August 27, 2023
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
St. Luke’s UMC
August 27, 2023
Is the Bible Reliable?
2 Timothy 3:16-17
Earlier this year Glenn McDonald told the story in his daily devotion about a young man who announced to his father that he was enrolling at a particular seminary.
The father bristled. He suspected this school had the kind of academic environment that would debunk the Bible’s accounts of miraculous events. He said to his son, “I just hope that when you get back, the story of God parting the waters of the Red Sea is still in your Bible.”
Three years later, when the son had completed his studies, that’s the very question his father asked him. “Gosh, Dad, why do you ask that? That story isn’t even in your Bible.” “Of course it is!” retorted the father. “Then show me,” replied his son.
For several minutes the father frantically scoured his Old Testament searching for the account of the Israelites escaping the Egyptians.
“It’s not there,” said his son. “The day I left for seminary I took your Bible and cut out the whole middle section of the book of Exodus. So, tell me, Dad: What’s the difference between not believing that it’s true, and paying so little attention to it that you don’t even know it’s gone?”
McDonald follows with these words: “It matters what’s inside the Bible. What matters even more is whether the Bible ends up inside of us!” I believe that’s true. And to lay my cards on the table, that will be the point of this sermon. But I will also acknowledge that it’s hard to get things inside of us we find hard to believe, or are even credible.
And speaking of cutting things out of the Bible, that’s exactly what Thomas Jefferson did. He had a problem with the miraculous and supernatural, so one day he took a razor and cut out all the stories of miracles in the Bible, including the Resurrection. This became known as The Jefferson Bible.
So is that really our only option with the Bible? Cut away the parts we’re uncomfortable with and fashion the Bible to suit our likings? Or is it a matter of take it or leave it? Accept the Bible wholesale with everything in it just the way it’s written or toss it out altogether?
We are in a series on faith questions you say you would like help in answering. Our question today is this: “Is the Bible Reliable?” Typically that question gets answered by two extremes. Rob Bell, in his book What the Bible Is, captures these extremes this way:
“Some people see the Bible as an outdated, primitive book of barbaric fairy tales we have moved beyond. And then there are those folks who talk about how important and central and inspired the Bible is but then butcher it with their stilled literalism and stifling interpretations.”
Regardless of where we fall, one thing we have to admit is the Bible is still very popular. It continues to be the best selling book year after year. Its popularity perhaps reflects the ways in which the Bible is used.
Just think of a few historical facts:
--The Church used the Bible to discredit science and support the idea that the earth was the center of the solar system, that the sun revolved around the earth. But Galileo, who proved just the opposite, took inspiration from the Bible. He believed the Bible revealed truths about God and this world.
--In England both those seeking to overthrow the monarchy and those seeking to protect it, used the Bible to support their positions.
--In the US, people used the Bible to support slavery as an institution God permits. And at the same time, freedom fighters like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were motivated by the Bible to oppose slavery.
How can such differing sides use the same Bible to support their cause? In her book Confronting Christianity, Rebecca McLaughlin begins her Introduction telling about John Lennon’s hit song, Imagine, which sings of a unity of humankind where there is no heaven, no hell, and no religion. It is sung by many as an anthem of utopia.
But then she acknowledges that eight years before the release of that song, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr gave one of the most important speeches in American History, “I Have a Dream.” Tomorrow is the 60th anniversary of that speech. It, too, imagines a world of peace and unity, but what is different is where King’s vision came from. The prophets of the Old Testament. “The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places made smooth,” King said echoing the words of Isaiah. And “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream,” he took from Amos.
So the very Bible that can seem dehumanizing, out of date, and irrelevant, is the same source that inspires a hopeful vision for the future and the best of humanity.
So is or is not the Bible reliable?
Let’s use the Bible to help us answer that question for ourselves. In other words, let’s put the Bible on the stand and call as our first witness the Bible itself. In Paul’s 2nd Letter to Timothy, he makes an important statement about how we can understand scripture. He wrote: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
I want us to consider three parts of this sentence: All scripture; inspired by God; and so that.
First, Paul says all scripture is inspired by God. What did all scripture mean? Remember there was no New Testament at this point. The Gospels weren’t even written at that time.
And the Jewish scriptures had yet to be confirmed. The books we call the Old Testament were not made official until some 40 years after Paul wrote 2nd Timothy. No doubt, all scripture for Paul included the Torah, the major Prophets, the Psalms, and perhaps some of the historical books like 1&2 Samuel and Kings.
In other words, nearly half of what we call The Bible today wasn’t included in Paul’s reference. And even as Paul wrote those words, councils were meeting and debating as to just what books would be included in the Bible and which would not. In other words there was a process taking place in which people were still understanding God’s revealed truth. That process is symbolic of a way to read the Bible called Progressive Revelation. Progressive Revelation means our understanding of the Bible is still unfolding. God’s truth is revealed through scripture better and better over time.
So unlike inerrancy or literal interpretation of scripture, Progressive Revelation believes that an interpretation of the Bible at one point in time doesn’t mean that is the complete interpretation for all time. Now this doesn’t mean that scripture becomes irrelevant. It just means we come to a new understanding of what scriptures mean. That is why Jesus could say, not one period or comma in the law will be removed, and at the same time say, “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” You hold up the scriptures with authority but recognize that God can reveal new truths through those scriptures.
Rob Bell has an interesting twist on this idea. He looks at references in the Old Testament like “an eye for an eye,” and verses that appear to be about the subjugation of women and explains how they were actually radical for their time. Today we look at verses like those in the Bible and believe they are antiquated, but we miss how they represent God moving the people to a better place. Bell calls such places “clicks.” He says:
“What we see is God meeting people at the click they’re at, and then drawing them forward. When they’re at F, God calls them to G. When they’re at L, God calls them to M. And if they’re way back at A, God meets us way back there at A and does what God always does; invites us forward to B…The Bible is a library of radically progressive books, books that were ahead of their time, books that tell stories about human interactions with the divine being who never, ever gives up on us and never stops calling us and pulling us and inviting us into new and better futures.” (What We Talk About…p166)
It is such a simple thing Paul said, “all scripture,” but we see that there was a process unfolding. Progressive Revelation believes that the way a scripture is interpreted for one time doesn’t mean that is the final interpretation for all time. We progress more and more toward the people God wants us to be.
Now, the second statement: “All scripture is inspired by God.” Some translations say, “God-breathed.” That’s because the Greek word used here is
Theo-pneustos. Theo means God. And we might recognize pneustos as the same root of words like pneumonia, pneumatic. It is related to air, breathing, spirit.
So just like in the creation story where God breathed into Adam and brought him to life, scripture that is God-breathed, means God’s spirit moves through those words to breathe insight, inspiration, life, and hope into our souls. Have you ever found that to be true? Have you ever read a scripture and felt those words coming to life within you, maybe challenging you, or giving you inspiration?
Vince Antonucci is a pastor who wrote a humorous book about his faith journey called
I Became a Christian and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt. In one chapter he talks about learning to read the Bible, to reflect on a story or set of verses and then ask what God might want to show you through that reading.
One day he read the very strange story from the Book of Judges about Jephthah who made a vow to God that whatever came out of his house he would sacrifice to God as a thank offering. About that moment his daughter walked out, and he loved his daughter dearly, but a promise is a promise so he sacrificed his daughter.
Let me give Vince’s response in his own words. “I thought, okaaay, today’s Bible time is going to be a waste, because there can’t be anything God wants to tell me from this story. It’s not like I’m going to have my daughter killed. This guy was an idiot and that’s about it!’ And then I paused and it was like God said, ‘Dude, you’re the idiot…How often do you speak before you think just like the guy in this story, and how many times does it (hurt someone) like the other day when you made the guy you work with feel bad because he didn’t agree with your idea?” (p85)
As an old saying goes, the point is not for us to study the Bible but let the Bible study us. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…”
If we need the Bible not to have any contradictions, not to be confusing, not to disagree with science, we may miss the point of the Bible. And that leads us to the last observation on these verses and it’s the words “so that.” “So that the person of God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
This is what makes the Bible reliable—understanding that God uses these ancient words, this ancient story to speak to our lives and our world and equip us for doing God’s will right now.
Bibles should not have back covers…