A preacher may hold up a Bible and proclaim that it is the Word of God. The average person who hears this may picture God writing down the actual words exactly as he wants them to appear and somehow handing the completed book to the leaders of his People. But, of course, that’s not how it happened.
The Old Testament is the part of our Bible which was given by God to his Jewish Covenant People. That Bible consisted of 24 “Books” (kept on separate scrolls) written by about 35 different authors, either in Israel or in Babylon, over a period of five hundred years or more. This would have been the Bible for Jesus, his disciples and the Early Church.1
The New Testament is that part of our Bible that came out of the experiences of the new People of God who emerged as the Church after Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. These were histories, instructions and letters that circulated among the believing communities as they came into existence all over the Middle East. These writings have been preserved as 27 “Books,” written between AD 66 and AD 100, by at least 8 different authors who lived in Jerusalem and other areas where the Church took root.
However, there were serious debates in Early Church history about exactly which Books should be included as part of God’s Word. There were disagreements about the Canon (the official list of accepted Books) of both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Church leaders and scholars in the major centers of Christianity — Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome and Alexandria — used different criteria to make these decisions. Several great Church Councils in the late Fourth Century resolved many of these issues, but there were still significant differences between the Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) Churches that persisted. These disputed writings blurred the edges of the definition of the Bible as God’s Word into the Sixteenth Century.
Then came the Protestant Reformation! This changed everything. Previously, Church leaders had the final authority in declaring what was Truth and what wasn’t. But the Reformation leaders rejected the authority of Popes and Patriarchs. Instead, they affirmed that their final authority on all matters of Christian belief and practice was the Bible, God’s Word. In Martin Luther’s famous words, it was Sola Scriptura, “Only Scripture”, that they would bow to.
All of a sudden, the stakes were higher; it was critical to define that authoritative Bible, describing exactly which Old and New Testament Books were included, and to define exactly how they should be read and applied. New creeds were hammered out by various Reformation groups, and all of them had a precise definition of the Bible as God’s Word. Here’s the one adopted by our denomination, Converge, entitled “An Affirmation of Faith.” The very first item is this:
The Word of God: We believe that the Bible is the Word of God, fully inspired and without error in the original manuscripts, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and that it has supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.
Every word and phrase in that affirmation has been carefully crafted to define the Bible’s edges as precisely as possible.2
And what does that give me? A Brittle Bible. Yes, after spending a lifetime studying the Bible, trying to apply it in every area of my life, teaching its precepts and preaching its message, I find that identifying the Bible by defining its edges can make it into a Brittle Bible. It often leads to the shallow, legalistic, antiquated way it’s used by the God-said-it-I-believe-it-that-settles-it people, and it doesn’t leave room for the Four-Cs (Context, Culture, Circumstance, Consistency) approach I described in last week’s ABC Messenger article.
Instead, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Bible defines itself, if I’m open to what it’s telling me. God’s DNA is all over the place: in the awesome Covenant he established with his special People Israel; in the establishment of his values given in the Law; in the genuine human struggles described in the Wisdom Books; in the poetry of Worship seen in the Psalms; in the longing for spiritual fulfillment expressed by the Prophets. And then, there’s the climactic New Testament truth that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The entire Christ Event — his earthly ministry, his death, his resurrection, his promises — is rich with God’s DNA.
That’s why I believe the Bible is God’s Word; not because of a creedal statement put together by some professional church leaders. They try to define the Bible by outlining its edges. What persuades me is not knowing the Bible’s edges; what persuades me is experiencing the Bible’s heart. It speaks to me, and I recognize that the voice I hear is God’s Word to me, in my time, in my place.
In next week’s ABC Messenger, I’ll write about some of the unhealthy results of trying to live by a Brittle Bible.
– – Pastor George Van Alstine
1 A chart in this Wikipedia article compares lists of Old Testament books in various traditions: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Testament
2 In 1978 a group of over 200 Evangelical scholars met together and came up with “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.” You can read it here if you want to see how complex this issue can be. Some extreme groups have tried to avoid this whole discussion by affirming the traditional King James English translation as the authoritative Word of God (search for King James Only Movement).