Monday, August 02, 2021

Anonymous Asks (156)

“Is everything in the Bible true?”

In what is often referred to as the high priestly prayer of John 17, Jesus speaks to his Father on behalf of his followers. “Sanctify them in the truth,” he requests. Then he adds these words: “Your word is truth.”

Now, the Bible is the word of God. That’s not simply a nickname Christians have given to our favorite book so we can impress unsaved people with its authority; that’s something the scripture calls itself. The phrase “word of God” is used 48 times in the Bible, and the phrase “word of the Lord” another 255. These expressions are used about the Law of Moses, the Psalms and the Prophets, taking in the entire Old Testament. They are used to describe both the teaching of Jesus and his apostles, which became the basis for our New Testament. They are used as a synonym for “scripture”, which includes both, and about which Jesus himself declared, “Scripture cannot be broken.” So then, the Bible itself claims to be truth from cover to cover.

But it should be obvious that not everything in the Bible is true in exactly the same sense.

Applicability and Conditionality

The Bible provides an accurate record of things God himself has said. Since God never lies, we can be 100% confident all these statements are true. But that does not mean each statement applies equally to every reader of scripture. God promised to make a great nation from Abraham, and that promise proved true, but it does not mean he will do precisely the same thing for me. So then, “true” is not a synonym for “applicable”.

Further, God never lies, but the Bible also provides a record of things God said which were intended to be conditional, which is to say that their fulfillment depended on the conduct of others. Consider these words of God through Jeremiah to the people of Judah:

“If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation concerning which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it.”

So when Jonah cried, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” in the streets of that great city, he was speaking the absolute truth, but the fulfillment of that true statement was conditional on Nineveh’s response. Since the people repented, their city was not overthrown, much to Jonah’s chagrin. You could argue that God’s statement was not ‘true’ if you like, but since we know Jonah’s warning was intended conditionally from the outset, that’s not really a fair characterization.

True and False

The Bible also provides an accurate record of things men and women said to one another and to God. As we know all too well, human beings lie all the time, and Satan even more frequently. So we also find in the Bible truthful records of false statements, as well as statements that are true in one sense and false in another. “You will not surely die,” said the serpent to Eve in the garden. That was true in the sense that Eve would not drop dead on the spot the moment she took a bite of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but it was false in the sense that death came not only to Eve but to all mankind as a result of her disobedience.

We also find statements in the Bible that were true at the time they were written, but are no longer true. We read, for example, that “all the singing men and singing women have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day”. This is true so long as we correctly understand “this day” to refer to the day the statement was written down for us, and not the day we are reading it. I’m not sure how many people are lamenting Josiah in 2021. I know I don’t spend a lot of time doing it.

Degrees of Accuracy

There are also plenty of statements in the Bible that are rhetorically true but not rigidly or technically accurate. Like everyone else, the prophets, writers of scripture and even the Lord himself used figures of speech, including hyperbole, to make a spiritual point, and everyone who heard what they said or read what they wrote understood these statements the way they were intended ... unless they were spiritually blind as bats, playing devil’s advocate or being annoyingly pedantic. If we want to be picky, for example, we could argue that it is actually not easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Plenty of rich people have been saved. Getting a camel to go through the eye of a needle, so far as I know, has yet to be accomplished. Maybe a big vat of hydrochloric acid would get the job done, but I’m not about to try it. That doesn’t make the Lord’s statement untrue. His figure of speech was intended to make the point that it is exceptionally difficult for rich people to be saved. That is certainly the case; the wealthy have temptations and hurdles in coming to Christ which we can only imagine.

Another good example is a statement made in 1 Kings that during the reign of Solomon, “Judah and Israel were as many as the sand by the sea.” Now, it has been calculated that a single square meter of beach down to a depth of three meters can hold something like 163 billion grains of sand, so it is pretty clear that the writer of Kings was not going for technical accuracy; you couldn’t fit 163 billion Israelites within the borders of Israel on its best day, let alone the numbers that would represent the grains of sand on even a small beach. That doesn’t mean his statement was untrue. He was simply using hyperbolic language to point out that Solomon’s reign was the high water mark for Israel and represented a fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham made many years previously. He was saying there were so many Judeans and Israelites at that time that nobody could possibly be expected to maintain an accurate count, and nobody did.

Math and English

The same is true with the poetry we find in scripture. Poetry is rarely technically precise, but the spiritual lessons taught by these “inaccuracies” are absolutely true. For example, when David writes, “Against you, you only, have I sinned,” he is not trivializing his sins against Uriah, Bathsheba, his nation and his family. He is simply saying that compared to his sin against God, these crimes against human beings pale into insignificance. In fact, God avenged the murder of Uriah many times over, during David’s own lifetime and afterward. He did not deem it a trivial matter.

Then there are the figures of scripture. Not every total recorded for us in scripture was intended to be equally precise. How likely is it, for example, that in the census of Numbers 3, the male Gershonites from a month old and upward numbered exactly 7,500, the Kohathites 8,600 and the Merarites 6,200? Clearly there is some rounding going on there. Then, in verse 39 when the three groups are added together, Moses gives a total of 22,000 for what actually comes to 22,300 if we are being mathematically precise. Again, rounding, which is a perfectly normal convention in our culture and many others, and certainly in Israel at that time. The numbers are sufficiently accurate to tell both the readers of today and the people of Moses’ time everything they needed to know.

‘True’ and Truth

So then, is everything in the Bible “true” in the sense that it is recorded with the precision of a team of scientists attempting a moon landing, or with the obsessive particularity of a person afflicted with Asperger syndrome? Is it “true” in the sense that its accuracy could be measured with a Vernier caliper? Evidently not. We will not get much from scripture if we assess its contents by standards we would never apply to other types of literature, or if we yank statements out of the context of the genres in which they were written and pretend they were recorded with inhuman scrupulosity, or if we ignore the conventions of normal speech and the idiomatic language we use ourselves and encounter every day of our lives.

But is the Bible truth? Absolutely.

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