How Can We Trust Scripture?

By: Mike Bishop
*originally published on March 10, 2021

Christians With Questions

Are you a Christian? Do you have questions?

You’re not alone. Many Christians, especially younger ones, are wrestling with their faith. Between politics, culture wars, public scandals, racism, and the constant barrage of ideas on social media, questions abound.

Generally, the church has not been too kind or patient to those who ask hard questions. Most churches just don’t have time. Questions are not efficient. They don’t fill the seats or the offering plate. They aren’t “seeker friendly”. They also can scare off the faithful or cause them to start asking their own questions. Questions are like a virus.

We shouldn’t be afraid of questions, especially the really hard ones. The church should be the safest place to ask probing questions about the nature of God, the universe, and the human soul. But often, it’s anything but safe for those trying to make sense of a world that seems to be falling apart.

In this series, I want to help you get “unstuck” with common questions that seem to regularly cause Christians to lose sleep or their faith. I can’t claim that I’ll be able to answer every nuance or objection in these short articles. In fact, the most beneficial answers will be found in community with other Jesus followers and by a grace of the Holy Spirit.

I just hope to be a helpful guide.

Just as an editorial note, these are questions that have been posed to me through email or in conversation with real, live “Christians with questions.”

Well, here it goes.
Question: How can we trust scripture? Why were men the only authors? Did God not reveal himself to women or was it just the culture at the time to not allow women to write?
So the first part of this is really the foundational question that ultimately leads you away or towards the God that’s revealed in scripture. How can we trust scripture? If we can’t trust the Bible, it’s really hard to build anything that will withstand the competing ideas of what it means to be human in the world. So, it’s a super important question, but we need to first understand exactly what it means to “trust” scripture in the first place.

For many people, trusting scripture involves the belief that every word was dictated to some holy person who simply jotted down what they heard. This gets into the theological concept of “inspiration”, which is the first question we need to ask about trust.

What does it mean for the Bible to be
“inspired by God?”

If God wasn’t involved at all, then how do we know it isn’t just made up? If he was involved, how did he participate? Were the authors of the books of the Bible just good note-takers? Or were they involved in some kind of partnership with God as they wrote?
This question has been debated for centuries, so we’re in good company here. But to answer it well, like so much when it comes to scripture, we need to learn how to lay down our 21st century, western, American perspective.

First, the Bible is an ancient book written to ancient people in ancient languages. If we don’t start there, pretty much everything else we try to do will be a dead end. The minute we try to conform the Bible to our way of looking at the world, our theology, our language, and our ethics, we detach it from the reason it was written in the first place. This should give you a hint on the answer to the question of “inspiration”.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you wanted to document the history of your biological family to give to your kids when they were older. So you pull out your laptop, get all the genealogies and old stories from your grandparents, and start writing. Now, your kids are eventually going to have kids, and their kids will have kids, and on and on and on. Even though your great-great-great grandaughter might enjoy reading the story of your family 100 years from now, you aren’t really writing to her. Sure, you hope your words will impact later generations, but that’s not your priority. You want your kids — one generation — to get it so they understand where your family came from.

In the same way, the Biblical authors did not set out to write a “spiritual” text detached from the time and space it was written. They were writing to the people of Israel, or a local church, or a person. They were thinking about unique problems to address, stories to tell, poems, prophecies, or to record history. They did all these things using the common language of the day (Hebrew, Greek,or Aramaic generally) and used words, metaphors, and patterns in their text that would be instantly recognizable to their readers. Unfortunately for us, there are many pieces of this puzzle that are no longer recognizable. I would assume that your descendant 100 years from now would have the same problems reading your family history.
So, back to the question of inspiration. Do you think it would make sense for the author of Genesis to write a book in an ancient language with a target audience 3500 years in the future? Of course not. So if that doesn’t make sense from a human perspective, I don’t think it would make sense for God to do it either. That kind of rules out the “holy-note-taking” view of inspiration.

Well, but what about the totally human perspective? What if God wasn’t involved at all? Ok, let’s tease that out. Let’s say someone did write Genesis about 3500 years ago or so. And then someone else wrote 1st and 2nd Samuel. And then someone else put together Isaiah, the minor prophets, and compiled the book of Psalms. And then hundreds of years later, a whole other group of people started writing down stories that had been passed down orally about Jesus and a whole bunch of letters written to churches.

Eventually, a group of humans decided, let’s gather all these books together and call it the Bible. All of this happened over about a 1500 year period with no central “committee” or authority guiding the process. And the outcome is the central most influential book the world has ever known that has a consistent thread of a story that stays consistent from start to finish? Highly unlikely given humanity’s proclivity to screw things up.

Inspiration is still a complex issue, but I think the answer lies in how God designed humans to function in his world. He did not create us as robots or slaves, but as friends and co-workers in his world. So, did the authors of the Bible use their own wisdom, intelligence, and perspective on the world? Of course! God wouldn’t have it any other way. But God didn’t leave them alone to mess things up. He worked within their creativity to develop these writings into the consistent, magnificent story they tell. And, he didn’t just use individuals to do this either. The Bible is a community project.
So this gets into your question about female participation, and I’ll get there next. One more thing about trusting the Bible though. Ultimately, the goal of scripture is to reveal the nature of God and his plan of redemption to a community of people who will be his “imagers” on earth. It’s fundamentally a story to be lived out.

N.T. Wright talks about this by using the analogy of a lost play by Shakespeare. Let’s say someone found an unfinished manuscript from old William that had four complete acts and part one of the fifth act. But it obviously wasn’t complete. How would you finish the fifth act? Well, one person could attempt to do it, but it would be very one-sided. Who is as good as Shakespeare anyways? Instead, there are plenty of professional actors out there that have spent their whole life immersed in his whole body of work. They know every line, every character, and every plot twist. Wright says, a better way to complete the play would be to let those actors learn the first five acts and then improvise the ending. That would be more faithful to the story.

In the same way, this is how we live out scripture in 21st century, post-modern America. The Bible doesn’t say anything about how to live in a worldwide pandemic with a contested election and racial unrest. It just tells the story it tells. But we can immerse ourselves in the story of Scripture, learn its lines, characters, and plot twists, and then “improvise” ways to be faithful to the story in the world we live, with the Holy Spirit’s help, of course.

So back to your question. The Bible is a community book and most scholars think that a majority of the Old Testament at least was written, or at least edited, by groups of elders or scribes. Tradition in the ancient world would have held that these groups were exclusively male. In the New Testament, authorship is still not 100% clear, but it does seem like Paul, Peter, and James wrote their letters and there were others who wrote the Gospels. But, in both the Old and New Testament periods, there were two elements where women not only contributed, but were essential to how scripture was formed in the life of God’s people.
First, although the Old Testament was written and developed by men, it obviously tells an inclusive story. This would have been very unusual in ancient literature, especially when it comes to showing how a nation’s god formed their people in the first place. It would have been all war, domination, and violence in other cultures with women playing purely a role of servitude and childbearing. Miriam, Deborah, and Esther stand out from a leadership perspective, but there are tons of other examples of how women directly influence the story with the authority of Yahweh.

Second, women have always been the primary way the oral traditions get handed down to children and other women. In both testaments, the written Bible would have only been accessible to the priest or rabbi for use during worship. Everything was memorized by the men, but the women would tell stories.

It could be argued if you look at Jesus’ ministry that everything he said and did was to allow the oral tradition to do its thing. Women were right at the center from day one with Jesus, passing his words and stories of his deeds throughout Galilee and eventually throughout the early church in Asia.

So, to sum up, we can trust Scripture because it’s God’s story and a very human story. Through a community effort, the Bible was written and compiled over many years. Somehow, it communicates this beautiful narrative of a loving God, working with imperfect people, and ultimately dying for them so they can be his eternal family. And, we owe countless, faithful women who never allowed social barriers to keep them from passing down this story from generation to generation.

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