Building on Trustworthiness... the panel response to Relevance and Reliability
We are to think biblically. Simple? Not quite. Thinking involves gathering information, analysing the meaning of that information, understanding the implications and then drawing conclusions. So before we can think biblically we must know what the Bible says and confirm its reliability and relevance. Only then can we move on to the next stage. So is the Bible trustworthy? Should we take time and effort to know what it says? Impact’s panel tackles these hard questions head on.
IMPACT: IS THE BIBLE TRUSTWORTHY?
DL: The Bible is trustworthy as the Word of God, testifying to the truth of who God is, His character and His works in the universe.
DM: If the Bible were merely a historical or other academic textbook, then I guess the burden would be to go and check all the historical/archaeological references and research to see if what has been recorded matches (which I believe many have done very well).
But the Bible claims to be more than that. It claims to be a book authored by the Living God (His Spirit) to communicate who He is to the world. In that sense, the Bible seems (to me) to be more of a letter inviting us into a relationship with this Divine Person (or Persons rather).
The only way then to know whether it is a book worth reading, and more than that, if these Three Persons are worth trusting (and following), is to actually read it, and put into practice what it says. If by doing what it says we meet with the Living God and recognise that He has good news for us, a plan for our life, an eternal hope after death, then we will most certainly be able to state its trustworthiness. If we just talk about it in the abstract, then it will always be speculative.
Even in my previous career as a scientist, to test whether something is true, one must make a hypothesis, set parameters, and then test its reality. We have to ‘enter into that world’, so to speak – and then we can know for certain if it is true, scientifically. It’s the same with knowing the world in the Bible. Otherwise, all the discussion and the “what ifs” would be rather pointless.
DL: Some have said the Bible is a love letter from God. I’d like to offer another perspective - the Bible is a story about the struggles that many human beings have with God. The story of Jacob is an obvious example. Jacob wrestled with God. At the end of the struggle, Jacob was injured and God renamed him Israel (meaning, to wrestle with God). That is a vivid portrait of a believer: we struggle, we question, we argue with God, but all the time God proves Himself true.
DC: Discussing the historicity or reliability of the Bible however usually gets us past certain thresholds so that people would start reading it. My hope in getting people to actually look at the words of God in Scripture for themselves is based on the confidence I have that God will speak to them through His words and mercifully reveal Himself to them.
IMPACT: How can we be sure of the Bible’s trustworthiness when there are so many manuscripts and variants in the manuscripts? In addition, most of us read translations and they are all, to some extent, interpretative efforts?
DM: So many manuscripts is a plus point. It would be a bit worrying if there was just one or two… I suppose that’s one of the arguments for its authenticity: How old are the oldest copies, and how many copies were there? That is how we judge any old manuscript. But saying it’s a valid document would not necessarily make you agree it is the Word of God. Just that it was a valid historical manuscript.
DC: Having many manuscripts has never in itself been a point for discrediting trustworthiness. But if we’re talking about the one percent representing the differences / “discrepancies” then that’s a slightly different matter. With regards to the 1% having a significant impact on meaning - we need to delve into how significant the impact is on the entirety of the Bible, the total narrative of Scripture, that is, the internal coherence or consistency of the claims in the Bible. Beginning with the Gospels, the ‘inconsistencies’ are not impossible to navigate, nor do they negate the overall claims of who Jesus is versus what He does. I read recently that even a now unbelieving New Testament professor Bart Ehrman is of the view that essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.
DL: I think the key is the reliability of the Biblical manuscripts. On this, Josh McDowell has some really good writings, especially his book Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World.
As for the translations, most of us do not know Biblical Hebrew or Greek, and would have to rely on the efforts of translators to understand the Biblical passages. Those who know more than one language would also know that certain expressions and words cannot be fully translated from one language to another without losing some meaning. On this, we should consult a variety of Biblical translations. There are also commentaries and dictionaries that go into the meaning of the original words and phrases in Biblical Hebrew or Greek, that help to explain them. I find Biblehub.com quite useful as a resource.
IMPACT: Is belief in God outdated? Isn’t it the remnant of a primitive time when so much of natural phenomenon could not be understood?
DL: Being “outdated” is not about true or false, but rather whether it is fashionable or not.
Truth is truth even if it is unfashionable, and falsehoods remain false even if everyone believes them. Some people like to talk about beliefs about God and faith being on the “wrong side of history”, or deserving to be in the “dustbins of history”.
But time itself does not change a truth into a falsehood. Instead, as philosophy professor Robert P. George in a 2014 speech titled “Ashamed of the Gospel?” said: “History is ‘an impersonal and contingent sequence of events, events that are determined in decisive ways by human deliberation, judgment, choice, and action.’”
When we are faced with claims that something is “outdated”, we need to ask questions like: Has it been disproven, or has it just become unfashionable? What are the arguments and evidence that have been raised against it, and are they valid? Has anyone given a response, and is the response sound?
God is not like one of those trends that fall in or out of fashion, or one of those items on our shelves with an expiry date. And Jesus also said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (Mt 24:35)
DC: It does depend on our points of reference, because research is showing that the world is becoming more (and not less) religious… If we extrapolate that to mean the world is “searching for a god or God”, then it contradicts our understanding of ‘outdated’. A more popular view seems to be: “God doesn’t suit my preferences or lifestyles, hence God is ‘outdated’; God has not ‘kept up’ with our desires for new idols, new addictions, new interests, new ‘anythings’ apart from Jesus.”
DL: It is true that the Bible was written in an era before us when science was not as well-developed. But that does not change the truth of many of the theological principles in the Bible.
Critics often argue that people of the time of the Bible did not understand natural phenomena, as a way of questioning the validity of Biblical miracles. But, on a philosophical level, miracles are simply outside the realm of science. William Lane Craig defines a “miracle” as a naturally impossible event – an event which the natural causes at a certain time and place cannot bring about. Thus, a miracle is “supernatural”, is outside of the natural laws.
Secondly, the people of the Bible were hardly as ignorant as the critics believed them to be. For example, when the angel announced to Mary that she was pregnant with the baby Jesus, she questioned, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk 1:34) She obviously knew how babies come about.
DM: So then the concept of God is not outdated - just the Biblical (Abrahamic?) version of God?
If God were a fad like wearing pink boots, then I guess the fad could be outdated. But if God is a real person, then it’s a bit like asking “Is believing in my grandfather outdated?” I suppose you could lose interest in believing in your grandfather, but your grandfather exists, nonetheless. The only one who would be ‘losing out’ is you, since you no longer choose to have that relationship.
God (and all persons) can’t really be considered outdated. Believing in Him may or may not be fashionable – but to be honest, who cares if it is fashionable? If you know Him and you know He loves you and you love Him in return – then others can say you are not cool or relevant – but that is totally irrelevant to you who know and love Him and are beloved by Him.
What about this: “Is marriage outdated?” I suppose some may think marriage is outdated and cohabitation with casual sex is better. But then again, to the one who is in a lifelong committed exclusive relationship like marriage – if he or she loves his/her spouse and is beloved by his/her spouse – they would not care if the concept were no longer popular in society, they would still be married, and I guess if you asked, they would still advocate marriage to others. However, if you were in an unhappy marriage, I guess that would push you to want to say that this is outdated and unnecessary. Or… alternatively you could try to work on the marriage? At least find out what a ‘good marriage’ entails and what you could do to see if it really works.
But in the end, if it’s your life, your marriage, your relationship with God – does being ‘outdated’ really matter?
IMPACT: Why isn’t God more obvious?
DC: If we mean more ‘obvious’ as in "we have no choice now but to believe You are the Living God" then that treads into the territory of God revealing Himself to induce forced love, as opposed to leaving us to accept His invitation into relationship.
At the same time, you could say God is obvious enough with the miracles that happen around us all the time. But such issues always comes back to this question: how much is enough for faith?
The miracles Jesus performed were meant to make it plainly obvious that He was the promised King of Israel (to the Jews) or even a God -- THE Son of God (to the Gentiles). Yet the miracles end up being more distracting from faith, than to faith. This is true in the Gospels of Mark and John where people simply missed the point, they didn’t link the miracles to Jesus' words or His identity. So much so that all Jesus’ teaching is privatised to the Twelve.
In this regard, I always ask skeptical friends the same question: “If Jesus Christ, in the flesh performing miracles and a whole resurrection for that matter, was not enough for the majority who breathed the same air as Him to believe, how are we supposed to trust Him today in his physical absence?” It all comes down to His words right - as He intended for His disciples originally and us now, to believe and trust Him. So again, the “obviousness of God” is speculative and theoretical until we have a face and a name to Him - until we compare what Jesus says with regard to how life/the world looks like.
DM: How would you know if God showed up - that He was God?
I’m not sure how much more obvious God could be than creating a nation (Israel) out of another superpower (Egypt), highlighting it to the whole world by miraculous signs and wonders and crazy military victories, and then prophesying (and fulfilling the prophecies) that He would come down to become a human being: Jesus Christ, who was born of a virgin, grew up as a normal child, suffered a painful life of sacrificial living, and then died on a cross to pay the price for all humanity’s wrongdoings and rose again from the grave? That was pretty obvious I think. His life is well-documented.
Unless the question is, why isn’t God more obvious to me (to my problem? To my situation?) RIGHT NOW... It would be so awesome to have Him right here, and right now wouldn’t it? Or would it?
Would I want God to be around? Because when He was around – during the time of Jesus Christ come in the flesh – people actually felt uneasy. He was just too interfering with their lives, He kept on correcting them, scolding them, showing them the way to live and He said that was His way of demonstrating love to them as well – and that was really hard and inconvenient. Would we even want this God to be around?
Right now, we have His written Word and His Holy Spirit. If we don’t like what He says in His Word, we most certainly won’t like Who He is in our life.
DL: In Exodus 33:18-23, Moses asks to see God’s glory. God allows Moses to see His back, but tells Moses, “You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.”
Likewise, the Word (Logos) of God appeared veiled in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. One notable exception was when He revealed Himself in the fullness of His divine nature to a few disciples at the Transfiguration.
The reason why God is not more obvious is because we would die if God were to reveal Himself to us, owing to our sinfulness and God’s holiness.
Also, God is showing that there are limits in our human understanding of the depths of who He is, and so we need God’s grace to guide us in our knowledge of Him. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve walked and talked with the Lord in the Garden of Eden. For those who are in Christ, we can also look forward to the day when we meet Him and He is no longer hidden from us. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12)
IMPACT: Paul commands Timothy to “rightly divide the Word”, implying that it takes effort and thinking and that we can go wrong. Does the ordinary person really have time or ability to delve into the bible like that?
DC: An ordinary person should try to make time for that if s/he takes the Bible as truth for life now and life eternal. I’ve known at least two non-Christians who actually have enough time to debate over coffee about life and faith, or look at a gospel. Plenty of Christians are able to find time to dig deep too, it’s a matter of choice.
I think for non-Christians, the key draw for considering the Bible with relative effort comes down to what Christians say and believe about the Bible, and their living testimonies. Hopefully these two indicators are good enough reasons for making an effort to consider (read) the Bible.
DM: What does the ordinary person actually have time for? Two hours of social media, three hours of entertainment TV daily? Not that I don't do ‘the same’ - but got time, lah.
If the question is ability - then thankfully the Scriptures don’t ask people to study alone or in silos. The gifts of understanding/teaching at all levels are given to the church body - so that all can get some decent understanding. Plus we know the Scriptures advocate that young children be taught too.
Maybe the bottom-line is about conviction and belief (commitment?). Do we believe it is worth it? And that can only come when one reads the Scriptures together with others and sees (experiences?) the life-giving truth from within. Perhaps no one had read the Bible with that person before, in a way that they could understand?
Maybe they did - but there’s something the Bible said that put them off, because it goes against their goals/desires - then it’s not about time, but about obedience or belief that what God says is good for us (them).
DL: Paul’s instruction to Timothy to “correctly handle the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15) is a sound exhortation to us all. Does it mean that everyone must go to Bible school or be a theological expert? I do not think so, but what it means is that we should all learn how to handle the Word of God, and be eager to do so.
One analogy might be learning a language. You may not know all the words of the language, be the best poet, writer or orator, but you know the basic grammatical principles, vocabulary, and you can learn more about it and express yourself with the language if you need to.
Even more so, when it comes to the Word of God, it is about learning His ways, His character, His nature, and building a daily relationship with Him in every aspect of our lives. It becomes so much a way of life that it becomes part of you to know how to handle the Bible.
Darius Lee (DL) believes in the importance of listening to and considering different perspectives, even perspectives that are radically opposed to one's own. He enjoys having a deep conversation over a cup of coffee with milk and no sugar.
Danny Chua (DC) believes hard questions don't always require a 'right answer'. He hopes to help others see that the folly of a crucified God - yes, a Person - is the Answer.
Dev Menon (DM) is a trustworthy, not outdated, pretty obvious kind of guy.