, we read of Paul, challenged by Festus: "You are out of your mind, Paul!  Your great learning is driving you insane!" His reply: "I am not insane, most excellent Festus . . . What I am saying is true and reasonable.  The King [Agrippa] is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him.  I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner." (Acts 26:25, 26.)

Here we see Paul, before his accusers, preaching to his judges, and appealing to their knowledge of the well-known facts.  To my mind, this is plainly not consistent with the idea that the reports are mere tall tales, pious forgeries made up long after the eyewitnesses had died out.  Moreover, five hundred people simply do not suffer the same hallucination at the same time, nor are hallucinations able to confer miraculous powers, or utterly change murderous persecutors into bold missionaries, as Luke records.  Tellingly, Luke claims that the church's opponents could not deny the life-transforming impact of the gospel, especially the powerful miracles wrought in the name of Jesus.[13]  (Cf. Acts 4:14: “since they could see the [formerly crippled] man who had been healed standing . . . there was nothing they could say.”)

We, then, must make up our minds as to whether we can accept Luke's record.  If we reject it, we must know why — and why we do so in the teeth of his demonstrated, detailed historical reliability.  (We hardly need to detain ourselves with the circular argument that miracles are “impossible” because they violate “exceptionless laws of nature.”  For, why should it be “impossible” for the All-Powerful, All-Wise Creator of the cosmos to sometimes act beyond the usual course of nature as we — all too fallibly — perceive it?)

If, on the other hand, we accept the Lukan claim, it implies that the New Testament is the authentic record of Jesus, his life, teachings, claims death and resurrection, and of the church that bore witness to him.  In turn, this validates the Old Testament record of how God acted into the flow of history to prepare the way for just such a Saviour as Jesus of Nazareth.  [Cf. 2 Peter 1:1- 3:18, esp. 1:12 – 2:3, & 3:1 -18.]

If it is credible at all, the Bible is the Word of God. The choice, with its implications and consequences, is ours.

 


NOTICES: This course module was originally created by Gordon Mullings, in 1985, for use as part of a manual for Cell Group Leaders for the UCCF, in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. It has been subsequently revised and developed, to date. (DISCLAIMER: While reasonable attempts have been made to provide accurate, fair and informative materials for use in training, no claim is made for absolute truth, and corrections based on factual errors and/or gaps or inconsistencies in reasoning are welcome.) FAIR USE: The contents of this module are intended for use as a support for learning about responding to the typical intellectual challenges to the Christian Faith and gospel that are commonly encountered in the Caribbean, especially in tertiary education and in commentary in the regional and international media. Permission is therefore granted to link to this page for fair use under intellectual property law, and for reasonable citation of the linked content on this site for church- or parachurch- group related training and/or for personal or academic use; this specifically excludes reproduction, linking or citation for commercial, controversial or media purposes without the Author's written permission -- especialy where matters relating to the validity and value of Faith/Religious/Atheological Commitments and Truth-Claims are being debated or disputed. PDF version available, under similar terms. COPYRIGHT:GEM 2002. All rights are reserved.

FOOTNOTES:

[11] Cf. UCCF Statement of Faith, or similar creedal statements, for specific Scripture references.

[12] See the companion paper, Fulnss and our Mandate, for an expansion of this theme, with a strategic framework for its application to the reformation and sound development of the Caribbean.

[13] For that matter, the gospel yet changes lives, and many miracles in the name of Jesus have continued to happen down through history, right up to our own time.  [Cf. Acts 4:7 – 12, and Acts 9:1 – 38 (nb. 24:1 - 26:32, esp. 26:4 - 8, 9 - 23).]