September 25, 2016

But Is It True?

Every year the Barna Research group does a survey focused on the belief of Americans about the Bible.  They’ve been doing this for a long time.  In 1991 45% of American adults affirmed that they read their Bibles at least once a week.  In 2009 that number was 46%.  That’s pretty impressive consistency over a nearly 20-year span.  But starting in 2010 things took a nose dive.  While those of the Elder generation and even the Boomer generation continued to read their Bibles with a fairly high degree of regularity, the trend does not continue with Millennials.  More than a simple lack of reading the Bible, though—or perhaps a consequence of it—the view of Americans regarding the worth and reliability of the Scriptures has changed.  In the last five years alone the number of Americans who consider the Bible sacred literature has dropped from 86% to 80%.  That’s still a pretty high number, but in the same span of time the number of folks who don’t think there is such a thing as “sacred literature” has doubled from 7% to 14%.  The number of Americans who think “the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life” has dropped by 10%.  The percentage of folks who think the Bible is totally accurate in everything it teaches has dropped 12% while the percentage of folks who disagree with that has risen by 16%.  The culture as a whole is still reading the Bible at about the same clip, but the trends of Scripture reading and thoughts about its worth and reliability among Millennials suggest rather insistently that in coming years those numbers are all in for a somewhat dramatic change.  In other words, people just don’t look at the Bible like they used to and all signs are pointing toward that trend both continuing and picking up steam in the future.

Here’s why this matters for us this morning: it is becoming not simply safer, but more fashionable these days to doubt the worth and the reliability of the Scriptures.  There are some folks who have made whole careers out of it like Bart Ehrman at UNC-Chapel Hill.  And as firm as we in the church might like to think our walls of defense are, these doubts are seeping through at a growing clip and providing quite a challenge to folks who have spent most of their life not simply not, but not even knowing to have doubts and questions about these things.  At the same time, a general lack of preparedness in terms of responding to all of this on the part of the church has put those believers who have long had questions but never felt safe asking them out loud in a hard spot.  The only place they feel safe expressing their doubts is in the midst of a crowd who will respond with aggressive affirmations that their doubts are well-founded while their faith is not.  Not a few folks have walked away from the church and the faith of their childhood for reasons not so dissimilar to these.

This morning we are in the second part of our four-week attempt to speak to this challenge.  This series is called I Doubt It and the big idea for this journey is that we are creating here at Central a climate not so much where doubt is celebrated as doubt is not in and of itself a praiseworthy thing, but rather where people—all of us—can be honest about the doubts we do have with the goal in mind of seeing them answered and seeing followers of Jesus grow through them.  If you missed last week, you are coming in after the background storytelling part of a movie.  You will want to go to the church’s website to catch what you missed.  What we did last week was to acknowledge the fact that we all struggle with doubts of some kind at some point in our lives.  While that’s not necessarily a good thing, it is a real thing.  The key, though, is to not hold them in where they can wreck our faith from the inside out.  When you doubt, let it out.  But don’t just let it out.  Go on from there to figure it out and live it out.  When we doubt we need to be honest about it, seek out answers for it, and put those answers into practice in our lives.  If we will do this, we will find ourselves always moving in the direction of Jesus even during the times when doubts pop up to knock us down.

But, that’s a pretty general strategy for dealing with doubts.  The reality is that most of us don’t have general doubts.  We have doubts about specific things.  Sometimes very specific things.  Because of this, we don’t general answers to our doubts.  We need specific answers to them.  With this in mind, for the last three weeks of this journey we are going to talk about some specific kinds of doubting to see if we can’t answer them very specifically.  And as we’ve just been talking about, one of the places where there is a growing body of doubt in our culture is the topic of the worth and reliability of the Scriptures.

In order to address this area of doubt well, we need to establish a foundation on which we can do some building.  Let’s start with some statements, then, that may make some of you a little bit uncomfortable.  The Scriptures are really, really important.  So far so good.  But, our faith as followers of Jesus is not primarily rooted in the Bible.  Still with me?  Let’s go a bit further.  No one will be saved or condemned because they did or did not know the names of all 66 books.  In fact, there will be a lot of folks who are condemned in the end who did know them but never bothered to put into practice what they said.  Now, before you write me off entirely, I think it’s really important to know them, but the point is that our faith is rooted in Jesus, not the Bible.  Here’s why: The Bible didn’t produce Christianity.  Many critics of the Scriptures and of the faith more generally seem to make this assumption.  It’s as if they think that if they can successfully undermine the Scriptures Christ will not have died for us and rose on the third day any longer.  The truth, as it turns out, is exactly the reverse: Christianity produced the Bible as a record of the things the authors saw and experienced.  We have a historically-rooted faith, not a literarily—rooted one.  In other words, if the walls of Jericho didn’t fall exactly like Joshua describes, if Elisha didn’t make an ax head float in a barrel of water, if God didn’t literally party the Red Sea, if Jonah didn’t really spend three days and nights in the belly of a great fish (and let me be clear that I think all those things really did happen just as they are described) that doesn’t change the well-attested historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

The truth is, though, that there’s a lot of stuff in the Scriptures that’s hard to buy.  There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t make any sense.  There’s a lot of stuff that challenges some of our deepest-held (if often entirely mistaken) beliefs about ourselves and what’s really wrong with us.  It also talks about a lot of ancient events in a manner that invites both scrutiny and skepticism.  We can be honest about the fact that having some doubts about all of this isn’t totally beyond the pale of expectation…even for Jesus followers.  It’s not a good thing, mind you, but it is a pretty normal thing.  If we’re not honest about that we commit two errors: We lie about what’s really going on in the hearts and minds of folks both inside and outside the walls of the church; and we create a space in which such honesty is unwelcome.  This serves exactly no one well and instead pushes them to find answers in places that will not ultimately encourage their faith and its application.  It also serves to perpetuate the lie that our faith somehow depends on the Bible.

And yet, even though our faith doesn’t rest in the Scriptures, still what they provide for us is a powerful affirmation and confirmation of the deep truths about the world that give meaning and substance to our efforts to live out the implications of our faith in Christ in ways that sometimes invite trouble from the world around us.  And of any Jesus follower who knew about and has written about these troubles, the apostle Paul knew with the greatest depth and wrote with the greatest insight.  He touches on how to face down troubles from the world resulting from our practicing our faith in several places in his letters to various first century churches and church leaders, but in his second letter to his chief protégé, Timothy, who was ministering in Ephesus—a wildly pagan context that would have presented him with all kinds of challenges to faithful, Gospel ministry—Paul touches on the matter in a way the speaks right to the heart of what we are talking about this morning.  Check this out with me starting in 2 Timothy 3:10.

“You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me.”  This starts with what had to be a spirit-lifting observation from Paul for Timothy.  Timothy’s chief goal in life and ministry was to emulate Paul who was emulating Christ.  Here Paul basically says: “Yep, you’re doing it.  You’ve got it down to even the hard stuff.  Great work!”  And speaking of the hard stuff, Paul next turns to offer Timothy a warning.  This is a warning of which we would do well to take note: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted [in other words: if you never experience any persecution as a result of your faith, you’re probably not doing it right], while evil people and imposters will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”  Take a breath for a minute because that’s big stuff.  To put it another way: The Christian life lived well is going to be hard and the world will move in a direction as to make it even harder.

So what are we to do and what does any of this have to do with doubts about the worth and reliability of the Scriptures?  That comes in the next verse, and listen closely to this because it’s simply incredible: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 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.”  Got that.  This is why the Scriptures have worth even though they themselves do not serve as the foundation point of our faith.  They are able to make us wise for salvation.  In the Scriptures we learn about our faith and how to live it.  And, by the way, Paul was talking about just the Old Testament here.  If he could say this about just the Old Testament, imagine what the New Testament adds to the picture.  As for the reason why he assigns the Scriptures such high worth, look at vv. 16-17: “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 competent, equipped for every good work.”  You see, in spite of their not being the grounding point of our faith, the Scriptures are worthy of our trust, time, and devotion not simply because they are true, but because they are useful.  The Scriptures aren’t just true, they’re useful.

Now, I should offer a note of clarification here.  Some critics will take words like these from Paul and use them as an argument against the reliability of the Scriptures.  They’ll accuse us of using a circular argument to make our case.  It goes something like this: The Scriptures are reliable.  How do you know?  Because they say so.  But let’s be very clear here and careful in our language.  We are not arguing that what Paul writes here is how we know the Scriptures are reliable.  Again, Paul was talking about the Old Testament.  In this he was merely echoing the position of Jesus Himself on the Old Testament.  Listen to what He said at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.  Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees [whom everyone understood to be experts at keeping all the laws], you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  For any Christians today who want to try and downplay the moral commands of the Old Testament because they’re not really very culturally palatable, this kind of stuff should make their heads explode.  But the point is that all Paul was doing here was echoing Jesus.  These words aren’t what make the Scriptures reliable.

Rather, as the words of Paul and John and Peter and James and the other apostles and eye-witnesses to the resurrected Christ began to circulate, the earliest believers gradually recognized something: Some of the words they wrote packed more of a theological and spiritual punch than others.  As these letters were circulated they realized that these weren’t just the words of Paul or John or any of these other guys, they were the words of God.  In these words God’s own Spirit was speaking to the churches.  These early believers recognized that Paul’s affirmation to Timothy that all Scripture was breathed out by God didn’t apply only to what eventually became known as the Old Testament.  It applied to these various letters and accounts of the life of Jesus and the life of the early church as well.  2 Peter 3:15-16 suggests that this realization came before all of the books in the New Testament had even been written: “And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters.  There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”  In other words, Paul’s writings are on par with the Old Testament Scriptures in terms of their importance and authority.

We could go on like this, but the point here is that Scripture isn’t Scripture because it says it is.  Rather, the earliest followers of Jesus shared His incredibly high view of the Jewish Scriptures and over time together recognized that certain writings of the apostles and their closest associates (Luke and Mark, for instance) demanded a similarly high esteem.  Wrapping their minds around how this exactly came to be took a few years and a number of hard conversations, but it was eventually codified into what we know as the doctrine of inspiration. But let me again be clear: the doctrine of inspiration does not make the Scriptures true and reliable.  Rather, the earliest followers of Jesus recognized all these documents were entirely true and reliable—that they were the very words of God—and the doctrine of inspiration was their explanation of how this came to be.  The bottom line, though is simple: The Scriptures aren’t just true, they’re useful.

Let’s go ahead and acknowledge the elephant in the issue here.  That all may sound pretty good (or maybe to you it doesn’t), but it’s still kind of ethereal.  It’s abstract.  It’s still a bold claim whose burden of proof seems pretty large.  While Paul’s words to Timothy, Jesus’ in the Sermon on the Mount, and Peter’s to Christians more generally are certainly powerful in their affirmations of how we should think about the Scriptures, is there any evidence to back up this idea that the Scriptures aren’t just true, but are also useful?  Yeah, there is.  Quite a lot of it actually.  Whole books have been written about this stuff.  Most Apologetics 101 classes have an hour or more reserved for talking about the evidence.  For our purposes this morning, though, there are three lines of evidence which are the most compelling.  Let’s take a look at these briefly in turn and then we’ll get out of here.

The first line of evidence is the archaeological evidence.  I said a little while ago that the various authors of the Scriptures spent a lot of time talking about ancient historical events at a sufficient level of detail to invite a great deal of scrutiny and skepticism.  One of the most common critiques leveled at the Bible is that it says so many things that just aren’t so.  It talks about people and places and events for which there is no evidence.  The only problem with this critique: There’s not much evidence in its favor.  Over and over and over again secular archaeologists have challenged the reliability of the Scriptures on some point and over and over again a dramatic find has proven them dramatically wrong and the Scriptures dramatically right.  They have found ancient inscriptions mentioning King David thereby proving the existence of this apparently made-up ruler.  Pretty much everything Luke says has been challenged and proven true.  The various places Paul ministered and talks about have been proven historical.  Even something as simple as Abraham’s method of transportation—camelback—has been challenged because camels supposedly weren’t domesticated and used like that for several hundred more years…until they discovered that, nope, they were actually in use for that purpose about the time Abraham was doing his thing.  There is no other ancient historical document with anywhere near the level of archaeological support in favor of its veracity as the Bible has.  There’s simply no contest.  And yet still today there are skeptics who will challenge some minor point of geography or culture or language or something else like that and declare the whole thing to be invalidated.  It’s like the thought seems to be: Well, I may have been wrong the first time…and the time after that…and the time after that…and the next several hundred times too…but this time I’ve got it.  Incidentally there’s a word we use to describe people who do the same thing over and over again expecting different results.  The simple reality is that the Scriptures are true.  But they aren’t just true, they’re useful.

It’s their usefulness that leads us to the second line of evidence in favor of their worth and reliability.  Because they have long been recognized as not just true, but useful, they have been preserved with a level of rigor that far outstrips any possible competition.  Speaking specifically of the Old Testament for a minute, the Jewish scribes committed to the preservation of their sacred texts were absolutely relentless in their efforts to make sure that copies were entirely perfect.  Think about this: Every copy was made entirely by hand.  They were made one letter at a time to make sure none were missed.  They had several ways of counting words and letters when they were finished and if all the counts didn’t line up perfectly the copies were destroyed and they started over from scratch.  Now, for a long time we had to simply trust they got it right which—no surprise—led to no small amount of skepticism.  But then in 1959 a Shepherd boy threw a rock into a cave and instead of “thunk” he heard “crash.”  What crashed was a collection of ancient Hebrew documents now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls and which contained all or part of nearly every book in the Old Testament.  What’s more, the collection of documents not only predated our previously earliest copy of the Old Testament by about 1,000 years, they were a near word-for-word match for each other.  If the scribes’ methods resulted in a near perfect transmission over 1,000 years of human history, a pretty strong case can be made that we can trust they had it right in the even more distant past.  As for the New Testament, we have nearly 10 times the number of ancient copies of it that we do of any other ancient manuscript, the earliest coming from within a generation of its original composition.  And the variance over all of these copies amounts to little more than a paragraph of periods and commas.  The point is that we can trust that what we read in our Bible today is a faithful presentation of the original documents which are what we believe to be inerrant and which were written down thousands of years ago.  And why put all this effort into something that they weren’t sure was worthwhile and reliable?  The Scriptures aren’t just true, they’re useful.

The last line of evidence here is a little more personalized than these others, but no less powerful.  The evidence is the vast number of people whose lives have been irrevocably changed by the Scriptures.  I couldn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the sheer number of stories that fall into this category.  A quick internet search yields hundreds of them.  We have stories from all across the last 2,000 years of history.  I suspect we could survey this room and find a few more to add to the pile.  Over and over and over again when people encounter the Scriptures their lives are totally transformed by what they find there.  There’s a reason the song proclaims: Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.  People read the Scriptures, discover the wisdom that leads to salvation in Christ Jesus, and their lives are changed.  Their lives are changed because in the Scriptures they find truth which sets you free.  They also find wisdom for living out this life on a daily basis.  The Scriptures aren’t just true, they’re useful.

If you are or have ever experienced doubts about the worth and reliability of the Scriptures know well that you are not alone.  A recent study from Fuller Seminary in California suggests that young people who are able to express their doubts and receive answers for them go on to have a stronger, richer, and more confident faith than those who hold them in and never let them out.  The same thing goes for adults, especially when it comes to the Scriptures.  Not a few folks have had their faith crumble because they began experiencing Scripture-related doubts, were never able to get adequate answers from trusted sources, and eventually came to their own conclusion: The whole thing must be bunk.  Yet nothing could be further from the truth.  The Scriptures aren’t just true, they’re useful.  They are absolutely, totally, and completely true in every single thing they affirm regardless of the subject.  They are true about history.  They are true about archaeology.  They are true about geography.  They are true about cultures.  They are true about languages.  They are true about theology.  They are true.  But they’re not just true, they’re useful.  In the Scriptures we find the wisdom that leads to salvation in Jesus Christ.  We find a compelling story revealing the nature of God’s character, His incredible love for us, and the lengths to which He’s willing to go to express that love in spite of our fouling up the relationship in the first place.  We find sound advice on everything from managing money to interpersonal communications.  We find marriage counseling that is still fantastically relevant to our lives.  The Scriptures aren’t just true, they’re useful.

Now, we’ve just scratched the surface today in terms of the evidence in favor of the worth and reliability of the Scriptures, but my hope is that you’ve found both a reassurance if you are or have experienced any doubts in this area, but also a challenge to explore the topic in more detail to bolster your faith and its application even more.  You may not be surprised to learn that I have some resources on my bookshelves that will help.  And yet, as true and useful as the Scriptures are, if we don’t trust the character of God, we’re not likely to care in the first place.  Sure they can help reaffirm us on that point, but it’s easy to lose sight of this in the fog of life’s troubles.  This leads us to our next area of doubt: God’s goodness in the face of a world marked by suffering.  Be here next week as we honestly say: I Doubt It, and go on to find answers.